The Old New Land
Finally the moment we decided to go to Israel came. It has been for some years now in our “near future plans”, but was always been postponed on behalf of other destinations, mostly price related. I have to say flying here is not the cheapest, specially if having to do it on some sort of precise dates in order to coincide with any bank holiday or weekends in between to expand the stay, and more important, having in consideration that flying on Friday or Saturday would mean an extra cost for being stranded at the airport with no other transportation to the city than over expensive taxis because of Sabbath.
So Tel Aviv would be for us the entry point and start of a much bigger and overloaded tour where in each day we would be in a different city or even more than one. But for now, let me tell you my personal opinion on this city.
On my original plans, this was going to be a 2 full days visit, plus some hours on the last day before having to get back to the airport to fly back into London. On the last bit, we re-arranged it the way of spending the last hours in Jerusalem, and thanks goodness for that. Why comes soon explained… Then, what happened to the second day planned for Tel Aviv? Well, it happened that on the day of arrival, and with the help of landing super early at 5.00am giving us plenty of time, we saw absolutely everything! Now let me resume this in saying Tel Aviv has almost nothing to be seen plus its in overall quite ugly, run down and dirty city. And so for the spare day that now we had extra, we used for one of the best day trips we could have ever done while in Israel, Masada and the Desert of Judea.
Yes, fair enough a fantastic new city is raising all around with shiny new skyscrapers and superb apartment towers yet if fails to impress because that’s nothing. Shockingly, a large area in the city center is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, believe it or not. This is what is known as the White City. An impressive large amount of Bauhaus buildings were constructed from the 1930s to 1950s when Israel was ruled by the British, and the Bauhaus School closed its doors during World War II. Architects had to migrate and as consequence and because Tel Aviv was a newly created city, this was the tendency of construction where over 4000 buildings in this style were built.
Now the problem; even that I am a strong fan of this architectural style and I pretty much search for those buildings wherever I go (same as for art-deco and art-nouveau ones), it is very depressing and unfortunate to see how they did not care at all in Tel Aviv. Half of them succumbed demolition, while the other half, the current UNESCO ones, are in dubious state of disrepair. Only few streets have them beautifully restored and that’s the sad part. What could be an really pretty city center is instead a maze of disaster. Cables everywhere, air-con units and other additions in every possible hole demarcating the original structure and form of those buildings, painting falling apart and the list adds. Thankfully in the other hand it was about time they realized they had to do something in order to preserve it, probably upon rules and legislation coming from UNESCO in order for them to keep retaining such status.
There is, nonetheless, a really beautiful yet small part of the city which is really nice and totally worth it in the trip. This is the ancient city and port of Jaffa. One of the oldest continuous port in the world, the city is now a neighbourhood of Tel Aviv itself. Most of the original buildings have been rebuilt, others newly created following the same architectural style. Of special beauty are the Zodiac Alleys, where a maze of small narrow streets have each of them a Zodiac symbol. The name of the streets are marked by a beautiful porcelain plaque and many artist and independent galleries can be found everywhere.
If you are having the idea of going to the beach, then bear in mind you might be extremely disappointed. To me as Spanish I am, my expectation for a beach are probably higher than others, I don’t know, but Tel Aviv’s main beach is not only super small (and I supposed super crowded during summer months), but the overall environment with those 70s looking hotels aligning the promenade does not even create a good looking place, but the whole appearance is of an extremely run-down area of the city. Mind that I say area here, because not all Tel Aviv has that feeling, but is notorious at what should be their prime location, the beach front.
To resume, have Tel Aviv just as part of your Israel tour and don’t give it any longer than 1 day. Of course use it as your main base in order to reach other destinations on day trips since moving anywhere in the country either by train, bus or specially if having a rental car, is really fast and convenient. Even to our farthest destination from Tel Aviv at 160 kilometers, it took us less than 2 hours to reach. At nights, the city is famous for party yet I cannot comment in here as we did not go out anywhere because our tight program and how tired we were returning back to the hotel in the evenings.
Prices…Israel is an expensive country. Expect to pay for everything more than what you originally might though. It is in fact more expensive than London for going out, food, shopping.
And as last, food. Probably bad luck, or being at the wrong spots. I could say not sure but the doubt cleared after we finished the whole trip in Israel. It is a difficult country for food, and if you don’t like falafel then good luck. Falafel is eaten in mass everywhere, and even for breakfast at the hotel you will find it. I like it, that’s out of question, and certainly you will also enjoy it, but after few days eating the same, it really tires you. Other options? well, then go for kebabs. Resuming, falafel and kebabs, or spend a fortune in a proper restaurant.
For more information about Tel Aviv check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Israel’s currency is the Shekel (ILS). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Tel Aviv
- Old Jaffa Is one of the key tourist destinations and the must do when in Tel Aviv. Once an ancient city home to one of the oldest port in the world, it is now absorbed into Tel Aviv itself as a neighbour. You can access it by walking down the sea promenade towards the south.
-Kikar Kedumim Street One of the most visited street in Jaffa, famous for its stairs and the view of Saint Peter’s Church at the top.
-Wishing Bridge Where tradition says if you touch your zodiac symbol while facing the sea, your wish will come true.
-Clock Tower Built in 1906, located in Clock Square.
