Tel Aviv is one of the most liberal places in the Middle East – there’s a world-renowned annual gay pride parade, parties going on 24/7 and many restaurants in the city are not even kosher! This is really different from the rest of Israel where religion plays a much bigger role in daily life. I mean after all, Tel Aviv’s the “party capital” of the Middle East and the “The City that Never Sleeps”!
That said, at the end of the day, it’s still part of a country where Judaism shapes many state laws. So public transport doesn’t run during Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest, from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown every week) and many businesses will be fined for operating on Shabbat (unless they’re in designated areas like the Old Tel Aviv Port). And Tel Aviv isn’t exempted from these rules, so every weekend you’ll see that there’ll be no public buses and many places (including the famous Carmel market) will be shut too. Some businesses will be open though, because to them the fine is nothing compared to much more money that they make from being open. Nevertheless, the city still feels noticeably quieter during Shabbat than and there’s a more limited selection of what you can do. The lack of public transport also means that there might be some places that are open, but you can’t actually go to them because they’re unreachable without a bus. Well you can take a shared or private taxi during Shabbat but it’s definitely going to be much more expensive than during the weekdays and they’re not going to stop everywhere in town…
Therefore, I’ve decided to write a list of detailed recommendations of what you can do as a traveler in Tel Aviv during Shabbat, so you wouldn’t have to panic about having a boring weekend or not making the most of your time there. So here are 5 good things that I think you should do during Shabbat in Tel Aviv:
1. Go to the beach! (accessible from all corners of Tel Aviv)
Girls at Alma Beach, near Jaffa!
The west of Tel Aviv is entirely surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea and so it’s not surprising at all that Tel Aviv has many beaches open 24/7 (like Hilton and Metzitzim in the north of the city, Frishman, Bograshov and Banana in the centre and Alma in the south) that are easily accessible regardless of where you’re staying in the city! With the nice, sunny Mediterranean weather and warm sea waters, Tel Aviv’s beaches are remarkably clean and the perfect place to go for a nice swim, beach tennis, volleyball, surfing session or just to lie down and get tanned. This is probably what a lot of locals do after tiring weekdays of work, and you’ll find drumming performances as well on the Tel Aviv Promenade right next to the Banana beach in central Tel Aviv to give you even more of a summer beach vibe!
2. Join a FREE guided tour in Old Jaffa (in the very south of Tel Aviv)
Jaffa’s road signs are very different from other ones in Tel Aviv and particularly cute too!
Yes, you actually don’t have to pay a single cent or penny (or whichever equivalent it is for your currency) to join a free guided tour operated by Sandemans New Europe Tours, departing from the Jaffa Clock Tower every day (including Shabbat) at 11am and 5pm. Don’t worry, you don’t even have to book a place for the tour beforehand – just turn up spontaneously 10 or 15 minutes before the tour starts and join everyone else! And most of all, even though the tour is absolutely free, your guide will still make the tour very interesting and of a very high quality and I promise you’ll have learnt a lot about Jaffa (like the religious architecture and the famous Jaffa oranges) after the tour has ended.
3. Explore a few museums (in central and northern Tel Aviv)
Beit Ha’ir has a lot of unusual art displays as well actually, not just the history of the city and Meir Dizengoff!
Not all, but some museums will be open on Shabbat as well (even if it’s just for 4 hours). If you’re interested in the history of Tel Aviv specifically, then go to the Beit Ha’Ir (City Museum) to discover the old city hall, discover the legacy of Meir Dizengoff (the first mayor) and why he was so popular among Tel Avivians. For the rich history of the Land of Israel, do go to the Eretz Israel Museum where you will be able to see lots of pavilions devoted to different archaeological, anthropological and historical artifacts, showcasing Israeli history from Before Christ to the 20th Century. And because it is quite close (but unfortunately not right next to each other) to the Beit Hafutsot (the Museum of the Jewish People) as well, you could also go there to explore wider Jewish history and the contributions that Jewish people have made to humanity over thousands of years. Or if you’re just into art, I really do recommend the free exhibition at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art. The exhibition this July really made me reflect on several themes like the ongoing division between Jews and Muslims in Hebron and it was so interesting that the lady who brought me there actually went to the exhibition twice (yes, she was so impressed that she decided to go again)!
Saturday opening hours and approximate locations of the museums mentioned above:
- Beit Ha’Ir (central Tel Aviv) – 10am to 2pm
- Beit Hafutsot (northern Tel Aviv) – 10am to 3pm
- Eretz Israel Museum (northern Tel Aviv) – 10am to 4pm (consider leaving some time for it as it’s quite a big place to explore all at once!)
- Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art (central Tel Aviv) – 10am to 6pm
4. Stop by Neve Tzedek and the Tachana (Old Railway Station) in southwestern Tel Aviv
Not only is the architecture of Neve Tzedek really colourful, its vehicles are too!
Neve Tzedek was the first Jewish neighbourhood built outside the Old City of Jaffa by a group of families who wanted a peaceful life outside of Jaffa (which was really overcrowded at that time), so they constructed low and colourful buildings to make their neighbourhood more livable. Today, after lots of gentrification and restoration, the houses all over this neighbourhood are just as magnificent as they were before, so it’s not surprising at all that Neve Tzedek is now known as one of the most fashionable districts of Tel Aviv with its Oriental-styled architecture and small side passages dotted with plenty of small shops and boutiques.
Be sure to pop by the majestic piazza and gardens of the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre on the way and perhaps you’ll probably end up at the Tachana (the Old Railway Station) just like I did after continuously just walking in one direction to find everything in the neighbourhood! Don’t worry, it’s definitely a great place to end up though. The history from the old railway carriages and platforms is juxtaposed with the modern commercialism of the new restaurants, bars and boutiques that have popped up since the Tel Aviv municipal government had renovated the area, which is why this place is so fascinating to be in!
5. Explore the Namal (Old Tel Aviv Port) in the northwest, Hayarkon Park and the Tel Aviv Promenade
Whilst I was walking home from the Namal along the Promenade, I came across a statue of Ben Gurion (the first Prime Minister of Israel) doing a handstand at Frishman beach!
The Namal is honestly one of the best places to relax on the weekend. In the day you can have a nice view of the Mediterranean Sea, shop at the bustling indoor food market at Hangar 12, eat at its many restaurants and at night, it’s very lively with all its clubs and bars. Since I’ve also seen quite a few children there, I’m guessing that it’s really family-friendly, so feel free to bring your kids with you if you’re going to be travelling with your family! And if you’re ever there in July, do check out their Magnum Bar on Saturday night (or any weekday) where you can decorate your Magnum ice cream with any toppings or sauces you want to, including halva, golden sprinkles and marshmallows 🙂
Apart from that, because the Namal is part of the 9 mile long Tel Aviv Promenade stretching all the way to the south of Tel Aviv, after exploring the port, you can head to as far as Jaffa by walking, jogging or biking along the Promenade and pass by basically all the beaches of Tel Aviv! Alternatively, if you want to still continue exploring the north of Tel Aviv, you can head eastbound towards the beautiful Hayarkon Park. Why not take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city centre and walk by the Yarkon River, which is the largest Israeli river by the coast, being 27.5 km long?
Anyways, I hope you’ll really enjoy Tel Aviv, because it has so much to offer that even after one month, I still hadn’t seen everything there. So leave plenty of time for yourself to explore this fascinating city properly, and bee-LOO-ee nah-EEM (“have a good time” in Hebrew)!