A model stalks the catwalk at a fashion show for Lebanese and Arab designers earlier this year in Beirut // A model stalks the catwalk at a fashion show for Lebanese and Arab designers earlier this year in Beirut (Hussein Malla/AP/PA)

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A model stalks the catwalk at a fashion show for Lebanese and Arab designers earlier this year in Beirut

"Wherever you are in Beirut, you can feel the magic," laughs Stefan Simkovics, a local hotelier. "It's one of the sexiest cities in the world: enticing, vain, scarred, beautiful, complex and exciting."

Stroll past its countless outdoor cafés in the evening, and you'll notice how the inhabitants of Beirut love talking, eating and table-dancing - preferably all at once. The city's religious mix - Lebanon has by far the largest Christian population of any Arab country - also makes it one of the most tolerant in the region. "Like me, the city is unsure whether it's east or west, Christian or Muslim, Arab or European, serene or troubled, traditional or modern," says the celebrated Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine.

With its sublime food and the boldest nightlife in the Middle East, Beirut is almost back to being the playground it was before the 1975 civil war and the catastrophic Israeli bombardment of 2006. Ski, sunbathe, cycle along the seafront, smoke a narghileh waterpipe - relax like the locals and consign serious talk to the bunkers of history. Spicy, flirty, sleek and dirty, battered but beautiful, Beirut zings with a zest for life.

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