Perpetually innovative, Tel Aviv always offers something new to discover, whether a Yotam Ottolenghi-approved restaurant in a traditional market, or an ancient building remade in luxurious fashion.
And then there is the city’s fun-loving nature, and the endless sunshine, and the Mediterranean at your doorstep. “There are some places you go in the world, and they just make you feel good,” said Hannah Blustin of Pomegranate Travel, which offers personalized private and small group tours of Israel. For Blustin, who divides her time between London and Israel, Tel Aviv is one of those places. “It’s a little bit anti-establishment,” she said. “It makes you feel very free.”
Exciting as that atmosphere may be, the endless list of things to see and do in Tel Aviv can become overwhelming. You can, however, have an authentic experience of the city, even if your schedule only allows for a weekend visit. Tel Aviv is small enough to easily walk—or bike, or scooter—around during your stay. And while you’ll have to plan for closures during Shabbat, there are more than enough ways to fill that time, through a combination of well-trammeled and fresh-on-the-scene destinations.
Here’s our guide to a perfect weekend in Tel Aviv.
History buffs, design fiends, and those who travel for food will all find something to celebrate at The Jaffa, a beautifully restored 19th-century French hospital and monastery in the ancient port city of Jaffa. Delights begin straightaway, in the soaring modernist lobby showcasing British designer John Pawson’s distinct minimalism, along with a Crusader-era bastion wall, and a luxurious take on a traditional sheshbesh (backgammon) lounge. Hanging above the Pawson-designed backgammon tables is a Damien Hirst painting from the personal collection of New York real estate scion Aby Rosen—this Marriott International Luxury Collection property is his first hotel in Israel. A former basement space with original vaulted ceilings holds two restaurants by New York City-based Major Food Group, of Carbone and Sadelle’s fame: Don Camillo offers Italian cuisine and a deep wine collection curated by Gal Zohar, of Yotam Ottolenghi restaurants, while Golda’s Deli recreates New York classics like egg sandwiches and bagels and lox. Louis Pasteur Street, 2
To escape the crowds in elegant style, stay at The Drisco, a restored limestone building in the quiet American Colony neighborhood between Jaffa and Florentine. Built by American Evangelists John and George Drisco in 1866, while the region was under Ottoman rule, the property hosted Thomas Cook and Mark Twain during its previous life as the Jerusalem Hotel. A recent 12-year restoration process maintained original features, like stone archways and murals in the subterranean Ottoman-influenced restaurant, Zada, which also extends to the stylish marble lobby. Rooms feature Turkish-style lantern lights and velvet seating, or you can opt for more privacy at Villa Drisco, a five-room standalone building next door. Start with breakfast, an extravagant buffet of sweet and savory Israeli treats, plus an a la carte menu that ranges from mushrooms ragout to black pancakes. Afterwards, you can easily stroll to Suzanne Dellal Centre for a modern dance performance or Gaga movement class. Auerbach Street, 6
A cluster of restaurants occupy the courtyard of Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue, including the always-packed and casually cool Port Said, where smoking patrons spill outside well into the night. Walk a bit further to Santa Katerina, a restaurant with a taboon oven, and where it’s impossible not to feel in a good mood—locals will say it offers a quintessential Tel Avivian atmosphere. Call ahead to reserve a table outside, or sit at the bar for an up-close view of pizzas sliding into and out of the glorious oven. The menu has hints of chef Tomer Agay’s Egyptian-Syrian background, as well as Greek and Italian influences—think super flavorful fish and meat kebabs, Taboon-baked Jerusalem bread with homemade Masabha, and lamb pizza with sour tomato salad. Along with the addictive energy, and friendly waiters and cooks, my dessert of mascarpone and semolina cream with geranium syrup, pomegranate seeds, and shaved coconut was also memorable. Har Sinai Street, 2
For something a bit more upscale, head to Mashya, inside the Mendeli Hotel. Chef Yossi Shitrit creates clean, modern dishes with Israeli and Moroccan influences—like a creamy and sweet, slow-roasted pumpkin asado with honey and Moroccan paprika glaze and creme fraiche. Each dish is themed mineral, metal, earth, sand, or stone, and the plating is as attractive as the living wall-festooned dining room. Mendeli Street, 5
Ask a Tel Avivian for a vegan restaurant recommendation and you can expect to hear a few names on repeat: Zakaim, Cafe Anastasia, Meshek Barzilay. All are impressive, but an ambitious newcomer called Opa, occupying a former storage space in Levinsky Market, is one to watch. Chef Shirel Berger is a 27-year-old Culinary Institute of America graduate who became enamored with vegetables while working at ABC Kitchen in New York. At Opa, a minimalist space with colorless plaster walls and local ceramic tableware, Berger works in a glass-enclosed kitchen. Grab a seat at the communal-style table to watch her and a small team of cooks prepare a visually stunning tasting menu, including king trumpet and oyster mushrooms with mounds of shitake puree and chicharrón-like crispy tapioca, and a meaty block of guava over delicate macadamia foam. The flavors and textures are surprising, thought-provoking, and often—as with a hunk of squash dressed in maple-smoked pumpkin relish, jalapeno, and lemon—beautifully composed. And the natural wines on offer, including a Slovenian Rebula from Ronk winery, are another reason to visit. Ha-Khalutzim Street, 8
Spend some time exploring Carmel and Levinsky Markets. The former opened in 1920 and maintains a beautiful chaos: traditional stands hawking pomegranates, burekas, and halva, along with racks of fresh flowers, kiosks dishing up grilled meats, and some of the city’s trendiest restaurants, like seasonally driven HaBasta and meat-centric M25. Levinsky is known for its array of spices, a byproduct of the arrival of Iranian immigrants to Tel Aviv in the early 1950s. But there are also hummus places, fish vendors, delis, and coffee and tea sellers, some in operation for dozens of years and led by immigrants from Turkey, Greece, and Georgia. Keep in mind that both markets are closed from early Friday afternoon through Saturday—if you’re feeling energetic, plan a Friday morning visit to witness locals in a mad rush to stock up for Shabbat meals.
