Historic and hedonistic at the same time, bustling Tel Aviv offers an interesting city break on Israel's Mediterranean coast
A few months ago, I found myself rubbing shoulders with Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel – literally. We had bumped into each other in the lobby of the InterContinental David Tel Aviv, the city’s plushest seafront hotel. She smiled graciously and continued to the lifts, no doubt to prepare for the next day, when she would be in Jerusalem to make her historic address to the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in German.
This was a historic trip for me, too, a whirlwind tour of the holy land’s most important city, Tel Aviv. I wasn't sure what to expect but what I found is a young, vital, modern city, which melds so seamlessly with its ancient past that it was hard to reconcile that I was in the Middle East.
Tel Aviv, like any city worth its salt, has that indefinable vibe that compels you to walk its streets. Trendy hotels, ballet and dance theatres, street art, high rises, ancient passageways, walk-by archaeological digs, museums, seafront promenades and 24-hour nightclubs galore... this city has it all.
There is also a motley mix of shopping experiences on offer, from flea to designer. And Allenby Street, in the heart of the city, is a fabulous conduit to three of them. I started my spree at the art fair at Nachalat Binyamin, where talented artists display their arts and crafts for sale. I couldn’t leave without buying a hand-made belt and small painting.
Just steps away is the colourful Carmel market, where stall-holders nestle together, noisily, in long, narrow walkways, selling fruit and veg, clothes and hardware. Trade is brisk and I had to gesticulate hard or shout just to be noticed. I eventually emerged, a little worse for wear but exhilarated, back onto the Allenby Street T-junction, clutching a bag brimful of delicious fresh dates.
Collecting myself, I walked past some nattering locals reclining on a semi-circle of street benches and crossed the road to Sheinkin Street, one of Tel Aviv’s trendiest streets, where café culture thrives. I could have chosen any number of types of cuisine but it was the falafel/shawarma bar that lured me. I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into one of Israel’s best street foods: a pita bread filled with balls of fried chick pea, salad, chips, humous, tehina and chilli for the brave.
What exactly makes Tel Aviv tick is difficult to say. The Israeli people have cosmopolitan features, varying styles of dress and cultures that have (not entirely) integrated from around the globe and now live together in a city that was just a collection of sand dunes a mere 60 years ago. From my perch at the tiny falafel bar, I could see blondes and brunettes, white and dark skin and all shades in between. Had it not been for the tell-tale Hebrew language spoken at high decibels, with typically Israeli hand gestures for extra clarity, I could well have been in Oxford Street in London.
From Sheinkin, it’s a short walk to the very elegant Rothschild Boulevard, home to the ‘White City’ - a large clutch of world-famous German Bauhaus architecture, known for straight lines and no-nonsense design. It is not at all beautiful but it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and worth taking a peek at just for its historical perspective.
Rothschild Boulevard is also where the Israeli independence museum is located, which in my view is a must-visit museum. In here is the very room where the state of Israel was born and a touching 10-minute film shows the idealism, heartache and losses that the Jewish people endured in the build-up to the birth of Israel.
Just outside the heart of the city is the impossibly quaint ancient fishing port and city of Jaffa. Jaffa (or Joppa) dates back to biblical times and the architectural style hasn’t changed. Artists hang their art on the outer yellow stone walls of their studios and I spent most of my time uncovering the almost hidden doorways that lead the way to tiny shops selling Judaica and archaeology in twisty stone passageways named after the signs of the zodiac.
The Wishing Zodiac Bridge - where I complied with folklore and placed my hand on the Capricorn segment (my sign) and made a wish while looking at the sea - leads to the red-bricked Franciscan St Peter’s church, which, they say, hosted Napoleon in 1799.
The sea here is the Mediterranean and it laps onto 14km of soft, sandy, wide-brimmed shores. Even in early spring, temperatures are warm enough to enjoy a walk along Ha-Tayalet promenade. It follows the contours of the beach, along the hem of high-rise seafront hotels. It is gorgeous. But by 9pm the promenade fills up with entertainers, pedestrians and party-goers. By midnight, bars, eateries and clubs are a swell of bodies swaying to the rhythm of the night into the small hours. It feels hedonistic and after a couple of drinks, it was all too easy to forget that I was in the holy land.
Bmi operates a daily direct service to Tel Aviv from London Heathrow. Thomsonfly also operates flights from Luton and Manchester