Seven treasures of Beersheba

Far from the sleepy desert town it once was, Beersheba today is an exciting, sprawling city full of diversity and student-life.

Throughout its many neighborhoods, Beersheba is home to a wide variety of cultural, culinary and artistic delights. Two districts are definitely worth a specific trip: that of the university and the old city. AROUND THE UNIVERSITYB In addition to its status as a world-renowned university, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev maintains a reputation within Israel as the university with the liveliest campus life in the country. As could be expected, the influx of students to the Negev capital has produced no small number of fun and funky haunts, which are popular among the student body as well as some other local residents. Right next to the university, Hodu Haktana ("Little India") (Rehov Ringelblum 15, (08) 648-9801, serves delicious all-vegetarian Indian food at good prices (about NIS 25 for a main dish). With a menu full of tasty curries, samosas, naan and more, it's hard to go wrong. The restaurant has an outdoor seating section, as well as indoor, both of which are full of low tables, cushion seating, bright tapestries and colorful photos of India. The warm atmosphere might make you want to unwind while sipping chai for hours, but if you are in a rush, it also delivers (1-700-50-60-73). (No kashrut certificate.) Ashan Hazman ("The smoke of time"), a new gem, has opened up adjacent to Hodu Haktana (Rehov Ringelblum 15, 077-764-4218, not kosher). Co-owned by two literature students, Ashan Hazman is a used bookstore, caf and much more. In business since January, the shop has already become quite popular, especially for its weekly Tuesday-night concert series. This fast-established tradition offers local musicians a low-key venue for performances, and gives concert-goers a free show (suggested donation of NIS 20 for the band) in a relaxed atmosphere, which feels like it could be someone's living room. In addition to concerts, the venue has classes in spoken Palestinian Arabic and occasional lectures, and is working on putting together a creative writing group and book club. On all nights of the week, Ashan Hazman is a wonderful place to relax with a cup of coffee and a cookie while browsing the used books. Currently, it has a small English-language section, which it plans to expand. The student owners say they are hoping to use their bookstore-caf to help build connections between the student population and the rest of Beersheba. For more information and concert schedule, check out www.myspace/ashanhazman. Another student favorite is Caf Mona (Rehov Shlomo Hamelech 2, 054-664-7773, not kosher). Filled with cozy chairs, wooden floors and ficus trees, the place has a warm and inviting porch-like feel. The menu is fairly extensive, offering more than the standard caf fare. Alongside the ubiquitous salads and toasts, Mona serves wings, hamburgers and a variety of other specialty items. It's a great place to enjoy a relaxed breakfast. THE OLD CITY Across town, the Old City of Beersheba, or the "Ir" (city) as it is often referred to by locals, has its fair share of cultural and shopping offerings. The expansive layout of Beersheba makes it a little far to walk, but buses run frequently and a taxi ride anywhere within the city is only NIS 18. Unlike the Old City of Jerusalem, or even that of Jaffa, very few of the historical buildings remain. Today, the downtown has taken on a more modern although somewhat derelict tone. Strolling through the streets and pedestrian malls, don't be surprised if you hear more Russian and Arabic than Hebrew. This cultural diversity is part of the charm of the city. Start out at Beit Ha'omanim (Rehov Ha'avot 55, (08) 627-3828, free entry), a lovely gallery space showing works of local artists from Beersheba and its environs. Located in a building dating back to end of the Ottoman era, Beit Ha'omanim itself has been around for less than a year. The multi-roomed gallery houses weavings, photography, paintings, ceramics and more from dozens of Negev artists. Everything on display is for sale, with a variety of both expensive and more affordable pieces. So if you are interested in supporting local artists you should definitely be able to find something in your price range. If you can't seem to get enough art, head over to the Negev Art Museum (Rehov Ha'atzmaut 60, (08) 620-6570). The museum itself was established in 1953, but the building, like Beit Ha'omanim, dates back to the beginning of the 20th century and Ottoman rule. Exhibits showcasing early and contemporary Israeli art change regularly throughout the four exhibition spaces. When the desert heat gets to be too much, cool down at Ice Cream Beersheba (Rehov Hadassah 50, (08) 627-7072, open on Shabbat, no kashrut certificate). A Beersheba staple since 1950, this award-winning ice cream shop offers a wide variety of flavors, including frozen yogurts and sorbets. In addition to traditional favorites, there are some more creative twists like carrot yogurt and a delightfully refreshing mint sorbet. On the outskirts of town, at the intersection of Derech Eilat and Derech Hevron, a covered market awaits. The daily market is a great place for fruits, vegetables and other grocery needs. Further down Derech Eilat, away from town, a Beduin shuk sets up every Thursday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. At this market, expect to find colorful and vibrant stalls which will serve all of your non-food, household needs, from curtains to cutlery and much more. Both markets attract a wide variety of people from all walks of life who come for the wide selection of affordable merchandise.