Israel’s most cosmopolitan city offers beach life, fine dining and a lively cultural scene. By Matthew Teller
Why go now?
EasyJet's new six-times-a-week service to Tel Aviv has recently taken off from Luton. Israel's largest city — which this year is celebrating its centenary — is the perfect antidote to our long, dark winter, offering toasty temperatures, sandy beaches, classy restaurants and a generous dose of easy-going attitude. Bear in mind, however, that the Foreign Office warns of “a general threat from terrorism” in Israel.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), BMI (0870 607 0555; flybmi.com) and El Al (020-7121 1400; elal.com) fly from Heathrow; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) and El Al fly from Luton; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) flies from Manchester. From Ben Gurion airport, 20km south-east of Tel Aviv, frequent trains (rail.co.il) serve the main Tel Aviv Savidor-Merkaz station (1) for 13.50 shekels (NIS13.50/£2.25). From the station, bus 10 runs into and through the city centre: a single ticket is NIS5.20 (85p), a carnet of 10 (cartissia) is NIS41.60 (£6.85) or a day-pass (hofshi yomi) NIS12 (£2). Trains and buses do not run on the Jewish Shabbat — from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday. Metered taxis from the airport into the city will charge about NIS90 (£15).
Get your bearings
The name Tel Aviv means ‘Hill of the Spring’. The city was founded in 1909 as overflow from the cramped town of Jaffa, a trading hub and Mediterranean port dating back to Old Testament times. Today, Jaffa has been absorbed and gentrified, a shadow of its former biblical self, now sanitised as a touristy artists' quarter — while its modern neighbour has become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East.
Key areas are, in the north, the former port, now home to beach restaurants and nightlife; in the centre, the shop-packed zone between Dizengoff Square (2) and the Yemenite Quarter; and, in the south, the cafe-bars and ethnic restaurants of Neve Tzedek and Florentin, on the way to what's left of old Jaffa.
The delightful Nina Cafe Hotel (3) at 29 Shabazi Street (00 972 52 508 4141; ninacafehotel.com) has five romantic apartments hidden away off quiet, private courtyards. They have high ceilings, tasselled lampshades, patterned floor tiles and mix-and-match wooden furniture. Double rooms start at US$180 (£110), including an outstanding breakfast.
The centrally located Montefiore (4), at 36 Montefiore Street (00 972 3564 6100; hotelmontefiore.co.il), is another independent boutique hotel with character, this time in sleek Art Deco style. Browse through tall bookcases, which form a feature wall in each of its 12 bright rooms, then repair to the street-level bar for cocktails. Doubles cost US$280-$360 (£171-£220) including breakfast.
Tel Aviv's newest hotel, opened in May, is the Port (5), at 4 Yirmeyahu Street (00 972 3544 5544; porthoteltelaviv.com), offering 21 rooms with vaguely nautical styling in a great location near restaurants and the beach. Double rooms cost US$145 (£97), which includes breakfast.
Take a hike
Start from the beachfront tourist office (6) at 46 Herbert Samuel Street (00 972 3516 6188; visit-tlv.com), which opens Sunday to Thursday 9.30am to 5pm and Friday 9.30am to 1pm. Loaf your way north along the prom then cut inland on Frishman to reach Dizengoff Street, named after Tel Aviv's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff (1861-1936). North of here is a lively restaurant district, but for now head south (right) over the raised Dizengoff Square (2) and onward on broad, tree-lined pavements past chi-chi boutiques. After walking beneath twin bridges which connect two chunks of the huge Dizengoff Centre mall (7), turning right on King George Street, packed with more fashion outlets, leads to the frenetic mass of people and traffic that is Magen David Square (8).
Head sharp left, out of the mêlee, to meet Tel Aviv's beautiful people, lounging at terrace cafes on buzzy Sheinkin Street (9) amid designer stores and galleries. Just before its top (eastern) end, Sheinkin meets the curving sweep of glamorous Rothschild Boulevard, flanked by original Bauhaus architecture.
Turn right and amble down the park within Rothschild's central divide; all around are the clean lines and distinctive curving balconies of the Modernist style, designed mostly by Jewish architects expelled from Germany after the closure of the Bauhaus school in 1933. Look in particular for the Levin House (10), a villa that once served as the Russian Embassy, and the Dizengoff House (11), from where the State of Israel was declared in 1948. Before Rothschild ends, at the foot of the Shalom Tower (12), turn right on Nahalat Binyamin Street, once the centre of Israel's rag trade. The street's pedestrianised northern part, which hosts an arts and crafts market on Tuesdays and Fridays, leads into the frantic Carmel Market (13), where Tel Avivians of modest means shop every day except Saturday for fruit, vegetables, meat and household essentials amid a fluster of shouts, smells and scrawny cats. A stroll west on Rav Kook Street returns you to the tourist office (6).
