A Local's Guide to Tel Aviv
Elanor Parker, 17.05.19
Originally founded in 1909 by the old port city of Jaffa, Tel Aviv-Yaro (often known as just Tel Aviv) has now become one of the busiest and most popular cities in Israel. With its warm Mediterranean climate and coastal location, Tel Aviv draws in a young tourist crowd attracted by its sandy beaches and lively nightlife and is thought of as the commercial and cultural capital of Israel.
Designed as a modern city from the get go, Tel Aviv doesn’t have the profound ancient history of nearby Jerusalem. Instead, it has a character all of its own. A lot more liberal than much of the rest of Israel and the Middle East, Tel Aviv is characterised by its large LGBT+ community and creative industries. You’ll see plenty of street art, especially in Florentin, thought of as the ‘hipster’ neighbourhood where you’ll also find clubs to dance in until dawn, vintage stores and a red hot food scene.
In May 2019, Tel Aviv is hosting the grand spectacle of the Eurovision Song Contest after 186 million people worldwide tuned in to see their entrant Netta win in 2018 with her song Toy. For 2019, Bar Refaeli, the world famous Israeli supermodel, is one of the hosts for a show that promises to bring the world’s largest live music event to Tel Aviv. Luckily, Tel Aviv is one city that is certainly used to hosting parties!
Tel Aviv facts
Tel Aviv has plenty of beaches
You can’t go to Tel Aviv without visiting a beach. The question is: which one? With 13 different beaches to choose from, you’re sure to find some place to top up your tan or play maktot, a popular bat and ball game some say is Israel’s national beach sport.
Whilst you’re welcome to show some skin on most of the beaches, make sure you check which beach you are on first. The Religious Beach is a gender segregated beach most days of the week, which is surrounded by walls for additional privacy. However, nearby is the Hilton Beach, the unofficial gay beach, which is a lot more relaxed.
One of the world’s largest Gay Pride events
Each year in June, Tel Aviv celebrates its diverse population with around 250,000 people heading out onto the streets for Gay Pride. Starting in Me’ir Park, the parade marches through the streets before ending at Charles Clore beach for a beach party from sunset until dawn. The parade will bring an added riot of colour to the already colourful streets of Tel Aviv, with floats, drag queens and more bringing entertainment to the masses.
It’s also known as the White City
In one section of Tel Aviv there is a cluster of over 4,000 buildings, many of them built in the revered International Style or in the Bauhaus school style. Many Jewish architects fled Europe after the Nazi rise to power, bringing their distinctive architectural look and principles with them. Defined by strong, sleek lines, the buildings they designed were almost always in white in order to help reflect the heat, and the ‘White City’ nickname has stuck ever since.
Tel Aviv travel tips
Be aware of Shabbat
Although many countries in the world consider the weekend to happen over Saturday and Sunday, it’s different in Israel. Shabbat, a day of rest and prayer in Judaism, begins at sundown on Friday and ends with sundown on Saturday. This means that the weekend is considered to be Friday and Saturday, with most people working Sunday to Thursday.
Although elsewhere in Israel you’ll find the country in a complete shutdown during Shabbat, in Tel Aviv many bars and restaurants remain open and Saturday is a very popular day to visit the beach.
Be aware that no public transport operates on Shabbat. Many people also decide not to drive, which makes it a great day for hiring a bike and exploring the city. Tel-O-Fun is a public bicycle rental service where you can pick up and drop off bikes from many locations across the city.
Tel Aviv is not cheap
Unfortunately, a trip to Tel Aviv is likely to hit your wallet hard. With a beer easily costing $10 USD, a night out can quickly add up! Be sure to budget more than you would for some other Middle Eastern destinations. If you spread the cost your flights to Tel Aviv with finance payment options such as Affirm or Klarna, it can help to make your trip more budget friendly.
Get a Rav-Kav
A Rav-Kav is a type of smart card which you need to use public transport, including buses and trains, in Israel. In fact, it’s the only form of payment accepted on the bus!
You can buy a Rav-Kav for ₪5 ($1.40 USD) from train stations and central bus stations, amongst some other locations such as selected hostels. Alternatively, you can get one for free from Rav-Kav sales points if you’re willing to have your name and photo taken to be printed on it, which then means it’s non-transferable.
