Category Archive for Middle East Travel

Touring Bird, Google travel tips site launched! The Smallville Hotel Beirut review, Lebanon LGBT nightlife & art.

smallville hotel beirut lobby

Every superhero needs an evil villain… good thing I can always rely on Yukiro to bring on the darkness!

I can’t begin to tell you how much we loved Beirut: it lives up to its reputation as the hippest spot in the Middle East. Our stay at The Smallville was pure fun, as you’ll see in this story; the hotel captured the wildly creative pulse of Lebanon’s capital.  

touring bird Tours, Tickets Activities

Before we explore Beirut, I’m thrilled to fill you in on a project I’ve been involved in (it’s the reason I’ve been so absent). I’m honored to be part of the team that launched Touring Bird, a travel site from Google Area 120!

T.BD is a web-based travel app by Google’s incubator. On the site, you can book free and paid tours, and find insider tips for 200 cities worldwide. Instead of basic landmarks, you’ll get recommendations from local experts about hidden bars, secret trails, and other offbeat places.

For the past months, I was working on contract as a “team lead,” or project coordinator between 200 writers, editors, and TouringBird team members. I also wrote over 600 travel articles and contributed photos for dozens of cities.

Touring Bird gave me the opportunity to share the weird, indie spots I love — eg, my Tokyo tips included the Daikaiju monster bar, trick art museum, Vanilla Gallery body mods, and a Ganguro cafe makeover! 

touring bird google area 120 travel app website

At, you can search for cool, unexpected things to do in 200 destinations. Pick a city, and scroll down to “Local tips” to see suggestions from travel experts including myself. For example, for Osaka, I recommended Territory’s Satanic store (above), drinking absinthe with owls, and rocking out with Fu-Ki at Bar Midian.

You’ll find my alternative travel adventures all over the site. I loved writing about Day of the Dead art in Cancun, K-pop holograms in Seoul, hardcore punks in Yangon, and skull paintings in Reykjavik

If you’re curious about Touring Bird, you can read more about the launch on Google’s blog. A 45-degree bow to everyone who worked with me on this — cheers to the dream team for pulling off this massive endeavor! I’m excited to hear what you think of, and hope you find it useful for planning upcoming trips. 

smallville hotel lebanon art hotel

Ah, I wish I could teleport back to Beirut, Lebanon… Yukiro and I had a impactful time here, thanks to The Smallville Hotel!

Between the 1970s and 90s, Lebanon was embroiled in civil war. Today, the capital city is safe and prosperous — and it’s become the hippest party / food / fashion spot in the Middle East.

superhero themed design hotel beirut

The media tends to portray Beirut inaccurately, which makes some travelers unsure about coming here. We’re here to spill the real tea: this city is a cultural playground, and The Smallville Hotel perfectly reflects this energy.

Named after the town where Superman grew up, The Small Ville is a boutique hotel with a bad-ass superhero theme. The fun begins at front desk: the staff wears red and black berets, and a moving billboard encourages you to “Come as a guest, leave as a hero!” 

darth vader mask statue

I’ve stayed at a lot of design hotels, but The Smallville blasted me away with their creativity. The 5-star hotel takes a red color scheme, with playful accents throughout that fit the superhero theme. Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers lord over the lobby, next to a shelf of Marvel DVDs for guests.

evil ursula sea witch dress costume

Feeling inspired by the concept, Yukiro and I did a shoot around the hotel with in-house photographer Toya.

Naturally, Yukiro took on the role of the super-villain. She transformed into an under-the-sea villain and sprawled tentacles over the bed. (As you can see, the cozy rooms were decked out in contemporary amenities, including art that reflects the city.)

beirut lebanon fashion blogger street style

There’s so much to experience at The Smallville. We went up to the top floor to chill by The Poolhouse with Old Fashioned and Manhattan cocktails.  

