After the Second World War, Beirut was described as “the Paris of the Middle East”. This golden age ended with the outbreak of Lebanon’s devastating civil conflict in 1975. But Beirut is a city that has reinvented itself while staying true to its historic roots. With a wealth of cultural treasures, culinary delights and a thriving nightlife Beirut is a supremely underrated travel destination. Its faded colonial grandeur is more reminiscent of Havana than of Paris. And, like Havana, it is also a chaotic and beguiling city of contrasts.

Beirut more than deserves its reputation as the food capital of the Levant. The perfect starting point is Armenia Street, the centre of Beirut’s vibrant bar scene. The area has a southern European feel and an abundance of quirky eateries and drinking holes. But if you want to escape the maddening crowds, tuck yourself away in Vyvyan’s, a smart cocktail bar perfect for a few tumblers of arak.

One of the street’s lesser known gems is a restaurant called Enab. Its pastel-coloured walls and glittering chandeliers make it feel like you’re dining in an ornate doll’s house. Mountainous plates of kibbeh, fattoush and tablouleh flow out from the kitchen in an unending stream. Le Chef, an unpretentious establishment serving traditional Lebanese and French cuisine, is a locals’ spot of choice and also well worth a visit.

South of Armenia Street is Al-Falamanki. Hidden behind an understated, shuttered façade, the restaurant spills out into an atmospherically lit terrace overflowing with vegetation. It is an oasis of calm in a frantic city. The menu is a four-page cornucopia of mezze dishes and the food is served against a backdrop of clacking backgammon dice and coils of shisha smoke.

Tasty street food is ubiquitous in Beirut, but Barbar in the city’s Hamra district is a cut above the rest. It’s a quality restaurant pretending to be a fast-food outlet and worth frequenting en route to the seafront. But for high-end dining, Liza is the best bet. It has a quietly sophisticated Parisienne feel but despite its glamour it doesn’t try too hard. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent.

Beirut is a city to explore and get lost in. Dotted in between modern apartment blocks are reminders of the city’s violent past. Crumbling ochre Rococo and Art Decco residences lie abandoned with trees twisting through their windows. Bombed beyond repair during the civil war, restoration isn’t financially viable. But the historical value of the houses has awarded them protected status and the land cannot be used to build lucrative high rises. So the buildings sit there in sad decadence, too beautiful to destroy and too impractical to revive. It is these gems that make walking Beirut’s streets constantly exciting.

Nowhere is the echo of conflict more starkly apparent than in Beit Beirut, a formerly grand residence turned snipers’ lair straddling what was once the dividing line between East and West Beirut during the civil war. The bullet-riddled building is well worth a visit for its own sake but also houses a renovated gallery exhibiting art installations which focus on the city’s relationship with its turbulent past. If you’re after more culture, the Sursock Museum houses an impressive collection of modern and contemporary art. Picasso et la famille, an exhibition of his work which explores the artist’s role as a father, son and husband, runs until January.

The National Museum of Beirut epitomises Lebanon’s identity as a cultural crossroads. Byzantine mosaics sit next to human-faced Phoenician sarcophagi and a Roman-era marble head of Bacchus. The story of the collection itself, rescued during the civil war and then painstakingly restored, makes viewing the treasures all the more enjoyable. All these institutions are cheap to enter, well-curated and refreshingly free of phone-wielding crowds.

Despite an abundance of tranquil cultural attractions, Beirut is neither relaxing nor a city for the faint-hearted. The Lebanese have a unique, muscular driving style which adds spice to taxi rides and demands an equally confident road-crossing technique. Traffic lights are thought of as suggestions and road markings as an inconvenience but the city’s taxi drivers are veterans of this chaotic game. The horn is used with incredible versatility and honking provides the sonic backdrop to Beirut’s loud and lively streets. The bustle of the Hamra and Al Kantari districts in the north of the city is exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure.