With four millennia to its name—and ruled by empires from the Egyptians to the British—the ancient port of Jaffa is used to change. Its latest iteration as Tel Aviv's most stylish neighborhood, though, has been hard and fast. The last decade has brought the arrival of upscale restaurants from celebrated local chefs, a revitalized harbor where industrial warehouses stand reimagined as galleries and cafés, and boutiques and bars tucked alongside the carpet vendors and antique dealers of a century-old flea market that runs through its center. And nowhere is this transformation more apparent than at the Jaffa hotel.
A personal project of New York property tycoon Aby Rosen— who invested $180 million in it—the 120-room hotel is a dialogue between past and present. Rosen enlisted an A-list team to keep that balance: acclaimed architect and designer John Pawson, who brought his signature minimalism to the interiors; New York’s Major Food Group, of Carbone and the Grill, who are behind the hotel’s trattoria-style Italian restaurant, Don Camillo, and its New York-style Golda’s Deli; and Ramy Gill, a local architect who oversaw the restoration of the 19th-century complex and an extensive excavation of the archaeological sites hidden underneath.
“I’m almost embarrassed to say that I spent 24 years of my life working on this building,” says Gill as he shows me around. Built as a hospital for Christian pilgrims arriving in the Holy Land, the horseshoe-shaped building, with its honey-hued colonnades and pastel walls, has long been a restful sanctuary amid Jaffa’s bustle. Despite having lost most of its Palestinian families during the wars surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948, the neighborhood has retained an Arab presence, with Christians, Jews, and Muslims living side by side.
From the road, the Jaffa’s neoclassical exterior sits comfortably among a jumble of church spires, minarets, and Levantine houses. Inside, relics of civilizations come and gone, are displayed starkly alongside new additions. An 850-year-old Crusades-era wall—a surprise discovery that necessitated the hotel’s redesign after seven years of excavations—cuts through a minimalist lobby adorned with art by Damien Hirst and George Condo from Rosen’s own collection.
In creating the hotel’s bar, housed in the former chapel, layers of garish paint were painstakingly chipped away “by ladies on scaffolding with surgical scalpels,” says Gill, in order to reveal soft pastel hues. Now, beneath the ornate plasterwork and stained-glass windows, sit dainty clusters of Botolo chairs in burnt orange and ottomans in rosewater pink. At the far end, an illuminated marble bar appears dwarfed beneath the dusky-blue vaulted ceiling.
In the central courtyard, Gill realized his ambition to create an “old Biblical hidden garden” with oak trees brought in from Galilee. Beside the pool, while looking out from under the Unopiù parasols, guests have a view of the dainty church spire that tops the 19th-century Tabeetha School. Gill pauses to rub his hand over a pillar that bears the gentle nicks and grooves of its Ottoman-era origins: “These surfaces talk to you.” Rooms from $600.