Walk Beirut offers tour of capital’s gems

In the late afternoon, when the sun has lost some of its ferocity, a group of tourists and expatriates can be seen winding their way through the lesser-known streets of Beirut. Far from being lost, these tourists are being guided around the city by a friendly tourguide, knowledgeable about the city’s past.

Ronnie Chatah formed the company Walk Beirut with a few of his AUB alumni friends over a year ago, and since then it has grown and changed to accommodate the best interests of the walkers.

Look at their website here

“We do our tours in the afternoon, and I think we’ve mastered the positioning of the sun, so you always walk in the shade,” says Chatah. Most of the route is also downhill, and compared to last year, the tour has been shortened by half an hour

“Nevertheless, we’ve kept around two-thirds of our old stops,” Ronnie assures The Daily Star. While the walk is brisk enough that boredom is never an option, there are plenty of seated stops, and a coffee break midway through the walk leaves participants feeling refreshed.

The tour takes into account all the main epochs of Beirut’s history, from the Phoenician and Roman eras to the 1975-1990 Civil War and recent political unrest.

“There is a lot of information about the history and the culture of the town, so we’re very impressed,” said participant Mary Simmons from the UK.

Starting on Bliss Street and making its way through the Beirut Central District to Monot Street, the tour encompasses 25 unique attractions. While all the obvious locations, from the Roman Baths and Martyrs Square to the Place D’Etoile, are all on the itinerary, this tour also explores some of Beirut’s lesser-publicized areas like the old Armenian and Jewish quarters.

One happy customer, Fionnuala Nic Conmara, commented on the tour’s website: “The tour was full of hidden gems and it really brought the city alive for us.”

Walking down Hamra, visitors are given a window through the now shut-down movie theaters, into what life looked like before and during the Civil War. Chatah is quick to pull out interesting facts and anecdotes, first telling his bemused audience that Lebanon once held the world record for the greatest number of movie theater seats and then explaining that Rambo was a national obsession for Civil War militiamen. “Ronnie is a natural story teller,” notes Hilde on the company’s guestbook.

Sitting on the steps of the Central Bank, Chatah concisely explains the complicated arrangements of power-sharing in the political system, as well as its Civil War time inflation woes. Andrew and Claire, two participants from the UK noted on the website: “[The tour] helps a fascinating, but confusing, place start to make sense.”

Visiting the old Armenian quarter beside Haigazian University in Qantari, tourgoers are given a crash-course on restoration efforts and zoning laws in Lebanon and get to admire the different layers of architecture found in some of Beirut’s most intricate and well-hidden structures. Participants also learn about the history of the old Holiday Inn, which played a key role during the first two years of the Civil War, and has remained a pock-marked eyesore in the reconstruction era.

“Walking around is definitely the best way to see a city,” commented Adrian from Spain, who was spending his weekend off from his job in an architectural firm in Dubai to get to know Lebanon.

The company’s success has allowed it to expand to include a new “Talk Beirut” segment, as well as a “Run Beirut” running tour in the winter. The group also hopes to include a “Discover Beirut” booklet that participants can use to make their own way around Lebanon’s historical sites.

Talk Beirut, the most significant of these expansions, is a new one-on-one Arabic dialect class. Students have two options; a five-hour crash-course that introduces them to all the basics of the language, or a long-term course for more committed students. The classes have already been so successful that the instructor now commits around eight hours a day to teaching newcomers the language. All of these new initiatives, including Walk Beirut, fall under the company’s new name, Be Beirut.

These expansions have been made possible by the highly successful and cost-effective marketing strategy that Be Beirut has recently undertaken.

“We haven’t bought any Google or Facebook advertisements,” Chatah says, and yet, the first hit when you search for “Beirut walking tour,” “walk in Beirut” or something of that variation, almost inevitably brings up the Be Beirut website.

The company relies heavily on its website for marketing, encouraging participants to review the walk on their own social networks and then link back to the site.

Twenty-eight-year-old Christian Rynning from Norway affirmed this, saying, “My friend looked up some possibilities on the internet and [Walk Beirut] got a lot of good reviews.”

The company has also promoted itself by leaving pamphlets at many popular tourist sites and receiving excellent reviews in regional travel guides and media.

“I found out about the tour in the Oman Air magazine,” said Adrian, a walking tour participant from Spain.

Still, many of the company’s participants hear about the tour by word of mouth.

Mary Simmons, who was spending a long weekend in the city, learned about the tour entirely by accident.

“We bumped into the tour leader when we were walking around by the lighthouse, a couple of days ago,” she said.

Another two participants, Patrik Svensonn from Sweden and Anne-Kristine Prag from Denmark, heard about the tour from Anne-Kristine’s sister. “She went on the tour some months ago, and I think it’s a very good tour.”

Nevertheless, Chatah observes that fewer tourists than last year seem to be taking the tour. “I think it might just be that fewer members of the English-speaking diaspora and Western tourists are coming to Lebanon this year,” he said.

“I don’t know about Arabs because they’re not our primary market,” he added.

In fact, Walk Beirut only offers tours in English, and while most of the participants are from Lebanon, Europe and North America, that doesn’t stop the occasional Jordanian or Egyptian visitor from joining in.

But the wavering season hasn’t dimmed the enthusiasm with which Chatah narrates the history of this complex city, nor does it allow the interest of participants to falter.

In the words of one participant, Laila Al-Yusuf: “I was so fascinated by the idea of a walking tour that tells the story of Beirut, I knew I had to go.”

If anything, one year after its founding, Walk Beirut seems to have found its niche as a key part of Beirut’s tourism sector.

Whether catering to first-time tourists who do not know what to expect, or expatriates living in the city for years, unaware of the historical treasures that lie beneath their feet, Walk Beirut is sure to keep engaging imaginations through Beirut’s history and moving feet through its streets.