Mention Beirut, and most people still associate it with the war-torn city of the 80s. But two decades after the end of the country's civil war, the capital is reinventing itself once more. The former 'Paris of the East', where Brigitte Bardot drank cocktails back in the 60s, is back with a vengeance with glam new hotels, shops, bars and restaurants and a 'party like there's no tomorrow' attitude.
The old cliché that you can ski in the morning and sunbathe in the afternoon is true for several months of the year, and as Lebanon is only half the size of Wales, the entire country is in reach, with the stunning ruins at Baalbek or the fishing village of Byblos up the coast if you fancy a day away from the vibrant city.And with the scars of its past still visible between the rapid rebuilding and designer bling, there's never been a better time to discover the Middle East's most exciting city.
Starter for 10: Beirut
Most of the 87 rooms are executive suites, with a huge kingsize bed, sofas, and luxe bathroom – in fact the baths are so deep that anyone under about 5ft 6 could quite easily sink. Throw in REN toiletries, an aqua TV, connection for your iPod (though no docks as yet), concierges with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city and funky art throughout the hotel, and it's subtly glam – perfect for a stylish weekend without too much Beiruti bling.
There's also a spa, rooftop pool, two restaurants and a bar with a 360 degree view of the skyline. Prices start from around £215 per night +10% tax.
On top of the collection itself, the hourly video of how it was all kept safe during the civil war is fascinating. The museum is on the former Green Line, which split the city into Muslim and Christian halves, and was badly damaged during the fighting. Kept safe inside concrete, many of the items survived intact, but others had to be restored after flooding, while the building itself needed years of renovations. It's a timely reminder that as well as the ancient artefacts, many events in the country's momentous history are within living memory.
Entrance costs around £2, and can only be paid in Lebanese pounds - US dollars are commonly accepted throughout the country but cannot be used in Government-run sites.
Hamra itself is predominantly Muslim, and the area is home to great street food, shops aplenty and three universities, while trendy Gemmayze and Achrafiye are a mix of restaurants, bars and occasional boutiques. Wander Rue Gouraud and Rue Monot to get a flavour.
But for something a bit further off the beaten track, grab a cab to Bourj Hammoud – around £4-6 depending on your haggling skills. The heart of Lebanon's Armenian community, it's got an atmosphere of its own. Wander the streets between Arax and Armenia streets, checking out the jewellery and spice shops, and getting a taste of life away from the rest of the tourists.
Stop for lunch in one of the restaurants looking out into the harbour – the Byblos Fishing Club, also known as Pepe Abed's after its famous former owner, is packed with celeb photos from the 60s. Then have a browse in the restored souks for jewellery and souvenirs.
You can combine Byblos with a stop at incredible millennia-old stalactites in the Jeita Grotto – get there early! – and take the cable car up the mountain at Harissa to see the statue of the Virgin and views back to Beirut.
Entrance to the castle and ruins at Byblos costs around £2.50. Entrance to the Jeita Grotto costs around £7.50, including a cable car ride and boat tour on the lower cave lake. A return ticket on the cable car to Harissa costs around £3.
So make sure you sign up for the fantastic Walk Beirut tour, even if you normally avoid walking groups like the plague. Led by Ronnie Chatah, there's 20 stops around the city during the four and a half hour tour (as well as plenty of sitting), and even something as simple as a statue is the starting point for an engrossing talk about some of the city's most prominent citizens, its history and even Lebanese attitudes to life. You'll also take in the old Jewish Quarter, the shell of the Holiday Inn, some of its mosques and cathedrals, as well as the remaining Roman ruins.
It costs around £12.50, payable in US dollars or Lebanese pounds, and runs on Saturday and Sunday afternoons as well as some Wednesdays. You do need to book in advance, email email@example.com or call +961 7015 6673.
Head to Le Chef on Rue Gouraud in Gemmayze, for fantastic food without the frills and Lebanese beer to wash down the traditional dishes which change every day. It's popular with locals as well as tourists, and is always bursting at the seams. Main courses cost around £3-4.
