Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew, Yaffa in Arabic) is historically, culturally and anthropologically rich, offering so many things to do and see that one could easily devote a couple of days to exploring its many landmarks, hidden side streets, historical sites, different neighborhoods, restaurants and shops.
This ancient city can effectively be divided into two sections : the old city, which has been restored and turned into a popular tourist attraction; and the newer part of the city, which has a population that is ethnically and economically diverse.
Old Jaffa has a picturesque ancient port, historic sites, restored houses dating back to the Ottoman period and clusters of upscale restaurants, galleries and shops. It is a major tourist attraction for both foreigners and Israelis, with the latter descending upon the city in droves to eat hummus, shop at the flea market and stroll the alleys on Fridays, Saturdays and Jewish holidays.
The newer part of Jaffa is mostly residential. Its residents are a heterogeneous mix of Muslims, Christians and Jews, with the latter divided between financially comfortable young people and relatively impoverished old-timers who have been living in the area since the 1950’s. Much of residential Jaffa shows the municipality’s neglect and the residents’ poverty, but there are several areas that have been beautifully maintained by old middle class families who have lived there for generations, or gentrified by an influx of artists and professionals. Ajami in particular boasts many beautiful old homes and impressive landmarks, green parks, lovely views, some good local restaurants and an authentic neighborhood atmosphere.
Jaffa is often referred to as the oldest functioning port in the world. But while it was a busy commercial port from the Bronze Age until the early 1930’s, today it is a sleepy, run-down but picturesque marina used by local fisherman and yachtsmen.
The ancient city above the port has a rich and violent history of conquest and re-conquest, destruction and reconstruction. It is mentioned in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and was used by King Solomon to import cedars from Tyre for the building of the First Temple. Subsequent rulers include the Arabs, starting from 636 C.E., the Crusaders five centuries later, the Ottomans, the Egyptian Mamluks and then the Ottomans again. When Napoleon conquered the city in 1799, he infamously drowned 2,000 Albanian prisoners in the harbor. All these historical events are noted and summarized on plaques at various sites in the refurbished port area.
From the mid-19th century until the British conquest in 1917, the city was a thriving commercial hub of the Ottoman Empire. Its diverse population of Muslims, Christians and Jews, who engaged in commerce, banking, fishing and manufacturing, swelled to the point of overcrowding by the beginning of the early twentieth century. From the late nineteenth century until the 1920s, Jaffa was the headquarters of the modern Zionist movement in Israel. During the Arab Uprising of 1936-1939 there were several violent riots in Jaffa. As a result, most of the British and Jewish businesses moved to Tel Aviv.
While neighboring Tel Aviv was originally established in 1909 as a suburb of Jaffa, it grew rapidly and eventually dwarfed the ancient city. In 1950, it was incorporated into Tel Aviv, creating the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
And yet, while the two cities are nominally one, they look and feel utterly different. This is partly, of course, because Jaffa is old and Tel Aviv is new. But it is also because Jaffa still has a heterogeneous population of Arabs and Jews living side-by-side. Tel Aviv has a large minority of non-Jewish residents, but few Arabs live there.
The port city
The ancient port city is clearly visible from Tel Aviv. Built on a hill overlooking the water, it juts out from the coastline and looks, from a distance, like a fortress – which it was, once. It also offers a spectacular view of Tel Aviv. Today the port is undergoing an extensive renovation process that will make it into an attractive gathering place for locals and tourists alike.
One of the most picturesque ways to approach Jaffa is by foot, along the beachfront promenade, across the pedestrian bridge that unofficially marks the place where it meets Tel Aviv – where the old city meets the new. This route will take you directly into the refurbished port area, with its lovely views and many historical sites that are clearly marked with signs and arrows.
Notable sites include the Rock of Andromeda, the Zodiac Alleys, the Clock, the Mahmoudia Mosque, Street Peter’s Church, Kedumim Square, the Libyan Synagogue (now a museum) and the archaeological excavations at Jaffa Hill. Since they are all clustered close together, it is easy to see them in a leisurely half day of exploring.
