Tel Aviv, Israel [Travel Guide]

Back in February, I traveled to the most magical place in the world. ISRAEL! I've wanted to visit for years, so I spontaneously bought a plane ticket after the holidays. I've been home for about a month now, and I want to gush about Tel Aviv for a few minutes because I'm OBSESSED.

Tel Aviv is the warmest, most welcoming city I've ever visited. Everyone was so incredibly nice. The white sand beaches were beautiful, and the food was heavenly. I also loved that stray cats were literally everywhere...my favorite was the fluffy calico who was snoozing on the hood of a parked car. I was only in Israel for three full days, but I definitely want to return in the future. 

Let's talk about culture shock. I didn't experience any major surprises while visiting Europe or Scandinavia. The Middle East, however, was an entirely different world. Even though English is spoken as a second language by most in Israel, signs and menus are written primarily in the nation's official language, Hebrew. The thing about Hebrew...it's beautiful to look at, but impossible to decipher/speak if you've never studied it. The locals were very kind whenever I needed help translating something, though. The currency was also a bit confusing. One U.S. dollar was equal to 3.47 Israeli shekels. Eventually, I learned that dividing a price by three was an easy way to estimate the cost in U.S. dollars. Menu prices kept throwing me off, though. You might be aware of this next one, but in case you're not: 75% of the population in Israel is Jewish. What this means is, many shops and restaurants close from Friday evening until Saturday night for Shabbat, Judaism's day of rest. Just something to keep in mind when you're visiting, especially if you have your heart set on certain restaurants or activities. And lastly, 18% of Israel's population practices Islam. Because of this, you'll most likely hear the adhan (the Muslim call to worship) played over the loudspeaker from a mosque during your visit. The adhan is described as "one of the most lyrical, inspiring prayers for Muslims." I can definitely vouch for its beauty. Hearing the adhan for the first time while walking around Jaffa is a vivid memory I'll never forget. 

As far as weather goes, the temperature in Israel stays pretty warm throughout the year...and gets scorching hot in the summer. I visited in February and had consistent 60-70 degree days, filled with sunshine and blue skies. When you're planning your travels, keep the weather in mind. It can make or break your vacation.

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FOOD

Hummus Abu Dubi: This was easily the best hummus I've ever had. I ordered the version with lemon and garlic, sprinkled with paprika and cumin, and topped with chickpeas. The creamy concoction came in a giant bowl, with warm pita bread on the side and a variety of fresh toppings (pickles, olives, peppers, tahini, and olive oil). It was UNREAL. When we ran out of pita bread, I ate the hummus with a spoon. I ordered hummus at several different restaurants in Israel, but none of them compared to this place.

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Citizen: I had so many delicious meals in Israel that it's hard to choose a favorite. However, the baladibowl I ordered at Citizen ranks pretty high. Imagine a baked potato, sliced into thin sections and sprinkled with flaky sea salt, kale, purple cabbage, pomegranate seeds, cornichons, tomatoes, a hardboiled egg, and garlic tahini, beautifully displayed over a bed of warm quinoa. I washed it all down with house-made carrot ginger juice.

Bana: This vegan restaurant had so many creative, intricate dishes on the menu. I had a hard time choosing one! I finally decided on the roasted acorn squash filled with black pepper and coconut cream, over fresh cauliflower tabouleh and seasoned with sumac. IT WAS SO GOOD, and the presentation was gorgeous. Are you noticing a theme here? Tel Aviv is a vegan foodie's dream, especially if you prefer healthy meals and fresh ingredients.

Hakovshim Bistro: My AirBnB was right next to Hakovshim, so after a long day of exploring and wandering the streets of Tel Aviv, I decided to grab dinner there. I was craving something warm and hearty, so I ordered the meat and root vegetable plate over rice. The meal was doused in a sweet, smoky teriyaki sauce, and I absolutely loved it. Hakovshim buys their ingredients fresh daily from Carmel Market, so the menu constantly changes.

Meshek Barzilay: If you're looking for organic, vegetarian dishes, you'll love Meshek Barzilay. This place has everything from frittatas and pancakes to pizza and gnocchi. In addition, many of the restaurant's options can be customized to be gluten-free and vegan. I had an appetizer that included giant dollops of avocado salsa and microgreens atop thick, chewy toast points. My friend ordered an eggplant dish, loaded with fresh vegetables and drizzled with a delectable, creamy sauce.

