With snow-capped mountains in the north near Lebanon, Tel Aviv in Israel has busy beaches fringing the Mediterranean sea, red canyons disappearing into Jordan, and lush green lemon groves in Galilee, Israel is a small (around one fifth the size of South Africa) yet a geographically diverse country. Home to Jewish people from Yemen to Russia, Ethiopia and France, Israel is a colourful medley of cultures quite unlike anywhere else in the world. The result? A culinary scene so rich and varied it will leave your taste buds longing for more.
What to do
With 10 days to explore, hire a rental car from Ben Gurion Airport (we booked a Fiat 500 from Avis.com for about R350/day) and road-trip your way around the country. Drive north to Akko, then south to Jerusalem and east to Masada and the Dead Sea (Ein Bokek), before looping back up north to Tel Aviv (where you need at least four full days to explore).
Akko is a Unesco World Heritage Site, not dissimilar in feel to Morocco’s Essaouira with its ancient stone ramparts and waterfront walkway. This former Ottoman Empire fiefdom is a bewitching old town enclosed by Crusader-era walls and a warren of pathways that lead to the shuk (where you can shop for spices and souvenirs), Turkish Bazaar and underground Templars’ Tunnel (used by pilgrims from Europe who visited the holy sites).
Akko is home to Muslims, Jews and Christians, and it is the holiest city for the Bahá’í Faith, which teaches the essential worth of all religions, and the equality of all people. Foldaway your map and spend a day (and night) getting lost in this wonderfully enchanting place. Make sure to phone ahead and book an evening massage treatment at the Ghattas Turkish Bath.
Drive south from Akko to Jerusalem where you’ll need a full day and night to explore the Old City. I recommend signing up online for a free two-hour walking tour with Sandemans (guides meet every day at 11 am outside the Jaffa Gate). The tour takes you into all four of the Old City’s quarters – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian – each with their own fascinating story and millennia of sieges. Spiritually magnetic, Jerusalem draws pilgrims of all faiths to its sites of worship, including the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Inside its walls are Hasidic Jews wearing fur hats, a convent of Zion nuns and Israeli traders burning incense at their market stalls. It is beguiling, diverse and hypnotic, but also jarring and tense – there are visible wounds of religious conflict seen through its layered architecture, all of it jostling for attention.
From Jerusalem drive south to Ein Bokek, along the edge of the Dead Sea and through the Judean Desert. The lowest place on earth at 430 metres below sea level, the Dead Sea beckons visitors with its healing waters. The turquoise-hued lake stretches as far as the eye can see to Jordan, and is 10 times as salty as the ocean. Slather your body in black mineral-rich mud (which you can buy in packets for about R50 at Hod Hamidbar Spa) and starfish-float the afternoon away, before getting up early the next day for a sunrise hike (it takes one hour) up Snake Path in the nearby Masada National Park.
Reserve your final few days for Tel Aviv, a city that literally spills into the Mediterranean and is bordered by 14 kilometres of white sand beaches, from Jaffa in the south to Metzitzim in the north.
The Tayelet (promenade) stretches the entire length of the city and is buzzing with local life. Hire an electric scooter (download the Lime app and scan the QR code to rent-as-you-go) and ride around until you find a beach you like. My favourite is Bugrashov, where you can hire a sun lounger and umbrella.
As a largely secular city, Tel Aviv operates on an ‘eat, sleep, party, repeat’ mantra. In between nights spent dancing on rooftops, make time to wander the various districts, each one distinct in character: Florentin is the ultimate bohemian area and is known for its hipster coffee shops; Rothschild, with its famous tree-lined avenue, is an afternoon stroller’s dream; and Neve Tzedek boasts swanky boutiques and pretty bougainvillaea-covered houses.
Spend a morning shopping at Carmel Market (open every day except Saturday) – there are lots of cheap Yemenite restaurants in the corridors branching off the shuk that are well worth exploring when you finish. Try jachnun (a slow-baked pastry served with a tomato dip, boiled eggs and zhug – a delicious Middle Eastern hot sauce). Don’t leave Tel Aviv without a day spent at Jaffa’s Shuk Hapishpeshim (flea market), where you’ll find handcrafted leather sandals, vintage wares and live music on a Sunday.
Where to eat
Uri Buri is a landmark fish restaurant in Akko Old City that’s run by its eccentric owner Uri Jeremias. Located inside an Ottoman-era building, its dynamic menu of coconut-milk sea bass and the arak-marinated octopus was featured on Netflix’s Somebody Feed Phil.
