Flashback. 11 April, 1909. There are 66 Jewish families standing in a circle on a desolate sand dune, just north of Jaffa, the ancient Arab port-city on the Mediterranean coast. Inside the circle are two boxes. One contains 60 grey seashells with plot numbers and the other has 60 white seashells with names of the families. A girl randomly picks up a grey seashell while a boy picks up a white seashell.
And hence, the first 60 plots of Tel Aviv meaning the ‘hill of spring’ are assigned and Israel’s future city is born. Within one year all the homes are built along with the main streets.
Flashforward. November 2019. The Tel Aviv I am standing in is futuristic and forward-looking. It is an IT hub, gay capital of the Middle East, vegan capital of the world, secular, hedonistic, and has an all-night party scene and 15 kilometres of sun, sand and sea.
There are around 3,000 high-tech companies and start-ups in the city, the highest outside Silicon Valley, to the extent Tel Aviv and its surrounding areas are called Silicon Wadi [Wadi is Arabic for valley]. The technology behind all chats, the world’s first anti-virus software, and USB stick were invented here.
I see lesbian couples indulging in heavy PDA and muscled men in leather briefs strut down the jogging paths on Rothschild Boulevard. Everyone seems to have a dog. According to statistics, Tel Aviv has a 17-to-1 people to dog ratio and 60 dog parks. And yes, it is also one of the top 10 cities for the most beautiful women … and men.
But Tel Aviv is not just all beauty and brains and their furry best friends, as I discovered.
It has the largest collection of Bauhaus or International style architecture in the world. Dating back to the 1930s to 1950s, its White City [comprising some 1,000 white, bright and simple buildings] was listed in 2003 as a World Heritage Site.
Did you notice your air ticket said Tel Aviv-Yafo? And so does Google Maps? That’s because in 1949, Jaffa, the ancient port-city, and Tel Aviv, the new city, combined to become one.
Welcome to Tel Aviv and my 36-hour itinerary of Israel’s city of new beginnings in the ancient Holy Land. 😊
[Note: Top image: Tel Aviv’s gay pride photo frame against the city’s picture-perfect skyline at Jaffa’s viewpoint.]
Day 1: Early Morning: Tour the historical port of Jaffa sans the crowds
The picturesque fountain outside Mahmudia Mosque in Jaffa is Ottoman governor Abu Naboot’s gift to the city in 1812. It is also Jaffa’s key landmark.
‘Floating Orange Tree’ by sculptor Ran Morin: a homage to the bygone Jaffa Oranges which were once the main pillar of Jaffa’s economy. Now it is tourism.
Left: Biblical ‘Gate of Faith’ by Daniel Kafri on Jaffa Hill; Right: Morning mass at the New Baroque Spanish-styled 19th Century St. Peter’s Church.
For the perfect introduction to Tel Aviv, as well as the most scenic views of it, I headed straight to charming Jaffa, one of the world’s oldest port-cities located to its south-west.
Jaffa, or Yafo in Hebrew, was the primary entry point for both trade and pilgrimage in this part of the world through most of its history. Connected with a direct road to the Holy City, when Jerusalem prospered, so did Jaffa. Jaffa’s other claims to fame are its association with Biblical Japheth [the son of Noah of Ark fame] and St. Peter, the Greek myth of Andromeda and Perseus, and of course its world-famous oranges.
The city has been ruled by a string of civilizations since its founding in 1800 BC; that’s a whopping 3,800 years. Much of what one sees now is recent in comparison. It’s the 18th Century Ottoman Turk version typified by stone walls and pretty arches after Napoleon captured Jaffa in March 1799 and ruthlessly razed it to the ground.
Jaffa’s highlights include the Ottoman-era Mahmudia Mosque, Clock Tower and sarayas [city halls], Simon the Tanner’s house where St. Peter once lived, and contemporary sculptures scattered over the site. For a befitting end to your morning walk, why not stop for mass at the dusk-rose 19th Century St. Peter’s Church? I did, and it was lovely!
Day 1: Mid-Morning: Discover Israel’s Roman to Crusader past at Caesarea
Soaring columns of King Herod’s magnificent palace built between 22 – 10 BC. His port-city Caesarea functioned as one of the most sophisticated and largest man-made harbours on the Mediterranean Sea for over a thousand years.
