Overview

Tel Aviv is Israel's cultural, entertainment and commercial center, offering a view of modern Israel in contrast to some of the better-known historical sites in the Holy Land. It's a much more liberal, secular and sexy city than conservative, religious and sacred Jerusalem. Tel Aviv is dubbed the place to play, Jerusalem the place to pray. Jerusalem is the political capital; Tel Aviv is the pleasure capital.

It's Israel's hippest hub, an avant-garde, energetic, bustling place where anything goes. It has a wealth of interesting sights, great shopping and nonstop nightlife and dining. Fun-loving Tel Avivians have style and panache. Their motto: "Eat your dessert first."

In addition, Tel Aviv has a stunning seashore with 9 mi/14 km of clean, sandy beaches excellent for swimming, people-watching and relaxing in the sun. The glorious beach culture makes this cosmopolitan city feel like a cross between Rio and Miami.

The Old City of Jaffa, prominent on the Tel Aviv shoreline, gives visitors a chance to explore the city's biblical roots. It's where Jonah set sail and is one of the world's oldest ports. Jaffa is also home to a vibrant artist colony and many fine restaurants.

Geography

The first thing that air travelers see out their windows as they approach Israel is Tel Aviv's impressive Mediterranean shoreline. From high above, the line of tall hotels hugging the beachfront promenade and the straight streets leading deep into the heart of Tel Aviv give the impression of a well-designed, modern city. From the ground, however, the city is a bit more complicated, with tourist sites spread far apart from each other and many transportation routes clogged with heavy traffic.

To Tel Aviv's south is the 3,000-year-old city of Jaffa, a gateway port since biblical times. Jaffa, with a mix of Muslims, Christians and Jews, has plenty of atmosphere. Jaffa's Old City quarter, impossible to miss when looking south because of its elevation, is a popular tourist attraction, with a vibrant artist colony and an old port.

Tel Aviv first took root in its southern neighborhoods. The Yemenite Quarter outside the Carmel Market and the Neve Tzedek neighborhood in the shadows of the Shalom Tower are being renovated and today host first-class restaurants, galleries and boutiques. Dizengoff Street and the shady Rothschild Boulevard bisect central Tel Aviv. A major north-south transportation artery is the Ayalon Freeway, which separates the city from its Hatikva and Yad Eliyahu neighborhoods and from the neighboring city of Ramat Gan.

To the north, the Yarkon River crosses through Tel Aviv until it spills into the Mediterranean near Sde Dov Airport. Just south of the Yarkon is the Old Tel Aviv Port entertainment area, a trendy restaurant and nightclub locale. Farther north are the affluent neighborhoods of Ramat Aviv, Azorei Hen and Neot Afeka.

The city of Tel Aviv is part of the much larger Dan metropolitan area (or Gush Dan), which also encompasses the coastal plain cities of Herzliya, Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak, Givatayim and Holon. Together these cities form Israel's largest population center.

History

Before 1909, the bustling, modern city of Tel Aviv was nothing more than sand dunes along the Mediterranean coast. During Passover of that year, a lottery using sea shells was held to distribute plots of land near Jaffa. The outlying neighborhood of Neve Tzedek, established in 1887 by Jews who wanted to live outside Jaffa, quickly merged with this new community.

After a wave of Arab riots against the Jews in 1921, the British Mandatory officials, in charge of what was then Palestine, granted Tel Aviv independence, and it became a separate municipality from Jaffa. In the 1930s, a wave of immigrants escaping European anti-Semitism brought modern European architecture to the city. During these years, Jewish architects from the renowned Bauhaus art-and-design school in Germany fled the Nazis and introduced the city's world-famous architectural style. The Bauhaus school emphasized the synthesis of art and functionality.

On 14 May 1948, the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine gathered in Tel Aviv. David Ben-Gurion, who would become the country's first prime minister, declared the establishment of the State of Israel. Tel Aviv became Israel's temporary capital until the Knesset and government ministries set up their permanent offices in Jerusalem. On 4 October 1949, the modern city of Tel Aviv and the ancient city of Jaffa were reunited as a single municipality.

