The Heart of Tel Aviv

The area called the “heart” of Tel Aviv is one of the city’s trendiest and most dynamic. Until recently it was an aging neighborhood, but over the past decade or so the heart has become the residence of choice for some of Israel’s best known actors, writers, musicians and artists. This can make people watching particularly rewarding, especially at the local cafés.

The heart of the city is home to the Tel Aviv stock exchange, a branch of the Sotheby’s auction house, investment banks, several prominent law firms and some of the city’s most popular dining and nightlife spots. This diverse character drives the 24-hour atmosphere: No matter what the hour, there are almost always people on the streets in the heart of the city. The heart has something for nearly every visitor – amateur historians, shoppers with an eye for trendy local designers, art and culture enthusiasts, clubbers and gourmands. There are many young families living in the area, too, which gives it a real neighborhood feel.

Bordered on the north by Ben Zion Boulevard and on the south by Allenby Street, the heart of Tel Aviv is dominated by a tree-lined stretch of Rothschild Boulevard. Amongst the area’s attractions are fashionable Sheinkin Street, many of the city’s most popular restaurants, cafés and the hip and trendy Gan Hachashmal (Electricity Garden).

 

History

 

The heart of Tel Aviv is one of the city’s oldest areas, dating back to the final years of the Ottoman era. Photographs taken of Rothschild Boulevard in the 1930s show symmetrical rows of shiny new Bauhaus-inspired, or International style, low-rise apartment building; these photos are the classic image of early Tel Aviv, but they do not show the area’s earlier history. There is a relatively high concentration of old buildings in the pre-International eclectic style lining Allenby Street and dotting the side streets. Tel Aviv’s first hotel and first brothel were both housed in eclectic style buildings located in the heart of the city. Today some of them have been restored, but most are in an appalling state of disrepair.

 

 

From the 1930s through the 1950s, when Allenby was a fashionable, boutique-and-café lined thoroughfare, the heart of the city was where the city’s prosperous and stylish went to shop, socialize and stroll. But over the following two decades the area went into a period of decline. Tel Aviv experienced the same urban migration patterns as most Western cities, with the young and the prosperous moving to the northern suburbs and the new satellite towns beyond them. Business owners followed their customers, and Tel Aviv’s formerly throbbing heart became an aging, neglected neighborhood.

Salvation came in the 1980s, when Tel Aviv’s bohemians “discovered” the heart. Writers, actors and musicians moved into the neighborhood. They gathered in the trendy new cafés that opened on Sheinkin Street, which is how “Sheinkin type” came to be a catchall term that describes artsy-fartsy bleeding heart leftists. Edgy boutiques and shops opened up, and suddenly the heart of Tel Aviv was the coolest place to live.

The neighborhood’s popularity increased rapidly over the following two decades, which naturally led to gentrification and an accompanying rise in real estate prices. Over the past 10 years, branches of chain stores have replaced Sheinkin’s edgy little boutiques, while luxury apartment buildings have been built and many of the crumbling old International style buildings have been completely gutted and renovated to suit the taste and demands of discerning professional young urbanites.

But gentrification has not sterilized the heart – it remains a culturally and economically diverse neighborhood that is a remarkable island of tolerance in Israel’s sharply divided society. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, high-tech millionaires, rock musicians, actors, leftist journalists, same sex couples, elderly veteran residents and artists live harmoniously on the same streets – often in the same building.

 

Rothschild Blvd.

 

Rothschild is easily the loveliest boulevard in Tel Aviv. It is certainly the most popular – especially along the section that is in the heart of the city. Shaded by ficus trees, lined with benches and dotted with outdoor coffee kiosks that sprang up over the last five years, Rothschild is one of the city’s most charming places to stroll, bicycle and hang out. On weekends it is a magnet for suburbanites in search of a little Tel Aviv stardust: young families stroll, bike and stop for lunch at the cafés during the day; and club hoppers gather at one of the 24-hour restaurants or cafés after a night out. On weekdays, employees of the stock exchange, law offices and investment banks, with their slightly more formal attire, create a purposeful, downtown atmosphere.

