Tel Aviv’s Water Wonderland
This Mediterranean beachfront playground draws people to the sun, sand and surf—in spontaneous, sometimes raucous, Israeli style.
Like an Israeli version of the yellow brick road, the Tel Aviv tayelet(boardwalk) hugs the city’s waterfront—meandering from the Jaffa border in the south, where Madonna visited the trendy Manta Ray restaurant last year, to the Tel Aviv port in the north, where at the Trask Wedding Hall couples can say “I do” under the splash of a wave.
Between these extremities of Tel Aviv-Jaffa lie nine miles of sandy shore—18 beaches in all, with swimming permitted on 12. One beach slides into the next, each boasting the diversity of Tel Aviv’s ethnic and religious groups—immigrants from around the world with their cacophany of languages, as well as Christian pilgrims and other visitors.
“Any tourist should ask their hotel concierge where each beach is located,” says Elisa Zeichner from the tourism department of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, since they are not clearly marked. “The locals just know.”
Israeli culture thrives on spontaneity and most activities at the beachfront are organized ad hoc. Aside from the events put on by cafés and sports centers, the municipality plans everything from parades to concerts throughout the beach season, which officially started April 20 and runs through the end of September.
Summer skies are cloudless, though they tend to be hazy on the hottest days, when the sea feels like a warm bath. Breakwaters and lifeguards make swimming safe for children. (This year, however, there may be fewer lifeguards because of a threatened strike.) The beaches are clean and well groomed; you can let the golden sand slip through your toes. The view stretches for miles and you can spot fishing boats and other vessels—occasionally, small sailboats compete in regattas.
Tel Aviv’s sun, surf and sand became popular in the 1920’s, when a casino between the Yamit and Dan Hotels became a popular gathering place. The boardwalk was built in the 1930’s. By 1980, it lay in neglect, but Mayor Shlomo (“Cheech”—Cheech Beach is named after him) Lahat envisioned and promoted a renewed seaside as the city’s most popular draw. It is now possible to walk the length of the boardwalk, with its wave-like design, to the entrance of Jaffa port.
(Overall, the Society for Preservation of Nature reports that Israel’s beaches are disappearing and only 6.9 percent of the Mediterranean shore is open to public bathing.)
“Fifteen years ago, there was only beach, some beach chairs and one man walking up and down selling ice cream,” remarks Zeichner. “Now every 50 feet there is a café.”
Israelis party on the beach all night long. They set up tents withmangals (barbecues) and play small stereos and instruments. Jaffa Arabs set up weekend barbecues north of the Dolphinarium nightclub.
Swimming is not always the main draw. At Hof Hatupim, or Beach of the Drums, located at the southern end of the waterfront, everyone from toddlers to 83-year-old hippies gets into the groove on Friday afternoons. As the sun sets over the Mediterranean, Shabbat is welcomed to the thunder of drumbeats and wild gyration.
“This is the best of Israel,” raves Nofar Katzir, 19, a brown-skinned beauty who dances with sheer bliss. “It’s great energy, a beautiful place. All the good comes out here. Everyone smiles at you.”
Drummers sit perched on boulders above the beach as though in a gallery, while spectators sipping caffé lattes congregate in the outdoor seating area of makeshift restaurants. Low-set Bedouin-style couches and tables are available for crowds at the west end of the path, where a massage therapist has set up shop.
Anything goes here. “The beach is a great place for self-expression,” says Moshe Ben Michaeli, 26, who is drumming on the popular djembe, the African hand drum. The voice of the darbukas—hour-glass-shaped hand drums originating in Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East—is sharp, and whistle flutes add color to the tribal beat set by the djembe. People clap and sing.
As Ben Michaeli drums, a handful of other drummers, noticeably off beat, excite the dancers, accelerating their movements. Poi jugglers twirl the ancient prop rhythmically with fire ablaze at the ends. Poi is so popular—it is made of two cords with streamers and a tennis ball at each end that people swing in each hand—one would think it an Israeli invention. Vendors sell colorful plastic poi toys to children who zigzag through the crowd.
