The neighborhoods that comprise the south end of Tel Aviv are amongst the city’s oldest. Some, in fact, were established more than two decades before the founding of Tel Aviv – and then swallowed up during the 1930s and 1940s by the rapidly expanding city. Today the south end is partly gentrified, but mostly not.
It is full of all sorts of different markets, no-frills eateries serving traditional Turkish, Yemenite and Persian food, gloriously diverse architecture and some landmarks that date back to the city’s very first decade. It also includes some of the city’s best restaurants and most expensive real estate. The overall feeling in the south end is one of ethnic diversity, authenticity, history, urban grit and Levantine charm.
The residents of the south end are a mixed bunch. They range from urban hipsters and impecunious artists, to octogenarian Arabic-speaking Yemenite Jews and high-tech millionaires who have found refuge from the suburbs in Neve Tzedek – which has become one of Tel Aviv’s most picturesque and sought after neighborhoods.
Given its very run-down look, it is difficult to believe that Allenby, which connects the south end to the heart of the city, was once Tel Aviv’s most elegant street – its “grand boulevard.” That was in the days of the British Mandate, from the 1920s to the late 1940s. Back then the section of Allenby that connected Rothschild to King George Street was the city’s hub, its commercial center, known for its furriers, bookbinders, cafés and boutiques.
Today Allenby is noisy, dirty and seedy-looking. But look carefully behind the treetops and you will see some beautiful, though sadly neglected, old buildings from the 1920s. Some have a sign in mosaic tiles with the date on which it was built and the names of the architect and owner. Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue is located on Allenby, too. Lately, there are signs that Allenby may be on the cusp of a renaissance. There are a couple of good restaurants tucked away behind discreet signs and set back from the street; there are also a few interesting bars and some very good second-hand bookshops. Halper’s, at 87 Allenby, has the widest selection of titles in English.
Not far from Tel Aviv’s first intersection, at Herzl and Rothschild, is an elaborate, rundown edifice known simply by its address – 16 Herzl Street. This was the city’s first department store.
Just inside the entrance, the wall is adorned with the Hebrew word for “elevator,” with a long, pointing finger painted above the word. The finger points at an old cast iron elevator – the city’s first, although it no longer functions. One assumes there are plans to restore this striking building, which has featured in at least one well-known Israeli film – “Afula Express.”
The white skyscraper that dominates Herzl Street on the other side of Rothschild Boulevard is the Shalom Tower, which was built on the site of the original Gymansium Herzliya– the first high school with a curriculum taught entirely in Hebrew. Constructed in the 1970s, the Shalom Tower was once the tallest building in Israel, boasting a wax museum and an observation tower. Today its most interesting feature is located on the ground floor, where there is an elaborately detailed relief map of the city, with miniature buildings and other fascinating details that will keep adults and children equally engaged.
Neve Tzedek (Oasis of Justice) is the city’s oldest neighborhood. It is also its most beautiful, with an atmosphere that evokes an artists’ colony or a small village.
Neve Tzedek was founded in 1887, 22 years before Tel Aviv, on land purchased by Aharon Chelouche. The Chelouche family, which emigrated from Algeria at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was one of the wealthiest and most prominent Jewish families in Jaffa; they were famous for their philanthropy and involvement in the Jewish community. Located on the street named after them, the Chelouche (pronounced and misspelled as “Shlush”) family home in Neve Tzedek is now a museum.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Neve Tzedek was home to several prominent writers and authors. They included S.Y. Agnon, Israel’s Nobel Laureate in literature, and the artist Nachum Gutman. Today Gutman’s home, at 21 Rokach Street, is an excellent museum, with both permanent and changing exhibitions. There are also interactive exhibitions for children.
Shabazi Street, Neve Tzedek’s longest thoroughfare, is lined with stylish cafés, restaurants, wine bars, boutiques and a variety of shops selling innumerable beautiful things. It is a lovely place to stroll, browse, shop or linger over a coffee.
The beautiful, architecturally distinguished Suzanne Dellal Center is home to the world-renowned Batsheva Modern Dance Troupe. Its picturesque courtyards are a popular gathering place.
Following a prolonged period of decline, Neve Tzedek has, over the past two decades, been thoroughly gentrified. But it still has charm, authenticity and a relaxed neighborhood atmosphere. There are many old, unrenovated homes that are still inhabited by Yemenite families who moved into the area in the 1950s and refuse to sell their homes, to the chagrin of the real estate developers, because they are attached to their community, their lifestyle and their local synagogue.
