Travel: Tel Aviv, Israel

DRIVING through downtown Tel Aviv at dawn on a Saturday morning, the city is still buzzing with clubbers and bar-hoppers. We may be in the Holy Land as the sun begins to rise on the Sabbath, or Shabbat, but these days this most liberal of Israeli cities has more in common with New York than Nazareth.

It's no wonder the New York Times calls it the coolest city in the Middle East. Rio Ferdinand opted to come here rather than celebrate the Rooney nuptials in Portofino, while Madonna played a massive concert in September as part of her Sticky & Sweet tour. Some old ladies get a telegram from the Queen to celebrate their 100th birthday; Tel Aviv got a personal visit from Her Madge.

Locals call it the White City, or the city that never sleeps – not so much the Big Apple as the Big Apricot – and it turns out to be true, when two of our party manage to stay up until 8am, the last remaining customers stubbornly downing Dancing Camel beers in an otherwise deserted rock bar on Ben Yehuda Street.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

However, it is less about Palma Nova-style hedonism than Barcelona-style cool, with a vibrant caf culture, stunning shops and seriously good restaurants combined with boutique hotels, art galleries, museums and a refreshing slice of history courtesy of nearby Jaffa, in whose cobbled alleyways the early Christians performed their first miracles. And, yes, that is where the oranges come from (although not the cakes, sadly). Tel Aviv's various neighbourhoods are all easily negotiated on foot, so we kick off with a walking tour of the funky district of Neve Tzedek, with its designer shops, Bauhaus architecture and exclusive bars – 12 Rothschild is not to be missed (though we nearly do, considering its complete lack of signage or other indication that anything exists behind the crumbling exterior). But when Tel Aviv's beautiful people – of which there are many – come out to play, they hot-foot it to this sexy new drinking den.

Cuban in feel, retaining some of the old graffiti and general sense of dereliction in the plant-strewn terrace, inside it is all uber-chic decor complete with baby grand, hip DJ and immaculately dressed (but never snooty) bar staff.

Nearby Nana Bar is also worth a visit, filled with dripping French chandeliers, artworks and antiques, and where some of the country's top DJs supply a relaxed, lounge-style atmosphere.

Back in daylight hours, we lunch beneath the ficus tree at local favourite, Suzanna, on a meze-style feast of stuffed vegetables, Iranian dumplings called kube, softly moreish flatbreads and aubergine dip, before heading to the beach for a very different kind of dip.

At weekends the beaches of Tel Aviv come alive with locals swimming, sunbathing and playing the ubiquitous game of matkot – a kind of table tennis without the table. You'll barely be able to make your way down the powder-soft sand to the shoreline without having to dodge finely toned specimens of humanity playing what must be Israel's national sport. But it's worth the journey – the sea is temptingly warm, the waves powerfully strong, making it a mecca for surfers, and the temperatures mid-September were still in the mid-30s, so wear sunscreen.

Before too long, the lazy sinking of a reddening sun signals that it's time for cocktails, as the mood begins to change from afternoon chilling to all-night partying. But before the Dancing Camels beckon once more, we eat – this time at the Dining Hall, a kibbutz-inspired restaurant where the deliciousness of the lamb pot bake, juicy kebabs and melt-in-the-mouth squid is matched only by the friendliness of the staff.

English is widely spoken in Tel Aviv and the people are passionate about sharing their city and their culture, so as a visitor you never feel lost or threatened. Of course, this being Israel, the city has been the target of Palestinian extremists, and the past decade in particular has seen a number of suicide bombings. Since 2005, however, extreme violence has been restricted to a shooting earlier this year (aimed at a thriving gay and lesbian centre and entirely separate from the political conflict).

Day two brings a trip to Jaffa's flea market, within walkable distance from Tel Aviv proper – or, even better, you could cycle it – where eager shoppers can pick up anything from odd shoes and obsolete 1980s electrical equipment to Islamic chandeliers, shisha pipes and a life-size Marilyn Monroe plastercast. You could spend all day wandering the streets, exploring the shops and figuring out how on earth you'd manage to get that Ottoman throne through security.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A decade ago, Jaffa was run-down and neglected, home to drug addicts and the poor. Now it houses a well maintained bohemian artistic quarter. You won't manage to visit every shop and gallery but, if you see just one, make it the Ilana Goor museum. This Tiberias-born artist's staggeringly beautiful home overlooking the port is a three-storey, open-plan work of art. You might even bump into the woman herself, all wild grey hair and chunky golden amulet, taking her two bounding pet dogs for a walk.

While in Jaffa, you must also sample Dr Shakshuka's, whose signature dish – eggs cooked in a spicy tomato sauce and served in the pan with chunks of fresh bread and accompanied by mint tea – gives it its name. If Israel has a national food, it is this.

With more time to kill, I could visit the Suzanne Dellal dance theatre, shop in the Dizengoff Center mall or indulge in any of the many events organised to mark the city's 100th anniversary. I could even, like Madonna, travel to Jerusalem, just 40 minutes' drive away, and pray at the Wailing Wall. But in the end, the beach proves too hard to resist.

It's the last chance I'll have this year to feel warm sand between my toes and crashing surf on my back. So, like all the very best weekends, Tel Aviv leaves me wishing it would never end. And planning when the next one can start.

Fact file: Tel Aviv

Just Tel Aviv offers a three-night stay at the four-star Art+ Hotel from 413 per person, based on two adults sharing. Price includes return flights with bmi from Heathrow, Israeli breakfast, a complimentary three-course dinner for two with drinks, city break discount booklet and up to four free guided walking tours of Tel Aviv. Upgrade to bmi Premium Economy from only 199 per person return. To book, visit or call 0871 271 5499.

Bmi ( flies twice daily from Heathrow to Tel Aviv, with a connection from Edinburgh.

For information on free guided walking tours, contact the Tel Aviv tourist information centre (00 972 3 516 6188,, which is at 46 Herbert Samuel Street, on the promenade .

This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on November 1, 2009