It’s easy to find a party
Tel Aviv is a city that certainly likes to party, with your choice of beachside bars, underground clubs and hipster hotspots. Since it’s not a large city, it won’t take you long to walk from place to place until you find a bar or club you like the look of. In fact, many young people in Tel Aviv will plan to go to more than one place during a night out to fit in as much fun as possible.
If you enjoy hummus, falafel, shakshuka and shawarma then good news, you’ll love the food in Tel Aviv! Dishes that are popular in Israel draw their influences from all over the world, providing a variety of flavours to try, although often with a regional twist.
Although there’s no accepted English spelling for hummus (which you might also know as houmous, humous or by one of many other variants), one thing everyone can agree on is the taste. With sales of hummus rocketing, it’s clear this savoury dip is now loved all over the world. However, a trip to Tel Aviv gives you the opportunity to try the real deal. The centuries old Leventine dish is often made with chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic, but everyone will have their own recipe so no batch of hummus tastes exactly the same.
Hummus is traditionally served as part of a mezze platter or as a dish in itself, warm with bread such as pita to scoop it up with. You will often find it topped with anything from hard boiled eggs to ful (a bean sauce) to fried mushrooms or even extra tahini. Visit the Yemenite district to find hummus topped with skrug, a Yemenite hot sauce made a mix of herbs and spices, including cardamom, coriander, cumin and chilli.
Once you’ve filled up on hummus, you might be craving something sweet. A favourite dessert across the Levant and the Middle East, each region proudly has its own traditional method of making kafeh (or kanafeh, amongst other spellings). It’s a noodle style pastry that is first soaked in syrup before being layered with a soft mild cheese. If this cheese and sugar combination sounds unusual to you, then think back to any time you’ve had a slice of cheesecake!
Served warm and chewy, you might find the syrup a little too sweet at first, but you won’t be able to help yourself going back for a second serving. You can find knafeh in many restaurants, as well as some deli style sweet shops and bakeries.
Things to do
Visit the Neve Tzedek Neighbourhood
This quirky neighbourhood has plenty of narrow streets to explore. One of the oldest districts in the city, it’s now becoming fashionable again and you’ll have your choice of restaurants and cafes serving delicious food in romantic courtyards.
Look out for distinctive works of street art, such as the incredible brightly coloured tutus, complete with dangling legs, hanging outside the Suzanne Dellal Dance Centre. It’s also a great place to pick out a unique souvenir, as there are lots of independent shops and boutiques to visit.
Tayelet Board Walk
With so many beaches available, it’s hard to choose. When you take a stroll along the Tayelet you can pass all of them, so you’ll get a real flavour of each before choosing where to settle down. At around 14km (8.7 miles) it’s not a short walk if you want to go end-to-end, but you can always stop whenever you find a spot you particularly like. Recently renovated, the Tayelet is flat and paved so it’s very accessible - perfect for any wheelchair users or families with pushchairs.
Design Museum of Holon
Actually located just south of Tel Aviv in the city of Holon, the Design Museum of Holon opened in 2010 and is definitely worth the short trip. Even if you don’t step foot inside, you’re sure to be impressed. An incredible miracle of modern architecture, with spirals reminiscent of a red Guggenheim, this iconic building is home to regularly changing exhibitions which present the very best cutting edge design.
Don’t forget that your ticket will also cover entrance for the Holon Mediatheque next door, which showcases over a thousand samples of different materials and is one of the only material museums open to the public.
Jaffa’s Old City and Port
If you’re looking for history, then Jaffa (Yafo), one of the world’s oldest port cities, is sure to provide them. Originally its own city that has been inhabited since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians, it’s now unified with Tel Aviv to become Tel Aviv-Yafo. Many people visit for the popular flea market a place where you can find everything and anything.
If you’re not willing to fill your suitcase with spontaneously purchased souvenirs, then explore the cobblestone alleyways instead where you’ll find lots of small eateries. It was in Jaffa where Saint Peter is thought to have risen Tabitha from the dead and St. Peter’s Catholic Church in the heart of the Old City is dedicated to him in honour of this miracle. This striking church with a tall bell tower is by the shore and faces out to sea to welcome pilgrims to the Holy Land.
If you’re interested in cities with great art galleries and you’re looking out for some world class contemporary art, then pop into Gordon Gallery. Founded in 1966, the gallery has an incredible collection from the very best modern Israeli artists, such as Fatima Abu Roomi, whose portraits and sculptures reflect concepts of femininity and identity.
