A week before Christmas 2016, I was on a business trip to Israel and my wife decided to join me for 3 days Christmas weekend. So after a grueling work-week at Tel Aviv (yes Jews work hard), we were all set to explore Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. My fascination with Israel started about a decade ago when I read book O Jerusalem!. Written by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins that brilliantly captures the events and struggles surrounding the creation of the state of Israel. I was particularly interested to visit Jerusalem which is a significant center for three important religions of modern world – Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Since we separately traveled on different visas (hers was tourist, mine work), we had different visa experiences. Mine was straightforward and was all taken care of while my wife’s application was well-scrutinized particularly for two reasons. Firstly, she was visiting just for three days; even Israel clearance staff at Ben-Gurion International Airport questioned her for this very reason. Secondly, she has prior visited as tourist to Middle-Eastern nations such as Jordan, Egypt and UAE which raises concerns. But luckily, she was granted visa and was cleared at the airport to enter Tel Aviv. We were all excited to prove all our family and friends wrong who were skeptical about our visit to Israel.
Vibrant Tel Aviv
Whenever we visit any other nation, we leave our impressions on the citizens as much as they leave on ours. However, every person we interacted with at Tel Aviv already knew a lot about India. They knew about Bollywood, India’s traffic problems and its demonetization problems (we visited during the peak of demonetization drive). And they were curious to know more about us and not prejudiced at all. It was rare to feel at home amongst people of Tel Aviv who knew more about us than we knew about them. An interesting reason for Israelis familiar with India is attributed to their compulsory military duty. Most of the youngsters take a 6-month vacation after completing their military duty. They travel to as far as Latin America, Europe, Asia and many land up in India – especially Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andaman.
Tel Aviv is Israel’s financial and technology hub and is visited by lot of global tourists mainly for business and party. A “party capital” in the Middle East, it has a lively nightlife and 24-hour culture. It is a small city along Mediterranean coastline and has area of only 20 sq. miles. That meant we could cover its length and breadth on foot and that’s what we did.
Old world charm of Jaffa
On our first evening, we ventured out to Jaffa (Yafo) which is about 2 kms walk from Tel Aviv. Being one of the oldest ports, it was the entry point for the Jews worldwide to the ‘Promised Land’ out of which Tel Aviv has grown. Jaffa is interesting to visit as it is a real melting pot with Jewish and Arab populations living together. We strolled through its flea market which is lined with artists galleries and studios, and a lot of boutique and craft shops. We then walked down by the sea harbour which has plenty of pleasure boats and little fishing vessels only. As we walked through the alleyways of the old city, we reached a vantage point which offers best view of Tel Aviv. We ended our tour at the Jaffa Central Square which has a late-Ottoman style clock tower. Jaffa is known to have some really good restaurants and pubs which play live music. We spent our night enjoying Middle-Eastern food at Ha’achim and then to live music pub Container.
Many faces of Tel Aviv
Next morning, we started our day with a beautiful view of Tel Aviv beach from our hotel room. The city beach is crowded with fit sun-bathing youngsters, partiers and generally locals and tourists chilling out. After a long morning stroll along the beach, we walked to city’s iconic Carmel Market. It is city’s largest market and since that day was Friday when most Israelis are out getting their shopping in for the weekend, it was stuffed to the gills. The market reminded us of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar but with a Jewish dash. After strolling through the market for a couple hours, our senses were assualted with varied sounds, colours and smells.
After a heavy brunch, we set out exploring the white Bauhaus buildings which dominate the Tel Aviv landscape, and which have led Tel Aviv to be known as The White City. For those more interested in architecture, you could join the FREE ‘WHITE CITY’ tour, which sets off every Saturday at 11:00. Meeting point is at 46 Rothschild Street. This tour focuses on the modern architectural White City area along Rothschild Street, and describes the story of Tel Aviv.
Another important landmark of Tel Aviv is it’s beautiful neighborhood – Neve Tzedek. Historically, it was the first neighborhood built outside of Jaffa. We took a leisurely stroll along its alleyways and restored buildings. There is a dance and theater complex at the center of Neve Tzedek named Suzanne Dellal Center. We highly recommend visit to its courtyard. Also, the area has many cafes and restaurants as well as small boutique shops.
On the southern edge of the neighborhood is the historic train station known as the Ha’Tachana. This newly-restored compound now serves as a cultural and shopping center.
We ended our stay at Tel Aviv with a visit to the Rabin Square or the Central Square which holds historical and political importance. Our parting thoughts about Tel Aviv – it’s young, vibrant and a great mix of old and new culture.
We took a 2-hour bus journey from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. These buses leave every 20-30 minutes. Buses do have Wifi connection and are run by Egged.il. Our rest of the Israel trip was about exploring Jerusalem.