Every city likes to boast that there is no place like it in the world, and in Tel Aviv’s case, this is especially true. Where else can you find the astonishing mix of sparkling beaches and sprawling parks, non-stop nightlife, first-rate arts and culture, centuries’ worth of history and archaeology, not to mention sites devoted to the world’s three major religions?
Tel Aviv is Israel’s commercial and cultural capital. In recent years it has cultivated its reputation as one of the Middle East’s most cutting-edge cosmopolitan centers, yet the real source of its seductive powers is in its overwhelming love of life. You see it in the ever-crowded cafes, buzzing with laughter and conversation from morning until night; in the 24-hour holiday atmosphere during the long summer months; and in the furious creativity poured into the local theater, music and fashion scenes.
Tel Aviv celebrated its 100th anniversary recently, and it is safe to say that the city has come a long way in the span of just a century. Founded in 1909 on the outskirts of Yafo, the fledgling Jewish settlement first called Ahuzat Bayit (Homestead) was later renamed after the Hebrew title of Theodor Herzl’s tract on Zionism Altneuland (German for “Old New Land”). Tel Aviv literally means “Hill of Spring,” and its name was chosen to reflect the fusion of old with new.
That approach continues today: As Tel Aviv becomes ever more modern, with its sleek new skyscrapers, it also keeps an eye on the past, and takes increasingly greater care in preserving it. Conservation projects are underway all across the city to refurbish landmarks, including Sarona, a former German agricultural colony, Yafo’s first train station, Habima Theater complex and countless Bauhaus-style buildings (which, in 2003, earned Tel Aviv the honor of being designated a UNESCO World Cultural heritage site).
The main anchor for Tel Aviv’s modernity, though, is Yafo or Jaffa, which is frequently referred to as the oldest functioning port city in the world. Yafo, which was mentioned in ancient Egyptian letters and in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, is awash in historic monuments and feels more traditionally Middle Eastern. Today, the two cities are officially one—called Tel Aviv-Yafo—and while they may look and feel quite different, they complement and complete on another.
In general, the joy of Tel Aviv can be found in its simple pleasures, such as a leisurely stroll or bicycle ride along the Mediterranean coastline, or a casual chat with the person sitting next to you at a cafe. Few other places manage to feel so profoundly alive, while at the same time exuding such a welcoming, home-like vibe.