If there’s one trip I planned to take again and again, but never quite got around to it, it was Israel. Whether it was political turmoil, distance from the West Coast, or a stronger desire to visit places I’d never been before, for twelve years Israel alluded me. The last time I’d visited was just after graduating from college, leading a Birthright trip from Canada. Heavily planned, this trip required me to corral a group of 20-somethings around the country, so this trip, a trip to experience the country on my own, was long overdue.
I knew it would be different this time, traveling with my husband who had never been to Israel before. In the last twelve years, I’d lost my grandmother and aunt, who left me with a bounty of memories I knew I wouldn’t get to recreate. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I found myself missing them, and wondering what Israel would be like without them. I decided we’d be based in Tel Aviv, and I’d honor my grandmother and aunt by sharing the country with my husband, eating great food (almost as good as my grandmother’s), meandering through markets, and carving out time to connect with my uncle and cousins in Jerusalem.
Deciding where to stay in Tel Aviv can be a challenge, with beachfront hotels, luxurious rentals, and boutique hotels aplenty. I settled on an apartment rental in Neve Tzedek, a hip neighborhood brimming with restaurants, bars, shopping, and people-watching.
The apartment was a seven minute walk from the beach, a five minute walk to Carmel Market, and a ten minute walk to Allenby and Rothschild Boulevard, which was a crossroads of endless restaurant options. The apartment was in a high rise building complete with a doorman, pool, and lounge area. For about $160 per night, it included a kitchen, living room, balcony (pictured above), bedroom, bathroom, and a walk-in closet. It was the perfect basecamp to explore Tel Aviv on foot or bicycle.
The first two days of our trip were spent along the Mediterranean. Walking down to the beachfront from our apartment we had two choices: walk to the right and we’d have our choice of beach after beach, lively with tourists from all over the world, beach chairs and loungers available for rent, and endless turquoise waters. The weather was consistently in the upper 70s to mid 80s with a light coastal breeze. If we walked to the left, 20 minutes and we’d arrive in Jaffa, the old port of Tel Aviv with history dating back to 1469 BCE, and bustling with galleries, markets, restaurants, and locals living their best lives, still today.
7:30am - Aroma Cafe
Nearly as synonymous as Starbucks in the US, Aroma Cafe was open bright and early. Coffee and two bourekas later, we were ready to face the day.
8:00am - Carmel Market
On our way back to the apartment, we wandered through Carmel Market. The vendors were just setting up for the day - and the preliminary sights and smells were enough to bring us back several more times throughout our time in Tel Aviv. On our morning stroll, we couldn’t resist the fresh pomegranate juice. We agreed it was the most delicious juice either of us had ever tasted.
10:00am - The Beaches of Tel Aviv
We walked to the right along the beach, toes in the sand, letting the water pool up around our ankles. We made our way to a collection of loungers, rented a few for the afternoon, and soaked up the all the Mediterranean beach vibes.
2:00pm - Street Food Break
After a few hours on the beach, we were craving Israeli food, and with options on nearly every block, we certainly had our pick. At Johnny's Falafel, the falafel was hot and crispy, the vegetables crunchy, and the hummus creamy. French fries, known as “chips” in Israel, were added on top, keeping with the local tradition. A few squirts of schug, the local hot sauce, and tahini, and the falafel was as good as gone. Falafel, for those who aren’t familiar, is made from chickpeas and spices blended together, formed into a ball, and fried. It’s vegetarian food even the biggest carnivores will devour.
Next door, the aptly named Sabich Tchernichovsky, is known for its sandwich of the same name. From Iraqi-Israeli origins, the sabich pita sandwich is stuffed with layers of fried, melt-in-your-mouth eggplant, boiled egg, potato, a rainbow of crunchy fresh veggies, hummus, tahini, and of course, schug. This is another vegetarian sandwich option, relying on fresh, local produce for maximum flavor. Part of the excitement is watching the sandwiches get made, layer by layer, the shop owner fills the fresh, chewy pita with an artist’s precision. And at a cost of only a few bucks, it’s no wonder these street eats are so popular.
8:00pm - Dinner at Milgo & Milbar
Along what some describe as the Beverly Hills of Tel Aviv for its tree lined promenade, Rothschild Boulevard offers dozens of restaurants ranging from casual to fancy, Israeli to Italian, and everything in between. That night, we dined at Milgo & Milbar, a restaurant I selected via this Eater article (one of my favorite blogs for dining out in a new place), with the company of my aunt and uncle who are Washington, DC based. They were on a guided trip to Israel but happened to have one night for dinner on their own. The menu was Mediterreanean, including fresh local fish, handmade pastas, and local-raised meats, and the conversation flowed. I can’t say I’ve ever had the experience of traveling abroad at the same time as friends or family, so it was a great treat to be able to dine together.
