A city and beach break in one
Tel Aviv had been on our ‘must do’ list for some time: we could combine a city and beach break, enjoy culture, food and architecture. Whilst the night life, known as the Big Orange, is said to be vibrant, this was less of an attraction for two silver travellers.
We arrived just after the country had celebrated 70 years of independence, and blue and white flags bearing the iconic Star of David flew from buildings, windows and cars.
As an Israeli passport stamp can bar you from visiting numerous Arab/Muslim countries, we were given an entry card instead of a stamp. Despite reading horror stories about security when exiting the country, the pre-check-in ‘grilling’ was surprisingly painless, as the girl was amused about my partner’s surname, Messenger, and its Facebook connections. Others appeared less fortunate.
The traditional Bauhaus-style architecture is functional rather than aesthetic and uses inexpensive materials. 4,000 white stone buildings with bulbous windows and balconies are now a World Heritage site.
National service is mandatory for both sexes and we often came across uniform-clad, AK47-toting teenagers on the streets, which brought a new meaning to the UK term ‘gun culture’.
Hebrew and Arabic are Israel’s official languages and, as English is compulsory at school, we were surprised that apart from street signs, few others were in English. One of the best restaurants for snacks is Falafel Hakosem, but the signs over the door are in Hebrew and, whilst beach lifeguards make frequent tannoy announcements, they’re not understood by tourists.
At the end of April, temperatures were between 25 and 28 degrees, but low humidity meant it was perfect for wandering around or sunbathing. However, we weren’t quite prepared for cooler nights or the hailstones that fell one evening. Fortunately, our hotel, the Centre Chic, supplied umbrellas.
The restaurant culture is said to be renowned and vegetarians will have a feast with ubiquitous hummus and falafel fast food places. However, for us, they were too filling for lunch, and too informal for our evening dinner.
We enjoyed a fresh-fish lunch at one of Tel Aviv’s most famous restaurants, Manta Ray and otherwise tended to eat at places around our hotel at La Shuk, Tandoori and Centro. Salads are big in Tel Aviv and one which became a favourite was cauliflower in tahini. This has been recreated at home with the help of Yotam Ottolenghi (non-cooks may need to google here)! Fresh fruit and juice stalls abound, and we enjoyed choosing fruit and vegetables and drinking them freshly squeezed.
Israeli winemakers say that, just like the wine they produce, their industry is growing better with age. We certainly enjoyed trying the various locally produced Israeli Sauvignon Blanc and unoaked Chardonnay.
Meals were around London prices and on average we paid £50 to £60 for dinner with wine. Bills are generally in Hebrew only except the words ‘service not included’. Tipping isn’t discreet, and you’ll be asked directly how much you want to tip. On one occasion, when we rounded up the bill after drinks and hummus, we were told it wasn’t enough as they’re not well paid. Paying by credit card was slightly disconcerting requiring neither signature or PIN and being done out of sight.
We arrived with a list of museums to visit: the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and its overflow in the Helena Rubenstein Pavillion; Ben-Gurion House, the home of Israel’s first Prime Minster; the Museum of the History of Tel Aviv and Jaffa and neighbouring Bailik House and Reuben Museum. We failed to visit any of them preferring to spend time outdoors wandering the streets and beach front.
Neve Tzedek area and Nachal Binyamin were a maze of narrow streets, with designer shops and cafes. With its funky street art, it was the perfect starting point for our 3-hour trip with Israeli Photography Tours. As well as introducing us to Tel Aviv, the tour took us to Jaffa with its daily flea market, Clock Tower Square and labyrinth of cobbled lanes. We also enjoyed strolling down the central, tree-lined walkway of Rothschild Avenue with its various bean bags, hammocks and benches, ideal for people watching.
Although the large Rabin Square, named after the assassinated Prime Minister, with its memorial to the Holocaust, is the traditional place for rallies and demonstrations, we found it almost deserted.
Sarona, a relatively new development was formerly a German Templar Colony, and in the 33 original buildings dating back more than 140 years, we found boutiques and cafes. All pedestrianised, it was full of families even on the Jewish Shabbat (sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday) when many shopping malls were closed. The indoor food market was bustling with people, stalls and communal eating areas.
Likewise, Carmel Market had a wonderful selection of fresh food and drinks and everything we could possibly want to haggle for: tourist tat, Dead Sea products, clothing etc. Traders did not hassle and were happy for us to take photographs.
Walking northwards up the promenade to the old port, we found cafes and shops inhabiting the old warehouses. Apparently, it transforms into a music-pumping spot in the evenings as its location is well out of town. We continued through HaYarkon Park which was quiet on a weekday, but at weekends would be full of families boating on the river running through it.
Trumpeldor Cemetery, the final resting place of Tel Aviv’s greats, was peaceful, and amongst all the Hebrew inscriptions, a monument inscribed ‘Anabella Shepherd from Cardiff, England’ stood out.
Finally, Jerusalem is only an hour by bus and we took advantage and visited the beautiful, holy city.
No trip to Tel Aviv would be complete without strolling the long promenade or spending time on the wide sandy beach which runs parallel to the city. The beach is split into individually named beaches aimed at different audiences: dogs at Hilton Beach, Nordau Beach with alternative single sex days, the hippy set at Dolphinarium etc. Frishman Beach, a 10-minute walk from our hotel, was family-friendly and having arrived at 10am on a Friday, we quickly found ourselves being surrounded as the day wore on. We hired sunbeds (£2.40 each) and an umbrella (£1.20) and our hotel provided beach towels. Showers, lockers and loos were plentiful, and the restaurant provided a beach service. Whilst the sand was lovely and clean, the Mediterranean in April, was like the North Sea.
At the beach’s southerly end, the final stages of developing the promenade continued, but this didn’t prevent beach goers mingling with JCBs.
As well as the promenade development, a ‘light rail’ was being built and many other areas were under construction requiring many detours around hoardings. The main square, Dizengoff, which our hotel overlooked, was a building site and had been for over a year. Consequently, there was lots of dust around and I returned home with a nasty cough.
Although Tel Aviv has a bus service, we walked and walked. However, we found the numerous e-bikes and motorised scooters lethal due to their speed. Whilst pavements usually contained a cycle lane, it was often one way to fit with the traffic, but this didn’t deter cyclists when they couldn’t be bothered to cross the road.
Despite being a city of flat dwellers, they love big dogs which needed to be avoided as well as their deposits! Restaurants frequently had water bowls outside and cat food would be strategically piled on walls for the local strays.
Although not natural night birds, we began eating in the evening around 9pm, as restaurants stay open late. The city’s reputation for night life seems justified having read two Time Out reviews of some night spots: ‘it has the magnetic energy of a mass orgy waiting to happen’, and ‘it begins no earlier than 2am when everyone is already drunk enough to flirt with anything that breathes’. So, when younger family members say they’re visiting Tel Aviv, it’s probably not to admire the Bauhaus architecture!
Finally, I often find myself finishing reviews with ‘a hidden gem, go now before it’s discovered’. With Tel Aviv, I’d recommend waiting until the building work’s completed.