Tel Aviv means “hill of spring” in Hebrew, and perhaps no city in the world has a name that fits better. Western religion was conceived just a few miles away from here, thousands of years ago, but neither that fact nor the associated, ongoing complications have stopped this 110-year-old town from showing the blooming, hopeful, renewed energy of springtime.
It’s the super-cosmopolitan home of cutting-edge museums, world-renowned dance companies, and celebrity chefs. The only thing more beautiful than the beaches is the population that flocks to them and then later fills the bouncing bars and clubs. The tech industry is booming so fast the country has been nicknamed Start-Up Nation. If you think all that sounds like a mash-up of Brooklyn, Miami, and San Francisco, you’re right. Many visitors come to Israel to learn about the past, but in Tel Aviv, all eyes look to the future.
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Rooftop views and rock ‘n’ roll grooves
I start my first visit to Tel Aviv the way everyone should: with a view of the Mediterranean Sea. I’m sitting on the deck at Manta Ray, a restaurant perched on the tiled promenade above Alma Beach, looking at the water and thinking about my family’s short, fraught history with Israel. My grandparents moved here in the late 1940s, along with many other Jewish refugees in the aftermath of World War II. It may have been the homeland, but it was also hot and dusty and underdeveloped, and my grandmother, whose pre-war life had been a bit more refined, hated it. They lasted less than a year and soon settled in America (in that most refined borough of New York City, the Bronx).
As of today, I’m the first member of my family to return to the homeland. It’s not particularly my homeland—I wasn’t raised religious, and I try to steer clear of the politics—but I’ve always wondered how I would feel here. For starters: hungry. On my table is a scattering of mezes (roasted peppers with feta, mullet ceviche) and a tower of bagels, smoked salmon, pickled onions, and heirloom tomatoes. I work my way through it all, thinking, Pace yourself, Justin, while I take in the scenery. To my left rises Jaffa, the ancient clifftop port city from which Tel Aviv sprouted; to my right stretches a ribbon of sand below the skyscrapers of the modern metropolis; in front of me, waves lap upon the shore.
After breakfast, I set out into the city, passing through the narrow streets of Neve Tzedek, the first neighborhood Jews settled outside of Jaffa, in the late 19th century. These cobblestoned alleys went into decline for a time, but over the last few years glassy condos have joined the squat Mediterranean houses, making this ’hood the home of the city’s most expensive real estate (“the bougie-est of the bougie,” a young local tells me with an eye roll).
On the far side of Neve Tzedek, I hit Rothschild Boulevard, the pedestrian greenway that arcs through the heart of the city. The tree-lined path bursts with dog walkers, cyclists, moms and dads pushing strollers, teenagers lined up at gelato kiosks. As I stroll the long boulevard, I soak up the sun—and also the history. Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of its statehood last year, commemorating the occasion with an itinerary of sites called the Independence Trail, including the Tel Aviv Founders Monument; a statue of Meir Dizengoff, the city’s first mayor, atop a horse (he used to ride from his house to City Hall every morning); and Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948.
OK, enough history—I’m ready to eat. Just a block south of Rothschild Boulevard, I snag a barstool at North Abraxas, a sunny spot created by celebrity chef Eyal Shani and film director Shahar Segal. The bartender brings me a hunk of fresh sourdough, with a dip of rich crème fraîche and chopped tomato and spicy green pepper. The guy seated next to me nudges a bowl of tahini in my direction. “I can literally drink it,” he says. Next comes a head of baby cauliflower roasted to the point of melting and a skillet of chraime (tomato-fish stew) adorned with another slice of that bread. I have failed to pace myself.
I need to lie down after all those carbs. To the beach! A short cab ride (pro tip: download the ridesharing app Gett) takes me to my hotel, the Carlton Tel Aviv, a fortress of luxury looming over the promenade and the sea. The front desk loans me a towel, which I take down to Gordon Beach, where every manner of ball you can think of is being bumped or tossed or kicked or paddled around by impressively tanned people. I skip over a stack of paddleboards to dip my toes in the Mediterranean, but the water’s a bit chilly, so I retreat and stake out a patch of sand, where I close my eyes and bask in the rays.
