When you combine the high-rise urban feel of the city that never sleeps (New York) with a laid back metropolis by the beach (Los Angeles); the artsy, Bohemian vibes of San Francisco; the friendliness of Atlanta; the Art Deco buildings of Miami – and throw in a bit of European street cafe scene – you get Tel Aviv, the Hebrew for Hill of Spring. It’s a wonderful city like no other, and for our daughter, Elizabeth’s last full day, in Israel, we had my good friend, Danny, show us around.
We made an early start by taking the train down to Tel Aviv from Akko. Quite the easy and picturesque trip as we followed the coastline straight down – only an hour and a half – and no worries about parking. Tel Aviv is an easy city to navigate by foot or public transportation. Danny met us at the main station, and we started out by seeing the juxtaposition between the new and the old. I’ve never seen so many cranes and new construction as here. Many new high rises and luxury apartments are being built now.
From the urban skyscrapers, we walked to the old German Colony. Many of the homes in this sleepy neighborhood nestled in the middle of the city had fallen into complete disrepair, but have been brought back to life and lovingly restored to their original state. Now they form an upscale chic area of gourmet restaurants, cafes and boutiques. In the late 1800s – early 1900s, a group of Germans, Lutheran separatists who re-formed the old medieval Templar Order, had a Messianic vision to recolonize the Holy Land. Several German colonies were established throughout Israel – including Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. They believed that they would be there to rebuild the third temple in Jerusalem and welcome Jesus when he returned. These Germans, although living in Israel, were very patriotic to their homeland, but they arrived here to establish neighborhoods, leper hospitals, and help with the Ottomans in the region. Many eventually evolved into Fascist Aryans, bent on finding relics (Holy Grail, Ark of the Covenant) to send back to Germany. Indiana Jones, anyone? Living in the Jewish homeland soon proved quite uncomfortable, and for many reasons, most Germans returned to Europe in the 1940s. The main reason was forced expulsion by the British who were in control of the Holy Land at the time. At one end of Sarona their original agricultural community, a new marketplace has been built – a gorgeous and vibrant indoor marketplace for gourmet foods. I could have spent the whole day there!!! You see, Tel Aviv is making a name for itself as one of the Foodie Cities of the world! And this is the best of the best: artisan cheeses, boutique wines, small batch hand crafted liqueurs and oils, halvah, tehineh, pastries…
It was only the start of our great adventure, but there was so much on the schedule to see and do!! Next stop: a trip to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which housed surprisingly diverse and excellent collections from Old Masters to Impressionism – from Modern to Post-Modern. Thank goodness, during the days of Passover, Israeli museums are open free of charge to all. An hour was not nearly enough time to take it all in! Note to self: a return trip is definitely in order!! Museum Square is home to not only art, but stage and the newly constructed opera house. Opera Israel has one of the busiest schedules I’ve seen, holding operas and musical events year long. We bought tickets to Verdi’s “Macbeth” to get a preview of the opera here. (Our #2 daughter will be starring as one of the witches with Placido Domingo in LAOpera’s “Macbeth” this fall…)
A short walk from here is the Theatre District – a huge block of well-manicured outdoor courtyards surrounded by several different stage theaters. So much culture!! I love it!
Tel Aviv is also called the White City, a nod to the white Bauhaus buildings along Dizengoff and Rothschild Streets. Today, it enjoys status as a Unesco World Heritage site. There are over 4000 Bauhaus buildings, the largest number of any city in the world – in various stages of renewal. With the rise of Fascism in Europe in the 1930s, many famous Jewish architects took refuge in Tel Aviv. Their task was to design functional, beautiful, and inexpensive housing for the thousands of new immigrants escaping to the safety of Israel. So we strolled down Dizengoff Street reveling in the beauty. It seemed like a clean,modern adaptation of the Art Deco aesthetic, and reminded me a tad of Miami Beach, Florida. The wide streets are lined with trees and in the center is a tree-lined promenade for bikers and cyclists.Very well planned.
