Sam, a whip-smart Israeli army captain who was attached to me at the hip by his troop in southern Lebanon as I reported from there during Israel’s early 1980s occupation, once said to me, “Fighting aside, one day I want to be able to invite my wife to step into a new Porsche and drive her up to Beirut for an incredible dinner and a bottle of that fabulous Lebanese wine. Beirut is a beautiful town with a rich Mediterranean history. And it’s just up the road.”
Just up the road: I’m duty bound to report that it’s still not possible to fulfill Sam’s dream and roar up in a shiny new Porsche on a big-ass four-lane from Tel Aviv to Beirut. Any trip in either direction between these cities requires some fancy maneuvering. Back in the day, I had to have two passports, each dedicated to a combatant country, and a third country to which I could retreat for my turnaround. I flew from Tel Aviv to Cyprus, then back to Beirut. The traffic between Cyprus and Beirut was being driven by wealthy refugees from Lebanon’s long, bloody civil war.
The 2012 Departures iteration of this old commute—minus the artillery and aerial bombardment, I very much hoped—required some similar dance moves. To traverse the 134 miles between Tel Aviv and Beirut (and to get around within the cities), it took six flights totaling 6,000 miles between the two and Vienna (my turnaround town this time), six hotels, approximately two dozen taxis, one woman’s bicycle with a busted-out basket and one lovingly restored vintage 400cc Suzuki motorcycle that nevertheless, like the city it was in, Beirut, had a reputation for spontaneously bursting into flames.
Tel Aviv and Beirut are true sisters, closely linked by many fine things—climate, cuisine, a close connection to the wellspring of recorded human history in the form of their shared Greek, Roman, Jewish, Arab and Ottoman cultural DNA. Both cities are fabulous repositories of the Western European tradition—one British, one famously French—and share the ruling bond of Poseidon in their splendid beachfronts, fisheries and harbors on the eternal Mediterranean. As siblings can be, Tel Aviv and Beirut are also bound by their difficulties: great mutual suspicion, influence (not always for the better) from allies and the enduring ability to drop everything and just plain swing away at each other with whatever cudgels are at hand.
On some practical bit of ground beyond the old conflicts, a larger commercial energy—the basic human drive for the social and economic benefits of stability—has taken hold in both towns. Tel Aviv is booming for the sky with its new office towers. The shot-up, civil-war-era hulk of Beirut is almost impossible to reconcile with the slick renovation of its office-and-boutique-laden central district. My assignment was to nose around, to take the barometric pressure readings of culture and business, to meet some of the characters who were shaking things up and, not least, to eat my way through the amazing cuisine of both cities.
But let’s not kid anybody: The eastern shore of the Mediterranean—literally, the sea at the middle of the earth—is the line of demarcation for the Middle East, and the starting point of all the attendant hostility that that implies. Though there is far less shooting along this line than 30 years ago, Tel Aviv and Beirut are still very much sisters at war. I like to think of them as Hera and Aphrodite, to name two famous eastern Mediterranean girls whose legendary feuds get at some of the complexity between these cities. The 2012 questions are: How have they got on? How do they live and work? And what do they now intend, these two beautiful, headstrong goddesses?
Tel Aviv is a miniature L.A.—a palm-lined core sprawled out against a great long plain of beach and a sweep of moderately sized skyscrapers. Just a decade ago, the architectural bones of its glorious White City—the clutch of some 4,000 Bauhaus concrete buildings that were in 2003 declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site—were in bad shape, their façades crumbling from decades in the salt air and blazing sun. Now more than 1,000 are being restored with a beachy, head-turning flair. This is especially true around Dizengoff Square and Rothschild Boulevard, as charming a 1930s-designed subtropical living area as exists.
In the last decade Tel Aviv has joined the great cities of the world in the way that all of them, from Sydney to Tbilisi to Seoul, have rediscovered and polished their centers, while formerly derelict or neglected outlying districts are being picked up and dusted off. Part of the engine driving the boomlet in Tel Aviv is what we might call “real estate tourism,” meaning the town has become a beloved second-home beach-condo destination for European (in particular French) Jews.
