Driving from Ben Gurion airport’s gold-hued, pillared interior to central Tel Aviv, it’s impossible not to be struck by how the city seems to be developing at the rate of a metropolis ten times its size.
Currently around 430,000, Tel Aviv’s population is smaller than that of Edinburgh. Yet vast towers of glass and steel dozens of storeys high rise up everywhere, looming over flea-markets, derelict warehouses and historic streets.
The same restless tension between past, present and future is expressed in the city’s name. In archaeology, a “Tel” is a type of mound created by human occupation and abandonment over centuries. “Aviv” is the Hebrew word for spring. Originally founded in 1909, when it was known as the Ahuzat Bayit or “homestead”, the “hill of spring” received its contemporary name the following year, drawing on a reference in the Book of Ezekiel and the utopian vision of Zionist writer Theodor Herzl.
I arrive the day after a shooting in Sarona Market – a smart, downtown mall filled with international food stalls, cafés and shops. Four Israelis were killed, with three men later indicted – two for murder and one for aiding and abetting the attack. Yet amid the threats which the city faces, life here is undoubtedly good. Perhaps because they are used to the reality of political violence, or because they are determined not to let it make them afraid, Tel Avivians have a defiant and unmistakable joie de vivre. On the whole, I found them very cheerful and easy to deal with. And among European cities, it’s possible to argue only Barcelona offers the same colourful mixture of urban and beach-based attractions.
With the Mediterranean’s eastern shore stretching for kilometres on either side of Tel Aviv’s boundaries, beaches are a central feature of life for residents and visitors. The city’s coastline caters for just about every lifestyle. My guide, Igal Zeevi, was quick to take me to Drummers beach, where musicians offer improvised, percussion-based renditions of pop, rock and reggae classics.
Younger sun worshippers tend to make for Hilton beach, which is only a short walk downhill from the Hilton hotel next to Tel Aviv Port. Also the city’s unofficial gay beach, it offers bathrooms, volleyball nets and chairs for rent. Even dogs are allowed. Neighbouring Nordau beach is known as the “religious” beach, with separate bathing hours for men and women.
Tel Aviv Port itself presents a seductive snapshot of how city-dwellers wind down at the end of day. Featuring a wooden promenade lined with bars and restaurants, its views of the Mediterranean at sunset are a magnet for walkers, cyclists and roller-bladers.
Neither the capital nor the largest urban centre in Israel, Tel Aviv nevertheless has a strong claim to being its cultural and artistic heart. The city boasts a superbly varied plethora of museums and galleries. Igal is understandably proud when he takes me to see the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, its jewel in the crown. Split between the Main Building, the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion and the magnificent, gravity-defying Herta and Paul Amir complex, the institution offers an astonishing range of temporary and permanent exhibitions, many of which celebrate Israel’s pulsing, politically-attuned contemporary art scene.
But for a flavour of how grassroots culture is really booming in Tel Aviv, it’s worth heading to a shanty-town of huts and warehouses concentrated in and around Abarbanel Street, between the Neve Tzedek and Florentin districts. Apparently forgotten and crumbling, the buildings have been turned into a rusting canvas for street art, much of it political. An eerie black-and-white piece depicting the 1995 assassination of Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin remains lodged in my memory. At night, the area transforms into a den of bars and live music venues.
Next stop is Jaffa Port and Igal tells me that the 3,000-year-old port was, until quite recently, viewed as a “town on the wrong side of the tracks” – a hotspot for drug dealers and sex workers.
These days, posters advertising future apartment developments by the likes of Sotheby’s International Realty confirm the area has successfully dumped its no-go reputation. Cash is being ploughed in, attracting café, bar and gallery owners who have renovated many of the district’s buildings. The improvements are impressive – yet part of me yearned for a flavour of this ancient place as it was in the bad old days.
Among Jaffa’s most prominent attractions is the Ilana Goor museum – a historic gallery-cum-place of residence which displays the self-taught, Tiberias-born artist’s morbid, bulging and often grotesque creations alongside a collection of work from across the world. On the other side of the street, Alia Abou Shmeiss’ Basma café offers the ultimate pick-me-up in the form of a cup of thick, black “botz” – or “mud” – coffee.
Blessed with chefs who effortlessly combine Middle Eastern and Mediterranean approaches, Tel Aviv is carving out a place at the very centre of the international food and drink map. Excellent and affordable restaurants using expertly sourced ingredients of the highest quality can be found in every district. Among them are Kimmel on HaShachar Street, Ha’achim, on Ibn Gabirol Street and Yulia at Tel Aviv Port.
The city also boasts plenty of designer and high-end stores. Many of these are within walking distance of its most striking and best preserved examples of Bauhaus architecture, particularly in and around Rothschild Boulevard.
But the most memorable and visually striking shopping experiences are surely those to be had in the city’s street markets. Tel Aviv’s rapid rate of change means its districts can sometimes have an undefined and provisional feel. By contrast, the bazaars – offering an almost boundless display of foods, craft objects and clothes – form the centre of neighbourhoods which are among the most vital, colourful and characterful in the city. The lanes and alleys around the Carmel and Jaffa open air markets – home to a well-established and growing community of bars, cafés and food shops – exemplify this feature of Tel Aviv’s urban development.
Monarch, the scheduled leisure airline, operates year-round flights to Tel Aviv from London Luton and Manchester airports with fares, including taxes, starting from £119 one way (£192 return). For further information, or to book Monarch flights, Monarch Holidays or Monarch Hotels, please visit www.monarch.co.uk
I stayed at the quirky, beach-themed Yam Hotel, only a short stroll from Tel Aviv Port. Rooms at the hotel start from £130 per room, per night. For more information or to book, please visit www.atlas.co.il/yam-hotel-tel-aviv
Also check out www.uk.thinkisrael.com