Insider Food Experiences
For some help navigating the market scene, take a walking tour with Delicious Israel, which offers small group and personalized options, as well as in-home cooking and dining experiences. You can explore one or both markets, or opt for a broader trek that starts in Jaffa. My guide bobbed and weaved through the markets like a true regular, while lending cultural and historical context to everything from Saguaro cactus fruit, to a cardamom spice blend, to an addictive goat milk gelato. Tours may include a well-known hotspot or two, like Abu Hassan hummus and HaMalabiya Malabi in Jaffa Flea Market—but the access to hidden gems, uncovered by founder Inbal Baum, is why you should sign up.
Hoteliers and luxury home buyers have been flocking to Jaffa, the traditionally Arab city in the south of Tel Aviv, over the past five or so years. This is somewhat unsurprising, given the food, Mediterranean views, and deep history—Jaffa is among the oldest ports in the world. Adding to the irresistible atmosphere is a melange of creative residents, art galleries, and the vivid flavors and visuals of Jaffa Flea Market. “Some evenings you go outside and it’s just teeming with people, sitting in the street, drinking. There’s just an amazing energy,” said Blustin of Pomegranate Travel. And despite the new sheen slowly spreading around the touristy Old City, much of Jaffa still feels untouched. “You just have to walk two or three streets back to be in an area which feels quite different,” Blustin said.
If new Jaffa is what you’re after, swing by Saga, a gallery and shop just beyond the Flea Market. It features work by a wide range of young Israeli designers, from product designers to ceramicists to woodworkers. I snagged a notebook by fourth-generation Tel Aviv paper goods and design company Pulp, in collaboration with Israeli artist Moria Bachar. Continue walking for about five minutes southwest to Magasin III Jaffa, which opened in January 2018. This permanent outpost of the Stockholm-based contemporary art gallery is displaying Migdalor, a Sheila Hicks solo exhibition, through mid-February of next year.
Art Deco Glamour at Marei1998
Another Jaffa newcomer is Marei1998, the 1920s-inspired line launched by Israeli designer Maya Reik about three years ago. Just 20 years old, Reik dropped out of school at age 14, knowing that she would eventually design a collection. “Fashion was like a savior in a way,” she said of leaving school. Since then, along with presenting collections in Milan and Paris, Reik has been taking private appointments in her bright studio near the Old Port—just email ahead. Her latest collection features velvet and silk robes with Art Deco-inspired embroidery and prints, and long eco fur coats that are “sewn as a real fur with the details of a real fur,” Reik said. “There's a lot of focus on the small details in every piece. It's clean, it's nice. It's not screaming.”
Bauhaus Architecture and Bialik Street
Tel Aviv’s approximately 4,000 Bauhaus buildings are collectively referred to as White City, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Bauhaus Center offers guided tours every Friday at 10 a.m., or two-hour self-guided walking tours any time, including a short film about the history of Bauhaus in Israel. Most buildings on the tour are residential and some are slightly rough around the edges, but the movement’s design hallmarks—asymmetry, ribbon windows, roof terraces—persist. Blustin recommends strolling down Bialik Street, named for Israel’s National Poet, Haim Nahman Bialik, to see “some of the most beautiful Bauhaus architecture” in the city. There’s also Bialik House, at 22 Bialik Street, featuring a small museum and an archive of Bialik’s works. And it’s impossible to miss the stunning former City Hall building, Beit Ha’Ir Museum, where exhibits “are often excellent,” said Blustin. “But because it’s not one of the main museums, it is often overlooked.”
The Old Port (and the beach)
At some point you will need a break. Drift north, and a quiet Old Port sits listlessly in the raging sun. Glance seaward and dogs race from the sand into the water, fetching frisbees tossed by their sunbathing owners. Join them, because simple pleasures still make Tel Aviv tick.