The hilltop location means that Ha’Pisga is a park with a view. From here you’ll be able to appreciate the high rises that define the Tel Aviv skyline, and look out towards the ocean. A small amphitheatre plays host to music concerts in the warm Saturday evenings of summer, making this a tranquil place where you can sit back and take a relaxing moment away from the hubbub of the rest of the city.
The biggest market in Tel Aviv, Carmel Market is one of the cheapest and most exciting places to eat. With simple grab-and-go street food options, you can taste everything from bureka to arepas to meat stuffed pitas. It’s not all about food - you’ll find as many bootlegged CDs as you would at any other market, as well as items such as clothes and shoes. Carmel Market is a hot spot for locals and tourists, so be prepared to fight the crowds, especially on Fridays. However, for the sights and smells alone, it’s well worth the battle.
Gordon Swimming Pool
If you don’t fancy going for a swim in the sea, but still want to freshen up with a quick dip then the Gordon Swimming Pool is the perfect compromise. This incredible Olympic size pool is filled each day with fresh, clean saltwater. With smaller pools for little ones, it’s an ideal spot for a family day out by the pool. You can even relax under the surrounding palm trees once you’ve done a few lengths.
For many people, a visit to Israel would not be complete without a visit to the religious epicentre of Jerusalem. Since it’s only an hour’s ride away, you can easily catch a bus for the day, although many also prefer the convenience of a private tour. Don’t forget that Jerusalem is a lot more conservative than Tel Aviv and you will be expected to dress modestly.
Tel Aviv price guide
The local currency in Tel Aviv is the Israeli New Shekel (ILS).
Exchange rate: $1 USD = ₪3.57 ILS (May 2019)
Basic private hotel room — ₪450 ILS ($125 USD) on average per night
One-way ticket on local transport — ₪5.90 ILS ($1.65 USD)
Taxi (1km journey) — ₪3.70 ILS ($1 USD)
A meal for one at a local restaurant — ₪57.50 ILS ($16 USD)
A three-course meal for one at a mid-range restaurant — ₪125 ILS ($35 USD)
Bottle of water — ₪6.87 ILS ($2 USD)
Coffee — ₪12.89 ILS ($4 USD)
Domestic beer (0.5l) — ₪30 ILS ($9 USD)
Best time to visit Tel Aviv
With very hot summers, many people prefer to visit in March and April or September to November when the temperatures are likely to be around a pleasantly warm 20°C (68°F). However, you must be aware that spring is a major time for religious holidays such as Passover (Pesach) and Easter.
Early autumn is a lovely time to visit Tel Aviv, but remember that Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, occurs at the end of September, which is then followed by Yom Kippur and Sukkot. These holy celebrations make it the busiest time in the Jewish calendar and plenty of tourists arrive too. Plan ahead if you would like to travel around these dates as many businesses will be closed.
How far is Tel Aviv from the airport?
There are two airports close to Tel Aviv: Ben Gurion Airport and Sde Dov Airport. International visitors are likely to fly into Ben Gurion Airport, commonly known as Natbag, and the busiest airport in Israel. Ben Gurion Airport is around a 45 minute drive or a 1.5 hour trip on public transport from the beach
Sde Dov airport is truly in the heart of Tel Aviv, but mostly handles domestic flights as well as some flights to nearby international destinations, such as Cyprus.
Which airlines fly to Tel Aviv?
Ben Gurion Airport is a hub for El Al Airlines, Israir Airlines and Arkia Airlines. With over 23 million passengers arriving and departing in 2018, Ben Gurion Airport also serves many airlines including United Airlines, easyJet and Ryanair, amongst many more.
Sde Dove has flights from Israir Airlines and Arkia Airlines, as well as seasonal charter planes.
Is Israel safe to travel to?
Israel has been locked in conflict with many of its Arab neighbours, particularly Palestine, for decades. Tension particularly revolves around the disputed areas of Gaza and West Bank. However, most of Israel, including Tel Aviv, is considered to be safe. As a precaution, you should always monitor the news to continue to be aware of the general security situation when travelling in Israel.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all travel to Gaza, Israel’s border with Syria and the Sheba’a Farms and Ghajjar near the border with Lebanon.
The US Department of State recommends that visitors should not travel to Gaza and should reconsider any travel to the West Bank.
Please also take note that some countries do not allow entry to travellers (and even their own citizens) who have evidence of having visited Israel, including: Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
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