(I’m wearing a UK Lingerie bodysuit, Morph8ne skirt, and Mary Wyatt London beret. Don’t forget, you can shop my wardrobe on my Depop @lacarmina.)

small ville hotel baduro beirut

This eye-popping hotel is the brainchild of Sophia Fakhry, who takes on the alter-ego of “Super Sophie.” She wanted guests to feel uplifted throughout their stay at Smallville, and tap into the pulse of Beirut.  

themed floors artistic hotel beirut

The urban hotel has 156 rooms including 39 suites. Each floor features a different series of colorful murals and design objects. We encountered supermodels, fantasy scenes, movie stars, and more. 

hipster cool boutique hotels beirut

The Smallville encourages you to play and let your imagination soar. Each floor has a different funny rainbow hat that you can try on, and the rooms are equipped with red scarves. Why not dress up, and take on a superhero persona? 

red beret miniskirt outfit

And so, we did! At the penthouse pool, we play-acted for the camera. Looks like the evil queen is about to bash me in the head…  

superhero woman villain drag fighting

… but I’ll knock her off the balcony at the Stargaze Terrace! (Don’t miss the panorama view of Beirut from up here.)

lobby bar live music smallville hotel

There’s always something cultural happening at The Smallville, such as live musical performances. We caught a jazz singer and pianist one night at the lobby bar. On a different evening, we watched a man play a traditional oud, or pear-shaped stringed instrument similar to a lute.  

merry go round terrace restaurant beirut

Plus, there are several delightful restaurants. The Merry Go Round is run by a 2-starred Michelin chef, who serves up a rotating menu of artisanal delicacies from around the world.  

smallville hotel burger bar red street boom

Outside, you can feel as if you’re part of a comic strip at The Red Street Boom café-pub. The Pop Art decor and live DJs keep the atmosphere light, as you chow down on burgers and martinis. 

beirut buffet breakfast small ville

Every morning, we looked forward to the generous breakfast spread. The seemingly endless offerings included Lebanese salads (fattoush), cheeses (like labneh, made with strained yogurt), eggs made to order, and French sweets. We enjoyed biting into manousheh, a Lebanese flatbread topped with za’tar herbs, for the first time. 

secret garden lebanese restaurant beirut

The breakfast buffet takes place at The Secret Garden, which also serves lunch, dinner and drinks. The airy restaurant is filled with greenery: an oasis amidst concrete buildings. The Secret Garden screens vintage movies, and there is also a stage for live shows.  

morph8ne heart skirt mini skirts

Yukiro and I don’t usually spend time in the fitness room… but this superhero gym surely packed a punch! 

super hero gym smallville

Thank you to the Smallville Hotel for a luxurious boutique stay filled with Kryptonite. There’s simply no other place like this on this planet! 

beirut weird signs strange bizarre lebanon

The staff was wonderful at giving us recommendations on alt things to see and do in Beirut. We were curious about youth subcultures in the city, as well as the LGBT nightclubs. 

Once called the “Paris of the East,” Beirut has long been a cosmopolitan city filled with glamour and nightlife. Lebanon has the most religiously diverse society within the Middle East, which contributes to the openness of this society compared to that of its neighbors. 

beirut street style gritty buildings

Today, Beirut is a safe city with a modern infrastructure and outlook (you can dress freely, and won’t get harassed). At the same time, the city maintains a gritty, undiscovered vibe that makes it a sweet destination for those who want to travel off the beaten path. 

mar mikhael art galleries artists

Beirut’s hipster neighborhoods are Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze. We took an Uber here, and wandered around to the streetwear concept stores and experimental art galleries. 

At 392rmeil393 Gallery, we saw Mazen Khaddaj’s paintings and video installations. By applying and washing off paint, he expressed his spiritual journey in Germany and Lebanon (coming from a Druse background). 

hip beirut contemporary avantgarde art gallery

Many of the contemporary galleries are set in elegant old buildings, such as Art on 56th. 

posters music lebanon clubbing nightlife

In the streets, you’ll come across posters that hint at Beirut’s vibrant nightlife. 

street art murals beirut graffiti

Urban art fills the alleys of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze. 

travel blogger safe traveling beirut

You can still see remnants of the wartime period, such as bombed out apartments and barbed wire. 

beirut gemmayze hip youth neighborhoods

I encourage you to walk around these areas and get a feel of Beirut’s edgy, artistic scene.  

haven for artists beirut lgbt gay

How about LGBT culture in Lebanon? Although citizens don’t have the same freedoms found in Western countries, the country is much more open than its surrounding Middle Eastern nations. 

Locals have launched supportive spaces, such as Haven for Artists, for marginalized creators. Look for the UFO and you’ll have arrived. 

underground subcultures beirut lebanon

Haven for Artists is a non-government NGO that encourages underground Lebanese artists to flourish. This friendly community house hosts exhibitions, collaborations, and residencies. 

alternative goth beirut gothic bars

Say hello to Lea, the lovely manager, and drop some Lebanese pounds in the “be tipsy” jar to support their meaningful work. 

