Ok, so now that we’ve gone through things to pack, let’s move on to a few other things you need to know about moving to Beirut.
Finding an apartment in Beirut
This has to be the singlemost frequently asked question I receive from people considering moving to Beirut. It’s also one of the most difficult for me to answer. My first three months in Lebanon were spent at a friend’s home in Hazmieh (which is outside of Beirut). When I decided I wanted to get closer to B-City, I spent weeks trying to find something online or on-foot, and that was WITH the help of a Lebanese friend (although his Arabic wasn’t that good – he had recently moved to Beirut from Montreal).. Everything that I thought was promising online, either demanded six months to a year’s rent up front, or just wasn’t what it professed to be (old, unfurnished, in an inconvenient area..etc etc..)..
Finally, I got so desperate that I moved into an ALL GIRLS DORM if you can believe it, called The Diva House (shameful, I know..) I paid $700 for a ROOM with a bed, a TV, a closet, and a toilet (at least it had daily maid service!). Even the kitchen was shared. :( (At the time, I was making $1100 a month..so, do the math. It sucked). One day, while I was at work, a friend of mind who went to AUB forwarded me an email from someone in her program looking for a roommate,,and that’s how I eventually came to find the bliss street apartment I lived in for nearly a year (A two bedroom place that went for $1000 a month $500 per person..still expensive versus what I was making, but a good price considering the size and central location).
So, yeah that’s my story. My advice to people looking to move to Beirut would be to check out websites like ahlein.net, realestate.com.lb, lebanon.dubizzle.com (thanks Bass B.) and even beirut.craigslist.org and to get a sense of what you’re dealing with size/furnishing/price wise. Chances are if you’re moving to Beirut, you already have a job or are attending a program that should be able to help you with finding accommodations, or at least point you in the right direction. Finding an apartment is REALLY difficult to do on your own. If you are like me,,and are winging it, it WILL take you time to find something that suits your preferences/price range..(that is, unless you’re balling out of control and money is no object for you.) So you will need to figure out a place (either a hotel or a private home) to stay in the mean time..If you are really adventurous,,you can try couch surfing while you look for a place!! Either way, I STRONGLY advise having someone local help you/do the talking. Be advised: People WILL take advantage of the fact that you are a foreigner and will try to raise the rent on you.
As for ‘what part of Beirut should you move to’..I would suggest somewhere in Achrafieh, Monot, Gemmayze, or Hamra, Mar Mikhail..they are all relatively close to (or in the middle of ) all of the action..and easily accessible by foot. They’re also – in my humble opinion – the trendiest parts of the city. You could also consider Sodeco, Rawche, and Downtown (Although Rawche and Downtown are usually reserved for baller shot callers only).
Watched this video by BeirutNightLife to go on a nighttime tour of many of these areas..
Real estate in Lebanon is becoming ridiculously expensive and prices in Beirut especially are through the roof!! Most Lebanese families who still live in central locations in Beirut are holding on to old lease contracts that pre-date the civil war. This means that what these families pay for a year’s worth of rent, is what anyone else trying to find an apartment in Beirut now, would pay in just one month! (Ridiculous, I know.) This has forced many young people outside of Beirut for affordable rent..and by default has created a significant “commuter culture.”
Some young families are settling in areas like Jnah, Dawhet el Hoss and even Dahieh where apartments are, contrary to popular belief, not cheap but many times cheaper than any of the new building coming up in Beirut (which are all sold out by the way, believe it or not).
Lebanese culture dictates that most young professional stay at home with their parents until marriage. Therefore, the demand for rooms/flats/apartment mates is limited to a small number of university students (and expats) coming from outside of Beirut and a handful of exceptional cases (like Danielle). Most individuals looking to share the cost of living tend to be foreigners and thus the supply is very, very limited – and the costs somewhat steep.
The best way to find a place to live in at an affordable rate is to look for student residences around AUB and LAU. Find yourself a local who knows the area (they’re easy to spot, it’s usually the one walking down the street saying hi to every shop owner he passes by), offer them a small compensation and go with them from building to building talking to the doormen to acquire about possible availabilities. (believe it or not I know a Lebanese person who hired someone to find places for her in Beirut, it really is hard to do otherwise..)
