A Personal Travel Guide To Israel: Tel Aviv

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By Douglas E. Duckett

A Personal Travel Guide To Israel – Find all the chapters here

The “White City” and The Heart of Modern Israel
Suggested Time:  3 nights

Tel Aviv is Israel’s New York (one of its nicknames is “the Big Orange”) and at first glance can seem like any other big city on the sea.  But it is the heart of modern Israel, “the capital of Mediterranean cool,” and I have come to truly treasure it. If New York and Miami Beach had a love child, it would look a lot like Tel Aviv!  Also, if you start in Tel Aviv, which I recommend, you will have a couple of days to recover from a long flight and jet lag without feeling like you’re missing the must-see historical sites. Some good, on-line resources for planning your Tel Aviv stay include www.visit-tel-aviv.com.  Tel Aviv is also the center of gay and lesbian life in Israel, and LGBT visitors should check out https://www.lgbt.org.il/english for information gay life in Tel Aviv and throughout Israel.  Another site is https://www.travelgay.com/destination/gay-israel/gay-tel-aviv.

Tel Aviv has many great hotels but prepare for the fact that Tel Aviv hotels are the most expensive in the country (with lots of business travelers as well as tourists).  You can save money by staying in mid-range hotels, not the 5-star places. Again, work with Regent Tours to find affordable options; see “Booking Hotels”  

I have several recommendations for hotels in Tel Aviv.  I have enjoyed the Herods Tel Aviv located at 155 Ha-Yarkon Street, tel. (03) 521-6666; see www.herods-hotels.com/herods-tel-aviv.  It is a large hotel with a classic 1930s Tel Aviv look, offering good service and nice guest rooms.  The reviews of late have been more mixed—the place needs some paint and more attention to upkeep. This hotel is in the more northern part of the city, close to the Old Port area, and it directly overlooks the beach.  (And I didn’t forget the apostrophe in “Herods,” by the way—it is omitted for reasons I cannot fathom. As someone who is a stickler for the proper grammar and punctuation, this drives me a tad crazy.) Next door is the Crowne Plaza Tel Aviv Beach, 145 Ha-Yarkon Street, tel. (03) 520-1111, at which I stayed for my most recent visit.  It’s clean, upscale, and well-maintained with an outstanding breakfast, but it is a Western-style hotel without much local color or character.

If you’d like to try a lovely option nearby, I recommend the Shalom & Relax Hotel, an Atlas boutique hotel that gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor.  It’s a little pricier that some other boutique options and is located at 216 Ha-Yarkon Street, (03) 762-5400; www.atlas.co.il/shalom-hotel-tel-aviv. The hotel is quite nice but what makes it remarkable is its outstanding and very attentive staff.  Next door is the Melody Hotel at 220 Ha-Yarkon Street, tel. (03) 521-5300; see www.atlas.co.il/melody-hotel-tel-aviv, another well-run and stylish boutique hotel of the Atlas chain.  Both hotels offer a great location across from Independence Park, a short walk from the beach, and an easy walk to the port area.  If street noise is an issue, get a room in the back or a higher floor. Both the Shalom & Relax and the Melody offer snacks and wine from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., a nice way to meet other guests.  Another favorite in more moderate range is the Savoy Hotel, a smaller, boutique-style hotel located more in south-central Tel Aviv and closer to Jaffa at 5 Ge’ula Street, tel. (03) 514-0500;  http://hotelsavoy.co.il.  This hotel has a charming, sleek, modern look, with spectacular views off the balconies and great customer service.  It is a half-block off the beach, and while the neighborhood is not great, the location is outstanding. Other moderate-range options include the Cinema Hotel at 1 Zanemhoff Street, tel. (03) 520-7100, or across the street at the Center Hotel at 2 Zanemhoff Street, tel. (03) 629-6181.  Both are on Dizengoff Square, in the heart of Tel Aviv, and are renovated Bauhaus-architecture buildings, for which Tel Aviv is world-renowned as “The White City.”  Noise may be an issue there; ask for back rooms away from the square. I also hear good things about the Art-Plus Hotel, Brown Beach Hotel, and the Hotel de la Mer.  Regent Tours works with all these hotels; ask for quotes.  Finally, for a more budget option for lodging in Tel Aviv, check out the recently opened Abraham Hostel; the one in Jerusalem has received great reviews from travelers for years.  See www.abrahamhostels.com.