Everyone we met was eager to share recommendations (clubs, stores, restaurants) — you can tell that locals are proud of their city, and all that it has to offer. 

gay clubs lgbt beirut queer nightlife

At Haven for Artists, you can browse a selection of indie zines and art by young creatives. Some of the works have pride themes. 

black white temporary tattoos

Be sure to explore the various gallery rooms. We met Daria, an artist working inside the space, and she showed us her intricate line drawings and temporary tattoos. 

loris restaurant beirut lebanese cuisine

What else is there to love about Beirut? The food will astonish you. Every meal we had was wonderfully executed, with fresh ingredients and lots of produce.

Locals flock to Loris, in the Gemmayze area, to dine with friends and smoke shisha.

lebanon fattoush salad flatbread cauliflower

This is Middle Eastern food in its most vibrant form. Yukiro and I feasted on fattousch salad, flatbreads with herbs, a Lebanese tomato grain mixture, and an insane cauliflower dish with tarator (tahini) sauce. We washed it down with arak, an anise spirit.  

beirut baduro bar live djs cocktails

Beirut loves to party, and things get especially lively past midnight. Our Smallville Hotel was in Badaro, next to a street filled with hipster bars. We enjoyed the ginger cocktails and techno / minimal vinyl DJs at Orient Express Bar.

Come to Beirut on a weekend so that you can experience the LGBT nightlife at Projekt and The Grand Factory (there are frequent drag shows). Photos aren’t allowed inside, so you’ll just have to imagine us in a warehouse with a smiling gay-friendly crowd, dancing to Arabian techno til 4am.

traditional lebanon women dresses costumes

We noticed that people in Beirut tend to be quite stylish. Even though many women cover up with headscarves and long skirts, they play with sheer panels and decorative details, and complete the look with designer heels. 

lebanese cone hat tantur wizard hats

Wouldn’t you like to rock this magic wizard hat? It’s a tantur, a traditional Lebanese  headdress! 

beirut art concept store

Back at The Smallville Hotel, we browsed eclectic fashion at their “Super Store.” 

trendy beirut fashion boutique accessories

The cat’s of the bag: this is the coolest hotel in Beirut.

beirut lebanon drag queens performers

A kiss for The Smallville team for letting us live out our superhero (or villain) fantasies!

michelin star chef restaurant beirut

We’ll have to come back to savor a meal by 2 star Michelin Chef Christophe Vessaire at Merry Go Round. 

klaus nomi music video

Fond memories of lounging in our room and grooving along to Klaus Nomi’s Cold Song (1981). At Smallville hotel, you can kick back and be yourself to the fullest. 

rooftop pool bar smallville hotel view

A few days in Beirut weren’t nearly enough. I’m keen to come back for the museums, and go outside the city to see the ancient Phoenician ruins of Byblos.

superman theme hotel beirut small ville

If I could step into a Teleporter, I’d portal straight back to The Smallville Hotel. I hope you’ll book a room at these funky accommodations, and have as much fun as we did here. 

beirut coolest districts hipsters

Beirut’s offbeat, edgy vibe is exactly what I look for in my travels. And on that note…

touring bird google travel tips website touringbird

…I hope you’ll take a moment to check out Touring Bird, the new Google travel website I’ve been freelancing for. From occult portals in Stockholm to shopping for Miffy in Hong Kong, you’ll find my spooky signature all over it. A big thank you to everyone who helped T.BD take flight!


Yahoo Travel Explorers, Israel video & next travels! Seoul’s strange indoor amusement park, Lotte World.

Reykjavik iceland bloggers trip

Announcing my next travels and writing projects, including the debut of my Israel travel episode! I’ve been hinting at some exciting destinations. In April, I’m embarking on a “Gothic pilgrimmage”:

I will be visiting Reykjavik, Iceland for the first time … followed by Manchester and Whitby Gothic Weekend in the UK!

manchester goth bands

Manchester’s not just famous for football — in fact, many of the earliest Goth and Punk bands emerged here. Joy Division, New Order, and The Smiths to name a few.  Marketing Manchester is sending me on a journey to discover the city’s subculture, past and present. I can’t wait to take you around the Northern Quarter, the current hotspot for young chefs, artists and innovators.

iceland peace tower, white church

I’ll also be stopping by Iceland, with the support of Visit Reykjavik.  I’ve always wanted to see this unique and mysterious country with my own eyes — from Hallgrims Church to Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower. (Above photos via Wikipedia)

whitby gothic weekend, uk seaside goth festival

And I’m crossing off a bucket list destination: Whitby Goth Weekend! Twice a year, Goths gather in this English seaside town to celebrate dark music, culture and fashion.

