Tel Aviv is everything Jerusalem is not. The city began with a gorgeous strip of beach along the Mediterranean and went on from there to become the bold and busy city that never sleeps. Known locally as the Big Orange, Tel Aviv has no holy sites and until its founding in 1909 it had no history. It does have oyster bars, nightclubs, samba sessions at the beach on summer evenings, and miles and miles of massive medium-rise apartment buildings. In summer, the heat and humidity can put New York to shame, but a short walk or bus ride can always get you to the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean.
Tel Aviv is the country's commercial center, and also the cultural capital; the nation's newspapers and most books are published here (excepting the Jerusalem Post); concerts are frequent, and the Hebrew-language theater thrives. Here you can find an art scene in the many galleries around the Gordon Street neighborhood, and there are top-flight clothing stores scattered throughout the city. A look at the back of some of the free tourist magazines distributed throughout town, and you'll figure out that the city also hosts a thriving sex industry. To an idealistic kibbutznik, an Arab Israeli from Nazareth, or an observant Jew from Jerusalem's Mea Shearim District, the mere mention of Tel Aviv can conjure up an image of Gomorrah in its worst depravity.
Tel Aviv today is riding the wave of the country's high-tech economic boom, and it shows everywhere. In the past few years, the city's hotels and stock exchange have begun to buzz with the energy of high-powered business deals from all over the world. Glass skyscrapers dot the city's landscape; even more are under construction. The city is bustling with style and creativity. If peace is allowed to develop, many envision 21st-century Tel Aviv as the Singapore of a new Middle East.
As always, Tel Avivans love to play. In the 1980s, the city's beaches were beautifully renewed, and are now among the cleanest and most easily accessible urban beaches in the world. The Tel Aviv Museum of Art has an important collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art in its galleries; Beit Hatfutsot, the inventive Diaspora Museum of Jewish History draws visitors from all over the world. The 1990s saw the construction of an opera house, new performing arts centers, and the development of a rarefied luxury restaurant scene.
Tel Avivans are also busy preserving, gentrifying, and recycling neglected landmarks and neighborhoods. The virtually derelict Tel Aviv Port, at the northern end of the city, is now the hottest spot in town, wall-to-wall with inventive eateries, pubs and shops overlooking the sea. Restored Old Jaffa is a must for evening dining and strolling, loved by visitors and Israelis alike.
Elsewhere in Tel Aviv, you'll notice exotic Arabesque/Art Deco structures from the 1918-30 period and wonderful 1930s and early 1940s International Style buildings that once defined the city's ultramodern image. In the 1930s, many refugee architects and designers from Germany sought shelter in Palestine. For them, the sands of Tel Aviv provided an opportunity to create a dazzling metropolis of the future based on clean, functional lines. By the beginning of World War II, Tel Aviv had burgeoned into an urban garden of ultramodern white concrete architectural wonders -- the curvilinear balconies and rounded corners of Tel Aviv's building boom were featured in architectural journals throughout the world.
But despite its architectural pizzazz, 1930s Tel Aviv close up was not the sleek, perfectly planned utopia it appeared. Many of the dazzlingly photographed buildings admired by the outside world were filled with old-fashioned workshops. In summer, the broad, futuristic streets (designed by architects whose hearts were still in pre-1933 Berlin) sweltered under the sun, and blocked whatever evening breezes might blow in from the sea.
After Israeli independence, Tel Aviv mushroomed, first with refugee camps and temporary housing for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who poured into the country; later with vast, drab housing projects. During the austere 1950s, Tel Aviv, although a young city, became run-down, especially around its downtown center at Moghrabi Square. The beach, one of Tel Aviv's strong points, piled up with garbage and was neglected. The modern buildings of the 1930s and early 1940s, built of sand bricks, began to crumble. The city offered little in the way of museums, hotels, or restaurants, and word was out that Tel Aviv was a hot, humid concrete heap, ungainly and uninteresting.
In the past 25 years, however, Tel Aviv has undergone a carefully nurtured revolution. The beach, only a few blocks from anywhere in the city center, has made a spectacular comeback. Performing groups, ranging from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Cameri Theater to the New Israel Opera, have put Tel Aviv on the cultural map.
Tel Aviv now incorporates the once-separate city of Jaffa, which does have a history going back thousands of years (the Prophet Jonah lived in this seaport before his encounter with the whale). If you climb the hill of Old Jaffa and look northward toward Tel Aviv's shoreline, you'll see a city that is coming of age and that actually stands on the threshold of majesty. It's an amazing achievement for a metropolis not yet 100 years old.