Just Back From

Just Back From: Summer Exploration in Tel Aviv, Israel

This article was published on July 31, 2023.

In the latest edition of Indagare Magazine, we asked members of the Indagare team about their favorite travel rituals. Like my colleague Peter Schlesinger, I always go for at least one long run, without consulting any maps, when I arrive somewhere. I find the best way to discover hidden gems—and to get the true feel for a place—is to let my feet carry me wherever my eyes’ interest is piqued. I also love to sample local beer, and I have stained and crinkled coasters scavenged from dives in Dakar, Copenhagen, the Catskills and beyond, stacked neatly in my boxes of travel mementos. And whenever possible, I always watch anything that Anthony Bourdain has filmed in the place I’m visiting, while I’m there.

Bourdain produced only one episode set in Israel, for Parts Unknown in 2013. It is titled “Jerusalem,” but it also includes forays into the surrounding countryside, the West Bank and Gaza. As the episode opens with views of the Dome of the Rock at sunrise, prayers at the Western Wall and soldiers in the souk, Bourdain’s familiar, dry voice-over addresses the veritable minefield that is any discussion of this relatively tiny country: “It’s easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world. And there’s no hope—none—of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off…By the end of this episode, I’ll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an Orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent, and worse. So here goes nothing."

I just returned from exploring Israel for the first time—10 years after that episode was filmed. I am not Jewish, but the trip was still a pilgrimage of sorts for me, in its own ways: I attended Catholic school, and as a result, I’ve studied the Bible, Old and New Testaments, almost in its entirety; as a lover of food, culture and history, Israel has been on my list since before I entered the travel industry; and I was going to visit my cousin, who made Aliyah nearly three years ago, thanks to Jewish descendancy on his father’s side. Over nine days, we were primarily based in Tel Aviv (where my cousin, one of the city’s many digital nomad expats, has an apartment near Dizengoff Square), but we also took road trips up to the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee, and down to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. And though we did not stop to explore there, we did drive through the West Bank en route.

In the 10 years between Bourdain’s visit to Israel and mine, much has changed. A global pandemic—which kept the country’s borders tightly shut for the greater part of three years—has come and gone. Yotam Ottolenghi is no longer the only name that resonates with an American audience, when you talk about Israeli cuisine (Michael Solomonov’s outpost of Laser Wolf, which opened at the Hoxton Hotel in Williamsburg last year, remains one of the city’s top tables—and I was amused to discover at my first meal in-country, at Tel Aviv hot spot Romano, that I had not strayed far from home: it’s owned by celebri-chef and restaurateur Eyal Shani, who is also behind the Chelsea Market’s Miznon and its famous roasted cauliflower). Just earlier this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu (who was in office when Bourdain visited) succeeded in passing the first stage of legislation to move power from the hands of the Israeli Supreme Court to Parliament’s, which has provoked protests across country, as well as opposition from the United States—a major development that comes on the heels of highly controversial expansions into Palestinian-occupied areas of the West Bank. And, finally, over the last 10 years, tourism to Israel has expanded greatly, ushering in a wave of foreigners both Jewish and Gentile, plush luxury hotels and many secular diversions (more on that, later).

I will spare you any platitudes or attempts to walk the geopolitical tightrope. Israel—and Palestine—present a complicated question, and people with degrees far more advanced than mine haven’t figured out the answer. But I will take the stance, as we often do at Indagare, that you must experience a place for yourself to understand it—even if that understanding is partial, or evolving. I will say that, despite the many changes that have happened over the decade between Anthony Bourdain’s visit and mine, I find much of his assessment of what it’s like to travel there to still be quite accurate (even if it does offend). I will say that I experienced a hardness in Israel that I was not prepared for (mixed in with the deeply moving spirituality and heritage, and bear-hug hospitality, that I was expecting). And I will say that there are only two things I can confidently assert to be categorically, unequivocally true about Israel: the landscapes are beautiful, and the food really is that good (and if you brave the sweltering summer temperatures, as I did, the payoff is that you’ll get a nice tan, which will conceal the pounds you’ve gained).

So what is it like on the ground in Tel Aviv, right now? Even amidst current tensions, the beaches are bustling and bright creatives are working away, in communities that stretch back through the centuries. The rest, you'll have to see for yourself.

Read on for my shortlist from my time in Tel Aviv, including a first look at two new boutique hotels with headliner restaurants, and top shops and bars to know.