All these hotels are very close to the beach, and within easy walking distance of a lot of interesting places.  On the more expensive side, people also like the Hilton (also on Ha-Yarkon, next to Independence Park), or the beachfront Sheraton.  There is also a Carlton Hotel on the sea shore and the David Intercontinental and the Dan Panorama Hotel closer to Jaffa.  

Frommer’s and other guidebooks offer good suggestions on things to do in Tel Aviv, so I commend those to you.  You can also find suggestions on TripAdvisor. I have some personal recommendations, though:

Old Jaffa.  This 5,000-year-old city is now part of the combined municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo, and looking south from Tel Aviv, you will see the old Arab city jutting out into the Mediterranean.  Jaffa has many artists’ shops, narrow streets, and lots of character. I don’t shop much on Israel trips, but Jaffa is a good place for that. In any event, it’s a wonderful place to explore.  The view of the Tel Aviv skyline from Jaffa is magical, both day and night (see photo on p. 23). There are free walking tours of Jaffa offered by Sandeman’s every day at 11:00 a.m.; meet at the Ministry of Information Center at Mazouk and Azar Streets under the arches near the old Clock Tower at the entrance to Jaffa.  The tour offers a good overview of the ancient city; while there is no charge, plan to tip the guide around ₪50 per person. For more information, check out the Sandeman Tours’ website at http://www.neweuropetours.eu/telaviv/en/home.

Strolling the Streets of Tel Aviv.  One choice is Dizengoff Street, once famous as the “main street” of Israel, and after some years of decline it seems to be coming back.  You can also walk down Ben-Yehuda and Allenby Streets to Sheinkin Street, Tel Aviv’s yuppie district (not as cool as it once was).  You can also wander down to Ha-Carmel Market, where you’ll really see “street Israel,” a great place to watch people and drink in the sights, sounds, and smells of food and spices.  The Nahalat Binyamin neighborhood offers arts and crafts markets on Tuesdays and Fridays, which can fun to explore (though crafts aren’t my thing).  I really love walking through that neighborhood and nearby Neve Tzekek, though; these are among Tel Aviv’s first neighborhoods, and the restorations have made this a great place to stroll, people watch, and take a drink or coffee.  Nearby is Ha-Tachana, or The Station, the renovation of an old, Ottoman-era train station into shops and restaurants.  One of my favorite spots in all Israel is The Rubin Museum at 14 Bialik Street, which features the beautiful and evocative paintings of Reuben Rubin, one of Israel’s greatest artists, in his charming, former home.  Tel. (03) 525-5961. Open Shabbat 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m., but closed on Sundays, which is unusual. This museum is a little gem, and this man’s art absolutely captures me.

Sarona.  This is the renovated German Colony district in Tel Aviv, a real success story in historic restoration, and it is sleek and full of trendy, upscale shops.  I write more about the German Templers later in this guide, but I found this place rather sterile and Disneyesque (not intended as a compliment). But it’s much-needed green space in the heart of the city for locals, and if you do go, the Visitor’s Center is at 14 Avraham Mendler Street, (054) 498-0252.  Note:  If you want to tour and are not part of a pre-arranged group, you must make reservations ahead of time, or you find this Visitors’ Center not very hospitable to visitors (part of why I am not a fan of Sarona).  While there, get some fine Jem’s Beer or the beverage of your choice at Molly Bloom’s Sarona, an Irish pub at 6 Avraham Mendler Street, (055) 886-0188.  I’m not much for pubs, but this is a good one.

Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv

Walking Tours of Tel Aviv.  Tel Aviv is a flat and easily walkable city, and one of the best ways to explore it is on foot.  I have three recommendations for guides—the first is Jonathan (Yonatan) Kohn. He is absolutely outstanding and now ranks as one of my favorite guides in the whole country.  I suggest the tour that he showed me—start with Old Jaffa and explore Neve Tzedek, Ha-Tachana, and into the Bauhaus District, and other parts of early and current Tel Aviv, such as the renovated Ha-Bima Theater and magnificent, adjoining public square.  This gives you the chance to see how this amazing city evolved in just over a hundred years from buildings started on sand dunes by just 66 families in 1909 to the thriving metropolis of today.  We ended with a visit to the moving, evocative Rabin Square, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November 1995—and Jonathan was there that night. You can contact Jonathan at (054) 554-3448; e-mail jonskohn@hotmail.com.  While Jonathan offers Tel Aviv walking tours, he is also licensed to tour anywhere in the country, including driving tourists.  Another guide who tours all over Israel but has a special passion for this “capital of Mediterranean cool” is David Wexler, david@davidsland.com; www.davidsland.com; cell (054) 330-0941.  David knows his stuff and is pleasant to be with as well.  I have also toured with Zahi (pronounced Tsakhi) Shaked, a native-born Tel Avivi, and my husband and I enjoyed that a lot; we toured much the same route as I listed above for Yonatan.  You can reach Zahi at (054) 690-5522 or at zahigo@walla.com.  He is a terrific guide, and he often makes brief videos of portions of the tour that he posts (with your permission) on YouTube—a lovely memento!  To see our video from the 2016 trip, check this out: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLk3tL9beKyZAd1ZoA6kdl33AAi1oMO_Ns.

