When we told people we were going to Israel in July, the reaction was always the same – “Why are you going in July?”. Fair question. July is Israel’s hottest month of the year, and Israel is a stiflingly hot country. The answer – our good friends were getting married in Tel Aviv, and their wedding was certainly one not to be missed.
We’re so appreciative that their wedding drew us to Israel, even if we had to do laundry three times while we were there because we sweat through our clothes. It is a vibrant, beautiful country where everyone appreciates every moment of their day – a philosophy we could all live by a bit more.
Our ten days were filled with bottomless plates of fresh vegetables and hummus, aromas of spices from the pervasive street markets, and aimless wandering through alleys covered in street art. I would go all the way back to Jerusalem just for another bowl of chickpeas at Ben Sira.
And I would definitely recommend trying to get yourself invited to an Israeli wedding. We will never attend anything quite like it again. The “quaint” 350-guest gathering (apparently 350 people is a small number of guests for an Israeli wedding) included a beautiful ceremony overlooking the Tel Aviv coast-line at sunset and incredible local food served endlessly to keep the guests energized for the dance floor – that wasn’t shut down until four o’clock in the morning.
I strongly suggest putting Israel on your travel list if you haven’t already been, even if you don’t get invited to an Israeli wedding. If you do make the journey there, here are our highlights from Tel Aviv (we’ll share our Jerusalem favorites in our next post).
Before our trip, I asked a friend who had lived in Israel for several years for any travel tips. Her description of Tel Aviv in her email – “When you visit Tel Aviv, you basically do two things – eat large quantities of incredible food, and park yourself on the beach.” This was spot on – especially the food part. Our time in the ocean-front city was mainly spent sampling the various restaurants that had been recommended to us – the best short ribs we’ve ever eaten at Claro, warm pita dipped in bowls full of spicy hummus at Hummus Abu Hassan, endless ordering of Israeli style tapas at Port Said. But we won’t just go on about the food. The rest of the trip was pretty great, too.
Where to base yourself in Tel Aviv
When you first look at a map of the city, it’s overwhelming. There are so many different neighborhoods to choose from. The good news is that you can’t really go wrong. Tel Aviv is extremely walkable, so you can get most places by foot within 45 minutes. We also felt very safe everywhere we went, so if you’re booking an AirBnB, I’d recommend just trying to be as close to the water as possible so that you can enjoy the beach.
During our first two nights, we splurged on a hotel room (Israeli hotel prices, at least in cities, are outrageous) at the Center Chic Hotel. Center Chic is owned by a large Israeli hotel chain called the Arthur Hotels. Each one of the Arthur Hotels has a slightly different, quirky personality. Center Chic was modern and trendy, but we chose it for the location – it is situated a couple blocks north of Dizengoff Center right in the center of the city, and only a ten-minute walk from the beach.
Dizengoff Center was Israel’s first mall, built in the 1970s, and is at the intersection of Dizengoff Street and King George Street. The mall wasn’t particularly exciting for us because we don’t enjoy shopping, but it was a good landmark to go by as we walked up and down the city exploring.
When we arrived back in Tel Aviv after a couple nights in Jerusalem, we opted to stay at an AirBnb to save money, and be further south to learn a new part of the city. The flat was modern and clean, equipped with a full kitchen so that we could try our hand at some shuk (market) shopping and cooking-in one evening.
It was based right in the beating heart of Florentine – a neighborhood that very much reminded us of Shoreditch in London mixed with the West Village in New York. There was something going on at all hours of the day and night, loud music, bars that looked too cool for us to have a cocktail in, and little dogs with expensive accessories trotting behind their hipster owners.
Where to find the best open-air markets
The food markets, or shuks, are a must-visit when in Tel Aviv. They are full of loud noises, spicy smells, bustling humans all shouting at each other. If we lived in Israel, I would do my food shopping at a shuk instead of a grocery store to make an experience out of food sourcing.
HaCarmel (Carmel Market)
HaCarmel is the largest and most famous shuk in Tel Aviv. It runs the full length of HaCarmel Street, which is just south of Dizengoff and a few blocks east of the beach. We wove our way through the crowds at HaCarmel several times, each visit more exhilarating than the last as we became familiar with the order of the stalls.
Our first night at our AirBnB, we wanted to make use of our kitchen so we walked the length of HaCarmel, making up our dinner plan as we passed each stall. A few eggplants caught my eye with their size and vibrant color, so we started with eggplant as our main ingredient. Then, as we wandered down the market street, we picked additional ingredients (goat cheese, quinoa, cherry tomatoes, pine nuts) based on what looked fresh, and threw everything together when we got home
My friend who was getting married knows how much we love food produce and kitchen products, so she was very careful to tell us not to leave Israel without visiting Sarona Market. We didn’t end up going until the middle of the trip when we realized we were about to walk right past it. It’s sort of hidden beneath an enclave of office buildings, and once you stumble below the concrete and inside, you’re surrounded by foodie-goodness.
