I like pretty cities. To that end, Haifa, Israel’s third largest city and acknowledged by those in the know to be one of the most beautiful urban spots globally, not being on my itinerary to Israel bugged me. No amount of requesting or cajoling or whining would shake the powers-that-took-the-call. Even my fellow travellers were a little amused at this hankering! Till providence decided that the route from the Sea of Galilee to a vineyard on the itinerary went through Haifa. Once sighted, so stunning were the vistas that no one was ready to leave. Only Sharon, our guide, looked bemused though, smiling like she had an ace up her sleeve. She promised even better–the day was to end at Tel Aviv.
Hip, modern, artsy, diverse, liberal, fun loving... well, many cities are written up that way, and my planning for this last leg of traipsing through the Holy Land had been more cursory than say for Jerusalem, or Bethlehem, or Nazareth, or the Dead Sea. From a traveller’s point of view, how could a city that was just about a century old compete with names such as this.
But then, over its relatively short life, Tel Aviv has grown, and how. Already the old-new nation’s largest urban spread, it is also the one that can surprise visitors the most, challenging every ingrained stereotype about Israel. Locals refer to the city as ‘the bubble’ for its rather liberal and progressive demeanour, a sprinkling of yarmukas, or skullcaps worn largely by orthodox Jews, notwithstanding. Indeed, the only Sabbath I attended was led by a female rabbi, and had lots of dancing and singing! Those in the kibbutzes frown at this ‘un-Jewishness, but the Beit Tefilah Israeli congregation’s joie de vivre went a long way in highlighting the plurality of the residents. Another realisation came after a while. I noticed, mostly by its absence, the lack of any visible security paraphernalia, catching me by surprise. But for the heat, I would have mistaken it for a west European city.
Despite the heat, the best way to see the city, from Jaffa in the south to the Tel Aviv port in the north, is by walking, with an occasional sprint on a bicycle. Indeed, cycling tracks of over 100 kilometres in the city are a big inducement, and let you see the city at your own pace. I largely walked, zigzagging my way along the coast and venturing into alleys and lanes that caught my fancy. With the shimmering azure Mediterranean Sea for orientation less than ten minutes away from most parts of the city, it was difficult to get lost!
The sea has played a crucial part in the city’s long history. Long? A hundred years? Well, there’s a technicality. Tel Aviv is right next to Jaffa, one of the most ancient towns anywhere on the planet, around at the time the Giza Pyramids were made and the peak of the Bronze Age. It’s about 4,000 years old, give or take a few centuries. Today, Jaffa has been swallowed by Tel Aviv, to become Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and the Jews are only the latest to leave an imprint here. Just about every significant old world empire has ruled or traded here–Egyptians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, the Biblical kingdoms, Byzantines, even the Crusaders set up camp here. Arabs, Ottomans and the British followed, leaving behind a tapestry that has fans of ruins and such-like squealing with delight. Yes, a 3,500-year old Egyptian gate is next to a medieval Franciscan Roman-Catholic church tucked behind which are Roman aqueducts. Look beyond, and there’s an inactive lighthouse built around two centuries ago, a Libyan synagogue from the 18th century that in between was also a hotel and then a soap factory. Did you miss the Armenian monastery? Or the distinctive Clock Tower by the Saraya? Get the drift. And they all came by the sea route.
Today’s Jaffa is rather more chic. Slightly hilly, its maze of an old town is now largely restored, and also houses cafÃ©s, restaurants, boutique hotels, open-air plazas, gardens, and a vast number of innovative galleries and museums. And the delectable Abulafia Bakery, where you have to try the pitas, pastries, BÃ¶rek, baklava and what turned out be my favourites, sambusak and the local nougat. I have to return.
From there, walking to Tel Aviv past the now unused Jaffa rail station, now a museum and venue for local fairs, takes all of five minutes. Further explorations bring me to the ‘White City’, for which Tel Aviv has the Unesco heritage tag. This refers to the 1920s-30s era of functional, largely white and inexpensive (no connections have been made to the parsimonious Jewish traits, though) Bauhaus apartments, designed by Jewish architects fleeing Germany. Many of these 4,000-odd buildings have been restored, some even with more contemporary touches. Think DDA apartments, twice removed.
Tel Aviv’s rapid growth has seen other building sprees, the most noteable of which is Eclectic, a 1950s fusion style that is certainly more decorative, with many a concrete flourish. There is a fair presence of Art Deco and Modern too. There are multiple walking tours that will help the short-stay tourist make sense of this bewildering array. The ‘plus’ for those who want to ‘get a feel of how people live’–walkers often could well be staring into a room where a child is trying to concentrate on her homework or a lobby with a disagreeing couple! If you want to do the Bauhaus trail on your own, look out for Sderot Rothschild and Dizengoff Street, though branching off and chancing upon relatively lesser known Bialik or Dov Hoz streets. Have fun spotting long narrow overhanging balconies, flat roofs and ‘thermometer’, or narrow, windows. For more picturesque houses, try Neve Tzedek or Florentin, just to the south.
The city’s leisurely feel permeates everywhere. I walked through wide boulevards, past streetside cafÃ©s and shops, people strolling, jogging and running, older men playing matkot, or paddleball, musicians playing a street corners, music wafting out of bars that begin business in the afternoons... Visitors to Rishikesh or Goa would definitely recognise this side of the Israelis, given their familiarity with the thousands of young Israelis who make the journey to India annually. Another misconception, which I should not have had, of all Israelis being almost ‘naturally’ inclined towards the military, is also dealt a short shrift as this melodious laid-back city immersed in the arts percolates deeper down.