But for all this activity, Rothschild still feels like it belongs to the people who live in the neighborhood. Locals gather on the boulevard for spontaneous games of petanques or chess on weekday evenings, and parents escorting their children to school gather at the boulevard kiosks for their morning coffee. On weekday afternoons, the benches are occupied by groups of the elderly, accompanied by their Philippine caregivers. And late on any given weekday night, twenty-something singletons who live in the neighborhood meet up with friends at the all-night café kiosks, which lately have also become casual, friendly pick-up spots.

The buildings lining Rothschild run the gamut of Tel Aviv styles, from Levantine eclectic to International, to sterile modern office towers. The latter are particularly prominent near Allenby Street, where developers have been given permission to build skyscrapers on condition that they also renovate a heritage building nearby.

There are several good restaurants along Rothschild and, of course, no shortage of cafés.

 

Yehuda Halevi St.

 

Yehuda Halevi is benefiting from gentrification. For decades it was just a noisy, unremarkable street that was a route to somewhere else, but over the past few years cafés, a trendy restaurant or two, some art galleries and upscale shops selling furniture and home accessories have moved in. It is too early to proclaim that Yehuda Halevi is the next cool street, but there are signs that it might be on its way – especially since the renovation and rehabilitation of Gan Hachashmal (Electricity Garden) was completed.

 

Gan Hachashmal

 

Gan Hachashmal, or Electricity Garden – so named because it was once the site of Tel Aviv’s power plant – is indisputably the hippest place in the city to shop for original, cutting edge fashion by local designers.

If shopping is not your thing but music is, head over to Levontin 7. Named for its address, this small venue is the best music club in the city. The hippest, critically acclaimed up-and-coming musicians in jazz, hip hop, rock and indie, from all over the world perform here. There is a small bar upstairs, above the performance space. Performance dates and times are posted on the club’s window, or you can check their website.

 

Yad Harutzim and Hamasger Sts.

 

The area around Yad Harutzim and Hamasger is a maze of auto repair shops, anodyne new office towers, traffic-clogged multi-lane roads and exhaust fumes. It is also Tel Aviv’s newest up-and-coming commercial area.

Starting in 2000, Yad Harutzim became a sort of restaurant row, with several fashionable and well-reviewed eateries that made the street into a destination for local diners with discerning taste. Lately, however, Yad Harutzim has been looking a bit abandoned. Only one of the high-quality restaurant remains and, while it remains packed with customers at all hours, it is something of a rose in an otherwise neglected garden. This is probably a temporary situation. There are several well-trafficked small eateries, and a few clubs on the streets nearby, so the area is certainly busy. Tel Aviv is developing and evolving so rapidly that some entrepreneurial restaurateurs are bound to establish new places in this expanding business district.

 

Shadal St.

 

Tucked between shiny new office towers and renovated heritage houses is a beautiful old Sephardic synagogue that has been in constant use since it was established in 1928. This architecturally distinguished place of worship is particularly famous for its domed roof, and for the fact that it was the favored synagogue of the elite of the Sephardic community. Today it is a popular venue for weddings and circumcision ceremonies. The synagogue is open daily for visitors, and well worth a visit.

 

Ehad Ha’am St.

 

Named after Asher Ginzburg, a Tolstoyan philosopher of modern cultural Zionism and a Hebrew essayist whose pen name was Ahad Ha’am (One of the People), Ahad Ha’am is one of the most architecturally eclectic and historically interesting streets in Tel Aviv. It is also one of the longest, extending from Neve Tzedek all the way to Ben Zion Boulevard.

 

Montefiore St. and Albert Square

 

Perpendicular to Ahad Ha’am, Montefiore has some of the loveliest old structures in Tel Aviv – many of which have been lovingly restored over the past five years. Prince Albert Square, named after one of King George V’s sons,  is one of the most magical spots in Tel Aviv. A quirky little traffic island, with a tree-shaded bench shaded by an enormous ficus tree, it marks the point where Melchett, Nachmani and Montefiore Streets converge.