The beauty is in the details. Left: A Roman mosaic in the public bathhouses. Aren’t the prancing Nubian Ibexes lovely? Right: Fragment of a lock from a reliquary with an image of the Archangel Michael.
The impressive 4,000-seat Roman theatre once staged Classical tragedies and comedies. It is now used for concerts.
Take one thousand years of Israel’s past, from its Roman to Crusader periods, put it in one enclosed space and the result is Caesarea—a national park just 55 kilometres north of Tel Aviv.
From King Herod’s fantastical palace with its very own swimming pool plonk on the ocean, a gigantic Roman hippodrome and amphitheatre for chariot-racing and plays in the city’s hey-days, to a Medieval Crusader city replete with a moat and machicolations. They all find a place inside Caesarea’s city walls.
Once a small port town which went by the name Straton’s Tower, its fortunes changed when Roman emperor Augustus Caesar gifted it to Herod in 30 BC. Herod immediately proceeded to convert it into a fortified, international, artificial, deep-water port with his own personal funds and renamed it Caesarea in his emperor’s honour. Inaugurated in 10 or 9 BC, it was one of the most sophisticated, largest and complex man-made harbours of its time and could accommodate hundreds of vessels which plied the Mediterranean Sea on extensive trade routes.
Don’t miss out on the Visitor’s Centre and movie screening every 15 minutes which helps put Caesarea in context. The adjacent Museum inside the Roman-era vaults is filled with insights on how the edifice was used by all three Abrahamic religions [Judaism, Christianity and Islam] through the ages and remnants of its maritime trade.
Day 1: Late Afternoon: Explore Tel Aviv through its artery, Rothschild Boulevard
The many faces of Tel Aviv – clockwise from top left: Elegant Rothschild Boulevard; the imposing Holocaust Monument and new City Hall in Rabin Square; the solemn Great Synagogue dating back to 1926; and eclectic street art in the trendy Nahalat Binyamin quarter.
Old City Hall [1925 – 1965], an arresting Bauhaus building in Bialik Square, now functions as a museum.
One of the many wig stores which dot the city. Known as ‘Sheitel’ the wigs are used by some married Orthodox Jewish women to conform with Jewish law which requires them to cover their hair.
Rothschild Boulevard makes exploring the city of Tel Aviv a walk in the park. Yes, I mean it literally.
The wide tree-lined boulevard cuts through the city from Neve Tzedek, its oldest and quirky neighbourhood at one end, across the UNESCO-listed White City filled with the best of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture, to the new City Hall in Rabin Square and its imposing Holocaust Monument, at the other end. It is the financial, cultural, culinary, and social centre of the city, all rolled into one.
In the middle of the elegant boulevard are gardens, trees, fountains, walking and bike trails, and coffee shops where the rich and beautiful local populace hang out 24 hours, night or day. Oh, and not to forget the equally exotic dogs who give their owners company on these walks, well-disciplined and often unleashed.
There is even an independence trail down the boulevard’s length marking spots of interest in Tel Aviv’s 100-year old history. Named after the banking baron Rothschild, the street’s original name translated to ‘Street of the People’, a moniker it fully lives up to in every respect.
Day 1: Evening: Coffee and Dinner in Rothschild Boulevard
Heady with Tel Aviv’s eclectic mix of sights and sounds a cup of coffee and kebabs closed my perfect Israeli day. But if you looking for something else, don’t fret. You could easily be spoiled for choice with its hundreds of restaurants.
Day 2: Early Morning: Be charmed by old world and quirky Neve Tzedek
Neve Tzedek is Tel Aviv’s oldest and most charming neighbourhood. It was founded by Middle Eastern Jews in 1887.
Left: Just another doorway; Right: Not just any other facade!
Sandwiched between historical Jaffa port and steel and glass Tel Aviv is the quaint neighbourhood of Neve Tzedek. It is Tel Aviv’s oldest neighbourhood, created 22 years before the capital city was even born.
