It may be a cliché but cool, cosmopolitan Beirut is indeed a city of contrasts. Possessed of some of the friendliest locals on the planet, it was also the scene of one of the Middle East’s deadliest conflicts.
While you’ll find beautifully restored colonial relics and old mosques delicate-looking minarets Downtown, venture towards what was once the Green Line and you’ll find buildings still peppered with bullet holes and missing chunks of masonry.
Nevertheless, while Beirut might have suffered more than most, it remains one of the most vibrant cities in the Middle East – and one of the most beautiful.
Perched on the Mediterranean and backdropped by the mighty Mount Lebanon, it is also one of the few cities in which you can sunbathe and ski over the course of a single day.
Its streets are a rabbit warren of shops and bars, many decorated with street vendors and nearly all choked with traffic – among them the speeding cabs manned by frantically chain-smoking drivers who have conspired to turn crossing the street into something of an extreme sport.
All this and the legacy of many years of conflict have resulted in a people whose motto appears to be ‘carpe diem to the max’ and nowhere is this more apparent than in the city’s nightclubs. As a result, the student quarter of Gemayzeh never seems to shut up shop and is wonderfully busy come weekends.
Although the war ended a long time ago, Beirut's reputation remains intricately tied to its volatile past. Some Lebanese like it that way. They think it gives Beirut an edge, although explaining that to inhabitants in the city’s southern refugee camps might prove difficult.
But despite the darkness, Beirut remains a symbol of hope in the frequently troubled Middle East as a place where people have managed to put their differences aside – however grudgingly – and make compromise possible.
The result is an intriguing, often unpredictable, clash of old and new, conservative and liberal, east and west, secular and religious. But in short, it’s nothing short of exhilarating.