Tel Aviv has become one of the hottest travel destinations on the planet, with rave reviews from travel magazines, TV pundits, and good old-fashioned word of mouth. “Best for Style,” “Best Urban Beaches,” “Best Gay Destination,” “Best Foodie Scene,” and “Best Nightlife”—these are just a few of the accolades heaped on the city. It’s not exotic or charismatic, like Jerusalem. Nor is it a magnificent world capital, like Paris. It’s not even picturesque, like Amsterdam. But the lively, creative spirit of the people of Tel Aviv, mixed with miles of easy-going beaches and Mediterranean surf, make this a city with real personality.
That being said, Tel Aviv is everything Jerusalem is not. The city was founded much later, in 1909, to be exact, along a gorgeous strip of beach on the Mediterranean. Known locally as the Big Orange, Tel Aviv has no holy sites and until its founding, it had no history. What it does have is oyster bars, nightclubs, samba sessions on the beach on summer evenings, and miles and miles of massive medium-rise apartment buildings. In summer, the heat and humidity can put New Orleans to shame, but a short walk or bus ride can always get you to the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean
As the country’s commercial center and also the cultural capital, Tel Aviv buzzes with the energy of high-powered business deals from around the globe. Glass skyscrapers dot the city’s landscape; and more are under construction. But Tel Avivians also love to relax and play. In the 1980s, the city’s beaches were smartly renewed, and they are now among the cleanest and most easily accessible urban beaches in the world. The 1990s saw the construction of an opera house, new performing-arts centers, and the development of a rarefied luxury restaurant scene. If peace is able to develop, many envision 21st century Tel Aviv as the financial Singapore of a new Middle East, but with a glossy Miami Beach veneer.
Tel Avivians are also busy preserving, gentrifying, and recycling neglected landmarks and neighborhoods. The formerly derelict Tel Aviv Port, at the northern end of the city, is now the hottest spot in town, wall-to-wall with inventive eateries, market events, pubs, and shops overlooking the sea. Restored Old Jaffa is a romantic enclave of medieval buildings and cobblestone streets. It’s great for evening dining and strolling, and it’s loved by visitors and Israelis alike.
Elsewhere in Tel Aviv, you’ll see the delightful 1930s and early 1940s Bauhaus/International Style buildings that once defined the city’s ultramodern image. In the 1930s, many refugee architects and designers from Germany sought shelter in Palestine. For them, the sands of Tel Aviv provided an opportunity to create a dazzling metropolis of the future based on clean, functional lines. By the beginning of World War II, Tel Aviv had burgeoned into a garden of ultramodern, white concrete architectural wonders—the curvilinear balconies and rounded corners of Tel Aviv’s building boom were featured in architectural journals throughout the world.
But despite its architectural pizzazz, 1930s Tel Aviv was not a sleek, perfectly planned utopia. Many of the dazzlingly photographed buildings admired by the outside world were filled with old-fashioned workshops. In summer, the broad, futuristic streets (designed by architects whose hearts were still in pre-1933 Berlin) sweltered under the sun and blocked whatever evening breezes might blow in from the sea.
After Israeli independence, Tel Aviv mushroomed, first with refugee camps and temporary housing for the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors who poured into the country; and later with vast, drab housing projects. During the austere 1950s, Tel Aviv, although a young city, became run-down, especially around its downtown center. The beach, one of Tel Aviv’s strong points, piled up with garbage. The ultra-modern buildings of the 1930s and early 1940s, constructed of sand bricks, began to crumble. The city offered little in the way of museums, hotels, or restaurants, and word was out that Tel Aviv was a hot, humid, concrete heap, ungainly and uninteresting.
In the past 30 years, however, Tel Aviv has been undergoing a carefully nurtured revolution. The beach, only a few blocks from anywhere in the city center, has made a spectacular comeback. Performing groups, ranging from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Cameri Theater to the New Israel Opera, have put Tel Aviv on the cultural map. And innovative, lively museums abound.
Tel Aviv now incorporates the once-separate city of Jaffa, which does have a history going back thousands of years (the Prophet Jonah lived in this seaport before his encounter with the whale). If you climb the hill of Old Jaffa and look northward toward Tel Aviv’s shoreline, you’ll see a city that stands on the threshold of majesty—an amazing achievement for a metropolis that’s merely 100 years old.