I am guessing you are expecting to see a story about Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Dead Sea, or at a very minimum, reference to Israeli-Palestinian conflict and police with rifles on city streets. I hate to disappoint you but you won’t see any of that in this article despite all being very important topics. There are better educated people in this world who have written a lot already so just look it up in the book of knowledge. Instead, I am going to tell you about two other fascinating places that often get overlooked by visitors rushing to get to places with some sort of religious theme.
Jaffa is an ancient port city south of Tel Aviv, and it’s believed that some sort of town existed on this spot for 7,000(!) years. Old Jaffa sits right by the sea and offers a little escape from noisy Tel Aviv in cozy, narrow streets and charming gardens with view of Tel Aviv’s coastline. I don’t know how busy it gets in high-tourist season, but I was able to spend Friday in peaceful solitude as I walked through sunlit, slightly slippery, stone-paved alleys, freshly washed by morning’s thunderstorm.
As you get further inland into busier section of Jaffa with flea markets and lively cafes, it’s easy to forget which country you are in. You see Italian-style coffee shops mingled with Arab pastry shops selling baklava, set against the backdrop of Turkish carpets lining the building walls in hopes to attract wandering tourists while loudspeakers from nearby mosque sing daily prayers. Mostly locals and Tel Avivans line up at noon outside Ali Karavan Abu Hasan (14 Shivtey Yisrael St.) to grab a seat and a bowl of world’s best hummus (they have another location closer to the port where tourists go). By the way, a fun fact: in Israel, hummus is considered a main meal rather than an appetizer that we are used to seeing elsewhere. So if you are asking for hummus, be prepared to get a huge bowl of chickpea mash with a fluffy pita. Across the street another queue is trying to fit inside tiny pastry shop called Piece of Cake to get (you guessed correctly!), a piece of cake! This is what I call East meets West – hummus with pita followed by cappuccino and almond croissant.
When you’ve seen enough of Jaffa, time to make your way to lively Tel Aviv! Just 20 minute walk from Jaffa will get you to Rothschild Boulevard, a place to be watched and to watch others. This street reveals the spirit of Tel Aviv in all its beauty: young, hip, and pleasantly health-conscious. High glass towers mix with old two-story block buildings, where every corner hosts a cafe with open terraces, ideal for mild spring weather. The central pedestrian area is filled with fresh juice and espresso kiosks, patches of playgrounds, and benches that invite you to take a break – chat with friends, read a book, or just relax.
Since I happened to visit Tel Aviv during annual Jewish holiday called Purim, I was lucky to observe an eclectic crowd as people dress up in essentially what we consider Halloween costumes. One minor difference is that in U.S., the kids (and adults) dressed up in spiderman and princess outfits usually patrol the streets at night, asking for candy (or in case of adults, getting drunk in bars and nightclubs). In Israel, on the other hand, the celebration starts couple days early with people showcasing their costumes in broad daylight on busy streets. I find this approach much more cheerful and fun.
Few other things that I would like to mention:
1. There is a lot of CATS. Everywhere. It seems like there is at least one cat per each resident of Tel Aviv – Jaffa area. At first, you’re thinking how odd it is to find cats on every street, sleeping or meditating on top of garbage container. Then, you get used to them and wonder why there are no dogs.
2. There is a large infrastructure for HEALTHY LIFESTYLE. Most restaurants offer fresh and delicious salads, you can get freshly squeezed juice almost on every block, nearby beach offers an amazing trail for runners, and colorful, outdoor ‘playgrounds for adults’ with weight equipment successfully replaces any indoor gym.
3. People are surprisingly FRIENDLY and helpful. Some may seem a bit rude or blunt at first but they are just being genuine. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions and appreciate the fact that almost everyone speaks English.
So if you plan a trip to Israel, be sure to spend at least couple of days exploring Tel Aviv and Jaffa.