Kaye Holland takes time out in Tel Aviv aka the Miami of the Med
Can’t choose between perfect beaches and bronzed bodies, a buzzy market vibe or architectural treasures? Israel’s largest city delivers them all – along with gastronomy, history and culture - in spades. And as winter sets in, a few days in Tel Aviv where it’s baking in a bikini hot by day and t-shirt temperatures by night – is a tempting prospect. What’s more you don’t need deep pockets to chase the warm weather to Tel Aviv as easyJet (everyone’s favourite low cost airline) runs a six-times-a-week service to this city of cosmopolitan cool.
Of course Tel Aviv has been in the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons but don’t be deterred from visiting: travelling to Tel Aviv – whose name means ‘Hill of the Spring’ – no longer constitutes an active threat. Tourists have rarely been targeted and you’ll be warmly greeted by Israelis looking to shed their country’s international reputation.
In fact I defy you to to resist the charms of the friendly – and unfeasibly good looking – locals who will bend over backwards to help you during your sojourn in the White City. Those that I was befriended by couldn’t get over the fact that, back home in Harrow, I don’t know my neighbours – absolutely everyone knows everyone in Tel Aviv.
Thecity is perhaps best known for its beach culture. There’s a beach for every occasion and character – one to party, play sports, one for families (Metzitzim Beach), a religious beach (Nordau Beach where men and women are segregated) and another for the LBGT brigade (hello Hilton Beach). However Alma Beach, near the Charles Clore Park, is arguably where you go for the swankiest sand. Stretch out your beach towel and enjoy the fabulous people watching opportunities, rest, relax and read that book that’s been sitting on your bedside table since Christmas.
That said do rouse yourself to see some of Tel Aviv’s beautiful white Bauhaus buildings (there are more than 400 in total) which were declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003. For – buzzing beach aside - Tel Aviv is all about Bauhaus architecture (think curved corners, horizontal lines and an absence of ornamentation). Two of the best examples of Bauhaus style buildings include the charming Cinema Hotel (Dizengoff Square) and Soshkin House (12 Lillenblum Street).
Good retail therapy – expect acompetitive parade of preening bling – is another big draw. Shop till you drop on trendy Sheinken Street or Dizengoff Street – packed as they are with independentboutiques(you won’t find any chains here) and glitzy, if garish, wedding gown shopsfor you to splash your shekels in. Don’t have deep pockets? Check out the Carmel Market where you’ll find passionate Israelis peddling everything from flip flops to face creams and fresh flowers for a snip. And if you’re in town on a Tuesday or Friday make a beeline for buzzy Nahalat Binyamin Street – home to a popular pedestrianised craft market between 10am-5pm. Even if you’re not planning on purchasing any of the excellent paintings, ceramics and jewellery, it’s worth visiting for the atmosphere alone – the open air market is alive with Instagramable mine artists, buskers and dancers.
South of Binyamin Street lies Neve Tzdedek – the city’s oldest European style neighbourhood and a great place to stop for a coffee, to eat a long, late lunch or stay out drinking and dancing until 3am. Make no mistake: this is a city that personifies la dolce vita and even at 3am every venue is overflowing with people letting off steam and sipping Goldstar (the local beer) or filling up on felafel.
Speaking of which, good food and drink is never hard to find in Tel Aviv which has become something of a world class restaurant capital. Streets such as Rothschild Boulevard – an elegant avenue lined with imported oak trees and named after the famed Jewish family of financiers – are brimming with cafes (Tel Avivians seem to live in cafes) and restaurants. The waterfront eateries at the Old Port (which was given a makeover in the early 2000s by the Tel Aviv municipality) also reward a visit. And the historic Old Railway Station (often referred to as HaTachna) is home to to a whole host of fashionable dining venues including Vicky Cristina – an outdoor tapas and wine bar named after the Woody Allen film – that’s currently the hottest ticket in town.
But you don’t have to spend a lot to eat well. Hummus – aka the humble chick pea dish – is dirt cheap and tastes sublime, especially when slathered on a hunk of pita bread. Benedict is another spot where you can live the high life without paying the vertigo inducing rates.
Being all about pleasure, it would be easy (and perfectly understandable) to stay in downtown Tel Aviv but it’s worth venturing to the ancient port city of Jaffa, just south of the city, to see the contrast between slick Tel Aviv and its shabby-chic neighbour.
Jaffa was once the unofficial capital of the British Mandate of Palestine: today it’s famed for its flea market and as a film location for the hit US TV series Homeland. Exploring Jaffa from your Tel Aviv base is safe and easy – just hire a bike (cycling is the best way to get around) and stick to the designated cycling lanes.
Jerusalem - which has been seducing travellers and pilgrims since time immemorial – is another destination within easy day tripping distance. Nothing prepares you for a visit to the Old City: even if you aren’t religious, it’s hard not to be moved by the history and heritage contained within the walls…
But you’re probably after a holiday – you work hard, right? – and not a history lesson so allow for a final day in TA. Who knows you might have trouble tearing yourself away… this does happen – something Sonia, a 30 something French lady, whom I met over a breakfast of shakshuka (a to die for egg and spicy tomato dish) - can attest to. Sonia who had been living in London for 12 years came once on holiday, fell in love with the city and then promptly threw her old life overboard and found a way to move to Tel Aviv for good.
With so much on offer – Tel Aviv, and its enticing blend of exotic and familiar, is one of those places where just being there makes you feel better - I’m tempted to follow suit…
Bottom line? If you want to put the pep back in your step, if you want to live life to the full and be bold, bright and fabulous, Tel Aviv delivers. It’s an easy journey being only a short four hour flight away from Blighty but – at the risk of gushing – I’d travel to the ends of the earth for a little time out in Tel Aviv.