09 Feb A Love Letter • Alex in Wanderland
I feel like there are different levels of fall-head-over-heels with a destination. There’s the intro level — “wow, I adore this place; I’m going to have such a nice trip here!” Then there’s a slightly more amped up, “this place is incredible, I can’t wait to come back here and bring all my friends!”
Then there’s the absolute top tier, red alert swoon level: “I’m completely obsessed with this place — I could live here!”
Can you guess which one I felt about Tel Aviv?
I had my suspicions long before my arrival in Israel that Tel Aviv would be my kind of place. It was a city right on the sea, a combination of two of my favorite things. And of course, I’d heard all about the incredible nightlife, the delicious food, and the progressive, youthful vibe of the city.
But Tel Aviv was the place that stopped me in my tracks, and made me immediately start planning a trip back to Israel — not to mention fantasizing about apartment rentals.
After six weeks of travel in the culture shock one-two-punch of the Middle East, something about Tel Aviv felt comfortingly familiar — despite the fact that I’d never been before. I couldn’t stop comparing it to New York, a city I loved and lived in for years. Both cities vibrate with so much energy it’s like they could spin off the planet and into space, if they didn’t have the weight of the people living there grounding them down to earth.
The true wonder is how quickly my city crush blossomed. My time in Tel Aviv was far, far too short. While technically I spent seven nights there, they were chopped up into three quick stays (and crammed full of errands getting ready for and decompressing from Midburn), leaving me craving a relaxed few weeks here someday to truly experience the city like a local. Here’s a few snippets of what made me fall so hard, so fast.
Israelis are voracious travelers; it’s traditional for them to take a year or so off to wander after completing their compulsory military service at home. So I, like many who have backpacked around South America or Southeast Asia, arrived in Israel with a dozen locals on speed dial; dear friends I’d made on the road who were always telling me to head to the Holy Land for a reunion.
I had a blast meeting up with those friends, but also meeting new ones who I formed instant bonds with as well. While the reasons behind it are complicated and layered, I was always somewhat embarrassed that I didn’t have more super close local friends in Thailand. I lived there for years and yet struggle to come up with times when I was invited to someone’s home. There are a lot of cultural barriers in place.
Me and our talented Vibe photographer, Or Kaplan
The hospitality of Israelis was overwhelming. Almost every day it felt like someone was insisting on hosting me, offering to put me in touch with a friend of a hairdresser of a cousin who lived where I was going next, or otherwise bending over backwards to help me — and making it seem like it was no trouble at all. I’ve heard people say that Israelis are extremely direct, intense, and even intimidating. And yeah, I can’t sugarcoat that — that’s kinda true. But if you come at them with open arms and an open smile, they’ll quickly see you come in peace, and next thing you know you’ve been invited to Shabbat dinner with their parents.
And for fans of the Instagram account Hot Dudes Eating Hummus, I can assure you that there is the potential for all your dreams to come true in Tel Aviv. Twice I was sitting on a bench or hanging near the beach and was approached by friendly and direct — and NOT HARD TO LOOK AT — Israelis who essentially said, “You look like you’re from out of town. I’d love to show you around. Can I give you my number on Whatsapp?” And there was no drama when I politely declined. I tell all my single friends to go here! It’s just crazy easy to meet people and make friends in Tel Aviv.
I read about a term for native-born Israelis: sabres, a desert cactus fruit both thorny on the outside, and sweet on the inside. It’s a perfect fit — and Tel Aviv is full of them. I love that after one trip, I feel I could return to a full friend group here.
Me and my amazing friend Omer, who I bonded with in Brazil
Pretty much everyone raves about the cuisine in Israel, so really it’s no surprise that Tel Aviv was full of delicious food. But what blew me away in Tel Aviv was how perfectly it aligned with the way I like to eat — healthy, and beautifully presented. Is it so terrible to want to sip my green tea from what feels like the inside of an Pinterest pin?!
While I have a crazy sweet tooth, eat meat and can go crazy on carbs with the best of ’em, nothing makes me start to feel anxious faster when I’m traveling than not feeling like I have access to abundant fruit and vegetables. That certainly was not a concern in Tel Aviv, which is quite literally the vegan capital of the world. There are more vegans in the city per capita than any other on earth — and they do it with style. In Tel Aviv, I felt like there was an acai bowl, a hummus delicacy or a roast sweet potato around every corner.
I have a full post coming up on my favorite dining experiences in Tel Aviv — stay tuned. In the meantime, feel free to drool over this brunch from one of my favorite finds, Citizen Garden.
It’s no secret that I’m a design snob, and I found myself constantly swooning in Tel Aviv; often referred to as the Middle East’s capital of cool. I stayed in both a boutique hotel and a design hostel (more on the hostel in another post) in my time in the city, and each showed off an incredible sense of style.
I absolutely loved the chic Hotel Saul, with its central location, helpful front desk staff, and Instagram-able lobby. I lucked into a room with a lush balcony, where I happily strolled out in my underwear the first morning before realizing that in true urban style, my neighbors were mere feet away. Whoops.
I still spent ample time there throughout the trip, albeit with a few more layers on.
I was super grateful for a desk space to catch up on emails, a full length mirror for getting ready in front of, and the comfiest bed I slept on in Israel.
The lobby is shared by the hip onsite eatery, Barvazi Urban Sandwich.
