Tel Aviv, Israel's ever-growing metropolis, would be unrecognizable to its founders, a small group of Jewish immigrant families in what was then Ottoman-ruled Palestine. A skyline of shimmering skyscrapers has replaced the towering sand dunes of just over a century ago. The city is now known for its boxy Bauhaus buildings, theaters, and concert halls, as well as its legions of pavement cafés that host overflow crowds every night of the week.
The city manages to pull off the seemingly impossible task of being both hip and homey: witness the happy mix of wine bars, clothing boutiques, hardware shops, and greengrocers—often on the same block. High-end restaurants mingle with old-school eateries where elderly men hold noisy court about the issues of the day over black coffee and apple turnovers.
Sometime described as an urban village, Tel Aviv is made for walking (or biking, now that it has an extensive network of 62 miles of bike paths). From most parts of the city the sea is never more than a 20-minute walk. In this combination beach town, business centre, and arts mecca, people spend Friday afternoons bumping into friends, wandering from café to café, and pausing to hear live jazz trios, all the while strolling with their dogs down boulevards lined with 1940s-era newspaper kiosks that have been transformed into gourmet sandwich stands.
Tel Aviv is not the most beautiful of cities, although its charms have a way of making you forgive its aesthetic shortcomings. It was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2003 because its collection of International-style architecture, known more commonly as Bauhaus, is the largest in the world. Although restoration efforts are moving along, many of these buildings are in need of a facelift. It might take an hour or two of wandering on the tree-lined side streets for you to appreciate their graceful lines and subtle architectural flourishes.
There is a spirit of freedom in Tel Aviv, where it's possible to escape from the difficult political realities that are closer to the surface in places like Jerusalem. After all, the city's nickname among Israelis is "the Bubble." Residents tend to be politically and socially liberal. The gay scene is thriving, as are the arts and music communities. It's an exciting city, one that newcomers, returning visitors, and longtime residents all find captivating.