It’s the height of summer. Hot bodies pose at landmark beach hotels the David InterContinental and Dan Panorama. Standing in the surf looking inland, the Dan’s Technicolor facade, designed by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam, makes for a distinctive navigation point. Not that I need it. All manner of maps and travel apps are accessible on my phone via free wi-fi recently launched by Tel Aviv’s local council.
Flip through the pages of local magazines and you’re sure to stumble on stories of Israeli apps being bought by Google. And you can’t walk into a Tel Aviv coffee shop without finding it’s the de-facto office of young tech entrepreneurs. But for now, I’m seeking something more lo-fi: I’m heading to the library.
On the seafront boulevard — a greenway that extends for more than a mile — boys on bikes ride past one-handed, surfboards expertly tucked underarm. I walk, feet quickly falling into a rhythm with the ‘tok-tok-tok’ of matkot, coastal Israel’s ubiquitous bat-and-ball game. At Metzitzim Beach I find the library: a colourful little cart newly parked on the sand, containing over 500 books in five languages, borrowed on an honour system.
I’m tempted to pick a book and flop onto the sand but the nearby Old Port district is calling, with air-con, sleek boutiques and cafes selling gourmet pitta sandwiches — a fad pioneered by eccentric Israeli master chef Eyal Shani. After nearly a decade of restoration, the port is said to be Israel’s second-most-visited site, after Jerusalem’s Western Wall. It certainly seems feasible. As the surf pounds against artfully renovated sea walls, families, couples and groups vie for a shady cafe seat where they can eat and watch Tel Aviv do what it does best: enjoy itself, in style.
Any tour of Tel Aviv’s sights should start in Jaffa, the city’s atmospheric old Arab port. Until 1950, this hilly web of cobbled alleys and Ottoman buildings was a city in its own right. A new tourist office smartphone app details five historic walking routes and some 70 sights with audio/video guides — a great way to get a sense of Tel Aviv’s rich and complex history. But it’s equally great just to wander about and inevitably get lost.
“People think of synagogues as closed places,” says local artist Varda Ghivoly, whom I chat to in a Jaffa back alley. She takes my hand and ushers me inside the teeny Libyan Synagogue to see her grandson reading from the Torah. “But we’re a welcoming community here,” she smiles. Near St Peter’s Church, I admire her playfully sculpted Zodiac Fountain — horoscope signs are a motif that runs through Jaffa’s streets.
A great way to appreciate Tel Aviv’s thriving arts scene is by joining a free walking tour, covering everything from satirical graffiti to the curvilinear architecture seen in buildings in and around Rothschild Boulevard. But innovative architecture isn’t confined to Rothschild’s Bauhaus buildings, as the bold geometric new wing at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art will attest— home to the world’s largest collection of Israeli art, plus a lively programme of film screenings and citywide arts tours.
But let’s not kid ourselves: this is a beach city and the surf is a key sight. If you want to see and be seen, head for Gordon Beach, the central stretch of sand home to Tel Aviv’s legendary Gay Pride parade and the Olympic-sized, salt-water Gordon Pool, a boon to exhibitionists, lap swimmers and those escaping the coast’s occasional influx of jellyfish.
If you’re seeking a less hedonistic day out, it’s worth remembering the ancient, multi-theistic treasures of Jerusalem are only an hour-and-a-half away by road and easily accessed by public transport.
Tel Aviv’s main shopping street has to be Dizengoff and its eponymous mall, packed with local labels include stores from the vintage-inspired Naama Bezalel and the casual-cool Lulu Liam. Dizengoff’s Bauhaus Centre is the place to buy both architectural tours of the city and your pick of the many glossy books paying photographic homage to Tel Aviv’s unusual buildings.
For a one-stop shop selling Israeli design, head north to the Old Port district for Bayit BaNamal, the ‘anti mall’ creation of local fashion label Comme Il Faut. You can expect to find the brand’s latest collections here, along with other stores and rotating art exhibitions including Vitrine, a new display space for 3D art, and jewellery from Mutrah, combining urban and African tribal styles.
If you’re a dedicated shopper, a schlepp out to the Design Museum in the satellite town of Holon is worth it, both for the building itself (designed by Ron Arad), the art it contains and the gallery’s shop. The latter stocks really unusual, if pricey pieces of Israeli design, jewellery, books and accessories.
