Apparently Tel Aviv is sexy. Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it all before. It’s hard not to talk about the city without bouncing around the same old clichés about scantily clad beach-goers, short-skirted clubbers, and the conspicuous lack of anyone over the age of forty. But clichés exist for a reason: sometimes, things really do live up to the hype. Whether you find yourself in a cloud of dry ice at a trance club at 7am or holed up in a tragically hip or plain old cooler-than-thou bar come dusk, you’ll soon realize that Tel Aviv is often over-the-top, somehow maintaining the surrealism of a story that has always seemed just too crazy to be true. Stranger than fiction, sure—why not “cooler than” too?
While she may truly live and define herself by the night, Tel Aviv escapes a hangover in the morning as 20-somethings saunter toward the beaches or settle into the swanky cafes perched on every corner. This is not like the rest of Israel—Orthodox men are just as rare a sight as M16-toting teenagers—but more akin to a glamorous European Riviera town, with its laissez-faire approach to life. As the languid morning turns into late afternoon, the crowds migrate back toward the bars in preparation of the night ahead.
Tel Aviv sits at the center of Israel’s Mediterranean coast, 60km northwest of Jerusalem and 90km south of Haifa. While the city is large by Israel’s standards, much of it (the northern and central parts in particular) are organized in an easily navigable grid. Once you learn the main thoroughfares, it’ll be almost impossible to get lost in the mess of cobbled streets that lie between—recognizable landmarks are never more than 5min. away. The city is most easily divided into three main sections: the city center, north Tel Aviv, and south Tel Aviv.
Believe it or not, Tel Aviv keeps being a city during the day too. But as far as history is concerned, you’re looking at barely a century of it, so save your synagogue visits for Jerusalem. While an explosion of modernist Bauhaus provides a real treat for those wacky for the white and straight-edged, Tel Aviv, as the former seat of government, is also home to monuments to—and museums about—Israel’s founding. Indeed, museums are certainly a strength of the town; the best are located in the north by Tel Aviv University, where the Diaspora Museum can be found.
The best sights in Tel Aviv await you! Here’s a shortlist of our favorite spots in and near the city.
The good news is that Tel Aviv is a culinary hotspot with a truly cosmopolitan character: Chinese diners, German sausage houses, and sandwich shops share the streets with the usual falafel and hummus stands. The bad news is that these restaurants can be pretty expensive. Many are worth the money – sushi and burgers are particularly popular in the city, so competition has really upped quality.
That said, your typical fast food fare – Subway and Mickey D’s – can be pretty pricey, thanks to their kosher menus. The holy trinity in this city is falafel, shawarma, and hummus. As you can see, you’ll be eating mashed chickpeas in more ways than you ever thought possible. Walk a block in any direction and you can usually find a stand selling at least one of these, but the largest concentration can be found along Ben-Yehuda Street and Allenby Street. Pizza is another common fixture. Periodically you’ll also find small stands selling bagel panini.
For the more well-bred (or hummus-weary), Tel Aviv provides plenty of options to cook for yourself. The best bet for groceries, as for pretty much anything else under the sun, is the outdoor Carmel Market where a vast array of spices, vegetables, and meats are consistently for sale. For something more conventional, a couple supermarkets can be found by the northern top of Allenby St. and along Ben-Yehuda St.
If you feel like sitting down to music rather than raging to it, Tel Aviv has you covered. In this most liberal part of Israel, the arts scene flourishes. Many large dance and music institutions have found their home here, but the visual arts are the real strength of the city, from the large Tel Aviv Museum of Art to the cornucopia of smaller galleries scattered throughout the city.
Should awkwardly shuffling your feet among the throngs of footloose and fancy-free Israelis at the clubs get to be too much, you can always watch someone else dance instead. As Israel’s de facto culture capital, Tel Aviv has become a home for the arts. The Israeli Philharmonic has taken up residence here, and the Suzanne Dellal Center is the bonafide hub of Israeli dance, so go get yourself some honest-to-goodness culture—that way you’ll have a few stories you can actually tell mom.
