Tel Aviv: The Israeli City Where Life Revolves Around the Beach

Karen Burshtein
Oct 19, 2022
7 min read
Karen Burshtein
October 19, 2022
7 min read

With a metro population of 4.3 million, Tel Aviv is Israel's second-largest city, and is known for its intense, live-for-the-moment energy. Its Mediterranean geography, start-up mentality, and mix of European and Oriental Jewish cultures, and Arab influences have made Tel Aviv a place unlike any other. Miami Beach fun, Mitteleuropa cafe society, Levantine sophistication, marketplace intrigue, high-tech hub, and New York brashness all come together in a richly layered strudel of a city.

A secular city

Israel is the Jewish state and, while the vast majority of Tel Avivians are Jewish, it’s a largely secular city. In fact, Tel Avivians tend to suspiciously eye Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews (and vice-versa). Most restaurants—aside from those in big hotels—aren’t kosher, and on Shabbat (Saturday), while many other parts of the country shut down, non-stop Tel Aviv just shifts gears a little.

Many restaurants and cafes remain open. Public services do close down at the start of the Shabbat (sunset Friday), including reduced public transportation. This includes the airport shuttle train; if your flight lands on a Friday afternoon you’ll likely have to cab it or rideshare. Likewise, grocery stores (except convenience stores) and some malls are closed. These closures remain in effect till the end of Shabbat at sundown on Saturday night. In Israel, the workweek starts on Sunday.

The White City

Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv

Central Tel Aviv is known as the White City for its prominent Bauhaus architecture—more than 4,000 buildings—which has earned it UNESCO World Heritage status in 2003. The clean-cut modern design, originating in Germany in the 1920s, became the default style of European architects fleeing Nazis, though much of the Bauhaus style has been adapted to Tel Aviv’s hot Mediterranean climate (look for diagonal, slatted “thermometer” windows and rooftop gardens).  

The municipality offers free White City walking tours every Saturday or get a map (and pick up a few cool souvenirs) at the Bauhaus Centre and do a self-guided tour of key Bauhaus buildings. If you’re a fan of the style, consider staying at the iconic Cinema Hotel—one of Tel Aviv’s first movie theaters—and check out the new Liebling Haus Museum which covers the history of the White City.

Twin cities on the sea

Jaffa

The ancient Mediterranean port city of Jaffa has passed through the hands of seemingly every civilization from the Pharaohs on. Today, Jaffa is conjoined with the municipality of Tel Aviv (the city’s official name is Tel Aviv-Yafo) with Jews and Arabs living as neighbors.

Tel Aviv’s creative energy seems to be in overdrive in this quarter. Initially, cheaper rent drew the artists to Jaffa. Today, the high-tech crowd has driven prices up, but you can still wander down the ancient narrow stone streets and check out galleries and artisan shops.

A highlight of Jaffa is the sprawling flea market offering unique finds spanning the decades and cultures of the city. Cafes and restaurants spill out onto the markets’ streets, and, evenings, DJs spin music. Jaffa is also home to some extraordinary hotels including the ultra-luxe Jaffa and the more affordable but charming Market House Hotel.

Forget pastrami on rye, how about eggplant schnitzel?

Don't expect to see many Jewish delis in Tel Aviv. Each wave of Jewish immigrants—from Azerbaijan to Yemen—brought their dishes to Israel. These were combined with local spices and flavors and Arab culinary influences to create a sophisticated culinary scene. The country’s superior produce has also spawned the one-ingredient-star dish; you have to try celebrity chef Eyal Shani's famous roasted cauliflower at his restaurant North Abraxas to get an idea.

From the ubiquitous street food vendors selling falafels, hummus, and tahini to schnitzel joints serving eggplant schnitzel, and upscale vegan restaurants like Meshek Barzilay to fresh fruit juice stands that squeeze every fruit and vegetable imaginable, Tel Aviv is also a magnet for vegans. The niche tour organizer Eager Tourist offers great veggie-friendly tours.