-Zodiac Alleys Are a maze of old streets leading towards the port.
-Hapisga Garden Located at the highest area in a hill, offers great views over Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean.
-Ramses Gate Is a discovered Egyptian gate dating more than 3500 years old.
-Mahmudiya Mosque Is the largest mosque in the city, built in 1812 when Jaffa was part of the Ottoman Empire.
-Alhambra Cinema Built in 1937 is a masterpiece of art-deco architecture. Nowadays not used as a cinema anymore, but as center of Scientology.
-Old Railway Station Now converted into a cultural and shopping center. Not because is a beautiful building, because it is not, but there are a lot of cafes, bars and independent art galleries, plus its right by the port.
- White City Area Tel Aviv hosts the largest collection of Bauhaus style buildings in the world, all of them constructed between 1930 and 1950 when the city was under the British Mandate on Palestine and was therefore inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. There were originally over 4000 buildings in this style, although today some half still standing, with ongoing efforts in restoring as many as possible.
-Rothschild Boulevard The main thoroughfare and iconic avenue where you will find hundreds of Bauhaus buildings.
-Dizengoff Square Probably the most iconic square in the city. Built in 1934, it is the centerpiece of the White City and the Bauhaus reference. In its center there is a fountain named Fire and Water.
-Bialik Square Another of the many squares in Tel Aviv, entirely surrounded by Bauhaus architecture. Here you will find the Bauhaus Museum or the Museum of the City housed in the city’s first City Hall building.
-Buildings of special attention: Cinema Hotel, Rabinsky House, Engel House (the first building in the city built on pilots, now symbol of the Modernist architecture)
- Rabin Square Is the largest public square in Israel, place of the assassination of the PM Itzhak Rabin. Of no special beauty in any case, it is just of reference and importance to the history behind. The City Hall is at one of the sides.
- Shuk Ha’Carmel Is the largest and busiest market in the city.
- Great Synagogue Completed in 1926 it is still the largest in the city.
- Independence Hall This is the former residence of Tel Aviv’s first mayo Meir Dizengoff, and place where the independence was first proclaimed. Easy to miss since the building is quite hideous but of importance to what this place means to the country. Nowadays it is a small museum about the independence.
- Azriely Center Is a complex of 3 skyscrapers with the tallest one having a viewing platform at the top floor where you can see the entire city.
- Frishman Beach This nice and long beach is right by the promenade along the entire city from north to south where Jaffa Port is. No need to mention as the main attraction during summer months expect it to be over crowded during high season.
Ben Gurion airport is 15 kilometers from the city. The fastest and cheapest way to reach the city is by train. The station is one level below the arrivals, on Terminal 3. Take a train headed towards Nahariya, which runs at a frequency of twice per hour. The journey takes between 10 and 20 minutes depending on which station at Tel Aviv you will be disembarking, and the fare is ₪16 per way.
Please note as imperative rule while in Israel, from Friday afternoon and until Saturday evening, in coincidence with Jewish Sabbath, trains do not operate, leaving as only option taxis which of course, are expensive at around ₪150.
Within the country, moving by train is fast, secure and comfortable, although there are not many services you could benefit apart from that to Jerusalem. In the other hand, by bus you can access every city in the country with frequent and reliable buses; yet again, remember Sabbath as otherwise you might end up stranded.
Within the city you can move using public buses which are pretty frequent and inexpensive, although the likes of you needing to take them are limited since you can easily walk along the main tourist attractions which are gladly concentrated more or less together (but expect to walk longer distances), except for Jaffa Port where you will need either a bus or a taxi. Consider the hop-on hop-off tourist bus, it will allow you to visit the entire city in one day!
No need to questions that as a global city Tel Aviv is and of great importance to the Middle East, there us a great amount of hotels of any kind covering all ranges of comfort and quality from the most modest or the hundreds of hostels, to the super luxurious properties. But even on the modest ones, expect to pay high rates. Israel, as explained before, is not a cheap country and in many areas is way more expensive than London, UK. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We found a great deal at what was branded a luxurious hotel. Not only that is how its branded, but it does have officially 5*. A terrible disappointment, but as we later discovered, hotel standards in Israel are much lower than those in Europe or specially the USA. To give you an idea, the whole property would be a normal 3*, and only maybe getting 4* because of their pool, jacuzzi and gym facilities, which I agree, were nice. The problem is that they do not take care at all on maintenance and overall cleaning. The mirrors in the lifts might have been cleaned 6 months ago, and every glass window around the pool/restaurant area, maybe the last time they had a cleaning was on the opening day of the hotel. This was very unpleasant to be honest, and while the rooms were more or less OK in cleanliness, the overall feel was already unsatisfactory and specially for the price. Value for money? None. Location, not bad. Right across the street from one of the commuter train stations, and buses right by the door. Staff, mixed feelings. Half of the people we dealt with was nice and helpful and made us feel comfortable, the other half made the opposite, so I would say neutral at the end.
The hotel was the Leonardo City Tower, at number 14 Zisman Street. It is the tallest hotel building in whole Israel (as of March 2015). From the outside look, as you can see seems great, and that’s what we thought, but they failed in a number of small things that together piled quite a lot, being the biggest the lack of cleanliness and maintenance.