Tel Aviv: a guide for first-timers

I started my wonderful trip to Israel with a week in Tel Aviv, the “city that never stops”. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the more I looked for information on the internet, the more I was excited: videos, blogs, photos… everything suggested that this city would live up to my expectations. I also bet on the fact that I would have enjoyed it so much since, abroad, Tel Aviv is renowned for its intense nightlife, youthful environment and cultural and artistic excitement. Perfect, I’d say. Let’s go! Yalla!

pin tel aviv guide first timers

My story

It so happened that my arrival coincided just with the day of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year: I discovered sadly that public transport didn’t work after a certain time, so I just had to take a taxi, with a higher price because of the festivity, setting me back about 160NIS (about €40) to reach the hotel.

The same evening of my arrival I went out with a group of friends I hadn’t seen for months and we went for a drink in a narrow alley off Allenby Street. The places were all very full and, thinking back, I realize that this is how it is every day of the week in Tel Aviv. Comparing our atmosphere during New Year’s Day (with fireworks, concerts or special events) I didn’t notice any specific feature in the Jewish way of celebrating: no extravagant demonstration or party and people just joyfully sat in front of a beer like any other day of the year. After this, I learn that Rosh Hashana is more of a family holiday celebrated within the four walls of one’s house.

delicious-israel

Tel Aviv is particular, and it’s defined as a bubble of its own, or rather, the “State of Tel Aviv” because it’s different from the rest of Israel. It’s a lively and international city, with a great start-up culture, keen on technology, highly tolerant and enclosing lifestyles perfectly comparable to any large Western city. If you’re traveling to Israel to learn about traditional Jewish culture, then Tel Aviv is not the right place. In this case, I would recommend Jerusalem for its strong religious and cultural presence.

What mainly characterizes Tel Aviv is the very long golden sanded beaches much loved by the residents and tourists. All beaches are free and bars offer umbrella, chair, and lounger rentals, just as toilets and changing rooms are many. It’s amazing to enjoy fiery sunsets with your feet in the sand and to walk along the promenade that reaches the Jaffa neighborhood from the center. During Shabbat (Saturday, the day of rest for Jews) it’s impossible to find a space to place your towel! Everyone goes to the beach. Everyone. And especially to play matkot, racquetball.

The boardwalk is always full of sporty people jogging or training in the free facilities: an open-air gym with a sea view. In Tel Aviv I saw a big percentage of young people: what do other age groups do and where do they live? I read on the web that the average age in this city is 35. Shocking… and let’s admit it: they’re all hot.  I can confirm what I had heard before my departure.

It’s often defined as a real hipster city offering every type of event. They decorate bars in a particular and eccentric manner: wooden details, unique artwork, books, outside lights creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere or modern furnishings with a slightly colder and minimal touch.

The choice is undoubtedly wide, but I fell in love with one bar in particular which lives only at night, when the stands of Carmel Market close and, only then, chairs and tables topped with blue chequered tablecloths are placed on the alley to create a meet-up location, intimate like no other. The bar has no walls: only the counter with the beer draughts, the alcohol shelves, and a miniature kitchen to prepare some simple snacks. The only decorations are the little Israeli flags hanging up and the colored lights. Nothing more. In its simplicity, it captured me so much so I went back almost every evening. It’s called Basta Bar, and it’s in the Yom Tov alley, next to the market.  

I spent many days Tel Aviv during my various trips to the country and I never get tired of it. I always find something new to do: squares to discover, interesting bars in which to eat, typical views, new graffiti enriching the already important city street art, museums, exhibits and many, many events. Even though it’s not a big city, it’s also safe and I suggest it to all women and girls who want to travel solo.

Every departure is a sad goodbye. I miss the small things like date shake, the long summer, the peaceful multiculturalism, the contrast between extreme innovation and luxury and deteriorated but welcoming buildings, the fact I don’t have to worry about finding delicious vegetarian dishes (there’s a high number of vegetarians and vegans among the population…paradise!), the privilege of being able to choose what to do every day of the week and, mostly, they want to live. I remember a guide who explained that, after spending long and hard years serving in the military, young people feel as if they have nothing to lose and live to the most, invest and unleash their creativity… What don’t I miss about Tel Aviv? The constant blowing of horns, flies during the summer and the fact it’s, oh my, super expensive…

delicious-israel

Brief historical outline

The name Tel Aviv comes from a passage of the Jewish Bible and it means “hill of spring” to express, according to prophet Ezekiel, the place in which Jews find a home after the exile.

It’s a relatively new city, born only a century ago (founded on April 11th, 1909) by about sixty Zionist families who settled down initially in the area north of the Jaffa neighborhood when this was still a sandy stretch. The foundation is very particular because the families met on the beach to split the land and write their names on some shells.

tel aviv

These families mainly devoted themselves to agriculture and their goal was to create a strong community and a new idea of ​​”Jew” opposite the religious students from Eastern Europe. The main trade was the cultivation of oranges which soon became an export product. The population increased with migrations after the First World War and, more so, after the Second World War and the Nazi persecutions, gradually expanding into other neighborhoods including Neve Tzedek and the Yemeni district located near the current Carmel Market.

tel aviv

After the world conflicts, in 1948 the districts of Tel Aviv and Jaffa merged into a single conglomerate and until 1951 the city was the headquarters of the Israeli government and parliament, which is why most of the diplomatic missions are there.

