Although not exactly a hidden destination, Tel Aviv is the sort of place that somehow manages to be totally unlike what people expect, regardless of what people’s expectations actually are. Without getting into cliches that paint the city in some sort of magical, mysterious light, let’s just say that as far as us locals are concerned, tourists seem to have some pretty strange views about what Tel Aviv is like. Maybe it’s the whole East-meets-West, old-meets-modern thing that throws people off and makes this place so confusing to some. Maybe it’s because people expect Tel Aviv to be like Jerusalem or their preconception of Israel — full of wailing walls, solemn prayers and everything “Jewish”. Who knows? We shouldn’t really be surprised at people misconceptions, but talking to visitors about their experience of Tel Aviv sometimes feels like this:
Aaaaaanyway, here are 10 things visitors have confessed to being shocked or surprised to discover about Tel Aviv. Did you experience any of them?
1. It’s really expensive
If you’re used to the cheap, cheap prices of Athens, Istanbul and other cheerful Mediterranean cities, you’ll be shocked when you see what Tel Aviv has in store for you. You’ll be paying through the nose for everything from accommodation to food, and don’t get me started about alcohol prices. Israeli products often actually cost less in Europe than they do in Israel. I shit you not. Why is it so expensive? Because where else are you going to go? If you’re headed to Tel Aviv, better start saving and get ready to ask “How much???” a lot. You’re guaranteed to be shocked by the prices even if you take the above information into account.
2. Everyone speaks English
Pretty much everyone you meet will be able to give you directions or hold a conversation with you in fluent English, especially young people. There are people in Tel Aviv from all over the world and Israelis are taught English in school for years and also travel a lot. Everyone’s always keen to practice their English, too, so if you’re trying to learn Hebrew, you’ll struggle to find opportunities to practice it.
3. There are hipsters everywhere
Tel Aviv is full of fixie bikes, hipster coffee shops and hipster bars. Think of it as a sunnier, more expensive Berlin with a beach. You’ll see a disproportionate amount of bearded guys of the non-orthodox kind everywhere. You’ll also see plenty of orthodox guys. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.
4. Lots of people have tattoos
Jewish state or not, most Israelis don’t identify as particularly religious and many identify with global subcultures where tattoos are common. During the summer when more skin is exposed, you’ll see tattoos everywhere. The beach looks like a tattoo convention. If you ask Israelis about how tattoos fit in with their Jewish identity they will probably laugh at you.
5. There are lots of good looking people
Both men and women who visit often say this, so it must be true. Why are people in Tel Aviv (and Israel) so exotic? It might have something to do with the fact that Israelis have ancestry from all over the world and many of us have very mixed genes. Or it could just be that Israelis look different than what people are used to and that makes them appear attractive. Whatever. Enjoy the view.
6. It’s really noisy
Car engines, car horns, planes, people shouting, screaming babies, people playing music all day and night – Tel Aviv’s a really noisy city. This is especially true during the summer when people often have their windows wide open and don’t give a shit about your nap. If you’re not used to the way Israelis communicate with each other, you’ll be quite taken aback too. People are always shouting at each other and use their outside voice pretty much all the time. We’re not always angry at each other (or at you), honest.
7. Israeli food =/= Jewish food
Bagels were mostly a 90s fad in Tel Aviv. Yeah, you can get them (usually the Middle Eastern type ones), but you won’t get a shop on every corner selling cream cheese bagels. People in Tel Aviv won’t get why you expect bagels to be popular in Israel because the whole association of Jews with bagels was never a thing here. Similarly, you can get “Jewish food” (i.e. East European Kosher food) at various restaurants and food markets, but the food in Tel Aviv is much more diverse than that and involves lots of stuff borrowed from Middle Eastern and Mediterranean traditions, as well as pretty much every other cuisine. We also really like spicy food, which is also often “Jewish food”, because Jews here didn’t only come from Europe.
Lots of people are surprised by the fact they can’t just walk into any restaurant and expect it to be Kosher. There are loads of non-Kosher restaurants everywhere that will serve you seafood, pork, etc., as well as restaurants that serve “Kosher” food but are open on the Sabbath and are therefore not really Kosher.
8. People are always willing to rip off a tourist
“All of Israel are responsible for one another” – yeah right. If you speak English or have an accent you’re fair game. If you’re not Jewish, well, it’s hunting season. Get ready to be ripped off by taxi drivers, market traders, shop owners and random strangers. This is not unique to Israel or Tel Aviv, of course. Tourists are always the target of scams, price gouging and other annoying crap. But if you thought the “chosen people” are better than that, well, apparently we’re not. Ignore this advice at your own peril.
9. Buildings can be really cold in winter
Israel, the land of eternal summer, right? Wrong! Yes, winters in Tel Aviv are super mild compared to most places, but nobody has central heating in their houses and most buildings are not well insulated. Add to that the fact that electricity is expensive here and you get people from Berlin and the East Coast of the United States complaining about how cold it gets. Of course, during the summer this is something most Israelis can only dream about (and blast the aircon to the point where it’s *actually* that cold).
10. Everyone’s a smoker (yeah, weed too)
Pretty much the only people who don’t smoke in Tel Aviv are those who used to smoke but have stopped. There’s officially an indoor smoking ban in Tel Aviv, but you could be forgiven for not realising it when you go to bars and clubs here. Every once in a while the city sends inspectors to fine people (usually when the bar or club fail to pay their protection money) but in between it’s a free for all smokefest.
You’ll also smell plenty of weed, not only in clubs, but also when walking around Tel Aviv. It’s not actually legal here, but you wouldn’t know it. It’s literally everywhere you go.
Brought to you by DIY Tel Aviv, because knowledge is power. There’s loads more knowledge here.
Gal Gadot image by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons