Tel Aviv: Israel’s Party-Loving Beachfront Metropolis
With a gay scene that compares favorably to gay capitals around the globe, an amazing beach, warm weather, great food and hot men, it's no surprise the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association's most recent survey rated Tel Aviv the best gay destination in the world. But don't take the pros' word for it: Check out this Middle Eastern metropolis yourself - for playing and spectacular sightseeing.
First of all, when you go anywhere in Israel, you're not that far from anywhere else. Israel is a tiny country, with Jerusalem only a mere 35-minute drive from Tel Aviv. Any trip to Tel Aviv should include sampling the 4,000 years of history contained in this storied city, sacred to three faiths. While there, you'll probably spend much of your time in the Old City, which includes the Temple Mount, the Western Wall (the last remaining piece of the ancient Temple), the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where Jesus was believed to have been entombed after the crucifixion) and the Dome of the Rock (where Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven). The oldest part of the city was settled in the fourth millennium B.C., making Jerusalem one of the oldest cities in the world.
If you have only one full day to experience Jerusalem, start by car or bus to the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City, the Judean Desert, and the ancient Jewish cemetery. Here, you'll find several important and magnificently built churches including the Garden of Gethsemane. Old City makes for an excellent afternoon walk culminating with the Night Spectacular at the Tower of David Museum. The story of Jerusalem unfolds in a majestic blaze of huge, breathtaking images projected on the ancient walls and hidden pathways of the Citadel. The Tower of David Museum is located just inside the Jaffa Gate.
So out with the old and in with the new: After a day in Jerusalem, it's time for a far newer city - Tel Aviv - widely considered the gay capital of the Middle East.
When you tell people you're going to Israel, get used to people asking, "Are you sure it's safe?" During my own stay in Tel Aviv, I felt more secure - and certainly more welcomed - than in any big city I've visited in North America. In reality, Tel Aviv is anything but dangerous. The city almost exudes confidence and security. I was rarely aware of any armed guards, but could sense their presence in the larger shopping malls and crowd events. But in talking with locals, I discovered that assault or other violent crimes occur very rarely, if at all.
The city is officially known as Tel Aviv-Jaffa (sometimes written as Tel Aviv-Yafo in transliterated Hebrew). The compound description combines the big, flashy modern city and the ancient seaport of Jaffa. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is known as "the White City" for all of the white buildings with curved walls and extreme, ocean-linerlike, streamlined design - the largest collection of Bauhaus architecture in the world.
With 400,000 residents, Tel Aviv-Jaffa can take on the character of a small town in tree-lined residential neighborhoods, or a bustling metropolis amidst the downtown hubbub.
What it definitely does not feel is Middle Eastern.
Tel Aviv is the total flip side of Jerusalem, a modern Sin City on the sea rather than an ancient Holy City on a hill. Hedonism is the only religion that unites its inhabitants. There are more bars than synagogues, God is a DJ and every club is a temple. Tel Aviv is a truly diverse 21st-century Mediterranean hub. By far the most international city in Israel, it has become home to a very large gay community - a San Francisco of the Middle East.
Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, element of Tel Aviv's culture is the wild nightlife. While it may sometimes seem that everybody in Tel Aviv is simply waiting for the moon to rise so that they can party, there's plenty to see and do during the daylight hours, starting, of course, with the beach.
Hilton Beach is the best beach if you like to swim in a waveless sea. On the left part of the breakwater, you can enjoy swimming. Just beware of the kayaks, boats and surfboards that are heading out to sea from there. Named for its location outside the Hilton Hotel, it is adjacent to an Orthodox Jewish beach where men and women can only sunbathe on separate days. It is a marvelous stretch of white sand contrasted by the rich dark blues of the Mediterranean. The need to get out to socialize makes the well-known but not-particularly lascivious cruising park Independence Garden (next to the Hilton) a great place to relax.
Tel Aviv is a great walking city. All of the areas you'll be visiting can be easily accessed on foot, although you'll probably take a cab to get from one cluster of stores, restaurants, shops or bars to the next. An active architectural preservation movement has resulted in the facades of manor-like residences fronting huge, multistory buildings behind them. It is odd to walk along a tree-lined lane and notice above the columned porches and balconies of a large home another twenty levels of a mirrored glass tower. Remember, however, that Tel Aviv itself is barely 100 years old, so "old" in Tel Aviv is a matter of decades at best. And space is limited.
As the counterpoint to the sharp geometry of Tel Aviv's skyscrapers and huge hotels, Old Jaffa is the ancient port city of sandstone, whose crumbling walls and narrow cobbled alleyways are home to many strikingly modern stores and galleries, albeit maybe a few too many souvenir shops. In the port of Old Jaffa, in an area that was once waterfront warehouses, the Nalaga'at Theatre is the world's only performance company of all deaf-blind actors. Their shows are communicated with several versions of sign language, translated supertitles, and non-verbal interpreters. The performance takes literally years of rehearsal before they are ready to open to the public. The complex also includes Café Kippish, where the entire staff is hearing impaired, and the Blackout Restaurant, where you eat in a blacked-out room while being served by blind waiters.
WHERE TO STAY
The Cinema Hotel
1 Zamenhoff St.
This property has some unique rooms built around the fact that the hotel is an original Bauhaus-style building that was formerly the Esther Cinema, one of the city's first movie theaters. Original projectors and movie posters preserve its legacy, while classic films are screened in the hotel lobby and popcorn is served to add to the theme. A beautiful rooftop terrace overlooks Dizengoff Square; it's also a brief walk from the main beach.
