City Guide Tel Aviv is the first stylish, sophisticated traveler’s companion to one of the world’s most exciting cities. Written, photographed and edited by Tel Aviv’s ultimate insiders, City Guide Tel Aviv shows why Israel’s commercial and culture capital has for years been a jealously guarded secret known only to a knowledgeable few. This undiscovered gem on the Mediterranean has it all – from beaches, nightclubs, gourmet restaurants and chic boutiques to museums, opera, ballet and art galleries. City Guide Tel Aviv includes a fascinating account of the city’s brief but rich history, as well as a description of the character and highlights of each of its five areas.
Tel Aviv tends to surprise first-time visitors. They come expecting to find a provincial Middle Eastern city of plodding camels, ancient monuments, Oriental fantasies and armed combatants; instead, they discover a stylish, utterly contemporary Mediterranean metropolis filled with chic cafés, an exciting culture scene, fashionable boutiques, barely-clad beautiful people and a roaring nightlife.
For years, Tel Aviv was the jealously guarded secret of hip travelers – an alternative vacation destination that was edgier and more vibrant than the overpriced, touristy cities that dot the Mediterranean basin. Only very recently have international travel writers recognized the city’s many attributes – notably, of course, the clubs, restaurants and art galleries.
But the real source of Tel Aviv’s seductive powers is something less tangible. It is its overwhelming love of life. You see it in the uninhibited dancing on the bars; in the ever-crowded cafés, buzzing with laughter and conversation from morning until night; in the 24-hour holiday atmosphere during the long summer months; and in the furious creativity poured into the local theater, music and fashion scenes. There are very few cities that feel as strongly alive, self-confident and hedonistic – or that live so firmly in the present. And because Tel Aviv is relaxed, welcoming and homelike, the initial seduction usually evolves into a lifelong love affair.
Tel Aviv celebrates its 100th birthday this year. A famous photograph taken in 1909 shows a group of Zionist pioneers gathered on a beach near Jaffa, when it was still an outpost of the Ottoman Empire, dividing up a plot of land they named Ahuzat Bayit. Later, the fledgling settlement was renamed Tel Aviv, or Hill of Spring, after the Hebrew title of Altneuland, Theodore Herzl’s seminal tract on modern Zionism.
From 1909-1932, Tel Aviv was a sleepy little village that developed slowly, in fits and stops. The predominant architectural style was eclectic – a mixture of Levantine, Central European and Oriental influences – and the street planning somewhat haphazard. At the beginning of the 1920s, two major events occurred and determined the city’s future: Jaffa’s commercial center moved to Tel Aviv, following violent confrontations between the Jewish and Arab communities of that ancient port city; and Sir Patrick Geddes created a modern urban plan for Tel Aviv, based on the Garden City concept.
Geddes was a visionary who planned the city so that it would answer its residents’ spiritual and material needs, by taking into account factors ranging from climate and social structure to income. He believed in fostering human interaction by bringing people together naturally in public places, such as squares, parks and streets; he did not believe in separating the commercial center from the residential areas, lest the former become ghost towns during non-working hours. Residential buildings were to be low-rise, airy, aesthetically pleasing and inexpensive.
Starting from 1932, a third historical event proved to be the decisive factor in creating a permanent, definitive stamp on Tel Aviv’s character and appearance. The rise of Hitler brought a massive influx of German-Jewish refugees to the tiny city. The architects who designed the residential buildings for those refuges were trained in the Bauhaus style – which, with its merging of art and functionality, was uniquely suited to Geddes’s vision. Tel Aviv was their blank canvas: within two decades, an estimated 5,000 buildings in the Bauhaus-influenced International, or Modern, style of clean lines, curved balconies and geometric shapes were constructed all over Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Thus was born the first – and only – Bauhaus city.
Fifty years later, UNESCO designated the White City – so called for the brilliance of its original whitewashed buildings – a World Heritage Site. Once the most modern city in the world, Tel Aviv is now frequently – and perhaps ironically – referred to as a “living museum” of Modern architecture. Most of those Bauhaus buildings have been terribly neglected, but they are being restored at an ever-increasing pace to reflect the city’s newfound pride in its heritage.
Nearly one century after Patrick Geddes submitted his plan for Tel Aviv to the city’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, his basic vision of a liveable urban space has held: Tel Aviv suffers from common urban problems like traffic jams and pollution, but it remains a social city that is lined with tree shaded boulevards and dotted with green parks and squares where people gather at all hours of the day and night. There is clearly an ongoing struggle between Geddes’ plan and the needs of a 21st century metropolis, but so far the balance between preservation and modernization has held.
The anchor for all this modernity is Jaffa, which is frequently called the oldest functioning port city in the world. Today, the two cities are officially one – called Tel Aviv-Jaffa – but they look and feel very different. Jaffa is awash in ancient historical monuments and redolent of the Middle East, while Tel Aviv is almost devoid of monuments and feels more Levantine than Middle Eastern. In many ways, though, they complement and complete one another.
