tel_avivIf you haven’t visited Tel Aviv, you must put it on your list.  It is such a happening city, offering so much variety: great beaches, good shopping, restaurants of all kinds, easy access to all of Israel including Jerusalem in one direction and the north in another.  It’s bustling, absolutely thriving. 

Tourism is definitely up, as witnessed by the various accents throughout the city and a decent exchange rate.  The city has changed a lot since my last visit seven years ago, only for the better.  There’s also a lot to do with children, everything from beaches to museums to playgrounds to historical landmarks.

When we first drove in after spending a few days in Jerusalem on this past trip, I immediately noticed how much construction has taken place over the years.  The city is booming, it’s truly a metropolis.  You can’t help but first notice all the motorcycles buzzing through the city.  It’ must be the latest craze and an economical way to get around.  There are coffee shops popping up all over the city.  The Tel Aviv Port has been renovated.  The markets are buzzing.  Whenever you tire of city life, you can just head over to the beaches that line the city on one side and are heaven on earth.

In Jerusalem, we felt a heavy army presence, as well as more of a split between the religious and non-religious sectors.  You don’t feel this in Tel Aviv.  However, just as I felt safe in Jerusalem, I felt equally safe in Tel Aviv.  On our last visit in 2003 right before my daughter was born; there were guards outside every restaurant.  Buses were dangerous.  This is no longer.  We felt incredibly safe.  What a difference 7 years makes, including the fact that I now have a child.  Last time I was in Israel, I was 32 weeks pregnant with my first child.  She went around telling our family and friends that this is her second trip there, even though the first trip was in vitro.

We flew to Tel Aviv from Manchester, England, for about £300 pounds each on Airlines.  Security is not as tight as on El Al Airlines which I usually fly from JFK, but you get what you pay for.  Fares tend to be cheaper at particular times of year, so plan your trip carefully. 

Flying to Tel Aviv is an experience.  Everyone is so excited to get to Israel – they are returning home, visiting family or seeing it for the first time.  The first thing you see as you wait for your luggage is pass by a group of people praying by a wall.  It puts you in the Israel frame of mind immediately. We rented a car from Avis for about $250 for 10 days and headed straight to our hotel. 

Nestled in the heart of quaint Neve Tzedek, Nina Cafe Suites (29 Shabazi Street; 00 972 52 508 4141, ) is Tel Aviv’s first boutique hotel, a five-suite retreat inspired by the owner’s many trips to Paris.   It opened in 2002. 

Neve Tzedek was the first Jewish settlement after Jaffa, which was Roman and Arab.  Forty years ago, the area went down but not it is on the rise.  It is trendy and full of adorable shops and restaurants.  It’s really hard to park around there, so fortunately the hotel has a parking garage.

The owner wants to you to discover the hotel, so we had trouble finding it.  We were shown right to a family suite.  All the suites are furnished with unique items from the exclusive shops and boutiques of the Neve Tzedek quarter.  I fell instantly in love with this hotel.  It’s only a 5-minute walk from the sea and 15 minutes from the center of town.  The suite was very comfortable and included a balcony with a view of the area.  Breakfast is included and is served in a café across the street or in your room.  We opted to dine in the Parisian café, and feasted on chocolate croissants and coffee amongst the many locals.  Rooms range from $280-$410 a night, depending on the season.  We met a couple from South Africa who enjoyed the experience so much they that were leaving to tour northern Israel and were planning to return in a few days to the same room.

From there, we walked to the Suzanne Dalal Centre, a cultural center, to dine at Bellini, an Italian restaurant with terrific atmosphere and scrumptious food.  The kids had a couple bowls of pasta and were very, very happy.  It was the ultimate first night in Israel.

Tel Aviv is warm year-round.  There are beautiful beaches that stretch for 12 miles.  You can rent an umbrella and hang out for the day. There are restaurants lining the beaches, children running in all directions and you may even see Israeli dancing.  You’re on the Mediterranean so among the big, crashing waves are many surfers. 

We spent an afternoon on the port of Tel Aviv, which is a flourishing area with new restaurants opening all the time and beautiful views.   We had a lovely lunch at Shalvata, decorated with large pillows and lounge chairs which somehow reminded me of our days lounging around Sinai.  There were clowns on the boardwalk, a lovely breeze and the kids were able to run freely after lunch.  In addition to pizza for the kids and salads for us, my brother-in-law ordered my favorite dish, hummus, and then watermelon for dessert, which is very typical of Israelis at the end of every meal. 

I went around looking for hummus in every restaurant we went to which was a mistake.  It appears that Israelis have wised up to the truth about the caloric content of hummus and you can no longer get it in just any Israeli restaurant.  More often, they serve tahini with bread before the meal, which is a lot healthier.

We spent time in the city’s markets, which were experiences that the kids really enjoyed.  The first market we went to on this trip was Yaffo , or “Jaffa”.   This is a part of the city in which Jews, Arabs and Muslims live together quite peacefully.  The flea market, operated by them all, is open daily and offers eclectic offerings such as clothing, jewelry, Judaica and antiques.  When I was a young girl, I used to buy all my clothes here.   We had lunch at a lovely restaurant called Puaa on 8 Rabbi Yohanan Street.  The tehina, pita and Israeli salad were so tasty and this was hands down my favorite meal on the trip.  After lunch, we strolled through the Jewish galleries facing the water.  This is always a favorite stop for me on my tour of Israel.  I stopped in a store called the Farkash Galleryd purchased vintage Israeli placemats for my children.

We also spent an afternoon in Nachalat Benyamin which is open every Tuesday and Friday.  This art fair features the works of 200 artists.  Each artist must be present at the fair.  It is located in one of Tel Aviv’s oldest neighborhoods and is an absolute treasure.  I found the most unique gifts in this market, including woodcrafts of my children’s names in Hebrew and the loveliest jewelry and Shabbat candlesticks for myself.  The work in the market is unique and unlike anything else you will find. We had lunch at a small café recommended by a friend back in the U.S. who knows the owner on 31 Groozenberg street called Ginza (I hope this is the right name, I only have the postcard with details in Hebrew about this restaurant).  It has excellent cuisine, definitively Perisan, and is an authentic Israeli meal with very big portions.  We shared meatballs, chicken and rice with sides like cabbage salad, tahini and bread.  The shops surrounding the market sell everything under the sun from tee shirts to art supplies to Israeli souvenirs.  The kids enjoyed the experience as much as I did.  They liked all the markets on this trip as they always picked up interesting collectibles and tchotchkes.

In a town called Herzylia, just about 20 minutes from the heart of Tel Aviv, there’s a tremendous marina with restaurants overlooking the Mediterrnean.  It’s been renovated in the last few years and is a terrific place to take a stroll and have a meal.  In the same town, there is a playground that is your children will go nuts over with sweeping slides.  We visited this park two times.  There’s also a mall across the street to fullfill your shopping needs. 

There is so much to do in Tel Aviv; this is only a taste.  From Tel Aviv, you can head north and go to coastal towns  or kibbutzim, or you an head inland to the Galil or the Golan Heights, or you can head south to Jerusalem and Eilat.  You will never tire of things to do in Tel Aviv.