“Every summer, we gird ourselves for the ‘French invasion,’?” says Ilan Pivko, Israel’s puckish 65-year-old leading architect and one of the original recolonizers of ancient properties in Jaffa, just minutes south of Tel Aviv, where he has his practice in an old industrial building. “They like the life. It’s exotic, like nothing they have at home. The food is splendid, the nightlife is tremendous. They want a refuge from the falling euro, so there’s no stopping them.”
Pivko’s talking over lunch as we look out from our table high above the Mediterranean at Kalamata, a restaurant tucked into an ancient building at the very heart of Jaffa’s old city. We share superb Greek/Israeli mezes of fried artichokes over lentils, fresh squid-ink pappardelle with mussels and big, luscious anchovies, washed down with glasses of a fine Israeli white. The restaurant staff knows Pivko—he often strolls up to this delightful aerie from his office. “I don’t really take vacations,” he says. “There’s not much point. Get packed and fly somewhere, and then, even if it’s someplace like Cannes, when you get there, it’s actually prettier here at home.”
Tel Aviv and Jaffa have been one city now for 62 years, but Tel Aviv itself was founded by a number of Jewish families who wanted to move north into the sea dunes from the largely Arab port of Jaffa in 1909. Fifteen years later, after World War I, Tel Aviv was planned during the British occupation of Palestine, as the Ottomans were forced to cede control of the Middle East. Scottish city planner Sir Patrick Geddes laid out a brilliant hash of avenues and gardens and decided the block size and scale of the houses in 1925. By the ’30s, as Hitler closed his grip on Germany, the Bauhaus architects saw the writing on the wall, and the result is the great fund of “refugee” work that became the White City.
For six decades Tel Aviv boomed to its north and east—around its classical center—not paying much attention to the grittier, older stone neighborhoods down on the southern and western flanks of the original dunes, stretching to Jaffa. Which is where Pivko comes in. He bought his first house in Jaffa in 1987.
“I thought, I want to be where there’s the mix of really old cultures,” he says. “The juxtaposition of the ancient port, the Crusader and Ottoman architecture, the Arab families in the side streets and, wherever you look, some form of antiquity. In the new block of flats I’m building that overlook the port, the whole back wall is from the 11th century. We’re keeping it, of course.”
If we take Pivko as the original tenant of “new” Jaffa—the equivalent of London’s early Notting Hill set, or of Manhattan’s first settlers in SoHo and TriBeCa—then what happened to Jaffa in the early aughts mirrors precisely what happened in Notting Hill and TriBeCa. Namely, galleries, cafés, boutiques and restaurants granulated in, cheek by jowl. Old Jaffa, a warren of semi-industrial streets and shops up the hill and east of the port, has become one of the finest pub crawls in the Middle East, its cafés and wine bars always jammed.
Tel Aviv is both small and big—just more than 400,000 people live within the city limits, about three million in the metropolitan area—so the best way to get around is by bicycle. My boutique domicile, Brown TLV, in the Neve Tzedek section, has a stable of sturdy but extremely small three-speed city cruisers, most of them purple. I’m six foot two and forced to raise the seat post until it falls out of the frame; still, these bikes become my steeds for bashing around town. I’m able to hit 10 or 12 hot spots in a day, increasing my enjoyment of beaches, cafés, restaurants, architecture, streetscapes.
As in Rio or Miami, Tel Aviv’s bounteous plethora of ethnicities is its greatest and sexiest asset. When I departed 30 years ago, the first waves of North African and Arabian Peninsula Jews were immigrating. As communism fell, they were quickly succeeded by Eastern Europeans. Today, the city is a mosaic of Ethiopians, Moroccans, central Asians, Russians, Poles, Greeks, you name it; which is, in turn, why its extraordinary cuisine is so layered, so varied and, again, so sexy. Perhaps the best way to describe Tel Aviv’s better professional kitchens is to say that, together, they comprise a sort of global tapas bar ricocheting from Africa to Asia to Europe and back to the Middle East.
