The secret of Tel Aviv’s charm
By Gal Uchovsky
Take London, for example. Day after day, millions of tourists shuffle along Oxford Street. Only a few turn off to South Molton Street, where the really interesting boutiques are located. The center of London, like the center of Paris or New York, is a combination of tourist sites and local secrets.
A big city always presents a challenge. If it’s a really huge, famous city it has two levels – the one that’s readily apparent to the eye, and the one that’s hidden beneath the surface. Even Venice, which is one big tourist trap, has restaurants that specialize in food for locals only. Some of those restaurants have separate rooms for tourists – just in case some foreigners happen to wander in, disturbing the locals’ peace and quiet. In fact, the more touristy a city is, the more likely the locals are to cluster in little buffer zones – or oases, if you will – to keep the colorful masses at bay and allow them to circumvent the masses of shuffling tourists.
Tel Aviv is not Amsterdam. For years it has been practically untouched by tourism. The standard holy land tour focuses, naturally, on Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and all the other places that have earned a stamp of quality indicating at least 5,000 years of history. Only recently has the world begun to discover Tel Aviv as some sort of Levantine version of Barcelona or Lisbon; and Tel Avivians are still at the stage of liking people who speak foreign languages – especially if they look cool.
It’s not that Tel Aviv doesn’t hide its insiders’ secrets. It’s just that the Israeli game of hide ‘n seek is played between local, authentic urbanites and local suburbanites – those same two million people who live in the surrounding towns, for whom Tel Aviv is a place they visit for entertainment. Since suburbanites speak Hebrew, the codes that have been developed in order to avoid them are very sophisticated. You need a good eye and a lot of focus in order to discover the real Tel Aviv.
Because Tel Aviv’s principal strength is its residents. I would not recommend that you visit Tel Aviv for the shopping – even though a discerning shopper will certainly find things to take home. I would not recommend that you visit for the food, even though the best hummus in the world is in Jaffa, at Ali Karavan, a small place that is open only until noon, where you share a table with construction workers and the waiters shoo you out the door as soon as you’ve swallowed your last bite. I would not recommend that you come for the architecture, either, even though we are very proud of the fact that Tel Aviv contains the highest concentration of Bauhaus buildings in the world.
There is actually only one thing that Tel Aviv is better at than anyplace else. As strange as this may sound, it’s the coffee. Israel’s greatest cultural achievement over the last decade has been the breaking of the secret code for perfect cappuccino preparation. Every Tel Aviv café – whether it’s a shiny branch of a commercial chain or a casual neighborhood spot – serves excellent espresso at the right temperature. If it’s not hot enough, you can return it and ask them to make you another. In fact, the only place in Tel Aviv that has bad coffee is McDonald’s. We are grateful that there are few branches of McDonald’s in Tel Aviv, and that children compose the majority of customers.
So why should you come to Tel Aviv? For the complete experience – the Mediterranean experience. To sit at the right spot on the beach, facing the sea, during those hours between late afternoon and sunset, and sip the right margarita. To stroll along Rothschild Boulevard at a certain hour of the afternoon, stopping at the right place for the perfect sandwich. To enjoy the insanely packed clubs and bars at night. In general, Tel Aviv is the kind of city that becomes much more charming after nightfall; during the small hours before sunrise, the city drinks and dances feverishly, and at full volume.
The daylight hours are a bit more complicated. Israelis don’t like to discuss this subject, but the truth is that Tel Aviv is a bit reminiscent of the Third World. It is not a clean city. And some areas are full of service providers who get a kick out of cheating the tourists a bit. They don’t want to mug you – they’re not interested in stealing your suitcase, for example; they will just overcharge you a little. At the same time, in the more salubrious areas, salesclerks and business owners will spend an hour offering the tourist insider’s tips on what to see and do, and where to stay and eat. And then there’s the weather. Which is quite pleasant, relatively speaking, although the summer months are completely unbearable during most daylight hours. Which is why they invented air conditioners.
Confused? Don’t worry. This is only the beginning. Because the Mediterranean air and the political situation have made Israelis seem a bit aggressive – particularly to a western tourist. With a handful of exceptions, the restaurants and bars that line the beachfront are full of tourist stalkers. They whistle at the babes in bikinis and make suggestive comments, and sometimes they even try to send them to some great shop that is owned by their uncle. Their only redeeming characteristic is that they are almost never violent. “No” is definitely a word they understand.
It’s not coincidence that tourists used to pass up Tel Aviv. There are no big monuments – only small and trifling ones. Rothschild Boulevard, with its restored Bauhaus buildings, might be the only street in the city that is truly worth strolling. And even here you will be much better off knowing the territory: the length of the boulevard is lined with a mix of the trendiest hangouts and restaurants in the city, interspersed randomly with a few bars and restaurants that host God knows what kind of people.
Tel Aviv is a relatively small city, with large sections that are mostly residential. In order to be seduced and charmed by Tel Aviv’s magic you need to use your legs and walk, and hope that it’s not too hot. At any rate, take comfort in knowing that even the smallest kiosk is air-conditioned these days.
The real Tel Aviv stretches from the Yarkon in the north, to Jaffa in the south. Taken as a whole, it is a small patch of land that combines yesterday and tomorrow in a way that stirs the heart. It’s a cliché to use expressions like “yesterday and tomorrow,” but there is no other way to create a connection between the ultra-modern restaurant wrapped in plate-glass windows at the top of the Azrieli Center – from where you can see practically the entire country, from Ashkelon to Haifa and as far east as the Jerusalem hills – and the flea market in Jaffa, where time has stood still for many decades.
This is a city of falafel and sushi. The first one must be consumed while standing, remembering that there is always a hole in the bottom of the pita, through which the tehina dribbles down your shirt; the latter is served in a restaurant that is frequently overpriced, particularly given the quality of the Mediterranean fish that the proprietors use. And in order to make things simpler, getting dressed to go out in Tel Aviv is the easiest thing in the world – whether you’re going jogging or to the opera (if you must). The essential garment is the cotton-knit T-shirt. If it is printed with an interesting graphic, you might even be rewarded with a few compliments.
There are very few occasions that necessitate the wearing of a suit in Tel Aviv – particularly when it’s hot, which is most of the year, it is preferable to wear as little as possible. Tel Aviv is a casual city. There is no need for codes of conduct. Everything is open, right out on the table: just start chatting with your waiter, and pretty soon he’ll ask where you are from, and how much you earn in a year.
So what is the ultimate Tel Aviv experience? What is the one thing you must do, otherwise your visit will have been pointless? There is no right answer to that question. Perhaps because there is no such thing as the one, ultimate Tel Aviv experience. Tel Aviv is a city that goes with the flow. Each morning, it decides anew what is interesting, what is annoying and where we are going. Perhaps the only way to conquer the city is simply to come over – to settle in and let it pull you into its gentle flow. Something will definitely happen. Something always happens in Tel Aviv. And with a little luck, it will happen to you.