Quite honestly, for the most part you do not need to drive in Beirut. And I am looking to start a movement that encourages people to walk more and drive less to places in the city. If you live within the 4 corners: Corniche el Mazraa, Downtown, Manara and Ramlet el Bayda, you can easily get to any place within that area in 20 to 30 minutes of walking. That includes areas like Sanayeh, Hamra, Bliss, Mar Elias and Verdun. Of course there are exceptions and certain situations that require the use of a car and for which the ‘service’ (discussed separately) is a good option. But the Lebanese need to stop taking their car to go from Hamra Main Street to Bliss Street and spend 30 minutes in traffic cursing, shouting and honking for no particular reason.
As for the ‘Service’, it may be one of the cheapest ways to commute in the world (LBP 2,000/USD 1.3 for a short trip anywhere in the city or LBP 4,000/USD 2.6 for longer trips but still within a reasonable range in Beirut and its suburbs). They are also the most common and dominant form of public transportation. They are similar to Colectivos found in Santiago, Chile or other parts of the world where you share a cab with other passengers for a fixed rate. Unlike the Colectivos though, the ‘service‘ does not run on a fixed, predetermined route. In the good ol’ days, the easiest way to spot a taxi was too look for an old Mercedes..or by the red license plate.. While you will still see these Mercedes on the road, there are also many other types of vehicles that operate as taxis.
As of 2011, private taxis, ‘services‘ and any kind of public transport (which includes mini-vans, a story of its own) are required to have the official sticker on the car. So essentially, look for the red plates, and the stickers.
But not worry, hailing a cab in Lebanon requires zero effort – it’s a hospitable country after all! The driver will actually pull as close to you as possible, honk until your ears bleed, or you notice him (whichever happens first), at which point in time you’ll either yell out your destination, or wave your hand to attempt to get them to go away (they’re persistent, sometimes they’ll try to convince you to come in with them regardless).
Driving in Lebanon. HA! Theses could be written on the subject. In all of the places I’ve traveled to, I have never seen anything quite like it. Anything. (It’s funny how every country you go to,,people always say, “If you can drive here you can drive anywhere.” I say..to hell with that. If you can drive in BEIRUT you can drive anywhere. Period. Full stop. Yeah.)
I mean, why would you even consider buying a car/driving when when you have cheap and relatively efficient public transport options? (That is, unless Daddy is willing to fork out to buy you a car..) Driving in Lebanon seriously forces you to employ all 5 senses, and maybe even your 6th. You see, buying a car was never an option for me. So I never even really considered it. I simply couldn’t afford it..(and from what I know, cars are very expensive because of import duties, etc etc). If that isn’t enough,, parking is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS a problem..and although a lot of places do have valet service, it just seems to me that unless you are planning to move to Beirut for GOOD and build a family, etc etc etc..public transportation ie. services and private taxis are the way to go.. That being said, you should know that Lebanese people take pride in their cars. I’ve heard stories of young men who would spend all of their money on their cars rather than using the money to get out of their parent’s house and into their own place. Again, it’s all about image in Beirut..and I think that – especially for young men – that may have to do with the fact that many (not all, but many..yes, I know this is a generalization here people..) Lebanese women consider having a car, a prerequisite when determining whether to date a man or not.. But anyway,,I’m going off on a tangent. Back to the point.
I could sit here and describe what driving in Beirut is like (even though I haven’t experience it first hand, being a passenger and all), but that would take a year. or two. or ten. Instead, watch this video to get a sense of what it’s like. You only need to watch 45 seconds to get the point. You will notice that pedestrian right of way does NOT exist in Lebanon. Drivers don’t stop for the elderly, or for women with strollers..so chances are, they will not stop for you! Something I definitely had to learn the hard way.
So, yeah. I never drove in Lebanon and I never will. Ever..
Instead, I took ‘services‘ or private taxis wherever I went. And it worked out just fine for me.. When I first started this blog, I wrote a post detailing my first time taking a service and outlined the important differences between a ‘service‘ taxi and a private taxi service that every foreigner visiting/planning to move to Beirut should know..but as this post is already wayyy longer than I anticipated, I suggest you click the link if you really want to know more about it. However, Youssef and I updated the post to include some important information, which I will repost here, just to round off this section. So here goes it:
Almost all service taxi drivers are out to ‘make a buck’ in whatever way they can..I mean, they lead difficult lives. Fare prices are low ($1 for god’s sake!), gas is expensive, and traffic is insane..which means that oftentimes they can’t even afford to maintain their cars or fix their parts – which is a contributing factor to why the pollution (and noise pollution) is so bad in Beirut (a conversation for another day)..so for those of you, like me, who have been driving your entire life, getting used to the sometimes squalid conditions of the taxis will take some getting used to. (The vast majority of the taxis on the road are..I want to say..between 30 – 40 years old Mercedes Benz..feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.) For those of you accustom to clean public transport systems (subways/buses) I guess it will be easier for you, but an adjustment all of the same. Now back to my point..
