In the past ten years, Israel has been increasingly publicized as a center of terrorist violence. As a result, its attractions may not be on every couple’s romantic travel wish-list.
However, with its Mediterranean location, reputation for gorgeous food and nonstop nightlife and its rating as #4 in Condé Nast Traveller’s Top 5 Cities in Africa/Middle East…
I figure Tel Aviv warrants a closer look.
Two friends of mine have visited Tel Aviv together every year since 2002.
Doran left Tel Aviv for L.A. at the age of 10 with his parents and three brothers; the rest of his extended family stayed behind in Israel’s second-largest city. Alina left Kiev, Russia as a child, grew up in the still-blooming Renaissance of 1990s Brooklyn, and moved with her mother to L.A.’s San Fernando Valley in her mid-teens. Together since 1998 and now the parents of two toddlers, they blend different backgrounds, a shared religion and desire to wander all over the place in each other’s company.
Both as a couple and a family, they make regular visits to Doran’s relatives in Tel Aviv. The city was founded by Ashkenazic Zionists in 1909, some of whom are related to Doran; both of his grandmothers were raised here from the time they were 3 years old.
As largely secular Jews, Alina and Doran have a complex, love-hate relationship with Tel Aviv; as part of their cultural and spiritual homeland, they feel they utterly belong here, but can be easily exhausted by its residents’ “don’t bother me” attitude and the city’s pulsing energy.
These days, formerly sleepy Tel Aviv is now a dream for young couples who want to party all night and lounge on stunning beaches by day. However, as Israel’s financial capital and home to the country’s stock exchange, it also has a dense population; heightened, armed security; and (for Israel) high prices.
These co-existing worlds of hedonistic, self-involved leisure and the trappings of powerful global commerce evoke a strange combination of Los Angeles and New York City.
Traffic can be absurd, and drivers maniacal. In residential neighborhoods, building exteriors appear run-down from sea-humidity damage and general neglect, but more often than not, interior spaces will be surprisingly clean, gorgeous and huge.
Communication is almost universally sarcastic and visitors who want to experience an authentic version of the city should be prepared to function on the level of chutzpah. In the real Tel Aviv, smiling and politeness are not rewarded.
Stores are full of gorgeous handicrafts and stylish European fashions, but sales staff rudeness is legendary: At one dress shop, Alina and Doran (despite Doran speaking in fluent Hebrew), were forbidden to purchase anything until the salesman was able to fully delight in their mounting frustration. At commercial establishments like banks and markets, lines are non-existent; the conventional Tel Aviv wisdom is that everyone here is fighting to succeed, and you’re expected to push your own way forward.
Tel Aviv’s Russians are the immigrant class, and have largely settled an area just south of the city called Bat-Yam; here, you’d probably be better off speaking Russian than Hebrew. Muslims have settled mainly in Jaffa, a historic port town that also sits south of the city center. Muslims from Morocco, many who share Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean culture, may learn Hebrew but will still speak mostly in their native French.
The city’s cultural mix creates a setting for absolutely gorgeous food. You can find almost any cuisine here (though sushi hasn’t yet caught on), but Alina and Doran look forward most to Tel Aviv’s huge Israeli breakfasts: at least two types of fresh-squeezed juices, a few different types of warm, fresh-baked breads, artisan cheeses, eggs, homemade jams, butter, and sometimes, Israel’s national dish, a salad of diced tomatoes and cucumber. To cut right to the bread, they head to Abulafia, an Arab bakery in Jaffa with spectacular sesame buns and flatbread with za’atar.
Eateries called shipudim are also wildly popular. These feature skewers of just about anything sold by the…skewer; it’s typical to see foie gras and bull testicles on the same menu. However, standard choices like plain ol’ steak and chicken breast are also common, all served with fresh, hot breads and approximately 50 fresh salads. (God forbid you should go hungry in Israel, original land of the Jewish mother.)
Every restaurant, from the simplest food stall to the highest of high-end will offer hummus (in Hebrew, pronounced hoo-muss), and will more than likely stay open, music pumping, ’til 3-5 in the morning. Just about everyone smokes, and not everyone’s kosher, but dairy and meat are always kept separate.
If you prefer your food more do-it-yourself, be sure to visit the Shuk Ha’Carmel market, a loud, crazy, ubër-local experience. In addition to some of the most gorgeous produce you’ll ever see in your lifetime, you can find everything from fashionable souvenirs to cheap trinkets. It’s old-school Tel Aviv on display, and for some inexplicable reason, everyone here yells to be heard.
If you’ve saved room for dessert, treat yourself to Max Brenner‘s “Chocolate by the Bald Man,” with three locations across the city. Sure, the sheer pace of Tel Aviv might kill you both, but at least you can go out swinging…with a handcrafted in your hand.
Tel Aviv: The City That Never (Ever) Stops – Pt. 2
TWT Travel Binder: Israel