Off the Beaten Track: A Walk through an Old-New Land

A new column: Travel expert Joe Yudin introduces "the road less traveled" as well as some new discoveries at more well-known sites.

Jaffa (photo credit: joe yudin)
(photo credit: joe yudin)
Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.
Only now is the world really starting to discover Tel Aviv, an absolute jewel of a city that lies on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. This city does not actually have a great reputation as a tourist destination. I remember the days as a backpacker in the late eighties and early nineties; the city seemed be falling apart at the seams. It was a grungy, bohemian, dilapidated city.
There were no good places to eat except for the local Middle Eastern fare which was, and still is, delicious. I remember that Rothschild Boulevard was a heap of sand and dog crap surrounded by Tel Aviv’s very first houses all either condemned or falling apart. Dizengoff Street once famous for its 1930’s & 40’s cafes and clothing stores in beautiful Bauhaus style buildings, had become wall to wall falafel stands and kiosks as the edifices were crumbling around them. However derelict the city felt, there was still a magical vibe.
It’s tough to explain, but it was a city that was outright urban but with a neighborhood feel, kind of gritty, like a pre-Giuliani Greenwich Village but on the beach. It was cheap and American culture had yet to invade. Post army kids in their twenties would bunk up and work their way through college giving the city a young feel that you can only get in Boston, but without the frigid weather. In 1993 when the Hard Rock Café finally opened in Dizengoff Center it soon closed because no one could afford to eat a burger there. It was better to sip coffee at a café or eat a falafel anywhere before heading to the beach for sunset and then to the pub anyway. We absolutely loved that Tel Aviv and the people there felt like they were a part of the world’s best kept secret. Well, the secret is out.
Tel Aviv has in the last decade been rejuvenated through gentrification. This isn’t always for the best as many of todays ‘Social Justice” tent dwelling protesters on Rothschild Boulevard will point out, but as Tel Aviv grows into its own, the city has lost its innocence but now stands out as arguably one of the hippest, youngest and culturally abundant cities in the world.
Stop laughing, I’m serious. Here are world class restaurants, museums, bike paths, theaters, concerts, hotels, beaches, bars, clubs, attractions all within a city where you can walk around any neighborhood without a care in the world doing it all in shorts, t-shirts and a pair of flip-flops. One of the best places to begin a journey through Tel Aviv is the ancient city of Jaffa which is now incorporated within the city limits. Walk along the beach promenade all the way to Jaffa and make your way up the stairs to the top of the hill (actually, it’s a tel) for a spectacular view of the city.
“Jaffa is said to have existed before the flood” wrote the Roman historian Pliny the Elder in the first century C.E. This ancient city was apparently named after Noah’s son Japheth (Yafet) meaning “beautiful”. The view from the top of this hill in Abrasha Park is truly breathtaking and the best place to begin a walking tour of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Check out the sculpture which looks like an ancient gate. It tells the story of the ancient Israelites coming into the Land of Israel: The Binding of Isaac, the Conquest by Joshua and Jacob’s Dream. Looking through the gate you can see Herzel’s dream: Tel Aviv.
Explore the center of this ancient city. Don’t miss the Egyptian ruins just below the hill built by Pharaoh Ramses II during the time of the Exodus. Continue over the wishing bridge and down to the Kedumim Square. Underneath the square are ruins from the 1st century B.C.E and C.E. and on the opposite side of the square on the western side there is an overlook where you may look down on Andromeda’s Rock and the Old Port. Greek mythology marks this as the spot where Perseus saved the beautiful princess Andromeda from a monster using Medusa’s head to turn it into stone. Below at the port is where, according to the Bible Jonah boarded a ship to Egypt against God’s wishes leading to his ingestion by a “big fish”. Explore the alleyways, including the cobblestone street leading to the house of Simon the Tanner where according to the New Testament Peter was told by an angel that he could eat non-kosher food. It is here where the new religion of Christianity breaks away from Judaism. Follow the alleyways back up behind the church of St. Peter and you will see some of the canon’s used by Ottoman forces to defend the city against Napoleon’s army in 1799. Napoleon won the battle but lost the war eventually leaving the Holy Land forever. From here walk along the beach promenade with a stop at the wonderfully restored clock tower. You may want to have a bite to eat at the famous Abulafia Bakery, and then head to the Etzel Museum on the beach, stop in if you wish, and from there cross the main street to the recently refurbished “HaTachanah” or “The Station”.
The Station epitomizes what is happening to Tel Aviv these days. The very first train station in the Land of Israel built in 1892, had turned into a rundown eyesore over the years, but recently has been refashioned into gallery’s, markets, pubs, restaurants and retail stores all in the 19th century buildings and rail-cars. It’s abuzz with life and is a wonderful place to start your exploration of Tel Aviv. Next week I’ll take you on a stroll through south Tel Aviv starting right here at the Station.
Joe Yudin became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.