Tel Aviv – you have to be there to experience it. It’s a coastal city of fewer than 500,000 residents, all as diverse as the eclectic style of its buildings, and the second largest city in Israel (the first being Jerusalem).
Tel Avivians are the best at celebrating their differences and individuality, enriching Israel’s economy with innovative advances in tech, and connecting to the world through fusion food and vibrant nightlife and blue-watered beaches.
You might also know Tel Aviv as the world’s most expensive city of 2021, the LGBTQ+ capital of the world, the vegan capital of the world, and the city with the highest number of dogs per capita in the world – super dog-friendly!
Although many might mistake it for being the capital of Israel, that title is reserved for Jerusalem, a much different city with a more religious vibe, rich in history and conflict.
But before we get into modern Tel Aviv, let’s talk about its humble beginnings when only one brave Jew shouldered the burden of establishing ‘the white city.’
If you were a sojourner in 1825, arriving by ship on the coast of the Ottoman Empire-ruled, not-quite-yet-Israel, you would dock at Yafo – an ancient port city, when what would become Tel Aviv was nothing but miles and miles of sand dunes.
Rabbi Refael Yehuda Menachem Levi, known as Yehuda Margoza, was chosen by the Rabbis of Jerusalem to establish a Jewish settlement in Yafo (Jaffa) to receive Jews making Aliyah. For a long time, Yehuda Margoza was the only Jew there until he convinced 12 survivors of a wrecked ship of Jews, making their way from Morocco, to be the first to settle with him in Yafo. After that, more Jews would join the heroic efforts to settle in an uninhabited land.
They battled swamps and diseases, attacks from Arabs, Ottoman and British rulership, and harsh conditions.
With time and more Jews (some very affluent) who came from abroad, they divided the land into plots, built low-hung buildings, planted trees and created parks, erected post offices, gymnasiums, cafes, and restaurants, and by 1948, when Israel declared its independence – it was well on its way to becoming the great city it is today.
It’s known for its eclectic architectural and design styles, such as Bauhaus, neoclassical, art nouveau, art deco, Eastern European trends, and a mix of oriental.
Why did they call it Tel Aviv?
‘Tel Aviv’: Aviv is the Hebrew word for ‘spring,’ symbolizing renewal. And the word Tel is an artificial mound created over centuries through the accumulation of successive layers of civilization, built one over the other.
The hub for everything
Tel Aviv is a global center for cutting-edge technology, a start-up nation, and the epicenter of the arts in Israel.
It’s where many young people go to make a name for themselves, build their empires, and make money. Being the 6th most expensive city in the world in 2023, you practically have to own a golden egg-laying goose to make it.
For example, a one-bedroom apartment in the city center will cost you $1,625 USD (excluding other bills) a month. A meal at an inexpensive restaurant will come out to around $18.15 USD, a McMeal at McDonald’s is $15.36, and your trip to the local grocery store for two dozen eggs? A hefty $3.77 USD.
Tel Aviv is a city of great restaurants, art galleries, and nightclubs, museums, as well as the public being accommodating to the disabled, minority-friendly, and greatly supporting the LGBTQ+ community.
With the beach stretched along the coastline and glistening office high rises behind it, there is a healthy tug-of-war between being laid back and hustle culture.
Recently, I went with a handful of friends to walk the neighborhood of Neve Tzedek and explore Shuk Hapishpeshim, Jaffa-Tel Aviv’s flea market.
Neve Tzedek was the first neighborhood built outside the city walls of Yafo (which have since been dismantled) in 1887, 20 years before the City of Tel Aviv was created. It was founded by a group of families seeking some peace and quiet from the overcrowded Jaffa. They built colorful low-slung buildings between winding alleyways and expansive gardens.
By the 1900s, Neve Tzedek became a bohemian escape, an oasis for artists and writers such as the famous Israeli artist Nachum Gutman and Nobel prize laureate Shmuel Agnon. To this day, it remains a prestigious (and expensive) neighborhood, where every house entrance, gate, and exterior wall is fair game for talented artists to display their unique taste with sculptures, colors, and plants.
Through time, many left Neve Tzedek; as the northern part of Tel Aviv was developing, and it began to decay and deteriorate. At some point in the 1960s, conditions were so dire that city officials deemed it a ‘rundown slum-like area’ and wanted to demolish the neighborhood and construct high-rise apartment blocks instead!
Thankfully, as many buildings were placed on preservation lists, those plans never came to pass, and today it is a cultural landmark and a tranquil escape from the noisy streets. Strewn within and around it are coffee shops, little restaurants, bakeries, museums, art studios, and hidden gems or homemade goods.
Another great place is Shuk Hapishpeshim, the Flea Market, where you could hang out for hours!
There are three sections to the flea market: A covered section, a close-roofed section, and the shops along the street with pedestrian walkways.
It’s the perfect place to practice your haggling skills and find Middle Eastern antiques and rugs, old furniture, second-hand clothing and shoes, little trinkets, decoratives, old signs, paintings, art, and a bit of everything.
You’ll meet colorful characters and sights and enjoy the cultural thrill of a vibrant marketplace. There are many different eateries to choose from – whether it be a shawarma and falafel joint, a pizza place, Asian or sweet Malabi, or baklava, there is something for everyone.
On a personal note
I’ve always wondered: Who would I be if I grew up in Tel Aviv?
There is something inherently different about living near the water; it’s a natural source of peace and life. The beach reminds you to take your suit off, bury your feet in the sand, drink a beer with your friends, and watch the sunset over the water with a semi-euphoric feeling that after arguing about politics, the economy, and the high rent – there is still no place like Tel Aviv.
Perhaps I would have become more secular as it’s a very liberal city; would have dressed in a fashionable and artistic way and perhaps had a plastic surgery (or two). What’s for sure is that I would have a tan and probably give in to the vanity of appearances in an international city of beautiful people.
While in Tel Aviv, you are given permission to be anyone you want, and for the most part (‘as long as you’re not hurting anyone’), everyone is accepted. It’s where the underdogs end up, the rejected find a supportive community, and those in need of a break from religious stress and conflict run to for some peace of mind.
It’s where dreams are made, pursued and broken, and where people will wake up to try it all again.
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