7:00am - Old Jaffa
The next day, we made our way down to the beachfront promenade, rented a couple of bikes from the Tel-O-Fun city bike system, and rode to Jaffa. We were up early, before much of the old town had even opened for the day, which afforded some great photo opps.
By now, the shops had opened up and we had a chance to explore the galleries. The Ilana Goor Museum was definitely our favorite, and while there was a small fee to enter, the variety of paintings, sculptures, furniture, and views were well worth the cost.
9:00am - New Jaffa
We headed into the Arab city of Jaffa, in search of Abu Hassan, home of arguably the best hummus in Israel, if not the world. Don’t believe me? Ask Anthony Bourdain. Back in Oregon, there’s an Israeli restaurant called Shalom Y’all, and they’ve named their hummus after the restaurant in Jaffa. It’s that good.
Along the way to checking the renowned hummus off our bucket list, we wandered through the Arab village and souk (market). Locals mixed with tourists shopping for souvenirs and housewares alike. We window-shopped and took in the sights, smells, and sounds of the city, popping into a few more galleries that caught our eye.
11:00am - Hummus at Abu Hassan
But back to the task at hand. There are just a few things you should know. It’s not easy to find. Nestled to the south of the Old Port but sort of above the city proper, Abu Hassan can only be described as a hole in the wall that will change your life. With a few tables along the sidewalk and not many more inside, service is extremely efficient. The restaurant is open until 3pm, or until the hummus is all sold out. As for the menu? Well, you have three options. A classic hummus, spicy hummus, or fool - a pureed fava bean dip. Served with a stack of warm, fresh pita, and quartered raw onion, the simplicity is part of the magic. Creamy, flavorful, and fresh, this was easily the best hummus I’d ever tasted.
After lunch, we made our way back through Old Jaffa, grabbed a couple more bicycles, and headed back along the coastline to modern Tel Aviv.
A combination of full bellies, jetlag, and a very early morning itinerary ahead knocked us out at 5:00pm that evening.
12:30am - An Early Morning Wake Up Call
We awoke at midnight, having slept seven hours and feeling refreshed. We had a long day ahead of us, including two hikes in the desert before descending to the lowest place on earth. No, this wasn’t a dream (or a nightmare). We dressed for adventure and headed out into the night.
1:30am - Benedict
One thing you’ve got to love about cities is the ability to dine at all hours of the day or night. Benedict is one such place. With a few locations in Tel Aviv, this 24-hour breakfast spot offers a hip diner atmosphere, fast service, and an extensive menu. We giggled as we took our seats, surrounded by 20-somethings who had been partying all night, ordering towering pancake stacks and taking selfies while we were just getting started.
3:00am - 3:00pm Desert Adventures
We climbed aboard a passenger van with a dozen other adventure types from all over the world including a couple from Ireland (now living in London), and a girl from New Jersey who reminded me of home. The adventures in store were not for the faint of heart, and one of those experiences where it’s easy to make friends as you're metaphorically thrust into the eye of the storm.
By 5:00am, we’d arrived for a sunrise hike at Masada. Climbing the Snake Trail was not for the faint of heart, but it was an adventure of a lifetime.
The views from the top were unbelievable, and I recommend this excursion with Tourist Israel, for anyone traveling to this beautiful country and looking to experience history that will take your breath away in more ways than one.
By 7:00am, we were traversing the magical forest and falls of Ein Gedi, looking out over the Dead Sea. But before we'd head there, we had waterfalls to soak ourselves in, and Ibex to admire.
Visiting Ein Gedi was a first for me, a nature reserve in the middle of sparse desert.
By noon, we’d plunge ourselves neck deep into the Dead Sea - quite literally as the high concentration of salt makes it nearly impossible to do anything more than lay back and feel entirely weightless.
The healing properties of the rich, soapy-feeling salt water extend to the mud. So after soaking in the waters, it was time to cover ourselves in mud from head to toe, and soak up all of the minerals therein. This is an experience not to be missed.
While there are many tours offered to this part of the country, Tourist Israel’s was one of the only ones I could find that included the sunrise hike to Masada. Others relied on the tram to get attendees up the mountain fortress, which ensured our group would be fairly athletic, closer to us in age, and moving at around the same speed.
