In a recent article on Tel Aviv, the city was declared a sure contender for Miami's Middle Eastern counterpart. This finding reflects beautifully the familiar ambivalence about Tel Aviv. Since its early days, this city of hyperactive Mediterranean style has been both mesmerising and infuriating visitors. An analogy with America's (admittedly similarly free-spirited) party town simply does not do justice to the Tel Aviv that I, as tourist-turned-immigrant, have fallen in love with and which I believe will inspire new visitors. So many guides to Tel Aviv fail to recognise the element that sets Tel Aviv apart from other entertainment destinations with their bars and nightclubs, restaurants, oceanfront hotels and beach babes.
There are many faces to Tel Aviv. "Miami" is just one of those. Bubbly Tel Aviv is as cool as New York, as upcoming as Berlin and Barcelona, with sunsets and beaches like Ibiza and filled with creative and intellectual energy that reminds of Paris. It is a charming melting point where cultures meet and evolve.
However, this liveliness alone is not what makes a break in Tel Aviv such an unforgettable experience. My fascination with this little stretch in the Middle East is not an ideological one. In spite of all the glamour, thrill and cultural variety one can find in the metropolises of this world, Tel Aviv features a unique aura - it is here that you can find the thrill of a big city, which manages to retain its soul, its personality, its idealism. Tel Aviv is alive, it is real.
So here is my insider's guide to the genuine Tel Aviv experience.
Any newcomer to Tel Aviv must understand that Israelis appreciate straight talk. My advice is not to get thrown back by the Israeli directness, their chutzpah, or their very different interpretation of the word patience. You will find it easier - and somewhat enchanting - if you embrace it. We are the Middle East in the end of the day, yet in its most welcoming and open-minded version.
Tel Avivians are generally extremely warm and friendly towards tourists, so don't be taken aback if you get a dinner or party invitation from someone you have just met. Also, bear in mind that when Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion appeared in parliament one day dressed up in a suit, people burst out laughing. In Tel Aviv, you are more likely to be overdressed than underdressed.
Notwithstanding the Arab-Israeli conflict, Tel Aviv should be regarded as a world of its own. No other place in Israel (in the entire Middle East) has such a pleasure-seeking lifestyle and tolerant mentality. As a fairly new immigrant myself, I can testify to the excitement of living in a young place, still in the midst of forming its future identity, yet a symbol of modernity, freedom and openness.
There is lots to be proud of, when in only a century, a city has developed from nothing to a modern metropolis, home to about 390,000 inhabitants. It features an internationally renowned university, a stock exchange, a vibrant media and music scene and numerous museums and galleries. There is unique Bauhaus and ancient architecture, top-notch restaurants, bubbling nightlife, beautiful people and gorgeous beaches to relax on, just to name a few.
The best way to throw yourself into the local scene is to experience Tel Aviv's beaches, where you quickly realise that Israelis, a melting pot of different nationalities, are stunningly attractive and full of life. Topsy Beach (in the New Port area known as the Namal) is a hot spot among Tel Avivians. The nearby religious beach is open to the public on Saturdays and has become a secret spot for the trendiest in town.
Tel Aviv's markets are a must-see if you want to get to the heart and soul of Tel Aviv. Despite of what you might think of their quality, the markets are not only a place to find real bargains, they are also the best way to get the feel of a city. It is at the market that you are offered the chance to see, feel and smell real Mediterranean life, as opposed to the clean, packaged tourist product. Each of Tel Aviv's markets is a world of its own, offering different goods, and also reflecting the locals who live, sell and buy there.
What Art Deco is to Miami; 1930/40s Bauhaus is to Tel Aviv, featuring the world's largest concentration of such buildings (about 4,000) leading Unesco to recognise it as a world heritage site.
Wandering about the streets, especially along the beautiful Rothschild Boulevard, you can witness the impressive preservation efforts, which have successfully brought back prestige and glamour to once-beautiful buildings and streets.