In 2003, Tel Aviv was selected by UNESCO as a World Heritage site because of its Bauhaus architecture and its original urban design. Today, it remains an outstanding example of early 20th-century new-town planning and architecture.

Sightseeing

Tel Aviv has old and new sites to satisfy the sightseer. The picturesque and history-rich Old City of Jaffa serves as a journey into a past spiced with Crusader fortifications and Napoleonic conquests. Tel Aviv's more modern sites include the colorful Neve Tzedek neighborhood and only date back to the early 20th century, when the city was established on the sand dunes along the Mediterranean coast.

Visitors can easily enjoy the city on their own. You can walk or bike on the stunning beach promenade for miles/kilometers past the Old Port and famous beach hotels to Jaffa. A walking tour led by a professional guide will provide fascinating tidbits and trivia about the winding alleyways of Jaffa and the history and Bauhaus buildings of the new city of Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is mostly a walking city, but some tourist sites are spread out, so a taxi ride is fast and easy. Also, as parking places are hard to find, a half-day, air-conditioned bus tour might be the best way to see the city for the first time.

Tel Aviv's Tourist Information Office offers free guided walking tours in English, an excellent way to learn about Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

Nightlife

Tel Aviv has a very lively nightlife scene. There are hundreds of bars and clubs all over the city packed with exuberant partygoers. It is a city that doesn't sleep. At an hour when the rest of the country is going to bed, Tel Aviv is just getting ready to party. The city is especially suited to young people. Most of the city's clubs open at midnight, and partygoers frequently revel until dawn.

Much of the fast-changing nightlife scene can be found at the Old Port area, where different megaclubs vie for the glory of being the city's trendiest. The area that previously housed abandoned warehouses and hangars now features some of the city's hottest new restaurants, bars and clubs along a pedestrian boardwalk on the water.

Other popular clubs and bars can be found on Sheinkin Street and in the Florentin and Neve Tzedek neighborhoods in the southern part of the city. A number of venues feature live music.

Thursday and Friday nights are the liveliest nights of the week in Tel Aviv.

Dining

Tel Aviv's restaurants offer the widest variety of culinary experiences in Israel, and many of its establishments are by far the country's best. Many of the city's restaurants are open round the clock, or at least until the last diner leaves.

A number of fine restaurants are in beachfront hotels or in central Tel Aviv, near shady Rothschild Boulevard. Other trendy restaurants can be found in the Old Port area on Nahalat Binyamin Street, in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood and at Hatahana, the renovated and bustling old train station. Restaurants offering simple menus at reasonable prices are on most of the city's main thoroughfares and inside Tel Aviv's shopping malls. An up-and-coming neighborhood is Sarona, the old German Templar compound, where gourmet restaurants are beginning to pop up.

There is no shortage of fast-food stands in Tel Aviv, especially those offering the national favorite snack, falafel. Consisting of a fried chickpea batter rolled into balls, falafel is best enjoyed wrapped in fresh pita bread and accompanied by chopped vegetables and tahini. For a change of pace, try falafel in the larger Iraqi bread, known as laffa. Many restaurants follow the Middle Eastern tradition of serving meze, small plates which can be shared.

Restaurants in the city may offer different menus at different hours of the day. Even the most expensive eateries feature a business lunch at a reduced price. These lunches typically include an appetizer, a main dish and a dessert, with a small selection of choices. The quality of a single restaurant may be inconsistent depending on which menu it is using. Some restaurants close for an afternoon break, and others remain open all day.

Many of Tel Aviv's restaurants do not follow the Jewish dietary laws, and therefore are not kosher. Even so, the city does have a number of fine kosher establishments, and many of the fast-food stands on street corners and in the marketplace are kosher. All kosher restaurants close for the Jewish Sabbath—from Friday just before sundown until Saturday evening—and for Jewish holidays. The dining rooms in the major hotels are also kosher; on the Sabbath, they serve food with certain restrictions on preparation.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks or tip: $ = less than 80 NIS; $$ = 80 NIS-200 NIS; $$$ = 201 NIS-300 NIS; and $$$$ = more than 300 NIS.

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