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The Strong Buzz Guide to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv
Eat, Play, Explore, Repeat.
If you’ve been following along on social media, you know I just came back from my first trip to Israel. I went with my kids and Craig, a gift from his parents, Marjorie and Roy (thank you!), and I have to say, it was spectacular. The food was on par with the best of New York and Paris, the markets were magnificent, and the sights, the beaches, and the energy of the people were amazing. Just a fantastic experience.
There is more to this story than the sights we saw and the considerable amounts of food and drink we enjoyed. There are the memories we made with our kids, the old friends I reunited with, but also the story of family I found, family I never knew, but that’s a story for another day. For today, I’ll be sharing the highlights from my trip in the event that you are planning a visit.
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Our 10 day visit to Israel took place over February break (great weather – not too hot, not too cold), which we split up with weekends in Tel Aviv and mid-week in Jerusalem. This was intentional as things tend to be more open in Tel Aviv on Saturdays, so it sort of made sense to do things this way. We did not get to Haifa or Eilat or many of the other towns and sights, but this was a first trip for me and my kids and we just wanted to get a taste, a sort of Greatest Hits tour which included the top tourist sights and as much food as we could fit in our bellies.
We hired a few different guides (I’ve included their contact info throughout this story) to help us along the way, which I do recommend, particularly if you have not been before, and if you like food and want to get to the best and most authentic spots.
Our kids are 9 and 13 and they truly had an amazing time. I find this is a really good age to go on vacations of this sort. They get it, they’re interested (in the food especially), the crankiness is at a minimum, and they still tolerate hanging out with their parents relatively well.
When traveling, especially with kids, I’m of the mind that less is more. This will hopefully not be the only time your kids will visit Israel, and they can come back (so can you.) We did one activity a day, with the exception of the long day at Masada, the Dead Sea, and Ein Gedi, and we generally tried to have some time to chill out and just read, nap, or do nothing and recharge. When things get hairy, and kids (or you) get cranky, stop and have some gelato. Get yourselves a cold (alcoholic) beverage. Stop in at the Etrog Man for a fresh juice. Eat more hummus. Rest. It goes a long way.
I hope you find this guide helpful, and if you have any questions, shoot me a note! The most important word for your trip: Yalla! It means: let’s go, we’re done, come on, of course…pretty much everything. Have the best time! We did.
Tel Aviv is a vibrant, beautiful city that hugs the glorious Mediterranean Sea and shows off some of the most dramatic sunsets I’ve ever seen. We stayed with family in Tel Aviv, so I can’t personally recommend any hotels but the Hilton, The Dan, The Herbert Samuel, The Renaissance are all on the beach and any one would seem to be lovely to stay in.
Where to Eat
HaBasta: This is a fantastic, buzzing restaurant in the Carmel Market, and you can go any time of day: for breakfast, for an afternoon beer and some snacks, or for a wonderful dinner. You must have their salad of herbs with pomelo and pine nuts and anything with chickpeas.
North Abraxas: This is one of Chef Eyal Shani’s wonderful restaurants (he also has Romano and Port Said in Israel, and a few in NYC like Miznon and HaSalon). Don’t miss the lamb ragu and the tender roasted broccoli with “ranch.”
Delicious Israel Food Tour: It may not come as a surprise to you that I find it best to understand and engage with a new city through its food. Culinary tourism is my jam (and probably is yours too if you’re reading this). And Israel is so full of people from all over the Middle East, it’s like eating through the Jewish diaspora. You have Yemenite, Lebanese, Syrian, Persian, Iraqi, Armenian, so many different food cultures colliding and eating and cooking together. I can’t say enough good things about the Delicious Israel tour we did of the Carmel Market. We were taken not to the most popular stalls, but to the most intimate, the back of the market spots that the locals visit.