If you are here on a Friday or Tuesday morning, I recommend going for the guided tour with the Bauhaus Centre, which will point out typical buildings.
The Tachana, the recently restored old train station area, has turned into the new cultural and social meeting point with many trendy shops, restaurants, arts shows and classes, markets and other events (see page 16).
There are three other major areas that you must visit during your stay in Tel Aviv.
The city's southern landmark, Jaffa, will give you a glimpse on the Jewish-Arab coexistence and a taste of the ancient character and modern spirit that still prevail in the place.
Next on the list is Neve Zedek, Tel Aviv's answer to New York City's Meatpacking District or London's Notting Hill. And under no circumstances miss out on a visit to the Florentin quarter. It the city's oldest and edgiest neighbourhood, with an artsy urban atmosphere that comes alive at night.
If you have time for fashion shopping, aim for the Northern part of Dizengoff Street, where you can find unique articles, influenced largely by the styles of New York City and London, with an Israeli touch (look out for Banot, Josef, A+ and Banker). Recently, a new shopping area, Gan Hachashmal, has turned into the place to shop for original fashion by local designers. If you are looking for more upscale, internationally acclaimed designer labels, Ramat Aviv Mall or the renowned Kikar HaMedina are your best bet. On Friday morning, there is often a young designers' bazaar on the lower level of the Dizengoff Centre shopping mall, where you may find a true bargain.
Tel Aviv has received the well-earned title of "the city that never stops". It is packed with bars of every sort, where Israelis, generally not the big drinkers by European or American standards, hang out and have a drink. Georgian restaurant-bar Nanuchka (28 Lilienblum Street, (00 972 3 516 2254) offers a great ambiance, plenty of entertainment and its red walls are covered by the owner's favourite poetry. You don't go there for the food - it's for the experience. And who knows, at some point you might even find yourself dancing on the bar. Alternatively, head to nearby Rothschild 12, the new favourite spot in town founded by Tel Aviv's finest bar-restaurant entrepreneurs, featuring an unassuming exterior décor and Tel Aviv's most gorgeous, trendiest crowd. In summer, visit Susannah's roof top (9 Shalom Shabazi St, Neve Tzedek) for a guaranteed chilled atmosphere and delicious cocktails. Try to be there before sunset to get a seat.
If you want to experience Tel Aviv's club scene, known worldwide for its vibrancy and cutting-edge style, visit GossiP (6 Dafna Street), the new hot spot among Tel Aviv's party lovers, where you are likely to find yourself partying next to celebrities - no segregated VIP areas here.
The general attitude is that life is precious and there is an urge to make the most of every day. If you are still buzzing, end your night-out at Hakhatul VeHakelev (The Cat and The Dog), a dark, underground club boasting eclectic music, lots of alcohol, and vibrant dance floor. Definitely one of the hottest places in the nightlife scene of Tel Aviv.
Eventually you'll have to get some sleep though. The David InterContinental, near the southern end of the beachfront promenade, is your best bet. There is a vibrant feel to this part of the city, a perfect metropolitan setting with bohemian flair.
If you are looking for something more intimate, try the Montefiore Hotel, the most lavish of the boutique hotels in Tel Aviv.
The stylish Cinema Hotel in a Bauhaus-style building that originally served as a cinema, or charming little Nina Hotel with its prettily designed suites, are other great alternatives.
While Tel Aviv cannot boast a history similar to that of Paris or London, it does have a brief yet very rich history of youth, creation, war, and reinvention and certainly is the Middle East's most advanced and culturally vibrant metropolis.
The pleasure-seeking Tel Avivians are constantly inventing new ways to enjoy their city, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with guest performances from La Scala, the world-renowned opera house from Milan. They are proving once again that joie de vivre is viable in a city that retains its status as a place of good sense, creativity and political moderation in the midst of strongly rooted uproar and extremism.
I hope my guide will inspire you to visit Tel Aviv for yourself and experience the many faces Tel Aviv I have discovered.