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 TWO You stand at the gates of Jaffa, perfect sambusak (bread stuffed with potato, egg and cheese) from the legendary Abulafia Bakery across the street in hand, staring up at the old Jaffa police station. In its heyday the building was somewhat notorious; Adolf Eichmann was jailed here for a time. Now it’s being turned into a boutique hotel. So goes Tel Aviv.
You continue on Yefet Street, past the Ottoman clock tower and the rows of little neighborhood shops. At the top of the hill is airy Kedumim Square and the Old Jaffa Visitors Center, where you learn the pivotal role Jaffa has played throughout the centuries. Both Napoleon and St. Peter had defining moments in this very spot, and Jonah might have had one too if he hadn’t been swallowed by a whale on his way here.
You descend the hill and wander through Jaffa’s crooked alleyways, occasionally catching glimpses of Tel Aviv’s whitewashed sprawl. Not long ago this was a seedy place, something the city sought to remedy by offering studio space to artists. It worked: Today, Jaffa is dotted with independent galleries and is exceedingly expensive to live in. The queen of the scene is Ilana Goor, who turned a 280-year-old hostel into the llana Goor Museum, a strange and wonderful collection that includes an expansive table repurposed from a monastery and heaped with iron birds and fish, skulls and hookah pipes, which Goor calls “The Morning After.”
From here, you head to Dr. Shakshuka, a Tripolitanian restaurant presided over by the ebullient and outsize Bino Gabso. “He is very big man,” explains one burly regular, “but he has the heart of a little bird.” Dozens of rusty kettles and lanterns dangle from the ceiling. Lunch comes at you in salvos: hummus, stewed eggplant, spicy potatoes, succulent shawarma, sausage, beans, couscous, lamb patties … dishes are piled onto dishes that you haven’t even touched. The highlight is, fittingly, the shakshuka, eggs in spicy tomato sauce with peppers cooked over high heat. The burly regular offers sage advice on what to do next: “First, sleep. Then, beach.”
Before these two activities, however, you embark on a trip to the Jaffa Flea Market, where you wend your way through a clutter of stalls. A very old Persian Jew named Joseph sells you (after some heavy bargaining) an antique brass lotus flower whose petals open when you twist the base. “You respected me by paying me,” he says, “and now you are entitled to a gift.” He hands you a worn pewter key chain with an image of Jerusalem on it. Nearby is a store named Palestine, which has a sign out front reading: “Fixed prices (the bargaining is unnecessary, does not work and annoying) [sic].” Inside you find old typewriters, cameras, helmets, maps, microscopes. The owner is a dauntless tinkerer, and a lot of the stuff here works.
Now, like the man said: beach. On Fridays, dozens of percussionists gather beside a graffiti-covered wall at Drummers Beach to drum in Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. You find kids, old people, business types and the odd weirdo happily getting into the spirit. The beats are improvised—they start off sparse, then build to a frantic crescendo, crumble and start anew as the sun slides toward the sea.
Dinner is at a city stalwart, Cordelia, located in an alleyway by the Jaffa gate. The eatery’s goth-ish interior is decorated with items that chef Nir Zook found at the flea market, including some imposing brass candelabras. You begin with homemade bread dunked in butter and warm olive oil; follow it with truffle ravioli with yolk dough, then steak fillet dusted with ground dried porcini mushrooms and served on a bed of barley and walnuts; and finish with panna cotta in melon soup. You had designs on an evening out, but last night’s revelry and today’s gluttony have exacted their toll. So you return to the hotel, grab a beach chair and sit out by the sea with a bottle of local red.