We met Irit who made us the Yemenite Lachuch bread (and let my kids cook their own), we had date-filled Mamool from the “Syrian Cookie Guy,” we ate Malabi, a custard made with Persian rosewater and toasted nuts and cookie crumbles, and of course the hummus, eaten with puffy pita, raw onion (scoop it on!) and jalapeno from Haben Shel Hasuri. It was epic. Definitely do a tour with them.
The Tel Aviv Port also has a market that’s full of fun places to eat: a Druze woman makes oversized breads on what appears to be an upside down wok; there’s Sherry Herring, which is a fantastic smoked fish shop, and so much more. Definitely make your way down there and snack around for lunch.
For a breakfast of pastries that will make you wonder if you are in Paris, go to The Bakery on Dizengoff Street. Have anything they make. The croissants sell out fast so get there before 9am if you can! For a more Israeli breakfast, you can go to HaBasta, Cafe Nimrod in the Port (you get bunch of dips that come on a lazy susan + eggs and a whole plate of carbs), or to Mashya where they have an amazing spread.
Find a bar on the beach – there are many, we tended to go to the Hilton Bay beach bar — have a drink and watch the sun slip down behind the Mediterranean. GORGEOUS!
Here are some other restaurants to try if you have time; we didn’t make it to all but they come from good sources (looking at you Adeena Susman and Sari Kamin!)!
Hakosem: Great falafel
Sabich Tchernichovski: The BEST sabich
M25: I haven't been but it’s known for its meats so check it out.
Hiba: This is very upscale, we didn’t go but others I know have and have been blown away.
Pua also gets high marks from locals!
WHAT TO DO
Go for a Run
When you are in Tel Aviv, obviously you’ll want to go for a run (or a walk or a bike ride) along the beach, whether from the Port up to Banana Beach, or even all the way to Jaffa depending on how far you want to go. There are water fountains and bathrooms along the way, and also tons of outdoor gyms if you want to do some sort of training other than running (!).
For kids, there are many playgrounds on the beach and there is a fun park off the beach called Gan Haatzmaut.
I love a good thrift store and I found a great one, Seeker’s Vintage, near the Carmel Market. It’s one of the best I’ve visited. I got a coat, and a couple of dresses and Eiji found a few things too. So much fun to hunt around in there.
On Saturdays there is Israeli Folk dancing at the beachfront by the Renaissance Hotel.
The Teder is a great outdoor music festival that takes place weekly on Saturdays. Check it out.
Jaffa is the old city of Tel Aviv and you should definitely visit, it’s just a short drive or you can walk depending on where you are staying. Have lunch at the St. George Restaurant and wander around. There is so much history here and a lot of artists now live and work and have studios here so you can poke around and enjoy a lazy day there. We hired a guide named David Gurevich, who is an archeologist, historian and an amazing tour guide. Check him out here.
WHERE TO STAY
There are so many well-rated hotels in JLM, so you should not have a problem finding something suited to your needs. We stayed at a little boutique hotel called The Arthur, which is an Atlas Hotel. It’s very centrally located and right off Ben Yehuda Street. (Everyone knows it because it’s right near Big Apple Pizza which apparently is the best “NY” pizza in Israel, and no I didn’t try it.) The hotel is small and beautiful, with lovely rooms and comfortable beds; really nice accommodations.
Two things I particularly loved: the daily breakfast buffet was exceptional and included about a dozen different salads, four kinds of eggs, a few freshly baked loaves of bread, as well as halva, tahina, and some other interesting items Eiji and I had never tried including a pudding called YOLO. Also, every day at 5pm they open bottles of wine and put out another buffet of snacks. The kids loved it. (I did too.) They have bikes to use and it’s quiet and affordable.
WHAT TO DO
The Old City
We toured the Old City with a guide, which I highly recommend. It’s a lot to see and understand so having someone to show you around and give you the highlights and history was super helpful, especially for us because we had never been before. We used Michal Ben Atar, who has been a guide for over a dozen years and works for the Old City tourism office. She’s fantastic (here is her Instagram) and can also do a food tour if you like. David Gurevich (who we used in Jaffa) is also a great guide so if she’s not available, get him for sure. Roi (who gave us a food tour of the Machne Yehuda Market) can also do a tour for you, his info below!)