I spent a delightful couple of days hopping from place to place along Nachalat Binyamin street in the Neve Tzedek district, sampling the Wine Bar’s tapas, chef Meir Adoni’s delightful grilled lamb shawarma at Mizlala and at chef Maoz Alonim’s Basta, anything that man decided to throw down in front of me. Actually, I couldn’t stop eating Alonim’s food. When I wasn’t eating with Alonim himself, I ate at Café Europa on Rothschild, where he also does the food.
“I’m not sure there is an ‘Israeli’ cuisine,” says Alonim, 38, a big, soulful bear of a fellow in khakis. “It may be the sum of what it is not.” It’s a sultry evening, and we’re at the bar at Basta sharing a plate of okra and some staggeringly good lobster caught that day in the northern city of Acre that Alonim has stuffed into a delectable raviolo. Proceeding with his fearless daredevil, extreme nonkosher attack, Alonim then orders us a pork cheek, slow-roasted in red wine.
“We opened five years ago,” Alonim says. “The idea was always to do a market restaurant, only wild fish, no farmed fish, and everything fresh that came in that day. We’ll do yellowtail tuna Russian-style or do something from Catalonia. Before that there was a lot of study in other kitchens. I did a project in Antwerp and cooked in Verona. So there I was in a kitchen in Verona and somebody says, ‘Oh, my grandmother is Palestinian, and this is the way we do that,’ so I started learning about the Palestinians’ wonderful ingredients, like goat stewed slowly in allspice and onion, or vine-leaf cake with lamb and rice. We also make our own labneh, that soft yogurt cheese.”
Tel Avivans under 40 are immensely curious, as are their counterparts in Beirut, by virtue of study and years of work abroad and, not least, because of the globalizing force of the Internet. Young Beirutis and Tel Avivans have begun the long process of “de-parochializing” themselves, to mangle a phrase, and are confident enough in their own cultures and histories to pick up and examine others’. So it’s perhaps inevitable that in Tel Aviv interest in all things Palestinian is waxing among young professionals. Alonim holds a Palestinian “month” at Basta each year, publishing a daily poem by Mahmoud Darwish on his menus. Meir Adoni has a few Palestinian dishes, and there’s a genius Palestinian chef, Omar Iluwan, whose restaurant in Jaffa, Haj Kahil, is a must-go for foodies across the country. It’s hardly a solution to the problems of the Middle East, and more a tiny green shoot of hope. But it’s there.
Famously liberal, famously libertine, famously French and infamously politically fraught, Beirut is very much back in business since my war correspondent days. It has not been without pain, but it is rather fabulous to live in and to see. From the sixth-floor glass-walled infinity pool of Le Gray hotel, in the Beirut Central District—a clutch of central banks and government buildings that have been rebuilt and restored to a fare-thee-well—one can count two dozen construction cranes in a great sweep of building sites within a mile’s radius. The An Nahar building across the street, home to the newspaper of that name, has a rooftop nightclub, Iris, and a few blocks away is SkyBar, where reserved tables for bottle service run upwards of $1,000. The street running between Le Gray and the An Nahar building, Rue Weygand, is choked with major-label boutiques and a plethora of high-end jewelry shops.
On the exalted world-class level, Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid has designed a new center for public policy and international affairs on the campus of the American University of Beirut. There’s a home-visit tanning service called Hollywood Glow VIP Spray Tanning Service; an organic farmers’ market; a local beer named after the country code, 961; and not least, a popular joint in the party-hearty district of Gemmayzeh that has 14 chicken wing flavors. In short, those eccentric lifestyle quirks that can be brought to bear on a semitropical paradise are in place. And yet Beirut is Beirut, and it is nothing if not war-weary and hilariously jaded about it. AUB students, well-educated and perhaps tougher-minded than their elders, have a brilliant nickname for the town: the Root. As in, the Root of all evil; the Root of all fun; let’s get back to the Root.