At the outset of the section of the guide, I called Tel Aviv “The White City,” and it takes this name from the Bauhaus and International architecture style that this city preserves more than any other in the world, leading to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This style was popular among German planners and architects who fled to Tel Aviv in the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution, and this was the period when much of the city was built.  The design of the buildings and the city itself feels very European, with wide boulevards, horizontal designs, angular and curving lines, and white stucco surfaces, also reminiscent of the Art Deco style in Miami Beach.  What were once run-down and dowdy neighborhoods have been restored beautifully in places, and you can walk through them and enjoy some amazing buildings. The best streets to see it are Ahad Ha’am and Rothschild Boulevards.  The Bauhaus Center at 99 Dizengoff Street, (03) 522-0249, www.bauhaus-center.com, offers audio or guided walking tours of the Bauhaus district if you want a more detailed look.2-

3-5220249 info@bauhaus-center.com

Bet Ha-t’fusot, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Diaspora on the campus of Tel Aviv University.  If you are interested in Jewish history in the Diaspora (exile), this is a must. It is one of the most interesting museums I have been in, not based on artifacts but on re-creations of Diaspora life throughout the world.  The university is in the northern section of the city, either a bus, cab, or car ride from your hotel. Tel. (03) 745-7808; see also www.bh.org.il for more information and visiting hours.  Note, however, that the core exhibition is undergoing renovation with a full reopening some time in 2019.

The Yitzhak Rabin Center.  This museum, which is near the Palmach Museum and not far from Bet Ha-t’fusot, tells the story of the State of Israel and its history as seen through the life of Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister who led the effort to reach peace with the Palestinians until his assassination at the hands of a right-wing, Jewish extremist in Tel Aviv in November 1995.  That murder seared Israelis, perhaps even more than the Kennedy assassination did Americans, and it no doubt changed the course of history in the region. But the museum does not focus on that terrible crime until the end; it mainly looks at the State’s formation and internal conflicts and divisions through the life of this remarkable man who was at the center of so much of its history.  It is a must for those interested in modern Israeli history. You need reservations to tour the museum—tel. (03) 745-3358, or e-mail order1@rabincenter.org.il.  When I visited this place, I was both fascinated and deeply moved.  And the memorial to Rabin’s murder at the end, including excerpts from speeches at his funeral by President Clinton, King Hussein, and Rabin’s granddaughter, left me in tears of loss and gratitude for this great man’s life and work.

Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv

If you are interested in Zionist history and the birth of the State of Israel, stop in Ben-Gurion House at 17 Ben-Gurion Boulevard, tel. (03) 511-1010.  This was the home of David and Paula Ben-Gurion when he became Israel’s first prime minister.  This simple house contains more than 20,000 books in five languages, a testament to the breadth of this man’s mind.  Also check out Independence Hall at 16 Rothschild Boulevard, tel. (03) 517-3942; http://eng.ihi.org.il.  Here, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the founding of the Jewish State on May 14, 1948 as the armies of five surrounding Arab countries prepared to invade and crush the fledgling nation.  Some days the museum closes as early as 2:00 p.m., so plan ahead, and reservations are now required, which you can make at reservations@beitatzmaut.org.il.  You might get in without a reservation on a walk-in basis, as I did on my last visit, but no guarantee.  Also near Tel Aviv University, you can visit the Palmach Museum, which tells the history of this pre-State militia affiliated with the leftist Labor Zionist movement.  Note:  Advance reservations are definitely required here.  Tours are in Hebrew, but English-language audio units are provided.  Like Bet Ha-t’fusot, this is not a museum of artifacts but of visual and auditory recreations of the experiences of one Palmach unit.  While a tad over-the-top at times, I found it a powerful tribute to this force that played such a critical role in the fight for Israel’s independence—and suffered an enormous casualty rate.  It is located at 10 Lebanon Street, tel. (03) 643-6393. For more, see www.palmach.org.il; click the icon for English.  For a look at that period from the right-wing side of the Israeli ideological divide, you can stop at the Etzel Museum on the seaside promenade north of Jaffa, 38 King George Street, (03) 528-4001, or the Jabotinsky Institute at the same address; tel. (03) 528-6523; www.jabotinsky.org.   

