A perfect weekend in Tel Aviv

From pleasant weather to great beaches, friendly people to delicious food, Tel Aviv checks all the right boxes that discerning travellers look for. Throw into the mix some beguiling history, eclectic architecture and a vibrant nightlife scene, and it is not surprising why Israel’s second largest city is fast emerging as the party capital of the Middle Eastern region, and a popular a weekend getaway for young and restless Europeans.

Dip into history in Jaffa

While Tel Aviv itself was founded just over a century ago, the port of Jaffa – originally a separate town, but now a suburb – goes back several millennia and is believed to be one of the oldest port cities in the world. Some records date it as far back as 7500 BC, with a colourful history peppered with Biblical references and Greek legends. Say Boker Tov (Good Morning) to the city by getting lost in Jaffa’s narrow, cobblestoned alleys, with the aquamarines of the Mediterranean always within touching distance.

Browse through Shuk Hapishpeshim, the local flea market for great bargains on antiques and bric-a-brac; by night, the area turns into a buzzing beehive of al fresco restaurants and bars that both locals and tourists flock to. For a taste of the truly quirky, drop by the Ilana Goor Museum, a private collection of sculptures, paintings and artifacts, located in a gorgeous 18th century building.

Silicon Alley stroll

Rothschild Boulevard is known as the Startup Central of this part of the world, the place where some of the most exciting new ideas come to life. Fittingly, this is also where modern day Tel Aviv was born, the very road on which their first Prime Minister Ben Gurion declared Israel to be an independent country in a quick ceremony in 1948. The site, now known as the Independence Hall, is one of the many museums on this broad avenue where offices (and once upon a time, foreign embassies), apartments, bars and cafés sit cheek by jowl.

White City Walk

The other significance of the Rothschild Boulevard is the buildings with the iconic Bauhaus style of architecture, designed in the 1930s by Jewish architects trained in Germany. Known for its simplistic lines and functional design, these clusters of white buildings have earned this neighbourhood the moniker of ‘White City’ as well the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage status. For architecture and history enthusiasts, the Bauhaus Centre in Tel Aviv conducts guided walks on Saturday mornings.

Beach bumming

The beach is the throbbing heart of Tel Aviv, its most liberal face and perhaps the single most favourite outing of all locals. There is no dearth of activities on the beaches of Tel Aviv, from makeshift gymnasiums to mobile libraries, from paddling to sailing.

Learn to play the matkot, a popular paddleball game; hire yourself a pair of green wheels from one of the multiple Tel o Fun bike stations across town; or go on a Segway tour of the beach promenade with Elay Cohen, all the way to the old port area, which is now a cluster of cafés and restaurants right by the sea. And if it just too hot for any of these, find a quiet spot on the sand to stretch out on for a bit of people watching.

Version 2.0 Time

Tel Aviv is a city that constantly reinvents itself, wearing a new coat every couple of decades in the name of gentrification. The Old Jaffa Railway Station – known locally as the HaTachana – is a good place to get an understanding of how this works. HaTachana was built in 1892 as the terminus for the old Jaffa-Jerusalem railway, which shut down in 1948, turning this into a decrepit site for decades. With the Tel Aviv- Jaffa Municipality breathing new life into it in 2010, it is now a vibrant shopping and dining complex close to the beach. It is interesting to see cafés and shops right by the old train tracks and warehouses.

Walk a few steps out of HaTachana into Neve Tzedek, the city’s first Jewish neighbourhood outside Jaffa, created in 1887. Today, it is a trendy urban village, with chic boutiques, art galleries and performing spaces crowding these narrow lanes. The Suzanne Dellal Center in the middle of its quiet square, the home of Israel’s most famous troupe, the Batsheva Dance Company, usually has some dance performance on most evenings. This is also one of the best neighbourhoods to spot colourful street art and signs.

Middle Eastern cuisine

The food in Israel is an amalgam of the flavours of the region, all the way from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Jordon and Egypt, with the odd Mediterranean and north African influence added to this interesting east-meets-west fusion. The best place to get a taste of Israel is the Carmel Market, or Shuk HaCarmel, where locals shop for their daily vegetables, meats, sweets, spices and breads.