It’s okay. You can admit it: you skipped everything else and turned here first, didn’t you? There’s no need to hide it. Tel Aviv is a city that unabashedly lives and defines itself by the night. When the homeward club-goers mingle in the streets with work-bound yuppies, and you’re more likely to encounter a minyan of mesh-tops than yarmulkes, you figure out fairly quickly that Tel Avivians clearly put partying high on their list of daily activities. And by daily, we mean daily: Thursdays and Fridays are certainly the biggest nights of the week, but the streets explode every evening into short-skirted, neon-strobed, and tobacco-clouded pandemonium. Although the trance doesn’t usually start blasting until past midnight, it’s a testament to that renowned Israeli zeal that the volume only falls once the moon does. Nor is the drinking culture especially big—how can you flail your limbs like a rabid maniac until 6am if you’re drowsy from daiquiris? As you head out, remember how to win over the “selectors” at the door (turning up with a bevy of beautiful women will always better your chances).
That the joints will be loud, sweaty, and packed with people cooler than you is basically guaranteed. But everything else about Tel Aviv nightlife runs the gamut on a spectrum that uncannily follows geography. Clubs in the city’s north, centered on the discotheque mecca of Namal Street, border on pretentious. Smattered over a collection of hangars, the beautiful and Versace-clad come here to be seen by those lucky enough to get in and join their martini-sipping ranks. Heading south, the attitude is considerably more laissez-faire. Door policies become looser, tables become dance floors, and nonchalant posturing just becomes awkward. The bars and clubs centered around Rothschild Boulevard take on a more bohemian flavor, while the warehouses and hangars of the Florentine haven’t even bothered with renovations, using the dingy atmosphere to host to some of the most riotous bacchanals this side of Ibiza.
Haggling is an acceptable practice in Israel, although this exercise is not for the faint-of-heart. While it is generally not acceptable in smaller family-run stores, it is expected that you get sassy in order to shop savvy at souqs, the open markets stuffed with textiles, jewelry, food, and trinkets. Also, don’t be alarmed by the large men with guns standing in the entrances to department stores checking bags; they’re government soldiers mandated for your safety. Just make a point not to try the five-finger discount – there’s always a chance they might be trigger-happy.
Israel is a country with torrid political backgrounds and the birthplaces to multiple major religions. Respect for religious places, symbols, and monuments is very important, and in general, a conscientious attitude toward topics of potential conflict is recommended. This conscientiousness extends to clothing: churches, temples, and mosques often refuse entrance to those sporting bare shoulders, upper arms, backs, or legs, so save the miniskirts (even shorts and tank tops) for the clubs of Tel Aviv. Carrying a scarf to help you cover up is probably a smart move.
It’s also good to remember that while about 75% of Israelis consider themselves Jewish, the country houses the religious monuments and cultures of several other prominent religions. Islam has substantial ties to the region as do Christianity and the religion of Baha’i. When traveling and sightseeing, be sure to remember that sites holy to some religions, others may feel equal ownership to as well.
Another important fact is that many neighboring Arab countries will deny access to travelers who have Israeli stamps on their passports. If you’re planning on making a hajj anytime in the near future, it might be prudent to ask the customs official to stamp another piece of paper that can be easily removed from your passport before the next set of customs.
Israelis are notorious for valuing honesty over politeness. Given a long history of persecution, Israelis have developed a culture in which arguing for what you believe in is worth far more than protecting the feelings of those around you, and a person’s deepest personal opinions are far more interesting than his or her thoughts on the weather. Don’t be offended if conversations seem personal or heated; chances are your acquaintances is genuinely interested in what you have to say.
Despite its reputation as fairly conservative, Israel is probably one of the most accepting of the Middle Eastern countries to gay and lesbian tourists. Several of the world’s more famous transsexual and transgender musicians, performers, and public figures hail from Israel. Although Tel Aviv is known a gay haven in the Middle East, GLBT travelers may want to be careful about letting that pride flag fly in the more religious parts of the country, such as the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem.