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An eclectic mix of old and new. Photo by Guy Yechiely, Tel Aviv Municipality

An eclectic mix of old and new. Photo by Guy Yechiely, Tel Aviv Municipality

The small urban neighborhood of Florentin is one of the hippest districts in Israel. Now this old-new community is in the midst of a transformation.

By Nicky Blackburn

It’s Thursday morning in Florentin. There are craftsmen trundling by with barrows of bedsteads and wood, old men with thick gray moustaches selling dried fruit and nuts, hipsters with black beards on bikes, and young bohemian women with piercings walking dogs — so many dogs.

The trendy cafes, vegan kiosks and tattoo parlors are already doing bustling trade. There are shops selling pet toys, and others selling sex toys. And on every wall, every billboard and corner, there is eclectic graffiti, giving the area an exciting and unique energy.

This tiny neighborhood, sandwiched between Jaffa and the center of Tel Aviv, is all about contrasts. Old and new, traditional and contemporary, rich and poor – this is a community that’s in the midst of gentrification and change.

Derelict buildings stand next to smart new apartment blocks. Expensive furniture shops jostle alongside ancient wholesale businesses with rotting signs. There are pricey art galleries on one side of a road, and dilapidated warehouses where you can fix your furniture or your car on the other.

There’s an industrial zone, a wholesale garment district, a thriving food market and a burgeoning art scene. And when day turns to night, Florentin transforms into one of the trendiest areas for pubs and clubs in Tel Aviv.

It’s all about the dogs in Florentin. Photo by Guy Yechiely, Tel Aviv Municipality

It’s all about the dogs in Florentin. Photo by Guy Yechiely, Tel Aviv Municipality

In 2014, Thrillist voted Florentin the second hippest neighborhood on earth after Williamsburg in New York. The travel website wrote: “In a city already known for its Bauhaus-style architecture, inspired street art, and 24-hour nightlife, Florentin’s the go-to spot for artists, musicians, and people who dress like artists and musicians.”

Florentin boasts other records, too; it’s got the most vegan restaurants per capita in the world, and Florentin Street has more dog owners per capita than anywhere else.

A young vibe

While there are some older families still living in Florentin, 60 percent of residents are under the age of 45, and 55% are under 35, according to Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Asaf Zamir. As a whole, Tel Aviv is one of the youngest Western metropolises in the world.

The unique character of Florentin lies in its roots. The neighborhood was founded in the 1930s and named after David Florentin, a Greek Jew who purchased the land in 1924 for the Salonika-Palestine Investment Company.

It was originally planned as a simple and pretty neighborhood for working-class immigrants from Greece and Turkey, especially from Salonika. But as the years went on, the immigrants gradually abandoned Florentin, and like much of the rest of southern Tel Aviv, it became increasingly neglected and impoverished.

It was only in the late 1990s, when an eponymous Israeli TV drama brought attention to this rundown neighborhood, that it began gradually to revive. Students and artists were attracted to the cheap rents, large loft-style apartments and were ready to ignore the grittiness and dirt.

As they moved in, turning dingy apartments into trendy live-work spaces, so did new cafes, nightclubs, music venues and shops.

One of the most significant signs of Florentin’s revival is that a new elementary school has opened, currently serving about 150 pupils in first and second grade, and is designed for 600.

“It’s the first school we have needed in Florentin for decades,” says Zamir. “ In the last five to seven years the population has grown older. It used to be people in their 20s; now people are still living here in their 30s. They are having families and they are staying. The hipster neighborhood is settling down.”

Florentin food

Many things make Florentin unique. It has a different feel than the rest of Tel Aviv because the buildings – many of which are Bauhaus – are crammed up against each another. The sidewalks are narrow and there are virtually no green spaces. “This creates a very dense urban atmosphere,” says Zamir.

The food culture is also unusual. Levinsky Market, founded in the 1930s, is the beating culinary heart of this neighborhood, and it still sells the traditional Turkish, Greek and Romanian specialties that dominated the market when it first opened. Today, it’s a gourmand’s paradise.

“Levinsky still looks the same as it did 50 or 60 years ago,” says Aaron Gertz, a 32-year-old tour guide who lives in Florentin.

There are many great shops in the market, some of them unique. Take Yom Tov deli, for instance. The deli was founded in 1947 and named after the founder, Yom Tov, which means “good day” in English. Today the deli still sells items like hibiscus flowers stuffed with cheese, and is run by Yom Tov’s grandson and namesake. The stuffed vine leaves on sale in the shop are still rolled by the original Yom Tov, now 93.

“This is really traditional Sephardic food,” says Gertz.

In a sign of the times, Yom Tov has expanded and opened a sandwich bar and a vegan ice cream parlor nearby.

Other great places to visit in the market include the Har Sinai Nut Shop, founded more than 38 years ago; Baklava Mahrum, which sells Middle Eastern desserts and sweets; and Chaim Raphael, which sells gourmet cheeses, cured olives and meats, all prepared using traditional methods.

Florentin also abounds with trendy cafes, restaurants and bars, like Bugsy, Café Casbah, Diwan, a Bedouin café, Hoodna and Perla.

Street-art paradise

The most obvious thing that stands out in Florentin, however, is the graffiti. You can find graffiti all over Israel, but nowhere does it come to life quite so much as in Florentin, where the authorities tend to turn a blind eye. Here, street art is an active daily dialogue.

“Every day I come out there’s something new,” says Gertz, who often takes people on graffiti tours through the neighborhood. “You never know what to expect. There is so much art all over the place. ”

Some of the most common graffiti artists include Mr. Leaf, who creates tiny people out of beads; Adi Sened, an architect who creates box people; EPK who paints eggplants – everywhere; Kis-Lev, and Murielle Street Art, who frames her work with window and door frames.

There’s even vegan graffiti – you’ll see “269” stenciled all over the walls to represent cow number 269, who was released by vegans into the wild and is now happy and free, or so the story goes.

As a result of all this artistic activity on the street, it’s no surprise that a number of galleries have emerged in the last few years, including Urban Secret Gallery (formerly Street Art Gallery), Under 1000, Tiny Tiny and Meshuna.

A place where people can be themselves

The question that bothers many Florentin residents today is how the neighborhood will develop in the years ahead.

Its near neighbor, Neve Tzedek, was once as rundown as Florentin. Today, it’s one of the most expensive places to live in Tel Aviv. The houses have all been renovated, and the shops sell expensive designer brands. Does the same fate await Florentin, which is already going through a significant building boom?

Zamir is sanguine. “It will always be different,” he says. “Florentin is the only closed neighborhood in Tel Aviv that involves all four elements of urban life. It’s residential and commercial, it has a lively leisure market – with a good nightlife and lots of restaurants — but it also has a light industrial area. That creates a very interesting mélange of people, with different requirements, but it also creates urban chaos. It’s hard to clear four waste cycles a day, and as a result it can be hard to keep the area clean, and this is what kept rents low for so many years.”

 The municipality does plan, however, to demolish the rundown industrial warehouses of the Volovelsky zone and replace them with buildings like 4 Florentin, a project of four nine-story apartment blocks designed by architect Ilan Pivko. With commercial space, a swimming pool, a gym and a spa, it’s hardly the kind of development that attracts young people or young families.

Though Volovelsky isn’t expected to disappear any time soon – Zamir says it could take up to 20 years – the new apartment blocks that replace it will transform the character of the neighborhood in a significant way.

I ask Gertz whether he thinks Florentin will one day become like its rich, yuppy neighbor. He looks alarmed. “I hope not,” he says. “I love it here. It’s really authentic. You never know who or what you will see. This is a place where people can really be themselves.”

The new development of 4 Florentin. Photo by Guy Yechiely, Tel Aviv Municipality

The new development of 4 Florentin. Photo by Guy Yechiely, Tel Aviv Municipality

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Say Hello to TelAviv’s Most Eclectic and Exciting Quarter—Florentin

The lobby of the Mamilla Hotel, Jerusalem. Photo © and courtesy Cookie West

Nearly at the mouth of the Old City’s Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem is the stylish Mamilla Hotel, revamped in the early 2000s by the architect/designer team Moshe Safdie and Piero Lissoni. The hotel’s immediate neighborhood is extremely toney—an interesting contrast to a tumultuous history.

A rooftop lounge and restaurant offer guests a sweeping view of the Old City.

The hotel has a very contemporary feel: a massive glass entryway leads into a stunning front lobby, populated with solicitous concierges and well-turned-out guests. The Mamilla’s rooms, modern and angular, are appointed with smart and understated furnishings and subdued lighting, and (fascinatingly) the wall dividing the room from the bath is clear as glass—but at the touch of a button becomes magically opaque. The hotel’s Akasha spa (or “well-being center”) provides a perfect place to soak, swim, and otherwise unwind after a long day of exploring the city. An especially nice touch at the Mamilla is the wall of bookshelves in the glamorous hotel lobby, filled with handsome tomes on the arts and design—in a variety of languages—ranging from the merely tasteful to the downright edgy. The hotel also features several fine eating and drinking spots, including the Mirror Bar, a couple of cafés, and a rooftop lounge and restaurant from which guests can look out over the sweep of the Old City as they enjoy their meal.

Mamilla Hotel >

Mamilla Hotel: A Tony Retreat in Jerusalem

The approach to the King David Hotel. Photo by Noam Chen for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, courtesy Creative Commons

Jerusalem’s venerable King David Hotel, which opened in 1930, reflects several decades of the city’s complicated past. To stay here is to experience a chunk of history. The hotel played an important role in Israel’s struggle for statehood, through the War of Independence, the division of Jerusalem and the reunification, and onward.

The mot juste for the King David Hotel is grand.

The King David has hosted many a royal guest and head of state, from King Abdullah of Jordan to Barack Obama. (The hotel’s website boasts that past visitors to the hotel include “248 Prime Ministers, 53 Kings, and 102 Presidents”—and that royal head count doesn’t count the Queen of Pop, Madonna, who has stayed here multiple times.) One section of the King David served as military headquarters during the British Mandate, and its south wing was bombed by the Zionist extremist Irgun faction in 1946. The hotel’s TV channel plays a looped documentary about its remarkable history.

The mot juste for the King David Hotel is grand: from the massive lobby spaces with tiled floors, leather and gilt furnishings, and high ceilings painted in colorful Levantine patterns to its lavish sixth-floor rooms overlooking the walls of the Old City, it speaks of opulence and longstanding glories. Any visitor to Jerusalem should at least walk that august red carpet, in the footsteps of fifty-three kings (and one Queen of Pop).

 King David Hotel >


Jerusalem’s Magnificent King David Hotel

Uri Jermeias' Efendi Hotel. Photo by Max Nathans, courtesy Creative Commons 

Uri Jeremias, chef of the restaurant Uri Buri, has taken advantage of Akko’s epic history with his hotel. Built of two merged Ottoman villas overlooking the Mediterranean, the Efendi Hotel has all the luxe, calme et volupté of a Turkish pasha’s sumptuous receiving room.

Efendi’s rooms are filled with sunlight and bright flowers.

After years of thinking about moving into the hotel business, Uri rejoiced at his luck finding what he calls “two of the most beautiful buildings in Israel” next door to one another. Under his eye, frescoed cornices were painstakingly repainted, and marble floors were ground down and repolished to a high luster. Conservators were brought in from Italy to get the colors and designs as close as possible to the originals.

Efendi retains many well-preserved remnants of its long history. In the lobby is a deep well that dates back to Roman times. The wine cellar was built around the remains of a Byzantine vault: here, hundreds of bottles of Israeli wines line walls made with stones from the Byzantine, Crusader, and Ottoman periods. The small spa on the hotel’s ground floor is a preserved four-hundred-year-old Turkish hamam. A particularly intriguing feature is the restored nineteenth-century mural in the high-ceilinged reception room, depicting Istanbul, the Bosporus, and the Orient Express. (The painter had apparently never seen an actual railroad: the train resembles a string of covered wagons with smoke billowing overhead.) The hotel’s dozen rooms—many featuring extravagant balconies looking over Akko’s port and the Mediterranean—follow a pale chromatic scheme and are filled with sunlight and bright flowers, with gauzy white curtains that give these spaces the dreamlike air of an ancient fable.

Uri has a theory about the food he cooks at his restaurant: “One: you need good raw materials. And two: don’t ruin what you already have.” Obviously, the same rules apply at the Efendi Hotel.

Efendi Hotel >  

Akko’s Efendi Hotel: Luxe, Calme, et Volupté

Akkotel Hotel in Akko

Akkotel hotel has a unique place in the city. The hotel is located next to, and in fact partially inside, the thick, ancient fortress wall that surrounds the Old City of Akko. The hotel’s discreet entrance on Salah ad-Din Street leads to a high-ceilinged, much-ornamented lobby where guests are likely to be greeted warmly by owner Ilya Morani, or a member of his family. The hotel, part of which once served as a customs house, has sixteen rooms; each is outfitted simply and uniquely, with wooden furnishings carved by Morani himself. All the rooms have thick exposed-stone walls in which deeply set windows look out onto Akko’s street life. You might hear the call of a fruit seller in the morning before heading down to the Akkotel’s lovely and ample breakfast buffet and then out to explore.

From the Akkotel rooftop, the sky is an intense azure that competes with the darker blue of the Mediterranean, and the bleached stone cityscape seems near enough to touch with your fingers.

 Guests can reach the Akkotel rooftop (with a key provided by the Moranis) via a hidden set of stairs from the hotel’s top floor. Here, the sky is an intense azure that competes with the darker blue of the Mediterranean, and the bleached stone cityscape seems near enough to touch with your fingers. At its center is the minaret of the Jezzar-Pasha Mosque, from which the muezzin calls Muslims to prayer with a drone that rings through the streets five times a day. From where you stand, the old wall of the city rolls away in both directions. (Akko is labyrinthine at street level, filled with small alleyways and sharp turns, but if you can find the wall, you can find your way anywhere—or at least from the Akkotel to the Uri Buri restaurant.) At night, seen from this rooftop, the moon completes a picture-perfect dream of what European Romantic painters might have termed “the Orient”: a bright, starry sky above and shadowed archways below, timeless stones, a silhouetted mosque.

Akkotel > 

Akkotel: An Inn Built into Akko’s Foundations

Photo courtesy Mount Zion Hotel

The Mount Zion Hotel, located on the outskirts of Jerusalem’s Old City, offers sumptuousness in a different flavor and an equally intriguing history. Erected by a British charitable organization in the 1880s, the building, which faces Mount Zion and looks over the sweeping Hinnom Valley, originally served as a hospital for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. It was taken over by the Turkish army during World War I and suffered severe damage in the 1920 earthquake. During Israel’s War of Independence, contact with Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter was possible only by means of a cable car running from a point on Mount Zion to a room in this hospital building. The cable car was used at night, carrying medicine and arms up to Mount Zion and the wounded back down to the hospital; by day, the cable was lowered to the ground so as not to be seen by the enemy. As with so many sites in Israel, the past is embedded deeply in every stone here.

As with so many sites in Israel, the past is embedded deeply in every stone here.

Today, the Mount Zion Hotel retains much of its Turkish flavor: there is a clear Ottoman-Moroccan aesthetic sensibility in the wildly patterned ceramic floors, stone walls and archways, colorful curtains and bedclothes, and the brightly tiled hamam, now a functioning Turkish bath and part of the hotel’s spa. And the Mount Zion serves one of the loveliest breakfasts in Israel: a groaning board of fruits, cheeses, vegetables, olives, baked goods, fish, omelets, breads, fresh juices. On this account alone, many guests wish they had more days here, in order to sample everything.

Mount Zion Hotel >

Photos courtesy Mount Zion Hotel


Jerusalem’s Mount Zion Hotel: Ottoman-Style Luxury

View onto a balcony at the Neve Tzedek Hotel, Tel Aviv–Yafo. Photo by and © Vision Studio

The Neve Tzedek Hotel is a five-suite inn on Deganya Street that takes its name from what is now one of Tel Aviv’s most happening neighborhoods. The hotel, which feels like the beautiful home of an eccentric friend, is the creation of two brothers, Golan Dor and Tommy Ben-David, longtime residents of Neve Tzedek who revamped one of the area’s International-style historic townhouses to create this inn.

Neve Tzedek Hotel has the feel of a sanctuary—it’s hard to believe you are in the middle of a busy quarter of the city.

The suites at the Neve Tzedek Hotel are spacious and airy; each is like a little apartment. The floors and walls are immaculately white, but the rooms are brightly appointed with colorful rugs and sofas, original paintings on the walls, and vases overflowing with fresh flowers. The rooms on the lower floors of the hotel look out onto a peaceful stone garden in back (one of them includes access to an outdoor Jacuzzi), and the top-floor suite features a big, sunny balcony from which guests can look out onto the nearby rooftops and skyscrapers.

The Neve Tzedek Hotel has the feel of a sanctuary—it’s hard to believe you are in the middle of a busy quarter of the city—with some unexpected creative touches: bright-green ivy growing up the walls of the downstairs Garden Suite bath; a wooden barrel repurposed as an elegant sink; a bottle of excellent wine provided in the kitchenette.

Guests are essentially left to their own devices in these warm spaces. As you leave the peaceful Neve Tzedek Hotel and move into the throng of a Tel Aviv morning, it feels like stepping into the city from the private tranquility of your own home.        

Neve Tzedek Hotel >


Neve Tzedek Hotel: Hidden Sanctuary in Tel Aviv

David Intercontinental Hotel, Tel Aviv. Photo by Chris Hoare, courtesy Creative Commons

A great hotel will make guests feel welcome on the most personal, most individual level. This is where touches like chocolates on the pillow, say, or a bowl of fresh fruit in the room, or a call from the concierge to see if everything is in order can make all the difference.

Tel Aviv abounds in excellent hotels; many of them are big and brassy, and wonderful in their way.

Tel Aviv abounds in excellent hotels; many of them are big and brassy, and
wonderful in their way: the Dan, the Hilton, the Carlton, the sleek and massive
David Intercontinental—all of them grand places from which to explore the city,
relax in style, or get work done (which is always nicer when your window looks out at the sea). Other establishments, often referred to nowadays as “boutique” hotels or inns, are smaller and quirkier, and may tell you something more about the character of the place where you find yourself. Among these are the Neve Tzedek Hotel, and the Hotel Montefiore, whose twelve splendid rooms each feature the work of a different contemporary Israeli artist; Gordon, a sleek, original Bauhaus-style building with rooms overlooking the water; and Alma, a lovely inn that boasts a superb restaurant of the same name.

Alma Hotel and Lounge >

Dan Tel Aviv Hotel >

David Intercontinental >

Gordon Hotel and Lounge >

Hilton >

Hotel Montefiore >



From Big and Brassy to Discreet Boutique: Tel Aviv Hotels

A guestroom at the Pina Barosh inn, Rosh Pina. Photo © and courtesy Cookie West 

The building that houses the Pina Barosh inn, perched on Rosh Pina’s HaKhalutzim Street, has been in the Friedman family since the 1870s; today, six generations along, the family continues here. Nili Friedman, who now owns and runs the inn, is a warm, effusive, and very welcoming hostess—she is, like many others in Rosh Pina, also an artist, and some of her paintings can be seen hanging on the walls of Pina Barosh’s seven charming guest rooms, most of which look out onto the broad green-and-gold Hula Valley. Some rooms have private outdoor hot tubs, in which guests can loll indulgently with a glass of wine and gaze out all the way across the valley to Mount Hermon.

Mornings at Pina Barosh will likely find you sitting at the inn’s wide, stone-columned outdoor dining room, overlooking the Hula Valley.

Mornings at Pina Barosh will likely find you sitting at the inn’s wide, stone-columned outdoor dining room—warmed in cooler months with a blazing fire in a central fireplace—and looking out at this astonishing view. Here are served magnificent, many-dish breakfasts, including homemade cheeses, fig jam, breads, tapenades, tahini, fresh eggs and yogurts, and the requisite Israeli salads—such a satisfying, nourishing, and gorgeous way to start the day. Nili’s daughter, Shiri, trained as a chef in France and New York, and runs the excellent Shiri Bistro here that also serves lunch and dinner, applying her refined culinary approach to the bounty of local produce and other ingredients.

Pina Barosh >

Reviving the Spirit at Pina Barosh Inn

Interior of one of the cabins at Castles That Move in the Wind in the Golan. Photo by and © Vision Studio

When traveling, you can sometimes let go of normalcy and embrace something dreamlike. Israel abounds with wonderful places to sleep and to dream, catering to all tastes and imaginations. There are the lush fairy houses of the Castles That Move in the Wind up in the Golan; Beresheet, a stone hotel that sits, as silent and monolithic as the city of Ur, on the edge of the Ramon crater in the Negev; and the sublime respite Mizpe Hayamim,  a spa/hotel/organic farm near Rosh Pina (more about these in film The New Cuisine of Israel/Mizpe Hayamim: A Retreat for Body and Soul), and many more.

Israel abounds with wonderful places to sleep and to dream.

We have not stayed in every hotel in Israel—not by a long shot—but we have touched down in nearly every corner of the country and have seen a wide gamut of lodging places, from mud huts on working farms in the desert to the most elegantly appointed hotel rooms overlooking vistas of green hills, borderlines, and history. What we have seen throughout our travels is that Israelis have a knack for combining elegance with a lack of pretention, a Mediterranean understanding of hedonism with a kibbutznik practicality. Each of the hotels, inns, and guesthouses mentioned we’ve visited combines those factors.

Your feet are always on the ground in Israel; it is hard not to feel agreeably at home here in the most basic and the most high-toned places. That kind of comfort is the ultimate luxury.

Beresheet Hotel >

Castles That Move in the Wind >

Mizpe Hayamim >

The Many Flavors of Israeli Hotels

Vista of Haifa’s port from the top of the Baha’i Gardens. Photo by and © Vision Studio 

Haifa, built on the slope of Mount Carmel overlooking the Mediterranean, has all the beauties and the maritime industrial operations that go with life in a seaport city. The famed terraced Baha’i Gardens run down Mount Carmel into the downtown: a long, impeccable carpet of green and gold forming a magnificent centerpiece for the bustling metropolis. The gardens lead to the Baha’i Universal House of Justice—the central seat of the governing body for this deeply peaceful monotheist faith, whose followers believe in unity of religion, unity of humanity, and unity in diversity. In the distance, by the water, the chug of bending marine cranes gives a regular rhythm to the cityscape.

Haifa has long been known as a place of relative harmony among its Jewish, Muslim, and Christian residents.

Haifa has long been known as a place of relative harmony among its Jewish,
Muslim, and Christian residents; the heterogeneous mix also incorporates a large group
of Russian immigrants and a core group of Baha’i. As elsewhere in Israel, the varied demographic makes for interesting culinary possibilities. Haifa is also an increasingly young city: the cafés, nightclubs, pubs, and restaurants are filled with so many young hipsters that a new term has recently been coined: “Haifsters.” This group brings a taste for innovation to the city’s food scene.

Baha’i Gardens >


Harmonious Haifa, “Haifsters” and All

A cabin of Castles That Move in the Wind, Golan. Photo by and © Vision Studio

A cabin of Castles That Move in the Wind, Golan. Photo by and © Vision Studio

Hatirot Hana’ot BaRuach, or Castles That Move in the Wind is a small inn perched three thousand feet above sea level, beyond the stately ruin of Nimrod’s Castle. Its three charming guesthouses are so far from the rest of humanity that they seem to place you in a custom-made fairy tale.

Three charming guesthouses, so far from the rest of humanity that they seem to place you in a custom-made fairy tale.

The owners, Gilad Golan and his wife, Yael, have appointed each cabin differently—one with swooping, jewel-colored curtains and eccentrically upholstered chairs; one a homey explosion of gingham and checks, with a rough wooden table and a kitchen with bright cups and saucers; the third a duplex with a tiny spiral stairway heading up to the bedroom, and walls the color of grass, waves of silky cloth, and fixtures in gold and silver—a place (though tiny) sumptuous enough for Marie Antoinette. All cabins have wood-burning stoves and massive, sunken beds, and are welcomingly set out for arriving guests with platters of homemade breads, cheeses, fruits, and cookies, as well as bottles of Golan Heights wine.

Before going to bed, you’ll want to soak in your cabin’s outdoor hot tub, looking up into the bright, starry sky—and then bundle up in your blanket of a robe and take in a moment to appreciate, yet again, the beauty of this land in all its complexities and variety.

Castles That Move in the Wind >