The travel experience to Israel is not only safe and pleasantly surprising, but very affordable too, with more and more direct and less expensive connections from all over Europe and the world. Especially from Germany, many low-costs lines were introduced in the last years, and a smart early booking can give you the chance to fly to Tel Aviv and back for less than 300 Euro.
Regardless of the time of the day you are landing in Tel Aviv, there will always be something open as the city never sleeps. Clubs and bars and restaurants and shops are calling your name. The new brave architecture insinuated in the urban space around old traditional houses, palm trees are bordering walls with creative graffiti. And if you were a bit scared that you will have some communication problems, don’t worry, you are in the country where the main world languages are easily spoken.
In the evening, there are always beach parties. Open air dancing and cocktail tasting is for everyone. Lala Land beach is one of the many places where you should be at the beginning of the night. Elegant hotels but also cozy hostels where one can meet new friends are strategically places near the beach. The prices may differ of the season, with big differences during the Jewish high holidays, especially April – Pesach – and September – Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana. The sooner you make the reservation, the better. Compared to Europe, the weather is good all round the year – with high temperatures during August – so you don’t risk anything if you start your exploration of Israel in January or February, for instance.
Tel Aviv is the place of arts and creative minds par excellence. The passionate arts scene is featured by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art or Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. At the Beit Hatfutsot – the Diaspora Museum – there is a chance to understand more about the history of Jewish communities from all over the world. Before you enter through the gates of any museum, there is the architecture of the city who tells you a story. Jewish architects that escaped Germany before and during the war, brought the Bauhaus spirit in the city and built around 4,000 houses, part of the White City, nowadays included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage.
The contemporary urban culture is a different and equally fascinating layer of Tel Aviv. Answering the curiosities of tourists and locals, graffiti tours are regularly offered in English, covering the most interesting areas of the city. As many of the graffiti messages are connected with the daily life and politics of the Israeli society, a little bit of guidance is more than welcomed.
Transportation in the city is easy: either by bus or by foot. Taxis can help you too, and the very often the prices can be negotiated. Exchange offices or banks are open 6 days of week – Saturday is the official day of rest.
Saturday is the day of rest – Shabbat – and most part of the shops are closed, as well as public transportation. In Tel Aviv, however, one can always find something open or some parties going on – strongly recommended the rooftop parties in the White Cities, many of them arranged as gorgeous gardens, from where you can have a view of the city night life. Resting one day the week is not a bad idea either, and on Saturday evening, one can notice how everything goes back to normality. A must-see is the spontaneous dancing show at Gordon Beach. Many similar street dancing are taking place near the clubs as well.
From the center of Tel Aviv, one can walk for a while reaching the artist quarter of Neve Tzedek. Small streets, bordering colourful and individual houses, hosting small galeries or pop-up stores, but also good restaurants and bakeries, especially French and Hungarian, bringing back home flavours and childhood long-forgotten tastes.
Another tasty and interesting part of Tel Aviv is Jaffa, with its small houses with flower gardens and delicious Oriental restaurants.
The best place to find something special to buy or eat or admire is on Dizengoff Street, where you can find exquisite design shops, the big mall at no. 50 and restaurants for all kind of tastes and budgets. As for me, I also love to walk on Eli’ezer ben Yehuda street, checking the latest French bakeries or the newest frozen yoghurt parlour. And there is something else that no one should miss while in Israel: the big checking list of breakfast, traditionally including boiled eggs, tomato salad, labneh, hummus, olive oil, pita bread, fresh fruits and the unforgettable strong coffee – preferably with cardamom. Curious for more shopping malls: check Azrieli, a couple of bus stations away from ben Yehuda.
On Dizengoff and ben Yehuda I always discover the most interesting and creative art galleries, featuring modern local and European artists.
Tel Aviv is also a friendly city to travel with children. Besides the beach and the many gourmet temptations especially offered for children by many restaurants, there are plenty of parks, playgrounds and the interesting safari that I recently discovered.
Israel is a small country and you can easily move within a couple of hours from a part to another. By car or by taxi, or using the shared cars, but also by train or bus, many of the main cities can be seen in one day. One of the most spectacular areas is around the old fortification of Masada, where the natural landscape is hiding centuries of history of the land.
The easiest way to arrive is via Jerusalem, by bus. The buses have air condition but once you are out, you should be careful as during the high season of August, the heat can be unbearable. From the top, one can see the Dead Sea and the small green oasis, the kibbutz, many of them offering affordable accommodation to the tourists.
Elegant resorts appeared in the last decades, with high-class spa and luxury services. Most are using the Ahava products, based on healthy mud and other natural ingredients.
From the highest altitudes, one can embrace the mysterious landscape. A country that used to be covered by sand and stones is turned into a rich agricultural area, using the best of its natural resources and beauty.
Every year, Masada is hosting a majestic opera festival, with many representations starting early in the morning, the best time to watch the sunrise.
Travelling across the country reveals the diversity and the pace of a country aimed to succeed. In Rishon LeZion, high scrapers were built fast to accommodate the waves of people coming back home. The vertical landscape is ironically punctured by colourful playgrounds. In Ra’anana, the Friendship Park was designed to accommodate visitors with special needs.
