The first word that likely comes to mind when you think of Israel is “dangerous”. Unfortunately, the country gets a bad rap thanks to media coverage that focuses on conflicts in the Gaza Strip, located on Israel’s southwestern border. However, don’t let that scare you off, because the city of Tel Aviv is actually one of the most underrated travel destinations in the world. Truth be told, it’s probably safer to go there right now than to any major European capital, as homeland security has had decades of experience dealing with threats from its not-so-friendly neighbors. Rest assured, they know what they’re doing.
Travellers in the know have tried to keep a lid on it to maintain Tel Aviv as something of a hipster haven for surfers and startup geeks alike, but word is getting out, with the city being praised as a beach paradise, surfers’ dream, startup hub, and party metropolis to rival the likes of Amsterdam and Barcelona. And as it happens, Cathay Pacific recently launched four weekly flights direct to Tel Aviv. On top of that, El Al Israel Airlines flies direct from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv with almost-daily routes (six times a week), getting you there in just under 12 hours.
It’s definitely not your typical destination, but that makes it all the more exotic as you take on the role of pioneering trailblazer through less-explored frontiers: a sunbathed world of desert winds, Mediterranean waves, and sandstone streets that have borne the weight of civilisation after civilisation for thousands of years. We’ve put together the top 10 reasons to go below — but first some practical information for transportation and accommodation.
Uber and Gett are the easiest and most convenient ways to get around Tel Aviv. Taxi drivers will sometimes offer a “cheaper” fixed price to shuttle you from point A to B, but we found using the meter more affordable. There’s a train from the airport to the city, and regular buses that shuttle back and forth between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. However, if you want to get to more other places in Israel (and you should), booking tours — from day trips to full sojourns — is the way to go. Unless you’re willing to rent a car (we don’t advise navigating Israel on your own) or a driver, you’re better off casting your lot with reliable operators, such as Abraham Tours. Try their self-guided tours, including those to Caesarea and the Dead Sea, allowing you to explore sites at your own pace without having to worry about transportation.
Where to Stay
If you want to feel the beating heart of Tel Aviv’s city centre — in the midst of the nightlife and business district — stay at Lily and Bloom Hotel. Its Bauhaus design is an ode to the city’s UNESCO-acclaimed architectural Modern Movement, and their rooftop and alfresco terrace make for great spaces to chill out in between all the sightseeing. The boutique Shenkin Hotel, owned and operated by locals, is another option close to Carmel Market and the main thoroughfare of Allenby Street. As a bonus, they have a spa for those who need their pampering while on holiday, and a roof terrace with sun beds for soaking up the rays.
And now, without further ado, here are our top 10 reasons for putting Tel Aviv on your travel bucket list:
Tel Aviv has not one, but 16 sparkling beaches on the Mediterranean Sea. The activities to enjoy along the beach are endless: spend an afternoon catching the waves, people watching, jogging, skating, cycling, playing beach volley, surfing, sailing, paddle boarding, or swimming. The water is crystal clear, even up north in the Port area, which is now a stylish hub with a host of upscale boutiques and restaurants lining the promenade. A sight that never fails to entertain is that of locals biking around with one hand, the other occupied with a metre-long shisha pipe, as they head for the beach. Since the entire coast is west-facing, the sunsets are phenomenal.
Photo source: Flickr/Dennis Jarvis
Exotic sand dunes that are home to Bedouin tribes and their beloved camels can be found just a couple of hours south or east of Tel Aviv. Follow the UNESCO World Heritage Incense Route to make your way through the ancient Desert Cities of Negev, exploring the geographical diversity of the region from unique, crater-like landforms, to modern Israeli communities who have found a home in the stark wilderness. At night, don’t forget to look up and take in the magically starry desert skies.
More than half of the countries in the world can travel to Israel visa-free as tourists for up to three months. Even passport holders of the Philippines, Colombia, and Russia — notorious for their travel restrictions — are free to enter.
