There’s no city in the world like Tel Aviv. In fact, I can say with confidence that Tel Aviv is my favourite city in the whole world. Trying to put into words exactly why is a little more difficult.
It’s a mélange of contrasts and paradoxes that all work together to make the city instantly relatable to anyone lucky enough to visit. Parts of the city are thousands of years old yet it is also home to some of the world’s most successful startups and advanced technology companies.
It is the capital of the start up nation. Yet, even with all that chutzpah, the city has a unique, relaxed energy about it. People aren’t rushing or stressing. Rather, they are enjoying life and actively participating in it.
The prefered mode of transportation in Tel Aviv is the bicycle and you will see Telivivans glide around on a variety of different styles, from old-school 10-speeds to super-modern, motorized e-bikes. The city is relatively flat, rain is virtually unheard of, and there are bike lanes everywhere, so grab a pair of wheels from Tel-O-Fun (the city’s aptly-named bicycle-sharing program) and explore these five of Tel Aviv’s coolest neighbourhoods.
Lev Hair מרכז העיר
Lev Hair is Hebrew for “city centre” and it describes the heart of Tel Aviv, delineated by Rothschild Boulevard, Ben Gurion Street, Rabin Square, Dizengoff Centre, and Frishman Street.
Rothschild is a long, tree-lined boulevard running through the heart of the city. Traffic is split on either side, and in the middle are biking and walking paths with grassy areas and trees along the edges. Tel Aviv’s laid-back energy can really be felt on Rothschild as people roll by on bikes, takes their dogs for a walk, or enjoy a family picnic on the grassy areas. There are numerous coffee kiosks with outdoor seating along the way – perfect for grabbing a sandwich and spending an afternoon people-watching.
Some of my favourite memories include spending lazy shabbat mornings sipping coffee by the fish pond and having deep discussions about life and politics in Rabin Square.
Tel Aviv is famous for its Bauhaus architecture and you can spot many examples of the style on Rothschild and in the surrounding areas of Lev Hair. Bauhaus was developed in Germany in the 1920s and was brought to Tel Aviv by German Jewish architects who emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine after the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. Traditional Bauhaus features smooth, clean lines, light-coloured exteriors (perfect for reflecting the scorching Mediterranean sun) and flat roofs. In fact, most apartments in Tel Aviv have wonderful rooftop patios so if you have a friend who lives in the city centre, ask if you can check out the view from their rooftop.
Yemenite Vineyard כרם התימנים
West of Lev Hair is the quaint, historic neighbourhood of Kerem HaTeimanim (Yemenite Vineyard). It is a beautiful, authentic neighbourhood that still retains the essence of the Yemenite Jewish immigrants who settled it in 1906. The real draw of the neighbourhood is just to wander through its narrow, cobblestone streets and appreciate the abundance of colourful flowers and uniqueness of the buildings. The homes lining the streets are quite small and many are creatively decorated, with small pebbles or shells pressed into the plaster in extravagant designs. It’s also common to see dolls and figurines posed on balconies, front stoops, and rooftops. Be sure to bring your camera.
The authentic vibe of the neighbourhood is bolstered by the presence of numerous Yemenite eateries and restaurants. Be sure to try morak temani (traditional meat soup) or the incredibly healthy hilbeh (a traditional dip spiced with fenugreek). If you are still hungry, Shuk HaCarmel (Carmel Market) is right next door. It is Tel Aviv’s largest and busiest market and offers every delicious thing under the sun, like salted fish and cured meats, fresh-pressed fruit and vegetable juices, French pastries, Arabic sweets, and locally-roasted coffee.
Neve Tzedek נווה צדק
South of the Yemenite Vineyard you will find Neve Tzedek – an enchanting, romantic neighbourhood that seems more like a quaint European town than the Middle East. Neve Tzedek is a peaceful oasis within the hustle and bustle of the city. Just a few metres into the neighbourhood you are likely to notice that the sounds of traffic and construction have disappeared and all you hear are singing birds and the sound of your own footsteps. This happens to be my favourite neighbourhood in Tel Aviv.
