Visit this seaside city for sidewalk cafes, full-bodied wines, great food, Bauhaus architecture and an eclectic mix of friendly, sun-bronzed people.
When I arrived in Tel Aviv, late one night, I was prepared for the heat but not much else. The religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem are renowned, and Tel Aviv is in many minds still a second city. But more travelers should consider making a fashion, cultural and food pilgrimage to this charming Mediterranean outpost. It’s Miami meets the Middle East, and it’s the perfect place for anyone who loves saltwater breezes blowing through their hair, afternoon espresso in sidewalk cafes, and evenings spent lingering over fresh seafood, grilled lamb and glasses of full-bodied wine.
For starters, the city is ideal to explore on foot: temperate to hot climate, a soft-sand beach, tempting restaurants and cafes lining every street, ubiquitous candy stands that belie a playful local nature, wide boulevards with tall trees, and one of the best and most beautiful collections of Bauhaus architecture in the world.
The city has also become a magnet for gays and lesbians across Israel and the Middle East — but unlike many Western cities, the scene is well integrated. Singles of all stripes stay out late, dancing to local electronic music or wandering over to the waterfront, where the candles are lit, the sand is brushed off beach chairs and Israelis kick off their sandals and enjoy cold beers while staring at the waves.
The main thoroughfares of Dizengoff, Rothchild, Shenkin and Nahalat Binyamin are full of attractively bronzed people eating in charming cafes. Israeli women have a particularly feminine style; the heels are often high and colorful, and the boutiques are full of lovely and somewhat flimsy dresses. For a guided walk around the downtown core — where you can window shop while getting your architecture lesson in — the best bet is the Bauhaus Center (99 Dizengoff Street).
The markets are terrific. At Ha Carmel (Ha Carmel and Allenby), you’ll find everything from beautiful ripe papayas, local cheeses and soft pistachio halva to cheap socks, CDs and handmade crafts. At the end of the city, in Jaffa, the market (Yefet Street and Jerusalem Boulevard) expands into antiques and knickknacks, and it’s more like a lazy summer afternoon garage sale. The area surrounding is a charming mix of outdoor patios serving up chopped liver and schnitzel, boutiques selling colorful summer dresses and high-design house wares and private art galleries.
When it comes to art, Tel Aviv has made a significant splash on the international scene, with any number of stunning private and public galleries. The Helena Rubenstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art (6 Tarsat Boulevard; part of the Tel Aviv Museum) is considered one of the premiere institutions in the country, and Sommer Contemporary Art (13 Rothschild Boulevard) is a polished temple to modern, often sculptural work. You’ll also find both sanctioned and underground public art, including a considerable amount of fascinating political graffiti that represents a range of opinions.
The food in Tel Aviv is universally wonderful, and both the men and women have a healthy, well-fed look about them. Eating on the street is a must. The shawarma — most often turkey — is shaved onto fresh pita or delectably spongy laffa bread, and then topped with pickled red cabbage, shredded carrots and whole hot peppers. At Hakosem (1 Shlomo Hamelech), the best of the best in Tel Aviv, you’ll be handed a hot felafel ball accompanied by an avuncular smile while you wait in line.
The hummus is nothing like the thin, cold supermarket variety most Americans have grown accustomed to. At Abu Hassan Ali Karavan (1 Hadolphin Street), a small, no-frills restaurant that always has a line, the service is brisk and loud, and the choices are minimal. A Coke, a tall stack of freshly baked pita, pickled vegetables, a dish of hot sauce, and a small plate of fresh white onion wedges that are dipped into warm, thick, olive-oil drizzled hummus.
Fine dining is widely available, and there are plenty of name-checked places, from Herbert Samuel, Orna & Ella, Yoezer Wine Bar and the Coffee Bar-related network of chic venues. At Wine Bar (36 Nahalat Benyamin) a charming, tiny, somewhat anonymous restaurant with a warm vibe and open kitchen, I pulled a stool up to the bar, watched the chef assemble ceviche, and proceeded to have one of the best meals I’ve had in years: spicy calamari in tahini; plump lamb dumplings covered in butter, parmesan and huge, fresh mint leaves; and a lighter interpretation of a delicious Palestinian dessert, knafe, that is, essentially, honey-coated savory cheese pie.
Bars are both casual and celebratory, and they generally stay open until the last customers stumble out. Some cities exhibit high degrees of public reserve, but Tel Aviv isn’t one of them. People are friendly and warm and inquisitive — the opposite of, say, straight-laced, formal Parisian culture. At Armadillo (51 Ehad Ha’am Street), a beer-themed place on Dizengoff, the tables are pressed so tightly together that it’s almost impossible not to strike up a conversation with your neighbors.
Each neighborhood has its own feel: Neve Tzedek draws a polished, professional crowd inquiring about local boutique wineries, while Florentine draws younger Israelis for half-liters of Gold Star. The market in Jaffa is full of little bars and restaurants, candlelit tables dragged into the small lanes that only appear at night, long after the fruit vendors and antique sellers have closed up shop.
There’s no shortage of hotels, especially along the glorious beachfront, and boutique hotels are starting to pop up across the city. Your best bet for comfort and convenience is the David Intercontinental (12 Kaufman Street). The property manages to be both comfortable and grand, and the views of sand and city that can’t be beat. The top-floor executive lounge features business services, comfy couches, an all-day buffet of Mediterranean foods and cocktails to make every hour happy.
Even with all of the food and fun and sun and shopping, it’s still easy to keep an eye on the landscape of disputed politics. The city is full of historical monuments to Zionist history, and there are any number of institutions — the fascinating Diaspora Museum (Klausner Street, Tel Aviv University), for example — that help visitors piece together the narrative of at least one side of the country’s story.
A visit to Israel brings up different questions for different people. One of the most common: Is it safe? Tel Aviv is sometimes referred to as “the bubble,” meaning that it feels removed from (or even delusional about) the nasty hostilities that challenge everyday life for people on both sides of the conflict. Fortunately, things have settled down considerably since the end of the second intifada, though security remains tight. But even in this lovely little bubble, you’re not far from the settlements surrounded by wire and patrolled by machine guns, or the ever-expanding security fence that increasingly separates Palestinians from what they consider to be their land.
But Tel Aviv doesn’t feel like a dangerous place. While any trip to Israel is enriched by an attempt to understand the broader context, there are sufficient hedonistic distractions to keep you from feeling too close to history when you just want to drink a beer on the beach.
Copyright © Sarah Treleaven /2012 Singular Communications, LLC.