8:00pm - Dinner at Rustico
After climbing over 700 stairs at Masada, and walking a total of 11 miles, a big meal was definitely in order. I’m actually amazed we awoke from our afternoon siesta to go to dinner that evening. We headed up to Rothschild Boulevard where throngs of young people were already gathered. We tried to go to one of what must have been the hippest restaurants of the moment, North Abraxass, but with a two hour wait, there was no chance we’d last until 10:00pm that evening, given we’d been up since midnight. Rustico seemed like a great option instead, known for its fresh pizzas and pastas, and featuring an open kitchen which is always a treat for my chef husband, Steven. While there was an hour wait for a table, they offered to seat us at the bar as long as we’d be out by 9:30pm. With any luck, we’d be back in bed by 9:30pm, I thought. The service was excellent, the pizza delicious, and the atmosphere lively.
At last, it was time for some shut eye.
9:00am - Breakfast at Cafe Xoho
We started our morning with a walk along the beach, working up an appetite for a Western-style breakfast at Cafe Xoho complete with bagels and eggs. The cafe transported us back to Oregon, with its hippie aesthetic, homemade treats, dogs co-mingling with smiling babies, and young moms gathering to socialize. With friendly service and breakfast and lunch options, it’s no wonder this cafe is so busy.
11:00am - Beach, Please
Back at the beach, we rented two loungers and found a little shade under a borrowed umbrella. The temperature would reach the mid 80s that day, and with the ocean breeze, it was the perfect temperature. One of my fondest memories of Israel from my early 20s was jumping in the waves in Natanya, a gorgeous coastal town further north of Tel Aviv.
Being in the Mediterranean on this picture perfect day took me right back to that time. For me, these moments are some of life’s greatest pleasures. Hopefully it won’t be another twelve years before I return.
In between playing in the ocean and taking selfies, we noshed on snacks we’d purchased at Carmel Market earlier that morning: olives, clementines, “garinim schmenim” which translates to “fat seeds” in English, and roasted almonds.
3:00pm - Lunch at Carmel Market
On our way back to the apartment, we worked up an appetite and stopped in at Carmel Market again for a bite at Bar Ochel. Specializing in shakshuka and kebobs, we ordered one of each. 80's music and a bartender egging her patrons on with complimentary shots were part of the fun. A man who must have been in his 70s who the bartender referred to as "Aba" (dad in Hebrew), kept the party going with some killer dance moves.
5:00pm - Shopping on Shabazi
That evening, we wandered through more of the Neve Tzedek neighborhood where we were staying. We wandered up cobblestone streets and found ourselves on Shabazi, a street known for its boutique shops and restaurants. We peaked into a few galleries, purchased a few momentos to take home, and made plans to grab gelato at Anita, clearly a local favorite with its line out the door, later that evening.
8:00pm - Dinner at North Abraxass
It was the last night of our trip and we were determined to get into North Abraxass. Since the restaurant opened at 8:00pm, we planned to arrive a few minutes earlier and snag a table before things got busy. When we arrived, it seemed the restaurant was already full, but thankfully there were two seats at the bar. We took our seats and the show began. Complete with bartenders who were enjoying themselves as much as the patrons, intricate food served in the most basic ways (think stuffed in a brown bag, or served on a piece of torn cardboard), the experience was certainly unique. The blaring American pop music aside (Despacito feat. Justin Bieber followed us to Israel, fyi), we enjoyed the spectacle. Many consider this restaurant among the best in Tel Aviv, while others are completely turned off by the very things the proponents consider to be its charms. We landed somewhere in the middle - saving room for that gelato on the way back to our rental.
After a few more days of sightseeing around Israel, we were off on an adventure to Sardinia, and then to Valencia, before returning home to the US. Home. There's something about that word. It carries so much meaning, but home can sometimes be a moving target. In Israel, in many ways, I felt like I was home. From the minute we arrived, the Hebrew from my childhood returned as if I'd used it daily. Physically, I blended in seamlessly with the locals. I looked just like the women in Israel, whereas tall, blond, and broad shouldered, my husband stuck out in the crowd. Back home of course, the opposite was true, and I'm often the one being asked where I'm from. Yet thousands of miles from home, I was assumed to be a local. I couldn't help but think of my aunt and grandmother, and just how much I'd taken after them despite being so far away for all of these years. In some ways, I really had come home.