One of the downsides to Tel Aviv is it’s an astronomically expensive city, and so Hotel Saul is a steal with rates starting at $150ish USD a night.
Y’all, the nightlife in Tel Aviv is lit. It’s funny that some people flatly consider all of Israel to be a conservative, religious state. Those people, I presume, have not been to Tel Aviv, where you can feast on pork tacos at a hip Mexican cantina, take part in one of the world’s most celebrated gay Pride parades, head an hour outside the city to the second largest Regional Burn on the planet, or party until the sun comes up at pulsing nightclubs.
While I didn’t have to look far to recognize that Tel Aviv is a progressive, fun and flirty city, I sadly only got the teeniest peek at the nightlife scene — it’s one of the top reasons I want to return. (Though if you consider Becky and I cursing our hangovers, tearing into a bottle of wine and gossiping on my Hotel Saul patio to be nightlife, then technically we had two big nights out.)
In true Israeli style, our Vibe Israel hosts were eager for us to throw back to the booze — never have I been on a press trip where the organizers were so enthusiastic for us to party. I loved it! Our real night out started at a hip bar called Bellboy, where we were lucky enough to have a cocktail tasting in the Butler back room with Ariel Leizgold, the most awarded bartender in Israel’s history.
I am all about wild and inventive cocktails that border on works of art, so this experience was one of the highlights of the Vibe Israel experience for me. I have much more about this special tasting in an upcoming post, but suffice it to say, we couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick off the night.
Our next stop was rooftop bar The Prince, which was packed but still low-key, considering it was only around 9PM. Tel Aviv is a late night city! My very first night there, I was solo and met my Israeli girlfriend Omer for dinner after she got out of work. We met up around 9:30pm and had to wait nearly an hour for a table the restaurant crowd was quite literally spilling into the street when we strolled out around midnight.
Eventually, we could wait no longer to get down on the dancefloor. The core group that remained stumbled somehow into Jimmy Who, a booming club that managed to feel underground despite pulsing with people.
An Israeli friend of mine explained that growing up surrounded by so much political tension and instability in the region makes for a people eager to embrace lighthearted fun wherever and whenever it appears. It makes sense to me. Life is hard, and joy is not meant to be a crumb.
Tel Aviv, I’ll be back to explore you after dark.
While the above categories are ones I suspected I might be into before arrival, this one was a big surprise. Did you know Tel Aviv is only second to Silicon Valley in start-ups? This was news to me!
It turns out, the country is often a top innovator in medical sciences, security systems, and cutting edge apps (Waze, for example, was born here.) Necessity is the mother of invention, and Israel is far from eager to rely on its neighbors for oil, pushing the country to become a world leader in clean energy technology. And Tel Aviv is the hub of all of that — it pulses with this sense that ideas are everywhere, and someone working on a project that could change your life might be tapping away at their laptop next to you in a cafe.
I was introduced to all this innovation on a visit to Magnus, a start-up of specific interest to those with the wanderlust bug: they do daring search and rescue missions of stranded travelers in every corner of the globe.
We were lucky enough to meet with Hilik Magnus, once a high ranking officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, now somewhat of a legend for his daring rescues of travelers in distress. And then, Magnus gifted each of us with a satellite tracking device that we will be able to use on future far-flung adventures to send distress signals should something ever go awry.
How cool! I know I’ll trek easier in the future, knowing these guys have my back should I ever find myself in an unwitting 127 Hours sequel.
Staying active and getting outdoors are two of my biggest passions (closely tied with sitting on the couch and binging TV series, lest you think me out of touch), and residents of Tel Aviv are very much on the same page about that. One of my absolute favorite things about Tel Aviv is that it’s a very compact city — walking to your destination is common, and you’re never too far a stroll from the nearest beach. (Ample beach time is another thing my trip to Tel Aviv was tragically lacking.)
I loved going for a morning run along the coast and watching surfers vie for waves, joggers share the sidewalk, and bodybuilders work out on the simple free beach gym equipment.
Thanks to Vibe, I also got to have a very unique yoga experience as well. One day, our group split off, each of us paired with a local who shared one of our passions. I met up with Elad Sadeh, one of the pioneers of Israel’s acro-yoga community.
Elad must have sensed that I was jonesing to log some sand time, because before we headed out to the massive weekly acro jam in Yarkon park, we took a quick twenty minute drive up the coast to Ga’ash Beach to practice.
This beach was totally unlike the bustling, Rio-esque ones I ran by at sunrise or
played watched volleyball on at sunset in central Tel Aviv. It was wild and windswept, and we essentially had the place to ourselves. I couldn’t dream of a better place to practice our moves!
And then we were off to the main event. Yoga enthusiasts, take note: there are several classes throughout the week in Yarkon Park, Tel Aviv’s answer to Central Park. And on Saturdays, they often precede a huge acro-jam that can clock dozens and dozens of participants.
Check Elad’s Facebook page (it’s in Hebrew, so you’ll have to use the translate button) for details, but don’t be afraid to drop by if you only speak English — I was warmly welcomed. There’s a great community here — including a cute couple who met at the weekly jam and recently got married, but newcomers are always catered to in the acro community. When my friends Or and Dave dropped by to meet us, they were enthusiastically tossed in the air as first time flyers!
I left Tel Aviv with the very distinct feeling that I had unfinished business there — I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of all I wanted to experience. I can’t wait to return and dive in.
Have you been to Tel Aviv? Do you want to?