Tel Aviv: superficiality or freedom?

I spent one week in Tel Aviv, a city that grows fast and has a Western flair. I felt a carefree and modernity atmosphere, but also a lack of authenticity. Discover the places I visited and the people I met during my stay.
Beaches in Tel Aviv are in front of high buildings

After spending 5 days in Jerusalem, during which my attention and my curiosity have been stimulated by the rich historic heritage, I’m glad to arrive in Tel Aviv, a city famous for its good living and festive atmosphere.

This article is not a travel guide. I didn’t visit many monuments and didn’t go to any museum. Instead, I wanted to take the most of my one-week trip in Tel Aviv by enjoying the nightlife and the beaches. Plus, its liberal nature attracted me.

A vacation setting and an atmosphere of freedom

From my very first hours in Tel Aviv, the difference with Jerusalem is obvious. The Holy City is a reminder of history and religion, whereas Tel Aviv looks to the future. On my first day, after working in the Airbnb flat where I’m staying, I go to the beach in the early evening. On the streets, I pass people dressed in Western style and notice very few religious signs. Tsitsit, headscarves and long skirts are rare here. Sandals, shorts, short skirts and tank tops are everywhere. What’s more, I find the people, both men and women, with their Mediterranean features, beautiful. I tell myself that the mixing of populations has something to do with it.

The city is noisy. The noise comes from the cars on the wide avenues and the conversations and laughter of the groups of friends sitting on the terraces. I find that France is a country where people like to spend time outdoors, and the inhabitants of Tel Aviv seem to be outside even more often.

To get to the beach, I walk along a wide street. I notice many bars and restaurants. The early evening atmosphere, when people start to go out, delights me. After crossing the small Independence Park, I reach the palm-lined seafront. In front of me, I can see Hilton Beach, named after the hotel located there. The imposing buildings lining the beach seem to be scanning the horizon. The sun is already low in the sky. I can enjoy my evening after staying in the flat all day.

Hilton Beach in Tel Aviv, Israel

Little by little, I enter a world of wonder. My senses are awake. I hear music coming from a beach bar. I sit on my towel in the sand, admiring the orange sunset as a backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea. There aren’t many people around me on the beach, but I see a young man sitting alone on his towel. He looks friendly. I ask him if it’s safe to leave my things on the beach while I go for a swim. He advises against it as there are thefts, but offers to keep an eye on them. Relieved, I jump into the water. It’s warm, which makes a nice change from the ocean on the Atlantic coast. I move forward several dozen metres, but I still touch the bottom. After relaxing in the water, I join the man still sitting on the beach, Daniel. He’s from Jerusalem and lives in Tel Aviv. He works in tech sales. I’m interested in what he has to say because I’ve also worked in sales in this sector, in Germany. What’s more, Tel Aviv is known for its high concentration of tech start-ups, so I want to find out more. Daniel finds that the people here are careerists and have a strong competitive spirit. Moreover, he finds it hard to cope with professional pressure and is demanding of himself. Thus, he’s thinking of changing jobs. However, it’s not easy to do that, because Tel Aviv is one of the most expensive cities in the world, so he couldn’t stay long without a salary.

As I listen to him, my first thought is that the stress associated with sales jobs is as much a phenomenon in Israel as it is in France, as it is in all Western countries. The difficult relationships with colleagues and managers too. What’s more, I admire Daniel’s courage. When I see him relaxing on the beach at the end of the working day, I think to myself that he is trying to maintain a balance between his professional life and his mental health. After this exchange, I tell myself that the people here are easy to talk to.

On the pavement of the street that runs alongside the beach, the appearance of the people catches my attention. The young men and women are not only handsome, but they also pay attention to their bodies. I see many muscular men with well-groomed hair. In fact, another day, I’ll see self-service machines on the beach for doing body-building exercises. Just like in Los Angeles!

After this swim, I enjoy the atmosphere of relaxation and pleasure. The number of restaurants and bars is impressive. The people of Tel Aviv seem to know how to separate work and leisure. In other words, the multitude of places to go out is proportional to the importance given to professional life.

I’m looking for a place to eat on Dizengoff Street, as Daniel recommended. The long way running parallel to the beach is lively. I walk up to a restaurant and look at the menu. The food costs about twice as much as in Bordeaux. The place is buzzing but lacks charm and authenticity. The bars and restaurants seem to me to be trying above all to be trendy and to attract as many people as possible, without differentiating themselves.

Bordeaux has a holiday atmosphere. It surprised me when I first moved to the city. It’s partly due to the high density of restaurants and bars in the city centre. This is also the case in Tel Aviv, but the Israeli city also benefits from a strong cultural and economic dynamism.

I can’t appreciate the booming city

Tel Aviv is similar to Western cities. Plus, it’s recent, as it’s been founded at the beginning of the 20th century. I can feel its dynamism as soon as I arrive.

I pass a number of construction sites and see huge new buildings soaring into the sky. This setting is all the more impressive given that I come from Jerusalem, a city that is over 3,000 years old and still offers many ancient monuments.

