Looking at Tel Aviv’s soaring skyline, it’s hard to imagine that not too long ago little more than a modest port town occupied this secluded corner of the Med. Over the course of a century, Tel Aviv grew outwards and upwards: a ‘New York of the Middle East’, or so its founders envisaged. Parallels between the Big Orange and the Big Apple are probably less obvious than its creators had hoped; visitors looking to tick off landmarks might leave disappointed. But that’s because Tel Aviv’s charms lie elsewhere — its quarters bubble with creative spirit; full of art studios, bold architecture, and locals who know how to have a good time. Just make sure you leave time for a night on the tiles.
Strictly speaking, she’s right. Tel Aviv-Yafo (as the entire city is rightly called) nods to two cities: Tel Aviv and Yafo, or ‘Jaffa’. A ripe fruit at over 3,000 years old, it’s here Tel Aviv owes its humble beginnings: when Jaffa’s old sandstone walls became too crowded, plans were made to develop a new garden suburb to the north. While most of those who settled in Jaffa were Arabs — who still make up the majority of the local population — there’s a lingering multiculturalism as I wander through the shady steps and alleyways of the Old Town. At St Peter’s Church, mass is held in four languages, and sitting cheek-by-jowl in the town are Greek Orthodox and Armenian monasteries, a former Libyan synagogue, and a mosque originally built for Muslim sailors who would come to pray before heading out to sea.
Old Jaffa’s golden era as a port (known even to the Ancient Egyptians) is long gone but the area is seeing a new wave of settlers. “It’s an inspiring place for me to work,” says multimedia artist Samuel Vengrinovich. Originally from San Francisco, he’s one of several creatives swapping Tel Aviv for the Old Town’s evocative sandstone streets.
“Its ancient history and laid-back Mediterranean vibe create a unique environment. Jaffa has so many unique, old apartments and studios — these interesting workspaces just don’t exist in other parts of the city.”
Aside from the buildings, I ask him what else he likes most about being here. “I can easily walk down to the sea to watch the sun set. It’s so calming and beautiful; I must have seen thousands of them.”
Before dusk, I pay my respects to Jaffa’s fabled flea market — a thriving maze of curios, where each stall is a mini Aladdin’s cave. “Come, there’s a genie inside!” cries one seller, trying to lure me in with a gleaming bronze oil lamp. It’s tempting, but I resist.
Instead, I come to the top of HaPisgah Gardens, where parakeets flit from palm to palm, to admire Tel Aviv’s sweeping promenade. Hotels and high-rises glint in the evening light, and beaches are dotted with the last sunbathers of the day. I can see why Samuel loves these burning sunsets so much: old and new sit side-by-side, and from its quiet stone walls, Old Jaffa fondly looks on at its flashy, modern grandson.
Kerem HaTeimanim and Lev Hair
After washing it down with lemonade, we head into Carmel Market round the corner. I lose sight of her more than once, my attention grabbed by the likes of garish flip-flops and huge trays of baklava. I hear the sound of oranges being squeezed behind me somewhere, from another direction the strains of Europop, all underpinned by raucous shouts in Hebrew and Arabic.
But one right turn and, almost unnaturally, the chaos gives into the quiet of Kerem HaTeimanim, or the Yemenite Quarter. Developed by the Yemenite Jewish families who settled in the area in the early 1900s, this calm, mostly residential part of town feels oddly disconnected to the bustling city that envelops it. Pastel-coloured houses are festooned with bougainvillea, cyclists stop for hummus at family-run cafes, and doorsteps are guarded by slinky, half-asleep cats. We call in for coffee at Yom Tov Cafe and then sweet, rose-scented malabi pudding at HaMalabiya.
Meanwhile, across the street, Lev HaIr — ‘city centre’ in English — is a bold hub of urban architecture. There are the clean lines of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art housing a collection of works by Israeli artists, but there’s also the magpie of the architecture world. Fanciful and flamboyant, eclecticism borrows bits and pieces from other styles, with some of Tel Aviv’s highlights being the Pagoda Building with its oriental flair, the exotic-looking Levine House, and the mustard-coloured facade of the bustling Hotel Montefiore.
