Tel Aviv is a city very much in transition. A mosaic of cultures, religions and influences, for a city of around 450,000 people according to a 2015 poll, this modern Middle Eastern metropolis is as varied and diverse today as the buildings and architecture that comprise it.
But I didn't really know all of that prior to my latest visit. I was invited to Israel last spring by the Israel Ministry of Tourism primarily to celebrate Purim, a raucous, carnival-like holiday in which thousands of partygoing Israelis dressed head to toe in costumes (this year's unofficial theme was unicorns) take to the streets and bars to drink, dance and celebrate. What we were celebrating and why Purim is such a wild, booze-fueled celebration was never totally made clear. But it's good fun and people are happy, so why ask questions?
While Purim certainly provided a unique perspective into the pervasively popular nightlife scene in Tel Aviv, it was seeing this urban metropolis and just how much it's expanded over the years that really caught my attention. Over the course of a few days in Tel Aviv, I spent some time really getting to know the "White City," so named after the 4,000 or so Bauhaus-style buildings that were erected there in the 1930s. In the decades since, the architectural styles have evolved and expanded, and there's no better evidence of this than seeing it through the lens of some of the city's historical hotels.
"Since its foundation in 1909, Tel Aviv was in a constant search for its cultural identity, and architects were looking for the best architectural style for the young city," said Libbi Cohen, Tel Aviv tour guide and founder of Secret Urban History. "Their search is visible today through the city's hotels. You can see a mix of architectural styles that have changed every decade."
While traces of Bauhaus are still alive and well, I started my self-guided tour near the Shuk Ha-Carmel, where the Poli House, part of the Brown Hotel collection, is one of the best existing examples of Bauhaus with all the modern bells and whistles — think rooftop pool/bar, neon lights and pod chairs. It's a cool vibe and the perfect blend of old meets new. Starting rates for the Poli House are $260 per night; see https://brownhotels.com/poli.
A guestroom at the Hotel Montefiore, a boutique property with 12 rooms.
I had a chance to experience another bygone era, this time dating back to the 1920s, with a stay at the Hotel Montefiore. Perhaps Tel Aviv's most charming boutique hotel, each of its 12 rooms comes elegantly adorned with a floor-to-ceiling library full of the classics. This beautiful property is also home to what is arguably the best breakfast in town. Starting rates for the Hotel Montefiore are $390 per night; see www.hotelmontefiore.co.il.
The beachfront Dan Tel Aviv, considered to be the pioneer of luxury properties in Israel, has been an institution in the White City since 1953 and set a new precedent for luxury that is alive and well today. Starting rate for a standard room at the Dan Tel Aviv is $360 per night, including breakfast; see www3.danhotels.com.
I ended my tour with a stop by the Setai Tel Aviv. Located in Jaffa, the oldest part of the city, the 120 room, multibuilding complex, which opened earlier this year, dates to the 12th century and has been used as a fortress as well as a prison and a police station. Today, the Setai has been restored to incorporate all of the modernity of a city on the rise while paying homage to its roots.
"Many hotels that have opened in the past few years are enabling architecture lovers and travelers to stay in preserved places," Cohen said. "People can enjoy not only a beautiful facade, which is normally preserved, but also bits and pieces of the city's rich and storied history."
Starting rate for the Setai Tel Aviv is $500; see www.thesetaihotel.co.il.