Neve Tzedek is full of beautifully-restored, terra-cotta homes painted pretty pastel colours. The streets are narrow and easy to walk around with minimal vehicle traffic. Gardens often overflow the walls and fences that try to contain them, and a profusion of flowers brings sweetness to the air.
Historically, Neve Tzedek was a magnet for writers and artists. It was home to the famous Israeli artist and writer, Nachum Gutman, as well as Nobel Prize laureate writer SY Agnon. I recommend visiting the Nachum Gutman Museum of Art at 21 Rokach Street, which houses an expansive collection of Gutman’s work in a preserved house originally built in 1887. Gutman grew up in Tel Aviv and his artwork depicts Jews and Arabs with equal care and attention, thus making the museum an important place to learn about tolerance and coexistence.
South of Neve Tzedek is Florentin, which draws frequent comparisons to New York’s East Village, I’ve heard the comparison that it’s basically the East Village with less Hasidic Jews. The neighbourhood was originally home to light industry and commercial businesses but has been in the process of gentrification since the 1990s. It is now home to students, artists, people of the hipster persuasion, and yuppies taking advantage of the new high-rise apartments emerging in the area.
The neighbourhood has a unique artsy-industrial vibe that blends together glittery apartments with industrial grit and student rebellion. With so many artists in the area, Florentin has some of the best street art in the city and as you wander between garages and upholstery shops, you will also find a proliferation of tattoo parlours, funky clothing boutiques, and cozy bars and cafes.
The original founders of Florentin were Jewish immigrants from Thessaloniki and they opened up several spice shops and eateries featuring Balkan cuisine. When Israel became a state in 1948, an influx of Iranian immigrants brought distinctly Persian flavours to the neighbourhood. These shops were located along Levinsky street and today are known as Shuk Levinsky (Levinsky Market). Many of the shops are still owned and operated by the original families and you can find a dazzling variety of spices, nuts, dried fruit, and tea, and several authentic eateries.
The real name of Tel Aviv is Tel Aviv-Yafo because it grew out of the ancient city of Yafo (Jaffa), located south of Tel Aviv. Jaffa is one of the oldest ports in the world and is even mentioned in the Bible as the home of Simon the Tanner and the place where Jonah boarded the ship to Tarshish (only to be swallowed by a giant fish a few days later…)
Jaffa is a very historic city with strong religious presence. If it’s open, try to go inside the Great Mosque, located in the northeast corner of Old Jaffa. It was restored in 1820 and features beautiful prayer rooms and a tranquil courtyard. A short walk away is St. Peter’s Church – a picturesque church that was originally built in the 1600s but was destroyed and rebuilt several times since then. It is said that Napoleon lived in the sacristy in 1799 during the French campaign in Egypt and Syria.
Old Jaffa is built on a hill near the sea. Walking to the top of the hill is quick and easy, and will reward you with exceptional views of Tel Aviv and it’s beaches. Gazing west over the water, you will see a cluster of rocks known as Andromeda’s Rocks. According to Greek mythology, the goddess Andromeda was chained there as a sacrificial victim but Perseus (on his winged horse, no less) snatched her from the jaws of a sea monster just in time. Perseus cut off the head of the monster and it fell into the sea, becoming these rocks.
An absolute must-see in Jaffa is the Flea Market (Shuk HaPishpishim), where you can find all sorts of treasures, trinkets, interesting souvenirs, and even carpets and furniture. It also has several chilled-out restaurants and bars with outdoor seating along the laneway where you can enjoy a beer or two with friends under strings of twinkling fairy lights.
The Beach החוף
Not a neighbourhood, per se, but Tel Aviv has one of the most incredible beaches in the world and it’s part of the magical essence of the city. The beach stretches all the way from Jaffa in the south to the municipal airport in north Tel Aviv. Each section of the beach has it’s own unique vibe and set of people who frequent it. No matter which part of the beach you find yourself, the one thing you cannot miss is the captivating sunset. Every night the sun sinks below the horizon of the Mediterranean Sea and paints the whole city in shades of pink, gold, orange, and peach. In these moments, I can’t help but feel like all is right with the world.