Guide to Living in Tel Aviv for a “Local” Life (2019)

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The beach front in tel Aviv. The Beach is a great place to visit in Tel Aviv, but don't live there!
The Tel Aviv beachfront. A great place to visit, but not really a place to live.

After staying in Tel Aviv for a month and a half in 2019, here’s a quick guide to getting the most out of it, for anyone considering moving to Tel Aviv and curious about where to stay, how to get around and what to eat. If you’re visiting for Eurovision in Tel Aviv in 2019, consider this a great guide to getting the most out of your extended stay!

This is a guide centered around learning about Tel Aviv and Israeli culture. Even though you should really try a few parts of Israel to get the full experience, Tel Aviv’s culture and life is a key pillar. (Note: because we focus on life and culture, don’t expect us to recommend five-star hotels or Michelin-starred restaurants.)

When to visit Tel Aviv (and a word on holidays and weekends)

Tel Aviv gets very hot in summer time (40 C/100 F) and pretty cold in winter (not below freezing, but it’s not as fun). For this reason, I’d suggest visiting in late spring or early autumn, northern hemisphere. April to May are great, as are August to October.

If you visit in March (or maybe early April), you may experience the khamsin, a dry and hot wind that blows over the desert for a period of around fifty days (thus its name, which means fifty in Arabic). It is erratic and happens to different degrees every year, but does happen.

Passover/holidays: If you visit in March/April, check the calendar for when Passover happens. During this period, while the weather is great, a lot of more “local” places (like hummus joints) will be closed, and hotels will be more expensive. On the other hand, streets will be a lot quieter. It’s fine if Passover is bracketed by a week on either side, but I wouldn’t go just for Passover as a tourist.

Other holidays are shorter, and so you won’t be as interrupted.

Weekends: Weekends in Israel are Friday/Saturday. Most corporate offices are closed on both days. Local services may be open, may be open just until 4pm on Friday (then close for the rest, and all of Saturday), or just might be closed. The more traditional type places, like hummus joints or any place where you see Jewish decorations inside, will probably be totally closed on both days.

Buses do not run on Saturdays in most of Israel. There are no inter-city trains outside Tel Aviv on Saturdays either.

The way this impacts you is: you can’t get that train to Jerusalem on Saturday. if you’re renting a car for the weekend, plan to pick it up on Thursday night, and return it on Sunday. Shabat shalom!

Neighbourhoods and Getting Around in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is the name given to an area that’s technically “Tel Aviv – Yafo”. It’s easier to think of it in neighbourhoods. It’s unlikely a casual visitor will get out to Ramat Gan, or example. See below for our guide to neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv and how to get around in the city.

Best parts of Tel Aviv to stay in: Neve Tzedek and others

There are lots of decent districts in Tel Aviv, mostly expensive hotels. But the best ones for most medium-term visitors are the following.

My personal favourite spot: Neve Tzedek. It’s pretty, it’s affordable, it’s near everything, has great transportaiton and has local entertainment (food, galleries, bars and cafes).

  • Neve Tzedek is a quiet suburban neighbourhood that has a lot of life around it: Florentin and Jaffa are both walkable away. It’s where you walk through to get from Florentin to Jaffa or the beach. But it has a lot to offer as well: great local architecture, loads of street art/graffiti (and galleries), some really cute small bars and restaurants and a bunch of affordable AirBnB options, as well as expensive boutique hotels.
  • Jaffa (part of the greater city of Tel Aviv, even if it’s technically a different municipality) is the oldest part of Tel Aviv, and where it started. It’s bustling and vibrant, with flea markets, cafes (local chains, like Aroma) and markets everywhere. It can be touristy and expensive at times, and you’ll be spotted as a “mark” by anyone trying to sell something in the markets… but if it’s street life you want, here’s where you go. It has lots of beautiful streets where people will take photos, but there’s usually lots of people around. It also has hostels with backpackers from all over the world, but a few big hotels (like the W) have opened recently too. Jaffa is also known as Yafo.
  • Florentin is where you go if you’re really into bars and cool new restaurants. It has the vibe of a slightly gentrified part of town that once was a little rough. There’s lots of street art, hipster cafes and unique bars that are where a lot of local Tel Avivians hang out. During the day, check out Levinsky Market, an old Persian Bazaar where you can get things like snacks, spices, nuts, the best halva I’ve ever had or again, just visit cafes. It’s more affordable than Jaffa or of course downtown/the beach area, and not touristy at all.
  • The Yemenite Quarter: Home to the Carmel market, this is an older neighbourhood, that’s quite central AND affordable.