The indoor market was packed with food stalls selling burgers, fresh fish ‘n chips, gelato, and hummus wraps galore in the center, and the perimeter was lined with olive oil shops, butchers, fishmongers, and produce stalls. If we had had more time in Tel Aviv, I would have come back here to buy some produce and cook a meal because everything looked fabulous.
Get some Vitamin D on the city-side beaches
I don’t think I fully understood just how much of a beach town Tel Aviv is until we arrived. You can stumble out of one of the best meals of your life (whether that be a simple 15 shekel (£3 / $4) falafel wrap or an upscale three course meal) and put your feet in the warm sand.
The best part is that the beaches are free to the public, and most of them have public restrooms as well. Our friends had recommended Gordon and Frishman beaches, so we visited those first, but we slowly made our way down the strip of beaches as the week progressed. We spent our last full afternoon in Tel Aviv in the tiny stretch of sand just north of Old Jaffa. The signs in red all say “Absolutely No Swimming”, but it looked like none of the locals abided by this rule, and we followed suit.
Note: Be aware of the large jellyfish that swarm the waters in July! We were lucky enough not to be stung, but others we spoke with were not so lucky.
Eat your way through the city
I can’t stress enough how incredible all of the food in Israel is. When you visit, be prepared to eat a lot, and make sure you try traditional shakshuka (eggs poached in a creamy tomato sauce) at least once.
Brunch and Coffee
I know that I can relate to Israelis because they appreciate starting the day off with a strong meal as much as I do. We were sure to try a full breakfast at several different places during our stay(s) in Tel Aviv. A few of our favorites? The creamed spinach shakshuka and bottomless fresh bread basket with cold (not iced! iced means a frappe) coffee at Benedict. The pancakes and eggs Benedict at Manta Ray – with a view! And the breakfast sandwiches at Bread Story.
We drank a lot of coffee in Israel, surprise surprise. Luckily, we found a small coffee roasting company – Cafelix – on our first day in Tel Aviv, so we were able to return every single day and try all three of their cafes scattered around the city.
Obviously there are many places to enjoy phenomenal hummus – you’re in Tel Aviv, after all! But one of our favorite meals on the whole trip was the simplest and cheapest – the hummus and musabaha plates at Abu Hassan outside of Old Jaffa. This is no frills place.
You walk up, praying that there is no line (apparently they run out of hummus by 2PM most days, and then just close down). Ask for a table and sit down, and then you are immediately approached by a member of staff who abruptly asks you want you want. We shrugged and asked our server what he would recommend. He simply smiled and said “I’ll bring you the best of everything”. Just a few minutes later, and our table was full with two bowls – one of hummus and one of musabaha (warm, whole chickpea hummus), a small bowl of fresh vegetables, and some warm pita. This is surprisingly filling, and the hummus was so delicious that you want to lick the bowl! We basically did by mopping up every last drop with the pita.
Take a walking tour of Old Jaffa, and then get lost there on purpose
Old Jaffa was our favorite part of Tel Aviv. It is the oldest part of the city, and is located at the southern tip. There is archaeological evidence that it’s been inhabited since 7500BC, which is pretty mind blowing when you think about the fact that you’re walking on a road that was walked on that many years ago. Over the centuries, it’s been ruled by many different dynasties. If you take the free walking tour (tip-based with a suggested tip amount at the end) of Old Jaffa with SANDEMAN tours – they meet every day at the Clock Tower at 11AM and 5PM – you will learn more history about the city than you ever thought possible.
We particularly enjoyed the stunning architecture and hidden artist studios scattered throughout Jaffa. The white limestone buildings beautifully contrast with the vibrant flowers and turquoise sea as a backdrop.
After taking the free tour (which we highly recommend doing), we wandered back through the old city several times. As long as there aren’t too many tourists wandering about, it offers a much appreciated quiet reprieve from the bustling central Tel Aviv.
A special place
Clearly, just judging by the length of this post, you can tell that we really enjoyed Tel Aviv and think it’s an incredibly special place. The food, the beaches, the heat – everything is unique there. One moment that really stood out to me that summarizes just how unique Tel Aviv is – when we visited the floating orange tree in Old Jaffa.
The sculpture was created by Ran Morin, a famous Israeli artist. The sculpture is meant to represent the uprooted existence and persistence for a meaningful life despite uprooted existence, of the Israeli people.