Tel Aviv: New York's mini-me?
It oozes the Big Apple buzz yet it remains uniquely Israeli.
The last time I stayed in Tel Aviv was in 2008. So driving to the seafront from the airport, through the formerly sleepy tributaries of Jabotinsky, Arlosoroff and Ibn Gvirol, and seeing the sheer quantity of new residential and office buildings and the scale of gentrification of the older, inner-city neighbourhoods, was breathtaking.
Many of the new buildings are dizzingly vertical and its late-night club and bar scene evokes the sense of being in a mini-New York.
But once you are at ground level, walking the newly spruced and extended promenade, now stretching all the way from Jaffa in the South to just short of Herzliya Pituach in the north, or strolling the manicured streets of Neve Tzedek and the old business district around Rothschild Boulevard there is no doubt that Tel Aviv is quintessentially and uniquely Israeli. Its blend of ethnic, cultural and religious influences, its cutting-edge fashion, architecture, music and art, its energy and its cool, live-and-let-live liberalism, go some way to reinforcing that.
And, these days, with its huge number of chain hotels, and quirky, one-off boutique properties, it is a
fabulous spot for a year-round vacation. And, of course, it has that beach: 6km of wide, silver sands, fringed by beach restaurants, playgrounds, parks and outdoor gym areas - and a swimming pool at the heart its promenade.
For those with cultural leanings, there is an abundance of exhibitions, events, cinema and music, including regular concerts at the Mann Auditorium, opera and ballet at the architecturally stunning Centre for Performing Arts on Da Vinci Street, and dance and theatre at the Suzanne Dellal Center.
The city also has a slew of museums, including the new and unmissable Yitzhak Rabin Center in Ramat Aviv, which tells the story of the creation of the state, parallel to the life story of the murdered former Prime Minister.
While shopping in Tel Aviv was once all about Dizengoff Street, the Dizengoff Centre or the kitsch craft and clothing stalls in Nahalat Binyamin, today Tel Aviv's retail scene has sprawled in every direction. Shenkin Street, once faded and unfashionable, was rescued in the mid-90s by the cool crowd reacting against the concrete brutalist architecture and homogeneity of places such as the Dizengoff Centre and Gan Ha'ir. Today, it is crammed with cafes and Israeli designer boutiques, which have also spilled over into the surrounding streets such as Lillienblum, with chic little shops, bars and cafes, and Rothschild Boulevard, where top banks, auction houses and advertising agencies vie for space with local designers, bars and cafes.
Where to stay
Tel Aviv Hilton: This is a good base for exploring the Port. Rooms have been upgraded and bathrooms extended to create stand-alone showers and big bath tubs, slate walls, and gleaming basins while the Hilton pool remains the best in the country for people-watching.
David Intercontinental: This vast hotel stands like a book-end at the other end of the promenade, perfectly placed to explore Hatachana, Neve Tzedek and Jaffa. It is imposing and super-comfortable, with a sun terrace for outdoor breakfasts. Madonna stayed there when she visited. Its proximity to the Israeli HQs of international banks and businesses makes it the hotel of choice for business travellers.
This part of Tel Aviv, famed for its rich seam of Bauhaus architecture, is known as the White City and in 2003 earned Tel Aviv the designation, UNESCO World Heritage site.
Incidentally, specialist chocolate restuarant, Max Brenner, at 45 Rothschild, serves what is likely to be the best cup of hot chocolate in the universe.
The oldest neighbourhood, Neve Tzedek, with its labyrinth of narrow streets and tiny houses crammed tightly together, has been undergoing gentrification for two decades.
It began with the creation in 1989 of the Suzanne Dellal Centre whose structures are set around a beautiful piazza, at the heart of a vibrant quarter, filled with exquisitely renovated, pastel-painted houses.
The old Railway Station, known as Hatachana, was the terminus for the Jaffa-Jerusalem line which ran from 1892 to 1948. Neglected for almost 60 years, the station together with sidings, freight storage buildings and a few crumbling neighbouring homes, have been beautifully restored into a charming quarter.
There's a good Italian cuisine at the rustic Italiana nella Stazione and a cool Tapas bar, Vicky Christina. Among the little arcades and avenues of shops there's fine jewellery at Anat Perez, Cath Kidston-type homewares at Sofi, stylish shoes at Shoofra, fashion jewellery at Harraca, designer pieces, including bags, at Efrat Cassouto, the draped jersey and clever separates of Ronen Chen.
Heading north on the seafront, is the newly regenerated Old Port whose decked walkway is forever thronged with cyclists, walkers and skate-boarders. Old it may be, but sipping a drink in the chilled-out Speedo Bar, relaxing on a huge, squashy sofa, with the skyscrapers on the skyline, watching as the world speed-walks or cycles by, it is easy to forget that this is Tel Aviv.