The center of Tel Aviv is a sprawling area that includes many of its major institutions. It is home to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Habimah, the national theater; to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the New Israeli Opera and the main branch of the municipal library; to the multi-story municipality building, the courthouses, plenty of stylish boutiques; three shopping malls; and several well-known cafés and restaurants. It contains lots of squares – Rabin Square, Dizengoff Square, Masaryk Square (although only one of them is actually square-shaped) plus three boulevards and a marina. Most of the residential sections in the center of the city are considered upscale, although this is due more to location than aesthetics.
Some sections of central Tel Aviv were “uglified” during the 1970s. Dizengoff Square and Kikar Atarim are prime examples of what can kindly be called “errors in urban planning” – or less kindly, urban blight. The eastern section of Shaul Hamelech (King Saul) Boulevard, on the other hand, received a facelift during the 1990s. Still other areas were left untouched – kept very much as they were in the 1940s, albeit much in need of renovation.
Central Tel Aviv is not the most beautiful or historic area of the city, although there are many examples of International style architecture on the side streets. It is, however, an integral part of the city, and an excellent place to experience its rhythm and lifestyle.
Central Dizengoff St.
From the early 1950s through mid-1970s, central Dizengoff was one of the city’s most stylish places to gather in cafes, shop and stroll. This is also where Israel’s most famous poets, authors and journalists gathered at now-defunct cafes that were once household names. The verb “lehizdangef,” from the name Dizengoff, was coined to describe a stroll along Tel Aviv’s longest street. Decades later, the verb has become an anachronism and central Dizengoff is no longer the most stylish area in the city, but it is still a busy hub of activity that offers lots of opportunities for eating, drinking, shopping and people watching.
Dizengoff Square, the neglected, slightly seedy, round pedestrian bridge with the monstrous colored fountain in the middle, is one of the primary examples of ugly 1970s Tel Aviv architecture. Internationally renowned kinetic sculptor Yaacov Agam, who recently had a European retrospective, won a competition to design the fountain, which was supposed to symbolize fire and water. The municipality’s intentions were good – they wanted to allow easier flow of traffic below the bridge while contributing to the city’s cultural heritage.
Unfortunately, there was never enough money to maintain the square with the fountain, and it has now become one of the biggest controversies in Tel Aviv. There is a plan to destroy and rebuild it, but no agreement on how the rebuilding should be handled; many want the original square, which was at ground level, to be restored – but that would create enormous traffic problems. The controversy is illustrative of the passion Tel Avivians feel for their city, as well as their conflicting visions.
The bridge did kill off most of the commercial activity on this section of Dizengoff. Now it is a popular nighttime gathering place for teenage punk rockers, while during the day it is a place where old people stop to rest during their daily walks, or where buskers perform to earn a few shekels. On Tuesdays and Fridays there is a flea market under the bridge. If you’re looking for a 1970s LP of a long-forgotten pop singer, or a cut-glass candy dish that looks like the one your grandmother had, this is the place to shop.
Dizengoff Center, Israel’s first shopping mall, was built in the 1970s at the corner of King George and Dizengoff. It has long been surpassed in elegance and variety by the newer shopping malls in Tel Aviv’s northern suburbs, but it is a popular and convenient place to shop for a wide, if standard, selection of clothes, household goods and groceries. Dizengoff Center is a classic example of Israeli 1970s “ugly architecture,” but it has a nice, comfortable vibe that feels very communal – much more like an outdoor shopping area than a sterile, enclosed mall.
The mall contains branches of almost all the popular fast food restaurants, including Israel’s homegrown coffee chains, plus two multiplex cinemas. The Lev cinema on the uppermost floor is more of an art-house cinema, while the cinema on the lowest floor screens current Hollywood releases.
On Fridays there is a popular international food fair at Dizengoff Center. The corridors of the mall are lined with an astonishing variety of cooked food, from Moroccan to Chinese.
Ben Gurion Blvd.