Besides ambling through the galleries in Jaffa, there is perhaps nowhere more atmospheric to window-shop and coffee-stop than the upmarket neighbourhood of Neve Tzedek. Head to Shabazi Street for artisan jewellers, indie fashion, interiors shops and chi-chi homeware — you’ll find all of the above artfully displayed at landmark store Gavriel. A little further south, near the coast, Tel Aviv’s handsomely converted train station HaTachana is another good bet for local talent, including work from eco-designer Naveh Milo, who creates fashion accessories out of junk. Definitely not junk, and back in Dizengoff is Bin 281, a shop specialising in Israeli wine, with food pairings on offer, too.
Swallow all thoughts of moderation and head straight for Dr Shakshuka, a Jaffa institution set around a ramshackle courtyard. Dip crusty bread and pickles into the titular shakshuka — a steaming skillet of eggs poached in an oily, spicy tomato and pepper sauce — or try other favourites including mafrum (potatoes stuffed with slow-cooked lamb), fresh fish kebabs and couscous, lamb patties, and the most delicately spiced lamb shawarma.
For something lighter: inventive salads, gourmet pittas and top-notch coffee are served in kiosks lining the leafy walkway in the centre of Rothschild Avenue; R Coffee Spot is the current kiosk of choice for Rothschild’s ritzy residents and their pedigree pooches.
Cooking shows, big-name restaurants and celebrity chefs are vital currency in this city, where “nothing was happening 20 years ago”, according to Israel’s unofficial food ambassador, Shaul ben Aderet, who maintains that, “everything is here — and there’s so much innovation”. This well-manicured, gentle bear of a man is a fine dining pioneer with several restaurants to his name. His flagship, Kimmel, is a treat of a place for contemporary Israeli cuisine. The beetroot salad and goat’s cheese brulee alone is worth a plane ticket.
Elsewhere, Carmel Market is arguably ‘the’ place for Israeli staples such as bourekas (cheese-filled pastries), falafel and humus. Head to the Olia stall on a Friday evening for cold beer and olive focused tapas. Can’t find it? Just look for a sign that reads ‘sex, drugs and olive oil’. A few stalls up, you’ll find a blue and white painted cafe serving cheap and much-cherished houmous dishes; almost opposite, a nondescript stand selling supremely tasty little falafel.
Flip off the flip-flops and slap on your labels for dinner at Social Club. This colonial-vibe, bistro and sceney hangout serves fine Israeli wine, excellent cocktails and artfully presented plates of sashimi, calamari and grills to a lively crowd. Local celeb spotting guaranteed. Booking essential.
After a sundowner and seafood nibbles at boho beach institution Manta Ray, wander over to the Suzanne Dellal Centre to see shows by such legendary Israeli dance troops as Batsheva. Cultural boxes ticked, it’s back to Tel Aviv’s nightlife, which doesn’t necessarily have to be a boozy affair. The city’s so-called coffee shops are multitasking superbly, and the most refreshing thing about the scene is how inclusive it is — young and old, gay and straight sit cheek-by-jowl in cafes-cum-bars-cum-clubs.
A case in point is Deli, a gourmet snack stop with drinking and dancing ’til dawn. Close by, Port Said’s laid-back punters line the pavements chatting, smoking and occasionally wading through the crowds to get a Goldstar beer. A darker den can be found lurking in the corner of a neighbouring courtyard. Lucifer is a smoky dive-bar that plays kitsch with satanic imagery and screens CCT images of the street outside.
You can keep your ear to the graffitied ground for the latest on Tel Aviv’s vibrant pop-up club and street party scene, but you’re guaranteed to find something happening in the hipster hood of Florentin. Landmark bar Hoodna does live music and cold beers, and is a good source of info on where the party’s at. Otherwise, an invaluable guide to late-night happenings is found at diytelavivguide.com
Tel Aviv does velvet-roped lounge bars and guest-list-only clubs with the self-assurance of Ibiza or Miami. Current addresses to brag or blag your way into include beachfront dance bar Sublet, and arty, live music club Taylor Made.
But if you prefer your nightlife less frenetic, head back to the beach and you’ll soon be invited to an impromptu barbecue or starlit picnic. Or take a seat at an all-night cafe-bar and watch the sunrise with your toes in the sand.
