ON the five hour flight from London to Tel Aviv, serious-looking men in black clothes made their way to the back of the aeroplane to pray. The man next to us asked our opinions about the conflict as he bought me a coffee. At the airport, extensive and lengthy security checks were imposed.
I’m not sure what we were expecting from the city as a result of this introduction, but the word “intense” would have figured; IDF soldiers on every corner, stifling security measures, inescapable political discussions. In fact, TLV (as it is affectionately known) prides itself on being the exact opposite, and once you’ve left the airport the vibe is laid-back and it feels extremely safe and welcoming. It is the perfect destination to catch some sun most months of the year.
We fell in love with Tel Aviv’s energy, elegance and liberality instantly. Within hours of arriving, we found ourselves in bistros, bars, boutiques and galleries so chic, creative, elegant and – in the case of the eateries – delicious, any residual doubts dissolved. To our first-timer eyes, Tel Aviv mixes the bohemian vibe of Berlin with the beach culture of Barcelona (the sea is warm enough to swim in most of the year). There’s a thriving arts scene and a sense that things are happening, both creatively and commercially. It feels like a city in good health.
Aesthetically, Tel Aviv is a patchwork of old and new: sleek Bauhaus architecture lines European-styled boulevards, while the Arabic city of Old Jaffa presides majestically on the hill, and skyscrapers crowd the coast. Like most first-timers, we found Neve Tzedek, the oldest part of the Jewish city, utterly enchanting, with its tiny, ramshackle streets filled with wonderful smells of Persian, French, Japanese and other types of cuisines cooked to perfection. Many Israeli designers of jewellery, clothes and shoes (those that can afford the real estate, that is) have beautiful shops here. Old Jaffa is also must-see, though the main area around the clock tower feels slightly contrived. It retains an Arabic feel, despite the presence of chain stores and coffee shops. A trip to some of the contemporary art galleries around Mazal Arie Street is certainly worthwhile. The city also has its fair share of industrial buildings and soulless highways, but these are more than made up for by the presence of the 12 mile long shore that gives a feeling of openness. The city plan is very well thought out, designed to avoid the mistakes and pitfalls of older cities that developed more organically.
Above all: food and nightlife are fabulous. Seafood is to die for (try rustic-glam Manta Ray on the beach near the Dolphinarium, famous for its mezze selection) and it’s essential that you “go for a houmous” at least once. Humous is taken very seriously, and tastes unlike anything we get over here; served warm in a bowl with olive oil, herbs, creamed tahini and pillow-like pita on the side with pickles and onions. In Old Jaffa, don’t miss Dr Shakshuka, an eccentric cave that serves the signature dish of eggs poached in tomato sauce baked in a clay pot with meat or vegetables. Back in central Tel Aviv, Joz ve Loz (Yehuda Halevy 51) is hidden down a back street behind an unassuming facade and offers a fresh, east-meets-west menu and interesting wine in a room that gives boho chic a new meaning. You’d also be missing out if you didn’t stay out until sunrise at one of the city’s bars or clubs (we loved Radio E.P.G.B and The Breakfast Club, though there are hundreds for every taste – ask around for a recommendation). As a general rule, it’s worth poking down back streets and alleyways as some of the best venues are tucked away. And when in doubt, ask a local – for a recommendation or for directions. if you’re lost. People are amazingly friendly (if sometimes brusque).
On our return from trips to Haifa, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem (all within two hours drive from TLV), we stayed at the newly opened ArtPlus hotel and spent a day at the epic Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Eretz Israel museum. The Israelis know how to do a museum; Israel has the most galleries and museums per capita of any country. I wish we’d had time to do more, but I have a feeling we’ll be back.
STAYING AND PARTYING
Dan Panorama: A solid base which is ideally located between Neve Tzedek and Jaffa. It’s clean, simple and there’s an outdoor pool (though it’s closed in winter). Watch out for the extortionate wireless internet charge.
Artplus: A luxury boutique hotel by Atlas Hotels. A “concept” hotel in which specially commissioned artworks line the corridors. If you’re lucky, you may also have a piece installed in your room. Small rooms, but perfectly designed.
The Breakfast Club
La La Land
Joz ve Loz