In Tel Aviv, people are always talking about “the bubble.” The lush lifestyle is a bubble. The almost surreal sense of distance from political woes is a bubble. The giddy sense that high tech and high culture are both booming here is a bubble. You don’t even have to be a native to feel it. Charles Renfro, a principal in the New York architectural firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro and a frequent visitor to Tel Aviv, says, “Every day feels like the best beach day, every bite the most sublime taste, and every night like the last party on earth.”
It doesn’t feel like the bubble is bursting anytime soon. From the Arab port of Jaffa, dating from the Bronze Age, to the famed rows of white, modernist Bauhaus buildings, to the 21st-century tech start-ups racing like wildfire across town, Tel Aviv inhales its past and exhales the thrill of the present. In Jaffa on any Friday morning, the first day of the weekend, the sounds of families at café tables echo in the area once occupied by soldiers of the Crusades. The sweetness of honeysuckle seems suspended over streets that tilt toward the timeless blue of the Mediterranean. The neighborhood’s locals and joggers from all over the city (an ocean promenade stretches from Namal, the restored port in Tel Aviv’s north, to Jaffa in the south) line up at the Margoza Family Bakery for freshly baked croissants and cappuccinos, or browse the great flea market between Yefet Street and Jerusalem Boulevard, where everything from antiques to high-end fashions can be found.
It’s helpful to know the quirks of Jaffa — that Albert’s Nuts on Rabbi Pinhas Street, with its addictive salted almonds, is open only on Fridays or that the shop called Palestina, on Oley Zion Street, has a cache of electrical antiques from before Israel’s founding in 1948. Lately, merchants have been complaining that rising rents are forcing some of them out, but that is an unfortu- nately common complaint in Tel Aviv, whose real estate rivals the craziness of New York prices. Still, the restaurants in Jaffa—spots like Charcuterie, Yoezer Wine Bar, and chef Nir Zook’s super-luxe Cordelia—are often crammed at night, with revel- ers, drinks in hand, spilling onto the streets.
“The culinary revolution in northern California, where I cooked for a while, was incredible for me, but I couldn’t keep away from Tel Aviv,” Zook says. “The mix of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and European cultures makes the place, let alone the food, unforgettable. I can be as wild as I want in what I make, in the way I live, as simple or rich. It’s like love. There’s no limit.”
Tel Aviv’s reputation as a new art capital is grow- ing rapidly. Artists from an older generation, like Michal Rovner, and up-and-comers, including Yael Bartana, Dor Guez, and Omer Fast, exemplify the increasingly international character of the talents who flow in and out of the city, as readily living in New York or Berlin and frequently focused on the trials and political complexities of their homeland. The gallery scene here is hopping, with some 30 spaces around the city, including Dvir Gallery and Sommer Contemporary Art, which mix the work of prominent Israeli artists and global art stars. Meanwhile, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art recently opened a dramatic new building by Harvard’s ar- chitecture chair, Preston Scott Cohen, and hired as its director Suzanne Landau, former chief curator of Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.
The Center for Contemporary Art, which specializes in video and experimental works, and the Shpilman Institute for Photography, a new showcase and research facility featuring superb 20th- and 21st-century images, are in an area simply called south Tel Aviv. This part of the city, including the Florentin neighborhood, shows a different Tel Aviv, far less exotic than Jaffa and less polished than the city center. This is a workaday world of light indus- try, of mom-and-pop storefronts along Herzl Street selling textiles, furniture, and lighting — though the fancy design store Kastiel, in its big Bauhaus building, is located in the area too.
And as in many major cities (think Brooklyn’s Bushwick or Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg), the cheaper rents of the neighborhood make it a natural breeding ground for art and innovation. Among the worn industrial buildings here you’ll find art- ists and artisans—both old-school and digital— passing in the sun-bleached streets.
In fact, the words that chef Nir Zook used, wild and rich — or at least fevered and hoping to get rich — have a completely distinct meaning here because this is where the high-tech start-up scene is in full force. Small offices abound with kids in T-shirts and jeans hammering away at their digital dreams, with two billion dollars in 2011 alone from venture capitalists to fuel them. The intensity is perfectly captured by what Ron Pundak, former CEO of the Peres Center for Peace, says about Tel Avivians in general, “always pushing, improvising to make something out of nothing, to be better, to be state of the art.”