A stroll or bicycle ride from Jaffa to the Yarkon Park in the north is really a journey through Tel Aviv’s short, but fascinating, history. Start at the ancient port, where the first modern Zionist pioneers disembarked at the end of the nineteenth century; continue on to Neve Tzedek, where Aharon Chelouche, scion of a prominent Jaffa family, purchased a plot of land and established the first Jewish neighborhood outside of Jaffa in the early 1880s; next are the neighborhoods of southern and central Tel Aviv, where the Bauhaus influence of the 1930s and 1940s predominates; and, finally, you will come to the boxy, charmless structures that were built during the 1950s and 1960s, when Israel was a new state with urgent housing needs and little money. Along the way you will see the grand experiments of the 1970s – like the Dizengoff Center, which was a success, and the raised pedestrian bridge over Dizengoff Circle, which was not. Interspersed between these 20-year stages of Tel Aviv’s evolution – as witnessed by its architecture – you will see bland contemporary high-rise office buildings and new luxury apartment buildings that attest to the city’s continued surge forward, as it consolidates its position as a major international commerce and culture capital.
One of the Tel Aviv’s great, simple pleasure is a leisurely stroll or bicycle ride up and down the beachfront promenade, along the Mediterranean coast, from ancient Jaffa to the green expanses of Hayarkon Park in the north. On Saturday afternoons the promenade is packed with strolling couples and families, street artists, hucksters and musicians. It is a major gathering place and a center of this Mediterranean city’s life.
In general, the joy of Tel Aviv is found in its simple pleasures. There is the café culture, for example: it is almost impossible to walk for more than 50 meters anywhere in the city without coming across a café. Tel Avivians gather at cafés to read the morning newspapers with their coffee, to work on their laptops (free wireless Internet connections are the norm), to hold business meetings, to gossip with friends. For a visitor who wants to soak up the local culture, a café is the ideal place to start – and linger, for hours at a time.
For those who have experienced it, there is nothing quite like Tel Aviv’s nightlife. It is anarchistic, cutting edge and hedonistic, but neither threatening nor intimidating. All the negative factors that characterize nightlife in London and New York – the aggressive posing, the hostile bouncers, the pushy drunkards – are completely absent in Tel Aviv. Everything starts very late, with bars opening after 10 p.m. and clubs after midnight. In some parts of the city, 4 o’clock on a Saturday morning feels like rush hour. Moreover, apart from night clubs there are many other kinds of entertainments that can be found in Tel Aviv especially at night or in the evenings. One of the most popular is escort girls services that are very easy to find all over the country but the biggest choice of the most professional escort girls is in the center of the country. For example, escort girls in Tel Aviv are famous for their special abilities to allow men to feel like in heaven while being with them both in the night clubs and in the hotel or apartment.
Tel Aviv has plenty of serious culture, too. There are dozens of art galleries, a critically acclaimed opera company and a world-renowned symphony orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta. There are around twelve theaters, from Habimah, Israel’s national theater, to fringe theater; per capita, Tel Aviv has one of the highest numbers of theater attendees in the world. Some, like the Gesher Theater and Do Touch, offer performances with surtitles in English.
All over the city, on any given night, there are poetry readings, gallery exhibition openings, experimental theater performances, live avant-garde jazz by local and international artists, and performances of local pop, rock, Indy and folk music. The city draws up-and-coming artists from all over the world, and it buzzes with creative energy.
Social attitudes are remarkably open in Tel Aviv, by any standards. Frequently included in the top ten gay-friendly cities in the world, it hosts a hugely popular annual gay pride parade but has few gay clubs and bars, for the simple reason that there is no ghettoization of gays and straights in Tel Aviv.
The sun shines on most days in Tel Aviv, but the summers are terribly hot and humid and the winters, while short, can be damp and chilly. The best time to come for a visit is in the spring – particularly in March, when the evenings are still cool enough to merit a light sweater and the days are warm enough for the beach. If you do come in July-August or September, the heat will make daytime touring nearly impossible – unless you have a fondness for tropical weather. Save your energy for the humid nights, with their all-night party atmosphere. And don’t worry about walking around the city alone, late at night: violent urban crime is practically unheard of in Tel Aviv.
Here are some little things to know about getting along in the city:
- The local area code is (03). You don’t need it if you are calling a number in Greater Tel Aviv, of course, and you must drop the zero if you are calling from abroad. The area code for Israel is 972.
- Taxi drivers tend to see tourists as soft targets. Remember, they are required by law to turn on their meter (called a “moh-neh” in Hebrew). It is not customary to tip taxi drivers.
- Restaurant wait staff, on the other hand, do expect a gratuity of about 15 percent. Tips are usually left in cash, even if you pay the bill with a credit card.
- Most businesses close on Friday afternoon, re-opening on Sunday morning. Cafés and restaurants tend to stay open for the weekend, although there are many exceptions so it is always wise to check before going out. Clubs, pubs, kiosks, cinemas and theatres are all open.
- Whatever happens, you never need to worry about eating well in Tel Aviv. Even the simplest cafés serve delicious fresh salads and sandwiches for reasonable prices. And, of course, the coffee is always good.
- In Tel Aviv, “dressed up” means upscale casual. You can leave the suits at home, although trendy and fashionable is just as important here as it is in any major city.
Don’t worry if we locals don’t smile at you very often. We’re not being cold –
just cool, in the fashionable sense. And we warm up quickly.