For those taking their travel cues from the nightly news, it may seem as if no time is ever right to visit Israel. But beyond the sensational headlines, the country continues to stabilize after the pullout from the Gaza Strip and the latest (and successful) Palestinian elections. Hotels and beaches that had sat empty for five years are coming back to life. Both tourists—1.8 million foreign visitors arrived in Israel last year—and money are pouring in. Jerusalem is building a $700 million light-rail system and a soaring bridge by Santiago Calatrava; a striking new Holocaust memorial museum by native son Moshe Safdie went up in March. And a year ago Safdie's billion-dollar airport terminal opened between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with a mass-transit system connecting the two cities.
The capital may be receiving the biggest investments, but the nation's renaissance is quite evident in Tel Aviv as well. The Mediterranean city is flush with cash thanks to a surge in the local stock exchange and a boost to the real estate market from foreign second-home owners, particularly from France. Outsiders are being wooed in part by the collection of some 4,000 Bauhaus structures that form the city's historic center, recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And behind those sleek façades is a lineup of constantly evolving restaurants, shops, and galleries.
One of the best new kitchens, Orca, is inside a thirties Bauhaus beauty that formerly housed Tel Aviv's first advertising agency. Eran Shroitman turns out playful, sophisticated dishes that reveal the chef's deep affinity for his roots. Falafel, for instance, is prepared with shrimp; the crunchy foie gras comes coated with pine nuts and pistachio flakes. Likewise, at Messa, Aviv Moshe's modern white-marble dining room downtown, the menu is nouvelle Near East—and is it ever: The seared goose liver is drizzled with white-chocolate sauce and served on a Belgian waffle. But the focus isn't all on reinventing local cuisine. The restaurants in Tel Aviv are also an international bunch. There's Raphael, where power lunchers dine seaside on impeccably prepared French and Israeli dishes, and where pretty young things flock to the after-hours lounge. Farther south on the shore, Manta Ray offers the city's chicest breakfast: thick Balkan-style bread with fresh cheese, mango-and-shrimp salad, and smoked eggplant tapenade. Deep in the industrial core, the late-night Coffee Bar keeps the crowd happy with bistro classics—beef bourguignonne, a traditional choucroute—and the best burger in town.
As young chefs find eager audiences for their creativity, so, too, do cutting-edge artists and performers. Unlike past generations of Israeli talent—conductor Daniel Barenboim, industrial designer Ron Arad—the new guard hasn't felt the need to leave home to seek fame and fortune. "Tel Aviv has grown into a serious cultural center," says 32-year-old Gil Shohat, who was recently appointed artistic director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra after studying in Europe. "There are three national theaters, four orchestras, and a number of major dance troupes." What's even more exciting, Shohat explains, is how the cultural scene has held onto its East-meets-West identity. "Where else in the world can you hear young composers influenced by both Beethoven and Oum Kalthoum?" he says. While Israeli music has reached a certain level of maturity, the contemporary art movement is only now carving out a place in the wider world (the Tel Aviv Museum of Art's contemporary collection represents mainly international artists). For example, the works of Nir Hod, Sigalit Landau, and Adi Nes increasingly appear at Art Basel and the Venice Biennale. And last year a Nes photograph sold at Sotheby's for six figures. Yet, says Tel Aviv native Amalia Dayan—now a Manhattan gallerist and an avid follower of the Israeli art market—many talented artists here remain largely undiscovered. That's changing, however, with galleries such as Dvir and Sommer Contemporary Art fostering the careers of promising local painters and sculptors, among them Eliezer Sonnenschein and Pavel Wolberg. At Tal Esther, her space downtown, Swedish-Israeli gallerist Tali Cederbaum is turning the spotlight on up-and-comers like Ohad Meromi.