If you are a foreigner, and obviously look and dress like a foreigner, taxi drivers will try to rip you off EVERY SINGLE TIME. Without fail. I was relatively lucky because people often mistook me for being Lebanese.. But even so, I made sure to pay my fare as soon as I got in the taxi. The thing is, Lebanese service taxi drivers all like to think they’re political pundits..and their monologues about the latest political bru-ha-ha begin as soon as you enter in the car..Often times, when they’re finished, they’ll expect you to contribute to the conversation or at least have something to say.. On several occasions, when they learnt I wasn’t Lebanese and didn’t speak a word of Arabic (due to my failure to contribute to their conversation),,they oftentimes tried to up the fare on me..or they would automatically turn the service into a taxi without my consent, and then expect that I give them 10,000 LL at my destination. Not cool. So not cool.
It will be hard at first, but stand your ground..they can be a bit intimidating at times, but if they picked you up and made no mention of “Taxi?“..then it is safe to assume that your fare will cost 2,000 LL.. If, before you enter the taxi or as soon as you enter the taxi, they determine that the ride is going to take them a bit longer than than a 2,000 LL ride, but not as long as a “Taxi ride” then they will say.. “servicen?” Which simply means “Two services”..thus doubling the service fare = 4,000 LL..
As Youssef pointed out above, finding a taxi is never a problem. They honk, and honk, and HONK at you..even if you haven’t even given them the slightest indication that you want to take a taxi.
As a foreigner, anywhere in the world, in order not to get ripped off always ask local about how much getting to and from certain destinations should cost. For the ‘service‘, you will not get a receipt and there is not a price list (although there should be, I need to have a talk with my friend who works for the Consumer Protection Agency) so there is somewhat of a guessing game..and it’s often times up to the discretion of the driver,,or determined by negotiation between the driver and the customer. But if you go in to one already knowing what to expect, you can avoid this. So..ask people what price to expect and they should be able to tell you. If you have no one to ask here are a few general rules of thumb (not 100% accurate but bear with me). If you are in Beirut, going between Raouche, Manara, Hamra, Verdun, Mar Elias, Downtown or any smaller area in between should cost you the regular fair of 2,000 LL. Going from any of those places to within the greater Beirut area but not in this list should be the double fair of 4,000 LL (examples: Ashrafieh, Dahieh, Jnah, etc). Any other major city should be about the same, like Saida, Tripoli, Tyre, etc, where you have the central locations and the surrounding areas. Going from one city or town to another (unless they are adjacent small towns) will usually require a taxi. And for those instances, you might as well just call one and not grab a random one from the street. You could take a ‘service’ to Dawra and take a bus from there all the way up to Tripoli (or any stop in between) if you’re going north or go to Cola and take a bus to Saida if you’re going south. This becomes a matter of ‘it depends’ for what is best for each scenario.
Now, if you’re are adventurous and have a little time on your hands to explore, you’ve got the mini-vans option. I do not want to scare you but I want to make sure you know what you might be getting yourself into. One of my friends always used to say, “to me that the mini-van experience is paying 500 LL for an uncomfortable ride on a vehicle that won’t stop until it hits a wall and that’s when everyone would have arrived at their destination.” Now obviously that’s an exaggeration. But the point is that it’s not for everyone. You need to know where exactly where you’re going (meaning you’ve been there before, would recognize it when you get to it and are able to ask the driver to stop), know which area close to you the vans that go there pass by and has a stop, and know which of the vans that passes by is the van that you need to get on. Now I’m sure there’s at least one expert in the matter who’s reading this and will post all the details in the comments ;)
HOT DAMN. This is a long post. But it had to be done. I guess this means there will be a part 3, 4, and possibly even a 5! For all the Lebanese reading, if there is anything we have neglected to include, or have described inaccurately, please feel free to let us know in the comments. Also, check out this site for a listing of private taxi companies in Beirut.
Here is to hoping we helped make someone’s life a tad bit easier. Just a tad.