About a month ago I was in Israel for a little over a week. I’m not Jewish although I wish I was (they know everyone) but I have always been interested in the conflict surrounding Israel and its neighbors, the history there and also how the people living there feel about what is happening around them. I didn’t know when I would ever make it to this part of the world, but when I got my new job as a travel agent at the beginning of January, I knew I had to take advantage of the 10 unemployed days I had left before I entered the working world (and teaching English in Colombia doesn’t count as the working world)
Flying standby does not guarantee that you get to go where you want, but flights to Tel Aviv were wide open from Newark, NJ. Two days after I got my new job, I left for the Holy Land.
On the flight from Newark shortly after taking off, the flight attendant announced that someone had “left their prayer-book in the bathroom”. Only on a flight to Israel.
Two other friends (one in Berlin and another in Rome) bought tickets to meet me in Tel Aviv. We all met up and could not have asked for a better host (Danielle) to show us around. Tel Aviv had cute cafes, extremely attractive men, an energetic nightlife scene with something for everyone and traditional and frequent markets with crafts, food and knickknacks. I also didn’t imagine the beach to be as accessible and pleasant.
Danielle had so many great places to show us and here are my top 10 favorites about Tel Aviv-almost all of these I know because of her.
Tel Aviv Top Ten
1. Café Sonya
Off of King George Street, the inside of this cafe doesn’t look too special but it’s the beautiful backyard garden patio that makes this place the perfect spot for grabbing lunch with friends or a romantic date night. Even with all of the people dining, it still felt relaxed and the service was good. I loved the Shakshuka!
2. The Pasáž
A roommate of a friend of mine was working at this bar so we went to visit him at work one night. The bar is underground with younger hipster crowd and a wide variety of great music-I heard a lot of older hip-hop and Motown sounds. I would definitely come here often if I lived here. Not your small bar down the street where you can chat with the bartenders but it is lively, there is a big dance floor, well-made drinks and before you know it you will be turned up partying into the morning like I was.
3. Cafe Xoho
A café that reminded me a lot of funky little cafes you find in Seattle except the people were friendlier and happier-probably because there is sunlight in Tel Aviv. Not Israeli food necessarily, but delicious nonetheless with a lot of options for those with dietary restrictions and a menu that had so many fantastic dishes it was difficult to decide.
4. Ali Karavan (Abu Hassan) hummus (Jaffa)
The best hummus I have ever had. The place was noisy and stressful but the hummus is worth the hectic environment and the long wait in line.
5. Galleries along the waterfront in Jaffa
Walking around Jaffa near the water, we found a few art galleries set up in warehouses that were most likely used in the past for fishing related storage and processes. There was a lot of interesting artwork and other warehouses that had odd antiques. It’s great when you can walk aimlessly around a city and never be bored especially when you stumble upon art all around you.
6. Graffiti Tour
Tel Aviv had some of the most vibrant graffiti I have seen in a city. Danielle was familiar with the local artists names and styles and could point out to me all of the hidden spots with beautiful murals. If you don’t have a personal tour guide like I did, I highly recommend going on a graffiti tour. There’s a couple graffiti walking tours here: http://www.streetwisehebrew.com/graffiti.html
7. Shuk HaCarmel (Carmel Market)
This is just one of Tel Aviv’s many outdoor markets. It’s open everyday of the week except Shabbat (Saturday) and on Tuesdays and Fridays there is an adjacent street fair with artists selling handcrafted jewelry and artwork. At the Shuk you can find fresh produce, cheese, spices, deserts, clothing, trinkets etc. The market is enormous and overwhelming and you should be sure to try some of the baklava and fruit that you may not have had before like a persimmon.
