From dancing on the tables in Tel Aviv to tunneling in Jerusalem, there’s something for everyone in Israel
One year ago I visited Israel for the first time to experience the Houses From Within architectural festival. This year, I was invited back again, this time to see its cultural capitals in a completely different light.
Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are sister cities in every sense of the world: a shared cultural heritage, separated by just over 30 miles, and yet rivals for attention with vastly different personalities. Both can be done over a long weekend and there’s plenty to see without feeling rushed.
If Jerusalem is the wise, worldly older sister then Tel Aviv is the cooler kid sister throwing caution to the wind. It was here, on my very first night of the trip, that I found myself dancing on the tables at a bar called Billie Jean. This was after a bona fide bar crawl courtesy of our guide, Ido Weil, who runs TLV NIGHTS a sure fire way to see the best of Tel Aviv’s night life. Many we would never have found were it not for Ido. Being with ido is like being on a bar crawl with that really cool college guy who knows all the bouncers by name. I expect it’s the only way to get into some of these places without queueing for hours.
Our night took us from the sophisticated lounge bar of Aria and the laid back al fresco terrace of Rothschild 12 (a perfect people watching spot) to the quirky art scene of Kuli Alma and the warren of rooms at Sputnik. Venture inside at Rothschild 12 and you’ll find a smokey atmosphere with an urban soundtrack, whereas at Sputnik you’ll be immersed in projected animations that dance to the beat of chilled techno music. My personal favourite was Jimmy Who?, if only for the kitsch fashion joke. It was, however, Billie Jean that stole the show, with its crazy clientele and frequent serviette showers, propelled by regular blasts from a canister of CO2. Don’t ask.
In Tel Aviv, they create a bar wherever you can fit a bar, be it in an alleyway, a garage or an abandoned building. The locals are both charming and welcoming to foreigners, so you can expect to be offered several shots along the way. You have been warned.
The next day we spent a more civilised morning exploring Tel Aviv, starting with a stop at the Carmel Market, followed by a tour of Old Jaffa with our dependable guide, Pini Eitan. This was one of my favourite parts of the tour, because I’d missed out on this part of town the last time I was there. But Old Jaffa is not to be missed.
Its winding, hidden streets, artisanal boutiques built into ancient sandstone steps and the Old Jaffa Port with its bustling atmosphere are such a contrast from the concrete skyscrapers of the main city. From Pini we learned that Israel was under the rule of the British from December 1917 to May 1948 and that in these 30 years the city saw more development than it had in the previous 400 years combined. Nevertheless, Old Jaffa retains a nostalgic charm. The old port and promenade are populated by stalls selling fresh fruit juices, while colourful dingy boats bob about in the turquoise sea.
Hike up the hill at Abrasha Park and you’ll discover the most breath-taking panoramic views. You can also take a selfie with the iconic “Statue of Faith”, depicting the biblical dream of Jacob on one side and the sacrifice of Isaac on the other. After this, you can scoot back down to the Abouelafia bakery, where you’ll find the most splendid array of treats and pastries to try. This beautiful historic bakery, with its striking blue tiled façade and traditional brick ovens, is a great place to pick up gift boxes of baklava, but you will pay a fair bit more than you would in the market.
Just neighbouring Old Jaffa is the cultural centre of Neve Tzedek, a renovated commune that plays host to the Suzanne Dellal Centre, where you can catch a dance or theatre show. The neighbourhood has been home to several artists, thinkers and writers over the years, giving it a rich cultural history. I also found it a great spot to stop for ice cream. Its trendy boutiques and quaint houses with gorgeous floral frontiers make it a must-see for instagrammers.
We were sad to say goodbye to Tel Aviv and rest our sleepy selves one last time at the Dan Panorama, which had been so hospitable during our stay. I still managed to sneak in an early morning swim before breakfast though, because the Dan offers one of the best spots for sunning yourself by (or in) the pool!
After breakfast, we were well on our way to Jerusalem, the historic and cultural capital of the country. In contrast to Tel Aviv, where most of the money is, Jerusalem is the stuff of legends. A cultural melting pot, it is home to many Arab groups, including Jews, Christians and Muslims. The last time I was there, I revelled in the culinary offerings of the Mahane Yehuda Market and the ancient architecture of the Old City, where you can wander the streets Jesus walked, submit a prayer to the Wailing Wall and experience a spiritual awakening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
This time round, we visited the City of David, an archaeological site that is constantly producing new discoveries. The most recent and fascinating development is the Spring House, an excavation that was completed just recently 2012. Here, one can see the remnants of a fortress that once surrounded the biblical Gihon Spring, which served as the main source of water for the City of David in ancient times. The City of David is also home to the Siloam Pool, which used to collect water for the residents. The pool is connected to the spring by a long aqueduct, the Siloam Tunnel, which was an incredible feat for ancient engineering.
This was by far the most memorable part of my trip, and where I also learned an important lesson about the way Israelis communicate, which is that they are masters in the art of understating facts. So, when informed that our feet “might get a little wet” if we decided to visit the tunnel, that disclaimer did not stop me from volunteering to lead the way into the dark and narrow passage, which we navigated by the light of our phones. Little did I know that the trickle of water that lapped our soles at the beginning would give way to a knee-deep flow mid-way through the passage.
Needless to say, my Dune pumps and tailored Banana Republic capri-pants were not the appropriate attire for this experience. But it was still enormous fun! 100% would recommend delving into the depths of this ancient waterway, but for goodness sake wear shorts and sandals! The stone paving can be harsh on bare feet, so footwear you can get wet is best. Getting a little bit wet is inevitable, but in the hot and dry climate of Israel, you’ll soon dry off.
Our little underground adventure was swiftly followed by a segway tour of the Old City, A.K.A. the best fun ever. I had never been on a segway and believe me when I say there’s nothing more exhilarating than whizzing past those ancient walls on a vehicle that is surely one of the greatest gifts of the 21st century. We raced through the Jaffa Gate, around the Old City and visited Yemin Moshe, a restored neighbourhood populated by artists, craftsmen and local traders. Here you can find the magnificent Montefiore Windmill – a nineteenth century flourmill – and a viewing point overlooking the whole ancient compound.
The next day, we regretfully prepared to bid Israel goodbye, but not before one final stop at one of Israel’s hidden gems: Domaine Du Castel. This stunning spot is home to the first modern-day vineyard in the Judean Hills. Founded by Eli Ben Zaken, of Judeo-Italian descent, the vineyard produces around 300,000 bottles a year. The family business maintains the highest standards of wine production, which was highly evident as we sampled each delicious vintage.
The “Old Winery” – Domaine Du Castel’s original site –began as a chicken coop that was then renovated. Here, on the new site in Yad HaShmona, the winery overlooks the sprawling vineyards in Ma’ale HaHamisha, providing a superb view of the hills from this intimate, secluded spot. Eli was so kind and hospitable, generous with both the wine and his story! If you’re planning to make a trip to Israel, be sure to pay Domaine Du Castel a visit. On a tight schedule, we managed to fit in our visit just before heading back to the airport. Where there’s a will there’s a way.