The north end of Tel Aviv is solidly bourgeois and Ashkenazi and feels far more influenced by Europe than the Middle East. It is quiet, green, prosperous and pleasantly dull. This is where the icons of upper middle class Tel Aviv are located – like Kikar Hamedina, with its European designer shops, Assuta Hospital, which is private and caters to the wealthy, and the Herzliya Gymnasium, one of the country’s most prestigious high schools.
This is possibly one of the last places in Israel where it is common to see elegantly dressed septuagenarian women, with bags that match their shoes, sitting in cafés and chatting in German or Hungarian – or in carefully enunciated, grammatically perfect, old-fashioned Hebrew. It is an aging neighborhood, although recently there has been an influx of young urban professionals who are looking for the closest thing to the suburbs within the big city. You can spot them easily: look for the thirtysomething couples – she with a perky blonde ponytail and he with a Montblanc pen in his shirt pocket – pushing a baby in a carriage and pulling a dog on a leash.
Despite its socio-economic prestige, this area is not architecturally distinguished. Unlike the rest of Tel Aviv, the north end is not strongly characterized by the Modernist look and there are few noteworthy examples of International style low-rise residential buildings. There are, however, many examples of utilitarian-looking residences that were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s – especially around Yehuda Hamaccabi. The most prominent aesthetic characteristic of this area is the high concentration of green parks – especially Hayarkon Park, the jewel in the crown.
The north end of Tel Aviv is also a major shopping area for upscale designer clothes. It has a high concentration of elegant – and expensive – boutiques, particularly on North Dizengoff and around Kikar Hamedina.
Hilton beach and Hof Metzitzim
The two major beaches in the north end have provided lots of material for Israeli cultural references. Hilton Beach, named for the hotel above it, is known as the gay beach. That doesn’t mean that heterosexuals are unwelcome – far from it – but there is a certain “check me out” vibe between the extremely well groomed men who frequent Hilton Beach.
Hof Metzitzim is Hebrew for “Peeping Toms’ Beach.” The name is derived from an Israeli cult film, made in the early 1970s, that starred major rock stars like Arik Einstein. The bohemian scene to which Einstein and his friends belonged centered on this beach. There was a lot of boy-girl action in the film – much of it considered quite risqué back then, when Israel was a much more conservative place.
North Dizengoff, Basel Square and Kikar Hamedina
When fashionable Israelis with disposable income – or a sizable overdraft – go shopping, they usually head to North Dizengoff, Basel Square and Kikar Hamedina. Each has clusters of exclusive boutiques, with the types of designers varying from one area to the next.
North Dizengoff is sometimes referred to as fashion row. This is where nearly all of Israel’s most prominent homegrown designer boutiques are located. The local talent is quite impressive and often unique, ranging from elegant evening gowns to trendy club gear, with well-cut business suits and casual apparel a strong presence, as well. Several of the designers have won prestigious international fashion awards.
There are also many bridal boutiques in this area. On Thursday, the most popular day to marry, stiffly gowned and carefully coiffed young women emerge in the afternoons from the boutiques to be photographed and filmed, before they enter the waiting car that will whisk them off to the ceremony.
North Dizengoff is also a pleasant place to stroll, café hop and window shop. It is tree-and-bench lined and remarkably quiet in comparison with the southern stretch of the street.
The shops around Basel Square are not quite as cutting-edge as those on North Dizengoff. There are a few boutiques that specialize in fashionable, expensive maternity and baby clothes and some branches of well-known Israeli designer boutiques. Otherwise, this is really more of a place to purchase accessories – from scented candles to imported Italian dishes and locally designed jewelry – or to enjoy a leisurely afternoon at a fashionable café. The atmosphere at Basel Square is unmistakably laid back and prosperous.
And then there is Kikar Hamedina, the name that is synonymous with money – usually new, and in great quantities. This circular “square” has the highest concentration of prestigious international name brands in the city, from Rolex and Bulgari to Ralph Lauren and Versace; in many ways, it resembles a big duty free shop. And indeed, Kikar Hamedina is the place where Israeli plutocrats who don’t have time to hop over to Europe for a weekend shopping spree come to purchase their clothes and jewelry. Interestingly, because of a municipal zoning law there is only one café on Kikar Hamedina; the rest are clustered on the side streets that are like spokes sticking out from a wheel.