But Tel Aviv serves up an even bigger architectural heavyweight. Off the main drag of Allenby Street, there’s peace in Bialik Square, the heart of the world’s highest concentration of Bauhaus buildings. When the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus School of Design in 1933, deeming it a bastion of illicit idealism, many of the Jewish architects there fled Germany and settled here, in what would become Israel. Bauhaus then rapidly and dramatically shaped early Tel Aviv’s skyline, its design more practical than beautiful: straight lines to maximise space, flat roofs that could be repurposed, minimal decoration and a muted colour scheme to reflect the heat — it’s this that earned this part of town the ‘White City’ moniker. On paper, it could all could err on the dull side, but a stroll through Lev HaIr reveals a subdued, harmonious beauty to this rather utilitarian art.
“There were lots of warehouses, factories, shops here that were derelict,” says Ross Belfer. New Jerseyan-turned-Tel Avivian, he heads up Eager Tourist, which runs hyperlocal tours throughout the city. “So for the people who moved to Florentin, they had an ugly blank canvas to create their own community.”
What was Tel Aviv’s industrial quarter has now emerged as the city’s hipster magnet, its once-cheap rents drawing arty upstarts who don’t mind slumming it a little. Not that Florentin’s much of a slum these days. Now a sought-after corner of town, it ticks along with an easy, effortless neighbourhood feel: at Yom Tov Deli, I peruse coloured tins of fish, dolma (stuffed vine leaves) and mounds of olives. Round the corner are swish tattoo parlours and furniture showrooms, little tailors crammed with clothes, vibrant bars on street corners and shops selling huge pales of loose tea.
“I know where we can go for something refreshing,” says Ross. “Do you like vinegar?”
At Cafe Levinsky 41, the long-haired Benny Briga is chatting to customers in his truck-cum-seating area. Beaming, he offers us a gazoz. I confess I’ve never had one before, nervously eying the obscure jars and bottles stacked in his pint-sized cafe. Barista Lisa gets to work on the drinks. “The vibe here in Florentin is great,” she says, yanking stems from a vase and stuffing them into a glass. “I came from Toronto to visit a friend and never left.” And so she hands me a glass of gazoz
— a tangy, vinegary, fermented kombucha-like beverage, dashed with fruit syrup and served with a healthy helping of flowers.
Lisa’s not the only expat drawn in by Florentin’s rough-diamond charm: the young tattoo artist I speak to down the street is Ukrainian, a waitress who serves me is Turkish, and I hear French and Russian in the streets. After all, multicultural Florentin even owes its name to a Greek Jew who first bought the land here.
From Casbah Florentin, the shabby-chicest of cafes full of twentysomethings with laptops, I watch as a woman unhurriedly cleans up after her pug on the pavement opposite. Florentin’s no beauty queen, but she doesn’t hide it. It’s this unpretentious, in-your-face realness that keeps those laptop-tapping hipsters plugged in.
When in Tel Aviv
Amble along the city’s famous tree-flanked promenade, and stop off at one of the many kiosks where locals call in for coffee-fuelled catch-ups all day long.
Tel Aviv after dark can easily sweep you along until dawn. Whether it’s happy hour on a rooftop bar around Allenby and King George Streets, or letting your hair down in one of the world-class clubs like The Block, a night out here is legendary.
Once you’ve recovered, starting your day the Israeli way is a must. Go for one of the trays loaded with Levantine nibbles at Bucke to set yourself up for the day, or grab a coffee and one of the excellent bagels at Cafe XoHo.
Sea & sand
With 300 days of sunshine a year, there’s always an excuse to hit the beach. Come, kick back with a book (or borrow one from the mobile library carts that can often be found on the sands), take in the sea breeze and envy the locals’ good looks.
2019 will be the centenary of Bauhaus, and Tel Aviv has over 4,000 Bauhaus-style buildings — more than anywhere else. The best are in Lev Halr, where you can visit the Bauhaus Museum or the Bauhaus Center.
Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)