Wanderlust: Tel Aviv

Living in New York, I find there exists a particularly close connection to Israel. It could be the number of Jewish-Americans that live here, connecting with American-Israelis who’ve made the big move, or the abundance of Israeli tourists that you meet in coffee shops and bars. Maybe I’ve had the lunch special at Hummus Place too many times or found myself gorging, after-hours, on desserts and coffee at Yaffa Café on one too many school nights.

I could say ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘Happy New Year’ in Hebrew, but had never considered taking the half-day flight across the Atlantic and into the mystery that is the Middle East. That is, until I came across an unspeakably inexpensive ticket from NYC to Tel Aviv, found on the for-the-people, aviation geek website The Flight Deal. I booked immediately, without hesitation.

Tel Aviv is an unparalleled city. Although it may take dining cues from Paris, with most places offering smoky, sidewalk café seating and beach culture from Miami, where oceanfront volleyball is often modified and played with football rules (no hands), Tel Aviv offers one of the more unique metropolitan experiences.

I arrived early on a Sunday morning at Ben Gurion Airport. I had booked an inexpensive guest room on AirBnB.com, one of my preferred travel tools. The public transportation is straightforward and modern. You can take a train to HaShalom Station and a bus to pretty much anywhere from there. The number 5 took me just about to the doorstep of where I was staying, not far from the Dizengoff Center Mall.

Once I settled in, I met up with an Israeli friend who frequents New York City. We immediately left the center of town for some serious Middle Eastern hummus. Jaffa, the original city of the area, retains some of the best Arab Israeli food offerings in the country. Passing Old Jaffa, heading south we stopped at Abu Maruan (129 Yefet). I dove into a giant bowl of the best hummus I have ever eaten. It’s not exactly glamorous and there is no English menu but saying ‘hummus with pita’ should do the trick.

Down the street, back towards Tel Aviv, you’ll find Mutran Sweets (99 Yefet), a classic Arabic coffee and dessert shop. Once there, you will put yourself to a test: Do I love Kanafeh or do I hate it? Kanafeh, the sweet, syrup-soaked, cheese-filled pastry has its origins in Palestine. The pastry handler cuts it from a large, pizza-sized portion sitting on a hot plate. Your serving will be too much to eat and you will either: try one bite and graciously pass it along, or you will finish the entire plate within the minute, which is what I did.

It’s a striking visual. The style here is a ‘Jerusalem Kanafeh’, meaning the pastry on top is neon-orange and it’s filled with a soft goat cheese. Pair it with a sampling of baked cigar-shaped pastries and a remarkably strong, spiced Arabic coffee to round out the meal.

One thing, possibly above all others, that Tel Aviv comes through on is breakfast. I could eat a fresh tomato and cucumber salad, thick slices of white toast and a piping hot skillet of Shakshuka any day and everyday.

You can find great Israeli salad just about anywhere, but do yourself a favor and sit down at Shefer Café (Kiryat Sefer 10). Order a pastry, a salad and a ‘filter coffee’, made pour over style with a plastic reusable filter. Most places serve an old school espresso in water for coffee orders, but Shefer is switching it up.

If you didn’t get enough brunch there, take a long walk or bus ride back to Jaffa for the one-of-a-kind experience of Dr. Shakshuka (Beit Eshel 3). There is much hype surrounding this place and trust that it is all warranted. Order the classic Shakshuka, two easy eggs, swimming in thick, spiced tomato sauce, served in the same skillet it was cooked in, with every bite scooped up in dense white bread. Sit on the covered patio out back, split it with a friend, and watch the neighborhood bustle.

Once your meal settles, take a walk through the Jaffa Flea Market, just east of the clock tower. The market is a mixed bag of ‘vendors’, some selling picture frames, post cards or jewelry, others selling single shoes, battered tape recorders and glasses missing stems and lenses, but the walk through the tiny alleys and old neighborhood is fascinating enough to merit a look around.

The beaches are beautiful, of course. Large sections of the sand have reclined chairs and shaded canopies, open to the public, courtesy of a number of alcohol brands. One way I chose to reinforced my relaxation while sunbathing was by picking up, at any of countless locations, Tel Aviv’s version of ‘iced coffee.’ The product is not for the coffee snob, nor those intolerant to sweetness. It is served in either four or eight ounce sizes and is sort of an intersection between a Wendy’s Frosty and a Dunkin Donuts Coolatta. Everybody drinks them and it is easily the most effective way to cool down during a long walk through town. Hand pick a box of assorted Turkish Delights at the Carmel Market (HaCarmel 11) for a premium and cheap afternoon treat.

Dinner is a late affair in Tel Aviv, like many Mediterranean towns. So, if you're like me, you will take advantage of eating two dinners- once early in the evening and then again at night, with everyone else. You cannot visit Israel without having seafood. It is incredibly fresh and so meticulously handled. Sifo (Nahman 3), is a really well priced and happening seafood restaurant in Jaffa. The service is so friendly and the food is fantastic. Again, there isn't a menu in English but talking it through is part of the journey and the staff is happy to help.

For more travel stories by Mac Malikowski:

Travel tips if you go:

  • Be prepared for passport control, in and out. Know what your plan is.
  • Avoid traveling with your laptop. It can add 30 minutes to airport security and you might not end up leaving the country with it.
  • You'll usually have to open your bag for an officer at most malls, train stations and markets. Just relax and smile.
  • Avoid the Central Bus Station if possible. The neighborhood is one of the poorest in the country and the station is particularly confusing. 

Eat up!