8. Pastries everywhere
Even the convenient stores open 24/7 carry miniature pastries with chocolate, nuts, cheese etc and unlike any food product you would find in a 7-11, they are delicious. I think I ate about three a day, not including the amazing baklava that you can find everywhere as well
I have never craved falafel in the U.S. but after going to Israel, I realized it’s because I’ve never had falafel of the same Middle Eastern standard. You can find incredible falafel all over the city and the falafel balls are commonly served inside a pita pocket topped with salads, pickled vegetables, hot sauce and if you’re like me, drenched in tahini (a paste made from ground sesame seeds)
10. Bar Giora
Every Sunday night this dimly lit bar/restaurant hosts a live jazz night in its smoky basement. Musicians and vocalists take turns performing and the crowd dances, drinks and smokes. Since there is no real stage, the atmosphere has a secret clubhouse feel, intimate but lively and sophisticated. Although you will reek of cigarettes whether or not you smoke, definitely one of my favorite places I got to check out in Tel Aviv.
As for other parts of Israel, the bus system is amazing. It is very reasonably priced to take a bus anywhere in the country and almost all long-distance buses have free wifi and usb ports above the seats. From Tel Aviv to Jerusalem it is only about $5 one way and a little more from Tel Aviv to Beer Sheva.
Be’er Sheva is a city in the desert about an hour bus ride south of Tel Aviv. On the bus ride to Beer Sheva I realized after seeing a “Seattle Park” on Google Maps, that Be’er Sheva is one of Seattle’s sister cities. Without spending too much time there, it seemed like a nice city with many students because of the university and some cool bars. We spent most of our time in that area south of Be’er Sheva in the desert, wandering near a kibbutz (a collective community in Israel traditionally based on agriculture), and stumbling upon an enormous canyon. We stayed with a couple of cool couch surfers and learned some words in Hebrew as well as the custom of drinking a “chaser” with your beer. Which is just a shot of Arak (Israeli anise flavored liquor). I’m more used to the act of “chasing” my shots of cheap vodka with any liquid available.
The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea could never be overrated. It was about 60 degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived with very little sun, but swimming was a once in a lifetime opportunity so we had to strip down to our swimsuits. There were some other brave souls in the water with us. As soon as I waded in, I could not stop expressing my amazement. It was unlike any sensation I’ve ever felt. Forget the Great Salt Lake, in the Dead Sea you do not have to move a muscle to stay afloat. I could position myself as if I were in a recliner chair and it would the most pleasant way to read the newspaper! I imagine it is how a whale feels gliding through the ocean, only I was more like a log on the surface. Just across the Dead Sea were the shores of Jordan and my friends and I imagined paddling our bodies as vessels to the neighboring country and pulling a cooler of beer behind
You cannot go to Israel without spending a night in Jerusalem. Even if you are not religious like myself, there is so much history there. It is fascinating to see the ancient city and the historic sites. Christians, Jews and Muslims and all the relative subsets of these religions alike have their followers living in extremely close quarters. We walked around for hours and hours, saw the Wailing Wall, hundreds of churches, the stations of the cross and where Mary is buried. In the evening we ended up going back to these Arab’s house who spoke broken English and had just attended a funeral. They made us Arabic coffee and we smoked weed out of their handmade apparatus that was a plastic coke bottle glued to a glass. When one of them asked us for money to support his cocaine habit we decided it was time to head back to Tel Aviv.
The West Bank
I was fortunate enough to join Danielle’s internship program’s group tour to a few cities in the West Bank. We went to several cities including Ariel and Shiloh (the old capital of Israel), tasted wine at a winery and met with a few Israeli Jews for Q & A sessions regarding the current conflict. They whole-heartedly believe that it is necessary and beneficial for them to occupy any and all land in the West Bank. While it is easy for me to see why everyone wants to lay claim to this ancient land, it is more difficult for me to see the moral justification in denying humans basic needs such as water. It was amazing being in one of the most controversial areas in the world. It’s not everyday that I get to travel to disputed territory.
Especially now with my full-time work schedule I keep fantasizing about not only returning to Israel but going back to that region of the world to explore Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus, Iran etc. For now I will just have to make do by cooking with some of the spices I brought back and waiting for my next vacation.