During the day, I often work from home. At lunchtime, I take a walk around the neighbourhood of my flat. In HaZafon HaChadash square, you’ll find trendy boutiques with tasteful decoration that could belong to any European city. I can’t get to the centre of the huge square because there are several towers under construction there. Looking at the signs describing the construction site, I can see what the place will look like once the work is finished. Modernity, wealth and elegance are the watchwords of the future buildings.

Older, less well-maintained buildings are also part of the setting. The building where I live, like many others in the same street, is white and low-rise. It looks like it’s been a long time since it was last renovated. I imagine it dates from the 60s. What’s more, the flat isn’t modern. There are quite a few houses in the same style in the neighbourhood. The facades need repainting, and I can imagine that the insulation isn’t very good.

On the one hand, the buildings create an unwelcoming atmosphere that makes you not want to live there. On the other hand, they have an authentic character and exude a powerful charm. Their imperfections make them attractive.

I wonder if the poorly maintained white buildings are Bauhaus. They must date from the period when Bauhaus was flourishing in Tel Aviv. What’s more, their simple lines and geometric shapes match this art school which puts utility before aesthetics.

As I stroll through certain districts, such as Rothschild Boulevard, I notice white buildings that leave no room for doubt. I stop to admire the wide, rounded balconies and flat roofs. The constructions bring a touch of history to this forward-looking city.

Tel Aviv, capital of the Bauhaus

The story behind the presence of Bauhaus in Tel Aviv fascinates me, as this city attracted me for something else: the beaches and the carefree spirit. The school of architecture and applied arts, which was founded in Germany in 1919, was banned by the Nazis when they came to power. As a result, the movement expressed itself abroad. In the 1930s, among the thousands of Jews who emigrated to Mandatory Palestine, architects found a place to create in Tel Aviv. They constructed more than 4,000 buildings there up until the mid-1950s, making it the city with the largest number of buildings in the Bauhaus style in the world. Therefore, the White City has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003. The streets remind me of the French Concession in Shanghai, which also has many buildings from the 1930s and is out of step with the rest of the modern, forward-looking metropolis.

Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv

One afternoon, I’m walking along Rothschild Boulevard. On the central path, the tall trees protect me from the sun. I admire the beautiful white buildings with their smooth facades. The atmosphere is relaxed as groups of friends and families stroll along the pedestrian area.

Some writing on a sign catches my eye. It’s information about a historic building in the city. This guide fascinates me because it tells me about the history of Tel Aviv, founded at the beginning of the 20th century on the outskirts of Jaffa, an Arabic town. They wanted to make Tel Aviv a model city, already looking to the future. When I see the wide boulevard lined with huge buildings, I say to myself that they’ve succeeded. Then I follow the explanatory signs placed in front of old houses at various points along the boulevard.

Before Tel Aviv, there was already Jaffa. The coastal town to the south of the metropolis merged with Tel Aviv in the 1950s. As a market lover, its flea market appealed to me.

I take the bus and arrive in front of the clock tower, which dates back to the Ottoman period. I don’t linger there, and head for a street lined with majestic Ottoman buildings. The balconies give them a touch of elegance.

Suddenly, the flea market appears. Surprise: it’s smaller than I imagined. Stalls line the busy aisles. Mostly tourists. I have little interest in the place. Maybe because I already visited a souk in Jerusalem a few days ago. Or because it’s smaller and less lively than I hoped. The only shop windows that catch my eye are those of cabinetmakers and boilermakers. I admire their creations. The items that I like the most are the furniture and lamps. The old sand-coloured stone buildings are beautiful. However, the area doesn’t feel authentic to me.

I continue my stroll through deserted streets. Tourists must not go this far. Then I admire a modern park by the beach. Along the way, I see women wearing veils several times. This tells me that Jaffa is still predominantly Arab. I walk along the coast back to Tel Aviv. My next destination is the Florentin district. From the footpath, I admire the skyline. High glass buildings soar into the intense blue sky. The clear blue sea comes to rest on the large rocks lined. I then notice the leaves of the tall palm trees floating.

Solo traveller in Tel Aviv: modernity and freedom

In the Florentin neigborhood, in the south of the city, the first thing I notice are the small craft workshops that seem to have been around for a long time. I think to myself that the pace of life here is slower than in the rest of the city. What’s more, the low-rise buildings haven’t been renovated for decades. On the walls of these alleyways, I admire the street art works. The ones I like most are a cactus with a human face and a man with enlarged features. I read the Hebrew inscriptions that accompany some of the works. I pronounce them and, sometimes, understand the meaning of a word.

Then I move on to a more modern part of the district. It’s as if I’ve suddenly stepped from the 1930s into the 2020s. Dozens of elegant balconies, sometimes adorned with flower pots, are placed at regular intervals on the newer buildings. I then see a children’s playground at the foot of a building. I can hear children playing and parents chatting. Again, I see construction sites.