My Summer Dispatch from Tel Aviv, Israel: Where to Stay, Eat, Explore and More

  • STAY: The spring arrival of the R48 Hotel and Garden on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard is perhaps the city’s most significant luxury hotel opening of late. With just 11 studios (including six suites), this ultra-private, high-design haven is hidden within one of the city’s signature Bauhaus buildings, preserved and reimagined by a star team of designers and architects that includes AN+, Liaigre and Piet Oudolf (who was behind New York City’s High Line). The sister property to boutique Hotel Montefiore, R48 offers a rooftop pool and sizable gym, as well as a chef’s table restaurant by Ohad Solomon; seven- and 11-course meals are served there.
  • EAT: CoffeeBar is one of Tel Aviv’s hottest restaurants and the crown jewel of the R2M Restaurant Group, founded by celebrity chef and groundbreaking hospitality entrepreneur Ruti Broudo (who is generally known to be one of the “coolest” people in Tel Aviv). Open for nearly 30 years (a rarity in Tel Aviv), the restaurant serves a Mediterranean-Israeli menu, with heavy Italian influence, as well as a diverse and well curated wine list. And in major news, it will soon be relocating from its less-than-desirable location in one of Tel Aviv’s industrial neighborhoods into the R48 Hotel on Rothschild!
  • STAY: The historic Elkonin Hotel, which was first founded by society couple Malka and Menahem Elkonin in the upscale Neve Tzedek neighborhood in 1913, reopened this past December after an eight-decade closure. New additions include the first Robuchon restaurant (L’Epoque) and the first Clarins spa to arrive in Tel Aviv. The breezy rooms and suites (with 44 accommodations, total) were designed by the Paris studio ICONIQUE, with plenty of natural light, a pastel color palette and Modern furnishings. There’s also a glass-walled rooftop pool with expansive views over the city, and an accompanying cocktail bar.
  • STAY: The Norman is an Indagare Index Adored property housed within a collection of landmarked Bauhaus mansions on Nachmani Street. I stepped in for a quick peek, and the garden is lovely, while the atmosphere remains classically chic—and sophisticated yet cool. Another prime reason to visit: The fantastic wine list curated by sommelier Shira Tsiddon for the on-property restaurant Alena. It is considered to be one of the best in Israel.
  • EAT & DRINK: Santi on Gordon Street is a new restaurant by chef Guy Arish (of another top Tel Aviv restaurant, Mashya). The experience was inspired by the principles of Japanese izakaya, will small plates served alongside a robust selection of wines and sake, as well as craft cocktails.
  • EAT & DRINK: Tirza is a small, contemporary-cool wine bar serving over 200 labels selected by Aviv Hagag alongside small plates like bruschettas on homemade bread and assorted crudos (it’s the sister restaurant to top spot OCD, and the menu reflects that). 
  • EAT & DRINK: Bar 51 is a trendy wine bar featuring seasonal bites by Moshiko Gamieli. Local ingredients are a highlight—and many of them are sourced from the Carmel Market, which is just a 10-minute walk south.
  • EAT & DRINK: Off Dizengoff Square, Café CUCU and La Shuk are two relaxed but refined local spots (and sister restaurants) for a Mediterranean-meets-Middle-Eastern dinner.
  • EAT & DRINK: Ouzeria is a small Greek and Israeli restaurant in the Florentin neighborhood, with a casual, warm and lively atmosphere and welcoming staff. Open from noon to 11:00 p.m., Ouzeria works for lunch or a light dinner—and you can sit at the bar, which looks into the kitchen, for a (relatively) quick bite (after all, this is the Middle East).
  • EAT & DRINK: Toto is an award-winning, upscale contemporary restaurant one block from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. (The fired eggplant with tahini, radishes, labneh and local greens was spectacular!)
  • DRINK: Imperial Craft was named “Best Bar in the Middle East & Africa” by World’s 50 Best Bars in 2017. It’s located just off of Trumpeldor Beach and is a must-visit for mixology aficionados.
  • DRINK: BeerBazaar is an Israeli craft brewery with several locations in Tel Aviv (and Jerusalem). There is one next to the Old Jaffa Flea Market that's ideal for a break after touring (and don't miss the happy hour special, which includes the chance to sample three nearly full-size brews for 39 shekels, or approximately 10 dollars). The Fat Cat and the Bhindi were two of my favorites (I prefer IPAs).
  • SWEET TREAT: Golda is Israel's top ice cream brand, with outposts throughout Tel Aviv (including near Dizengoff). The gelato-style flavors are perfect for a hot day or after-dinner treat, and there are also sugar-free, vegan, lactose-free and sorbet options.