There are many galleries, restaurants, museums and shops in old Jaffa. The area is small and well marked, so there is really no need to list them here – although the Ilana Goor Museum is particularly recommended. Otherwise, you will inevitably discover most landmarks just by walking around the area. The restaurants facing the water are a bit pricey and sometimes a tad touristy, but not overly so. And given the view and the setting, it’s easy to overlook these minor drawbacks.
Not all the restaurants overlook the water, however. Opposite the Clock Tower there are several excellent restaurants, cafes and bars tucked away in the stone alleys and on the side streets of the Noga Quarter. If you are more interested in good food than the view, these places might be a better choice – especially for dinner.
During the summer months, the Tel Aviv municipality often sponsors live musical performances in the square outside St. Peter’s Church. There are schedules posted and distributed around the square, or on the municipality website.
The streets, named after the signs of the Zodiac, are lined with galleries and artists’ studios, as well as shops selling jewelry, Judaica and souvenirs that are, surprisingly, not too tacky.
The flea Market
Located just beyond the old city, the flea market is an essential Jaffa experience. Best approached from Olei Zion Street, where it meets Jerusalem Boulevard, this sprawling warren of streets is lined with shops that sell everything from very expensive refurbished antique and art deco furniture to junk from someone’s grandmother’s attic. The whole place buzzes with energy and oozes local charm. Shopkeepers who have known one another for years shout greetings, or sit around sipping mint tea and playing backgammon. Bargaining is possible in some places, to a limited extent. But unless you grew up in a Turkish bazaar, don’t expect to pull one over on these seasoned merchants – they are far too street smart for the average shopper.
There are several cafes, tiny pubs and restaurants tucked in between the shops in the flea market. All are charming places to stop for a meal or a snack, but if there is one eatery that is a “must,” it’s Dr. Shakshuka. This legendary, no-frills restaurant serves home-style traditional cuisine originating with the Jewish communities in Tripoli and Morocco. It is most famous, however, for its signature dish: shakshuka, or eggs cooked in a spicy tomato sauce, which is practically a national delicacy. Served in the frying pan, this richly satisfying meal is scooped up with chunks of fresh bread and washed down with mint tea or lemonade.
The American Colony
Just behind the flea market and Jerusalem Boulevard, in a sort of no-man’s land that links Florentin to Jaffa, lies the American Colony. This tiny, picturesque neighborhood of wooden homes with gabled roofs looks as though it was transported from a New England museum about life in the nineteenth century – which it was, in a way.
In 1866, a group of American Evangelical Christians from Jonesport, Maine docked in Jaffa, bringing with them the wood they used to build their homes in the holy land. They later sold the tiny colony to German Templars, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the German Colony. The story of the American Colony is told at the Maine Friendship House, which is open daily to visitors.
Crowded and often noisy with traffic, Jerusalem Boulevard is one of Jaffa’s main shopping arteries and thoroughfares. It throbs with lively activity throughout the week. The shops run the gamut from local bakeries to fashionable design emporiums, so there is a lot of pedestrian traffic, making this an interesting place to stroll and people watch.
The internationally acclaimed Gesher Theater, which frequently produces plays with English surtitles and is definitely worth a visit, dominates the northern end of Jerusalem Boulevard. Behind the fountain square is the charming Noga Quarter, where several design studios, fashionable shops, cafes and restaurants are located between beautifully restored Ottoman-era residential buildings.
Built at the beginning of the twentieth century to celebrate the silver anniversary of Sultan Abd al-Hamid II, the three-story clock tower is Jaffa’s most famous landmark. Today it dominates the plaza that marks the beginning of Yefet Street, just at the point where Tel Aviv merges into Jaffa. The side streets in this area are a bit gritty (also known as “authentic”) and crowded, but well worth exploring. They are lined with casual restaurants that are patronized by local characters, many of whom while away their afternoons over endless games of cards and backgammon, played at rickety tables set up on the sidewalks.
