10 Things No One Tells You About... Tel Aviv
Sure, you can read about Tel Aviv-Yafo in a guidebook and you'll likely find some great tips. But here are 10 things you probably didn't know — and should know before you go.
1. Airport Security Has Actually Gotten Easier
Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV), the main gateway to Israel, has a tough reputation when it comes to immigration officers and security procedures. On arrival, you may well be asked by an immigration officer about why you're coming to Israel, what you're doing there, what you do at home, etc. When you leave, the initial security check is an interview with an officer (rather than a simple screening) as soon as you walk into the terminal. In Israel, security teams rely heavily on profiling. The check itself is usually pretty painless — I've left liquids in my bag and I've forgotten to take my laptop out, and nothing was said about it. As far as they're concerned, if you've made it that far, you're not much of a threat. Within the last year, you can even complete emigration formalities without seeing an officer. Anyone with an electronic passport can use the kiosks in the departure hall, process themselves, and head to the gate. The stories about being grilled by cantankerous immigration officers are a thing of the past.
2. There's More to Eat Than Hummus
When most Americans think of eating in Tel Aviv, run-of-the-mill Middle Eastern fare is what comes to mind. Hummus is of course readily available (the best is in the Ha'Carmel market at Megen David), and you're never far from a delicious Israeli salad. What you probably don't know is that you can also enjoy phenomenal international cuisine here: incredibly fresh sushi while you sit outside and people-watch at Japanika right smack in the middle of Rothschild Boulevard; some of the best Italian food this side of the Mediterranean (Rustico and Bistro 1887 are personal favorites); and even arepas (freshly made at Arepa's at HaCarmel 38). Much like New York, Tel Aviv is largely a city of immigrants, all of whom have brought pieces of their own unique cultures to this wonderfully cosmopolitan city and its culinary offerings reflect that.
3. There's Always a Party at Night
Tel Aviv comes alive at night. Regardless of what night of the week it is, there's always a party somewhere, even on Shabbat. Clubs pulsing house music until 5:00am on a Tuesday, underwear parties on the beach — nothing is off-limits in Tel Aviv! A great place to kick things off is popular bar chain Cofix, where all of the drinks cost only 5 ILS (~$1.40) — they can cost staggeringly more in clubs and bars though. In Tel Aviv, many clubs and bars host parties on specific nights, so stopping at Cofix or another bar to pre-game is a great way to chat with locals and find out what's happening on a particular night.
4. The Beaches Are Fantastic
Regardless of your faith, it's likely that you'll find a holy site or two in Israel, and this is what many associate with a trip to this part of the Middle East. While the words "beach vacation" aren't always associated with Tel Aviv, they should be. This city has phenomenal beaches, and from April through mid-November, you can comfortably swim in the Mediterranean and enjoy the sunshine. Pick up a Matkot (Israeli beach tennis) set and you'll fit right in with the locals. The beaches are lined with restaurants, so you won't go hungry — some of the parks adjacent to the beaches even have grills that you can use if you want to picnic. For LGBT visitors, definitely head to the Hilton Beach, and if you're a dog lover, there's a beach just for them too. Keep clothes on, kiddos — unlike in the rest of the Mediterranean, topless bathing is not something that is generally practiced here.
5. Gay Pride Reigns Supreme
Israel might not be the first country that comes to mind when someone talks about open-mindedness and tolerance, but it should be, particularly when it comes to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv Pride is the largest gay-pride event in the Middle East, and it grows every year. The weeklong event in June coincides beautifully with that time of year when the weather is just right, the beaches and streets are lined with rainbow flags and there's a markedly optimistic, charged energy in the air. Pack your sunblock, read the TPG guide to attending Pride, and off you go!
6. There's No Public Transportation on Shabbat
If you plan on using public transportation to get around in Israel (not counting taxis), make sure you get where you going before sundown on Friday and plan to stay until Saturday evening. The trains stop, the buses stop, everything stops for 24 hours, and it's taxi only for getting around. The same goes for the state-run airline, El Al — no flights from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Other companies continue flying, though, and the airport stays open, but keep in mind that you won't be able to use the train to get there.
7. The Hanging Gardens of Haifa Are a Must-See
We all know that Israel and Palestine are the seat of the three major monotheistic world religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. But did you know that there's a fourth religion that also calls Israel home? Although the Baha'i faith was founded in 19th-century Persia, its governing body and many of its holy sites are in current-day Israel. It may not technically be in Tel Aviv, but the most spectacular of these is the Gan Baha'i, or the Hanging Gardens of Haifa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The terraced gardens that surround the Shrine of the Bab are a spectacle to behold no matter what angle you see them from — up top, down below or even from a bird's-eye view, if you can get yourself in a helicopter. Meticulously and beautifully landscaped, lush with color at any time of year, and only an hour from Tel Aviv by train, the gardens alone are more than worth the trip up to Haifa.
8. The Opera Festival Makes Summer in the Middle East Worthwhile
The Israeli Opera Summer Festivals are not to be missed. Held at historical sites around Israel each summer, they are breathtaking spectacles of art and culture set against the backdrop of history. I saw Tosca performed at the foot of Masada, and despite knowing little to nothing about opera and having been less than enthused on the way there, I was moved to tears by the setting and the artistry. The talent of the Israeli Opera is married with the settings in which they perform, and even those who are not opera buffs will be blown away.
9. You Won't Whine About Israeli Wine
When it comes to wine, most people think Italy, or maybe France, perhaps Napa, New Zealand or South Africa. But Israel? Wine plays a prominent role in both the Bible and the Torah and has been present in the Middle East since the Stone Age, but nowadays Israel isn't the first place that comes to mind for most oenophiles. But is the wine in Israel any good? Oh yes. The temperate climate in Israel is in fact perfect for wine production, and you can find anything from local reds and whites to rosés, sparkling wines, and even dessert wines. Order something local off the wine list and you won't be disappointed.
10. It's Safer Than You Think
I can't count the number of times I've said to someone that I'm going to Israel and the response is "Be careful!" or "Is is safe?" But I can't think of anywhere I feel as safe as I do in Tel Aviv. Even when I was there in November 2012, with rockets being fired at Tel Aviv from Gaza, I felt safe. The sirens went off, we left our outdoor table at the restaurant to enter a shelter, and came back out five minutes later to resume our meal. My phone was still on the table, and my friend's purse hadn't been touched. The bottom line is that the impression that Israel is unsafe is simply false. Tel Aviv is a warm, welcoming city whose residents are always happy to help with directions or recommendations. Browse over our latest credit-card deals, get your sign-up bonus and get that mileage ticket and head to Tel Aviv.
What are your favorite things to do in Tel Aviv? Let us know in the comments, below.