Israel: Land of the holy original

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv

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From ancient history to the best contemporary cuisine, Lindsay Pantry heads out on a whistlestop tour.

OUR tour guide Eyal announces “Tel Aviv is like New York”, as we approach the city from the Ben Gurion airport.

And so starts the first of many comparisons during my four-night stay in the city – comparisons that are not needed.

Tel Aviv, a 24-hour city situated on the Mediterranean Sea, suffers somewhat from trying to be everything to everyone – full of history, culture, striking design and of course, busy beaches.

But if you are looking for a short break that will keep you on your toes as you dash from UNESCO world heritage sites to four-star restaurants, from breathtaking museums to iconic religious sites, Tel Aviv is worth the trip.

Stretching just over 250 miles from top to bottom, Israel’s relatively small size and Tel Aviv’s location more or less right in the middle, means basing yourself in the city makes the whole of the country accessible. Jerusalem is less than an hour’s drive away, even in rush hour, and the Dead Sea just another 30 minutes or so from there.

But my exploring started even closer, in Jaffa. Technically a city in its own right, it’s more or less a suburb of Tel Aviv, just 20 minutes or so drive from our modern beachfront hotel, the Crowne Plaza.

Something of an artists’ haven, the corridors of the Old City are full of craft shops, artists’ studios, traditional workshops and galleries. Perhaps the most famous is the Ilana Goor Museum, the home and gallery of the celebrated Israeli sculptor.

A peaceful sanctuary packed full of art and antiquities from all over the world – including a piece by Castleford’s Henry Moore – is the rooftop sculpture garden where the views across Tel Aviv and Jaffa are beautiful. The house itself has been lovingly renovated, revealing original ceilings and even a cellar once entirely filled with sand.

Head downstairs where you can buy a piece of her famous jewellery and admire photographs of the stylish artist with presidents, celebrity designers and even Michael Jackson.

I also stumbled across Ran Morin’s Floating Orange Tree sculpture. More than 20 years old and the tree still very much alive despite floating between the walls of houses in an alleyway, a nod to Jaffa’s past. But Jaffa isn’t only famous for oranges, it’s also the spot where Napoleon’s troops invaded Israel.

In the port traditional fishing boats are surrounded by modern bars and restaurants. Take the time to head into the newer part of Jaffa, where the flea market seems to take over several blocks. Upmarket designer shops and galleries sit nestled among the flea market shops. It was very easy to waste away a couple of hours people spotting from one of the many street cafes.

For our second day we headed north, to Caesarea, an ancient port built by King Herod. With spectacular ruins that span Roman and Crusader periods, the theatre has been partially restored and other ruins, particularly Herod’s mansion and the Roman baths, are worth a look.

From there we continued north to Binyamina and the Tishbi Wine Cellars, a small family-owned winery that has developed a palate pleasing partnership with France’s Valrhona chocolate. Head winemaker Golan Tishbi expertly led us through a chocolate and wine tasting session which was almost too enjoyable. I could have easily spent the afternoon there but there was much more to explore, with a stop off at Mount Carmel in Haifa as we made our way to Acre.

The ancient city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site with its impressive and sprawling Crusader fortification. But for me, Acre will be remembered for an amazing meal at Uri Buri, a seafront restaurant named after its owner, A self-taught chef, Uri learnt his craft travelling the world before coming back to his home.

From freeze dried watermelon to salmon sashimi and scallops in cream and ginger, every mouthful was a delight, and Uri Buri was a highlight of the trip.

Israeli cuisine can impress the most well-travelled palate, and Tel Aviv’s restaurants offer everything from Japanese to a craft beer-themed American steakhouses. For something a little different, head to Sarona, the city’s picturesque German quarter to Wilhelmina, where the friendly atmosphere is akin to dining in someone’s living room. Relaxing over shared desserts and just-one-more glass of wine seems to be the norm.

My last day was spent in Israel’s must-see capital, Jerusalem. Even the most affirmed atheists can’t fail but be moved by the Western Wall, Judaism’s most sacred site, and the Golden Dome on top of Temple Mount.

It’s worth pausing here to mention security, the elephant in the room. Some sites are a source of much dispute, and high security is the norm. On the day of our visit, hundreds of soldiers, complete with guns and ammo, were celebrating the end of their training with a trip to the Old City, but while intimidating, it was nothing to worry about.

Security is also incredibly high at the airport. Get there early and prepare for a 30-minute grilling before you’re allowed to check in.

But back to Jerusalem, which is much more than a holy city. Jerusalem is home to the mammoth Israel Museum, home to the Dead Sea Scrolls and untold numbers of treasures from the country’s rich past. The city’s huge Mahane Yehuda market is also worth a look, and we enjoyed a beer while surrounded by crowds of shoppers, especially busy on Thursdays and Fridays.

Tel Aviv has a lot to offer, and whether you’re after culture, archaeological sites or even just a few days relaxing in the sun, you can find the break you want – with no need to compare it to anywhere else.

• For more information regarding Israel, visit www.thinkisrael.com.

EL AL (0207 121 1400, www.elal.co.uk) operates up to 16 flights (three per day) per week in winter between London Heathrow and London Luton with flights starting from £310 from London Luton and £351 from London Heathrow.

The Crowne Plaza Hotel Tel Aviv (www.crowneplaza.com) offers rooms from USD$221 (approximately £147.33) per night on a room only basis.

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