Following the various migratory waves according to the Law of Return after the creation of the State of Israel, a precise city planning was put in place and, to date, Tel Aviv concentrates most of the country’s industrial and tertiary activity, especially in advanced technology.

What to do in Tel Aviv if…

… you’re interested in history and culture

You surely must stop in the neighborhood of Jaffa that seems to have been frozen in time compared to the skyscrapers and traffic of Tel Aviv. It is the Arab area, where you will find mosques, a bazaar-style market, the monastery of St. Peter and the ancient port. I recommend taking a tour first and then stopping over at sunset because the golden light of the sun against the ochre walls of the buildings has a magical effect.

jaffa yafo

Dizengoff Street and the main Habima Square are the cultural centers of the city and home to the Habima Theatre, built in 1935 and the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of Contemporary Art gallery.

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art owns masterpieces from great painters like Degas, Monet, Van Gogh, Henry Moore, Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and the main exhibit of Israeli artists’ works. An interesting section is dedicated to the Alois Breyer collection, reproducing the ancient Ukrainian synagogues destroyed during the Second World War.

The Eretz Israel Museum is a museum complex including the Tell Qasile archaeological site. Among the various pavilions, you can find a planetarium and areas dedicated to ethnography and local folklore.  

You can’t miss the Beit Hatefutsoth (the Diaspora Museum) that illustrates the life and culture of Jewish people around the world through the centuries. There is also a database in case you want to research your family.

If you’re an architecture lover, treat yourself to a specialized tour through the central streets to admire the Bauhaus-style buildings, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the reason why Tel Aviv is called “the white city”. This style imported from Germany has had a great influence on the city: some noteworthy buildings are the Avraham Soskin House in Lilienblum Street and Jacobson’s Building on Levontin Street. You can find specific guided tours here.

tel aviv promenade

… if you want to know the locals’ favorite public places

In a country where the climate is hot for many months year-round, the beach is one locals’ favourite spots who, equipped with rackets, love to spend their free time here. How to blame them?  I spent so many hours relaxing in the sun on that soft golden sand… the most famous and therefore most popular beaches are Gordon, Frishman and Bograshov.

spiaggia tel aviv beach

Walking is another beloved activity. Apparently, the more dogs you have, the better. Seriously, it’s great to see a city that is also suitable for our four-legged friends. Having said that: those who want to relax in a park can choose HaBima Square (also called Culture Square) or sunbathe on the deck in Rabin Square. If you want to move a little, go to Park Hayarkon or enjoy the sunset while walking at the Namal, the port, where you’ll also find plenty of places to stop.

… if you’re a hipster

I don’t know why, but Tel Aviv is perfect for whoever identifies with the hipster culture. The Florentin neighbourhood, which may seem old and crumbling at first sight, is very popular for its special bars and street art (so important to the extent of having dedicated tours). Neve Tzedek is the other quintessential area. I think it’s better taken care of than Florentin and here you can find cute art studios, boutiques, bars, pastry shops, and wineries.

tel aviv street art

… if you’re vegetarian

Food is one of the most important aspects shaping the city. It almost appears to be a form of art. There isn’t an easier life than that of a vegan/vegetarian in Tel Aviv. I felt in heaven and nowhere like here did I find such a vast choice. You don’t need to purposely go to a specific restaurant; the alternatives are everywhere, in any bar, restaurant or kiosk or on the beach…

Do you know over 10% of the population is veg? Great, now be happy and stuff yourself with all the delicacies you can find: hummus, sabich, shakshuka, falafel, aubergines cooked in different ways, and much, much more. If, however, you want to try out some specific restaurants the best are Anastasia, Cafe Xoho, Meshek Barzilay e Nanuchka. I often ate in small bars or kiosks on the beach but one day I tried Anastasia and Cafe Xoho and I can suggest that one myself. If you want to eat delicious hummus, go to Abu Hassan in Jaffa.

I took part to a specific food tour by Delicious Israel, and here you can find my review. Otherwise, if you are on a budget, you can have a look at these:

Israeli Cooking Workshop: learn how to cook shakshuka, one of the most typical breakfast dishes also suitable for vegetarians!

Tel Aviv Urban Tour: Architecture, Food & Street Art: a tour to have a glimpse of the city, including food, of course. You will visit the famous Carmel Market and discover the Bauhaus architecture.

Tel Aviv: Street Food Tour: Amazing tours for vegans and vegetarian as you will taste some pillars of Israeli food culture such as hummus, falafel, sabich and much more.

Experience the Other Tel Aviv & its Food, Culture & People: See a neighbourhood off the beaten path! Have you ever heard of Neve-Sha’anan in the south of Tel Aviv?

tel aviv hummus

… if you belong to the LGTBQ community

More than a decade ago, Tel Aviv differentiated from the rest of the country proclaiming itself the most liberal and tolerant Middle Eastern city so much so it received the name of Gay Middle Eastern Capital.

