Published in The Loop Hong Kong, April 5, 2016
There’s a reason Tel Aviv locals call this Mediterranean city “The Bubble” — spend some time here and it’s easy to forget all about the turmoil of Israel and the rest of the Middle East. Take a walk down the leafy boulevards, sip a strong coffee while watching sexy people stroll by, party until the sun rises and then enjoy its rays on the beach. A mix of hipster cosmopolitanism and hippie beach vibes, Israel’s cultural capital is fast-paced, but never, ever in a rush. And the best part? Tel Aviv is so small, you can conquer it all on foot.
Shop at Shuk HaCarmel
Few places are as quintessentially Middle Eastern as the shuk (or open-air market), and Tel Aviv’sShuk HaCarmel is one of Israel’s most raucous. Over the constant shouting of leather-skinned shopkeepers, you’ll find ripe, delicious — and locally grown — fruits and vegetables, plus fragrant dried fruits and spices, meats and fish, cheeses, breads, flowers and a healthy assortment of Jewish religious goods and tourist trinkets. From the singing vegetable sellers (the men of herbs shop Carmella love 80s ballads) to the fresh-squeezed juices (orange-pomegranate, please), the shuk exercises all the senses.
Wander east off the main drag and you’ll find Nahalat Binyamin, a pedestrian street that hosts artist markets on Tuesdays and Fridays. Head towards the sea and get lost in Kerem HaTeymanin (or Vineyard of the Yemenites), a beautifully aged, colorful neighborhood full of hummus and falafel joints, tiny bakeries and bars.
Explore Neve Tzedek and Rothschild Boulevard
When Jews first left the ancient port city of Jaffa in the late 1800s, Neve Tzedek was the first community they built — making it Tel Aviv’s very first neighborhood when the city was established in 1909. Today, Neve Tzedek is gorgeously intact, its stone houses overtaken by vines and many streets too narrow for cars. It’s also a hub of chic bistros and boutiques, so grab a glass of wine and enjoy the scenery.
Exiting Neve Tzedek, walk northeast towards Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv’s most famous street. As you stroll down the tree-lined walkway splitting the lanes, check out the pastel colors and giant balconies of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture and catch the city’s best dressed sitting at the many bars, restaurants and cafes that give Rothschild its good name.
Swim in the Mediterranean Sea
Tel Aviv lives on the beach, and when the weather is right (roughly March through October) you’ll find the city’s nearly continuous 5-kilometer strip of sand bursting with activity. Bronzed Israelis play endless games of matkot (or paddle ball) along the sea, while surfers paddle out and beach bums prefer lazier days on the sand, busting out beers, guitars, grills and nargila (hookah pipes). Try the central Hilton Beach for pick up games of volleyball.
You can still enjoy the sea if you don’t want to get sandy: Rent a bike from one of the dozens of Tel-O-Fun bike share stations (from Israeli shekels (HK$34 per day)) and pedal from the promenade straight up the coast.
Head to Old City Jaffa
Tel Aviv’s southern neighbor existed more than 3,000 years before the liberal mecca took off, and the ancient trade city still stands today. Walk south along the sea from Tel Aviv and you’ll hitJaffa’s port, which today sports an array of seafood restaurants. Walk up the ancient stone steps into town and to explore a smaller, seaside version of Jerusalem’s old city — all narrow alleyways, mosque minarets, fortress walls and antique cannons.
Nearby Shuk HaPishpeshim (meaning Flea Market) is worth an afternoon of sorting through Middle Eastern carpets, religious relics, scarves and antiques hiding among a wild assortment of junk. Pop into any of the offbeat cafes and bars — adorned with a treasure trove of random Shuk finds — to catch a break from the sun.
Shop around Florentine and Shuk Levinsky neighborhoods
If you’ve come to Tel Aviv seeking hipster fashion, underground bars, blazing street art and great coffee, Florentine is where to go. The south Tel Aviv neighborhood is the city’s most overtly urban, and the crowded streets give way to some serious energy. Florentine’s got its own market in Shuk Levinsky, which specializes in dried fruits and spices, but a clutch of tiny restaurants, juice shacks, bars and bakeries form the heart of the neighborhood.
