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The Surprising Lives of Tel Aviv’s Hottest New Hotel

Housed in a 12th-century fortress, the hotel’s colorful past includes some crime and punishment

Hotels have long been popping up in the former footprints of unconventional spaces. It’s not unheard of for new boutique properties to spring up in old office spaces, abandoned banks or refurbished private estates. But Israel’s latest debut, The Setai Tel Aviv, has a slightly more colorful history.

Exterior of the Setai Tel Aviv (photo: photo by Assaf Pinchuk, courtesy of Setai)

Sitting on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea and located at the entrance to the ancient city of Jaffa, one of the oldest surviving port cities in the world, it may come as a surprise to learn that the building was originally constructed as a fortress during the Crusader Kingdom’s rule over Jaffa during the 12th-century.

Known locally as the kishle (Turkish for jailhouse), the structure also served as a notorious prison during the Ottoman period—a far cry from the lavish hotel that now stands in its place. And up until 2005, the space was utilized as a police station, until the current owners, the Nakash family, purchased the building and began its monumental renovation process.

Courtyard at the Setai Tel Aviv (photo: photo by Assaf Pinchuk, courtesy of Setai)

Transforming the cold and sterile space to one that exudes a careful balance of comfort and luxury was no easy task. Especially since the designers behind the project, Dana Litersvorf & Andrew Avidan, of ARA Design, were committed to preserving the heritage of the historically significant building.

According to the team, “This property is under historical preservation, which means every change was heavily supervised. Anything with any connection to the property’s history had to be dealt with very specifically and very delicately. But the results have been well worth it.”

The overall preservation process, spearheaded by the Israeli Antiques Authority, cost millions of dollars and spanned more than 20 years in its entirety. Part of that process included extensive archaeological excavations, which preserved original features and unearthed artifacts dating back centuries, which are now on display throughout the hotel.

The ARA Design team also worked closely with local firm Feigin Architects to achieve the highest standard of preservation. Their efforts are echoed in countless design details, from original wood and ironwork on various room facades, to stonework restored by expert smiths, and even the windows of the property’s dining facilities.

Guest room at the Setai Tel Aviv (photo: photo by Assaf Pinchuk, courtesy of Setai)

According to ARA Design, “This building has been inhabited for a thousand years, during so many different periods of history. There are nods to that history all throughout the design. We have archways from the crusader era, iron bars from when the space served as a prison. We use ancient architecture concepts throughout the space, but again, executed with modern technologies.”

Officially opened on April 22, the luxury property now features 120 guest rooms with unparalleled vistas of the Mediterranean Sea, lending some of the most well appointed accommodations in the city. The lush inner courtyards are brimming with olive and citrus trees, a nod to the Jaffa oranges, the seaside city’s staple export. Meanwhile JAYA, the on-site restaurant concept, celebrates Israel’s rich culinary traditions while subtly incorporating the property’s Turkish roots.

Lobby at the Setai Tel Aviv (photo: photo by Assaf Pinchuk, courtesy of Setai)

For a rejuvenating escape, schedule a treatment at the subterranean restored Turkish Hamam Spa, or take a mid-day dip in the rooftop infinity pool, which overlooks Tel Aviv’s storied skyline. The new hotel also features an opulent lobby, a state-of-the-art fitness center for round-the-clock use, and a hair salon staffed by a team of seasoned professionals to keep guests looking their best.

Pool at the Setai Tel Aviv (photo: photo by Assaf Pinchuk, courtesy of Setai)

The Setai Tel Aviv effortlessly embraces the old-meets-new spirit of the ancient port city, carefully converging its rich cultural legacy with the same modern-day approach that is currently redefining Tel Aviv. But with room rates starting at $500 per night, the hotel finds itself in a league of its own—at least for now.