TEL AVIV — My sister and I sit on the patio of Café Suzanna in historic Neve Tzedek, under the shade of huge ficus trees, sharing an Israeli salad of tossed tomatoes and cucumbers, a root vegetable salad of kohlrabi, beets, carrots, and grapefruit, and thoroughly delectable grape leaves, with a touch of sweetness and a light yogurt and garlic sauce.
So begins our six-day trip to Israel, enjoying fresh Mediterranean cuisine in the first Jewish neighborhood outside the old port of Jaffa, built in 1887, two decades before the founding of Tel Aviv. After three days in and around Tel Aviv, sightseeing by day and visiting cousins by night, we head to a spa in the Galilee before ending our trip with two nights in Jerusalem.
Neve Tzedek housed an artists’ community in the early 1900s, but as modern Tel Aviv grew, the area’s small structures fell into such disrepair that the city planned to raze the area and replace it with high-rise apartments. Thankfully, the plan was never implemented, and Neve Tzedek is now a chic, intimate pastiche of boutiques and galleries. Ayala Bar, an award-winning costume jeweler, uses non-precious metals, stones, glass beads, and rhinestones to create colorful, intricate pieces, and the prominent Israeli fashion designer Sigal Dekel is known for a look that combines the feminine with the classic. The Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre showcases contemporary Israeli and international dance.
We have opted to stay in the seaside suburb of Herzlyia Pituach, at the Dan Accadia, overlooking the Mediterranean. Israeli hotels are known for their bountiful, scrumptious breakfast buffets, complete with omelet station, yogurts and cheeses, fruit and pastries, and the Dan Accadia doesn’t disappoint.
After breakfast the next day, we drive to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, whose stunning Herta and Paul Amir Building, which opened in late 2011, doubled the exhibition space. The museum’s holdings include works of Chagall, Pissaro, Kandinsky, Picasso, Rothko, and Lichtenstein, as well as an extensive collection of Israeli art.
The chef at Machneyuda, one of Jerusalem’s hottest restaurants, turns over his cast iron pans, whips out drumsticks, and launches into a drum concert.
After a detour to Dizengoff Street, one of Tel Aviv’s main drags, and a stop at a Naot sandal store, we end the day gallery hopping and strolling through the narrow Ottoman-era lanes of Old Jaffa, carefully sidestepping two wedding parties finding photo ops at every corner. Jaffa is one of the oldest ports on the Mediterranean, with spectacular hilltop views of sea and skyline. Alas, we reach the Ilana Goor Museum with only enough time for a peek. The museum, housed in an 18th-century building that was once the first Jewish inn for Holy Land pilgrims, is home to an eclectic collection of Goor’s original art and more than 500 works of Israeli and other artists.
Day three is beach day. The Herzliya beach is dotted with cafe bars in the sand, and others stand on firmer ground overlooking the sea. Under an umbrella at Yam 7 we enjoy a lunch of sea bream ceviche and baked eggplant with green herb salsa, tahini, and honey.
The next morning we drive two hours north to Mizpe Hayamim, a resort and spa in the Galilee, stopping briefly on the way in the ancient hilltop city of Safed, a center of Jewish mysticism since the arrival of scholars and mystics after Spain expelled the Jews in 1492. Today, Safed’s cobblestoned Old City is home to synagogues and artists’ studios.
Mizpe Hayamim has ample greenery inside and out and views on a clear day of the Sea of Galilee. Its organic farm is the source of the resort’s house-made cheeses and yogurts, fruits and vegetables, and eggs from free-range chickens. The rooms are spread around a lushly planted atrium, and throughout the resort are nooks and patios with more places to sit.
We stroll through the farm’s orchards the next morning, with crowing roosters providing the soundtrack. A peacock admires his image in the window of the parfumerie, where Mizpe Hayamim makes its soaps. After late- morning massages at the spa we drive 2½ hours to Jerusalem and check into the ultra-modern Mamilla Hotel. From its rooftop restaurant we have a magnificent view of the walls of the Old City and the Tower of David.
We walk to the Western Wall, carrying shawls to cover our shoulders at the holy site and, as is the custom, leave written notes of prayer between the stones of the ancient Temple wall.
My sister, ever the planner, has secured dinner reservations at Machneyuda, one of Jerusalem’s hottest restaurants, located near the Machane Yehuda marketplace. We sit at the bar, with a view of the busy, open kitchen and enjoy carpaccio of yellowfin with pickled radish and yogurt sauce and ribs so tender the beef drips off the bone. Once the first seating is served, the chef turns over his cast iron pans, whips out drumsticks, and launches into an impromptu drum concert to accompany the restaurant’s sound track of Israeli popular music. Subdued this place is not.
The next morning, we visit Yad Vashem and spend a few sobering hours in the Holocaust History Museum, housed in a dramatic Moshe Safdie-designed skylit prism that cuts through the mountain and rises, at the far end, to a glass-walled, light-saturated vista. The museum presents an exhaustive look at the Holocaust, filled with historical and personal artifacts and searing oral histories captured on video. We rent audio guides, but, with long narration at each station, they prove more distraction than enhancement and we soon disconnect them. Among our fellow visitors are several groups of young Israeli soldiers here as part of their basic training.
Our trip is almost over. We head back to the Machane Yehuda neighborhood for falafel at Rachmo, where the fried chickpea balls are lightly spiced and crisp but not greasy. The modest eatery brings decades of experience to the task. It has been serving Middle Eastern specialties since the 1930s. After lunch, we meander through the Machane Yehuda Market, where soldiers and ultra-Orthodox in black hats and long forelocks and all manner of other folks shop at colorful stalls of nuts, dried fruits, candies, and produce.
For our final dinner in Israel, we choose Eucalyptus, by the Zion Gate entrance to the Old City, in the artist enclave of Yemin Moshe, and sample crispy baked cauliflower with tahini and figs stuffed with chicken in tamarind sauce. Then we walk back to the hotel through a hilltop neighborhood and one last view of the Old City.