Three days after I arrive, the Root explodes in a non-deadly but typically fraught way: One of the local militias allied with Hezbollah—the mightily armed Shiite militia in the south—shoots up a TV station that aired an interview with an anti-Hezbollah sheikh and, while they are at it, blocks key intersections around town with piles of burning tires for a few nights running. Some UN warships check into the port. But the action soon descends into farce as investigators find a security camera videotape showing that one militia member actually set his own foot on fire as he too-zealously doused his pile of tires. Instantly, there is a joke: He escaped the police, but Hezbollah remanded him into remedial insurrection courses.
A consortium called Solidere is key to understanding the political tensions and the renovation by fits and starts of contemporary Beirut. Born in 1994 through the sponsorship of business interests under Lebanese billionaire Rafik Hariri—prime minister between 1992 and ’98 and 2000 and ’04—Solidere was built on the “shares” system, meaning real estate in the Beirut Central District was condemned and landowners were given shares in Solidere, which then financed the rebuilding. It was the equivalent of turning London’s Oxford Street or New York’s Fifth Avenue into a giant co-op.
And it sort of worked, until Hariri’s motorcade was blown to bits by a truck bomb with almost 4,000 pounds of TNT in February 2005. A UN investigation concluded that the Syrians, whose troops had long occupied Lebanon, were responsible. A Lebanese government investigation said Hezbollah was guilty, a charge it vehemently denied, placing the blame instead, predictably, on Israel. The assassination remains a hotly debated mystery, but it did, in a Newtonian way, force the Syrian troops out of Beirut. It was called the Cedar Revolution, after the iconic trees on Mount Lebanon that are the symbol of the country. However backward, that revolution served to increase Lebanon’s and Beirut’s fragile sovereignty. Until, that is, the Israelis invaded Lebanon again, in 2006, in a failed bid to stomp the Hezbollah.
Gordon Campbell Gray, the irrepressible Scottish hotelier behind Le Gray, was in the midst of building his hotel as all this occurred. On Martyrs’ Square, Le Gray is a handsome tenant at the edge of the Beirut Central District. Now it is considered Beirut’s most elegant address; in 2006, it was a stalled construction site in the middle of an invasion.
“At first I thought, How bad can it get?” says Gray, in Beirut for a brisk week of work, over coffee in the pool bar. “But my partners and I were fine, and we just decided we’d stick it out. We knew that Beirut was coming back, despite these episodes of great political tension. I like being in Beirut. You get the feeling that you’re close to things. Now, six years on, I can think of no place I’d rather be.”
Wars don’t end just because a peace accord is agreed upon—in Beirut there persists a strong streak of black humor mixed with a kind of mordant hilarity and an absolute disdain for politicians of the classic oligarchical stripe. It makes for a healthy bar-and-club scene. If there’s one impulse in war culture that is easily transmitted whole, it’s the party gene. Beirut has several hundred bars and clubs, and a bunch of nightlife websites packed with concert venues, restaurants, boutiques, galleries, artists, musicians, designers and DJs. The Root goes as late and as fast as you want to go.
Late and fast it is: A key figure on the Root’s cultural scene is Mo Rida, 34, a film director and Lebanese American expat born in Beirut just as the civil war was beginning, who grew up in Brooklyn. Rida has a motorcycle, a noble, scarred-but-unbowed 1990 renovated 400cc Suzuki he calls “Thumper,” which I beg him to press into service as our chariot. Thumper is throaty, low-slung and quick and had been known to burst into flames under the seat—a problem that has recently been fixed. He bought the Suzuki for $1,000 and restored it over the course of a year. With its etched silver paint, studded black leather saddlebags and rewelded clutch, it’s like a bike out of the Mad Max franchise, which is to say it’s perfectly bad, thus perfect for jetting around Beirut.
