Jaffa Port, Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv is a city I never thought I'd visit. Its complicated political background makes it an obscure tourist destination. But when I met my Jewish girlfriend, Israel suddenly became a place I needed to think about.
My girlfriend, Rachel (Rach), grew up visiting Israel. With friends and family living in the country, Israel has become somewhat of her second home; it's the place where she feels most connected to her culture and community. As such, a trip to Israel was inevitable and last year we booked a flight to spend a month in Tel Aviv.
I'll be honest: I had mixed feelings. Having studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both at school and then briefly at university, I didn't know what to expect when travelling to the country, nor did I know what the implications might be on my own understanding of Israel. What I did know was that I wanted to experience a country that has such great significance for not just Rach, but for many thousands of people across the world.
Israel is a melting pot of different ethnicities, religions and cultures. Its population is incredibly diverse, as are its cities; you cannot compare Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which in turn you cannot compare to the West Bank. As such, Israel cannot be defined with one stroke of the brush. Yet, from what I experienced in Tel Aviv, people were incredibly tolerant. We didn't have one funny look from anybody, which is better than in the UK where four hours after landing in Luton, two men on the train shouted, "look, a pair of lesbians!" In fact, Tel Aviv was incredibly LGBT-friendly. Having travelled there during pride month, the city was dripping in pride flags. Ultimately, people of varying faiths and cultures live side by side in the city, and whilst I've not dived into a conversation with locals about the political climate, Tel Aviv is a widely peaceful and forward-thinking society.
However, Tel Aviv does not represent the whole of Israel. Every day, the Palestinian people face discrimination, excessive force and deprivation. Having been declared an apartheid state, there is a long way to go until Israel is a country founded on equality and peace where everyone can prosper regardless of religion, culture or creed. As such, both Rach and I stand with Palestine. I believe it is extremely important for us to say this if I want to blog about our holiday here. Recognition is the first step to change.
This deeply complex country is significant to so many people and communities for varying reasons. It is possible to synonymously feel a deep connection with Israel and still stand with Palestine.
So, with that in mind, I want to share my favourite snaps from our time in this striking city.
Florentin, Tel Aviv-Yafo
The first tip for visiting Israel is to prepare for the shock to your bank account. Tel Aviv is one of the most expensive cities in the world (the cheapest bottle of suncream we could find cost us 40 shekels, or £10) and the expenses creep up on you. A weekly shop is at least £30 more than what it would cost you in the UK and a meal out for two will rarely be cheaper than £40.
The key is to find local places with more affordable prices. Luckily for us, we passed Carmel Market - the largest market (or shuk) in Tel Aviv - on our daily walk to Aviv Beach. The market's vibrant colours and aromas - fresh, sweet and spicy - wind across the streets of the city and in many ways, represent the beautiful cultural chaos of Tel Aviv. The independent bakery, Balkan Bakery, stood out as the ultimate carbohydrate heaven. Baking affordable fresh pittas, challah bread, pastries and flatbreads daily, it was our go-to lunch stop.
Balkan Bakery, Carmel Market, Tel Aviv
Like any good market, Carmel Market was bustling from morning till night, with people from all different cultures sharing in an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, spices, juices and street shawarma. The atmosphere is hectically energetic, but it's a top spot for tourists and locals alike. Carmel Market is definitely the place to be if you want to explore authentic Israeli life.
A local photobombing us at Carmel Market, Tel Aviv
Freshly baked sweets from Carmel Market, Tel Aviv
A selection of spices from Carmel Market, Tel Aviv
The food in Israel was top-notch. Aside from one over-priced meal that brought the main course out at the same time as the starter (trust me, we were surprised), eating out has, for the most part, not disappointed. I'm going to do a different post about my favourite Israeli snacks so keep an eye out for that, but for now, just know that we lived off shakshuka and peach iced tea.
Shakshuka at Benedicts, Tel Aviv
Israel is also big on its coffee and there's a trendy coffee shop every couple of metres. In fact, having lived in Edinburgh for the last two years, there's something about the coffee shops of Tel Aviv's artsy Florentin that reminds me of the student-loved coffee shops in Edinburgh's old town. One of the most popular coffee shops in Florentin is P.O.C cafe, a small outside coffee shop decorated with brightly coloured benches and green plants; its aesthetic gives off serious Cult vibes (one of my favourite coffee shops in Edinburgh).
P.O.C. Cafe, Florentin
Rach drinking coffee in Jaffa Port, Tel Aviv
I'm going to write separate posts about our travels beyond Tel Aviv, but a place we went to almost every day was Aviv beach. A quick twenty-minute walk from the apartment we stayed in, Aviv beach is popular amongst local residents - especially during Shabbat! With Jaffa Clock Tower overlooking its blue waters, the beach is the perfect spot to catch some rays (or if you burn like me, hide from the sun under the wooden gazebos). Whilst Aviv beach isn't exactly the secluded paradise of dreams, it certainly offers a cheerful atmosphere, plenty of beach bars, and gorgeous views.
Jaffa Beach, Tel Aviv
Overlooking the Mediterranean sea, Jaffa was one of my favourite places to visit when in Israel. The oldest seaport in the world, Jaffa has been a port city for over 4000 years and is home to Muslims, Christians and Jewish people alike. With Tel Aviv-Yafo emerging from the city, Jaffa is decorated in intricate, historical architecture and is something of a mini Jerusalem. Its narrow streets feel more like a film set than they do a neighbourhood, but its well-groomed gardens of green and blue must make it a gorgeous - if not small - place to live.
The streets of Jaffa
Whilst Florentin is a great place to grab a cheap burger or spend lazy days between laid-back bars and eclectic, graffiti-splattered coffee shops, Neve Tzedek wins the prize for the prettiest neighbourhood. The first Jewish neighbourhood to be built outside the city of Jaffa in 1887, Neve Tzedek is lined with yellow and blue houses decorated with purple flowers and shimmering mosaics.
A cat sleeping in Nev Tzedek, Tel Aviv
On the upmarket side of town, Nev Tzedek is the place to go if you're on the hunt for luxury. Lined with fine jewellery and designer clothes shops, Neve Tzedek attracts Tel Aviv's most glamourous.
Clothing store, Ba&sh, Tel Aviv
Tucked behind Neve Tzedek, close to Aviv beach, is Hatachana Station - an old train station since turned into an upmarket venue for bars and restaurants that sit along the historic railway lines. Rach and I stumbled upon the bar, Vicky Cristina, when exploring Hatachana Station and returned for drinks and tapas that evening. Hands down, it was one of the best bars we've been to; it was pricey, but with a gorgeous and relaxed ambience, delicious food and a good selection of drinks, it was worth every penny.
Hatachana Station, Tel Aviv
Ultimately, Tel Aviv is a city both rich with history and emerging into itself. Home to people from all four corners of the world, it is painted by different cultures, religions and stories. A community built on diversity, Tel Aviv is a fascinating city to visit with an abundance to discover, learn and explore.
Was it what I was expecting? In many ways, no. My experience was one of tolerance, but Israel's complexity is also incredibly apparent. Unlike any place I've visited, I'd both go back again and encourage others to visit. This is a country in a part of the world we should all continue to educate ourselves about, and travel is a great way of doing just that.
Jaffa Port, Tel Aviv