Jerusalem may have the gravitas, but Tel Aviv has the fun. This Mediterranean city—a.k.a. The Bubble—is remaking itself as a hub of progressive art, ambitious cuisine, high-end shopping and matkot by the sea.
Author Joe Keohane Photography Ronen Goldman
DAY ONE Every morning along the water’s edge in Tel Aviv the soundtrack is the same: the wash of the waves, the lazy ponk-ponk-ponk of matkot paddles. You step out onto the terrace of your suite at the Dan Tel Aviv, dean of the city’s oceanfront hotels, and get your first glimpse of the curve of the Mediterranean shoreline, the sea alight, the ancient walled city of Jaffa glowing to the south. The view here has attracted the likes of Madonna and Quentin Tarantino, and it’s no easy thing to tear yourself away.
After a breakfast of salad, fruit, eggs and stuffed grape leaves consumed with some haste downstairs, you take a cab to the spot where the city was born. When you get to the intersection of Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, where Tel Aviv’s first settlement was built, you stare up, bewildered, at an unsightly 1960s-era skyscraper. This is the Shalom Tower, once the tallest building in the Middle East. You enter, and peruse an exhibit chronicling the history of Tel Aviv, then ride the elevator to a simple library on the seventh floor that offers an unmatched, and little-known, panorama of the city.
Outside, you find the only remaining structure from the original settlement: the stately Weiss house, which, fittingly, given the arc of local history, is now a nightclub. (You will return to it later.) You stroll over to Rothschild Boulevard, with its tree-lined median and customary Tel Aviv hodgepodge of architecture on either side. On the right, you spy the former home of Meir Dizengoff, the city’s first mayor, though the bunkerlike stucco structure is better known today as Independence Hall. It was here, in 1948, that Israel declared independence from Britain. You talk the guy at the door into letting you in, and get a look at the unprepossessing room as it was when the declaration was signed.
Flushed out by a swarm of schoolkids, you walk a few blocks to the Hotel Montefiore, one of the city’s trendier boutique hotels. The restaurant here is popular among Tel Aviv’s creative class, offering traditional brasserie fare with Asian twists. The menu is a high-wire act, but the eatery handles it with aplomb. You go for a Waldorf salad with celery, apple and endive, and the spicy chicken tikka with zucchini and chili peppers.
Returning once more to the historical, you make your way to Bialik Square, an idyllic cul-de-sac on which stands Old City Hall, a white, columned Bauhaus structure flanked by palms. Today it serves as a museum. In the basement, you come across a photography exhibit, an ongoing municipal project in which volunteers visit homes throughout Tel Aviv to scan people’s family snapshots. The sepia-tinted expressions of hope, the sense of belonging, conjure the city motto: “To build and be built.” On the way out, you actually run into Mayor Ron Huldai in the street. “Enjoy my city!” he says, pumping your hand.
After a couple of hours spent relaxing at Frishman Beach, you head inside your nearby hotel and get dressed for dinner (not too dressed—Tel Aviv is very casual). Social Club, a bar-restaurant off Rothschild Boulevard, is aptly named, with Tel Aviv’s beautiful people milling around the U-shaped bar in the center of the Rat Pack–reminiscent room. You start with the smoked roast beef appetizer with artichokes and hot peppers, continue on to a pork chop with mango salsa, and end by digging into coconut ice cream with flaxen Turkish halva, a confection that melts in your mouth like cotton candy.
You’re fast slipping into a food coma, but it’s Thursday night, which, as every person you encounter tells you, is “crazy” in Tel Aviv. So you head for Paulina Stash, the bifurcated bar located in the old Weiss house, in which one side is mellow, serving barbecue, and the other is noisy, dim and smoky. You grab a local Goldstar beer and struggle through the crowd to the patio, where you finish your drink in the shadow of the Shalom Tower. Inevitably, you become embroiled in a spirited debate with a handful of regulars.
One Goldstar turns into more, which turns into a trip to Radio EPGB, a thrumming subterranean club with DJs spinning and video art projected onto the craggy stone walls. As is the custom, you get to bed at some point the next day.