I especially love
the way new, modern buildings stand alongside the old, and all seem to fit well into the cityscape. But Danny had a well-planned day for us and there was so much to do. No lollygagging. He took us to an older building downtown that served as the city’s high school in the 1930s-1960s. Now, it is a wonderful museum, filled with beautiful mosaic walls in tribute to Tel Aviv past and present. Also, there was much of the city’s history presented (early architects, mayors, pictures from the past, and immense 3D models of the city, past and present).
We made our way through the downtown streets towards the Carmel Market. Each Israeli city has its own outdoor market, each with its own feel. On Wednesdays, and Friday mornings, the outskirts of the Carmel Market is home to a craft fair. Many vendors line the streets, with buskers and street actors (mimes) as well. It makes for a really fun experience.
By this time, our feet were aching and our stomachs rumbling. No problem. Danny had a really interesting artery all picked out for us. The outskirts of the bustling farmers’ market was where large groups of Sephardic Jews from Northern Africa made their homes in the 1950s-1960s. The men would go off to work in the fields and factories in the early morning and the women would visit the market and come home and make huge, delicious home-cooked meals. In the late afternoon, the women would gather on their street level verandas, talk, and eat – and wait for the menfolk to return. Many of these women turned those porches and street level rooms into restaurants. Julie, from Egypt is 86 years old – but looks and seems all of 60. She’s been cooking in her family-owned eatery since the 1960s (and lives in the rooms upstairs). It remains a favorite place for locals – and she cooks what her family eats that day. So we tried Egyptian comfort food. Stuffed vegetables and stuffed dried fruits. Figs and peppers stuffed with a spicy meat concoctions. Beets stuffed with pomegranate seeds. Stuffed grape leaves with meat and rice. Spicy fish balls and fool (fava beans?)…on a bed of seasoned rice with minted peas. For Jews of European descent, no rice, beans, or legumes are eaten during the Passover, but Julie is Sephardi, so the same dietary restrictions don’t apply. They only refrain from eating bread and pastry products. Julie was amazingly hospitable – Danny and his family have been friends with her for years – and have even helped with the dishwashing during busy days. She will only listed to Egyptian music, which was playing loudly as she visited from table to table. What an experience!
After refueling, we walked to another neighborhood, Neve Tzedek, also getting a makeover. Tel Aviv is proud of her historical and architectural heritage, and there are now strict laws in place for those who buy up old homes. They must not be torn down. They must be restored to keep as much of the original building intact as possible. After historic preservation, then another level or two can be added, but only in strict compliance with the overall “look and feel” of the original building. When we walked through this neighborhood on our first trip to Israel five years ago, it was in its infancy in the restoration process. The oldest true neighborhood in the city, mostly in disrepair, artists, musicians, yuppies, and later entrepreneurs were moving in because of the relatively cheap prices. No longer. These homes go for the millions, are completely renovsted with upscale shops on the bottom and luxury living on top. Each store is unique. There are still many galleries, but the flower shops, cafes, boutiques, perfumeries, and couture shops are one-of-a kind, and a delight to peek into.
There’s just so much more to do and see in this amazing city of cultural and ethnic diversity. There are food tours, art tours, graffiti tours, history tours, and on and on. Because Tel Aviv sits on the Mediterranean Coast, the beaches are clean, beautiful, and beckoning. The tayelet, a pedestrian/cyclist promenade spans the two miles from Old Jaffa (Yafo of Jona & the whale fame) to the newly-built Namal, a portside attraction in North Tel Aviv. The Namal has dozens of large warehouses containing eateries, shopping, concert venues, and night clubs/dance clubs. But that will have to wait for another day. A main takeaway about Tel Aviv and Israelis in general: they love to linger at their cafes – all hours of the day – and in Tel Aviv, night. It seems to be the national pass-time here, and city sidewalk cafes are always full of people – gossiping, meeting, texting, and daydreaming. We left after midnight, after a stop at a very full cafe – and the city seemed to just be coming to life… I must return for a longer visit soon!!! Thanks so much, Danny!!!! Our best day yet!!!!