At the height of winter, you’ll get an average of six hours of sunlight per day in Tel Aviv — and at best, as much as 12 in the summer. Israel’s subtropical climate makes it a pleasant holiday almost all year round. While spring and autumn are the best times to go, you’re sure to get sunny skies in Israel at any point, especially in the south, close to the Red Sea. If winter sports is more your thing, Israel has ski resorts in Golan Heights, near the border of Syria and Lebanon.
Tel Aviv’s deep-house and techno DJs are some of the best in the world, so imagine a Berlin by the beach. But it’s all that and more. Not only can you dance to hip-hop and electronic music at Kuli Alma and Jimmy Who, but also to salsa and reggaeton at Alma de Cuba and Havana Club. And then there’s that little cherry on top that none of the other international cities have: Arabic and Middle Eastern beats at the ancient port city of Jaffa. If you visit in the summer, you’re in for a ride as Tel Aviv goes all out, from massive beach parties to desert festivals.
Tel Aviv is an incredibly diverse, young, and good-looking city. What’s more, they’ve got the brains to match. Tel Avivians are all multilingual — Hebrew and English are the staples, followed by Spanish, French, Russian, German, and Arabic. The startup scene can get sexier than that of California’s, Tel Aviv having been dubbed ‘Silicon Wadi’ to describe the concentration of high-tech industries thriving on the coastal plain. Software engineer swagger is something you’re bound to bump into at some point, and they come in all forms: from blonde and dark-eyed to brunette and light-eyed. Eastern European looks flourish side by side with North African beauty and everything else in between. It also doesn’t hurt that Israelis all train with the army for three years, making them super fit as well.
Image credit: IMDb.com
Rome, the Eternal City, may have been founded 3,000 years ago, but Jaffa — the oldest part of Tel Aviv — has been around for almost 10,000 years. Walking through the old quarters feels like being inside Game of Thrones’ Pentos, across the Narrow Sea. (If you remember your Greek mythology, Perseus rescued Andromeda from the cliffs of Jaffa. The Biblical Jonah embarked at the very same anchorage to escape his mission only to get swallowed by a whale.) Today, Jaffa is a vibrant and colourful neighbourhood where you can find the best hummus in Israel, incredible street parties, couples dancing tango on the square, Egyptian ruins, and much more.
If you tried a new restaurant everyday for a year in Tel Aviv, chances are you wouldn’t be disappointed. You may think you’re spoilt for choice in Hong Kong, a city with over 80 Michelin-starred restaurants, but Tel Aviv more than holds its own in comparison. It’s a combination of several factors: bread-baking expertise from the dawn of civilisation, the freshest ingredients (think dates, figs, sesame, and olives), exotic spices, and top-notch vineyards (did you know wine was born in neighbouring Lebanon?). From kosher fine dining with the sea as your backdrop to halva and falafel in Sarona Market, the quality is consistently top-class. Our personal favourite is Saloof & Sons — a no-frills Yemeni eatery in the hipster part of town — but Carmel Market and Port Said are quintessential Tel Aviv experiences that are not to be missed.
If you’re a traveller who likes to interact with locals, look no further than Tel Aviv. Some destinations have language or cultural barriers that get in the way of proper conversations, but Tel Avivians will have none of that. Expect a barrage of questions from locals young and old, male and female. Don’t be offended or intimidated by how straightforward Israelis are. They have zero qualms about staring, saying exactly what they think, or asking incredibly direct questions. As you get used to it, you’ll realise that more often than not, underneath the brusqueness is a well-meaning yet curious person who just really, really wants to know everything.
We’ve mentioned the great beach and surf already, but how often do you find a cosmopolitan city that has fresh and clean swells pounding right on its doorstep? “Well, if it’s good enough for God, Jesus, and Natalie Portman, it’s good enough for you,” jokes Paul Evans of Stabmag, which ranked Tel Aviv as the world’s sixth-best city for surfing.