Israel is quickly becoming a popular destination among families and solo millennial tourists alike. We discover the destination with Bollywood actor Disha Patani. By AINDRILA MITRA
Our arrival at the Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv along with Bollywood’s new favourite, Disha Patani, for a cover shoot was inconspicuous. Like any other international terminal, it was spick and span—with an array of European-influenced cafes—and busy even at the late hour of the day when we touched down. The hour-long drive to Akko, where we were scheduled to shoot, was nothing out of the ordinary with the sole exception of our guide, Eli Talmi.
A dentist-turned-tour conductor, Talmi was warm, witty, and wise, and emphasised on Israel (Is-Ra-El in Hebrew) being the ‘Land of God.’ We discovered the various facets of this title and the land it alluded to on a four-stop tour.
If there’s one thing that was indelible when it came to the port town of Akko, which hosts a small population of 47,000, it was a chance meeting over one of the most delectable dinners I’ve had in a while. His name was Uri Buri, the owner of Efendi Hotel and the brain behind his eponymous farm-to-table restaurant that’s been in service for nearly 30 years. August was a hot month in Israel, and our shoot with Disha had taken up a whole day. Exploring the many quarters of the city, walking through the cobbled alleys, and finding the right spot—from the lighthouse, to the bazaar, and the hammam—had left us exhausted. All of it disappeared quite quickly over a glass of kava with Uri for company at the rooftop bar of his hotel that overlooks the historic city walls and the magnificent Mediterranean Sea.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site on the northern coast of Israel, the old city of Acre, or Akko as we see it today, dates back to the 1800s when it was reconstructed by the Crusaders. With a ‘city of secrets above and secrets below’ (the Templars’ Tunnel and the Knights’ Hall), Akko’s preservation story is rare.
Uri, who moved to Akko 22 years ago, pointed out, “Akko is one of those cities that’s still genuine and doesn’t have sushi and McDonald’s!” His Efendi Hotel resides in a 1,500-year- old restored building. “It was in ruins when I bought it in 2003. It took me nine years and an obscene amount of money to bring it back to life,” he confessed. As many as 10 artists worked for seven months to restore just the ceiling, and the grandeur of the Ottoman-era baroque architecture is there for everyone to admire. Akko holds a special place in history; it was a city where Jews and Arabs lived together in harmony. With the safest natural harbour in the Eastern Mediterranean, Akko was also an indispensable part of the trade route connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe. “A city that was desired by every ruler,” as Uri put it.
Efendi Hotel is the perfect blend of history and luxury. There are 12 rooms, each with a unique character and style. The hotel has a spa treatment room for couples and a 400-year-old preserved Turkish bath. There’s a wine bar in the renovated wine cellar that dates back to the time of the Crusaders. From Rs22,000 per night plus taxes
Uri Buri restaurant is considered one of the best seafood restaurants in Israel. No recipe here involves more than eight ingredients, and you find nothing that is not edible on the plate. The must- try dishes here include mushroom soup with cream and black pepper, sashimi salmon with soy and wasabi sorbet, tuna on yoghurt, and the legendary knafeh (an Arabic sweet made of cheese, pistachio, kadayif strings, served with rose ice cream).
SEE & DO
Knights’ Halls- Located three feet below the ground, the Knights’ Halls give a glimpse into the lives of the Crusaders.
Templars’ Tunnel- The mysterious Templars’ Tunnel, reportedly built by the Knights Templar, was discovered in 1994. It connects the fortress to the old city harbour.
The Lighthouse- The Akko Light is an active lighthouse in the port city. It gives you a captivating view of the entire city.
A two-hour drive from Akko, you hit a destination that is its antithesis. A hedonist’s city, Tel Aviv has a great nightlife and a sumptuous gastronomic scene. Or as Talmi emphasised, Tel Aviv is a bubble. This Mediterranean capital of cool also hosts one of the highest number of start-ups in the world, second only to Silicon Valley, and the highest number of museums per capita globally.
Tel Aviv was formed in 1909 with 66 Jewish families from Jaffa, which has now become a part of the hip city, but still retains its quaint character as the official artist district. After a quick lunch of shawarma and falafel at Awani (Talmi called it the Israeli McDonald’s), we explored what was the most important Palestinian city before 1947 and the oldest port of the world.
From the Yemenite Art Gallery to Israeli artist Ilana Goor’s private home-turned-museum , and tasting local wine made of pomegranate, Jaffa was all about stimulating our artistic side. I could’ve spent the day in the company of Ben Zion David at the Yemenite Art Centre, the eighth generation of his family continuing the tradition of creating Yemenite jewellery. “I’ve been doing this for 47 years and have over 2,800 designs,” he told me over coffee and dates. But that would have inevitably upset Talmi as he had an elaborate itinerary planned, one that involved my favourite pastime: shopping.
With over 300 local shops, the 70-year-old Carmel Market is the largest souk in Tel Aviv. The hustle- bustle, the colours, and the smell give you an authentic Middle Eastern vibe. From fashion to food, souvenirs to exquisite trinkets, this stretch of road, bordered by Allenby Street and Magen David Square, is a local experience not to be missed. The Crafts Market that runs parallel to Carmel Market every Tuesday and Friday is the place to be if your idea of retail therapy involves unique handcrafted items.
Known to be one of the world’s leading party cities, Tel Aviv and its experience would have been incomplete if I hadn’t let my hair down. Evi, our nightlife guide met us at 10.30 pm, ready to show off what ‘life in a bubble’ involved. “Tel Aviv has 1,500 places that serve alcohol; 750 of them are bars,” he smiled, as we hopped across to the happening Sputnik bar, hidden down a small alley off Allenby. Although the night scene starts rather late here, with crowds pouring in mostly after midnight, Sputnik was quite abuzz for a Wednesday. I was told by the bar manager that I’d have to down a ‘house shot’ as a house rule before the party could begin. And just like that, I was a part of the bubble. Tel Aviv had welcomed me with open arms.