We ruled out the beach areas (too touristy, just hotels) and the downtown nightlife area (the center of which is the corner of Rothschild and Allenby). They’re cool and you should visit, but they’re expensive to stay in and not that nice to walk around.

How to Get Around Tel Aviv: Ride like the Wind

Scooters (like Wind) are a common way of getting around Tel Avis. Be safe, wear a helmet!
Scooters (like Wind) are a common way of getting around Tel Avis. Be safe, wear a helmet! And get a sim card to use them.

The traffic in Tel Aviv is bad. It’s not Los Angeles bad or Cairo crazy, but it’s bad enough that a 20 minute drive was usually a 20 minute bus trip or a 15 minute scooter commute.

So, don’t rent a car in Tel Aviv. Only rent a car if you’re planning on leaving.

Taxis and Gett: you can get taxis by flagging them down. They use meters, and aren’t too expensive — you’ll usually pay around 20 shekels for a ride around town (15-20 minutes). You can also use Gett, the local (Israel-founded and based) equivalent to Uber. It’s getting harder to just flag cabs down, because people are using Gett to call those same cabs.

It’s normal to pay extra for luggage. You don’t have to tip.

Scooter and Bicycle apps: Israel is VERY scooter-friendly. Wind, Bird, Lime and XYZ are apps everyone uses. You can get a ride for an average of 10 shekels (around 3 USD) and it makes bouncing around the city very fast. Mobike is the most popular dock-less bicycle app.

Ride your scooter on the roads (a bit scary) and bicycle paths. If you use Google Maps, use the navigation feature where it indicates bike paths to use. That’s much safer! Do NOT use the footpaths, as you’ll be booked by the police fairly quickly, and unless they’re lenient for tourists, you’ll be fined.

Buses: Very easy to use. You can use Google Maps to navigate. You need a transport card, but can buy it on the bus (with cash!) and can recharge it on the bus too.

Walking: Tel Aviv is actually really small. I often found the walking distance between points to be under 30 minutes. That said, the walk was often boring, which is why I preferred to scoot (and go walking or running somewhere nice, at another time).

Renting a car: Again, don’t rent a car for Tel Aviv itself; only to leave. We used SunCar — it was cheap and convenient for us, right in Neve Tzedek. Cars cost us around $15-20 a day. The best times to drive were early morning, or on Friday/Saturday.

Tel Aviv Technology and Services

The internet in Tel Aviv is fast — whether you’re using a fixed internet service or a data sim.

Internet speeds: Fast

The internet in Tel Aviv is fast. This stands to reason; it’s a developed country and home to many well-known technology startups. You might have heard of Via, the app that’s trying to make buses cool again, Viber, one of the largest messaging platforms used by parents with old Android phones, Waze, an app for people to tell you where the cops are hiding, and Outbrain, a platform for serving you up fascinating click-bait like “These Five Celebrities Have Unusually Big Boobs”.

We got speeds of 10Mb/s and higher via cellular, and much higher via our AirBnB’s internet connection. If you work online and do videoconferencing, you have nothing to worry about.

LTE/4G is widespread and fast. Unlike in the US, the land of “fake five bars”, the 3G speeds are also fast in Israel. We roamed on Google Fi for a period, and were able to take video calls, stream video (not at the highest resolutions) and multitask between browsers on our computers.

Where to get a cellular data sim card in Tel Aviv

You really need mobile data while you’re in Tel Aviv. There are so many benefits:

  • Gett for calling cabs
  • All the scooter services – Lime, Bird, Wind etc.
  • Mobike for point-to-point rentals
  • Google or Apple Pay (if you have a European credit card)
  • WhatsApp – used almost ubiquitously, like, what’s a text message?
  • Google Maps: The database on Google Maps (reviews and locations) is really good in Israel.

So you need a SIM card. (Unless you’re happy to roam with Google Fi, as we usually do.)

First, don’t get a mobile SIM at the airport! They’re overpriced.

Once you’re in town, go to any mobile phone services/repair store (just look around, or ask someone where a phone store is… they seem to be on every street outside the tourist areas) and get a sim card from Partner (formerly Orange). They have the best coverage in Tel Aviv, in my experience. You can get a 7-day data sim for 50 shekels (about $15), or a 30 day sim for 140 shekels (about $40). Both come with generous data caps, presuming you use WiFi at home.

You get prepaid plans, and you’ll never receive a scary bill.

