Its ethos is to live for the now, writes Stephanie Holmes

Think of Israel and a few things will immediately spring to mind: religious pilgrimages in Jerusalem; floating in the Dead Sea; conflict between Israel, Palestine and the Gaza Strip.

But what you should also think of is Tel Aviv: a vibrant, cosmopolitan city where anything — absolutely anything — goes. Beautiful beaches lapped by warm Mediterranean waters, Old Jaffa with its stone buildings the colour of early morning sunlight, streets full of high-end designer boutiques and cafes, and nightlife that rages until dawn.

"Tel Aviv is a small town but it offers lots of attractions for every type of human being," says Dror Shoresh, our guide for the night. "As a city of trends, it changes rapidly."

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Shoresh founded Get Real TLV, a bespoke tour company helping visitors explore the city by day or by night.

"I found out that most of the time, as a traveller you can easily get lost in all the diversity this town has to offer, and you find yourself skipping the real must-see places," he says.

There's no chance of that for us — Shoresh has made it his mission to show me and my Aussie friend "the full spectrum of what Tel Aviv has to offer, by visiting some of the most hidden, underground, hard to get to and popular places".

He's the perfect guide. With his connections and friends in high places, he leads the way to the front of the queues for some of the city's hottest spots.

Kuli Alma — which translates to "the whole world" — is more than just a bar; it's also an art gallery, a nightclub and a shop, where you can buy everything from a tube of Pringles to a new T-shirt. Here we witness hipsters dancing side-by-side with conservative Jews, while a trans waiter in fishnet tights, shredded dungarees, a diamond choker and black lipstick clears glasses and elegantly surveys the crowd.

"Everything goes in Tel Aviv," Shoresh says. "As long as you're not hurting anyone, no one will care."

Israel is widely regarded as the most advanced country in the Middle East when it comes to LGBT rights, and Tel Aviv one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. Civil unions between same sex couples have been legal since 2010, and LGBT people can serve openly in the Israeli military. A week before our visit, Tel Aviv had been decked out in rainbow colours for the Pride Week festival, an annual event celebrating Israel's LGBT community that attracts more than 200,000 people.

The beach of Tel Aviv in the old city of Jaffa. Photo / 123RF
The beach of Tel Aviv in the old city of Jaffa. Photo / 123RF

At night, the city comes alive and doesn't stop until the early hours. We bar hop from Kuli Alma, to garden bar Sputnik, to the Rothschild Allenby Market — a Ponsonby Central-style upmarket food-hall that is buzzing way past midnight — to Yavne, a restaurant with resident DJs playing music so loud your cutlery will rattle. Next to one of the city's biggest synagogues, a pop-up bar in an old bank building is drawing the crowds.

It seems like an inclusive, progressive, fun-loving city and we begin to warm to the idea of staying here permanently.

But when we tell that to a young American expat she mindfully explains life isn't completely carefree.

It was only 11 years ago that Israel and Lebanon were at war, with missiles being fired over borders and explosives found in the sand on Tel Aviv's beaches. The fractious politics of the region mean anything is possible in terms of conflict, too.

"Because we're always living on the verge of existential crisis, people live for the now," she says.

Rather than create a culture of fear, it seems to have inspired resilience and creativity.

Last year, the World Economic Forum ranked Israel as the second-most innovative nation in the world (beaten only by Switzerland). The country has the highest number of start-up businesses per capita in the world, and Tel Aviv's start-up culture is ranked alongside Silicon Valley and Stockholm.

"Living for the now" is most clearly on display at one of the final stops on our tour.
Shoresh leads us through the door of Bordel and as we push our way through heavy velvet curtains, suddenly we're in a loud, bawdy nightclub where the barmen double as circus performers. They breathe fire, swing from trapezes strategically hanging from the ceiling, and actively encourage patrons to dance on the bar.

It's been close to 20 years since I did such a thing, but I go with the Tel Aviv flow and climb up on the alcohol-sticky wooden surface with the rest of the crowd.

There's something about this city that makes you lose your inhibitions and feel like you can do anything.

Hit the beach

Much like New Zealand in summer, the beach is a way of life for Tel Avivians. They'll flock there after work and on weekends, pulling up a couple of beach chairs to watch the sunset, surf or practise yoga in between throwing a ball for their dog. The sands stretch from Jaffa to Tel Aviv port, so you'll have no problem finding a spot. For the best people-watching, head to Bograshov or Gordon beaches, where you'll see the young, beautiful things posing as if their lives depended on it.

Shop till you drop

For Israeli designer boutiques walk the length of Shabazi St in Neve Tzedek, the city's oldest neighbourhood other than Jaffa. Stop halfway for handmade icecream at Anita, before making your way to the Carmel Market where you'll find fresh produce, spices, clothes, street food and gifts. Jaffa's flea market is worth a browse too — pick up ceramics, jewellery, Turkish coffee pots and textiles.

Culture club

Wander the Old City of Jaffa and its ancient cobblestone laneways and stone buildings, many of which are now taken up by jewellers, painters and sculptors. Allow at least an hour for the Ilana Goor Museum — a collection of the famous Israeli artist's work, displayed in her impressive home close to the port. Dazzling views and a peaceful serenity from the rooftop sculpture garden will make you feel like you're on a Greek island, and worlds away from the frenetic pace of the modern city.

Bubbling brunch

Food in Tel Aviv is world-class. It's diverse too — as well as traditional Israeli and Middle Eastern restaurants, there's also every international cuisine you could think of. For a brunch to help you get over the night before, go to Dr Shakshuka in Jaffa. A piping hot, bubbling pan of slow-cooked tomatoes, spices, herbs and baked eggs will set you up for the day. Just what the doctor ordered.

IF YOU GO
Getting there
Cathay Pacific connects to Tel Aviv via Hong Kong four times per week. Return Economy Class fares start from $1669 in Economy Class.

Staying there
The Market House Hotel in Jaffa is a modern, stylish base in the pretty old town, just steps away from the flea market and five-minutes' walk to the beach. The rooms are compact but well appointed - make sure you ask for one with a balcony to get views of Jaffa and the Mediterranean Sea.

Playing there
As well as nightlife tours, Get Real TLV specialises in daytime culinary, graffiti, and art tours, or you can have an itinerary tailor-made to your interests. Contact
getrealtlv@gmail.com
or go to
facebook.com/Get-Real-TLV-286971398403722
More information: new.goisrael.com