The best of Beirut nightlife: out late in the Middle East’s original party city

Dubai and Tel Aviv may be today’s party capitals of the Middle East, but Beirut’s reputation for fun has been solid for decades. You’re spoiled for choice in this city, whether you’re looking for glitz (rooftop temples to house music and stilettos) or grit (sticky-floored dive bars with lawn furniture on the patio). Beirutis are known for their hospitality: as a visitor you’ll easily make friends wherever you end up, and you’ll probably even score an invitation to Sunday lunch with the family in the village.

Night clubbers drink and dance in Beirut, LebanonBeirut has been a party city since the 1960s © Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

Beirut started swinging in the 1960s, when French actress Brigitte Bardot and American actor Marlon Brando rubbed shoulders with oil sheikhs and spies at seaside hotel pools. What may surprise the uninitiated is just how raucous nights out still are here. There is no official closing time for bars or clubs, and people seem fine staying out late even on weeknights. It’s a small enough city that you’ll run into people you know even if you’ve just arrived a few hours ago, and neighbourhoods you’ll want to visit are usually a short taxi ride away. In the liveliest districts, bars have opened up within easy walking distance to one another, if not right next door.

For the teetotalers (or merely the hungover), Arabic coffee and shisha present reasonable and ubiquitous alternatives to booze. In some parts of Lebanon, these are the only options for evening entertainment, but in Beirut this is certainly the exception to the rule.

Dancers and drinkers at Sky Bar in Beirut, LebanonSummer is the best time to go clubbing in Beirut, when you can cool off in the Mediterranean breeze © Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

Where to go clubbing in Beirut

Clubbing in Beirut is a year-round concern, but nights really get thumping in the summer, when most of the city’s clubbing institutions relocate to the BIEL Waterfront (also known as the New Corniche). A multi-acre, post-industrial, brutalist fantasy, BIEL features great swathes of Tetrapods, which look like giant geometric toy jacks made of poured concrete, waiting for revellers to pose with them for the ‘gram. It juts out into the Mediterranean, which for summer clubbers means a divine cool breeze, and, for the extremely jolly, sunrise over the sea. House music is king at BIEL: summer standouts including The Gärtenby überhaus and AHM, which also features a Thursday hip-hop and R&B night, rare in this techno-mad city. In the same vein are the summer parties at the Beirut Sporting Club, overlooking the Pigeon Rocks in Raouche. Promoters Decks on the Beach own Fridays, and C U NXT SAT rule Saturdays; both host international house DJs who spin for starry-eyed PYTs.

But don’t despair if you’re visiting in off-season. Karantina, a district of under-occupied warehouses, hosts galleries and dance halls including the well-established Grand Factory, Discotek and a rooftop space currently occupied by Baboon (the concept changes every summer).

What should you do if it’s closing time but you’re not ready to let the dream die? B 018 has for decades been a safe haven, first as an underground bunker during the Lebanese civil war, and now for those looking for another kind of escape. Made party-ready by the architect Bernard Khoury, the roof retracts to reveal the Beirut dawn, dyed pink by fumes from the adjacent highway. No Beirut clubbing experience is truly complete without a visit here.

A man tends to the bar at a nightclub in Beirut, LebanonBeirut’s cocktail scene is imaginative but remains decidedly authentic © Anwar Amro / AFP / Getty Images

Beirut’s best cocktail bars

Not everyone in this city drinks, but those who do like it a whole lot. Sip an inventive cocktail made from trendy spirits and housemade bitters with your pinkie finger in the air, or rave all night like you’re 18 again. New variations on the Beirut bar-scene theme open by the week, so you’re spoiled for choice.

The first stop of many a thirsty visitor is Anise, a stalwart of the craft cocktail scene, located in the neighbourhood of Mar Mikhaël. The bartenders here harvest herbs on weekend jaunts in the mountains; glasses of the Lebanese aniseed spirit arrack come infused with Lebanese mountain sage. Otherwise, their French 75s and Sazeracs go down quite easily indeed. Others in search of a classy libation in east Beirut should drop into Dragonfly in Gemmayzeh or Mar Mikhaël’s Kalei Coffee Company, where the cocktails are righteously as snooty as the coffee.

If the scene is more interesting to you than what’s in your highball, the Mar Mikhaël sidewalk has attracted the young and social for nearly 10 years now. It can feel like a catwalk in the evenings, and the vibe veers toward seedy as the witching hour approaches, but Internazionale and Radio Beirut remain fun.

Hamra was Beirut’s first ‘going-out’ district, and its proximity to the American University of Beirut has kept it hip. The bartenders at Ferdinand know their way around a cocktail shaker, and they’re delightful conversationalists besides. Hamra is also home to Beirut’s very few dive bars, including Captain’s Cabin and Abou Elie. Smoking is technically illegal indoors in Beirut, but come midnight on a Saturday at Abou Elie, the trappings of the Lebanese state feel very far away indeed, especially with Che Guevara looking into the middle distance from behind the bar.

Four glasses of craft beer in a bar at Backroom in Beirut, LebanonSample craft beers from the world over at Backroom in Beirut © Backroom

Finding craft beer in Beirut

Something of a beer renaissance is bubbling in Beirut. Until recently, fans of fermented cereal beverages had the choice of Almaza (a local Heineken imprint, but closer to Budweiser in its mediocrity) or the even more insipid Beirut beer. These days, there are a few options for craft beer, including 961 (try the Red Ale), Colonel (visit the brewery on the beach north of Beirut in Batroun) and Brew Inc in Badaro (a neighbourhood with a fun drinking scene in itself; Roy’s Public House, Troika and Kissproof). Backroom in Achrafiyeh, which offers a great selection of interesting beers on tap from all over the world, is another welcome is a welcome addition to the Beirut’s beer scene.

A hookah, a traditional Middle Eastern, device for smoking tobacco, sits on a sidewalk in Lebanon, with two smokers in chairs behindSitting at a sidewalk cafe and smoking from a waterpipe is a favourite pastime in Beirut © fmajor / Getty Images

Smoking at Beirut’s shisha bars

Switch up your vices with an evening spent in one of Beirut’s myriad smoky shisha bars. Partake in tobacco, smoked via a stand up water pipe (called shisha or nargileh), in classic flavours like lemon-mint, grape or double apple, but be careful if you’re not used to it: a whole shisha delivers much more, and stronger, nicotine than a cigarette. Café Em Nazih is a Gemmayzeh institution, serving up cheap mezze (Lebanese small plates) and nargileh in a diverse, convivial setting. Kahwet Leila, also in Gemmayzeh, deals in nostalgia as well as shisha, with vintage Beirut photographs and paraphernalia lining the walls. In Hamra, Ka3kaya is a sidewalk shisha cafe with cosy chairs that lets smokers watch the street scene in comfort. If you’re looking for a place to sober up with a shisha and a snack, Al Falamanki is your spot. Located between Achrafiyeh and downtown Beirut, its leafy garden – more evocative of a Lebanese village house than a Beirut hotspot – is open all night. Cosying up on a floral-upholstered chaise longue with a backgammon board and a shisha to puff can be a very civilised denouement to a frenetic Beirut night.

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