Wall sockets and Electricity in Tel Aviv/Israel

Tel Aviv uses a format compatible with the European two-pronged kind. If you have a European adapter, it’ll work here — as long as it’s two prongs only. (There’s a third prong in both Europe and Tel Aviv, but the placement is different).

If you need to buy an adapter, there are lots of hardware stores around. I found it time consuming to explain in broken Hebrew or English what I wanted, so make sure you have a photo on your phone of what you need.

The electricity standard is 220V. These days most US appliances should work, but high-power ones like your hair dryer (if you brought one) will not.

Mail services/Post office (send those heavy gifts home)

I only went to the post office once, to ship home some excess baggage. I typically do this if I’ve bought too much, or if I’m just trying to shed weight on ongoing travel. But it was weirder than I expected.

Firstly, the post office didn’t have any boxes or packaging. I had to buy that at another office supplies store to pack my things.

Secondly, you can make reservations at the post office using an online app. I got there and took a ticket, but had to wait for longer than I thought I would, given the number of people in the room.

Once it became my turn, I found the prices reasonable and the service helpful. I didn’t need to show my passport or other documentation to send something.

Food and Water in Tel Aviv

The food in Tel Aviv is outstanding. One of my favourite places in the world to eat. The water is safe, too.

Water in Tel Aviv: Safe, but chlorine-y

The tap water in Tel Aviv is safe. It’s chlorinated and doesn’t taste great, but you won’t get sick, even with your delicate constitution. You can definitely use tap water to rinse your teeth, or to drink.

You don’t need to buy bottled water unless you have a very delicate constitution, or you’re very precious about this kind of thing.

If you’re staying in a terrible part of town, boiling the water for one minute will take care of any concerns.

What to eat in Tel Aviv (and where) for a cultural (greasy) experience

What to eat in Tel Aviv: Burekas. You should also eat hummus, falafel and a few other things, but this is the best burekas you'll ever find!
Burekas. Crispy and fresh.

This should be its own blog post, but there are enough of those out there! For starters, here’s a map I made of the most iconic Tel Aviv locations for eating simple snacks.

Here’s the list of foods you should eat, and where, to get a good cultural introduction to Israeli/Palestinian food:

  • Hummus: Abu Hassan, near the Lighthouse district, is well-known as being the best place. They speak English but are super local feeling despite being a popular visitor’s choice. Personally, I think you can have Hummus once and have enough for a month. It’s like eating a bowl of peanut butter with bread. So do it right the first time. Order a “masabacha” for a slightly different take — it has whole chick peas in the hummus with it.
  • Falafel/Shawerma: I mean, any corner store is good. But get a slightly fancy one at Miznon, which is a falafel/shawerma place operated by a renowned chef. They have a few locations around the world. Order it with charif, the hot sauce, and be prepared to tell them exactly what goes in it. Get salad, hummus, tahina, onion, eggplant and charif. Other stuff you can take or leave.
  • Burekas: These are Eastern European slightly greasy pastries. A cute little place called Burekas Shel Aba is known as having the best burekas in the country. They’re usually served hot, recently out of the oven because demand is so great. (Side note: burekas is the singular. The plural is “burekaseseses”.)
  • Halva: A sweet crumbly treat that Israel does better than most countries I’ve visited, and as far as I know is better than in Iran until they let me back in (defend your honour, Iran, and grant me a visa!). Go to Lewinsky Street, a traditional Persian market. You’ll browse around and enjoy it. But there’s also a place there called Magic Halva. Note: the sign is in Hebrew. You’ll know the shop because they only have Halva. Don’t go to one of the other places that have halva amidst a number of other things. They’ll let you try a few and speak English in the store, but the classic is just with pistachio (or chocolate).
  • Arabic sweets, especially konafeh: The baklava and other pastry/Arabic sweets are different in the Levant to elsewhere in the Arab world. They’re crispier and often lighter, not intensely dripping in syrup. Tel Aviv doesn’t have the intense Arab populations of Nazareth, Haifa or Akko, but there are still Arabs there producing great food. The jewel of them all is konafeh, a baked sweet cheese delight that has crispy noodles on it, and must be had warm. To get Arab sweets including konafeh, go to Motran Sweets in the Yafo area. There’s also a spot in Florentin (near the Halva place) called Kanafanji that’s more hipster and focuses on konafeh. I didn’t try it but looks good.
  • Shakshuka: classic breakfast dish, with eggs baked in a slightly peppery tomato base. Go to Doctor Shakshuka to try this. You’ll love it and have my permission to say “Just what the non-doctor ordered!”
  • Ethiopian food: Israel is home to a large Ethiopian population that you don’t see in many major cities around the world (notable exceptions: Melbourne, Australia and Washington, DC). It’s easy to find great and authentic Ethiopian food, which is a bunch of sauces with meats, served with injera, a tangy bread that helps cut through the salty flavours of the sauces.
  • Anything vegan: Tel Aviv is known as being one of the best cities in the world to be vegan or vegetarian, unlike most of its immediate neighbours where not eating meat is something you only do if you’re poor, or dead. Every restaurant in Tel Aviv has extensive and great options. I tried only a few exclusively vegan restaurants and loved them (especially Meshek Barzilay, which was worthy of a fancy date night). You can just get the waiter’s recommendations and be happy.

