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Exploring Tel Aviv

Exploring Tel Aviv

You can’t visit Tel Aviv without considering the political situation; in fact it’s probably not possible to visit much of the Middle East without thinking about it. And wandering around Israel’s second city you hear the chatter of debate and dissent everywhere; in Tel Aviv, everyone has at least one opinion.

But there’s still far more to Tel Aviv than politics; there’s a reason millions on people visit it every year. For starters, you could spend weeks wandering around its quirky, history-imbued streets and still find new things to explore.

The so-called ‘White City’ was founded 106 years ago along the Mediterranean coast. Like other melting pot cities – New York most of all – it’s a place where neighbourhoods give way to neighbourhoods; a place where east meets west and neither is willing to give any ground. You turn a corner and suddenly the city reinvents itself; an area goes from religious to secular, from crumbling old architecture to cutting edge design, and from being an identikit western capital to one with a ambience specific to this temperamental part of the world.

If you only have days, rather than weeks, how to narrow down what to do in such a diverse place? There are museums of course, not least Independence Hall, which tells the story of the city’s founding and the state’s tumultuous birth, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, home to some gems of the 20th century art scene, including a specially-commissioned Roy Lichtenstein mural.

No visit would be complete without a stop off at one of Tel Aviv’s beaches, which boast soft golden sand and, in the spring, summer and autumn months, mild waters ideal for swimming in. With 14km of beach running alongside the city, there’s plenty of choice, but be prepared for it to be hectic; Israeli beachgoers tend to blast loud music and play endless games of matkot (beach ball). If possible, avoid the weekend (in Israel, that means Friday or Saturday).

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Not far from the central Tel Aviv beach lies Shuk Ha’Carmel, the Carmel Market, Like most middle eastern bazaars, it’s a cornucopia of sights, sounds and smells. You’ll find every kind of spice you could want (and many you won’t have seen outside the confines of an Ottolenghi recipe), plus fresh fish and meat and endless arrays of dried fruit, baked delicacies and fragrant regional delicacies. On a Tuesday and Friday, the shuk gives way to a quirky but affordable craft market along the Nachalat Binyamin road, where you can browse old bottles repurposed into clocks, artisan jewellery and attention-grabbing home furnishings.

From there, wander towards the beautiful Neve Tsedek area, where dilapidated Bauhaus and Art Nouveau buildings jostle for space with trendy eateries and expensive clothes stores. Once the stomping ground of artists and writers galore – including Nobel laureate Shmuel Agnon – these days it’s the place to go for a classy cocktail or fine wine in the evening, or to watch a contemporary dance performance at the Suzanne Dellal Centre. Stop at Anita for ice cream or frozen yogurt – in my opinion, it’s the best in the city – and Lulu Kitchen & Bar for a drink and something to eat; both are nestled into the side of the area’s main artery, Shabazi Street.

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From Neve Tsedek you’re also a stone’s throw from the old Tel Aviv train station, which was a rebuilt a few years ago as a complex for restaurants and shops. These days it’s a lovely, if pricey spot, and the old train tracks are still in place – meaning hours of entertainment for younger visitors.

Neve Tsedek was the first Jewish neighborhood to be built outside the old city of Jaffa, which lies at the southern tip of Tel Aviv. Historically a thriving port and home over its long lifespan to Muslims, Jews and Christians, Jaffa’s history takes in the Romans, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Empire, the British mandate period and more. Walking around its alleyways and narrow cobbled streets feels like taking a step back in time.

There’s plenty to see and do, from seeing the looming clock tower, built to honour the then sultan in 1906, or the Church of St. Peter just off Kedumim Square, to shopping for antiques at the flea market or sampling what’s on offer at the fabled humus restaurant Abu Hasan. If you can, take a walking tour to learn more about the area, but if not it’s worth going just to get perfectly lost and while away the time in one of the area’s many art studios.

For a more modern experience, head into Tel Aviv’s business district, not just to see one where suits and ties remain firmly optional, but to enjoy the strangely serene atmosphere of the Sarona Market. ‘Market’ is actually a misleading term for the development at what was once a German Templar Colony; in reality it’s a complex of restaurants, galleries, shops and stylishly landscaped outdoor spaces.  Open only since 2014, the newest element is a covered food hall – but think artisan sushi and high end chocolates rather than greasy fast food or wipe-clean chairs – which at lunchtime is a hub for Tel Aviv’s metropolitan elite.

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Finish off your day at Tel Aviv Port, which was rebuilt a decade ago and continues to be a work in progress (like many major urban areas, Tel Aviv never seems to be finished being built), where you’ll have plenty of choice of where to eat or drink; try Lechem Basar for a hearty steak dinner.

Naturally, Tel Aviv is just the tip of the iceberg and most visitors will want to head on to Jerusalem or the Dead Sea, or across the border into Jordan. But for a short trip, there’s plenty to recommend about Tel Aviv. You’ll leave the city a stone heavier, with your pockets lighter – and probably with a fair few opinions to boot.