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An art dealer at the Jaffa flea market. (Photograph by Lior Patel, Your Shot)

The Best of Tel Aviv

In Tel Aviv, I couldn’t turn a corner without encountering the kindness of strangers.

One night, the woman responsible for bringing the farmers market to the Tel Aviv Port dished on her favorite restaurants; on another, a British Embassy staffer steered me toward simply can’t-miss hummus. And when I asked for directions on Rothschild Boulevard, a kindly gentleman walked 15 minutes out of his way to show me.

As a female traveler who regularly flies solo, I have developed a heightened but guarded sense of awareness. But in Tel Aviv, where ubiquitous Israeli flags reveal a pride of country I have yet to see anywhere else, I felt welcome and safe. It’s not the overly warm hospitality of an Italian nonna greeting you with heaps of pasta, but more of a casual invitation to swap stories.

I recently spent a week exploring the different neighborhoods in this innovative city. Tel Aviv’s creative energy and global influence are on display everywhere you look, largely due to its flourishing tech start-up scene. Though Damascus is only 133 miles away, Israel’s second biggest city feels completely sheltered from warring neighbor Syria, and talk of the conflict with Palestine is often attenuated by shoulder shrugs.

The blending of old and new is also striking. In the growing Tel Aviv Port area, I could indulge my imagination by picturing icons of history sailing the crashing waves, then indulge my appetite at Kitchen Market, a wholly modern destination for serious foodies.

My recommendations for what to do and see in the other City That Never Sleeps:

The Neighborhoods

  • City Center: Stroll Dizengoff Street to check out the variety of sophisticated shops and restaurants on offer. Be sure to make it up to the Tel Aviv Port, a recently revitalized commercial and entertainment area with awesome views of the waves. For another side of the city, try walking from the Carmel Market in Kerem HaTeimanim (where you can find a colorful array of fruits, vegetables, and bargain items) to the beach. Don’t forget to get lost in this cobblestoned neighborhood along the way.
  • Old Jaffa and Jaffa Port: I returned to Jaffa, one of the most delightful (and historic) parts of Tel Aviv, four times on my trip. Head to the Jaffa flea market early for the best selections, and then make a midmorning pilgrimage to Abu Hassan Hummus. (Choose the line on the left to sit down and the one on the right to take away.) I also enjoyed dinner at Dr Shakshuka, made famous for its namesake dish.
  • Neve Tzedek: Duck into unique shops, art galleries, and even an organic juice bar on Shabazi, the neighborhood’s relaxed main street. Wander into the courtyard of the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance to check for upcoming performances, then head to Cafe Suzanna to grab a bite to eat (and some shade!) on the terrace.
  • Florentin: Alternatively gritty and gentrified, Florentin has long been known for its spice market. I ate my favorite meal in Tel Aviv here, at Hahultziym 3. I felt as if I were at Chef Eitan Vanunu’s own home as he served up piled-high bruschetta, lentil salad with parsley, almonds, yogurt, and lemon, and — the best bite of my trip — challah filled with pork and bacon.

The Sights

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Neve Tzedek, my favorite neighborhood in Tel Aviv. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)
  • Nature: The combination of strong rays and waves striking the rocky shore brings the potential for epic sunsets in Tel Aviv. Find a perch near Manta Ray restaurant on the beach, with a view of Old Jaffa.
  • Culture: The Tel Aviv Museum of Art houses an impressive collection of Old Masters like Rubens, Van Dyck, and Rigaud. But don’t miss the changing exhibitions, like the jaw-droppingly outlandish art by Douglas Gordon. The building recently added a new wing, effectively doubling its size. For the best insight into the city’s art scene, book a tour with Sarah Peguine of Oh So Arty, who is connected to the best galleries in the city, like Dvir.
  • Shopping: Stroll down Rothschild Boulevard and Sheinken Street to snap up some of Tel Aviv’s local flavor. On Tuesdays and Fridays, a section of Nahalat Binyamin Street becomes an artist’s showcase of jewelry, clothes, and unique craft pieces.

The Food

  • Breakfast: The Dan Panorama boasts a massive spread of Israeli specialties and Western favorites, while boutique Hotel Montefiore has a beautiful dining room and delicious breakfast. At Orna and Ella, the sweet potato pancakes are the most celebrated item on the menu.
  • Lunch: I loved the second-floor outdoor terrace at Delicatessen (which is also a gourmet grocery shop) and the alfresco dining experience at Lulu Kitchen and Bar on Shabazi Street.
  • Dinner: Trendy Tapas 1 has diners spilling out the front door at dinner, while Mizlala attracts a beautiful crowd to chow down on Chef Meir Adoni’s creations. In Jaffa, Kalamata serves fresh seafood with a view of the Mediterranean.

The Practical

  • Planning: Arm yourself with hyper-local tips from Eager Tourist, and map out your itinerary for each day (I went neighborhood by neighborhood). Walk as much as you can to see the city up close and personal.
  • Transportation: A car rental helped me get around quickly, but if you follow suit, rent the smallest car you can. Tel Aviv has a huge parking shortage, and my Mini made the difference more than once.
  • Navigation: Triple-check addresses, and use Waze! (Full disclosure, my longtime beau works for the social GPS company.) But, with over 70 percent of Israel signed up for the service, if there’s a faster way to get from place to place, Waze will tell you.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her on Twitter @anniefitz.