For a more stylish take on Lebanese food, Karam on Bazerkan Street in Downtown, also has local speciality kebbe nayye, like a lamb version of steak tartare, with starters from around £2.50 and main courses for around £6.
Don't miss Casablanca, on Ain El Mreissah Street, set in a converted villa overlooking the Corniche and the sea. Its blue-lit bar makes ultra-strong cocktails and the fish is melt-in-the-mouth delicious. Packed every night, you'll need to book – call +961 1 369 334 – but don't get there before 9pm unless you want the place to yourself. Main courses cost £15-£30.
Even if you don't stay at Le Gray, book into their top floor restaurant Indigo for a stunning view across the city rooftops while you eat. There's a huge wine list and some great desserts, like the orange blossom crème brulee. Main courses cost £20-25.
Head to Makdissi Street in Hamra for an evening bar hop to De Prague, Grafitti and Dany's, or head to Gemmayze's busy Rue Monot and Rue Gouraud. Book a table for food as well at industrial chic MYU on Rue Gouraud or squeeze your way into the bar area for a few drinks and people watching – don't be surprised if you're the only non-Lebanese person there.
But you shouldn't leave without an unforgettable night at Music Hall, in the Starco Center on Omar Daouk Street in Downtown. A unique cross between cabaret and a club, it's set in a converted theatre, with half the seats ripped out to cram in tables, and live music on stage – anything from local hits to jazz. In between acts, there's a DJ, and before the night's out there's usually dancing on the tables and people crammed into the aisles. There's a minimum spend of around £35, so make a night of it and book a seat at the bar (+961 3 80 75 55). Performances start at around 11pm.
But the city has some fantastic boutiques to explore as well as the big brands. Start at Downtown's Saifi Village, just north of Martyrs' Place off Rue Gouraud, for funky jewellery and decorations at Cream, as well as antique shops in the small pedestrian streets.
Then take a wander south along Rue Monot to Luanatic for fashion and homewares and to Rue du Liban in Achrafiye for Sarah's Bag, a fantastic store helping rehabilitate women stuck in poverty or who've served time in prison by teaching them embroidery, beading and design skills. The result is some uniquely eye-catching bags and accessories, from beaded and sequinned clutches to retro print – you'll be hard pressed to leave without buying something.
Finally head slightly further afield to Rue Pharaon in Rmeil for vintage accessories and more jewellery at Pink Henna.
Built on and converted by a succession of empires, it's still one of the most complete Roman cities remaining, with the columns of the temple of Jupiter dominating the site, and intricate designs on the temple of Bacchus. Do hire one of the multilingual guides – from around £9-10 – as otherwise you'll miss out on much of the significance of the different buildings. Entrance costs around £5.
The drive towards Baalbek will take you through spectacular mountains, where you can spot some of the country's ski resorts, and make a stop at the Ksara vineyard en route, to hear more about wine-making in Lebanon, see the underground tunnels where they store the barrels and have a free wine-tasting.
The Foreign Office advises against travel in southern Lebanon, near the Israeli border, particularly in the area south of the Litani. With the recent collapse of the government, you're advised stay aware
of any political changes in the country which might affect you. For the latest information visit the FCO website.
Lebanese pounds, also called lira, and US dollars are used almost interchangeably in the country, with $1 equivalent to 1,500LL. English is widely spoken, although French is the second language and a few words of Arabic will go a long way.
British Midlands International flies twice daily from London Heathrow to Beirut from £412 return including taxes and charges.
Black Tomato can arrange trips to Beirut from £1,105 per person, including trips to Baalbek and Byblos, as well as skiing. Call 020 7426 9888 for more information.
You can arrange drivers through your hotel for excursions outside the city, or hire your own driver. Try Jad Boukhzam on +961.3.783.974, also recommended by Be Beirut tours. Alternatively, there are several tour companies in the city, including Saad tours which cost around £95 per person, including entrance fees, English-speaking guide and transport.