When asked to conjure up images of a first visit to Israel dreamy visions tend to consist of Christian bible inspired road trips, Jewish orthodox fashions and rustic Roman ruins. The Holy Land is perhaps the most fascinating destination in the world for those looking to dive into the regions ancient history and rich religious past.
A visit to Tel Aviv however offers a refreshing departure for those looking to enjoy a graffiti dotted cosmopolitan experience featuring hipster hideaways, thriving queer community, happening food scene and miles of sun-drenched beach. I had just under 48 hours to explore Israel’s youngest city and managed to cover a significant amount of ground. Be sure to end your trip here on a weekend when local shops and markets are bustling, restaurant patrons spill onto the street and nighthawks enjoy hedonistic haunts into the early hours of the morning.
Herod’s Hotel is nestled in the heart of Tel Aviv along the coastline of the picturesque Mediterranean Sea. The hotel offers guests a unique time travelling experience, transporting them to the vibrant atmosphere of Tel Aviv’s White City in the 1930s. Upon arrival I’m greeted by a gatekeeper dressed in light linen uniform and pith helmet. Every detail of the hotel reflects the spirit of the period, from the furnishings, historical decor and artwork, to hotel staff who dress in authentic 30s attire. The lobby simulates a Tel Aviv-style boulevard, complete with Ficus trees which lead to the beach and chirp of cheerful birds. Nostalgic street signs mark the various areas of the hotel, an old music machine plays daily and original black-and-white photographs grace hallways and suite interiors. Breakfast each morning unfolds on sun-soaked black and white vintage checkered floor with early birds enjoying pretty views which overlook the beach. Break the fast via classic Israeli brunch buffet where sweet chocolate croissants, fresh fish, teaming platters of local cheese and crispy latkes offer a warm welcome to the day.
My two favourite hoods in the city offer a stark contrast in terms of realized pedestrian experience but are equally as satisfying for those looking to get lost (and inspired) through fancied foreign streets. Neve Tzedek is Tel Aviv’s oldest neighbourhood (1887) whose historic homes and alleyways have been restored and reimagined into museums, galleries, hipster shops, restaurants and cafes. Strolling through Neve Tzedek trendy, graffiti adorned alleys offers an interesting juxtaposition to the ancient port city of Old Jaffa.
According to Christian legend, Jaffa was named after Noah’s son, Japhet, who built it after the Flood. From archaeological discoveries and ancient documents we’ve learned that Jaffa existed as a port city some 4,000 years ago, serving Egyptian and Phoenician sailers in their voyages at sea. Historians believe Jaffa is the only port in the world which can boast uninterrupted inhabitation throughout its entire existence. The biblical account mentions that the cedars from Lebanon for the construction of King Solomon’s Temple came in via Jaffa. Jonah departed from this city in his flight from God (and his encounter with the belly of that whale has now made him famous). Greek legend tells of the chaining of the beautiful Andromeda to the rocks facing Jaffa’s shore. Simon the Tanner lived in Jaffa, and it was here that the Apostle Peter performed a miracle. Roman legions, Richard the Lion Heart, Napoleon and Turkish sultans all conquered the city…a quick review of Jaffa’s history and one quickly appreciates a breezy stroll along its picturesque square and cobble stoned alleys.
The city’s quirkiest art gallery is the Ilana Goor Museum, located in an 18th century building surrounded by the breathtaking landscape of Tel Aviv’s shoreline in the heart of Old Jaffa. Fascinating historical events are ensconced within the Museum’s walls dating back 280 years ago, when the building served as the first Jewish Inn for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. The Museum was restored based on its original building and boasts over 500 Israeli, international and authentic works of art alongside Goor’s creations. Goor claims that it is only if one touches, feels and uses art that one can understand what it really is. Rather than being exhibited in a “sacred” white space, the Museum’s art is interlaced with life itself – an art form that is not out of reach, elitist and sterile, but rather easily accessible to the visitor. One of the guidelines behind the planning and design of the Museum, which also serves as the artist’s home, is the concept on which it has been founded, which combines art design and history, blurs the boundaries between different areas and implements the idea of art as part of life. Be sure to pop by the gift shop and you’ll find a wall covered in photos of the eccentric artist with the likes of Michael Jackson and Bill Clinton.
Tel Aviv joins the ranks of Amsterdam and Montreal as a top notch bike savvy destination which can be attributed to the city’s public bike share program which today is used by both locals and tourists looking to zip around town. We hopped on bikes at Tel Aviv Port and spent the next hour peddling along the city’s rolling boardwalk. My hair tossed in the wind as we swerved around al fresco restaurant patios, soared past bustling beaches and zig zagged under sky-high lux hotels.
After biking along Tel Aviv’s boardwalk we peddled ourselves over to the Carmel Market and met Inbal Baum, the founder of Delicious Israel. She spent two hours leading us on a fantastic foodie tour of the city’s bustling market. Our first stop was a little hole in the wall shop serving Sabich (which she claims is the only real authentic dish created in Israel), a pita stuffed with fried eggplant, hard boiled egg, hummus, tahini, Israeli salad, parsley and amba. Other market highlights include tables towering with Turkish Delight, mountains of fresh produce, tubs teaming with fresh cheese, endless bags of aromatic spices and my favourite sweet rugelach. No trip to the market is complete without a visit to Beer Bazaar, a petite street bar which serves 90 kinds of local beer, all brewed in Israel from the Golan Heights down to the Negev desert. The Beer Bazaar is helmed by handsome boys, eager to celebrate Israel’s growing craft beer offerings. Grab a stool at the Beer Bazaar and end your visit to the Carmel Market with a sud-sloshed smile.
Our final evening in Tel Aviv was a late one spent hopping through the city’s top bars and nightclubs. I was joined by Nadav Peretz the founder of Outstanding Travel, an LGBT tour operator which specializes in offering adventures throughout Israel. We started by ordering pints at Shpagat a hipster gay bar which features tiered seating that spills out onto a pretty patio. Next up we visited the city’s oldest gay bar Evita which has been running strong now for 10 years. I sipped on a gin and tonic before the tallest drag queen I have ever seen came around and gave me a big bear hug. The city’s trendiest bar right now is Kuli Alma, a music and art-focussed nightlife spot owned and operated by a collective of Tel Avivian DJs, artists and party personas. Vibrant street art murals and a rotating selection of vintage films and visual art projections adorn the walls here while a small gallery space showcases exhibits on rotation. At 2am we wandered into Radio EPGB, my final stop of the eve where the DJ spins trance beats and hunky, tattooed and scruffy bartenders whip up the city’s favourite thirst quencher, pucker inducing Arak muddled with grapefruit and fresh mint into the early morn.
My visit to Israel was a press trip coordinated by Tourism Israel. Transportation, accommodation, restaurant visits and activities featured in this destination guide were complimentary.