We begin our first evening early, out at Zaitunay Bay, a new waterfront development in the north part of town with a row of cafés, and we order very passable sushi while staring at $4 million yachts anchored in the marina. Afterward we rock through Gemmayzeh in the old Christian section of east Beirut. Its two parallel main roads, Rue Gouraud and Al Arz/Rue Pasteur, are chock-full of bars and restaurants, most of which have been established since the war stopped. We hit Torino Express, a European-style bar on Rue Gouraud, and Dragonfly, a fine cocktail joint; then it’s midnight.
We’ve been wrangling a late-night appointment with the people who run MusicHall, a venerable club, recording studio and performance venue in the basement of a nondescript office tower in Beirut Central District. Michel Elefteriades, 42, MusicHall’s founder and owner, stands at the foot of a stairway in a simple but dashing dun-colored safari suit, holding a wineglass with some tan-colored liquid and many fresh sprigs of mint. His full beard is groomed, his black hair swept back in a ponytail. He leads Rida and me up to a mezzanine lounge of elegant proportions, leather and red plush-velvet chairs abound. There are brass tubings affixed to a wall, antique swords and canes piled on a sideboard, and the pillows in the chairs are embroidered with the gilt uppercase letter “N.” On the engraved wooden coffee table are bowls of rose-petal potpourri. It’s like Hercule Poirot’s office, if Poirot had been working the Baghdad-to-Istanbul territory.
It is almost two in the morning. A manservant appears, unbidden. His uniform is a floor-length black robe with massive braids of fine gold embroidery on the lapels and cuffs. “Mojitos,” Elefteriades says to him. He turns to us. “These would be real Cuban mojitos. I was in Cuba for two years during the crisis in the early 1990s.”
An elegant middle-aged gentleman in a short-sleeved shirt and dark-gray worsted trousers enters the room. We stand.
Elefteriades says, “This is The General. He’s the head of the Lebanese army command and staff college. He’s in charge of giving them the good discipline, which is a problem in our part of the world. We have great creativity and imagination but little discipline.”
It’s very apt, in my memory of Beirut, that you would meet a Lebanese army general at 2 a.m., but that was when there were also good military reasons—meaning, shootings—for them to stay up late. I assume The General is there for “discussions” with Elefteriades that we somehow interrupted. As the scion of both old Greek and Lebanese Christian families, Elefteriades remains an extravagant player on Beirut’s very extravagant stage. The General nods and sits opposite, watching rather like an owl as Elefteriades and I talk about his musical groups. Three mojitos arrive. We sip. They are perfect.
“Until a few years ago, we were suffering under two occupations,” says Elefteriades. “Syrian and Israeli, which made any involvement in politics difficult. I decided to put my energy into music, to preserve some of the culture, and went on the hunt for our great musicians.”
Elefteriades is the Rick Rubin of the Middle East, traversing the world to create fusion CDs and duets between greats like the Lebanese “Elvis” Tony Hanna and a Yugoslavian gypsy band, or the old master Lebanese tenor Wadih El Safi and young flamenco artist José Fernández, or the Arab gypsy Bilal, whom Elefteriades discovered at 14 shining shoes outside his office. It’s a genius roster, and he puts them all on stage, Thursday to Sunday, at MusicHall.
“MusicHall has become a real brand,” says Elefteriades. “So at the end of this year we’re opening a 1,000-seat venue in Dubai with a multitrack recording studio.”
During our conversation, punctuated with punchy videos of his musicians on his iPad, I keep trying to reconcile the crimson pillows embroidered with the gold “N” in the velvet chairs across from us—perhaps they are from his mother? Increasing his general unpredictability and Teddy Roosevelt–like renaissance-man reach, Elefteriades has created a mythical country, Nowheristan, of which he calls himself the “first and last emperor,” as I learn later from Nowheristan.com. Nowheristan was born of the basic Lebanese identity conundrum. One may be Lebanese, but since Lebanon is so often driven by internal clans and external forces and has for so long been in states of war and semi-war, Lebanon itself doesn’t often exist as a coherent political identity in the sense that France or Germany does. It is a place, and a strong one, but not so much of a country. Seen this way, Elefteriades’s new imaginary state is the logical supranational response. “Nowheristan exists because it’s best to be from nowhere,” he says.
