Tel Aviv is a mix of pleasant streets, palm trees and warm air. The sea breeze tumbles through beachside avenues, making al fresco dining one of the most enjoyable things to do in the city. Fresh seafood from the Mediterranean, long brunches and rich coffee are all staples to be savored.
With the coast stretching the length of the city, Tel Aviv is perfect for a cosmopolitan beach break. Year round, people exercise at outdoor gyms, walk their dogs, jog, surf and have fun.
But there is more to Tel Aviv than great food and soft sand. In the south of Tel Aviv, Jaffa is awash with beautiful buildings, with stone alleyways full of galleries and expensive restaurants. Down tiny cobbled steps lies Jaffa port, one of the oldest in the world.
But most arresting of all is the view from Jaffa hill, looking out to the metropolis of 400,000. Glass skyscrapers glint in the sun. Turquoise surf slinks down a beach of golden bodies and white sand. This is one sexy city.
Being a new city that has developed quickly, Tel Aviv has an abundance of unloved concrete apartment blocks, and the salt and humidity in the air has robbed them of their cosmetic beauty. Paint flakes off most buildings, the balconies are rusting, it could almost be Cuba.
Yet Tel Aviv is UNESCO-rated precisely because of its buildings. Or more accurately, it is appreciated for its Bauhaus buildings. Over 4,000 were built by German architects who fled the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 40s. Bauhaus architecture is elegant in its functionality, and the buildings still abound in the Yemenite Quarter of the city.
Tel Aviv is also culturally exciting. It could be Berlin ten years ago, with artists' districts such as Florentine managing to elude gentrification, and its pounding nightlife feels all the more decadent for being in the very heart of the Middle East.
- The easiest way of reaching central Tel Aviv from Ben Gurion airport is by train. The train terminal is to the left of the international terminal. Trains leave at least twice an hour to central Merkaz station (12 NIS, 3.30am-11pm daily). The journey takes 18 minutes, and English is widely spoken so asking for help reaching your stop is easy. On Shabbat (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) trains do not run. Taxis cost about 120 NIS from outside the international airport terminal, and take about 20 minutes to get to central Tel Aviv.
- There is no bad time of year to visit Tel Aviv. Spring and autumn are consistently warm and sunny, and even in winter rainy days are rare. July and August tend to be as hot and humid as the inside of a teenage boy's gym bag, so in summer stick to the beach.
- Expect to have your bags checked by security at shopping malls, major hotels, train and bus stations. This is nothing to worry about. Just be polite, have your bags ready for inspection and carry a photocopy of your passport with you.
- In Tel Aviv it is common to see young gun-toting soldiers sipping espresso beside you at a pavement cafe. But their presence does not mean Tel Aviv is dangerous; it has very low crime levels compared to other cities its size. Nevertheless, always check with your embassy for the latest news on the situation in Israel.
- If you enjoy the food and service in a restaurant, a tip of 10-15% is standard.
Where to Stay
Four-star giants such as Hiltons and Marriotts dominate the Tel Aviv coastline. But for a boutique stay, try the apartments at Nina Boutique Suites Hotel. Set in the heart of Neve Tzedek – the leafiest, most sophisticated neighborhood in the city – the rooms are effortlessly elegant while the service is personal. And mornings begin perfectly, with breakfast included at Nina Cafe across the street.
More shabby than chic, the rooftop terrace of Florentine Hostel looks onto a car park and an industrial estate. Filled with salvaged sofas and mattresses, most travellers sleep outside. Yet it is a beautiful place to stay, because the people are so warm. Up on the roof each day, bohemians enjoy the last of the sun's warmth with a good book. But what makes this place truly special, is its ability to capture the spirit of the surrounding neighborhood. Florentine’s streets are filled with bars and independent shops. The corrugated-iron patchwork of workshops just behind the hostel are splashed with street art, and the smell of sawdust and the grinding of drills adds life to the area. As the sun sets, whoever is on the roof at Hostel Florentine gathers for drinks at the table designed by Luca (www.mrdimaggio.it), the hostel's resident street artist, before spilling out into the bars and clubs that make Tel Aviv a hedonist's dream.