Friday mornings, the beginning of the Shabbat (the seventh day of the Jewish week, traditionally given over to rest and prayer), are when this precinct really comes to life with the sounds and smells of Israeli (or what is now considered Israeli) hummus, tahini, challah, halva, baklava, kabab, falafel, shawarma, boureka and more at the dozens of street stalls – all of it to be washed down with a sampling of craft brews at Beer Bazaar just down the road.

Food Tip: Buy the Carmel Market Bites Card that lets you sample a range of delicacies at various stalls in the market.

Tel Aviv by night

This city plays hard into the night, beginning only around midnight and going on well into the morning. While locals claim that this happens through the week, Tel Aviv especially refuses to sleep during the Jewish weekend that begins on Friday evenings. Kuli Alma is one of the trendiest places to be seen in, while Speakeasy is a lovely rooftop lounge with a laidback vibe. Many of these bars and clubs are secret spots known only to canny locals; Dror Shoresh (+972-50-7814575) conducts nightlife tours of Tel Aviv for party animals who want to see it all.

Published in the September 2017 issue of Man’s World as 48 Hours in Tel Aviv

The Western Wall of Jerusalem: a photoessay

The Western Wall of Jerusalem is just that, a pockmarked limestone wall rising 60ft into the air. It is bleak and imposing, dwarfing the women praying in front of it. The genders are segregated here, as in most other devotional places in Jerusalem; the men and the women on either side of the makeshift barrier united in their grief.

For, this spot, also known as the Wailing Wall, is where Jews gather to mourn the destruction of the Temple Mount (part of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great circa 20 BC) by the Romans in AD 70. With the Dome of the Rock, the sacred spot for the Muslims now standing right behind the wall, there is nothing else they can claim as their own.

Yet, for all the religious fervour this spot commands in Jews all over the world, there is no overt or loud expression of emotion. A few of the older women have found themselves chairs close to the wall and are silently reading their well-worn prayer books, while most others have lined up with their faces close to the wall.

Some have placed both hands upon the wall, some are kissing the stones while others are rocking back and forth with intense sorrow, tears pouring down their cheeks. In deference to tradition, from black-hatted rabbis to beige-uniformed soldiers, everyone takes steps backwards from the wall, taking care to always show only their faces to this most sacred spot.

Inside this enclosure, there are tourists from as far away as Australia and America, drawn by the curious geographical concept that is Israel. There are clusters of rabbis, talking in muted whispers about what I assume are deep philosophical matters. There are Bar Mitzvah (ceremony to mark a Jewish boy turning 13) celebratory groups, mostly from America, families taking this opportunity to visit their spiritual homeland. Finally, there are the faithful, who are there to convey their unflinching devotion to their god.

I am mostly unmoved by it all; to each their own faith, and ways of expressing it. As I stand to a side, taking in the scene, a small boy, no older than six, walks solemnly to the wall and tucks a folded piece of paper into a crevice, sending a message up to his version of god. He then turns to his mother with a toothy grin; she has tears in her eyes, whether from her own moment of devotion or from watching this moment of unadulterated optimism from her son, I cannot say.

When I flick tears away from my own eyes, I like to think it is the heat and dust of a sweltering summer afternoon in Jerusalem.

(Excerpted from a longer essay on Jerusalem that I wrote for the latest edition of Mint on Sunday – you can read the full version – Notes from Jerusalem here)

Friday photo: Israeli cuisine

I am just back from a week in Israel, having travelled through Haifa, Akko and Tiberias in the north, Jerusalem a its very heart and Tel Aviv on the West Coast and briefly floated on the Dead Sea. It is easily on the most fascinating countries I have ever encountered – the proverbial melting pot of cultures and religions…

And as a vegetarian, the food was to swoon over – hummus, falalfel, tahina, tabouleh, bourkea, shahshuka, baklava and halva… Of course, most of it has origins elsewhere in the region and has now been enfolded into Israeli cuisine, which is what makes the food so interesting and inclusive.

In fact, Israeli cuisine seems to be the flavour of the season, as these two stories in Mic and BBC seem to indicate – read them at your leisure…