As the sun begins to fade, I retire to my balcony at the Carlton, from which I watch the sky and sea turn pink. Once the colors have faded to black, I ascend to the 15th-floor rooftop and celebrity chef Meir Adoni’s Blue Sky, which specializes in seafood and incredible 360-degree views. I order a grouper fillet with bouillabaisse butter, potato cream, shoksha pepper, roasted fennel, and chickpeas. “Our chef is known for mixing flavors,” the server says as she pours me a cabernet from the Israeli winery Flam, “so try to get everything in each bite.” I take care to heed her advice while eating the Citrus Aromas in Kyoto, a dessert of roasted rice ice cream, white foam, matcha crumble, and citrus compote that transports me, for a moment, from the Middle to the Far East.
Tel Avivians are famous for partying hard, and where better to work off a few calories than at the club? I hail a cab to Beit Romano, in Florentin, a recently behipstered neighborhood on the city’s south side. At first, I think the driver has brought me to the wrong place—it looks a little dodgy, with a graffitied industrial door surrounded by scruffy kids—but inside I see two stories of restaurants and bars, a radio station, and a bandstand. Soon, the smoky courtyard is full of 20-somethings bobbing their heads to the Santana-esque, afro-psychedelic band Tigris. I get my groove on, losing track of time until the musicians take their curtain call. Time for me to do the same.
Eat, Pray, Dance
Hotel breakfasts are a big thing here, and the one at the Carlton is particularly lavish, but I skip it, because the whole city is about to become my buffet. A cab takes me along the waterfront to Jaffa, the historically Arab area that’s now one of the hottest parts of Tel Aviv, where I meet Lainie Schwartz, a tour guide with Delicious Israel.
Schwartz, a bubbly 27-year-old originally from Winnipeg, starts me out at Abu Hassan, a hole-in-the-wall that’s renowned for its hummus, which is eaten as a breakfast food in Israel—hot, fresh, and with a peculiar vocabulary: “We say in Hebrew that we wipe hummus,” Schwartz says. “We don’t say, “Do you want to go eat hummus with me?’ We really say, ‘Do you want to go wipe hummus?’” Following her lead, I wipe up all the impossibly creamy stuff, first using warm pita and then segments of raw onion (don’t knock it till you try it).
Hummus dispatched, we stroll past The Smiling Whale, a bronze statue that commemorates Jonah’s biblical joyride (which supposedly occurred just off the coast here), and through the sandstone-walled corridors of Old Jaffa. We pause at Suspended Orange Tree, a small tree growing from a hanging jug that honors Jaffa’s historic orange groves, and then at the 3,000-year-old Ramses II gate (named for the Egyptian pharaoh).
Down the other side of the hill, past the Jaffa Flea Market, I try an astonishing za’atar flatbread at the neighborhood institution Abouelafia. Then, crossing into Neve Tzedek, we stop at the Dallal Bakery to try a chocolate babka—and to meet Inbal Baum, who was born in D.C. to Israeli parents, moved here 10 years ago, and founded Delicious Israel in 2011.
“My big initial goal was advocacy, trying to get journalists to write about Israel in a way that wasn’t about politics,” Baum tells me. “That has changed in a big way. We now have almost no problem inviting journalists, and a lot of that is because of the way Israelis eat.”
I don’t think I can eat any more, but then Baum suggests we get a falafel at the Carmel Market, a bustling shuk in the otherwise sleepy Yemenite Quarter. I love falafel—I eat it three times a week in New York—and this being my first trip to the Middle East, I can’t say no. At the stand, Baum asks the cook, who’s rapidly forming the chickpea dough into perfect spheres and tossing them into the fryer, if we can have just the falafel, but he insists we taste it properly, in pita with tahini (at least he cuts the pita into quarters). My first bite sends me reeling. Literally, I almost fall down. “I wish I had recorded that,” Baum says, laughing and handing me a craft pale ale from the Beer Bazaar stand next door to bring me back to earth.
