Tel Aviv invariably surprises the first time visitor who might be expecting someplace old world, deeply religious and possibly even a little war-torn. What they find instead is a modern city, with a strong sense of individuality, and a large contingent of pleasure-loving residents some would call archetypal hedonists. There is also a strong bohemian, anachronistic sensibility among the population. All in all it's a city that attracts the oddballs, artists, students, intellectuals, free-thinkers....and gaggles of gays. They come not just from the rest of Israel, but from outside the country, fleeing the neighboring largely gay-phobic Arab states, as well as from Europe, Russia & the U.S. Yes, it's a pupu platter of sexy gays from around the world.
In look and feel, the strip of Tel Aviv and neighboring Jaffa is both highly urbanized and even big-city hectic in some areas, but quiet as an ancient village in others. Built along a beautiful 14 KM sandy strip of the Mediterranean, this collection of big towns is informed by beach culture as much as anything. There's the overpowering ease of the beach town along with the mojo of being a bona fide world class city, something very few cities really own -- Sydney & Los Angeles are on that very short list. And there's something of those cities generally relaxed qualties that's shared here. Add to that a sense of joy at the personal freedoms of the surprisingly secular city that's and you've got one groovy, fun-loving and very, very gay modern metropolis.
WHERE THE GAYS ARE: Top Ten in TEL AVIV
Pride in Tel Aviv is more than just a gay event, it feels like a celebration of freedom for all in the midst of a repressive area of the world, and you'll find people from all around the region taking place in the revelry. Not to mention a lot of foreigners who fly in for the weekend of non-stop parties. The main parade wanders down Ben Yehuda Blvd, and most every restaurant, bar and shop along the way throws their own sidewalk party to toast the marchers. As eclectic as it is gay, the March is more like Berlin's Love Parade than an array of hairless muscleboys on flatbed trucks (although you get ample flesh to enjoy). A giant party on the beach caps of the parade with musical perfomances, and the every gay or gay-ish bar and club in the city (and many private apartments) hosts a seemingly endless series of parties for days on end.
Like in any big city weekly parties change and shift locations frequently--an app for gay nightlife called TLV Scene should keep you plugged into what's au courant. And of course going the analog route and simply asking locals where to go is really always best, and more than scrolling through your iPhone for party info. One fantastically friendly bar to find folks to tap for the insider's perspective is Shpagat (43 Nachlat Binyaman) a rambunctious, friendly gay (but mixed!) bar with rotating DJ agendas—80s power-pop one night, Arab hip-hop the next. The owners are friends who've formed a sort of artist's collective, with the bar being their artwork. The staff ftreat each other like family, and make every effort to include guests in that family. Zero pretence with maximum cool, this may be the best place to start your night off, and is likely the best place to wind it down as well.
Anna LouLou in Jafa is like a smokey monk's cavern, but sexier. Owned by an Arab and an Israeli, this mixed scene goes for it with late night DJ driven parties. Breakfast Club is a trendy young bar with gay nights and Djs spinning dubstep and the like. The Block is an off-the-moment electro-driven club, unexpectedly located within the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, featuring headliners like James Blake. Teder: Pop-Up Radio bar is a uber chic boite with Djs, located at Rotchschild 7, and has been the hands-down hottest spot in town during Summer '12. (Look for an appearance by Diplo in September.) BarVaz is a snug bar that's mainly lesbian but hosts a little bit of everything—on busy nights the crowd spills out into the narrow alley outfront while a DJ plays from a neighboring roof. Evita is a way-gay vodka-and-soda hub, more of a warm-up before other spots than a final destination. Eurovision fans will enjoy their weekly party devoted to the odd-to-Americans musical competition, complete with a lip syncing troupe Eurostars. Non-fans may be horrified.
Tel Aviv may be a step behind other major cities in the development of its mixology culture but a few notable exceptions are leading the way for proper cocktailing. Cafe Noir (43 Aha Ha'am Street) is a bistro with a standout drinks menu and bartenders who, if you catch them at the right time, might well be happy to use you as a guinea pig for ctheir ocktails-in-progress. Hotel Montefiore's (36 Montefiore St.) elegant restaurant and bar serves up some spot-on classic cocktails. The Drinkers Guild may be as close to an speakeasy as you'll get in TA, tucked away behind a discrete doorway in a residential neighborhood only marked by a brass plaque. Step inside and you find yourself in a dimly lit lounge ringed with low banquettes underneath smoked mirrors. Impresively mixed, and look for a weekly lady's night for all the coolest local lesbians. Oenephiles should try Wineberg (106 Ben Yehuda) a funky open-air joint with great selection of Israeli wines; sitting there on a warm evening sipping local wines and taking in the promenade of passerbys is an easy pleasure (and they throw a great Pride party.)