Along the curving coastline heading north is Chinky Beach and the Chinky Beach restaurant, where tables and chairs extend into the water so customers can eat dinner while water laps at their feet. “The tables wash out to sea,” admits bartender Eden Uliel, 18. “And sometimes they break. We have to replace a lot of furniture.”
Patrons can also sink into the rows of plush futons (with or without umbrella) and at night, large globe lamps light the area. People kiss and cuddle or watch dogs frolicking in the sea.
In the past couple of years, the Chinky restaurant management has been bringing in bigger names in entertainment, like Moosh Ben Arik, singer and band member of the ethnic-fusion group Sheva.
Adjacent to Chinky restaurant is Surf Point, the only club in Tel Aviv that offers kitesurfing. You strap your feet onto a surfboard and, hanging on to the kite, propel yourself over waves and into the air. It is a controversial sport since kitesurfers have been known to fly across the street, becoming entangled with cars. Buildings and electricity lines are also a concern. Fortunately for bathers, kitesurfing is restricted to certain areas.
Risky or not, Surf Point offers kitesurfing and windsurfing lessons and equipment rentals. Their reputation for arrogant and rude workers, however, proves to be true. So it is good that windsurfing and other alternative activities are also available farther up on Gordon Beach at the sports center Mo’adon Lev Hayam.
Between the two clubs are a string of restaurants, each with its own signature cluster of lights next to tables on the beach—bright red cones, fluorescent blue-and-pink rectangles and white ovals balanced on three sticks that intersect teepee style. The restaurants all serve similar fare—falafel, pizza and fish—but differ in their entertainment. At Banana Beach, its eponymous restaurant brings a week of outdoor films such as the The Rocky Horror Picture Show. At Sof Frishman, a live D.J. plays for clusters of teens and young adults; Wednesdays feature live South American music and Thursday night is karaoke.
Midway up the tayelet is La Riviera. Built on a platform above the beach and boasting sleek white couches and low glass tables where customers can relax with a sea view, this restaurant and bar is a cut above the rest.
“I wanted to make a higher quality atmosphere,” explains restaurateur Romy DeFrances. “This space is more intimate.”
Indeed, the enclosure of the low glass walls lends a cozy feel and attracts a more mellow crowd that prefers sipping expensive cocktails to spinning poi balls. Although the sides are enclosed, the open sky maintains a feeling of Mediterranean spaciousness.
On the way to Gordon Beach, strollers enjoy the work of street artists and craftspeople. Itzik Makias runs a henna tattoo stand where teens gather to discuss design options like kanji symbols (Japanese lettering) that cost $2 to $5 and last two to three weeks. “It’s fun to work right near the water,” Makias says. “There are tons of people from the entire [country] at all hours of the night.”
Vendors are not officially permitted, “but the city generally looks the other way for artists,” he says with a wink. About 20 feet away, a crowd is encircling an artist.
Onlooker Doreen Asher, 15, once had her portrait done. “It was beautiful,” she says, “but it was a bit embarrassing to have everyone watching me the whole time!”
Local athletes who do relish an audience congregate on Gordon Beach, a few minutes walk north of La Riviera. They test their strength on pull-up bars and other gymnastic equipment—often in their underwear; the scene is reminiscent of California’s Venice Beach, minus the waterfront stores.
You don’t have to be an athlete to participate in the various meditation, aerobic and general exercises going on in two outdoor venues on Gordon Beach. Locals and tourists gather here (and elsewhere) for games of paddleball, volleyball and soccer.
You can get a good view of paddleball tournaments and other activities from the nonkosher London Cafe, perched above the sand on a private walkway connected to the tayelet. On the north side of this pricey establishment is the city’s only Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlor, whose green-and-blue metal benches are nestled under the Hilton Hotel, where people gather for weekend folk dancing andcapoeira, a Brazilian martial arts and dance form.