Just a little further up Yefet Street one comes to Abulafia, which is easily the most famous bakery in the city. It is open 24 hours a day, and there is nearly always a crowd of customers gathered around. Piping hot pita bread rolls off the conveyer belt and the shelves are piled with sweet and savory Levantine pastries.
Along with Jerusalem Boulevard, Yefet is one of Jaffa’s two most important commercial streets. Besides its cafes, shops and restaurants, it is famous for its landmarks – like St. Anthony’s Church, or Fakhri Geday’s pharmacy, which has been in the same location and under the same family’s ownership since the British mandate period.
Stop in at Yafa Café at 33 Yehuda Margoza Street, where it meets Yefet. Co-owned by a Jewish woman and an Arab man, this intimate, book-lined café is a well-known local hangout for journalists and academics. For dessert, try the Victory ice cream shop next door – it’s a local institution.
Deeper into Jaffa
Tourists do not tend to explore much past the attractions of the old port, the flea market and a few fish restaurants. The only real exception to the rule is Ali Karavan, popularly known as Abu Hassan’s, which is widely considered the best hummus joint in Israel. Given that Israelis are completely obsessed with hummus, this is saying a great deal. If you want to check out this 40-year-old legendary hole-in-the wall, it’s just down the hill on Dolphin Street. But get there early – by mid-afternoon the hummus is usually all gone, and on Fridays a queue of people starts to gather from early in the morning for their weekend treat.
Jaffa is filled with charming side streets, picturesque courtyards and lush gardens that are great fun to explore. The restored Ottoman homes in the old port are inhabited mostly by the rich, but Ajami and the rest of Jaffa are where the regular people live. This is really the only place in greater Tel Aviv where Jews and Arabs live side-by-side. Many point to Ajami as a particularly good example of peaceful co-existence.
The darker side of Jaffa is its reputation for criminal activity – mostly drug related. There are frequent turf wars between rival gangs that sometimes manifest themselves in shooting incidents. There has never been a case of an innocent bystander being caught in the crossfire, so the local media rarely reports these incidents. Jaffa is also known for petty crime – mostly car and house break-ins. But none of this should frighten visitors away. The streets are perfectly quiet and safe – particularly during the day – and in any case Israel is almost completely free of the type of violence that is so prevalent in major Western cities.
There are several beautiful, landmark old homes in Ajami, especially around the areas of Yefet, Toulouse and Kedem Streets. The signs of gentrification are unmistakable, as is the evidence of poverty, but overall this is a laid-back, authentic neighborhood with a friendly atmosphere. Take your time walking around here – there are lots of interesting things to discover.
Café Paul, at 142 Yefet, is a cozy neighborhood hangout where rich espresso made from beans roasted on the premises is served to appreciative regular customers. The ice cream parlor next door has been around for years, and is immensely popular. The row of shops that includes Café Paul is right around the corner from the French ambassador’s residence, appropriately located on Toulouse Street. This impressive Bauhaus landmark was originally commissioned as a private residence for a prominent Arab family. The Arab-Jewish community center and elementary school lie just ahead, around the open space that serves as a local park. The historic Muslim and Greek Orthodox cemeteries that overlook Ajami beach are also a fascinating place to visit.
Take a right on Kedem and walk along the beach; there are some good, inexpensive seafood restaurants that are patronized by locals. There are also several nargileh bars, where local men (and sometimes women) hang out to smoke, play backgammon and drink mint tea. The local mosque is a simple affair – the call to prayer is chanted by a real live person with a pleasantly modulated voice, rather than played from a scratchy recording via a public address system.
In a way, Jaffa and Tel Aviv feel like two different countries. Together, though, they create a unique fusion of Levantine, Arab, European, Jewish, modern and ancient influences that characterize the unique city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.