Life’s a beach

person biking to the beach in Tel Aviv

More than nine miles (14 kilometers) of fine Mediterranean sand beach stretch from Jaffa to the new port in the north. The beach is the heart and soul of the city, helping to drive and define Tel Aviv's relaxed fun-loving vibe. It's also arguably the reason people in Tel Aviv look so great—as seemingly everyone from kids to tanned seniors are rollerblading on the boardwalk or pumping iron on the public outdoor gym equipment.

The long stretch of sand is unofficially divided into different beaches, each with a different vibe and demographic. They include Banana Beach, great for people watching or trying your hand at matkot (an iconic but sort of annoying beach paddleball game); Hilton Beach, the gay beach; Tel Baruch Beach, a family-friendly beach with wide sandy stretches; Nordau Beach (Hof Hadatiyim), the religious beach which offers separate sections for men and women; and charming Ajami Beach south of Old Jaffa.

Bat caves at the bus station

The Central Bus Station is Tel Aviv’s hulking white elephant. It took decades to build and was outdated even before it officially opened. The city originally announced it would close in 2024, but has extended the date to 2026. Until then, you can tour this oddity which houses, among other things, a Filipino food market, the largest Yiddish library in Israel, a genuine bat cave (a sealed bus tunnel now home to thousands of bats), a graffiti art gallery, an atomic bomb shelter, and a legal office for refugees. The bus station is in a slightly dodgy area of town, though, so pay attention to your surroundings while there.  

The gay capital of the Middle East

gay flag at Tel Aviv Pride

Thanks to a concerted plan by the municipality to promote Tel Aviv as a beacon of liberalism, Tel Aviv is by miles the most gay-friendly city in the Middle East. In fact, it's one of the most open to LGBTQ+ lifestyles in the world.

It’s estimated that one-quarter of Tel Aviv's population identifies as gay. Some LGBTQ+ people from Palestine and small conservative towns in Israel find refuge in the city to live their life openly. Similarly, Tel Aviv Pride is the biggest Pride event in the region and one of the most exciting in the world. City Hall is lit up in the colors of the rainbow flag and the city’s wild gay nightlife gets even wilder. Gay bars include the ever-popular Shpagat, while the Brown Beach House near Shpagat is a great hotel option.

A city that runs on caffeine

Tel Aviv cafe

Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai is said to drink dozens of cups of espresso every day; surprisingly not all that unusual in Tel Aviv. Or, at least you could think that by the sheer quantity of cafes in the city.

The early European immigrants to Tel Aviv were encouraged to make a sophisticated cafe society flourish here. Israel is one of the few places in the world where Starbucks failed; no one in Tel Aviv seemed to have the patience to speak the Starbucks lingo and a common refrain was that there was better coffee anywhere else.

From charming Ottoman-era cafes to light and airy modern ones, you’ll easily find a favorite java spot. Some of the best include Café Shneor on the first floor of a Bauhaus apartment building,  Nehama Vahetzi for people watching, and the hipster favorite Cafe Xoho. Drink options include the regular suspects: espresso, latte, and also the local botz (Hebrew for “mud”). It’s made of ground coffee, hot water, and sugar boiled in a special pot called a finjan, then poured into small cups with milk and cinnamon or cardamom added. Almost all cafes have full food menus with typically good quality offerings that are cheaper than restaurants.  

EAT  

Shakshuka, the trendy brunch dish of eggs cooked in tomato sauce, came to Tel Aviv with the wave of Libyan Jews in the 1950s and was made globally popular in large part thanks to the iconic restaurant Doctor Shakshuka (3 Beit Eshel), hidden within the labyrinthine Jaffa market.

STAY

The stylish Drisco Hotel is in Tel Aviv’s unique American-German neighborhood, dating back to 1866 when a group of Christians from New England settled in Palestine bringing prefab houses with them.

SEE

The under-the-radar Center for Contemporary Art Tel Aviv-Yafo is a must for its expertly curated, cutting-edge exhibitions often focusing on time-based and site-specific practices by outstanding international artists.

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Last Updated 
October 19, 2022
Karen Burshtein
Freelance Writer

Karen Burshtein is an award-winning travel writer and editor. Her stories have appeared in Atlas Obscura, Condé Nast Traveler, AFAR, Travel + Leisure, and Architecture Digest. She splits her time between Toronto and Tel Aviv, and has a love of Helsinki.

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