Stroll around Neve Tzedek early on a quiet Saturday morning, and you’re sure to hear traditional chanting emerging from the open windows of the old synagogues – like the tiny prayer house on Chelouche Street at the corner of Amzaleg Street, which has been in continuous use since the end of the nineteenth century.
The Dolphinarium and Banana Beach
The strip of beach that borders Neve Tzedek is called Banana Beach. Despite the pervasive smell of urine and rotting garbage in the parking lot of the area known as the Dolphinarium, which is now home to a fashionable outdoor bar in the summer months, Banana Beach is a popular hangout. It is also known as Drummer’s Beach, for the amateur drummers who gather there on Friday afternoons at sunset for a “welcome to the weekend” jam session. Anyone can participate in the drumming, which continues until late at night and attracts jugglers, dancers and capoeira enthusiasts – as well as dozens of people who just come to enjoy the quintessentially laid back Tel Aviv atmosphere.
Directly across the street is Hassan Bek, the only functioning mosque on the Tel Aviv side of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The muezzin juts up against the background of modern high-rise hotels, providing an oft-photographed contrast between old and new.
Just to the south, Charles Clore Park is a popular place to picnic – especially on Saturday afternoons, when dozens of families grill meat on portable barbecues and spit piles of empty sunflower seeds onto the grass while their children climb on the huge blue plastic jungle gym.
Alma Beach, where the Manta Ray restaurant is located, has a little kiosk with a few outdoor seats. This is a particularly lovely place to stop in the late afternoon, order a coffee or a beer, and watch as the setting sun throws the ancient city of Jaffa into golden silhouette.
Technically part of Neve Tzedek, Lilienblum is a side street that connects Allenby Street to Neve Tzedek’s Pines (unfortunately pronounced “penis”) Street. For years, until the 1970s, it was Israel’s Wall Street. The Bank of Israel was headquartered on Lilienblum, as were the moneychangers who circumvented the country’s then strict foreign currency trading laws.
The stock exchange moved up to Ahad Ha’am in the early 1970s; and later in the decade foreign currency regulations were lifted. As a result, Lilienblum lost its luster and became shabby and dull, with nothing to distinguish it but a few neglected buildings and dusty shops. But over the past decade it was rediscovered and renovated, and has rapidly become one of the main hubs of Tel Aviv’s nightlife. Today Lilienblum is lined with hip lounge bars and fashionable restaurants, making it one of the best places to experience Tel Aviv’s nightlife.
The Nachalat Binyamin Pedestrian Mall
Nachalat Binyamin is actually a very long street that extends deep into the Florentin neighborhood, but the section that parallels the Carmel Market, starting at Gruzenberg Street and curving up toward Allenby, opposite Sheinkin Street, is closed to vehicular traffic.
There are a few stylish bars and restaurants here, but the main reason to visit Nachalat Binyamin is the outdoor craft market on Tuesdays and Fridays, when it resembles market day in a medieval European city – with a Middle Eastern twist. On these days there are endless tables displaying an amazing variety of arts and crafts. On Friday amateur musicians, acrobats and jugglers perform for delighted children. Do stop by the popular food stall staffed by a Druze family that sells enormous homemade flatbreads baked on the spot by a traditional method. Just follow your nose – you can’t miss it.
The Carmel Market
The Carmel Market is the largest outdoor market in Tel Aviv. Its narrow, twisting streets are lined with stalls and shops selling everything from toiletries and clothes to meat and produce, all at rock-bottom prices. There are several Russian delicatessens that specialize in pork charcuterie, but the overwhelming majority of the shops and stands are owned by Israelis of North African descent, giving the market a distinctly “Mizrachi” (Eastern) flavor.
The shoppers, however, come from all over the world. This is the place to experience Israel’s modern melting pot. The people who shop at the market include native-born Israelis, new immigrants and foreign workers from all over the globe – from China to Ghana. Many of the shops carry goods that cater to foreign workers, like fufu flakes, soya sauce and tofu. The best time to visit is midday on Friday, when the merchants of perishable goods lower their prices with loud shouts and the foreign workers, just released from work, come to buy food for the coming weekend.
