Peasant blouses and minimalist dresses are crammed into a corner boutique in the modernist lobby of The Jaffa hotel. Bohemian yet expensive, the clothes are perfectly suited to the artsy, increasingly luxurious Old Jaffa area in south Tel Aviv. Outside the hotel, cobblestone streets tumble down to the ancient port and the blue Mediterranean Sea. Nearby, a home is rumored to have recently sold for five million shekels.
Tech money has fueled some of the changes to this traditionally Arab area over the past several years. But for the time being, instead of the ubiquitous startups and skyscrapers found further north, Jaffa’s historic flea market and hummus restaurants coexist with newcomer designers, shops, and galleries. It remains to be seen whether two decadent new hotels in centuries-old buildings, The Jaffa and The Setai, will change that.
Further north, new boutique hotels have been cropping up as well: The Drisco, The Vera, and the Fabric Hotel all opened in 2018. Together, they reveal a city where earnest youthfulness overlaps with glamour and opulence. At their best, some of the newer hotels offer both.
It took more than a decade to restore the 19th-century former French hospital and monastery that, together with a new adjoining building, make up The Jaffa. Part of Marriott International’s The Luxury Collection, the 120-room, 32-residence property is New York-based real estate developer Aby Rosen’s first hotel in Israel.
A Shesh Besh lounge in the lobby pays homage to backgammon games in nearby Jaffa Flea market—but with custom tables by British designer John Pawson, set below a Damien Hirst painting from Rosen’s art collection. Throughout the hotel, Pawson subtly branched out from his typically minimalist aesthetic, placing tangerine mid-century furniture by Shiro Kuramata in the lobby, and creating window shades inspired by mashrabiya, an Arabic wood latticework.
The white screens cast flower-shaped shadows on the ground when the sun shines through. But historic features are the design stars, especially arched colonnades along the outdoor corridors, and a Crusader-era bastion stretching across the lobby.
Local conservationist and architect Ramy Gill and a team of restoration experts unearthed original raw surfaces, like vaulted ceilings in the Italian restaurant, Don Camillo, and the New York-style Golda’s Deli. A triple-height chapel transformed into a lounge is also strangely unforgettable, featuring restored stained-glass windows and paintings of famous faces, like Frank Sinatra, dressed in priest garb.
The Setai is perched at the entrance to Jaffa, amid falafel joints and souvenir shops. The five buildings that make up the hotel are part of a 12th-century complex, originally a fortress and later an Ottoman prison. It’s quite a history, from the Crusader Kingdom through British rule over the neighborhood—an exhibit in the lobby offers details.
The more casual vibe and approachable decor are refreshing in a way, given the property’s hairy past. A 12-year renovation process involved preservation designer Eyal Ziv, whose work includes Tel Aviv buildings like the Art Deco Alhambra Cinema.
The results include gorgeous stone archways in the lobby bar, which sits opposite an airy inner courtyard flecked with citrus and olive trees. In some of the 120 guest rooms, spear-tipped bars left on the windows make for an intense juxtaposition with hand-woven Turkish rugs.
Likewise, (pleasantly) jarring is the hotel’s rooftop infinity pool overlooking the spectacular Mediterranean. Taking it in, I experienced what would become a familiar sensation in Jaffa, a struggle to appreciate unfathomably old and sparkling new at once.
Far from Jaffa, this 39-room hotel occupies an inconspicuous 1950’s office building on Lilienblum Street, near the buzzy, tech-centric Rothschild corridor. Wood-accented balconies line the gray cement facade, a precursor to refined industrial interiors with raw floors and un-plastered walls.
A two-level rooftop terrace is studded with potted plants and herbs, and hosts yoga and pilates classes for guests. In the lobby, along with a bar serving craft cocktails and light snacks, a help-yourself wine machine touts a rotating selection of Israeli wines.
The Vera is the first property by Israeli hotelier Danny Tamari, and it centers around collaborations with Israeli designers and brands. Rooms and public spaces feature custom leather-and-brass furnishings by Tomer Nachshon and lighting by conceptual artist-designer Ohad Benit.
In-room toiletries are by Arugot, a family-owned cosmetics company with a farm in the western Negev. The sum is a soothing, earthy luxury that makes you want to bring everything home, including the linen throw blankets made by a Jaffa designer. Fortunately, some items can be purchased locally.
An obscure wrinkle in Tel Aviv’s history involves two Evangelist American colonists, John and George Drisco. Determined to put their stamp on the city, they built a grand hotel between Jaffa and the Florentine neighborhood in 1866.
Later named The Jerusalem Hotel, it went on to host luminaries like Thomas Cook and Mark Twain. Now, following a 12-year restoration, the hotel has been recast as The Drisco, a boutique property whose worldly elegance is inspired by its pioneering builders.
In the 42 guest rooms, architect and interior designer Ari Shaltiel blends Ottoman patterns and shapes with leather and wood. Cool grays and white are accented with Mediterranean-blue, while marble and mosaic-tile bathrooms are stocked with the hotel’s product line.
The goods are sold in the lobby, where guests peruse the morning papers from velvet chairs on white marble floors. The setting is lush and film-worthy, drawing the occasional fashion photo shoot.
Among the original details are stone archways at Zada, where chef Shahar Bitton puts a local finish on classic Ottoman dishes, from kebab to slow-roasted lamb. The rich breakfast is a high point, highlighting Turkish flavors, ragouts, and plenty of butter-crisped brioche.
The restoration extends to historic murals, including a mesmerizing Jerusalem scene in the lobby bar, where I ate squid with sumac and lime-infused butter and sipped Israeli white wine, while a bearded bartender mixed craft cocktails for a well-heeled group having dinner.
About a half-mile north of The Vera sits the Fabric Hotel, a hipster-ish property in a former sewing factory. Inside the 43 guest rooms, faded woven rugs, wood accents, and plants from the rooftop hydroponic garden lend a casual 1970s vibe. It makes for a warm contrast to the building’s brick-like, red silicate facade created by architect Yoav Messer, of Tel Aviv’s beloved Norman Hotel.
But the Fabric really revolves around its all-day bar and cafe, The Bushwick, where I sipped coffee among stylish, stroller-wielding parents and solo travelers reading the weekend papers. Inspired by coffee-to-cocktail spots in Brooklyn and Greece, the bar is decidedly chilled out and accessible from the street, with the aim of bringing guests and locals together.
That seems to be working, particularly at night, when DJs spin and the breakfast bar is removed to make space for revelers. Tel Aviv’s renowned Imperial Cocktail Bar group helped with the drinks menu, and service extends to a plant-filled courtyard with a vintage aesthetic and playful murals by local artists Gidi Gilam and Jennifer Absira.
Furthering the emphasis on community, the rooftop space occasionally hosts events with local businesses, like the recent vintage sale featuring wares from a shop down the street. It all feels a little warm and fuzzy, but genuinely so. And, perhaps unsurprisingly given the Brooklyn influence, the coffee is very good.