The striking Pagoda House dominates the square. Originally built as a hotel, the Pagoda House was for years an abandoned, decaying white elephant. Around the turn of this century, it was purchased by a private individual, completely renovated and turned into an impressively luxurious single-family home.

 

Sheinkin St.

 

Following a decline that began in the 1950s, when many residents moved to northern Tel Aviv, Sheinkin was “discovered” in the early 1980s by the bohemian café crowd. Over the following two decades Sheinkin became the heart of Israel’s leftist-artist scene. Sheinkin was, and to many still is, the place for actors, musicians, writers and all those who like to be associated with them, to see and be seen. The street’s name is also sometimes used to express derision: “Sheinkin types,” pronounced with a sneer in one’s voice, means “artsy fartsy bleeding heart leftists.”

Over the past decade, though, Sheinkin has lost its edge a bit. It is still one of the most popular and best-known streets in Israel but, like New York’s SoHo and Greenwich Village, it has become a victim of its cachet. Rising rents have resulted in the replacement of several small businesses with branches of chain stores.

 

But some of the old cafés and shops remain – like Café Tamar, a proudly leftist hangout on the corner of Ahad Ha’am that is owned by Sarah, the ultimate tough-love Jewish mother who knows what’s good for you better than you do. Café Tamar is furnished with Formica tables and decorated with political posters that tout pretty much every popular issue on the left of the Israeli political scene. During the chilly rainy season, a handwritten sign on the door assures comfort-seeking customers that yes, there is homemade chicken soup with matzoh balls.

Perhaps the most fascinating anomaly of life in the Sheinkin area is the very visible presence of a large Hasidic community. Modestly dressed, bewigged women and men in traditional black coats live quietly and in apparent harmony alongside the scantily clad, tattooed and pierced. The contrast between radical post-modern chic and determinedly atavistic is most striking on Fridays, the first day of the weekend. For the first half of the day, the street is packed with suburban teenagers and tourists who turn the street into a place of frenetic activity, until the cafés and businesses close at around 3 p.m. The secular go home, the street falls silent as twilight approaches, and then groups of black-clad Hasidic men appear suddenly, walking rapidly toward the synagogue in order to greet the Sabbath.

 

Bialik St. and Trumpeldor Cemetery

 

Bialik Street is small, but important. This lovely cul-de-sac is dominated by the original home of H.N. Bialik, Israel’s poet laureate. The home was recently renovated and is now a museum that is often used as a performance space for live music and literary events. The nearby home of Reuven Rubin, one of Israel’s most important artists is also a museum where his life is chronicled and major works exhibited. Most recently, Tel Aviv’s first Bauhaus Museum was established on Bialik Street.

The Trumpeldor Cemetery is Tel Aviv’s equivalent of the Pére Lachaise in Paris. This is where country’s most famous authors, artists and philosophers were laid to rest; a stroll here is like walking through a time capsule. It is a special place.

 

Meir Park

 

Located between Bograshov and Allenby, with entrances on Tchernichovsky and King George Streets, is Gan Meir, or Meir Park.  Named for Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, the park is a circular oasis of bench-lined, tree-shaded paths, a fishpond, a recently refurbished playground and the most popular dog run in the city. Despite the proximity of two noisy thoroughfares, Gan Meir is remarkably quiet. You can even hear the birds chirping.

 

Simta Almonit

 

If you are looking for someplace special to have a light lunch or coffee and cake after visiting Meir Park, cross King George Street and walk up a bit until you arrive at Simta Almonit, or Anonymous Alley. Here, in this tiny, dead-end street, you will find Salon Mazal, where Tel Aviv’s anarchist community has a bookshop and hosts various speakers and events; and next to Salon Mazal there is a little café with a charming, enclosed garden out back. If you feel like doing a little shopping, check out the boutique at the end of the alley. In keeping with the anarchist-activist spirit of Simta Almonit, it is called “Machteret,” or Underground.