Michal not only took us through the various quarters and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Western Wall, but also through the Old City Market where we had an amazing hummus and falafel lunch at Abu Shukri. Be sure to make it there, and if you have time and room in your belly have the kebabs from Lina. (More on the food below).
Obviously, do not miss this market. This is the central market in Jerusalem, and we hired a guide, Roi Damari, to take us through its alleys and stalls. Roi is a former chef so he’s very passionate about food and will leave you full and exhausted and blissfully happy. If Roi is booked, you can use Michal (listed above), or Avigail Kuperman who is also amazing.
This is a great morning or afternoon activity to do with kids, just a short taxi drive from Jerusalem. The Temple Mount Sifting Project allows you to sift through excavated land from under the Temple Mount and find actual artifacts and help archeologists. Sam and Craig loved it! Such a cool experience.
This is a lovely little zoo to visit with kids, it’s got tons of programming and events and you know, animals too.
Where to Run and Play
My runs in Jerusalem were a lot more challenging than in Tel Aviv because Jerusalem is damn hilly! Maybe they are even mountains? They seemed that way to me. From the Arthur, I jogged over to Sacher Park and had a good run there on paved paths. It’s hard to just run around the city not only because of the hills, but because the old stone sidewalks and streets are really brutal on the joints, and I could see rolling an ankle easily. So find a park and run there.
Sacher Park also has an amazing playground for kids and mine (who are 9 and 13) loved it – we spent an hour there one morning before our food tour of the Machne Yehuda Market.
Where to Eat
You should try to eat at least one of chef Assaf Granit’s Machne Yehuda Restaurant Group spots. They are magnificent. We had dinner at the one called “The Culinary Workshop,” or Hasadna in Hebrew, and it was one of the best meals of my life. Have anything on the menu that appeals to you: we loved the warm Parker House rolls, the bacon wrapped shrimp, the sashimi skewer, the steak from their fridge of dry-aging beef, the smoked brisket, and the osso bucco. He’s got a number of restaurants in JLM including Agripas, Lotte, MachneYuda, Yudale, and Leyada (and in Paris where he has Balagan and Shabour) and any one of them will be exceptional.
Craig and I went out one night in search of a glass of something and found The Gatsby Cocktail Room, a seductive and secreted speakeasy you’ll find through a black door and behind a sliding bookshelf. Amazing cocktails, and on the night we were there, Drag Queen Karaoke too. A win!
I think there is a time for restaurant eating and a time for market eating. In Jerusalem we only did one fancy restaurant meal (at the Culinary Workshop) and the rest were just in the Machne Yehuda market or in the Old City. I recommend poking around and following this Times article from Reem Assil which was a great guide. We did get (and bring home) some handmade Tahina from Al Jebrini Tahini, one of the only places where it is ground by hand. As I mentioned earlier, we also went to Abu Shukri, where the sweetest guy, Ziyad Abu Shukri, still grinds his hummus by hand with a mortar and pestle the way he has since he took over from his father 30 years ago. There was a line way too long at Kabab al Sha’ab, or Suq el Atareen as it is locally known, but if you have the patience, get some kebabs there.
The Dead Sea, Masada and Ein Gedi
These sights are essential so we did a one day tour of all three, and it was great. We started at Masada on a self-guided tour (we took the Cable Car, we did not hike), then to the Ein Gedi for some real hiking with waterfalls and some fascinating wildlife, and then a final stop at The Dead Sea for a float and a soak, and a great meal at the Lowest Bar on Earth (seriously delicious food and glasses of cold beer). We also rode a camel, which was a lot scarier than I imagined, particularly the getting up and down bit. But fun!
There’s more to this story, about this missing part of my family I mentioned at the start of this piece, but that’s coming later this week. Thanks for reading and hope this was helpful to your trip planning!