Tel Aviv has come late, but fashionably so, to the boutique hotel scene. The newest breed of tourist address faces defiantly away from the surf, many housed in exquisitely converted villas around Rothschild Boulevard.
Montefiori, set in a pretty 1920s house, has 12 rooms, its own private library, well-placed pieces of Israeli contemporary art and a popular restaurant for weekend brunch. Along with a local art collection, a celebrity chef is the current must-have hotel accessory, and nearby Alma Hotel & Lounge has a kitchen led by MasterChef Israel judge Yonatan Roshfeld. Its 15 individually decorated rooms come in deep colours contrasting perfectly with playful pieces of art.
Diaghilev, nearby, is another boutique billet with creative design. This 54-room ‘live art’ hotel, named after the Russian arts impresario, is set on a residential street in a Bauhaus building with no visible hotel sign but attention-seeking interiors. Its foyer is an art gallery, the mezzanine a work hub for local start-up companies, and the new bar resembles backstage at a theatre. Sister hotel The Rothschild, newly opened in a neighbouring 1930s international-style house, has lots of natural wood along with some standout pieces of contemporary art, including a 32ft light-fitting that climbs the central staircase like oversized ivy.
If you’re more budget than boutique, head to the Old Jaffa Hostel where single/double rooms and studio flats are available alongside dorms plus an al fresco Roof Mattress option.
But for some, a visit to Tel Aviv isn’t the same unless you stay on the sand. The Carlton, an American-style high-rise hotel near the marina has panoramic coastal views, a smart rooftop pool and restaurant, and a beachfront terrace serving gourmet buffet breakfasts.
Direct flights to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport include British Airways from Heathrow, El Al from Heathrow and Luton, EasyJet from Luton and Manchester, and Jet2 from Manchester. ba.com easyjet.com elal.co.il jet2.com
Average flight time: 4h45m.
Ben Gurion Airport is a 30-minute drive from Tel Aviv. A licenced taxi, at Terminal 3, costs around £30. There are frequent direct trains from the airport into town (from £2.85); buses are less convenient, involving at least one change (dan.co.il). Both the ‘central’ bus and rail stations are located a mile or two out of town.
Shared minibus taxis, ‘Sheruts’, are a popular and efficient way of getting around and can be stopped wherever convenient. A single journey costs around £1.25, the bus a fraction less. Metered taxis are plentiful and can be hailed from the roadside. A cross-town journey costs around £7. Set in a fairly orderly ribbon along the coast, Tel Aviv isn’t very big and, brutal summer heat aside, it’s easy to navigate on foot. Use the seafront boardwalk where possible to enjoy the breeze, or hop on one of the city’s share bikes. tel-o-fun.co.il
When to go
In autumn, when humid summer turns to a pleasant 25C average, with spring offering similar temperatures. Winters are also a lovely time to visit, most days sunny, reaching around 19C with some risk of showers.
Need to know
Visas: Not required by British passport holders. In general, Israeli immigration officials won’t stamp your passport, instead issuing a piece of paper that you must retain until you leave. Israeli-stamped passports are not welcome in some Arab countries.
Currency: Israeli Shekel (ILS). £1 = ILS 5.60.
International dial code: 00 972.
Time difference: GMT +2.
Naama Bezalel. T: 00 972 3544 2689.
Lulu Liam. T: 00 972 3529 1175.
Bauhaus Center. bauhaus-center.com
Comme Il Faut. comme-il-faut.com
Design Museum. dmh.org.il
Gavriel. T: 00 972 3510 3882.
Bin 281. bin281.com
Manta Ray. mantaray.co.il
Suzanne Dellal. suzannedellal.org.il
Deli. T: 00 972 3642 5738.
Port Said. T: 00 972 3620 7436.
Lucifer. T: 00 972 3685 1666.
Hoodna. T: 00 972 3518 4558.
Sublet. T: 00 972 545 448 444.
Taylor Made. T: 00 972 3503 3386.
How to do it
Cox & Kings has a three-night stay at the Carlton Tel Aviv from £955 per person, including British Airways flights, private transfers and accommodation with breakfast daily. coxandkings.co.uk
Kirker Holidays has a seven-night trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem from London or Manchester, priced from £2,125 per person including flights, private transfers and accommodation on a B&B basis. kirkerholidays.com
Published in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)