Named for Israel’s first prime minister, Ben Gurion Boulevard is mostly residential and somewhat neglected-looking. But visitors still come to visit David Ben Gurion’s boxy white house, now a museum, and the boulevard is a pleasant connecting path between the beach and Rabin Square. It is popular with strollers and has some “interesting” modern sculptures by local artists on the stretch between Dizengoff and the beach.
Which brings us to the second example of horrible 1970s municipal planning – Kikar Atarim. The neglected, breathtakingly ugly square at the foot of the boulevard overlooks the beach and the marina; unfortunately, the view is Atarim’s only redeeming feature. Originally planned as a shopping mall, Atarim was left semi-complete and is a true eyesore. A few over-priced tourist restaurants serving greasy, semi-edible Israeli-style fast food and beers populate the square. As with the Dizengoff pedestrian bridge, there are yet-to-be-realized plans to renovate Kikar Atarim – as soon as the funding is found and an agreement between the residents and the municipality reached. Winter or summer, and barring a driving rainstorm, each Saturday afternoon there is folk dancing on the pavement beneath the stairs that lead down to the beach.
The beach here is relatively quiet, and the marina, with its sparkling, luxurious yachts, is lovely to look at. Since Tel Aviv is blessed with sunny weather on most days, you might want to buy an ice cream, sit down on a bench and spend some time contemplating the view.
Ben Zion Blvd., Chen Blvd., Masaryk Square, and Rabin Square
Habimah, the complex that houses Israel’s national theater is undergoing extensive renovations as of this writing. It is the connecting point between Ben Zion and Chen Boulevards, which run roughly perpendicular to one another. Neither is important in terms of architecture, history or monuments, but they are leafy, sedate, largely residential and lovely for strolling or bicycling.
Chen Boulevard leads from Habimah to Rabin Square. It is lined with tree-shaded benches that are nearly always occupied by a typical cross-section of the neighborhood’s population – ranging from infirm octogenarians accompanied by their caregivers, to mothers with babies. The boulevard is quiet on most days, but when there is a major event at Rabin Square it is packed with people.
The significance of Rabin Square lies in its history and purpose – not in its design. Originally called Kings of Israel, the square was renamed after the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally held on the site. A monument, including a diagram of Rabin’s last movements, is beneath the steps of the municipality. Israelis gather at Rabin Square to celebrate, to mourn and to listen to live performances. It is a national monument of the best kind – a living one that is well used.
Located just a few steps from Rabin Square, Masaryk Square (which is really a circle) is named for Thomas Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia. Over the past few years several local designers have opened boutiques around the square, contributing a chic and fashionable atmosphere. There are also several good cafés, mostly overlooking the little square with the fountain. Masaryk has a truly local atmosphere – one of laid-back, Tel Aviv-style, urban chic. It is a very pleasant place to shop, wander and linger over coffee.
Ben Zion Boulevard leads from Habimah down to King George Street, where it morphs into Bograshov Street and continues on to the beach. If you are heading for Dizengoff Center, just turn right at King George and continue to the next corner. The intersection of King George and Bograshov tends to be noisy and hectic, but if you really need a break, there’s a fairly good café on one of the corners – or you could stop in and browse at the Third Ear CD shop and DVD library. There is a small cinema on the third floor, where excellent local documentary films are screened daily. Check the posters on the front door for details, or ask the staff in the DVD library on the second floor.
Gan Ha’ir and Ibn Gvirol St.
Just behind the municipality building is the upscale Gan Ha’ir (City Garden) shopping mall. When it first opened in the 1980s, Gan Ha’ir was considered the most elite shopping center in the city. This is not the case anymore. There are still several elegant and expensive shops at Gan Ha’ir, and it does cling to its elite image, but the atmosphere is an aging one. This is perhaps best illustrated by the Hungarian café, Yehudith’s (Judith’s). With its clusters of German-and-Hungarian-speaking octogenarian ladies consuming coffee with whipped cream and strudel, Yehudíth’s feels like pre-war Mitteleuropa – a real time machine. The food is mediocre at best, the coffee is worse and the service is grouchy, but Yehudith’s aging clientele remains loyal nonetheless.