One of the cities that took me a lot to come along with is Haifa, the working-city where people are always busy. Here is where the logo of Google can be easily seen on the way to the beach and where Intel established its first center outside USA in 1974. Since then, the American company opened another 4 centers in the country and is planning a $6 billion investment in a chip plant. Rambam hospital, one of the best health centers in the area, is treating patients from all over the world.
As local people are so busy working, the beaches are perfect for those looking for more quietness and privacy. There are not too many beach parties although enough beach bars open till late in the night. Wifi facilities will help you to keep connected with the busy world anyway. Dado Beach, for instance, is considered as one of the best for families with children, while Carmel is more often the meeting place of students and young people in general.
The local zoo was initially launched as an educational school center, but nowadays is has a lot of attractions for children. It is situated close to Carmel Center, one of the two areas – besides the German colony – where to find the best pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants. I sipped some good cocktails once at Barbarossa and definitely loved the Japanika sushi treats, including the design and ambiance.
The city also has a very active, even though not obvious, art life, that you first notice while walking the streets, trying to read the hidden messages of the street art and installations. I discovered here the most important collection of Japanese art at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, close to the beautiful Louis Promenade. For children, and not only, there is an interesting Museum of Science. For more art, the Ein Hod artists village can offer different surprises, but also the possibility to talk directly with artists about their work.
One of the most famous landmarks of the city are the Baha’i Garden, in a city where various religions co-exist – and there is also a Carmelite Monastery and several churches and mosques. Haifa also has one of the smallest subway network in the world – Istanbul being the other one – with its colourful 6-station of Carmelit funicular railway, re-opened in 1992. Another unique transportation in the city is the cable car which connects the beach promenade with Mt. Carmel.
The naval life left a certain trace on the character of people. Sailors are reliable people, but not very talkative. Either they like you or not, they will tell you openly. A couple of trips after my first visit to the city, I am more used with it. And from a trip to another, I gathered new reasons to come back.
Jerusalem is a different kind of encounter. Walking the thousands of years of cobbled old streets brings the visitor back in time. And even if you are completely ignorant about any history, you might want to know more at the end of your journey.
Before going to the library, try to discover more only by tasting the food, the tempting and delicious pitas or various breads offered in different shapes. A new wave of gourmet restaurants were opened in the last years, one of the best by far being Mantra, Hachatzer or Rooftop. The wines are the natural company of the good foods: in the last years, an impressive number of boutique vineyards were created, many offering regularly wine tasting events.
The streets of the old city are a oasis of quiet, especially if you decide to walk around my favourite time of the day to start a journey: early in the morning. Shortly before 10 o’clock the old streets are back to life, waken up by the noise of the vendors opening their shops or the men rushing to study in many of the synagogues situated in the neighbourhood.
Many rush to the Western Wall, where people from simple Jews to world presidents left a small note asking for a wish.
The area went through various transformations in the last years. The former ruin of the 18th century Hurva synagogue (hurva means ruin in Hebrew) was turned into a new building. There are regular guided tours offered that will lead you to the top of the building from where one can have a panoramic view of Jerusalem and its vicinity.
For many Western visitors, the cats are the unexpected cute encounters. They are everywhere, on the beach, in the yard of the synagogues or at the entry in elegant malls. When they don’t run after mice or beg for a little piece of food, they rest in the most unexpected places.
Mahane Yehuda is where you can smell and taste the Middle East. The spices are in the air, and I rarely need long hours to find out what I am looking for. As usual, I end up with lots of perfumed bags that will put at hard trial my culinary skills and imagination.
I am not more literate when it comes to the fruits either, but the colours are tempting enough to convince me they are worth a little bit of extra tasting.
The weight of history may be enough for not doing anything else besides the Old Quarter. Parks and the biblical Zoo are good destinations for family with children. Otherwise, there are some places that I always want to see again: the interesting Italian synagogue, introducing the special world of Italian Jewry, the Museum of Islamic Art, the Israel Museum with an impressive archaeological collection, including the famous Dead Sea scrolls, and Yad Vashem Museum, the living memorial of the Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Another interesting attraction, relatively newly introduced on the to-do-list in the city is the tram which goes fast from a part to the other of the city, a good opportunity to have a better view of various areas and to observe or get in touch with the local people. As in the case of Tel Aviv, Segway tours are also available for small or bigger group of tourists, with or without a guide included.
Those that don’t have claustrophobic problems and are ready to walk barefoot through water can try to make a tour of the City of David. I did it, despite coping in the first minutes of the tour with a deep emergency to run back to light, and was delighted with the high quality of the English explanations and the overall setting.
The tour – that lasts an average of 3 hours – leads the visitor through underground tunnels, exploring the place of birth of the ancient city of Jerusalem. When you are finally out of the darkness, one learns to better appreciate the light. Back in the real life, there is the busy life from Mamilla Mall with the very talented street artists singing something beautiful. Everywhere, there is something to do and many reasons to return. Even though it’s only for a small piece of cake that you only tasted at home. And home is where your heart is.
For more pictures from Israel, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/israel/