From Kikar Atarim (once the hottest spot on the waterfront, the former dance club stands out with its unusual circular shape) you can catch a glimpse of the popular Gordon Pool, a sports center just north of Gordon Street, adjacent to the Sheraton Hotel. Swimmers are drawn to its Olympic-size saltwater pool and its gym. Next to the pool is the Tel Aviv marina, which offers kayaking, sailing and snorkeling—even to those with disabilities. Yoel Sharon, an award-winning filmmaker who was paralyzed from the waist down in the Yom Kippur War, founded Etgarim, an athletic club for people with physical disabilities, which operates its watersports activities here.
Continue north to Hilton Beach, where gay men (and women seeking relief from harassment) congregate. At night, the children’s playground up the hill is tranformed into a well-known cruising spot for gay men, secular and religious.
Another favorite for both the gay and straight crowd is the Love Parade—which espouses love and tolerance—expected to take place this August either at its regular location on Hayarkon Street along the beach or on Ibn Gvirol. Partygoers feel the palpable tension from Tel Aviv’s hectic pace being washed away by techno beats, body paint and dancers. The only street party of its kind in the Middle East, the Love Parade attracts hundreds of thousands every year.
Usually the event lasts several days and kicks off with a beach party on Thursday. On Friday, the parade starts at noon and people dance alongside floats adorned with lavish decorations and locals dressed up as drag queens. Floats are sponsored by Tel Aviv’s largest nightclubs and the event attracts D.J.’s from all over the world. Beach parties continue into all hours of the night for two more days.
Bordering Hilton Beach is Mo’adon Lev Hayam. With waves breaking on a wall of rocks, this sports club is ideal for learning how to windsurf. Beginners stay cocooned inside the calm lake-like environment, while more advanced students brave the waves farther out. Four two-hour lessons (including equipment rental) cost about $200. “We promise you’ll know how to windsurf by the end of the course,” assures Avner Huberman, Mo’adon’s general manager. If not, he says, additional lessons are on the house. The club also offers kayaking and sailing lessons.
A few minutes walk away is the religious Sheraton Separated Beach. Concealed by high white walls, women swim here on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and men take their turn on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It is open to mixed crowds Friday night to Sunday morning.
For serious dining, head to the beach’s northernmost strip, where the sand and the breakwaters end at the popular namal (seaport). Cars can enter from Yordei Hasira Street where parking lot attendants point out halls and clubs demarcated by hangar numbers.
Brimming with activity till the wee hours of the morning, this area offers a vast array of trendy restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Parparot, one of the few strictly kosher restaurants in Tel Aviv, is an upscale indoor establishment with more than the sea to look at: a wine cellar just under the glass floor of the entrance; an open kitchen on the far end of the restaurant; and a saltwater aquarium filled with colorful fish, perched on a beam and running the length of the kitchen.
Most people come to enjoy the water outdoors, and Boya Cafe—on the northernmost end of the namal—delivers. While chomping away on what just might be Tel Aviv’s best French fries, customers take a virtual bath in the Mediterranean, as pounding waves crash against a barrier.
Passing the walkway in front of the restaurant, one young girl makes a run for it, attempting to avoid being splashed. To which her laughing mother declares, “But getting wet is the beauty of it all!”
A Day—or Night—at the Beach
For events and beach hours, contact the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality’s tourist office: 011-972-3-516-6188; www.tel-aviv.gov.il/english.
- Banana Beach Restaurant, Herbert Samuel 9: 972-3-510-7958
- Ben & Jerry’s, Hayarkon 121: 972-3-523-1812
- Boya Cafe, Hata’arucha 3: 972-3-544-6166
- London Cafe, Herbert Samuel 111: 972-1-700-700-648
- Manta Ray, Alma Beach: 972-3-517-4773
- Parparot (Gourmet Dairy Restaurant), Yordei Hasira: 972-3-544-2774
- Sof Frishman, Frishman Street: 972-3-524-2662
- Trask Wedding Hall, Mitham Shefekh Hayarkon: 972-3-604-8070
- Etgarim, Ravnitzky 7: 972-8-561-3585
- Gordon Pool and Gym: 972-3-527-1555
- Mo’adon Lev Hayam Sports and Rentals: 972-3-522-4079
- Surf Point Sports and Rentals: 972-3-517-0099