It’s doubtful that in 1910, when 66 families founded Tel Aviv as a “quiet suburb” outside the port of Jaffa, that they could have imagined the modern, bustling city (known for the world’s largest collection of Bauhaus buildings and connected by 80 miles of bike sharing lanes) that it’s become today. Or that the streets of the holy city of Jerusalem, celebrated as one of the most spiritual places in the world, would be populated on Saturday nights by throngs of young partyers, letting loose after the end of Sabbath.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I stepped off the airplane with five friends for my first visit to Israel—to see the Temple Mount, to float in the Dead Sea, to see the dozen or so of the trees my contemporaries and I donated to help turn the country’s rocky hillside into lush hand-planted forests—but from the moment we were whisked through customs by our VIP greeter Jason, I knew the trip would be even more special than I had initially imagined.
Organized by Yuval Edden of Eden Boutique Travel, who snagged that VIP airport greeter for us, we hit all of the high points, and then some. Edden, a former tank commander in the Israeli army, was able to arrange meetings for us with Palestinian and Israeli journalists as well as an operations and intelligence officer. (He can plan an itinerary based on just about any interest.) We haggled in Arab markets for gold-plated jewelry and exotic spices and were bowled over by the majesty of Masada. And whether talking with one of the members of the country’s first kibbutz, Kibbutz Degania, where former Israeli defense leader Moshe Dayan was born, or meeting the indomitable Tami, who along with her husband Bobby faced their empty nest by learning to make cheese, harvesting grapes for wine and building the hippie-vibed restaurant Belle Ofri, (where delicious food is served on plates that Tami made herself in pottery class), we were charmed, challenged and impressed by the indomitability and generosity of the Israeli people.
Below are some of the unexpected pleasures we found along the way:
Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood:
You can still see this hipster neighborhood in the south of Tel Aviv—known for small shops, cafes, bars and the five-block long Levinsky Market, filled with spice shops, bakeries, marzipan factories and more— before it goes all bougie. And who knows? You might even discover the next Basquait on a graffiti tour of the nabe with Lilach Shalom. Don’t miss the third generation Miniely’s pharmacy, which offers ancient Chinese creams and cures including a formula to get rid of dry skin (for under $15!) that my friends swear by.
The perfect place to write your novel (or just have a drink):
Located in East Jerusalem, The American Colony Hotel is a former harem turned utopian Christian commune turned hotel which has hosted everyone from Lawrence of Arabia to Bob Dylan to John Le Carre, who wrote one of his famous thrillers right at the hotel. Have lunch or a drink in the beauteous patio courtyard where you’ll be surrounded by lemon trees, a flowing fountain and tweeting from actual birds.
You may think you’re too hip to go on a dig, but you’re not. Leave your Stan Smiths back at the hotel and crawl through underground caves to a labyrinth of man-made rooms in the National Park of Beit Guvrin, the ancestral home of King Herod, that are being mined for evidence of past civilizations. The three-hour Dig For A Day is part of a legit archaeological operation—you’ll be uncovering bones, pottery shards, charcoal and more that are helping create a picture of life dating back to the Hellenistic period.
Hotel experiences for everyone:
In Tel Aviv, the new 25-room White Villa Hotel is set in a pair of iconic Le Corbusier-inspired Bauhaus buildings that retain the feeling of a private residence. The Carleton is hipper than the nearby King David Hotel and offers panoramic views of the beach and as well as a rooftop pool. Jerusalem’s luxurious Mamilla Hotel is only a ten-minute walk to the Jaffa Gate and the old city. The sleek hotel is gorgeous, the service is impeccable and we were wowed over by The Lounge, a private space where free deserts and light food are offered well into the evening. If you go up north to visit Rosh Pina or the grottos and colorful Arab markets of Akko, stay at The Jasmine Mansion a five room “zimmer” (bed and breakfast) overlooking the Sea of Galilee, offering a pool, hot tub and one of the best breakfasts we had in Israel.
Food expert Adeena Sussman, co-author of Chrissy Teigen’s bestselling Cravings: Recipes for All The food You Want to Eat is working on a cookbook about Israeli food for Pam Kraus Books/Penguin Random House and offered these suggestions:
Bellboy, Tel Aviv’s greatest cocktail bar, is tucked inside the Berdichevsky hotel. The word “speakeasy” may be overused, but this one does the term proud: it’s a dark, moody place to hide away for inventive cocktails. With house-made tinctures and potions like sesame-infused bourbon and rum-soaked Israeli dried fruit, you’ll be absorbing the local culinary culture with every sip.
Claro, Chef Ran Shmueli’s stunning restaurant in a high-ceilinged, refurbished Templar building is in the Sarona area of Tel Aviv. Dishes are rustic and refined, served on wooden platters with fresh potted herbs serving as edible aromatherapy. Shmueli delves deep into Israel’s treasure trove of local ingredients and doesn’t come up for air until his kitchen puts out dishes like eggplant ravioli with Gibney (a local Arabic cheese), Turkish spinach, yogurt and za’atar.
In Jerusalem, the shuk (Machane Yehuda Market) is where it’s at, and within that shuk there are endless edible options. Sussman’s favorite is Yudale a raucous bar with the best food in town. Chef Uri Navon (who co-owns Machneyuda just across the way, along with most of Jerusalem’s top-tier eateries) makes dinner fun: Think dishes like seared calamari with date honey, harissa and pomegranate syrup made in front of you—all set to a rollicking soundtrack of retro Israeli pop songs.
Jerusalem’s recently renovated Ish Tabakh, specializes in shamburak, a kurdish turnover with an ethereally flaky-crispy dough. Fillings like siske–slow cooked beef or boeuf bourgignon literally melt in your mouth even before you take a sip of Araq infused with local fruits and herbs.