Parked outside the club is a giant, black Batmobile-like vehicle with tiny windows and a huge brass “N” embossed on the trunk. The car flies the official Nowheristan flag, a blank blue dot of nothingness, from a little pole on each side of the front bumper.
It’s 3 a.m. Tonight Bilal, Elefteriades’s famous Arab gypsy former shoe-shine boy, has taken MusicHall’s stage with his 12-piece band and has revved up the audience into full Beirut madness.
“The Arab gypsies are originally from Rajasthan,” says Elefteriades, communicating with the sound engineer at the board by hand signals. “But, of course, here for thousands of years.” And thus, full citizens of the emperor’s new country of Nowheristan.
“So you were here in the war?” asks the bearded, gravel-voiced Bernard Khoury, the baddest bad-boy architect of Beirut, over a Marlboro and an espresso in his office. “Where’d you live?” The Commodore, I say, where all the journalists were. “Well, there was a small electronic tennis game machine in the lobby. Remember that?” Khoury asks. I do, but I didn’t play it, I admit. There was too much for me to learn outside the lobby, I tell him.
“My parents moved us to The Commodore during the war,” he explains. “I was the kid in the lobby playing the journalists. I got so good, I beat them all. One day I was out in the street when a mortar round fell. I wasn’t hurt, but we left for Paris shortly after that.”
Khoury’s office is in the Lebanese Metal Society building in the Quarantina district—a shot-up, storied area in the war, to say the least. It’s a bit like early TriBeCa but with a murderous twist: More than 1,000 civilians were massacred here in 1976.
“Arabs have no present,” says Khoury. “They have a past, and they think they have a future, but the concept of the present is difficult for them. We don’t deal with our history here, and we don’t incorporate it into the present. Some of my projects here are more about trying to establish that there is a contemporary way of doing architecture in the Middle East that creates a present.”
His most infamous attempt to supply a “present” was his design for the party promoter Naji Gebran for the nightclub B 018, a giant bunker with a retractable roof—on the site of a refuge camp that was burned to the ground in the ’70s, during the civil war. Khoury attended high school in Paris and the Rhode Island School of Design during college, then got his master’s at Harvard before bringing his practice home to Beirut. He could have worked anywhere.
Why here? I ask him. Why this exact building, in this exact place?
“I like the dark side, of course,” he says. “So I like the building, the district and the history of the district. But I’m also a practical man. Right here I’m on the main highway to the north, down below me is the main highway to Damascus. But this highway out front is also the main artery leading south, with which I can get to the Lebanese coast.”
He pauses and says: “And one day, hopefully, to Tel Aviv.”
Four Perfect Days in Beirut and Tel Aviv
Day 1: Check in to the Dan Tel Aviv (rooms, from $295; 99 Hayarkon St.; 972-3/520-2552; danhotels.com) for floor-to-ceiling views of the beach. (Our favorite is room 372.) A guide is a must for the essential tour of the 1920s Bauhaus district around Rothschild Boulevard—we recommend Or Rein (972-522/366-006)—or, even better, visit the house of Chaim Weizmann (Hanasi Harishon St.; chaimweizmann.org.il), Israel’s first president. About 30 minutes from the city, it was designed by Bauhaus master Erich Mendelsohn. Must-sees include the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (27 Shaul Hamelech Blvd.; tamuseum.com), with a new building designed by Harvard architect Preston Scott Cohen. Have a brasserie-style lunch at Hotel Montefiore (36 Montefiore St.; 972-3/564-6100; hotelmontefiore.co.il), the city’s most stylish boutique hotel. Follow with a stroll through Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv’s first Jewish neighborhood, now restored with museums, galleries and cafés. Reserve a frontline table for 9 p.m. at Manta Ray (Alma Beach; 972-3/517-4773; mantaray.co.il) for grilled seafood and unreal mezes right on the beach.