Party like a rock star
Tel Aviv’s blazing club scene is becoming increasingly infamous, and spots like The Block (157 Salame Road) or The Breakfast Club (6 Rothschild Boulevard) will keep you dancing all night — after which you head down the street to Benedict (29 Rothschild Boulevard) for a full-on 24/7 breakfast. It’s never hard to find a party, as streets like Nahalat Binyamin, Lilienblum, Vital and Dizengoff are synonymous with late nights. No matter your scene, Tel Aviv has a bar for every type of drinker: check out below-street-level Pasaz (94 Allenby Street) for local live music; head to Beer Bazaar (1 Rambam Street) in Shuk HaCarmel to sample over 90 Israeli craft brews; or explore the massive artworks at Kuli Alma (10 Mikve Yisrael Street). But pace yourself — Tel Aviv stays out late.
A dozen plates of Hummus
Israelis are always up for a good argument, and a debate over the city’s best hummus is bound get passionate. Though the chickpea paste is a simple spread for vegetables or sandwiches in much of the world, it’s a full meal in Israel, served with tehina, olive oil, hard-boiled eggs, pickles, olives and pita bread. Some like it hot, some order it cold, some top it with meat, mushrooms or beans. But everyone has their favorite hummusiya, and on Friday afternoons each one is packed.
Try the generations-old hole-in-the-wall spots in Kerem HaTeymanin, such as Shlomo v’Doron (29 Yishkon Street) or the Arab-Israeli dynasty Abu Hassan (14 Shivtei Yisrael Street, Jaffa). Another sure-fire option is to hike out to Abu Adham (7 Carlebach Street) and grab a table amidst the crowd, then block out time for a post-lunch nap.
Sitting on the sea, with waves lapping up at the deck, Manta Ray (703 Kaufman Street) sets the standard for seafood in Tel Aviv. From the heaping mixed seafood served in a cast iron pot to more modest filets of fish, pasta and calamari, this institution nails it every time. Add a bottle of Israeli wine and some Balkan bread dipped in Israeli olive oil, and the dinner manages to match the view.
There are enough French expats living in Tel Aviv that if Brasserie (70 Ibn Gabirol Street) wasn’t excellent, heads would roll. Thankfully, the bistro’s romantic, dimly lit setting and rich, masterful food keep the place popping all day and all night, as Brasserie is open around the clock.
Dalida Shuk Levinsky’s shining star is Dalida (7-8 Zvulun Street), where you’ll find drinkers spilling into the street while, inside, Florentine’s finest devour fresh, creative dishes like ricotta and chard tortellini, baked fennel salad and oxtail sambusac.
The Street Food Trio: falafel, sabich, shawarma
While hummus is Israel’s street food king, these three sandwiches battle it out for runners-up. Falafel is the most ubiquitous, with the crackling of hot oil heard on countless street corners. These delicious fried chickpea balls are best when eaten immediately, so insist on a fresh batch.HaKosem (1 Shlomo HaMelech Street) and Falafel Gabai (25 Bograshov Street) are legendary, but often the more down and dirty the better — find the falafel cart on the corner of HaCarmel and Rambam and ask him to top you off with amba (mango chutney), then say thank you.
Sabich is an Iraqi fried eggplant sandwich, served hot with cabbage salad, tomatoes, cucumbers and fried potato in a pita. Nobody does it better than Sabich Tchernichovsky (2 Tchernichovsky Street), where they’ll load your sandwich up with salty Bulgarian cheese.
Shawarma spits can be found all over the city, with lamb and turkey piled into one monstrosity and roasted until perfectly juicy. The Turkish-founded Turk Lahmacun (39 Yehuda Halevi Street) is unbeatable. Ask for the namesake and behold: bread with ground beef baked inside, wrapped around more shawarma meat than you could eat in two days.
While major hotel chains line the beach — Hilton Tel Aviv (205 HaYarkon Street) rules north Tel Aviv and David Intercontinental (12 Kaufman Street) owns the south — Tel Aviv offers a lot in the way of charming boutique spots.
The elegant Rothschild Hotel (96 Rothschild Boulevard) is popular for its brunch and prime real estate, or head to the nearby Bauhaus-style Shenkin Hotel to relax in minimalist surrounds or indulge in some spa pampering.
Getting There and Around
Israel’s El Al airline runs five nonstop flights a week from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv, and there are cheaper options if you throw in a layover. Once you’ve made it, Tel Aviv couldn’t be easier to explore — the entire core of the city, including Jaffa, is flat and totally walkable. If you ever get lost, use the sea as your guide. Rent a Tel-O-Fun bike to get around even quicker.
Cabs can quickly add up, but public buses will run you less than HK$12 a trip. Public transportation shuts down Friday to Saturday nights for the Jewish sabbath, so plan ahead. Look for the “Sherut” sharing taxi vans that generally follow the bus routes and will drop you anywhere along the way.