Anyone in America will tell you that if you’ve been only to New York City, you haven’t really been to America. In much the same way, Tel Aviv is the Middle East’s Big Apple: exciting, fun, cosmopolitan, innovative—and almost completely independent. Like New York City, however, the White City is also a national icon that belongs to Israel as much as to the coolest cities in the Middle East.
Like New York, Israel’s cultural and economic capital is considered a world of its own: Israelis will frequently lament Tel Avivians’ decadent lifestyle and decry their disconnect from everyday Israeli life. Tel Aviv is frequently accused of being too liberal, not Jewish enough, and just too international. And much like New York, it is many of these cosmopolitan qualities that make it the country’s shining pride.
In contrast to mountainous Jerusalem—Israel’s official capital—Tel Aviv is how Israel would look if there were no conflict, just a beach city facing the Mediterranean and open to the world. Home to countless startups and a world-famous nightlife, Tel Aviv attracts over a million tourists a year who flock to the city for business or pleasure (or both).
And indeed, Tel Aviv is as cosmopolitan as it is minuscule. It is home to less than half a million—approximately 15% of Israel’s population—and is 15 times smaller in size than New York City, yet it accounts for almost a quarter of the country’s economy.
The city serves as a magnet for the country’s best, brightest, and coolest young people—attracting creatives and intellectuals from across the nation and even the world. As more and more hip Europeans and Americans decide to call it home, Tel Aviv’s creative scene and sense of style has matured it into a global hub of innovation, fashion, and cinema.
Shining hipster city on a hill
The past decade has seen Tel Aviv explode as an up-and-coming global city. Seemingly obsessed with staying relevant and hip, Tel Aviv is fanatically cool, with countless hipster-style places sprouting like mushrooms after rain: cool bike shop with built-in café? Barbershop by day, bar by night? How about a pop-up club that doubles as a pirate radio station? Tel Aviv’s got you covered.
Southern Tel Aviv is increasingly becoming a local version of Brooklyn with artisan cafés, vinyl shops, second-hand clothes boutiques, and countless concept restaurants built around contemporary, open kitchens feeding the city’s booming foodie culture. In addition to countless cultural festivals, including the prestigious DocAviv Documentary Film Festival, Tel Aviv even has its own fashion week, and numerous blogs and Instagram accounts are dedicated to documenting the city’s street fashion.
At times it seems the city is proactively mimicking New York: two urban food markets opening just last year seem to emulate the Chelsea Food Market, and new high-rises in poorer parts of town attempt to turn southern Tel Aviv into a version of Williamsburg or the Meatpacking District of yesteryear—much like New York, housing prices are sky-high, and Tel Aviv is among the most expensive cities in the world.
Tel Aviv is also historic, and the city’s story mirrors that of the nation’s. Tel Aviv was founded as the first Hebrew city and its name—which literally translates as “spring hill”—is meant to symbolize something new springing from something old, an interpretation on Altneuland (Old New Land), the utopian novel that inspired the birth of Israel.
Initially founded as a garden city, Tel Aviv was supposed to be a business-free city of small green coves, an urban and secular interpretation of the Jewish people’s attempt to create a new life for themselves in their Biblical homeland. As the first Hebrew city is now a multi-ethnic metropolis, not much remains of this dream except the quaint Neve Tzedek neighborhood.
Though its history is rife with tensions between Jews and Arabs, the symbiotic relationship between the only 100-year-old Tel Aviv and the over 2,000-year-old Jaffa, its annexed neighbor to the south, is a model of coexistence in Israel. Jaffa’s flourishing Arab community is comprised of Muslims and Christians who live side by side with Jewish neighbors from all walks of the Jewish diaspora, Jaffa’s docks have historically been operated by workers from across the world.
Tel Aviv is also Israel’s (and the Middle East’s) LGBTQ capital. Like at the Stonewall Inn in New York, gay activism in Israel was born and raised in Tel Aviv. With a world-famous gay pride parade, Tel Aviv is so LGBT-friendly that gay bars are considered a relic of the past.