While Jerusalem venerates its past, Tel Aviv looks toward the future.
Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world; approximately 3.5 million tourists—many on religious pilgrimage—arrive every year to visit centuries old holy sites. On the streets, modestly dressed nuns and rabbis cross paths within the narrow alleys of the Old City engendering an air of conservatism. New buildings are erected in the same white limestone that makes up their ancient counterparts to minimize distinction between the old and the new.
In Tel Aviv, modern hotels are popping up monthly alongside long neglected buildings, and bearded cyclists pass purple-haired German expats huddled around the city’s mobile book swaps. Young people, who make up nearly a third of Tel Aviv’s population, are on different sort of pilgrimage—the quest for startup success. But beyond the surface-level differences, nowhere is the divide more evident, yet the soul more constant, than in the food.
In Jerusalem, even new, trendy spots are content rehashing centuries-old regional dishes in modern formats, and kosher eateries remain the norm. This stands in stark contrast to Tel Aviv’s farm-to-table, craft cocktail, and fusion movements. Modern Asian, Italian, and North African influences are emerging in chic, hipster-approved eateries, where impeccably tattooed waiters will happily serve you pork smothered in cheese. Here’s how to eat your way through both cities—and catch some sites along the way.
Tel Aviv: Modern Foodie Metropolis
At the intersection of Sderot Rothschild and Nahalat Binyamin, work your way through a cluster of trendy food and nightlife spots, including Abraxas, which serves modern takes on Levantine classics, like grape-marinated lamb shawarma in tahini sauce, and after 10 p.m. a DJ spins American hits for casual dancing; and Mizlala, which combines Middle Eastern and global flavors. Dishes include Kubaneh (pictured above)—Yemenite Jewish bread shaped like a chef’s hat—with a tomato and green chili sauce, and sashimi with soy and silan glaze and eggplant tempura. Just a few doors down, Bindella, a chic Swiss transplant, offers an Israeli twist on modern Italian food including a take on panna cotta with limoncello caviar, candied nuts, and pineapple, which alone is worth the visit. One of the most popular restaurants in Tel Aviv now is the elegant Asian eatery Taizu. From the interiors—gray concrete walls, sleek black tables, and glass sconces—to aesthetically plated Shanghainese dumplings and tuna tartar served in a rice cone, everything is artistic and chic.
Walk along the cobblestone streets of Jaffa, popping into charming storefronts with colorful shutters and passing the port, which has been in operation for more than 3,000 years and is home to the largest city-commissioned works of street art.
The evocative Ilana Goor Museum (pictured above), housed in a former soap factory in Jaffa, serves as the famed Israeli artist’s private home and an open museum (only her bedroom is private), which showcases her private art collection, comprising everything from ancient pottery to large-scale contemporary sculptures. Stop at Haj Kahil for the famously juicy lamb shawarma and a bottomless basket of laffa (a traditional Middle Eastern flatbread baked in a taboon oven) and a slice of kanefeh—wispy pastry shreds surrounding a soft white cheese, soaked in syrup, and topped with pistachio.
For the heart and soul of Tel Aviv’s culinary culture, head to the markets. Levinsky Market, a five-block stretch of gourmet bakeries, spice shops and delicatessens founded by Greek and Turkish immigrants in the late 1920s, is the foundation of Tel Aviv’s gourmet food scene. Nearly a century later, many of the early family-owned shops, like the 40-year-old Yom Tov Deli (famous for its Turkish cheeses and grape leaves, made by the family’s 93-year-old grandfather), are still standing. A wave of trendy new eateries, like the Mediterranean-inspired Halutzim 3, have sprouted into the mix.
Less polished than Levinsky, the Carmel Market is where most of the city’s working class shops. You’ll find golden mounds of spices followed by piles of plump pomegranates, and the occasional gnarly smells and sights, like whole cow carcasses strung from butcher stands and old men dumping ice buckets of pungent fish onto the ground.
Stop at the Druze Chalabi Family stand near Simtat HaCarmel Road for laffa baked on a hot crescent-shaped stone (pictured above), then smeared with labneh (creamy cheese made from strained yogurt with a distinctive, sour taste), pickled lemons and tabouleh (a salad made of chopped tomatoes, parsley, mint, bulgur and onion), and rolled up into a warm wrap that falls apart in your mouth.
The Yemenite Quarter holds some of the market’s best-kept secrets. In a hollowed-out kitchen, an over 100-year-old bakery informally named Syrian Cookies (to find it, ask Moran Broza of Delicious Israel) makes only two things: buttery, biscotti-like cookies and burekas—triangular pastries filled with cheese and covered in sesame seeds. The simplicity of each belies the mastery of flavors and textures; you could polish off an entire tray with ease.
In Tel Aviv, if you’re looking to start an hours long argument, there’s no need to bring up religion or politics; the Tel Avivim fight most passionately over who makes the best hummus.
Though the famed Abu-Hasan/Ali Karavan in Jaffa deserves a visit (be prepared to get there early and wait in line), for me, the conflict ends at Shlomo v’ Doron. A blend of pureed and whole chickpeas, plus a swirl of Egyptian fava puree and an Earl Grey-boiled egg that melts into creamy, fluffy hummus makes it the clear winner. Top it with steaming shakshuka—poached eggs cooked in tomato sauce—for a twist, and scoop it up with freshly baked pita or sliced onion, and you’ll be hooked.
Fatout is a pastry made of thin layers of dough baked in traditional metal pot burners and smothered in butter and honey. Get it at Milky Way, a dollhouse-like cafe decorated with postcards from around the world. Though you’ll come for the pastry, you’ll stay for a conversation with the adorable owner, Shim Shom. Grab an early cocktail at the bar in The Norman hotel in the heart of the White City, Tel Aviv’s UNESCO-protected Bauhaus district. Situated in two restored Bauhaus homes from the 1920s, the building’s structural details and interior design are impeccable—from the sculptural pewter bar to the Portuguese mosaic floors. Order a French 75 and settle into one of the stately leather armchairs.
The Brown Beach House (pictured above) is spearheading a revival of the otherwise lackluster Tel Aviv waterfront. With sea and city views, the hotel bar offers a Miami Vice feel with long white couches, gauzy curtains and a two-story tall vintage Playboy poster, gazing seductively over young Israelis tossing back martinis.
Across the street, the side entrance to the otherwise uninspiring Imperial Hotel leads to a dimly lit cocktail lounge. Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar serves expertly-mixed libations, like the Thyme to Kill with Tanqueray, Ouzo and St. Germain, shaken with mandarin jam, lime and thyme. The bar fills up fast, so call ahead or plan to get there before 9. The new Poli House opens this May in a restored corner-lot Bauhaus building, overlooking the intersection of Nahalat Binyamin and Allenby Streets on Magen David Square. Locals will be buzzing about the rooftop bar, which promises pumping music and an infinity pool cascading over the edge.