The year was 1887. Jaffa was overcrowded. A handful of middle-eastern Jewish families decided to move out of the ancient city and create their own little quarter on its periphery—a quarter which reflected their personal aesthetics and values. Free-thinking Jewish writers and artists decided to join in and make it their permanent home as well. Together they filled the new narrow streets with Bauhaus, Art Nouveau and eclectic low-rise houses. They also made sure their new houses had private bathrooms.
Though the locality lapsed in popularity as Tel Aviv grew, it has regained its prestige in recent years with renewed interest and respect for its centuries-old edifices and old-world authentic charm.
And the best part? It is all those quirky unexpected details which reveal themselves on a leisurely walk, like the below postbox outside one of the homes.
Almost everything in Neve Tzedek is crafted with love. Take this postbox outside one of the homes for instance.
Day 2: Mid-Morning: Learn about Kibbutz life on a guided tour
One of the earlier wooden houses inside Ma’agan Michael Kibbutz. The kibbutz was founded on 25 August 1949 by 154 members and 44 children, many of whom were Hebrew Scouts.
Left: Linen tags to identify the members; Right: The safe containing car keys for member use. Ma’agan Michael has a fleet of around 200 cars. Members only pay for the distance drove.
Connected to the land. Lunch—Falafel, hummus and pita bread, and nature blooming wild on the kibbutz’s private beach.
No visit to Israel is complete without experiencing a kibbutz. A socialist community unique to Israel, it is the building block which transformed a land of rock and desert into a thriving agricultural economy and provided its government with political activists.
The young Jewish immigrants who came to Palestine in the early 1900s were committed to reclaiming their ancestral land and forging a new way of life. The kibbutz was their support system and ideology rolled into one. Although the kibbutzim, meaning ‘gathering’ in Hebrew, have transformed over the years to meet the needs of a more capitalist society, the principles which created it still live on in them.
The first kibbutz was formed in 1910. It was called Degania. There are currently 270 kibbutzim in the country, home to 2.5 percent of the population.
The kibbutz I visited on a day tour was Ma’agan Michael, 70 kilometres north of Tel Aviv and one of the largest and wealthiest in Israel with over 2,000 members from different faiths and walks of life. With shared free resources, including cars, laundry and health services, each member gives what it can, and takes what it needs from the kibbutz. Nothing belongs to any one person here. Not your home, clothes or children. At least it did not in the past. The clothes and children part have changed with time.
It is a fascinating world where its members have chosen this life purely by choice. And that is why, I guess, the ‘kibbutz’ idea has worked for over a hundred years.
Day 2: Evening: Walk down the broad promenade and end at Jaffa for one last view of Tel Aviv; this time a glittering one
What better place to wrap up 36 hours in Tel Aviv than where one started one’s explorations of this multi-faceted, modern, secular city. The viewpoint in Jaffa of course! But don’t just go to it directly. Instead walk along the city’s broad 6-kilometre-long promenade flanked by flawless, manicured green lawns and sun-soaked, golden beaches, starting at the Tel Aviv Port and ending in the Port of Jaffa. Or at least walk part of it.
Each beach in Tel Aviv has its own unique vibe and crowd. There are separate beaches for families [Metzitzim Beach], for religious folks [Religious Beach], for dogs [Hilton Dog Beach], for gay folks [Gay Beach], for high society [Top Sea Beach], for local Israelis who want to chill out [Geula Beach], for drummers [Banana Beach], and for surfers [Jaffa Beach]. All lined up on this one stretch in that order.
And when you finally reach Jaffa, may I suggest you explore the old town once again, but this time under the stars. It becomes a bevy of hip cafes, bars, restaurants and live music at night, with Tel Aviv’s jewelled skyscrapers standing sentinel in the distance. ❤
- Getting to Tel Aviv: I flew into Israel with Air India direct from Delhi.
- Getting around: I walked within Tel Aviv. My two day tours were with Abraham Tours. To know more, this is the Caesarea tour and this is the Kibbutz one.
- Staying there: I stayed in a private room at Tel Aviv’s most happening hostel and a 2 minute walk from Rothschild Boulevard — Abraham Hostel.
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[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my solo and independent travel to Israel for 15 days in November 2019. To read more posts in my Israel series, click here.]