I thank Baum and Schwartz for all the deliciousness and then walk (I wish I had Dizengoff’s horse) back to Old Jaffa. It takes some looking, but at the top of the hill I find Yoko Kitahara House of Treatments & Gallery, a spa hidden behind a small iron gate marked with scarcely more than a business card. I ring the bell and enter a sparse space inside a pair of 500-year-old, arch-ceilinged Ottoman homes. My appointment begins with a traditional ashiyu (Japanese footbath) and continues with a hogushi aromatherapy massage. Afterward, I have a cup of tea while seated on a tatami mat, looking out a window at the sea and chatting with the spa’s eponymous owner, who says she moved to Tel Aviv “for love.”
“I wanted to do a nice place in Jaffa,” Kitahara says, “but I didn’t want to create a Japanese ‘shrine.’ We want it to be a surprise, a hidden place with some Israeli culture and Japanese culture—to make harmony.”
I tend to prefer cacophony to harmony, so next I peruse the flea market, which is surrounded by bustling bars and trendy boutiques. I stop at the gallery 8 in Jaffa to gawk at grotesque ceramic sculptures by Alma Moriah-Winik, and at The Cuckoo’s Nest, an antiques shop/gallery/bar, to take in a heart sculpture composed of paint brushes. Just across Jerusalem Boulevard, I reach my new digs, The Drisco Hotel, a landmark boutique hidden down a narrow street at the crossroads of Jaffa, Neve Tzedek, and Florentin. Nap time!
The sun has set by the time I’m done snoozing, and I’m (miraculously) ready for dinner. It seems as though every wall and garage door in Florentin bursts with graffiti, which makes the unadorned white decor at Opa, around the corner from the Levinsky Market, even more sleek and refreshing. That description also applies to the entirely vegetarian menu: sliced pears with chervil and green garlic; a prime rib–like cut of red cabbage with grapefruit foam and white balsamic dressing; a circular presentation of mushrooms and crispy tapioca that I’m not sure if I should eat or wear on my head like a crown. Who needs protein?
I finish my meal just in time to make the curtain at the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre, a performing arts hub that sparked the renaissance of Neve Tzedek and is home to the famed Batsheva Dance Company. On stage tonight is The Hill, in which a trio led by choreographer Roy Assaf enacts a visceral portrayal of the experiences of veterans—a particularly relevant topic in a country that has compulsory military service and has been through numerous conflicts with its neighbors. The depiction of PTSD, in which one of the dancers repeatedly hits himself in the head while one of the others tries to restrain him, is breathtaking.
After the show I stop by the center’s chic new restaurant, Cordero, to have a glass of Burgundy with Claudio Kogon, the deputy director of the center. “We are only 8 million people, but the amount of culture per capita is huge,” says Kogon, who was born in Buenos Aires but moved to Israel 32 years ago, at the age of 22, to live on a kibbutz. “Tel Aviv is very vibrant. In every corner, something is going on. And in dance, we are a superpower.”
Next, I seek out another corner where something is definitely going on. The Chapel, at The Jaffa hotel, is the most beautiful bar I’ve ever seen—and the most appropriately named, as it’s inside a 140-year-old hall of worship with 40-foot-high arched ceilings. I order a smoked, shaken mezcal Negroni and lean back in my seat to fully take in that soaring ceiling. The soundtrack in here may be techno, but somehow all I can hear is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Bauhaus Beach Babylon
I’m standing in the city center, a block east of Dizengoff Street, amid a group of tourists staring up at a curvilinear house. Tel Aviv is home to about 4,000 International Style buildings, designed in large part by architects who fled the Nazis in the 1930s—a period when the population here, not coincidentally, boomed—and it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the White City. As we look at one of these houses, Alisa Veksler, a tour guide from the Bauhaus Center Tel Aviv, explains to us the particularities of the Tel Avivian style, which occasionally strays from the Bauhaus ethos that function must dictate form.
“A round facade gives it the association of a ship,” Veksler says of the house in front of us. “This was a desert, and when these immigrants came from Eastern and Central Europe in the ’30s and built their houses, they put a ship in the middle of the desert.”
