Jerusalem v. Tel Aviv: Torn Between Two Loves

A tale of competing Israeli cities.

Jerusalem’s iconic Dome of the Rock, the centerpiece of Israel’s sprawling capital (All photos by the author)
Tel Aviv’s Ben Yehuda Street, from the balcony of my rental apartment

The best things in life aren’t free. Trust me. You get what you pay for, and in Israel, one of the most expensive countries I’ve ever visited, I paid a lot and got a lot when I went in 2013.

The best things in life are something else — totally unexpected.
 
Which brings me inland to Jerusalem. I’m so glad I took the bus there after 28 days in Tel Aviv, a coastal city that had hovered near the top of my travel bucket list for years. Ever since I dated Amir, a Tel Aviv-born-and-bred guy in whose Brooklyn apartment I spent the Y2K New Year’s Eve, I’d been dying to check out his hometown.

I never really wanted — or expected — to go to Jerusalem. It had never made any of my mental bucket lists. So imagine my surprise when a mere four days there became the defining part of my five weeks in Israel, a quartet of 24-hour periods that made as great an impression on me as the quartet of weeks that preceded it.

Before I visited the Holy Land, I’d always made the same mistake that I suspect many others do, thinking of Tel Aviv as being synonymous with Israel, the way foreigners often associate New York City and the United States.
 
If you’ve seen Tel Aviv, you’ve seen Israel, right?
 
Wrong.
 
If my day trips to Akko and Northern Galilee’s Nazareth and Tiberias, my weekend in Haifa, my Dead Sea excursion, and my trek down south to Eliat on the Red Sea revealed that Tel Aviv is but one of Israel’s multiple sides, Jerusalem drove that point home. A recurring theme during my time there was the competition between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel’s two largest cities, only an hour or so apart by bus.

One-on-one unarmed combat

Although, as with Sydney vs. Melbourne in Australia, the underrated underdog city (in this case, Jerusalem) was most vocal about the dog race, both sides got into it. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were embroiled in their own brand of one-on-one unarmed combat, a geographically and culturally defined competition.
 
I started to suspect this much the afternoon before my departure from Tel Aviv when I was at the home of the owner of my rental apartment there, and her husband emphatically announced his hatred of Jerusalem without offering a single coherent reason why. I knew it for sure shortly after I checked into Hillel 11 in Jerusalem the following morning.
 
Even if the guy at reception hadn’t mentioned the rivalry himself, I would have gotten it from the way he dismissed TLV’s Ben Yehuda Street (“Everybody stays there,” he sniffed, after correctly guessing that I did, too) while raving about Jerusalem’s identically named street, touting its bustling shopping/nightlife scene.

He then proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes selling his city, pointing out all of the exciting things I could do in Jerusalem, handing me various maps and explaining how I can get to know the city and see all of the attractions around it (Bethlehem, the Dead Sea) without being at the mercy of any tour guides.
 
His sales pitch didn’t include a word about the hotel he was checking me into, not even when he showed me to my room, a four-star “economy studio” which, frankly, could have used the propaganda more than the city it was in.

Tel Aviv, in all its secular glory

Whether visitors prefer Tel Aviv or Jerusalem is entirely a matter of taste. On a purely superficial level, if you love the beach, and partying is a priority, you’ll probably appreciate Tel Aviv more. It’s the Los Angeles of Israel: glamorous, easygoing, and perhaps just a little bit shallow.

“Tel Aviv plays, Jerusalem prays,” the old saying goes. But even if you didn’t see the cities p-ing, doing what they do best, you’d have no trouble telling them apart.

“Tel Aviv plays, Jerusalem prays,” the old saying goes. But even if you didn’t see the cities p-ing, doing what they do best, you’d have no trouble telling them apart.

On a visual level, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem couldn’t be more dissimilar. Jerusalem is the massive inland metropolis in Israel’s tale of two cities (think Madrid and Sao Paolo in Spain’s and Brazil’s, respectively, only in the mountains, therefore considerably curvier), a sprawling urban experience that somehow still feels kind of rural in spots. Tel Aviv, meanwhile, is far less congested (from a traffic, if not pedestrian, standpoint), quainter, with the waterfront picture-postcard feel of Spain’s Barcelona and Brazil’s Rio.

A beautiful lady or a buff and bronzed Chelsea boy?

The bartender at basher, a cool, cavernous restaurant in Jerusalem’s hipster/boho, pop-up-filled Mahane Yehuda district compared Tel Aviv to a beautiful lady who doesn’t have much to say. Bingo!

(The basher bartender also asked if Jerusalem was what I thought it would be: “Did you expect to see people riding around on camels?” The beasts of burden hadn’t actually crossed my mind, but two days later, I did see several of them and a young boy riding a donkey on Mount of Olives.)
 
I’d take the human analogy a bit further (and gayer) by comparing “The White City” (as Tel Aviv is affectionately called, due to its dominant color scheme) to a buff and bronzed Chelsea boy in New York City — and not just because the men in Tel Aviv (especially the six-packed ones you see running along the beach) are so perfectly sculpted, if you are into that sort of plucked, be-muscled gay beauty. The free workout equipment along Gordon Beach, which was heavy on ab machines, certainly did its job.

Tel Aviv, though one of the most gay-friendly places I’d ever been to, was totally mainstream, as so many cities that revolve around beach culture are, from the music I heard when I went out (Katy, Rihanna, Britney, Gaga — again) to what people were wearing (or not wearing).

Jaffa, the old town along the southern part of Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean coast, saved it from being total beach porn. Along with the white and off-white color scheme, Jaffa gave the oceanside metropolis most of its unique visual character.

Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean view
Walking toward Jaffa
A Jaffa pathway

One of the most surprising things about Jerusalem (aside from how much I loved it) was its countercultural presence, which extended beyond one corner. While “alternative” Tel Aviv appeared to be limited to Dizengoff and Frishman, my favorite “White City” intersection, due, in part, to its granola-hot passersby, indie scenes popped up in pockets throughout Jerusalem.

There were fewer perfect bodies (or perhaps they were hidden under the extra layers that Jerusalem’s cooler October temperatures required), but more guys wearing long dreadlocks, nose rings, and tattoos. When I was walking through an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, four young schoolgirls actually stopped me to tell me how much they loved the bull tattoo on my right arm.
 
That was the sort of thing that never happened in Tel Aviv, from the compliment right down (and up and down and up) to the experience of ascending and descending steep inclines through Arab neighborhoods. I’d read that Jerusalem is the confluence of three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — so I went there expecting clashing religious cultures more than camel sightings and got both.

A camel encounter in Jerusalem

But aside from sections of the old city dedicated to each of those three religions, I didn’t see much evidence of Jerusalem’s diversity until I checked out of Hillel 11, my hotel in the city center, after three nights there and walked to Commodore Hotel, a “four-star” accommodation in the eastern part of the city. Over there, Jerusalem became almost an entirely different place, dominated by Arab print on storefronts and Muslim men and women walking up and down the hilly terrain to their destinations.
 
Standing on the top of the hill on the corner of Sultan Suleiman and Derech Yeriho at the northeastern edge of the old city for the first time, looking down at the neighborhoods below and over at the other hills in the distance, Jerusalem’s urban sprawl hit me: What a massive metropolis! In some ways, the hilly eastern part of Jerusalem reminded me of Istanbul, another Muslim-dominated metropolis, only with far more dramatic inclines.

An upper-level view of East Jerusalem, from where the western part of the capital meets the eastern part

The most dramatic one I encountered was the one leading up Mount of Olives to the top of the city, where there was a look-out point with the most stunning view of the Dome of the Rock in the old city. It was the shot I’d seen on the cover of so many Jerusalem travel guides and in countless professional photos of the city.
 
Standing on the top, I thought about how odd it was that a city that had been the disputed capital of both Israel and the State of Palestine for years, with Israel claiming it within its boundaries, had as its most iconic structure, an Islamic building to which Jewish Israelis and other non-Muslims have severely restricted access.

A guard tersely turned me away when I attempted to walk up the steps of the old city leading to the grounds leading to the entrance on my first day in town. It was an almost poetic sort of justice, considering the bureaucratic process that Palestinians have to endure to enter Jerusalem at all.
 
The great irony is that the Holy Land-defining conflict between the two sides, Israel and Palestine, is tied to the Jewish and Islamic presence and influence in the city that both countries call their capital. That duality is precisely what made Jerusalem such a distinctive experience.

Jerusalem’s top-two attractions: The Dome of the Rock hovering over the Western Wall, aka the Wailing Wall
The Western Wall’s male side
The Western Wall’s female side, half as big as the male space and more than twice as crowded

I was thankful for the annoyance of having to change hotels (due to Hillel 11’s lack of vacancy my two final nights in Jerusalem), for had I not gone east to get to the Commodore, I might have missed a side of Jerusalem — and perhaps its best views, too — that contributes so greatly to its landscape, literally and figuratively.

And the winner is…

Who do I love more? Tel Aviv and her beach culture or Jerusalem with her emphasis on old-time religion? I love them almost equally. Tel Aviv has less cultural, historical, political, and religious significance and far fewer sights, but its easily negotiable grid set-up, Mediterranean running route, flatter terrain, and after-hours culture make it the more resident-friendly of the two, a quality it shares with Melbourne in comparison to Sydney.

Tel Aviv’s unusual architecture: Isrotel Tower on the left was my favorite skyscraper in the city.

If I were to move to Israel — and believe me, I considered it a few times during the five weeks I spent there — I’d probably settle in Tel Aviv. As a former (and likely future) New Yorker, I gave it the edge for its 24-hour culture, with peaked with the Tel Aviv movida on Allenby and Rothschild, and also because it wasn’t as dominated by devoutness as Jerusalem, where several random strangers asked me about my religious beliefs the way an American would ask “What do you do?”

Considerably more secular, Tel Aviv didn’t shut down entirely on Shabbat, which, according to everyone who brought it up, is almost aggressively observed in Jerusalem. Rani, the 20-year-old bartender with a baby face and flawless teeth who kept serving me free drinks at 5th of May, told me that if you don’t close up shop by 4pm on Friday, you run the risk of being ostracized, vandalized, or, worse, damned to hell for all eternity.

Although there was some overlap with Tel Aviv (most notably, bars in both named for days in May — though in Tel Aviv’s 6th of May, my favorite bar there and a sequel to Jerusalem’s original, only a single shot was on the house), the Jerusalem I experienced had more in common with cities like Istanbul and Rome. It was brimming with religion, culture, history, and unbelievable views.

Walking through it, I kept having to stop and gasp, as breathless from what I was seeing as I was from the steep climb to see it. No, I wouldn’t necessarily want to live there (something else it has in common with Istanbul and Rome), but as a visitor, it was richer and more emotionally rewarding than Tel Aviv. I haven’t had a more powerful religious travel experience in any city this side of Johannesburg.

I can’t imagine the rest of my life without at least one return visit to both of Israel’s crown-jewel meccas.

Jerusalem: Parting Shots

Tel Aviv: Parting Shots