When you think of the Middle East it's likely that a liberal, coastal paradise doesn't immediately spring to mind. But take the time to explore Israel's second city, the economic and cultural heart of the country, and that's exactly what you'll find. Tel Aviv is bossing the beach party scene, and managing to do so in a way that's equal parts lively and laid-back.
We know what you're thinking. Something along the lines of: 'are you really advising me to plan a trip to a country that borders Syria?'. Admittedly, Israel is rarely out of the news, whether it's political tensions in the significantly less secular capital, Jerusalem, or because of religious tensions in the controversial West Bank or Gaza Strip. But though Tel Aviv is no more than an hour or so drive from many of these troubles, it both feels and really is a world apart. Especially from a safety perspective.
Home to a mix of cultures and religions, (Jewish to Muslim, Russian to Ethiopian) the cosmopolitan city really stands out in the region. It's relaxed, accepting and home to some of the world's best nightlife. You could even call it the Miami of the Middle East. With its buzzing bars, foodie culture and miles upon miles of sandy Mediterranean beaches, it's not just a hot city break (literally), but a unique one too.
Don't believe us? Tel Aviv is constantly ranked in the world's top 10 cities for the quality of its nightlife (according to Lonely Planet), the Gay Pride celebrations are the biggest in the region and National Geographic has rated it the 9th best beach city worldwide. So, if your dream vacay involves sunbathing by day and partying by night, and doing both somewhere stunning, look no further than Tel Aviv.
The culture and beach lifestyle are incredibly intertwined there, probably because the beach literally makes up a decent chunk of downtown. And the fact that Googling 'Tel Aviv beaches' immediately comes up with a good 16 or so gives some indication as to what a big deal they are in the city. For a beach with that extra star quality, Gordon-Frishman beach is one of the hippest places to be seen. Not unlike South Beach in Miami or Venice Beach in LA, it's super atmospheric, thanks to the beach bars, DJs and abundance of volleyball courts.
The coastal boardwalk from the port in the north towards Jaffa, the oldest part of the city, is pretty much the nicest walk you can do in Tel Aviv. Passing a ton of beaches, it's perfect for a stroll or jog to burn off calories from the night before. For when you're feeling a little more like getting dressed up, Hilton's Top Sea beach won't disappoint. The city's most high society beach has a fantastic bar-turned-restaurant and attracts a glitzy crowd. Oh, and no big deal but the bar makes deliveries on the beach if you're prioritizing tanning over socializing.
Now that that's sorted, the next question is where to stylishly end a day of sunbathing. Rothschild Boulevard is an obvious go-to as it's one of the city's largest, most lively streets. Check out Rothschild 12 for a chilled cafe which gets lively when it gets dark. Then head to Kuli Alma , a gorgeous 'gallery bar' nearby. The cocktail selection and art exhibits will help you feel as cool and cosmopolitan as much of the city's population.
In terms of the bar scene, there's quite literally something for everyone. Florentin, the Brooklyn of Tel Aviv, is a trendy area to explore. For a true taste of its hip (and unashamedly hipster) offerings then check out Hoodna for a carefree atmosphere and live music. Or head back to the beach and into Marina Bar. There's a roof bar, pool and ocean views - need we say more? We will say more because the nightlife scene is simply unparalleled.
In terms of clubs, two offerings in particular are key to a good night (don't rock up till 2am, they get going late). Radio EPGB is a staple of the late night party scene. An underground basement, it hosts the best DJs and live music - indie electronic fans will love it, but it also plays everything from country to punk. Clara is another iconic club, but one with a very different vibe. Its glamorous beach area overlooks the water, and features everything from dance floors to hammocks, electro to hip-hop parties. The only constant is the chic calibre of guests it attracts.
With all these parties (and verging-on-unhealthy alcohol intake), it's reassuring that the foodie scene is well equipped to handle the morning after. Israeli cuisine is as varied as it is tasty - eggplant and fresh salads are everywhere if you want a detox; as are kebabs and shawarma if you don't. There's nowhere better to eat than out in the sun - luckily, al fresco dining is big thanks to the country's Mediterranean climate. A leisurely brunch will most likely hit the spot after a big night. Head to Dallal, a rustic-chic restaurant serving up French-Israeli food in the charming neighborhood of Neve Tzedek.
Or walk the manageable distance to the ancient (but rapidly gentrifying) port of Jaffa for an unmissable experience at Dr Shakshuka . For those not in the know, shakshuka is a traditional Israeli dish of poached eggs and spicy tomato sauce. You won't find a better dish of it than at this chaotic, family-run courtyard restaurant. Whilst you're in the area check out the next door flea market, in addition to the Old City's galleries and Old Port's cafes.
If you're on the hunt for more authentic food, Tel Aviv's markets are a good place to start. The famous Carmel Market is centrally located and always bustling, or for a more upscale experience the new(ish) Sarona Market is the country's biggest indoor food market, and is pretty cool. Try the meat and wine at Marinado. For a more special (read: sit down) meal, there's a surprising array of fine dining options. Mizlala is a quintessential Tel Aviv restaurant, packed with local eats, fresh flavors and heaps of customers.
Herbert Samuel is more elegant - featuring a glass-enclosed kitchen where you can watch chefs cook up the Mediterranean-influenced but ever-changing dishes the restaurant does so well. The downstairs bar with plentiful cocktails is a nice bonus and the vibe is cool. But if you're looking for seafood to match your surroundings, the obvious choice is Manta Ray . Situated right on southern Tel Aviv's Alma Beach, the shrimp, mussel and crab sharing platter is other worldly. As are the sunny beach-side views you're practically guaranteed.
With the copious amounts of sunbathing, eating and drinking on offer, it's unlikely you'll have much time for other activities. But if you do, the city's cultural gems are well worth an explore. Street art decorates much of Tel Aviv, but head to Allenby Street or Rothschild Boulevard for the best graffiti. The city's Museum of Art is also visit-worthy - it's fantastically varied and an architectural marvel in its own right.
And if it's architecture you like, then you're in luck. The city houses the largest collection of Bauhaus-style buildings in the world - a look that's common to over 4,000 buildings developed in the 1930s by German Jewish architects. And it means that many of the city's boutique hotels, featuring the architecture, truly do offer something a little different. Artplus Hotel, for instance, is a stunning boutique featuring an exhibition space for Israeli art. And Hotel Montefiore, set in a building that dates from the 1920s, offers luxury amidst stylish interior design.
Another ideal thing about Tel Aviv is the city's location. Israel is tiny (like, actually tiny) - it could fit into the US state of Florida more than eight times. This means it's perfect for day trips. Jerusalem, which is only about an hour drive away, is an obvious option. The iconic Western Wall and religious Old City make for a fascinating contrast with Tel Aviv; but peek behind this and you'll find a thriving, modern city too.
Even nearer lie two other towns that are more than worth a visit. Herzliya has a glitzy marina with a wealth of exclusive dining options (get a top steak from Bistro 56 ) and Zikhron Ya'akov has a charming, small town feel to it (don't miss Tishbi Winery's restaurant ). There's a bunch more day trip options, too. From Tel Aviv you can head south and reach the desert resort town of Eilat in four hours. You can also head north and reach lush mountain ranges in even less time. But there may be no need - you'll be hard pressed to find a city more vibrant, more interesting and simply more fun than Tel Aviv.
*Featured image credit: Regina Novikov