  • SHOP: Número 13 Concept Store is located on one of Tel Aviv’s best shopping streets, Shabazi. This vibrant boutique stocks a variety of international and Israeli designers, and it’s perfect for breezy summer dresses, accessories and gifts.
  • SHOP: Also on Shabazi, Ronit sells delicate handmade jewelry designed on site. Most of the pieces are inspired by nature, and the pomegranate charms make for a wonderful souvenir.
  • SHOP: On the Nachalat Binyamin—a design street famous for its antiques, textiles, handicrafts and street art, which hosts a weekly market on Tuesdays and Fridays—Dando is a delightfully colorful wallpaper and textile studio. The playful velvet pillows are favorites to bring home—and you can also find pieces by Mon Studio Rosé here.
  • SHOP: On the stylish Lilienblum Street, within walking distance of The Norman, The Elkonin, R48 and many of the restaurants on this list, Ruby Star is a cute jewelry boutique with delicate, contemporary pieces designed on site by Shirley Itic, as well as other local artists. A favorite is her snake collection.
  • EXPLORE: At the Suzanne Dellal Center in Neve Tzedek, lovers of the performing arts can catch contemporary dance throughout the seasons.
  • EXPLORE: Design lovers can best appreciate Tel Aviv by wandering through the Bauhaus neighborhoods—but the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is also worth a visit. One current exhibition of note is "Not this Light, the Other Light," a showcase of the Israeli painter Roni Taharlev's work, which often deals with questions of gender and the human body, the female gaze, history and spirituality.
  • EXPLORE: In addition to the Carmel Market, the Old Jaffa Flea Market and Sarona Culinary Market are two must-visits.
  • NIGHT OUT: Teder.fm is the buzzy courtyard bar (also serving amazing pizza) attached to Eyal Shani’s Romano restaurant. The casual yet lively space is a go-to spot for locals on Friday night. Grab a picnic table or folding chair and a shot of Arak, and live as the Tel Avivians do!
  • NIGHT OUT: Tel Aviv is famous for its nightlife and music scenes. To catch up-and-coming House DJs—with a side of tropical cocktails and a rooftop terrace—visit Hive (note: smoking is allowed inside of Hive, as it is in many Tel Aviv bars and clubs). For high-rise views (from the 14th floor of the Hagag Tower) and multiple rooms playing various genres, the recently opened Cappella begins the evening as a buzzy lounge and later turns into a full-blown nightclub.
  • LONG WEEKEND: Opened August 2021, the Six Senses Shaharut was built into a cliff in the middle of the Negev Desert, a place steeped in Biblical history. 60 stone suites and pool villas comprise the resort, along with the Six Senses brand’s usual high-caliber wellness and culinary facilities. Here, the overwhelming highlight is the setting of dunes, sun and stars, and to explore the area, top activities include hiking, biking, Jeep rides, and overnight camel camping and dune walking. The resort is accessible by a three-hour drive from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Petra—making it the perfect long weekend extension.

  • ON OUR RADAR: The northern region of Galilee has long been celebrated for its fertile farmland, orchards, vineyards and mountains (alongside the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus was said to have walked on water). Now, it’s gaining the attention of international travelers, thanks to a few sophisticated new boutique hotels. On our radar is Galei Kinneret, which offers a pool, spa and private beach access—as well as Lotte, a restaurant by acclaimed chef Assaf Granit (of Machneyuda in Jerusalem).

Contact your Trip Designer or Indagare, if you are not yet a member, to learn more about planning a trip to Israel. Our team can match you with the itineraries, accommodations, reservations, activities and guides that are right for you.

Plus — Indagare Insider Journeys: Travel to Israel with our Founder Melissa Biggs Bradley

If Israel is on your list, you can join us for an in-depth exploration in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, led by Melissa Biggs Bradley this fall (our November dates just sold out, but you can join the waitlist in case a spot opens up) and spring (details coming soon). Along the way, you’ll meet political journalists, fashion designers, archaeologists and more, who will share their diverse perspectives on this complex place. Plus, discover other upcoming itineraries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco.

LEARN MORE AND JOIN THE LIST HERE

 

Related: Just Back From Istanbul

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