Day 2: Shop, shop, shop at the boutiques around Kikar Hamedina, one of the city’s largest plazas. Head to Jaffa for the earthy, authentic Jewish cuisine of Dr. Shakshuka ($ 3 Beit Eshel St.; 972-57/944-4193), a great antique open space spilling out into Jaffa’s nonstop marketplace. Next, head to the Nachalat Binyamin Pedestrian Mall’s arts-and-crafts bazaar for jewelry and Judaica (Magen David Sq.). For dinner, I’d suggest Mizlala (57 Nachalat Binyamin; 972-3/566-5505; mizlala.co.il)—modern Mideast fusion at its best.
Day 3: Leave at dawn for Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, driving an hour north along the coast. Visit the Baha’i Shrine and Gardens (ganbahai.org.il), also known as the Hanging Gardens of Haifa, on Mount Carmel, before pressing on to Acre, the UNESCO-protected, 4,000-year-old seaport town. Lunch at Uri Buri (93 Haganah St.; 972-4/955-2212), an amazing seafood restaurant on the city’s ramparts. Owner Uri Jeremias also has an adorable, tiny ice cream shop—fresh fig gelato and watermelon sorbet—half a block away, but the pièce de résistance is his Efendi Hotel (rooms, from $350; Louis IX St.; 972-74/729-9799; efendi-hotel.com), whose 12 rooms occupy two Ottoman palaces that took Jeremias eight and a half years and $7 million to restore. Drive back to Tel Aviv for dinner at Herbert Samuel (6 Koifman St.; 972-03/516-6516; herbertsamuel.co.il), overlooking the beach and terribly chic; reserve well in advance.
Day 4: And on the last day? The choices are many…hmm, Dead Sea or Caesarea? But as you’ve already been north, head southeast to the Dead Sea, where bathing in the floating waters with a packet of Dead Sea mud is an experience, though, as our friend says, a bit like bathing in a warm vinaigrette. As you’ll want a changing room, we suggest the Isrotel Dead Sea (Ein Bokek, Doar Na; 972-8/638-7797; isrotel.com); you can book a locker at its somewhat overblown Vegas-like hotel spa. From there, it’s Masada, the historic mountain fortress 20 minutes away. If you can, walk to the top; if you can’t, jump on the funicular. Then it’s on to Tel Aviv through the lunar Judean desert. Returning to the Dan, have a drink in the lounge, overlooking the Mediterranean. Make a reservation for 8 or 9 p.m. at the newish Messa (19 Haarbaa St.; 972-3/685-6859) in the market at the port of Tel Aviv. —Richard David Story
Lights Out Tel Aviv
Café Europa: Perhaps the hippest bar-restaurant in the city, Europa, in a little three-story house, has been open only since May. At 9B Rothschild Ave.; 972-3/525-9987.
Dizzy Frishdon: A great bar and fine food are the reasons the crowds keep coming back. At 121 Dizengoff St.; 972-3/523-4111.
Shesek: An institution for a reason, this club hosts the city’s best DJs and stays open late, which is why it’s crowded. At 17 Lilenblum St.; 972-3/516-9520.
Wine Bar: Expect tapas-style everything, along with a great wine list. But it gets busy, so go early. At 36 Nachalat Binyamin; 972-3/510-2923. —Guy Martin
Day 1: Ideally, arrive on a Thursday—the beginning of the Arab weekend, when the city starts to heat up. Book a corner suite at Le Gray (rooms, from $470; Martyrs’ Sq., Rue Weygand; 961-1/971-111; campbellgrayhotels.com) and take a plunge in the sixth-floor outdoor pool, before rehydrating—first with a Natura Bissé facial at the PureGray spa, then with a Pimm’s at Indigo on the Roof. Follow with a bite at the same venue—Fines de Claire oysters and yellowtail tuna sashimi with pickled ginger and soy—taking in the downtown area below, grounded by Martyrs’ Square and the cobalt sea. If jet lag’s no issue, dress up and head to SkyBar (BIEL Center, Minet El Hosn; sky-bar.com) for open-air dancing with Lebanon’s glitterati.