I leave the booming district to round off the day with a sporting activity in the water: a surfing session. Since I’ve only been in the water once since I arrived, I want to enjoy the sea before I leave the city. I would have liked to go to the beach more often, but I didn’t want to risk having my things stolen while I was in the water. One solution would have been to ask people I met there to go with me.

So I go to the Chili Surf School to hire a board. In the water, I can hear the sound of electronic music coming from the bars on the beach. As I ride the waves, I admire the buildings that line up in front of me. I like this urban setting because I’ve never surfed in a big city. The small size of the waves is perfect for a beginner like me.

Another place that I found great is the Carmel market, which is large and lively. Its authenticity contrasts with the standardised environment of Tel Aviv. Stalls run by Arabs and Jews coexist and offer a wide variety of products. I admire colourful spices, brightly coloured fruit juices and street food prepared in a hurry on mobile stalls. I get a hot tchoutchouka at a Moroccan food stand. I wanted to try this dish made with tomatoes, peppers and eggs for a long time.

Spices stall at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv

An encounter helps me to put into words my impression of Tel Aviv. I make this encounter in the centre of Jaffa, with an Austrian tourist who has trouble getting the measure of Tel Aviv. In other words, she doesn’t have an overall view of its neighbourhoods. I have the same impression. The bars and restaurants frequented by young people, the construction sites and the Bauhaus buildings are all mixed together. I can’t tell where the city centre is. What’s more, I haven’t walked much in the city, which partly explains why I find it hard to grasp the districts and attractions that make it up. For me, Tel Aviv is an atmosphere and a state of mind, before being a place.

The setting, which combines modernity and relaxation, appeals to me. Just for a while. My experiences and my exchanges with people, who are said to be open-minded, enrich me. However, I can’t see myself staying here for long, as I find that the city doesn’t feed my curiosity enough. What’s more, I find it superficial.

Encounters in Tel Aviv: spontaneous exchanges with local people

Travelling alone in Tel Aviv allows me to organise my days as I want to. What’s more, because the population is young and friendly, it’s easy to meet people, even if these encounters are often ephemeral. Here are 3 that impressed me.

At an evening party, I met Shai, an Israeli in his twenties living in Tel Aviv. He seems delighted to be chatting with a European. I find him friendly and communicative. He fits in well with the city, with his job in the music industry and his casual clothes. He could just as easily live in Berlin, Stockholm or Barcelona.

At one point, I broach the subject of military service. He loved those 3 years, because he learnt a lot and made close friends. So much so that he didn’t want to leave the army. He also tells me that it’s possible to avoid military service, but that it’s poorly looked upen. Many Israelis, young people included, find it shameful. Shai’s opinion says a lot about local patriotism. On this subject, I say to myself that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend 3 years as a soldier at the age of 18, because I would have felt like I was wasting time. On the other hand, Shai’s enthusiasm about his experience makes me think that I could have enjoyed it too.

On a Saturday evening, I notice Israeli flags in a wide avenue, held by people walking in small groups. I wonder what they’re doing. I often see Israeli flags in the streets, but this time, they are here for a particular reason. The people holding them look ordinary and are dressed casually. The crowd gets bigger and bigger. Traffic is stopped, and people are walking on the road. I hear drums and, from time to time, a voice coming out of a megaphone. No doubt about it, it’s a demonstration.

I had heard about the demonstrations in Israel before my trip, but this scene fascinates me. I want to take this opportunity to know more, and so I approach a young woman in her thirties. She explains that every Saturday, a demonstration takes place in the major Israeli cities. For months, the demonstrators have been protesting against the policies of Benyamin Netanyahu’s government. One of the contested measures was to limit the powers of the Supreme Court. I listen to this communicative young woman explains her dismay at the political situation in her country. Her testimony makes the subject concrete. What’s more, I admire her commitment and perseverance, as she demonstrates every week. Plus, she knows about the anti-retirement demonstrations taking place in France. Once again, I tell myself that the people of Tel Aviv are open to the world.

Demonstration in Tel Aviv against the Israeli government.

I enjoy talking to another young woman living in Tel Aviv. I meet her at the surf club and she goes to the beach at the same time as me. She works in tech and has lived abroad, particularly in Turkey and the United States. Following my discussion with Daniel on the first day, I want to know what she thinks about the world of work here. Her job doesn’t overwhelm her, and finds that there are plenty of opportunities to relax after work. She takes advantage of this, for example, to go surfing after work, as she is doing today. Being able to swim after work, just a few minutes from home is a luxury. The city deserves its nickname of bubble. It reminds me of a cocoon, inviting its inhabitants to enjoy themselves and live a life of freedom.

I didn’t take the time or make the effort to understand Tel Aviv, to visit its museums and its many neighbourhoods. I found it lacks in historical charm and authenticity, but I liked the buzz of the city and the open-mindedness of its inhabitants.

What would you say about visiting Tel Aviv? Does the city seem too superficial? Does my story inspire you to discover its atmosphere?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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