One option to get a sample of many things is to visit Sarona Market. It’s a big food hall in Sarona that is quite up-market — like the Ferry Building in San Francisco for example. You can get high-end foods from many cultures, including Israeli of course, with halva served there, dates, pizza, ice cream and other things. If you are worried it’s not “local”, it is: this is where all the tech entrepreneurs/employees from Israel’s hottest startups have their meetings and go to lunch.

If you’re after more expensive, non-street food — many blogs out there and even just Google Maps will be helpful. To make reservations online at better restaurants, check out Ontopo, much more comprehensive than Tel Aviv. And works with your international number!

Money and Cash in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is often described by locals as “expensive”, relative to their incomes. (Average local incomes are in the US$2-3,000 range, and taxes on local goods are high.) But for the visitor earning dollars, pounds or euros, it’s not that bad.

Most places accept credit cards, and those that accept cash are not going to rip you off. Be prepared to learn how to bargain hard, though, if you visit a market.

Cost of Living: Not too expensive, for those earning dollars or euros

Everyone complains about Tel Aviv being expensive. It has shot up in prices over the last ten-twenty years, and for locals, many are being priced out of the inner-city areas. But for visitors, Tel Aviv is still cheaper than many parts of the similarly-developed world (like Europe).

Prices for food and accommodation are definitely “developed world” levels. But they’re behind San Francisco and New York, roughly by half.

Here’s roughly what you’ll pay to stay there, in US dollars.

  • AirBnB: Around $100 a night for a one-bedroom apartment in one of the above areas, provided you book enough in advance.
  • Street/small vendor food (burekas, shawerma, falafel, hummus): around $5-8 for a meal for one.
  • Sit-down food that’s fancier: about $15-20 a dish. Pay about $50 for two, before drinks.
  • Taxi/Gett around town: about $5-10.
  • Scooter ride: $3. All done via credit card.
  • Coffee: yikes… this is expensive $5-7 for a cappuccino equivalent (kafe afuch). Not that great. The best cafes are “average” by US/Australian fancy coffee standards.

Why is coffee so expensive? Because the lion’s share of people drink kafe shachor, which means “black coffee” but just means “Arabic/Turkish style coffee”. It’s made with pre-ground coffee and water poured on to it, and is thick and retains the texture of the grounds. It’s FAR from what you’re expecting if you want a caffe latte, but it’s super cheap.

Paying for things in Tel Aviv

You need cash in Tel Aviv if you want to do anything somewhat fun and local: buy burekas from the best ones in the country, go to a local store for hummus, that kind of thing. You also need them in taxis whose “machines are broken”, a seemingly universal theme among taxis everywhere.

Be careful of coins. They get really valuable! The 10 shekel coin is worth about 3 USD or 2 GBP… not the kind of cash you want to casually lose behind a cushion.

You can use credit cards in most places though — restaurants, pharmacies and hotels of course.

Bargaining in Tel Aviv: Practise looks of feigned outrage

Everywhere but in markets (where prices are not displayed), you don’t really bargain in Tel Aviv. And you won’t get ripped off. It’s different to most of the middle east, where the prices for fruits and commodities changes depending on who’s asking. You can get package prices, like “how about 100 and you give me that too” and people will give you friendly deals.

In markets, or anywhere where prices are not displayed, you definitely bargain. Prices for things like artifacts and artwork can start anywhere from 3x to 10x the final expected price. I’ve seen instances where a visitor bought a nargileh (a shisha pipe) initially priced at 300, finally paying 40. The bargaining got VERY heated. You can use any tactic you want: walk away, get angry… it’s all part of the game.

Tipping in Tel Aviv (and Israel)

Generally you only tip when you sit down and have table service.

If you’re paying over the counter and just getting your food, there’s no need to tip unless you feel friendly.