Ramla.  About 30 minutes southeast, in the direction of Ben-Gurion Airport, Ramla is a working-class, Jewish-Arab city very different from Tel Aviv.  I have gone there twice on a tip from an Israeli friend, as this is quite off the beaten path for tourists. I visited two amazing sites—the Pools of Ramla, an underground water reservoir with amazing arches constructed during the early Muslim period in 789 C.E.—wow!  Nearby is the Great Mosque, and I was startled to recognize Gothic arches—this mosque was converted from the largest Crusader basilica in the Land of Israel, build in the 12th Century and converted to a mosque by the great Saladin in 1266.  Be aware that if you arrive around noon, you will need to work around prayer time, but the hosts are very kind if you show respect for the fact that this is an active house of worship, not a “museum.”  There is more to see here, but it’s fascinating!

Apollonia National Park, not far north of Tel Aviv and its very upscale neighboring city Herzliya.  After all my visits, I just discovered this place recently, and it’s stunning.  While the site has been populated and fortified off and on since Phoenician days, the Crusader fortifications from 1101-1265 are the center of the national park today.  The physical setting, with its remarkable ruins perched atop the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean, is well worth a visit even without the site’s impressive history. There are now accessible paths for people with mobility limitations, a relativity new development at antiquity sites, and Apollonia is a tad off the beaten path, not usually swarmed by tour buses.  This is one of the parks that does not sell the multi-park passes, however, even though it’s on the card; see p. 31 for an explanation of this problem.

Tel Aviv is full of wonderful restaurants, a foodie paradise.  Every request for recommendations for restaurants sets off a major debate among residents and lovers of Tel Aviv on the TripAdvisor forum, and I usually end up with a list of more than 20 options!  You will eat well here. One of my top choices, for both food and wonderful, seaside ambiance, is Manta Ray on the seaside promenade, tel. (03) 517-4773 (photo at right).  It offers great food (you can order tapas-style dishes to sample several items) with a spectacular view of the sea and the city, and the service is excellent!  In good weather, the beautiful patio area is open to the sea. It’s been my first meal for my last several trips. Make reservations—this is a popular place. I recently discovered the London Resto-Café, a charming, popular spot on the beach at 111 Herbert Samuel Promenade, in the back of the Sheraton Hotel, tel. (03) 523-5055.  It offers excellent meat, fish, and seafood dishes, good cocktails, and is very well known for scrumptious desserts. Another fun place near the sea is Café Metzada at 83 Ha-Yarkon Street, (03) 510-3353, next to a McDonald’s.  I found it a perfect place to eat for a first night in the city, with many tasty light dishes in a very attractively designed place.  

For an upscale and truly outstanding kosher dinner, I recommend the Olive Leaf in the sea-side Sheraton.  It has a great view of the Mediterranean Sea as well, and is located at 115 Ha-Yarkon Street, (03) 521-9300.  The sunset view over the Mediterranean is very romantic! On my most recent trip, my local friend who really knows here restaurants took me to Fortuna del Mar at the Tel Aviv Marina, (03) 523-6730, http://fortuna-delmar.co.il/fortuna-del-mar (click US flag icon for English).  This is now my upscale favorite (non-kosher), with great seafood and other dishes right on the beach (and enter from the beach promenade or it’s a tad tricky to find).  For lunch or dinner, GooCha is a reasonably priced seafood restaurant at the corner of Dizengoff and Ben-Gurion, not far from Rabin Square, tel. (03) 522-2886 (non-kosher).  GooCha also opened a second location at 14 Ibn Gvirol, tel. (03) 691-1603. In 2016, my husband and I ate at Café Noir at 43 Ahad Ha’am Street, tel. (03) 566-3018.  It is a good restaurant, off the beaten path for tourists at least, and as far as I could tell, we were the only non-Israelis in the place.  We had great fish dishes. While touring the Bauhaus area with Jonathan Kohn, we stopped for lunch at a cute place called the Espresso Bar Rothschild, at 8 Rothschild Avenue, (03) 510-8918.  We liked it a lot, with great salads and sandwiches, and of course coffee!  On my most recent visit, while walking in the same area, I stumbled on the Kiosk, one of three remaining, original wooden kiosks left in Tel Aviv, built in 1920.  I loved this little place—great for salad or a delicious street lunch. 3 Lilianblum Street in Neve Tzedek, (03) 609-8008, Kiosk.Est.1920@gmail.com.  