Given the rise of art, culture, and cuisine, fashion was sure to follow. Young designers all over town have brought a sexy new stylishness to the city—something sorely missing in years past. Mirit Weinstock, who trained in Paris at Lanvin under Israeli-born Alber Elbaz, returned home in 2004 and launched her women's label, Reine, in north Tel Aviv. In the boho-chic Neve Tzedek district, Anat Reed sews a line of precisely cut and perfectly fitted skirts, blouses, and women's trousers. Nearby, the ceramics studio Shlush Shloshim represents Israel's best known potters. And in the city center, SoHo Design serves as the country's first art house showcasing interior and industrial works, with avant-garde pieces such as stainless-steel chaises by Eyal Rappaport.
Curiously, there's nothing groundbreaking about the hotels here. The best, the seven-year-old David InterContinental, is a soaring 555-room glass structure that was good enough for Madonna during her Kabbalah pilgrimage last year; it remains the hub for business and leisure travelers. Another good bet—at least for a weekend—is the three-year-old Domain Galil, a 24-suite hillside spa two hours northeast of Tel Aviv. In the Alpinelike area of the Biriya Forest, the retreat has become a magnet for bankers, diplomats, and the local elite for whom vacations have traditionally meant going abroad. Done in a smart mix of Italian and Turkish antiques, with an inventive restaurant using local ingredients, Domain is Israel's most stylish small hotel and a compelling symbol of its newfound confidence.
DOMAIN GALIL HOTEL From $320; 972-4/680-2810; www.domain-galil.co.il
DAVID INTERCONTINENTAL From $280 to $1,950. 12 Kaufman St.; 972-3/795-9111; www.interconti.com
COFFEE BAR 13 Yad Charutzim; 972-3/688-9696
MANTA RAY Alma Beach, at the end of Charles Clore Park; 972-3/517-4773
MESSA 19 Ha'Arba'a St.; 972-3/685-6859
ORCA 57 Nahalat Binyamin St.; 972-3/566-5505
RAPHAEL 87 Hayarkon; 972-3/522-6464
ANAT REED 14 Shlush St.; 972-3/516-8262
REINE 217 Dizengoff St.; 972-3/522-8731; www.reine.co.il
SHLUSH SHLOSHIM 30 Cheluche St.; 972-3/510-6067
SOHO DESIGN CITY Dizengoff Center.; 972-3/621-2450
DVIR GALLERY 111 Nachum St.; 972-3/604-3003; www.dvirgallery.com
SOMMER CONTEMPORARY ART 64 Rothschild Blvd.; 972-3/560-0630; www.sommergallery.com
TAL ESTHER GALLERY 1101 Yehuda Halevy St.; 972-3/560-1807; www.talesthergallery.com
TEL AVIV MUSEUM OF ART 27 Shaul Hamelech; 972-3/696-1297; www.tamuseum.com
ISRAEL CHAMBER ORCHESTRA 972-3/518-8845; www.ico.co.il
Avoid El Al's intrusive check-in by flying LUFTHANSA. With it's fine business- and first-class cabins, the German airline has become the Israeli flagship's main rival.
Take a day—and night—to visit Jerusalem; it's an hour by taxi. There's nothing in Tel Aviv like the old Muslim Quarter or the village of Ein Kerem. Stay at the AMERICAN COLONY HOTEL (One Louis Vincent St., 972-2/627-9777; www.americancolony.com) in East Jerusalem and book a table at Ezra Kedem's extraordinary ARCADIA (10 Agrippas; 972-2/624-9138).
Tel Aviv's Old Port has recently been given new life with two dozen restaurants, bars, and shops, all in a ren-ovated warehouse. The stand-outs include the seafood kitchen MOUL YAM (Hangar 24; 972-3/546-9920) as well as the BAUHAUS CENTER (99 Dizengoff St.; 972-3/522-0249; www.bauhaus-center.com), which stocks books, posters, and clothing devoted to 20th-century style.
Keep kosher at LILITH (42 Mazeh St.; 972-3/629-8772), an experimental White City kitchen that works miracles with fresh fish.
In ROGOV'S GUIDE TO ISRAELI WINES Ha'aretz wine critic Daniel Rogov lists more than 140 makers from the Golan Heights to the Negev Desert.