Lunch on the run
For a relaxed fill-up of plain home cooking — soups, salads and stews, served with a hunk of bread and a grin — retrace your steps to 31 Nahalat Binyamin Street and the much-loved Cafe Birnbaum (14). It opens daily except Saturdays from 6am to 4pm.
Occupying an attractive 1970s’ building east of the centre, the Museum of Art (15), at 27 Shaul Hamelekh Avenue (00 972 3607 7020; tamuseum.com) is open Monday, Wednesday and Saturday 10am to 4pm, Tuesday and Thursday 10am to 10pm, Friday 10am to 2pm; admission NIS42 (£7). Temporary shows dominate — mostly by Israeli artists — but explore the basement rooms to find the Old Masters collection, including Gainsborough and Reynolds, then head upstairs for the superb Impressionist and Post-Impressionist galleries, taking in Picasso, Chagall, Klimt and Van Gogh.
Maritime commerce has long abandoned Tel Aviv's port, which is now rejuvenated as
a seafront quarter (namal.co.il) of cafes, shops and restaurants. Boardwalks bring you to Shalvata (16), Yordei Hasira 26 (00 972 3544 1279; shalvata.rest-e.co.il), hippest of the area's bars, offering sofas and chill-out beats to go with a cocktail.
Dining with the locals
A stroll from Shalvata, still in the port area, Mul Yam (17), Hangar 24 (00 972 3546 9920; mulyam.com), is Israel's highest-rated restaurant — a cool seafood eaterie styled with rattan chairs and wooden blinds. Try the crab soup with herbes-de-Provence (NIS100/£16.50) then pan-fried Israeli prawns in olive oil (NIS220/£36). If that is a touch pricey, go to the other end of town: Shabazi Street leads from the Shalom Tower (12) south into Neve Tzedek, a charming quarter of stone-built cottages dating from the 1880s — older than Tel Aviv itself. Opposite a centre for modern dance is Suzana (18) at number 9 (00 972 3517 7580), a cheerful cafe-restaurant serving Moroccan soups (NIS35/£5.80), mezze, kebabs and meatballs (NIS48/£8).
Go to church
Tel Aviv is not over-endowed with places of worship, but it's worth making a special trip to see St Peter’s Church (19). Dominating the stepped lanes of old Jaffa, the Roman Catholic church is a 19th-century rebuild of a 17th-century original, marking the spot where St Peter is said to have raised Tabitha from the dead. It is open daily from 8-11.45am and 3-5pm. Ask to see the rooms surviving from an older fortress on this spot where Napoleon holed up during his Holy Land campaign in 1799.
Out to brunch
Book ahead for a window table at Benedict (20) at 29 Rothschild Boulevard (00 972 3686 8657; benedict.co.il) — a bright, fast-moving ‘breakfast restaurant’ that is open around the clock. The kitchen wafts the aroma of fresh-baked croissants over one of the city's busiest corners. As well as its trademark dish of perfect eggs Benedict, you could chow down on omelettes from Spanish to Balkan, plump for pancakes, huevos rancheros, shakshuka (a mini-casserole of meat, spicy tomato and eggs, served in a metal pan) or even a full English — bacon, sausage and all.
A walk in the park
Hayarkon Park lines both banks of the Yarkon river in the north of the city, offering shady hideaways, picnic spots galore, a modest botanical garden (21) and walking trails that lead east out of Tel Aviv into neighbouring Ramat Gan.
Take a view
Tel Aviv faces west over the Mediterranean, making every sunset a romantic's dream. Anywhere on the three-mile strand serves up epic sunset panoramas; the promenade at Frishman Beach (22) is a favourite. Alternatively, the Jaffa beaches south of the old town promontory are just as beautiful but much less busy.
Icing on the cake
Israel's capital is all about pleasure. So splash out on a final, wallet-busting dinner at Messa (23) at 19 Ha'arbaa Street (00 972 3685 6859; messa.co.il). This is fine dining to remember: exquisite seafood and Kurdish-influenced mains served in a dining room featuring white armchairs, white marble floors, white drapes and white tables.