That is not to say that it’s similar to Los Angeles, Barcelona or any other warm-climate international city—an excuse visitors sometimes give for skipping the city in favor of more time in Jerusalem. Tel Aviv, which boasts its own fascinating history, shouldn’t be missed. The city was founded in 1909 and designed entirely by the Scottish urban planner Sir Patrick Geddes along the sand dunes of the Mediterranean. Tel Aviv has (many residents would say, bless-fully) no holy sites, and until its founding, it had no history. But its founders hoped that on this swath of sandy tabula rasa, intentionally unadorned buildings would pave the way to a truly modern, wholly Israeli culture in which human interactions, rather than opulent architecture, would form the city’s social glue.
Today, Tel Aviv is Israel’s cultural and economic hub, known by many nicknames. It’s called “The White City,” in reference to its vast trove of original Bauhaus architecture. By Israelis, it’s dubbed, with, pride, disdain, or sometimes both, as “The Bubble,” because of its hopping café culture, world renowned art scene, vibrant LGBTQ community, and distinct internationalism that separates it so dramatically from the rest of the country. Tel Avivians love their rooftop tapas bars, all-night dance clubs and matkot paddleball beach sessions. 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 refreshing waters of the Mediterranean.
Home to the Israeli stock exchange, Tel Aviv is where the country does most of its global business deals. Glass skyscrapers dot the city’s landscape, and many more are under construction. But Tel Avivians love to relax and play. In the 1980s, the city’s beaches were smartly renewed, and they are now among the pristine and most easily accessible urban beaches in the world. That is most true during the “winter” months, when the temperatures often hover in the 70s, when Israelis think it’s too cold for a dip—meaning you’ll have the whole beach to yourselves.
The 1990s saw the construction of an opera house, new performing-arts centers, and the development of a rarefied luxury restaurant scene. In 2018, the promenade and the iconic fountain at Dizengoff Square got a face-lift, and by 2022 long-awaited construction has begun for a light rail running throughout the city that will serve as a highly anticipated alternative for the often traffic-clogged streets.
Tel Avivians are also busy appreciating, preserving and upcycling once neglected landmarks. The formerly derelict Tel Aviv Port, at the northern end of the city, is now the hottest spot in town, packed with inventive eateries, a rarified farmer’s market, nightclubs, and shops overlooking the sea. With a wave of newly built luxury hotels and restaurants, the neighborhood of Historic Jaffa, at Tel Aviv’s southern end, is a romantic enclave of medieval buildings, cobblestone streets, and flea markets boasting innovative Israeli and Palestinian chef restaurants. It’s great for evening 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 forged by German refugee architects, designers and intellectuals who sought shelter, and saw an opportunity for a dazzling metropolis—based on clean, functional lines—out of the Tel Aviv sands. In the 1930s, Tel Aviv was not a sleek, perfectly planned utopia. Many of the 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.
But by the beginning of World War II, Tel Aviv had blossomed into a garden of white concrete, flat-topped architectural wonders—the curvilinear balconies and rounded corners of Tel Aviv’s building boom were featured in architectural journals throughout the world. And after Israeli independence in 1948, the Tel Aviv landscape changed irrevocably, first by refugee camps and temporary housing for the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors who poured into the country, and, in the subsequent years, with vast housing projects that sought to jumpstart the lives of the new arrivals. During the austere 1950s, Tel Aviv, although a young city, was 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 50 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. Israeli chefs, many of whom have exported their restaurants to resounding acclaim in cities like London, Paris and New York, have put Tel Aviv on the culinary map, showcasing an Israeli culinary tradition obsessed with fresh produce and bold spices. Innovative, lively museums, as well as an intimate, highly regarded art gallery scene, abound.
Tel Aviv now incorporates the once-separate city of Jaffa, which does have a history going back thousands of years (its port is among the oldest in the world, and the Prophet Jonah lived here before his encounter with the whale). If you climb the hill of Old Jaffa and look northward toward Tel Aviv’s shoreline (the view above), you’ll see an amazing achievement for a metropolis that’s just over 100 years old.
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