It’s almost as though Beirut was designed in a lab as an ideal urban setting for drinking en plein air. The weather is nice nearly year-round, Beirutis are a jolly lot who mix a great cocktail, and the high mountains outside the city turn gold, pink and purple at dusk. Sure, it might be smoggy, but that only makes for more colourful sunsets. Talk about a glass half full.
Speaking of smog, Beirut’s nightlife venues can be deliciously noir – think legendary spy Kim Philby mixing with foxy French starlet Brigitte Bardot in the city’s drinking dens circa 1966 – but there are plenty of beautiful strangers with less mysterious backgrounds to chat up as well.
The Phoenicians named Lebanon after the white of its snow-tipped mountains, viewed from ships in the Mediterranean. The mountains still make for an impressive backdrop, and it’s all the nicer with a negroni, in the sea breeze of a Beirut terrace.
Clear-eyed sunsets at Iris
Arrange your face before the doors of the lift open, and be ready to stomp the catwalk that leads into Iris, the best of Beirut’s posh rooftop bars and nightclubs. On the top floor of the An Nahar building, where Martyrs’ Square meets downtown Beirut, Iris is right on the sea, which means there’s nothing between you and the mauve hues of the horizon and the mountains at sunset. Also on view are some of the fanciest people in Beirut, all dressed up and increasingly merry as the hour moves from happy to witching. Drink it up with an Aperol spritz (US$15).
Retract the roof at Centrale
Centrale the restaurant is tucked away on a side street off Gemmayzeh’s Rue du Liban; to reach Centrale the bar you have to navigate through the dining room and take a ride in Beirut’s wildest lift. Round and featuring a seating nook, the lift is just a teaser of what’s to come when you arrive on the third floor. Concocted by the renowned Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury, Centrale is cylindrical with black, brushed metal and copper lighting, and a roof that retracts to reveal a scene of palm trees and flowering vines. A look at the bill will sober you right up, but it’s an easier pill to swallow when you think of it as must-see architecture plus libations. Go for the La Vie en Rose shot, a house special: red fruit puree, champagne and lychee liqueur (US$7).
Bay Rock Café’s retro scene
At Raouche’s Bay Rock Café, order an apple shisha (US$10) and watch people’s jaws drop as they catch first sight of the view from the restaurant’s huge terraces – that is, if you can tear your own eyes away from Beirut’s best view of the truly majestic Pigeon Rocks. Perched on a striated cliff formed from the same rock as the Pigeons, Bay Rock Café is common ground for a stratified city; sects and nationalities mingle here in a way that hearkens back to the 1960s when Beirut was coming into its own as a cosmopolitan tourism and entertainment hub. Jaunty speedboats zooming through the natural tunnel in the larger Pigeon Rock underscore the cosy retro vibe.
Cheap and cheerful Coop d’Etat
Saifi Urban Garden’s cheerful rooftop bar Coop d’Etat has for years been a Gemmayzeh rendezvous point for the young and hip (and fit: the roof is only accessible via a seemingly interminable set of stairs). The bar’s setting and decor are casual, with picnic tables and happy hour specials, and the sea and mountains are visible beyond an unlovely highway overpass where you can watch rush hour traffic ease after the sun sets. But the approachable, unpretentious atmosphere makes up for the traffic fumes: everyone here is always in a good mood, especially at weekend bring-your-own-meat barbecues. A glass of chilled Sunset rosé from the Lebanese Ksara winery (US$6) is just the ticket for a humid night.
Verdant Albergo hideaway
Bursting with jasmine and gardenia plants on Spanish tiles, the rooftop of Hotel Albergo in Achrafiye is a lush, perfumed garden whose nooks and crannies make it better suited for a tête-à-tête than a party. This is a classy joint: Relais & Chateaux management leave no detail unattended, like cooling water mists on the roof in the summer and plush Oriental textiles on sofas in the glass-enclosed penthouse for chillier months. Even the bar nuts are more plump and delicious than those at your standard watering hole. The bar’s city views are nice enough, but the green space, an oasis in a city sorely lacking, is the real draw here, so don’t bother rushing to make it here by sunset. Order a Kir Royal (US$16) to double down on Mediterranean decadence.
Kick it at the seaside Corniche
Don’t overthink it: grab a couple of Almazas, Lebanon’s ubiquitous local brew (US$1 each at the corner store), and walk along the Corniche until you find a bench that strikes your fancy. Some even have inlaid mosaic chess boards if you need extra entertainment. A broad walkway that juts up against the sea for a few miles, the Corniche is Beirut’s only real public space, and the people-watching here is second to none. Joggers in spandex lap gossiping aunties in sweats; fishermen trade banter while casting their lines off the rocks, and old men tottering by will definitely stare at you. If you meet the stare with a smile, you’ll get a hearty ‘Ahla w sahla!’ (‘Welcome!’) in return more often than not.