Jerusalem might have the monuments but it’s Tel Aviv that has the nightlife. However, as anyone who has visited the two Israeli cities will know, that’s not the whole story. While the Israeli capital does indeed have ancient sites and crumbling architecture galore, there’s plenty to do when the sun goes down. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv, a city that’s barely 100 years old, boasts cultural treats aplenty as well as thriving markets, sun-warmed beaches and an insight into the area’s mercantile past. But which of the two will you choose?
Tel Aviv is a young city, blessed with a golden sandy seafront, perfectly preserved Bauhaus architecture and a thriving art scene. Much of it centres on the old port of Jaffa, where along with a busy artists’ quarter, you’ll find Maskit, Israel’s only couture house which is now owned by a designer who, in a previous life, was head of embroidery at Alexander McQueen. For a more solid sight, head to Rothschild Boulevard, a 1950s gem lined with modernist buildings and dotted with cafes, in the city centre. For a taste of what the city’s young artists can do, head to Noga, where you’ll find work by up-and-coming talents such as Keren Cytter and Ori Gersht.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, there’s the wonderful Jerusalem Artists’ House which offers a glimpse of contemporary Israeli art, as well as the fascinating Vision Gallery which is dedicated to modern photography. But it’s history that really makes Jerusalem come alive and with the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives and the Wailing Wall all within its city limits, it’s safe to say there’s no shortage of historical sites. In the Israeli capital, the past, to use a hackneyed cliché, is quite literally everywhere you look. Start with a trip to the Old City, beginning with the Wailing Wall. The last remnant of the Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans, the monument presses up against the Dome of the Rock and overlooks a square that’s constantly thronged with tourists and religious pilgrims. On the other side, near the Jaffa Gate, is the imposing Tower of David which is part of a citadel complex that dates from 2BC. For a taste of the more recent past, head to Yad Vashem, a hulking modernist building that is home to a haunting series of exhibitions documenting the Holocaust.
Back in Tel Aviv, city centre monuments are few and far between, so hop on a bike for the short journey to the ancient port of Jaffa. Overlooking the deadly rocks of Andromeda, the port was once at the end of the silk route and has been occupied by a succession of invading armies, including the Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans and latterly, British. The streets of the old town are a rabbit warren of quirky boutiques selling art and jewellery, and you’ll also find the skeletal remains of the city’s last orange tree. That might not sound too exciting but Jaffa was once the world capital of oranges, which among other things, gave their name to the Jaffa cake.
But oranges aren’t the only culinary treat the ancient port has to offer: it’s also famous for being home to the best shawarma (Middle Eastern kebabs) in Israel. At Dr Shakshuka, the dish is served in a covered courtyard, is cooked to order and comes with just about every topping imaginable, including some excellent tahini paste. Also on the menu is shakshuka, a lighter dish made from tomatoes and eggs. As with Tel Aviv, Jerusalem’s foodies focus on local, fresh produce and as a result, the capital has plenty of interesting places to lunch. Best of all is the bustling Machne Yehuda market a short walk from central Jerusalem, where you can spend a morning filling up on little bits of halva, salty goat’s cheese and tangy freshly squeezed lemon juice. The market also offers a highly useful Shuk Bites card which includes eight vouchers, including ones for delicious Georgian salty cheese pies and sour Kubbeh soup, for 99 shekels.
After lunch, head further into the city for a little retail therapy. Along with the inevitable tacky tourist outlets, central Jerusalem is home to the Mamilla Mall, a small open-air sunken street of boutiques that was built on top of what was the green line between Israeli and Jordanian Jerusalem. While the majority of the shops house Western brands such as Zara and Topshop, the mall is also home to the Mamilla Hotel which has spectacular views of the Old City from its roof terrace. The Old City itself is home to a sprawling bazaar, much of which is concentrated in the Arab and Christian quarters. Expect plenty of religion-themed souvenirs, along with (better value) pomegranate juice hawkers. By contrast, Tel Aviv doesn’t do bazaars. Instead, it does neat boutiques (Neve Tzedek is best if you’re in the market for luxury labels) and quirky markets, among them the excellent Nahalat Benyamin craft fair which takes place on Tuesdays and Fridays. Here you’ll find everything from handmade Dead Sea mud soap to wonderful handmade jewellery. It’s also close to the busy Carmel food market should you fancy a snack or a pair of underpants emblazoned with the Star of David.
Busy though Tel Aviv’s markets are, the city truly comes alive once the sun goes down. With everything from kosher nightclubs to old-fashioned Georgian bars, there’s certainly no shortage of choice, although for more low key evenings, beach front is best. But Jerusalem too has a thriving night scene, which along with the inevitable Irish bar (Dublin on Shammai Street) also boasts clubs that manage to be busy even on Tuesday nights. Pick of the bunch is HaTza’atzua, which does excellent cocktails and stays open until 3am. It’s not for everyone though, so for a more sedate evening, try the nightly light show at King David’s Citadel. It’s a spectacular way to end a day in the Israeli capital.
NEED TO KNOW
RIH stayed at the Carlton Hotel, Tel Aviv, where rooms start from USD $320 (approximately £193 per room, per night). In Jerusalem, we stayed at the Dan Boutique Jerusalem. Rooms start from USD $234 (approximately £141 per room, per night). easyJet flies to Tel Aviv from London Luton and Manchester. Flight prices start from £73.99 per person (one-way, including taxes based on two people on the same booking). Visit easyJet.com to book.