The gritty streets here don’t hold much appeal for tourists, and some areas are a bit sketchy at night, but you get a real feeling of daily life. The voices in the streets are speaking Hebrew, and occasionally Arabic, but more often you hear the soft patter of Russian spoken by the mass of émigrés who came after the fall of the Soviet Union. A funky place called Fishka sums up the area best. It calls itself a “creative, multicultural community,” and it’s where young entrepreneurs can drop in for late-night jazz revels and an exploration of ethnic cooking.
Nothing seems more than a 20-minute cab ride from anything else in Tel Aviv, and many areas of town are filled with people walking, benches on which to perch, little parks, and bike paths (the city has its own bike rental service with simple, automated machines). The sound of honking horns is everywhere — the impatience of Israelis, it would seem, to go faster.
In any case, a cab is hardly needed to get from Florentin to the low, quaint buildings along Neve Tzedek’s Shabazi Street. Neve Tzedek, which dates from 1887, was the first residential neighborhood of what would come to be Tel Aviv. The winding little streets are magical, all the more so because the office towers of the city’s center crowd right up against them. At the bottom of Shabazi, on Yehieli Street, stands the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre, with its welcoming plaza and fountain under the palm trees. This is the city’s showcase for contemporary dance. The Batsheva Dance Company is in residence, renowned for the choreography of its longtime artistic director, Ohad Naharin, but other companies from across the globe perform there throughout the year.
If Jerusalem is thick with tension and the convergence of the world’s faiths, Tel Aviv’s worldliness is ever present, no place more so than in the city’s center, a short walk from Neve Tzedek. With Tel Aviv’s population hovering around 400,000, the city’s premier walking street, Rothschild Boulevard, famed for its rows of Bauhaus buildings, is busy day and night. In 2011, when Occupy movements swept the world, Rothschild became a tent city, with speakers demanding that the government keep the cost of living down, but generally the occupiers are dog walkers, kids on skateboards, young families with strollers, and older couples reading Haaretz, the intelligentsia’s newspaper, on a bench.
The architecture here speaks volumes about the city’s nascence. “Tel Aviv was founded in 1909, but in the ’30s comes this new architecture, principally from German Jews, trained at the Bauhaus, escaping the Nazis,” says architect and historian Zvi Efrat. “They built thousands of these white, gleaming Bauhaus structures, which is why Tel Aviv is called the White City. There is no concentration of modernist buildings like this anywhere else. But these buildings are really an aberration, not strictly classical Bauhaus style, but something more sculptural, a collage of modernist ideas frozen in a white-washed fantasy for our brave new world. That’s what makes Tel Aviv so unique, so endlessly fascinating to look at.”
The center and north of Tel Aviv have a more settled, residential feeling, with plenty of shops and restaurants, and new buildings going up almost everywhere you look — a Richard Meier luxury tower here, the renovation of Bauhaus structures all around. For shoppers whose needs run to the big international fashion brands, head to Kikar Hame- dina square in the north end of town. There arealso wonderful places in the heart of Tel Aviv with unexpected local finds, such as the whimsical Sarit Shani Hay design store for children or Villa Maroc, with its Moroccan imports—from intricately inlaid tables to lavender-tinted glass pendant lamps — alongside in-house interpretations. (Be sure to ask to see the stellar private showroom.)
At the north end is Namal, Tel Aviv’s revitalized port, which has its own pleasures. The stretch of beaches is tantalizing, edged by a long promenade and more shops. On weekends, the vast, green Hayarkon Park — with paths for biking and a man-made lake dotted with boaters — draws families, who spread out on the grass to enjoy afternoon picnics.
In Tel Aviv, there is luxury and languor, industry and ambition, squalor, too, and political heat — it’s a city pulsing with both simple pleasures and urbane sophistication. “What I sensed about Tel Aviv when I went back recently, after being away for 35 years, was exactly this kind of international vibrancy,” says Adam D. Weinberg, director of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. “It’s the thing that makes a great city — not just big institutions that are cultural pinnacles, but the density of all these fascinating smaller outposts that buzz.
“There’s this sense of openness to ideas,” Weinberg adds, “and I got that wherever I went.”