Insider’s Israel: Food, Fashion and Magnificence (Part 1 of 2)

Israel can easily capture your heart by offering a wealth of intense experiences that are unique to its borders. It boasts a remarkably diverse mix of people, stunning natural beauty (beaches, mountains, cliffs, seas, palm trees, deserts, valleys, rolling hills and verdant farms), fresh and healthy food, world class restaurants, dazzling markets, ancient history, 2,000 year-old streets, modern and traditional art, a burgeoning youth culture, gorgeous beaches, and modern amenities. Try Via Sabra for excellent, tailored insider tours.

Kick off a tour of this memorable country (which is a little larger than New Jersey) in dazzling Tel Aviv, where a full quarter of its population is under the age of 30. It’s a vibrant, welcoming beach city with a progressive vibe, art everywhere, fashionable boutiques and hundreds of restaurants. It was voted one of world’s most LGBT-friendly cities, which speaks to its diversity, and you can buy sushi here at 4 a.m. or grab a bike from the Tel-o-Fun Bike Share Program and glide through Hayarkon Park. Bikes are everywhere! The nightlife in Tel Aviv is vivacious, with people all throughout the downtown area streaming into restaurants and clubs and dining al fresco outside. The Social Club at 45 Rothschild Boulevard is one of many dozens of trendy places offering Israeli fare by night. Zou Bisou at 186 Ben Yehuda Street has dishes inspired by Mad Men and New York City, and vegans will love the organic, healthy food at Meshek Barzilay at 6 Ahad Ha’am Street. There’s no dearth of places to eat in Tel Aviv, so the real dilemma will be narrowing down your choices.

But a must-visit restaurant is Le Petite Maison near the Levinsky Market; if you miss this place, you’re cheating yourself out of something truly special. It’s a small, affordable place run by a couple who pride themselves on serving only the freshest, most delicious food. Judging by their legions of regulars, it’s their key to success.

Mizon Pita is beloved by locals and foreigners alike for its fresh, gourmet pitas stuffed with market vegetables, hummus and more (also located in the Chelsea Market in NYC!). Find oven-baked cauliflower here that will melt in your mouth and is as big as two fists. Add outdoor seating and dance music, and you have a memorable meal. Mizon opened up in Paris recently to equal acclaim.

Another distinctive restaurant experience can be found at Dr. Shakshuka, named after the country’s popular tomato-based Shakshuka dish. Here the food comes in sharable portions for a familial experience, and it’s located just a few blocks from all of the thriving outdoor bars, pubs and restaurants that turn side streets into festive, late-night parties. People seem to need very little sleep in Tel Aviv, rendering it similar in this regard to Madrid and NYC.

The sprawling Levinsky Market on Yafo Road is a foodie paradise, with artisanal offerings such as homemade soda with kale and fruit slices (@Levinsky 41), hand-ground marzipan, spices, fruit, Israeli pastries and popovers, smoothies, halva, carob, nuts, teas and more. You can spend an entire day here, and possibly even run in to people you know. Another Tel Avivian market is the Carmel Market near the Yemenite Quarter; you’ll want to hit both of them to compare and contrast. Shops and markets close early on Fridays, before Shabbat.

The Tel Aviv Museum definitely rivals New York City’s MoMA, with fascinating installations and paintings by Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Bonnard, Monet, and other masters interspersed with modern artists.

There are endless shops, art galleries and designer fashion in the Soho-esque Neve Tzedek neighborhood, such as the Karen Oberson Haute Couture Collection in the Gideon Oberson Boutique at 36 Gordon Street. The Oberson House of Design sells unique jewelry, couture, prêt-a-porter, swimwear and also serves as a design gallery.

Architecture in Tel Aviv includes the International Style or relatively modern Bauhaus style of 4,000 white cubic buildings without ornamentation, with walls used only as shells and not connected to the skeleton, facades with airways, and shading ledges — and the result is elegant, Mediterranean simplicity. The city’s architecture resulted in Tel Aviv being dubbed The White City and its declaration as a World Heritage Site. All along the Rothschild Boulevard, Nachalat Binyamin and Flotentin Streets, beautiful examples of this architecture abound with the Berlin House, Rubinsky House, Krieger House, Aginsky House, Goldenberg House, and many others.

The Carlton in Tel Aviv is convenient to everything and rooms provide a gorgeous, bird’s eye view of the Mediterranean Sea from a balcony. Clean, comfortable and high-tech, it could be a serene base for your exploration.

A visit to Tel Aviv should most definitely include its adjoining and ancient Old Jaffa and Jaffa Port sections, where Solomon, Jonah, and Saint Peter forged history. Its artist quarter, mosque, sea views, city gate, decorative fountains, and narrow cobblestone streets are all unforgettable.

Then venture north to the city of Haifa to see the awe-inducing Bahai Gardens, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. People from around the globe converge here to revel in its natural splendor with panoramic sea views. A recommended hotel in Haifa is The Colony, located within view of the Bahai Gardens – which is quite dramatic lit up at night — and situated across from charming cafes.

Slightly north of Haifa is AKKO (Acre), an ancient Phoenician and Crusader seaport with Knights Halls straight out of a Game of Thrones movie set. Discover its underground crusader city to re-live a portion of history, then visit the fisherman’s port for plenty of current local color.

The nearby bazaar in Akko is worth visiting too – offering sweets, nuts, fruit, scarves and other offbeat discoveries. Local children romp and roam throughout this market in an ancient base, along with cats and a horse or two.

If you’re in Akko, the Uri Buri Restaurant on Ha-Hagana Street is definitely the place to go. Lauded far and wide for its fresh fish, inventive recipes and gregarious owner, Uri Yirmias, it’s an intense experience in itself. Try the extensive tasting menu, and visit Uri Yirmias’s nearby hotel, the lovely Efendi. An upscale boutique hotel with a wine cellar, it affords a fantastic view of the city and the narrow Akko streets below.

At this juncture, you’ll still want to see one the country’s gem cities, Jerusalem, as well as the astounding ancient Masada fortress, the buoyant Dead Sea, the Seltzer Cheese Farm nestled in the hills of Jerusalem, and the heart-wrenching Yad Vashem museum. You can easily do all of this in a week, but maybe you’ll want to take your time with two weeks. So stay tuned for Part 2: Jerusalem, Seltzer Goat Cheese Farm, Yad Vashem, Masada and The Dead Sea.

Fun facts about Israel:
– it’s a tech hub
– Israel kicked off the green movement a century ago
– it’s one of the most agriculturally productive nations on earth
– the country has fours seas: the Mediterranean, the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and the Sea of Galilee
– it’s faster to travel to Israel from NYC than to Hawaii (at 10 hours) and almost everyone there speaks English.

Read more about visiting Israel HERE.
Shalom, Israel!
#goisrael @IsraelTourism