Hotel Rothschild 22 is conveniently located on the bustling Rothschild Boulevard. The popular Neve Tzedek neighbourhood is a 10-minute walk from here, and the Independence Hall Museum just 100 metres away. The hotel offers 156 rooms with all the modern comforts. From Rs 14,000 per night plus taxes
While there are tonnes of restaurants, including fine dining options and local eateries, we’d recommend ARIA, a contemporary bistro offering a fresh and innovative menu created by Chef Guy Gamzu. Another must-try is OASIS, located at Montefiero 17. Try the BMW here if you love your chocolate. Ha’Achim, which translates to brothers, is centred on Middle-Eastern cuisine. The hummus and challah served here ain’t something you’ll forget anytime soon.
Sputnik comes highly recommended if you wish to hang out with the uber cool crowd of Tel Aviv and enjoy EDM with top DJs.
Kuli Alma is where art meets alcohol. Cool decor and graffiti, the bar’s trademark Mojito slushies, and a vintage clothing store hidden in one of the rooms make it unique.
BuXa is known for its ultra-modern art collection and a cool beverage list. It’s also where you discover Israel’s up-and-coming underground DJs.
THE DEAD SEA & MASADA
While Tel Aviv’s heady nightlife can be best described as a mix of American Pie and The Hangover, on the other end of the spectrum, 100 kilometres from Tel Aviv, lies the lowest point on earth, 428 metres below sea level: the Dead Sea.
A candidate for the World’s 7 Natural Wonders, this lake of salty water boasts 32 minerals with a mind-boggling 34.3 per cent salinity. It’s a natural site I would definitely recommend, considering the fact that it’s sinking at an alarming rate of 3.3 feet ever year, thanks to climate change. Having heard of its healing powers and hoping that it’d cure my fatigue of the previous day and night, I gave myself in to the Dead Sea.
As I buoyed in the waters of what is claimed to have been Cleopatra’s personal spa, at the Neve Midbar beach, life came to a standstill: devoid of stress, I floated on a cloud. However, I had to make sure that my nirvana time didn’t exceed the recommended 15-20 minutes due to the extremely high salinity. To bring some of the Sea home, I visited the Israeli cosmetics company AHAVA. After a substantial dent in my wallet, it was time to cross the Judean Desert and explore Masada, a site of legends.
A UNESCO World Heritage List, Masada was the last stronghold of Jewish freedom fighters against the Romans. It was here that over 900 Jews killed themselves instead of falling prey to Roman slavery. The remains of what used to be a fortified palace built by King Herod, who ruled from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C., is the last standing witness to the fall of Masada. As I stood on the plateau, 450 metres above the surreal Dead Sea, the endless desert made me realise that Masada was the symbol of not just Jewish heroism, but also of the universal struggle for freedom. I descended overwhelmed by the weight of history, and made myself a promise to come back.
How can a complete trip to Israel without paying a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christian or not? Yes, it was a short tour (two hours to be precise), but if there’s a place that has overwhelmed me instantly, it has to be this 3,000-year-old city. It holds some of the most fascinating architecture I’ve witnessed, with all the buildings of the city (young and old) featuring Jerusalem stone.
It is home to three monotheistic faiths, and yet, as I traversed the Old City’s Christian Quarter, there was an uncanny sense of peace: one that you experience firsthand at the Church. With 65 per cent of the population being Jews and the rest Muslim Arabs, Jerusalem is a beacon of spiritualism. Whether it’s praying against the Western Wall (considered the holiest place of Judaism), or the celebratory essence of the bar mitzvah, or a quick detour to the Mahane Yehuda market that’s full of character and local offerings (also where I stumbled upon some delicious olives)—this complex montage of religions, cultures, and tastes comes together beautifully.
Israel never ceased to surprise me. You pray in Jerusalem, and party in Tel Aviv. But beyond the hullabaloo of what is quickly becoming the ‘it’ destination for millennials and family holidays, it was the locals who struck a chord with me. They all seemed exultant—whether it was the music producer- cum-hairstylist Koby Mercury who gave me a bob in
15 minutes while talking about love, life, and loss; or Uri who chatted enthusiastically about the effects of metacognition on his perception of life; or a French woman named Rachel who had settled in Tel Aviv with her Israeli boyfriend. Bubble or not, Israel is a place that welcomes you wholeheartedly. Shalom!
GET INSPIRED IN ISRAEL
The country is a holy land to multiple faiths. Its historic monuments, culture-rich souks, bustling cities, and long, beautiful coastline have something exciting for everyone who arrives at its shores.
Multiple airlines fly between Indian metros and Tel Aviv. Air India flies non-stop from New Delhi to the Ben-Gurion International Airport in 7 hours 25 minutes.
WEATHER & WEAR
The weather is sunny and warm from April to October. Winter falls between November and March. While Tel Aviv is cosmopolitan and modern, modest clothing is recommended while exploring Jerusalem, Masada, Akko, Jerusalem, Dead Sea especially when you’re visiting holy sites.
While US dollars are accepted at the airport and the big department stores, carry the local currency (New Israel Shekel or shekel) for shopping in local souks.
The Israeli worksheet goes from Sunday to Thursday, and the weekend is made up of Friday and Saturday. For more details, click here.
PRODUCED BY AINDRILA MITRA | PHOTOGRAPHED BY TARAS TARAPORVALA | STYLED BY MOHIT RAI | HAIR & MAKEUP BY ARTI NAYAR | LOCATION AKKO, ISRAEL