Kikar Hamedina’s expensive shops and elite reputation contrast rather oddly with its somewhat run down appearance. Air conditioner hoses drip into plastic bottles outside shops where couture dresses are sold. Display windows are sometimes smudged with finger prints, and building facades with flaking paint are common. The grassy, circular park is neglected and badly kept, too. But soon the park will disappear. It is privately owned and plans are underway to make it the site of a luxury-housing complex, after the owner won a 20-year battle with local residents and the municipality.
The North Port and Hayarkon Park
For years, Tel Aviv’s North Port was a site of major urban blight. Recently it underwent a refurbishing and gentrification process and is now one of the most popular areas in the city to eat, shop, stroll and troll the nightlife. There are parts that still look like a port, with the apparatus for unloading ships’ cargo left intact – although it is no longer used – and the leisure areas are built around them. This was a conscious decision, and the result is an interesting juxtaposition of modern, fashionable Tel Aviv with its recent past.
The waterfront has a wooden boardwalk that is lined with cafés, restaurants and bars and the sections that are set back from the water are packed with some of the city’s trendiest nightclubs. There is almost never a time when the port is empty of people. Joggers appear early in the morning, later on families and young couples come to stroll the boardwalk and stop for lunch at one of the pretty cafés. After dark the port becomes a major nightlife scene, with music spilling out the doors of the clubs and dance bars.
A stroll from the north port up to Hayarkon Park, Israel’s largest public park, is a uniquely Tel Aviv experience, and highly recommended – especially on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
At nearly 4 kilometers square, Hayarkon Park rivals New York’s Central Park in both size and beauty. The paths along the riverbank are one of the most popular places in the city for recreational bicycling. Families picnic on the tree-shaded grass and there are even regular cricket games between teams of ex-pat Indian diamond merchants and locals. Hayarkon Park is a great, multi-cultural Israeli gathering place – magically peaceful and pleasant.
The park features an aviary, a waterpark and an artificial lake. The whole area is well maintained by the municipality, and treated with an unusual degree of respect in a country where public spaces are often sadly abused.
Yehuda Hamaccabi St.
Yehuda Hamaccabi Street and the surrounding streets were planned and built during the 1960s, as was Tel Aviv University. Prior to that, the city ended at Hayarkon Park. Like the rest of the north end, this is a prestigious, upper class neighborhood.
The tree-lined street is notable mostly for its cafés and the side streets for their quiet, very middle class atmosphere. There is not a lot to draw a visitor here, but it’s a very pleasant place to stroll or stop for a coffee if you find yourself in the neighborhood.
This area really feels like a rather Germanic (some say it is reminiscent of Frankfurt), well-ordered suburb in the city. There are clusters of private homes with little gardens, for example – a sort of realization of the city’s founders’ vision of a “garden city.”
North of the Yarkon, Ramat Aviv and Tel Aviv University
Greater Tel Aviv branched northward during the 1960s, with the establishment of upscale suburbs such as Ramat Aviv Gimmel. As soon as one crosses the Yarkon and enters Haim Levanon Street, the change in atmosphere is obvious. The homes and apartment blocks are clearly suburban – well spaced and comfortable, but not architecturally distinguished.
Haim Levanon Street leads past museums and up into Ramat Aviv, where the Tel Aviv University campus is located. The green campus is a pleasant place to stroll, and the Diaspora Museum, which tells the story of the Jewish Nation’s 2,000 year exile from the Land of Israel, is worth a visit.
Ramat Hachayal is so modern that it almost looks like something out of a science fiction film. The sleek office towers were built at the height of the high-tech boom. Today some of the most important global high tech firms have research and development offices in Ramat Hachayal. There are several excellent restaurants here, many of which have become a magnet for the fashionable downtown Tel Aviv crowd. With its clean, contemporary lines, obvious prosperity and cosmopolitan atmosphere, Ramat Hachayal symbolizes Tel Aviv’s forward-looking, worldly attitude.