The section of Ibn Gvirol Street facing the municipality is a hodgepodge of businesses that range from fashionable boutiques to dim, old-fashioned shops selling orthopedic shoes and thermal undies. The street is, however, evolving very rapidly lately. The municipality recently widened and improved the road, and fashionable shops, cafés and restaurants are replacing the dusty, old-fashioned, family run businesses. Despite the cacophony produced by the diesel buses and honking taxi drivers, Ibn Gvirol is a pleasant place to stroll, have coffee and browse the shops.
The area around Dubnov Street, which runs in a vaguely parallel line to Ibn Gvirol, is considered upscale – but mostly for its population rather than its architectural value. Designed and built during the 1950s to woo the wealthy American Jews who never did get around to immigrating, it has a garden city look, with generous plots of land and lots of green areas surrounding the residences, as well as a large, well-maintained park.
Shaul Hamalech Blvd.
Shaul Hamelech Boulevard feels big and impersonal. It lacks the charm of the narrower, tree-lined boulevards and is far more traffic-clogged. But this is where the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art is located, as well as the new structure housing the New Israeli Opera, the main branch of the municipal public library and an art-house cinema. The Museum of Modern Art is not a particularly lovely building, but it has some very good permanent and temporary exhibitions. Many of Israel’s most famous artists exhibit here. For children, there are interactive exhibitions and live performances.
Carlebach, Hahashmonaim and Haarba’a Sts.
The Cinematheque, the city’s main art house cinema, is set in a leafy square on Sprinzak Street, where Hahashmonaim, Haarba’a and Carlebach intersect. The square is lined with benches and shaded by trees, making it a very pleasant place to sit. The cinema itself screens a wide variety of art-house films from all over the world, including cult films and Israeli underground hits. There is a bilingual schedule available both online and in the lobby; the latter houses a café where live jazz is performed on Friday afternoons.
Haarba’a Street is lined with good restaurants that range from sushi to pub grub. It is a popular destination for both business lunches and a night out on the town.
Hahashmonaim Street is undergoing major changes. For years one side was lined with falafel joints, shops and restaurants, while the other was primarily a big, dirty open lot, occupied by the wholesale fruit and vegetable market. Recently the municipality decided to move the market to make room for a major luxury housing development. Construction has already begun on this controversial project – yet more evidence of how quickly Tel Aviv is expanding.
Carlebach is named after Azriel Carlebach, the founding editor of Maariv newspaper. The Maariv building still stands in its original location, looking much the worse for wear, and the rest of the street is quite unattractive. There are a couple of mediocre cafés, a pub or two and a popular karaoke club, where middle-aged types come to sing old Hebrew folk songs, but otherwise Carlebach is the kind of street you won’t regret missing.
The Azrieli Center is one of the best-known landmarks in Tel Aviv. Built in the shapes of a circle, a square and a triangle, the Azrieli towers were, for a very brief period, the tallest in the Middle East – until Dubai’s massive construction boom left Tel Aviv in the dust. The first three floors of the center are occupied by a pretty generic, American-style shopping mall, complete with multiplex, luxury health club and junk food outlets, that has no uniquely Israeli characteristics. The main reason to visit the Azrieli Center is for the spectacular, panoramic view from the observation platform on the 49th floor. On a clear day you can see all up and down the coast, and as far eastward as the Judean Hills.
Directly opposite the Azrieli Center is the recently restored Sarona Garden. Once a Templar Colony that was an agricultural village, Sarona was established in 1871 by German religious pilgrims who settled in the Holy Land. The single story homes made of stone are classic Templar structures; and for years they were left to crumble from neglect. Recently, the municipality recognized their architectural value and restored them. The plan is to turn the Sarona area into a commercial area that combines new buildings with the restored Templar structures, with tree-lined paths and outdoor cafes completing the sense of an urban oasis. The plans show that great attention has been paid to preserving the original trees and to combining old and new with respect to both the past and the future.