Israel is a miracle of agriculture and sci-fi grade water treatment—an oasis in the desert that yields gorgeous tomatoes that are rapturously ripe and naturally red, benefiting from year round brilliant sun and generous irrigation. Expect to have tomatoes with every meal, sometimes in multiple iterations. The diet here is pretty optimum—lots of vegetables, salads, hummous, fish, and light on the meat. The standard local meal is Mediterranean cuisine at its healthiest, and with these perfect tomatoes you'll be in lycopane heaven.
Like Barcelona dining happens later in Tel Aviv; eat at 7 pm and you may be dining solo. So eat a late lunch and venture out for dinner past 9 to take in all the busy restaurant scen has to offer. Club Social (45 Rothschild Blvd) is a handsome, spacious room with smart modern European menu, a buzzing bar scene and fine cocktails to match. Chef Meir Adoni's Mizlala (Nahalat Binyamin 57) offers an always-surprising mix of old and new world cuisine in a clean white room packed with stylish. Joselito (39 Ahad Ha'Am St. at Bezalel Yafe St.) a classic Spanish cafe perfect for tapas and sangria in the afternoon, or late at night. And for breakfast anytime, day or night, Benedict (17 Ben Yahuda) is a lively hotspot for hungry partiers at all hours.
It's easy to find the gay beach in Tel Aviv, as it's located just below the Hilton Hotel and a park that used to be a hotbed of pre-Grindr cruising. But not to fear, the beach is still plenty cruisy and chatty, with ample eye candy. A 35 minute drive to the North of the city Ga'ash Nude Beach offers even more to see of the local talent. Further down Tel Aviv proper towards Yafo the beaches get more straight and family oriented, which is also cool to experience. The beaches here are like the town square of the various neighborhood up and down the shoreline, and each one has its own identity. Rent a bike and explore each one on a leisurely afternoon. The crystal blue water with relatively low saline content makes for great swimming, surfing and skindiving all along the waterfront.
YAFA & SHUK HAPISPHISHIM
Yafa is the Arab village on the Southern end of Tel Aviv, a towering, sprawling jetty overlooking the ocean that's lined with white stone walkways and a palpable sense of history. Ambling through these alleys feels like taking a nig, big step back in time; that the city has turned much of the area over to artists and artisans for studios and shops speaks to Israel's canny re-imaginging of their historical assets. On the lower end on the inland side of the hill a sprawling flea market offers an impressive array of both treasures and junk; on Fridays the bohemian chic smalll hood Shuk Hapisphishim gets in on the bazaar scene with sales out front of their smart shops; on other days this eight (or so) square block area is an epicenter of Tel Aviv artisanal &, boutique and antique cool, a mini-Shoreditch in the Arab world.
Tel Aviv is home to the world's largest concentration of Bauhaus architecture (with a touch of Le Courbesier thrown in), with over 4,000 buildings designed by German Jews who imigrated to the region in the 1930s. To wander around any of the three conservation zones where most of the buildings are concentrated is to experience as complete a vision of this brand of architectual utopia as exists.
The big Tel Aviv Museum is well worth spending an afternoon wandering through—the new Herta & Paul Amir building designed by Preston Scott Cohen is dramatically modern architecture-wise, hosting mostly Israeli or Jewish oriented art shows, and the museum's permanent collection houses some astonsihing works of modern masters.
The Somner Gallery on Rothschild is a serious NY style gallery; they show Adi Ness, the gay Israeli photographer whose tableaux of men and families have exhibited around the world..
But perhaps the most striking art in Tel Aviv is on the streets. The global wave of public art of the last decade has taken firm hold here, with works covering the city's walls ranging from political to humorous to simply site-specific graphic designs, this blanket of folk imagery gives the city a layer of rich visual punch.
There's no two ways around it—high-end service and hospitality aren't Israel's strong suit. It hasn't been that high on the young nation's agenda. Clear exceptions exist, foremost among them the tucked away boutique hotel The Brown (25 Kalisher St.). The tight-knit (and undeniably attractive) staff all offer serious and thoughtful concierge-ing, to the extent that they keep track of all art shows, DJ nights, and parties around town. Modern and handsome -- if snug -- rooms are offset by a swinging bar and lounge area on the roof that has swiftly become a major gay hangout; mingle with off-duty gay Israeli soldiers over a glass of crisp Cava while taking in the panoramic view of Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean at sunset, and you may vow to move here. There are limited dining options but a clever program gives guests vouchers for breakfast at one of four savilly selected local restaurants—another part of The Brown's highly succesful mandate to help curate your Tel Aviv experience. Complimentary rental bikes, an expansive lobby library and cold showers and bathtubs on the roof are other hallmarks of the thoughtfulness applied to guests' experience. A fine addition to the boutique hotel universe.