In casual environments where they bring the food to your table, and you pay a little more (e.g. you spend up to 50 shekels for two), you round up, adding a maximum of five shekels to your order.

If you’re paying a reasonable amount, like over 100 shekels, you’ll get a bill which may or may not have service included. If it’s included, you don’t have to add anything, and most people don’t. If it is NOT included, tell the waiter what to charge. Add 10-15%. 20% is too much.

You don’t have to tip most other places outside restaurants. For example, you don’t tip your hairdresser.

Culture and Society in Tel Aviv (and Israel)

For a fuller overview of religion, culture and ethnicity in Tel Aviv, see our article on “This part of the world”, which explains all the groups and how they perceive Israel and Palestine. Here’s a quick guide

Politics and Religion in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is a liberal city within a very complex part of the world.

Many locally consider Tel Aviv to be its own country, politically speaking, because it can differ so much. Young Tel Avivians are open to queer relationships, and are more likely to skew left wing politically.

Generally, in Tel Aviv, people will say “Israel and the West Bank”, and will use “Palestinians” to refer to the ethnic group. They won’t say “Palestine” to refer to any or all of the country/region, are less likely to say “Israel” to refer to the whole region (including occupied territories), and won’t use the names Judea and Samaria for anywhere in the West Bank. (The names people give things describes their political leanings.) If you travel to Jerusalem and talk to locals you’ll see a different picture!

Tel Aviv is home to all of the ethnic and religious groups you’ll find in Israel, though in different proportions. Compared to the rest of the country, there are more Ethiopians and Sudanese in Tel Aviv than in other places, and fewer Arabs. This reflects in the demographics of workplaces, as well as in what food you can get easily. Try some vegan Ethiopian food, for something different.

There are fewer “ultra orthodox” Jews in Tel Aviv than you’ll find in other parts of Israel. The major ultra-orthodox strongholds in Israel are Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, where the population is still numerically in the minority, but they make their presence very strongly felt.

Talking Religion and Politics in Tel Aviv (and Israel)

Talking religion and politics is not taboo in Israeli culture. It’s part of society. Don’t be surprised if someone asks you questions like “What do you think of Palestinians?” or “Did you vote for Trump?”, or to hear an unsolicited opinion.

Interesting thing to note for context: Many Jews in Israel love Trump; most American Jews do not. Again, in Tel Aviv you’re more likely to meet people who don’t like him. I did meet some supporters though.

You can refrain from discussing, but you can also ask questions like

  • Who did you vote for?
  • Are you right wing, left wing or centrist?
  • What religion are you? Are you practicing?
  • Do you keep kosher?
  • Do you go to the mosque?
  • Do you have Arab friends?
  • What languages will you teach your children?

It’s fine. People are happy to educate you. (And if they’re not, they’ll tell you, and again, they’ll just be direct about it.)

Just be cautious. You’re (probably) an outsider, and while you can discuss, don’t school Israelis on what to do unless you’re in for an argument. No matter what side Israelis are on, or even if they don’t take a side, they have so much contention both within Israel and from outside that they probably don’t want another voice in the mix, unless you’re a good friend already.

Speaking English in Tel Aviv (vs. Hebrew or Arabic)

Most people you encounter in Tel Aviv will speak excellent English. Shockingly good, at times. It’s a highly educated place with a very diverse population. So don’t worry.

If you speak Hebrew, you will get a warm reception in some of the quieter places of course (like Ethiopian restaurants). And outside Tel Aviv, speaking Hebrew will come in much more useful, even if you just speak it passably (which is the level I got to in thirty days of studying ten sentences a day).

If you speak Arabic, it’s not that useful in Tel Aviv, compared to cities like Akko or Nazareth where you can pretty much only speak Arabic. There’s only a small Israeli/Palestinian Arab population in Tel Aviv. There are Sudanese as well, who speak Arabic, but only in some parts of town.

But you can learn a bit. Here’s our list of Hebrew words and phrases to make you sound local.

Safety in Tel Aviv: Is it safe?

Yes, Tel Aviv is “safe”.

In terms of criminal safety, just use the same rules you’d use in any major city: don’t walk around at night alone down dark alleyways in the bad parts of down (which you can ask about, but you’ll know them, and are unlikely to visit… under long bridges, and far from the center, that kind of thing).

You can absolutely walk down the dark alleyways in good parts of town (central) and not be worried, especially if you’re a male or in a group.

In terms of terrorism (always on the minds of visitors), rocket attacks are extremely infrequent, and usually are at border regions, You’ll hear stories of rockets hitting Tel Aviv, but don’t let that get to your head.

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