Wandering around, I discover a bewildering range of seemingly contrasting shops and markets sit cheek by jowl. The curio or useless junk lover, should head straight to the amazing Shuk Hapishpishim, a flea market where you could find everything from second-hand clothes and jewellery to copper utensils, grand pianos that take up the better part of the pavement, used menorahs, old Persian tiles, Ukrainian stereos, half a classic Harley (maybe to join the other half you already possess?), furniture from all around the world, or at least the lands modern Israelis’ ancestors fled or immigrated from over the past century. The area is dotted with chic boutiques too, with tempting wares. Tel Aviv’s contemporary malls are global standard. Check out sales at Castro, Israel’s leading clothing chain. For more street shopping, there’s the enticing Carmel Market, where I bought the largest and most luscious strawberries I have ever had.
Much like central Amsterdam’s day-night transformation, in Tel Aviv too, what is an open air city-wide living museum during the day converts to a contiguous party post sunset. Like most locals, our group started with a beach bar in the evening with an innovative chilled cocktails or local beer–most go for Goldstar over Tempo. A leisurely dinner later at a Michelin star eatery at Kauffman Street, though casual cafÃ©s looked just as enticing, we joined the overflowing crowds flocking bars, pubs, and clubs. Beware, thousands are on a pub crawl, and finding an empty bar stool could be like a treasure hunt. For the variety seeker, there is much to explore, from classic clubs to gallery bars to subterranean dens to graffiti-scribbled pubs and, of course, gay bars. The city is known for its liberal embrace of the LGBTQ community, and gay and gay friendly bars are intertwined, as Moshe, our nightlife guide, explained, as we bar-hopped with a vengeance, downing shots and finding the world ever more beautiful! Amazingly, for many residents, this is a regular pattern, the busiest hours of their mellow existence. Even on a Sunday, the first working day, something Israel has in common with its Arab neighbours. Tel Aviv is also a research and IT centre, and its usually young employees lend greater energy. Communities for design, fashion, music dominate life.
It’s difficult to be apolitical in Israel. That’s where the attack happened last week, I am casually told by a store assistant. I look, and fail to imagine how it would be to live through such experiences. In a country where fractures are often just below the surface, Tel Aviv gives new hope for those working towards more inclusive lives. It is not regarded to be the prettiest of cities, though I would dispute that a city by the shore and so rich in architecture needs a change of perception. Visitors, however, would be well advised to not just touch and go. Tel Aviv’s beauty lies in the experience, and you have to give in to the lived experience. The sheer quality of life here makes it a magnet for people from across nations. Truly hip, modern, artsy, diverse, liberal, fun loving Tel Aviv is definitely for the young, and the young at heart.
Getting There: El Al flies directly from Mumbai to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport and will cost about â‚¹79,000 for a round trip. Factor in a longer flying time as the route is circuitous.
Visa: Indians have to apply for visas in advance. The Israel Visa Application Centres (israelvisa-india.com) are in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. It takes about five working days to come through.
Currency: One Israeli Shekel is about â‚¹18. US dollars are the most easily accepted foreign currency.
Where to Stay: The city has multiple accommodation options across budgets. For the luxury experience, try Carlton Hotel (+972-3-520-1818, carlton.co.il) by the shore, or the best known hotel in the city, Dan, (+972-3-520-2525, danhotels.com), a favourite with local and international celebrities. For a more boutique experience, try Norman, housed in two restored 1920s buildings, stay at (+972-3-543-5555, thenorman.com). Budget travellers, try Galileo, in the nightlife area (+972-3-516-0050, sun-hotels.co.il)
What to Eat: In a country with practically no cuisine of its own–most families have migrated within the last century, bringing their culinary traditions, the shakshuka has perhaps become the most well known. Most agree to its Tunisian origins, but this dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, peppers and onions, has become popular here. Try it at Dr Shakshuka at the Flea Market. The city is teeming with restaurants of all types, from trendy Parisian (La Gaterie) to Bulgarian (Monka) to the very charming bistro, Orna and Ella. For pizzas, try Tony Vespa. For a cool hangout by the sea, with a range of restaurants, visit the Port of Tel Aviv.
What to See & Do: There’s a lot to explore, so plan what you would like to do. Sign up for a guided tour from the local Bauhaus Center (bauhaus-center.com) and budget a few hours for it. In Jaffa, take a walk around the area, then drop into the Ilana Goor Museum (ilanagoormuseum.org) to get a glimpse of the works and collections of this highly individualistic artist. There is a lot of incredible street art, but do visit the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (tamuseum.org.il) for shows by Israeli artists.The Suzanne Dellal Center (suzannedellal.org.il) is host to many of the best of Israeli performing arts. Visit Jaffa Railway Station for insight into the colonial-era trade. Spend an evening by the beach to catch a sunset over the Mediterranean. Israelis step out late, with night-outs typically starting at 10 or 11pm. A hectic pub crawl reveals the city’s party times.
What to Buy: That’s tricky. For the souvenir hunting tourist, there are menorahs in various shapes and sizes. This is a Mecca for antique hunters. For those with fatter wallets, Roman glass jewellery and widow coins are collectibles. Israeli wine is gaining popularity, try Carmel Shiraz.