What to eat
For a setting as delicious as the food, find Casbah di Florentine (3 Florentine Street), whose secret garden is a gorgeous courtyard of rickety tables, lanterns and tumbling flowers. At this laid-back bistro/bar, arty types linger over dishes that take inspiration from Russia to Tunisia. The global menu derives from the cosmopolitan staff, who all have the opportunity to add a dish from their local cuisine to the Casbah menu.
For dessert, head to Anita in Neve Tzedek (25 Shabazi Street). Their fresh gelato comes in exciting varieties such as Campari grapefruit and Baklava. Try before you buy for the flavor that suits you.
By midnight, the beer hangout Riff-Raff (Gruzenberg 22) will have begun to fill. A dishevelled mix of mosaic tiles and potted plants, wooden chairs and androgynous creatures in polo necks, Riff-Raff feels like the threadbare home of a cool old Middle Eastern poet. But according to the Web site, the decor is ‘minimalist-socialist chic to match its proletarian stand'. Ahem. It is pretentious, but the music is excellent and the bar snacks typically Israeli – healthy and delicious – warm kidney beans and chickpeas topped with spices and a little salt.
If sizzling falafel from an outdoor stand is not enough to quench those late-night munchies, head for the Tel Aviv institution Benedict (Ben Yehuda Street 171). Serving breakfast with a smile, day and night, its namesake on brioche is naturally delicious. But for some clean Middle Eastern cuisine opt for the roasted eggplant topped with tahini and yoghurt, and enjoy in a convivial atmosphere.
Wash away that hangover the next day at Manta Ray on the beach. It is noisy, it is rambunctious and it serves some of the best seafood in the city. Manta Ray is also a popular brunch destination, so book ahead if you plan to dine here on Shabbat. This restaurant is not cheap, but the ever-changing menu of appetizers for sharing is worth the price. The choice available depends on the season, but a great standard is the ceviche of grey mullet with onion and sumac.
Watch the beautiful people go by with a coffee at Aroma on 30 Shenkin Street, Tel Aviv's most fashionable shopping street.
For the evening, Herbert Samuel is the top culinary destination in the city. Under the auspices of genius Jonathan Roshfeld, beautiful tapas and main courses are prepared in the open kitchen overlooking the Mediterranean. His other chic restaurant in the city, Tapas Ahad Ha'Am (27 Ehad Haam Street), maintains an innovative menu at slightly friendlier prices.
What to See and Do
Pitta and hummus is the bread and butter of the Middle East. Learn how to make organic pitta at a seminar run by Gil Moaz, the owner of hole-in-the-wall hummus joint Aba Gil (55 Yehuda Halevi Street).
Beach bums can learn to surf with Topsea, one of the oldest schools in the city.
If you can tear yourself away from the water, Jaffa Flea Market is worth visiting. The web of pavements is covered in used jeans, old toasters and yellowing family photo albums of deceased people. Arab charmers try to lure tourists into a sale. But it is the buildings that hold the eye. Elegant and shuttered, their pastel facades peel from the salt of the sea a few streets away. Although the atmosphere of a once wild market from the 19th century has gone, and the surrounding cafés have gone all chichi.
The view of Tel Aviv from the 49th floor of the Azrieli Center Observatory is spectacular, especially at sunset (132 Petach Tikvah Road, entrace 22NIS).
The Bauhaus architectural tour is a great introduction to the White City, and leaves from 46 Rothschild Boulevard at 11am every Saturday. The Bauhaus Center is also worth visiting for design connoisseurs.
Tel Aviv Museum of Art is set in the cultural center of the city. A peaceful space, it showcases work by international names such as Gauguin and Pollock. Picasso's Mother and Child by the Sea is particularly evocative of the Red Sea in the South of Israel. The post-impressionist work by prominent Jewish artists Chagall and Soutine is also affecting. But to really see, to really feel how much has changed in this small corner of the world, go to the gift shop. In amongst the usual French art nouveau posters for hanging above the bed, is a pre-1945 Visit Palestine poster designed by the tourist board at the time. The enticing picture is a view of the ocean – now the jewel of Tel Aviv, a highlight of Israel.
In the Middle East, not even a simple beach holiday can be completely carefree.
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Photos: Vexela, Nina Cafe Hotel, Denise Poelchen, YaelBeeri, Werner Kunz, Ilan's Photos, RonAlmog, Alex Jilitsky