Onza: Located amidst the cobblestone streets of Jaffa, Onza combines a sophisticated bar and atmospheric outdoor seating with Ottoman and Turkish cuisine. This dinner was a true indulgence. I had the sea bass with herbs, topped with cauliflower cream, tomatoes, and winter vegetables. Holy YUM.

THINGS TO DO

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Buy local goods at Carmel Market. This is the largest shuk, or market, in Tel Aviv. Local traders sell everything from baked goods, spices, and flowers to clothing and electronics. The bustling environment is busy, vibrant, and at times, chaotic. You can get fresh fruits and vegetables for super cheap, especially when you haggle. I bought a huge bag of plump, juicy dates when I first arrived, and I snacked on them around the clock. Just know that eating dates in the Middle East will ruin you forever. After that, the dates back home will always taste mediocre. While Carmel Market is the most widely known shuk in Tel Aviv, there are several others to check out, too. Levinsky Market and Jaffa Port Market were both highly recommended.

Go to the beach. In Israel, you can find over 120 miles of Mediterranean coastline. My AirBnB in Tel Aviv was right next to Banana Beach, which had a very tranquil, relaxed atmosphere. There are so many beaches to choose from, though. If you want to connect with other travelers, Gordon Beach is calling your name. If you want to unwind and read a book, the serenity of Habonim Beach will appeal to you. Don't worry too much about which particular beach to visit, though. Just get outside and explore. 

Walk around Jaffa. This ancient port city is the oldest seaport in the world. The area's population is a vibrant combination of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In fact, you can hear the Adhan (the Islamic Call to Prayer) played over a loudspeaker from the local mosque five times per day. Jaffa is still used by fishermen, but it's also home to dozens of amazing restaurants, cafes, and boutiques. The port's small alleyways are filled with handmade crafts, galleries, studios, and flea markets. I was quickly charmed by Jaffa's cobblestone streets and scenic views. The area was so quaint and cozy.

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Watch the sunset at Abrasha Park. While you're in Jaffa, be sure to do this! My favorite part of Abrasha Park, which is home to a beautiful view of Tel Aviv's skyline, is the Wishing Bridge. An ancient legend says that if you find your zodiac sign (there are metal pictures along the railing) and place your hand on it as you stare out to sea, your wish will come true. Only time will tell if my wish becomes reality, but a girl can dream. ;) The view from Abrasha Park is stunning. And when you add a blazing sunset into the mix, the scenery is picturesque.

Visit Jerusalem. When I traveled to Israel, I didn't make it to Jerusalem due to tension and protests in the area. I was really tempted to go, despite warnings from the U.S. Consulate...but I knew I had to prioritize my safety. Fingers crossed you don't encounter the same roadblock if you're planning a trip to Israel this year. Jerusalem is only 45 minutes from Tel Aviv, so you can easily get there via rental car or bus tour. And the city is huge (its population is double that of Tel Aviv, and it's more spread out), so try to stick around for a few days. If you're a history buff, it doesn't matter which religion (or lack thereof) you identify with - You'll undoubtedly appreciate the city's rich history. If you've been to Jerusalem, I'd love to hear your recommendations below!

Road trip to the Dead Sea. If you're looking for an adventurous day trip, I highly recommend visiting the Dead Sea. I drove there on my last morning in Tel Aviv, with the intention of exploring Masada National Park afterwards. Unfortunately, I didn't realize the park's cable car stopped running a couple hours before the park closed. I missed the window by just a few minutes, and I was so bummed! Back to the Dead Sea - It's bordered by Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, and it's officially the lowest point on Earth. The Dead Sea is almost 10x as salty as the ocean, which means plants and animals can't survive there. It also means it's incredibly easy to float on your back. According to many, the water has magical healing properties, especially for those with chronic skin, respiratory, and joint problems. Unfortunately, the water levels in the Dead Sea have been dropping over time. If this is a bucket list item for you, make sure to visit while you still can!

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Have you been to Israel? If so, leave your recommendations below!