Will you be at WGW festival? If so, let me know in the comments or on Facebook. I hope to see you there.

yahoo travel explorers, bloggers, travel writers

I’m also thrilled to announce I’ve started writing for Yahoo Travel. As one of the “Yahoo Travel Explorers” bloggers, I’ll be sharing my worldwide stories and videos on their site.

Finally, we’ve been able to release our Israel travel video! Watch me explore the surprisingly edgy culture found in this ancient place. Including hip Israel designers, creative fusion food, LGBT clubs, and the most fabulous drag queen of the holy land. 

(See this episode above and on Yahoo Travel. Produced by Eric Bergemann and Melissa Rundle.)

tel aviv beach, israel sunset

Israel remains one of our most memorable trips to date. Here’s a bonus photo, from the boardwalk at Tel Aviv beach. I’m wearing a tank top and skirt from World Wide Love, the cute-ghost Tokyo brand.

lotte world mascot, lorry

I still have tons of posts to share from last summer, when I went all around Asia. Let’s go back in time to Lotte World, Seoul’s famous indoor amusement park.

seoul indoor amusement park

This indoor theme park is the largest on the planet. The gates open up to a giant hall, framed by hot air balloon rides and roller coasters. Lotte World also has an outdoors portion with scarier rides.

lotte world exterior sign

On the way in, you’ll encounter the mascot, Lotty. He appears to be some sort of chipmunk-raccoon in a vaudeville suit.

lotte balloons, seoul theme park rides

Lotte World’s entrance fee ranges from 12,000 to 46,000 won ($12-44 US) depending on your age, the time of day, and whether you want full access to all the rides (try to go on weekdays to avoid the lines). You can also buy a “no riding” pass, and pay for each attraction individually (about $5-7 each).

Lotte World address: 40-1 Jamsil-dong, Songpa-gu, Seoul, South Korea

korean couples wearing matching clothes

A lot of families come to the theme park, as well as couples. Many of them wear matching outfits, which is a romance trend in Korea. Yes, those boys are wearing big red bows on their heads…

korean folk museum

When the children are tired of posing with Lotty, take them to bibimbap and tour the Korean folk museum. Visitors can try on hanbok (traditional Korean dresses) and wedding outfits.

seoul magic castle, korea

Outside, the Lotte Magic Castle looks a lot like the Disney one… Talk about a Korean Magic Kingdom.

korean haunted house halloween

The haunted house is a hoot, with live actors that seem to come out of a Korean horror film. These young girls were so scared. At each turn, they screamed and grabbed onto me and my photographers! We had to hold their arms and push them forward.

young korean girls posing

After, it’s all smiles and Victory-hand poses. Except for the Korean girl in the middle, who insisted on hiding her face.

lotte world map, attractions

The map lists so many attractions, from 3D shows to water rides. No wonder Lotte World is a popular destination for all ages.

gyro spin, jamsil amusement park

People lined up for hours to experience the scarier rides, like a 70 meter Gyro Drop, or this Gyro Spin.

lotte popsicles, hello kitty

They cooled off by eating cute popsicles shaped like Lotty, or Hello Kitty. (Photography by Ken Yuen and noircorner.)

lotte world interior

I love roller coasters, but I didn’t have the patience to line up. I was happy to visit Lotte World to see the quirky mascots and unique indoor rides.

korean horror building

I leave you with a ghoulish horror attraction…

seoul halloween party

… a group of stylish Korean teenage girls, doing heart hand-poses…

little korean girl

… and this shy youngster, who was playing with the rooster. For more adventures from Seoul, see all my Korea travel articles!

tel aviv beach sunset ocean, israel

Please take a moment to watch our Israel travel video, on Yahoo Travel. It’s one of our favorites yet.

And let me know your tips for next destinations. I hope to see you in Iceland, Manchester and Whitby Goth Weekend!