Although it is unnecessary to look for specifically gay-friendly bars and clubs, the locals recommend Lima Lima which is famous for hip hop Mondays and for Saturday holidays and Shpagat. There is also the Amazona Bar, the first bar for lesbians, and the Gay Center in Gan Meir where the gay pride parade starts every year in June. If that’s not enough, then go to the dedicated beach near the Hilton Beach.

tel aviv beach yafo

… if you want to live the nightlife

Tel Aviv’s fame is recognized worldwide: every night there’s something to do until late. The nights at the club rarely get going before midnight and you can find any kind of music. Obviously, there are clubs which are more popular among the locals and clubs more popular among expats, tourists or young immigrants that just finished their aliyah process. My first evenings in Tel Aviv were pretty lively: I went to Kuli Alma (that I really liked for music and atmosphere) and Buxa. However, the most famous places to spend an evening are The Block, Bootleg, Teder, Jimmy Who?, Spicehaus, Sputnik and the DoubleStandard.

Kuli Alma – photo taken from Secret Tel Aviv

Where to sleep in Tel Aviv

Options are endless and go from the hostel to the super-luxury hotel. In Tel Aviv I booked a room at the Peer Guest House in the Carmel Market district: a strategic position because it is a stone’s throw from the sea and the main streets, as well as from a fascinating market district and a bunch of bars and clubs within walking distance. My room, located on the top floor, allowed me to have a view of the neighbourhood from my tiny private balcony. Downstairs there is a small terrace with some chairs and a gazebo with a sofa bed where you can sit and chat with friends in total tranquillity. It’s an essential accommodation, but it was perfect for my needs, both for the friendliness of the staff and the privacy of the structure and, above all, for the position. Later I also stayed at the famous Abraham Hostel after trying it in Jerusalem and I felt very well. Clean rooms, large common areas where you can socialize, many activities and friendly, helpful staff.

Next time I return to Tel Aviv, I’d like to stay in a different hotel to have the pleasure of changing a little. I did online research for the best hotels and hostels and here is my selection:

polihouse
Polihouse Hotel – booking.com

The Poli House, a boutique hotel that combines Bauhaus style with the most modern architecture and has a breathtaking panoramic pool overlooking the city.

brown urban hotel
Brown Urban Hotel – booking.com

Brown Urban Hotel, in my favourite neighbourhood, between the Carmel Market and Rothschild Boulevard, has an average price. The rooms are very nice; it has a spa and a panoramic terrace overlooking the city.

alma hotel
Alma Hotel- booking.com

Alma Hotel & Lounge inspires me because of the original design with bohemian style furniture and rooms different from one another.

Overstay Jaffa Backpackers
Overstay Jaffa Backpackers – booking.com

Overstay Jaffa Backpackers Hostel is a hostel in the Jaffa district and it has a large common room, a swimming pool and a terrace with a bar. Ideal for solo travel.

beachfront hostel
Beachfront Hostel -booking.com

Beachfront Hostel, I passed in front of this hostel a million times because it’s right in front of the beach and a few minutes walk from the centre. They offer both beds in dormitories and private rooms and I like the idea a lot because this way I don’t give up my privacy and I can still enjoy the hostel events and environment ideal to meet other travellers.

Best tours leaving from Tel Aviv

There are plenty of options for amazing day-trips. Most of them include a day trip to Jerusalem, but honestly I don’t suggest it just because Jerusalem deserves much more than just a day: you should definitely spend at least three days there to learn about the rich culture, architecture, history and much more.

The following tours are great ideas to explore the region and make your trip unforgettable. I took part to some of them and I had a lot of fun.

As mentioned before, absolutely visit Masada, Mar Morto and Ein GediI wrote a whole article about this trip and I can say it was one of the best day-trips.

Tour of Nazareth, Tiberias and Galilee Sea: Biblical places that make up the Israeli history.

Tour to Bethlem: The birthplace of Jesus Christ and King David.

Tour of the West Bank: It includes Bethlem, Jericho, Qasr el-Yahud along the Jordan River and Ramallah.

Tour of Caesarea, Haifa, Acre and Rosh Hanikra: A great tour in the north of Israel (almost by the Lebanese border) to visit historical places and amazing natural sites that will steal your heart. I can’t wait to tell you more about this trip here on my blog.

Books to plan your trip

If you are a bookworm or you still love travel using a paper guide, have a look at these book suggestions that might be useful for your trip.

General considerations

For a carefree holiday with a touch of fun, Tel Aviv is definitely a perfect destination because it offers everything and for everyone. It is also an excellent starting point for day trips: buses and trains quickly connect the main cities, like Haifa, Bersheeva or Jerusalem. There are many tour operators and organized tours to visit unmissable places such as the Dead Sea or Masada. I entrusted myself to Get Your Guide which offers lots of options departing from both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and I had a great time. In Tel Aviv, there are many themed tours, such as those dedicated to street art or food.

Have you already been to Tel Aviv? What fascinated you the most?

If you are still to leave, what expectations do you have?

I’d love to read your answers in the comments!