You might also check out the renovated Old Port area north of the Hilton Hotel and Independence Park on Ha-Yarkon.  If you are staying in the more northern beachfront hotels, this makes a delightful walk along the beach promenade and the sea walls and great people watching, especially on a Saturday evening as families come out after Shabbat—religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, a microcosm of Israeli life.  I started my last trip with that walk just hours after my arrival in the country, and it’s a new tradition. Through Jonathan Kohn, I found a new favorite restaurant in that area, the Kitchen Market, Farmer’s Market, Ha-Anger Street 12, (03) 544-6669; www.kitchen-market.co.il.  It is a delightful place, with good and attentive service, and excellent fish, seafood, and meat dishes (non-kosher).  For an earthy, everyday-Israel fish restaurant, check out Benny the Fisherman (Beni ha-Dayag); tel. (03) 544-0518.  This place has a great, informal atmosphere and is a particularly great place to watch Tel Aviv life go by.  Another nice place is Yulia’s, tel. (03) 546-9777.  We just had dessert there, but it was heavenly, and the dinner menu looked great as well.  At the far north end of the port complex, almost to the Yarkon River, there is an informal place called the Derby Bar Port.  This a great place, particularly for families with children or larger groups, and the fish was excellent.  See www.derbybarport.co.il/, tel. (03) 624-6050.  

In Jaffa, a great place is Haj Kahil, a Middle Eastern restaurant at 18 Raziel on the Clock Tower Square at the entrance to Jaffa, tel. (057) 942-8347; www.hajkahil.rest-e.co.il.  The lamb shoulder with rice dish was one of the best I have ever enjoyed in Israel, and with great service!  This place is Arab-owned and not kosher. I can also recommend the Abu Nasser-Hinnawi meat and seafood restaurant at 130 Kedem Street in south Jaffa near the Peres Peace Center; tel. (03) 507-5539 or (03) 506-7132.  It is owned by an old and prominent Christian Arab family and serves wonderful dishes with a Middle-Eastern flavor. The fish was to die for, and the meat dishes are delicious as well.  Also not kosher, however. If you want to experience some classic and absolutely delicious Libyan-Jewish food, try Dr. Shakshuka, a kosher restaurant at 3 Bet Eshel, Jaffa, tel. (03) 513-6560, http://drshaksuka.rest-e.co.il.  Bring your appetite and be sure to try the shakshuka for which it is named—a signature North African dish featuring eggs cooked in a tomato sauce—yum!  This is one of my favorite, Israeli classics (you might see it on your breakfast buffet at the hotel as well—give it a try). Another great choice is a lovely, family-owned restaurant called Pu’ah, 8 Rabbi Yohanan Street, tel. (03) 681-1140.  Once a small place, it has now expanded to fill the open-air street, and at night it is such a cool place to eat with wonderful food!  On my most recent trip, local friends introduced me to Ozna, a terrific Turkish restaurant that we thoroughly enjoyed; 3 Rabbi Hanina Street in Jaffa, (03) 648-3030, www.ozna.co.il.  Another, great lunch stop in Jaffa is Abulafia, 4 Yeffet Street, tel. (052) 238-4306—great hummus, falafel, shwarma, and similar delights from the Middle East.  Moving just outside Jaffa, there are many fun restaurants in the Carmel Market, and on my last trip we stopped in a delightful little spot called Shukshuka, a pun on the aforementioned shakshuka and the word “shuk” (market).  It’s at 41 Simtat Ha-Carmel. Nothing fancy; you sit at the counter, but my friend and I both loved it!  Apparently, they are famous for their shakshuka, but it was lunch and we had stuffed grape leaves in a delicious yogurt and dill sauce along with fished stuffed “cigars”—fish in an outer pastry layer that is then fried.  I had a little arak (anise liqueur) in pomegranate juice with it as well, and man, was that a good lunch!  

As mentioned above, not to be outdone by that young, upstart Tel Aviv, Jaffa has now renovated its old port area, and the Jaffa Port is now one of the trendy, up-and-coming areas of this always evolving metropolis.  There are great seafood restaurants such as The Old Man and the Sea (Ha-Zaken v’ha-Yam), tel. (053) 809-4346.  This place is open every day, including Shabbat—obviously not kosher.  There are other, fun places in this quite popular complex—the restaurant and bar scene in Tel Aviv is booming and constantly in flux!

©2004-2019 Douglas E. Duckett, All rights reserved.

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