We continue on for a few blocks, with Veksler explaining the reasons for various architectural details—slit balconies to offer relief from heat, roof gardens to encourage social interaction—finishing at the recently restored Dizengoff Square.
“In 1934, they did a competition for the design of this area,” she tells us, “and the winner was a young woman named Genia Averbuch. She was only 25—wow!—and she designed a big circle with a garden and a fountain in the middle, surrounded by Bauhaus buildings with the same unified facade. It instantly became the coolest spot in Tel Aviv. This is a huge milestone in the culture of Tel Aviv. Once Dizengoff Circle was built, we were not immigrants from different countries anymore—we were suddenly people of our own city.”
The group gives Veksler a round of applause, and after picking up a White City tote bag at the center, I walk a couple of blocks east to Hakosem, a falafel joint that takes its name from the Hebrew word for magician. It’s just after noon, and a long line stretches across the patio and out to the sidewalk. I’m line-averse, but y’all know how I feel about falafel, and soon a tattooed Israeli line cook—“I have eight!” he proudly says when he sees the ink on my arms—is stuffing a pita with falafel, hummus, chili sauce, sauerkraut, pickles, and eggplant. When I take a bite, I have to admit, it really is magic. Also: My life is ruined. I’m never going to be able to eat falafel in New York again.
After breaking free of Hakosem’s spell, I move on to take in another architectural marvel, the nearby Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which has a geometric exterior that looks a bit like a broken Rubik’s Cube. Inside, a series of ramps carry me from gallery to gallery. The holdings in the Impressionist and post-Impressionist collection read like an art history syllabus—Picasso, Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, Chagall—but I’m drawn to contemporary works such as Following You, Following Me No. 1, a breathy, haunting video piece by 37-year-old Israeli artist Yasmin Davis.
As I wander west, back toward the beach, I happen across Rabin Square, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli ultranationalist in 1995, a year after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Oslo Accords. As I watch a few kids chasing pigeons around a fountain and a Holocaust memorial, I find myself reflecting on how inextricable this nation’s psyche is from existential threats past and present.
Anyway, I need to lighten things up a little bit—both emotionally and physically, given how much I’ve been eating this week. So, after moving my bags to the Miami-esque Brown Beach House hotel, I slap on my sneakers and hit the promenade, running north to three side-by-side beaches that illustrate the surprising diversity of Tel Aviv: one that flies rainbow flags to welcome gay beachgoers, one that’s walled off for Orthodox Jewish swimmers, and one that’s populated by dog owners. Few things will brighten your mood like watching a sandy dog take a shower on the beach.
Running a 10K does wonders for the appetite, so after cleaning up—no, not at the dog showers—I head to Mashya, one of the city’s hottest restaurants. The space, on the first floor of the Mendeli Street Hotel, features a bright green living wall and an intricately patterned black-and-white ceiling. The food is just as attractive: I order a fresh fish crudo with labneh and mint; an arugula salad with medjool dates, pineapple, and avocado; and a six-hour-braised oxtail terrine. Something about the whole experience feels celebratory, so I top things off with Israel’s finest bubbly, the Yarden Blanc de Blancs.
For a nightcap, I walk to the nearby Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar, which has appeared on the World’s 50 Best Bars list and slings complex drinks inspired by the city. As a hoopshead, I’m compelled to order a Red by Heart, a mix of amaro, banana syrup, and lime juice that’s dedicated to the outdoor court the city’s popular Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball team once called home. It’s smoky, bitter, and delicious. Nothing but net!
As I leave the bar, I look at the Brown Beach House, right across the street. I have a 12-hour flight tomorrow … but I can’t quite put myself, or this city, to bed. So I hop in a cab to Florentin, where I descend a stairwell decorated with a comic-book style mural and a giant red neon heart into Kuli Alma. I wander through the labyrinthine space, sipping a Goldstar beer and taking in the murals and prints and paintings that decorate every surface as dancers twist to thumping music. This place just feels right somehow, and I can’t help but wonder what my grandmother would say about today’s Tel Aviv. Something tells me that if she had experienced three days like these back in the ’40s, I would have been born an Israeli.
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