Kerem Hateymanim – The Yemenite Vineyard
Founded in the 1930s by immigrants from Yemen (hence its name), the Kerem fell into decline in the decades following the establishment of the state, becoming known as an impoverished inner city ghetto. During the 1990s the municipality made some serious investments in the infrastructure; since then the winding streets have gradually been “discovered” by bohemian Tel Avivians looking for inexpensive housing, and many of the old buildings have been nicely renovated.
Despite the influx of the artsy crowd, the area is still heavily populated by old-timers and hasn’t lost its authenticity. If you’re in the mood for some spicy Yemenite food in a no-frills environment, there are plenty of little restaurants to try. For hummus and other popular Middle Eastern dishes, Erez and Dror at 25 Malan Street is one of the most popular places to eat in the Kerem. It’s a tiny place on a narrow street, just below the Carmel Market.
Founded in 1927 by a Sephardic Jewish family from Salonika, Florentin began its existence as a middle class neighborhood for artisans and shopkeepers who had immigrated from Greece and Bulgaria. Due to rapid migration to the suburbs, Florentin was a neglected, borderline slum by the 1960s.
The decline of Florentin seemed to be on the cusp of a reverse in the early 1990s, when Eytan Fox, who went on to direct internationally acclaimed movies like “Yossi and Jagger,” “Walk on Water” and “The Bubble,” created a hit television series named for the neighborhood. The success of the series, which featured a group of twentysomething polyamorous artists and musicians living a cool, urban existence in a Levantine version of New York’s East Village, led many to predict Florentin’s imminent gentrification.
Fifteen years later, Florentin is teetering on the edge of major change – but its future is still uncertain. The residents are an interesting combination of hipster cool and solid, ethnic working class. Elegant, high-end furniture and home accessory shops have opened their doors over the last decade, particularly along Frenkel and Wolfson Streets, making Florentin a prime destination for top-end interior designers. Meanwhile, new luxury buildings are springing up all over the neighborhood. But there has been no significant investment in basic infrastructure like parking, road improvement and public transportation.
Florentin is definitely the place to experience Tel Aviv’s underground urban hipster nightlife scene. The apex of the scene is at Vital and Florentin Streets, where there is a jazz bar, a whiskey bar, a popular café and several trendy restaurants.
But the really edgy action is on the margins of Florentin. Check out the gay bar called ShaMa at 68 Herzl, on the corner of Wolfson Street, for example. Or there’s a low-key, cozy and cool bar that goes by the name Hudna (“truce” in Arabic) at 13 Abarbanel Street. Shiraleh, at 18 Yedidyah Frenkel Street, is a charming little cafe that doubles as an art gallery.
Other parts of Florentin remain traditional. The colorful food market on Levinsky Street is bursting with authenticity. Here you can find everything from exotic spices and dried fruit to freshly baked Turkish flatbread and cheese-filled savory pastries. Most of the merchants are Jews from the Mediterranean basin; they still speak to one another in Ladino, or Judaeo-Spanish.
There are several excellent, traditional Persian and Turkish restaurants on the stretch of Nachalat Binyamin, between Jaffa Road and Levinsky Street, which are definitely worth a visit – especially if you are looking for local color. Sharing tables during peak hours is the norm at these casual, Levantine eateries.
Many of Florentin’s streets are devoted to a single product – such as bedroom furniture, kitchen accessories, cheap clothing and lighting fixtures. There are also streets devoted to a single craft, like carpentry or upholstering. The local merchants have known each other for decades, with many passing on the business from one generation to the next. As a result, there is a unique culture based on shared experience, history – and even, in some cases, terminology.
Sadly, the traditional Florentin culture is on the cusp of dying out. The family businesses are in the third generation; many offspring have decided to branch out into their own professions; meanwhile, the municipality is trying to push out the wholesale merchants because of overcrowding. So far the merchants have successfully opposed this move, but in the end the municipality will probably win. Now is really the time to visit Florentin in order to witness and experience the last years of a thriving, colorful and traditional lifestyle.
Neve Shaanan will fascinate amateur urban anthropologists – as long as they are not afraid of a little grit and chaos. This clamorous, neglected neighborhood is home to Tel Aviv’s urban underclass. It is where foreign workers from Ghana, Liberia, China, Romania the Philippines and Thailand live side-by-side with prostitutes, drug dealers and narcotics addicts.
The area known as the Old Central Bus Station is packed with shops that cater to the foreign workers, while the nearby pedestrian mall is where they come to relax and have a beer at one of the cheap outdoor pubs on Friday afternoons, when the weekend begins.