TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Finally, after a long spell of cyclical clashes and seemingly never-ending violence, Tripoli is ready to receive visitors again.
The souks are bustling, the soldiers are no longer posted inside the castle (just outside it), and the sound of snipers has been replaced with the thrum of life. Lebanon’s northern city has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently, but everything that makes it such a glorious and rewarding city to visit is still there. Tripoli is utterly different from anywhere else in the country; from the Ottoman hammams to the Mamluk madrasas (religious schools) to the winding alleyways of shops, this is a real Arab city.
But it’s not just the wealth of guidebook-worthy sites that make Tripoli worth the hour-and-a-half journey from Beirut, it’s also the famous sweets, the hidden bohemian cafes, and, of course, unassuming yet charming Mina, Tripoli’s quieter, little sister city.
NO. 1: THE CASTLEIs it Crusader? Is it Fatimid? Is it Mamluk? Is it Ottoman? The answer is, as with so many sites in Lebanon, it’s a mix of all of them. Known as the Citadel Raymond de St. Gilles, giving it a distinctly European air, it in fact owes much of its current form to centuries of additions, modifications and enlargements by various Arab dynasties.
Signs posted in English and Arabic throughout the site explain the main features, making this an easy and pleasurable visit; just don’t be put off by the heavy Army presence outside.
On top of the various attractions inside – including the prison, stables, turrets and multiple floors to explore – the castle, which perches above the city, boasts magnificent views in every direction. To the southeast is the jagged outline of the Cedars, while to the north and the west is the glistening Mediterranean, and, on a good day, you can even see Tripoli’s famed Palm Island Nature Reserve, aka Rabbit Island.
NO. 2: THE SECOND-HAND CLOTHES STREET More of a cluster of shops than a whole street, this is the place to go for the sort of inexpensive, second-hand jumble of clothes, shoes and handbags that is sadly missing in Beirut. Think of it as a pint-sized, much more chilled out Souk al-Ahad. Ask for directions to “belleh” next to the Mansouri Mosque.
NO. 3: COFFEE AT AHWAK TAFESH This place is a total institution among bourgeois Tripolitans. Everyone knows about it, and yet there is (nearly) always somewhere to sit and enjoy an orange juice and some of their famous carrot cake while daily life rumbles on around you. Expect to share the place with people playing guitar, indulging in a game of backgammon and having fiery debates.
NO. 4: THE SOAP KHAN AND THE TAILOR’S KHAN To see a beautiful, traditional khan – essentially the medieval equivalent of an airport hotel – Khan al-Saboun in the Old City is the place to go. Although a little run-down, the rectangular courtyard surrounded by two floors of rooms boasts a charming shop selling handmade soaps and a trough that has been reclaimed as a pond by geese and ducks.
For something a little more unusual, make your way to the Khan al- Khayateen on the outskirts of the fabric souk. Unlike most other caravanserais that are enclosed within four walls, the tailor’s version is a long alley with vaunted archways that opens up onto Abu Ali River.
NO. 5: RAFAAT HALLAB/ADEL-RAHMAN HALLAB AND SON SWEET SHOP Sure, every place in Lebanon has its own special sweet shop, but Tripoli’s sweet shops are the original and make the perfect pick-me-up during a daytrip. You’ll see plenty that feature the name Hallab, but these two are said to be the oldest. Whether you’re in the market for some lahmeh bil ajine with pomegranate molasses or some warm knafeh, you won’t be disappointed.
For the adventurous among you, head to the notorious Syria Street in Bab al-Tabbaneh and look for Al-Kanaa. Try the knafeh Traboulsiyeh, made with ashta instead of cheese, and mafroukeh – a delicious paste of crushed, caramelized semolina.
NO. 6: SOUK CRAWL Madrasas, mosques, hammams, mazelike alleyways stuffed with stalls selling everything you could ever think of. This is the real souk experience in Lebanon, and one you won’t find anywhere else in the country.
You could spend hours wandering Tripoli’s ancient market area before you would be bored of spotting all the stunning architectural details, from the ornate Mamluk entrance of a madrasa to the dome of an Ottoman mosque peering out from between other buildings. Not to mention visiting both the disused and working hammams – some of the only ones left in the country – and bargaining for gold necklaces, spices, fruit and shoes.
If you’re going solo, take a map and a guide book and make sure to ask for the Qartawiya, Nuuria and Tawashia Madrasas to check out their stunning facades. Hammams worth visiting include the sprawling but deserted Hammam al-Nouri and the still-functioning Hammam al-Abed.
For those who prefer to go on a guided tour with a local who knows the area inside out and can get you into all the hammams and mosques, Mira Minkara, a guide who hails from Tripoli, does a tour of the Old City that includes all these sites and a few more. Contact: 70-126-764
NO. 7: TAYNAL MOSQUE Topped by five domes painted mint green and ivory and located next to a large, green prayer square, this Mamluk mosque is an absolute gem. The inner portal leading from the first chamber to the main room is a stunning example of the ablaq architectural style, which involves alternating slabs of light and dark stone and can be seen throughout Tripoli’s Old City.
Visitors must dress appropriately (covering below the knees and elbows and for women, the hair) to get in. The mosque is located toward the south of the city right by the Bab al-Raml cemetery.
NO. 8: OSCAR NIEMEYER AT RASHID KARAMI TRIPOLI INTERNATIONAL FAIR Dubbed a “modernist wonderland,” this unique site turns reinforced concrete into a thing of beauty. Visitors can enjoy 40,000 square meters of creations by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, from a cone-shaped experimental theater to a soaring archway.
There is no entrance fee, but you do need to obtain permission before trying to visit.
The best way to see these sights and get a bit more out of the trip than just sunburn is to join one of Minkara’s guided tours of the site, one of her most popular offerings.
NO. 9: A FISH SANDWICH IN MINA Mina – Tripoli’s laid-back little sister – is a seafood lover’s dream, boasting everything from grilled fish to raw scallops. But it’s the fish sandwiches, made with samkeh harra, that are its most famous offering.
Hands down the best known place for this unassuming treat of ground-up fish and spicy pepper tucked into bread is Abu Fadi, which can be found just in front of the fisherman’s port.
NO. 10: YOGA AT BEIT EL-NESSIM Calm, cool and quiet – Beit el-Nessim is a spiritual sanctuary for anyone weary after a day of shopping and sightseeing.
Tucked in a picturesque backstreet of Mina, the boutique hotel-cum-cafe-cum-yoga center specializes in positive vibes and a slower pace of life. Lilies float in bowls on shelves, light trickles through stained glass windows and plants line the sun-kissed rooftop.
Every Thursday at 6 p.m., visitors are invited to join the owner Nabil in a beginner-friendly Hatha yoga class that is just the ticket to get you stretching, breathing and reclaiming your body from its usual chair slump.
If yoga isn’t your thing, you can also just read a book with a cup of coffee in the beautifully restored ground-floor cafe, which boasts stone walls, vaunted archways and wooden benches. For those looking to stay the night up north, this is an excellent option, if a little pricey.
No. 11: TIMMY’SA friendly, atmospheric place to get a beer and smoke a narguileh at the end of the day, Timmy’s is a favored haunt for young, liberal Tripolitans. Hidden away on a quiet road at the end of Mina’s main bar street, head here to meet locals, put up your feet and perhaps catch a World Cup game.