City Hotel Tel Aviv
9 Mapu St.
Of the 96 rooms, 24 studio rooms each come with a small balcony that can seat up to four. On a quiet street, only a one-minute walk from the beach, it's renowned for its cozy atmosphere, warm hospitality and excellent restaurant. To stay buff, guests can use a nearby gym for a small fee.
35 Ben Yehuda St.
Located adjacent to the beachfront promenade, this 62-room hotel is dedicated to Israeli art. Five famous local artists were commissioned to create the murals on each floor. The foyer and lobby feature works by Zadok Ben-David's sculpture "Evolution" and Sigalit Landau's DVD triptych "Dancing for Maya."
WHERE TO EAT
70 Eben Gvirol Street
French-style brasseries are plentiful in Tel Aviv but few can compare, quality and value-wise, to this beautifully designed restaurant that specializes in French dishes and pastries. I've had the pork ribs (I said it wasn't a religious city!) with chilli and honey and mille-feuille pastry.
87 Hayarkon St.
One of the best restaurants in the city by far. If it can seem pretentious, still it offers a great culinary experience. Try lunch for some relative deals; plus, it's not as busy as evenings. Don't miss the stuffed vegetable entrée.
On the beach opposite the David Intercontinental Hotel
This is a great place to eat and people watch. From the terrace you can gaze at the waves or gaze at the waves or the boys in them while sampling the wide menu. Try the seafood, with crabs, shrimp and calamari specials. Open for breakfast, lunch and supper.
2 Nahalat Binyamin St.
3 Hataarucha St.
The best hamburgers in Israel and cheap. The atmosphere is fun and friendly. (Side note: Here or elsewhere, you'll have some of the best beef you've ever tasted in Tel Aviv.) Try the mini-burger tray ("sliders") if you want to share.
43 Ahad Ha'am St.
This long-established bistro, strategically placed between the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and Rothschild Boulevard, is considered an institution and a hangout for the city's business, media and art crowds. The sleek interior makes it "the place to be seen." Try one of the many schnitzels.
WHERE TO SHOP
Neve Tzedek is the city's oldest neighborhood. Over time, it has become a premier strolling and shopping neighborhood. The main shopping lane, Shabazi Street, can be so busy with pedestrian traffic that it makes it almost impossible at times for vehicle traffic to get by. This artsy area is also home to many funky galleries and small museums.
You'll inevitably find yourself walking on Rothschild Boulevard several times during your visit. It's the center city's main drag. This shady lane has a wide pedestrian median with plenty of public art displays and other attractions. It is also here that you will see some of the best examples of Bauhaus architecture. Enjoy Israel's best shopping, grab a cup of java from one of the many coffee shops, and eat at one of the snack shops.
Calling Dizengoff Center a shopping mall would be an understatement. Located in the heart of Tel Aviv, it offers a huge variety of clothes, food or anything else, within walking distance of every corner of the city.
You cannot miss the three huge buildings that comprise the Azrieli Center - one triangle, a circle and a square. Most of the floors are offices, but the lowest three form one of the biggest malls in Israel: shops, a gym, cafés, restaurants, a supermarket, train station and more.
In Magen David Square, located in the heart of Tel Aviv, the Carmel Market stretches along Carmel Street almost to the sea. The market offers a livelier shopping experience than the city's air-conditioned markets. Explore the numerous small alleyways and side streets that run off it to experience the loudest and most colorful place in Tel Aviv.
WHERE TO PARTY
Keep in mind that the Sabbath is Saturday; therefore the weekend is Thursday and Friday - not Saturday and Sunday.
31 Yavne St.
This is Tel Aviv's most famous gay bar - and one of its first. Try one of the many theme parties during the week, or one of the drag shows. Make reservations, especially Thursday and Friday nights.
46 Allenby St.
This large space features a wide bar area on the main floor and two dance floors on the lower level plus a back room.
37 Nahalat Binyamin St.
This is best described as your typical, basic pick-up bar, open all week for making new "friends."
13 Yedidia Frenkel
A sophisticatedly designed pick-up bar, Freezone appeals to all ages and nationalities.
42 Lilienblum St.
If you like shaking your booty to hip-hop, check it out on Mondays for "Notorious G.A.Y." There is also an outside courtyard where you can drink, eat and cruise.
43 Nahalat Binyamin St.
Tel Aviv's newest gay bar is located in the city's gay version of SoHo. Its unique design and atmosphere of cool and happy music, good-looking Israeli guys and quality drinks at reasonable prices have already made it a crowd favorite.
WHERE TO GET OFF
113 Hashmonaim St.
Elegantly decorated in classic Middle Eastern style, this is the largest and fanciest gay sauna in the entire Mideast. It offers European standards of service and maintenance and as such will seem like a palace compared to the typical American bathhouse. Clientele is mostly young, cute and buff.
75 Allenby St.
In the heart of the city, this facility is more upscale than U.S. counterparts. Through the elegant lobby is a bar, dry Finnish sauna, Jacuzzi, occasional foam parties and free Internet.
The Blue Pill
20 Lilenblum St.
The Blue Pill is the first and only play space (i.e., sex bar) in Israel. This well-kept secret is located in the heart of the city. On the top floor is a classy, French-style bar, while a few steps away are a huge cruising area, porn cinema, video cabins, glory holes and of course, a back room.
150 Dizengoff St.
This modern, newly renovated facility is accessible through the BackRoom@SexyShop store and offers porn, video cabins, glory holes, and even a sling. Check out the underwear-only party every second Thursday of the month.
Tel Aviv Pride Week 2012
Israel's Pride March will take place Friday, June 8, 2012. Join over 100,000 others from all across the world as the route winds its way through the streets of the city until it ends on the white sand beaches of the Mediterranean for one massive party. With over 50 other gay events throughout Pride Week, and the weather not yet too hot, this is by far the week to visit the gay city.