Day 2: Kick off the day with a jog along the Corniche, heading toward the natural offshore stone arches of Pigeons’ Rock. Spend the morning at the Robert Mouawad Private Museum (Zozak el-Blat; rmpm.info), which occupies a 1911 Arab palace, displaying jewelry, objets d’art and ceramics. Eat fish in olive oil at French brasserie Balthus (Ghandour Bldg., Minet El Hosn; 961-1/371-077), then shop on Rue El-Moutrane for designer offerings, stopping at Aïshti department store (Rue El-Moutrane 71; aishti.com), which features fashion from the likes of Emilio Pucci and Hervé Léger. For more, visit the galleries and antiques stores of Saifi Village. Come evening, have a pizza at Margherita (Rue Gouraud, Gemmayzeh; 961-1/560-480; pizzeriamargherita.com) in the hopping Gemmayzeh neighborhood, followed by more late-night outdoor dancing at White (Sea Side Rd.; 961-3/060-090; whitebeirut.com).
Day 3: Recover from the night before by kicking back at one of the region’s best beach clubs: Eddé Sands (Byblos; 961-9/546-666; eddesands.com), an hour’s drive north, with VIP and VVIP areas to keep away from the crowds. From there, it’s a 15-minute drive to the wonderful lunchtime spot Pepe’s Fishing Club (Rue Pépé Abed, Byblos; 961-9/540-213)—once beloved by the likes of David Niven and Brigitte Bardot—overlooking Byblos Harbor. Shop in the touristic but likable old Byblos souk for Lebanese products, including spices, textiles and caftans, then roam through the 12th-century Crusader Citadel and ruined Phoenician temples. Back in Beirut, eat at Regusto (Rue Hamra; 961-1/752-571) in Hamra, a raucous, homey joint in an unlikely location, serving Armenian mezes.
Day 4: Leave the best until last and spend a long, lazy morning perusing the Beirut National Museum (Rue de Damas and Av. Abdallah Yafi; beirutnationalmuseum.com); the short film on the collection’s survival during the civil war is a highlight. Also take time for the fifth-century b.c. sarcophagi, the assemblage of tiny Phoenician figurines and the well-priced, Phoenician-inspired gold jewelry in the museum shop. Lunch at Tawlet (Rue Naher 12; 961-1/448-129; tawlet.com)—a different home cook serves up regional dishes each day to a glamorous crowd, despite the run-down district
. Afterward, swim, nap, drink and then pop off for great French Lebanese food at Centrale (Rue Mar Maroun, Saifi; 961-1/575-858), which features a retractable roof in the summer. Continue to the club of your choice to howl at the dawn. —Guy Martin
Lights Out Beirut
B 018: Only for the brave, this edgy club is in the funky Quarantina district, so one should keep a limo waiting. At Av. Charles Malek; 961-3/800-018; b018.com.
Crew Bar: This tiny, friendly joint in Gemmayzeh is where bartenders converge when their shifts are over. At Rue Pasteur; 961-1/449-873.
De Prague: This Deco café in Hamra may be hard to find because of its brown wooden door, but it’s the hip place for a pre-club drink. $ At Rue Makdissi 166; 961-1/744-864.
Dictateur: The scene at this former factory goes late, and on weekends one can party straight on till brunch. At Rue Badawi 30; 961-3/251-512.
MusicHall: Producer Michel Elefteriades’s eclectic mix of artists performs in an 800-seat venue that rocks till the wee hours. At Starco Center, Rue Omar Daouk; themusichall.com. —Guy Martin
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.