The city might be one of the world’s friendliest destinations for us…
By Loren Christie
Fresh off the plane, jet-lagged and in search of food on my first night, I wandered into North Abraxas, a restaurant across the street from my hotel. As soon as it became apparent I was alone, I was offered a seat at the bar. Ugh! Typical.
Vacationing alone has never been my thing, but on a recent business trip to Jerusalem, I decided it would be crazy not to tack on some time in Tel Aviv. I had heard so many great things about the city, including how welcoming it is to members of the LGBTQ+ community, that I set aside my usual misgivings about solo travel as an openly gay man and gave myself a weekend to explore this gem of a city.
As I settled into my seat around the half-oval-shaped bar with the lively open kitchen behind it, I girded myself for an evening of staring straight ahead and ingesting something off the menu as quickly as I could. I figured the hive of activity that lay open before me would at least keep things interesting. That was until the mulleted bartender eliminated any lingering apprehension by pouring me a shot of something tasty and strong and toasted me, “Welcome to Tel Aviv!” That was quickly followed by her presenting me with a beautifully ripe tomato, which she deftly cut up right in front of me, sprinkled it with olive oil, salt and pepper, and insisted I try it immediately. Simple and delicious.
An incredible meal of Israeli food followed. It can best be described as the best of the Middle East and the Mediterranean rolled into one: fresh, exotic, flavourful. Washed down with some delicious Israeli chardonnay, and I was soon on a first-name basis with many of the temporary inhabitants of the restaurant.
North Abraxas is one of many restaurants around the city with menus created by the famous Israeli chef Eyal Shani. His menus, which change almost every night, feature unique takes on the latest in-season vegetables. Simple items, like his Jericho Beans in lemon and olive oil, were perfect. Tasty, whimsically named mains like A Journey Into The Depths of a Spanish Mackerel’s Head and A Plate Full of Bresola That Woke Up From a Deep Sleep in Red Wine were outstanding. Every single dish I tried was incredible.
Gosha Chubuain, a Russian expat who had recently moved to Tel Aviv, was sitting next to me. He enthused about the food and overall vibe of the city. He explained that he and his bisexual wife, Somnium, had decided to leave Russia for a variety of reasons and had originally been drawn to Tel Aviv due to its beauty. “But we discovered so much more. It’s not just about the sea and stone you find in this city,” Chubuain explained, “but the amount of life you find here, everybody is accepted.”
Floating back on a post-meal high to the Vera, my cute boutique hotel close to the Neve Tzedek neighbourhood, I decided jetlag be damned. I headed out (on my own!) to further explore the nightlife. When I asked the front desk agent, a young American woman clad mostly in pleather, if there were any good gay bars around, she enthusiastically explained that almost all the bars in Tel Aviv were LGBTQ+ friendly. Some – Forever, It’s Britney Bitch and Luli, to name a few –even have special LGBTQ+ lines. However, I ended up taking her suggestion of a bar that catered to LGBTQ+ clientele and set out for a Tel Aviv favourite, Shpagat.
Shpagat had tiered seating up to the second floor, but I opted for the patio. I always like people-watching when I’m travelling by myself, but as at the restaurant, I quickly found myself chatting with other folks around me, who were quick to give me other recommendations on what to see, what to do and where to go for the rest of my weekend. After a much later night than I was planning, and feeling more than comfortable to meander home on my own, I decided it was best to get some sleep.
Worth noting is that most of the Jewish population of Israel recognizes the Sabbath. Almost everything shuts down from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, as Jewish Israelis take the time to rest, reflect and spend time with family. Tel Aviv is a bit of an exception in that many bars and restaurants stay open, as I had already happily discovered on my unexpected Friday adventure. When I set out to explore on Saturday, however, I did learn that most of the shops were closed – but that didn’t stop people from enjoying their weekend.
