Israel’s city of Tel Aviv is the City of Cool—modern, vibrant, and cosmopolitan. Kalpana Sunder has imprinted on her mind the city’s coastline, coffee, food, architecture, and rich heritage.
I was in Tel Aviv, Israel’s ‘city of cool’. It was originally designed as an overspill for Jaffa, the medieval port that also finds a mention in the Old Testament. “Jerusalem is Israel’s political and religious capital, but this, the nation’s second-largest city, is a hub of culture, finance, and media,” explained my Jewish guide Sharon Pelleg.
Aviv has also been crowned as the world’s Best Gay City—as visitors to the city’s annual spectacular Pride Parade will attest. The city has a million stories to tell.
Many call Tel Aviv ‘Miami on the Med’ and its beaches are a focal point of its social life. From my window, I can see high rise hotels dot the sky and life played out on the sands. Joggers, skaters and roller bladders on the long winding beach promenade and surfers and swimmers in the cerulean waters create a hive of activity. Families with children sprawl on beach towels, clusters of open air cafes serve juices and coffee as refreshments. I hear the pitter-patter of locals playing a boisterous game of matkot (a cross between squash and ping pong) knee deep in water. There’s even a library on wheels for beach-goers to borrow from.
We explore Tel Aviv through the lenses of its different neighbourhoods—we walk on its first boulevard, Rothschild Boulevard, an avenue lined with ficus and sycamore trees and dotted with benches and outdoor coffee kiosks. I discover a wealth of glass and concrete functional and geometric buildings inspired by the Bauhaus school from Germany, designed by Jewish architects who fled here to escape the Nazis. The collection of 4,000 curvilinear buildings in the area is now called the ‘White City’ and this extraordinary architectural legacy has earned it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I step back in time as I wander the ancient alleyways of Old Jaffa, the world’s oldest port and Tel Aviv’s oldest neighbourhood. Jaffa is a mixed Arab-Jewish area with a large flea market. Jaffa’s arched walkways and alleys are named after zodiac signs, shops selling craft and paintings, and traditional family-run bakeries.
The Ilana Gur Museum stands out, featuring art and furniture design by Israeli and international artists. We walk past the world’s only theatre company comprised entirely of deaf and blind actors— the organisation Nalaga’at located in Jaffa, where prior to the performance, visitors can have an experience of dining in the dark, while being served by blind wait staff. I love the city’s vibrant cosmopolitan energy and the best part is that it’s authentic and homegrown.
Israelis typically eat organically, locally and seasonally. “Starbucks came and went within two years because local chains like Aroma serve the most aromatic coffee,” says Sharon. I also learn that Tel Aviv has the largest number of start-ups in any city in the world. “But that is the Israeli mentality—one of progress and innovation,” says a local that I meet at a gelato bar.
I love the way the city re-invents itself. One of my favourite places is the Hatachana Compound where the Old Ottoman-era Jaffa Railway Station dating from 1892 has opened after a half decade restoration into a vibrant space with its defunct track and carriages spruced up, surrounded by cocktail bars, designers boutiques and restaurants. I love the vibe of Vicky Christina—a young, fun Tapas bar, offering tapas with pitches of sangria, with an outdoor area in the shade of a huge ficus tree. We walk through Tel Aviv’s first suburb born in 1838. Today Neve Tzedek with a boho-chic vibe has old Ottoman style villas, and restaurants and cafes under leafy trees. Tel Aviv also has artist studios, trendy cafes and bars and boutique hotels.
Food is an omnipresent motif around this city and is like a patchwork quilt of the immigrant population. My breakfasts at the Crowne Plaza hotel where I am staying is in epic proportions with mountains of breads, salads, troughs of hummus, herby salads, yoghurts and dips and local sweets. A memorable meal is the no-frills but iconic Abu Hassan where queues of people wait patiently to taste masabacha—hummus with added paprika. We explore the bustling Carmel Market originally inhabited by Jewish people from Yemen and have a taste of falafel with the skhug a traditional Yemenite spicy sauce made from peppers.
Shakshuka a comforting spicy tomato and egg stew is the signature egg dish of Israel with North African influences, and for the most authentic version we visit Jaffa’s famous Dr Shakshuka where the rotund owner Bino Gabso shows us how he makes this classic dish in battered frying pans. I enjoy the Libyan style couscous served here along with the doctor’s special lemonade. For a whiff of something different we take a Segway tour with Shini, our pretty young Israeli guide along a trail skirting the Mediterranean Sea to the port area, where warehouses have been converted into stylish, bustling restaurants, art galleries, clubs and shops.
A multimillion-dollar rejuvenation project of the Tel Aviv Port was launched and the area was transformed into a mix of sleek spas, restaurants and party venues. By 2005, it had emerged as the most popular quarter in the city. I have seen the city’s deep religious roots juxtaposed against its raucous bars. I have seen it pockmarked by the ravages of a turbulent past. But what is forever imprinted on my heart is its amazing live-for-the-moment intensity.
STAY: Hotel Crowne Plaza has great sea views and comfortable doubles.
DO: Visit Jaffa and its art galleries and boutiques as well as St Peter’s Church. Visit the neighbourhoods like Neve Tzedek and Sarona. Enjoy its night life in bars like Port Said and take a tour of its Bauhaus architecture, Visit the Ilana Goor Museum. Explore the port area with a Segway ride.
SHOP: Local sweets, rosaries and menorahs (Jewish candlesticks), Armenian pottery, Roman glass jewellery, Dead Sea products, date honey, pomegranate wine and dried fruits. Visit the flea market in Jaffa and the Carmel Market for fresh produce.
EAT: Local specialities like hummus, falafel, Sabich, shawarma, puff pastries called burekas, halwa, and freshly-baked local breads. Drink fresh orange and pomegranate juice and local wine and beer.