Jerusalem’s Mamilla Hotel rooftop restaurant has mesmerising views of the Old City and offers casual alfresco dining. It’s the perfect hideaway to wind down after a busy day exploring the streets below.
Tel Aviv’s Santa Katarina is my favourite for outdoor dining on a busy plaza and plant-filled terrace. The oxtail tortellini and lahmajoun pizza topped with lamb kebabs, fresh greens and tomato salad is to die for. The opposite is the lively Port Said, a much-loved hipster joint run by Israeli celebrity chef Eyal Shani. Soft beef carpaccio, bruschetta with sardines and French toast are M25 in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market is both a butcher and a restaurant. Come here early or you’ll wait over an hour for a table. Order the shawarma on tahini and a fresh green salad. This is no ordinary shawarma – it is the shawarma of all shawarmas!
Part of the Port Said family, Salon Romano spills out onto the balcony of the Teder, a historic gallery with regular live music and DJs spinning vinyl below. Book a table for late evening and party downstairs afterwards.
The George & John restaurant at the Drisco Hotel serves up standout dishes such as coal-smoked cabbage with sumac yoghurt, and octopus with charred eggplant, crispy lamb and brioche.
Benedict is the place to be. The classic Israeli shakshuka served with labneh za’atar and crushed tomatoes is world-famous.
Mashawsha serves fantastic creamy chickpeas, served with garlic, lemon and tahini.
Grab a takeaway from Frishman. This Iraqi- inspired street snack of deep-fried eggplant in a pita (with all the trimmings) is the perfect on-the-go lunch.
Miznon is where it’s at. Fill yours with delicious fillings such as meatballs, vegetable ratatouille and roasted cauliflower.
The Old Man and the Sea in Jaffa serve fresh fish with 20 different salads!
For ice cream
It doesn’t get much better than Otello. They have two chocolate fountains and you can have your cone coated in deliciousness.
Where to stay
The Drisco Hotel in Tel Aviv’s American-German colony is my favourite spot to stay at in the city. This luxury boutique hotel was built in 1866 by the Drisco brothers, and it once housed famous explorers like Thomas Cook and writer Mark Twain. The historical building has recently been restored and is now a blend of old-world grandeur, with contemporary oriental décor and murals. It’s well located (25 minutes from Ben Gurion Airport) in a sophisticated neighbourhood and is near the beach, the famous Rothschild Boulevard, the charming Neve Tzedek district and Jaffa’s Flea Market.
The Drisco has become a hotspot for celebrities, influencers and editors. Fashion shows, launch parties and magazine shoots are regular events here, and you’ll often find Tel Aviv’s urban elite meeting for brunch (the French toast with cream and blueberries begs for an Insta snap) on the terrace outside.
Ask for a sea-facing room on the top floor – each one has Egyptian cotton linen, its own espresso machine, a private balcony looking out over the Mediterranean, and a large bathroom with lush Carrara marble and Imperial vintage finishes. What really sets The Drisco apart, however, is its hospitality. The concierge team is truly excellent and nothing is ever too much of an ask. I particularly enjoyed the thoughtful details, like the specially blended hotel scent that you can buy in the lobby, and the stylish tote with a daily newspaper, water and towel, handed to me every time I set off for the beach.
The Efendi Hotel in Akko is comprised of two ancient houses that were joined together and carefully restored. It overlooks the Crusader walls and the Mediterranean Sea, and its palatial rooms each have pretty mural-painted ceilings. Stay here to feel like a princess from the Ottoman era, and make sure to snap a sunset selfie on the panoramic rooftop.
Elma Arts Complex in Zichron Ya’akov was built on the belief that when you stay with art, the art stays with you long after you leave. Everything here is put together with art at its core.
Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem has magnificent views of the Old City walls, the Tower of David and Jaffa Gate. After a frenetic day exploring the sites, the steam room in the Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre is a welcome respite.
- El-Jazzar Mosque in Akko, with its green dome and winding staircase.
- Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv for its boutique shops by day and buzzing bars by night.
- Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market for its gourmet food hall.
- The Nemal for sundowners at beach-chic Shalvata in Tel Aviv.
NEED TO KNOW
- Info: There’s a ton of tourist info on the not-so-secret website: secrettelaviv.com.
- Public transport: It’s very limited on Shabbat (between sundown on Friday and sundown on Saturday). Trains don’t operate at all.
- Taxis: Download and use the Gett app instead of Uber.
- Electric scooters: Download Mobike, Lime or Bird to hire an electric scooter or bicycle.
- Getting there: Fly with Ethiopian Airlines from Cape Town or Johannesburg to Tel Aviv via Addis Ababa.
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