Old Jaffa Port with its churches and museums is a beautiful area to wander, but it was once I hit the nearby flea market area that I truly fell in love with Tel Aviv. The market itself was replete with treasures – vintage clothes, Moroccan lamps, ornate furniture and all manner of souvenirs – but the real attraction was the large group of locals enjoying their weekend in the outdoor cafés and restaurants, drinking, eating and in some cases dancing in the sunshine. Not just enjoying the weekend but celebrating it. It was impossible not to get caught up in the joy of it.
After a sumptuous brunch at The Drisco Hotel, an historic five-star hotel with an outdoor patio set in a garden oasis, I hit the area around Florentin Street. The area felt a bit gritty, but the hoots and hollers of lads having drinks before heading off to a soccer match at the nearby Bloomfield Stadium made me smile. Looking around, I was struck by the number of rainbow and trans-pride flags that were hanging from the balconies.
According to Asaf Eshel of Tel Aviv Global & Tourism, the citizens of Tel Aviv are proud all year round. Tel Aviv-Yafo, the official name of the city since 1950, “has always been and will always be a welcoming home to all trans people, lesbians, gay men, queer people and non-binary folks,” said Eshel. “Here they will always matter, here they are always welcome.”
Later in the week when I made it to Jerusalem, I had a frank chat with Ilana, an Israeli colleague. I remarked that although Israel seems extremely diverse with its many religions and cultures, there are historic divisions that appear to make full inclusion difficult. But when it came to the LGBTQ+ community, it seemed that Tel Aviv was different.
“I think the Israelis living in Tel Aviv are very liberal-minded people. They believe that everyone should have equal rights and freedom of speech and movement,” Ilana explained. “Tel Aviv attracts like-minded people from all over the country and there is a very large younger population who all share common views. This enhances the general feeling of liberty, freedom and equal rights.”
Much of the life in Tel Aviv is focused on the beach. With a full portfolio of restaurants and hotels stretched out along the Mediterranean, there are countless opportunities for people-gawking. The populace in general appears to be active, in shape and, frankly, gorgeous. When I went for a run along the boardwalk in the late afternoon on Saturday, the amount of eye candy was borderline obscene. The official gay beach, complete with rainbow banners to mark the spot, sits in front of the Hilton Hotel. There are places to eat, drink and work out – but don’t go there if you are shy. Particularly on the weekends, socializing is basically mandatory. Although it wasn’t quite warm enough for sunbathing when I was there, I would recommend it to anyone travelling solo. Many people told me it is the place to be, and it is impossible for solo travellers not to make friends there.
For those wanting more of a party scene, that’s definitely there too. According to Eshel, the party scene is legendary. Although I didn’t have time to partake in any crazy parties, on my final day I stumbled into a store that appears to exist to dress festival-goers and partiers. Walking into Arketa, I might as well have fallen down the rabbit hole and ended up at the Mad Hatter’s tea party…if the tea party was the warm-up to Coachella. I have never seen a larger collection of tight pleather clothes, harnesses, feathers and beads in my life. If I could have pulled off the pink pleather pants and pink faux-fur full-length jacket, I would have. Sadly, I think it was better suited to Harry Styles. Located in the HaTachana park area and just steps from the beach, Arketa is well worth a window shop or more if you are heading to Tel Aviv. Don’t worry about packing an outfit for one of those epic Pride parties; you can buy it there!
Fresh from an inspiring weekend in Tel Aviv, jet lag forgotten and in search of a fun food experience on my last night, I ended up in a restaurant called Fantastic. Aptly named, the restaurant had a server peddling drinks on a tricycle, cocktails presented in whimsical glasses from teacups to giant green Hulk hands and, once again, outstanding food.
As soon as it became apparent I was alone, people around me ended up chatting with me. Fun! And typical…for Tel Aviv. Travelling alone has never felt so safe and so wonderful.
LOREN CHRISTIE is a Toronto-based freelance travel journalist and proud member of the 2SLGBTQI+ community. His articles have appeared in a number of publications across Canada. You can see him regularly talking travel on CTV’s Your Morning.