This modernist apartment building in Tel Aviv is part of architectural tour of the city. Ross Belfer
Are you interested in the Tel Aviv art market, but unsure which galleries to explore? Heard about the city’s nightlife scene and wish you knew a local to take you somewhere cool? Find yourself in Israel on business or for the 14th time, wondering what could make this trip memorable?
A new crop of highly personalized, short-duration, customized tours offers solutions these and other dilemmas of the contemporary Israel traveler — a species who frequently shuns conventional tours, yet recognizes that sometimes you need an insider to show you around. In lieu of the time-honored 10-day whirl around Israel’s greatest hits, discerning second- (and 10th-) timers are seeking out narrowly focused mini-tours and alternative itineraries that shun mainstream attractions in favor of immersion into a specific niche of Israeli life.
Many of these take place in Tel Aviv, a city with intoxicating energy and industry — but few of the obvious, iconic sights that make Jerusalem tourist-friendly. “What makes Israel beautiful and unique are the people and the creativity that cuts across every type of activity,” explained Ross Belfer, a New Jersey-bred transplant who is one of the founders of Eager Tourist, a Tel Aviv outfit for short, hyper-local tours. “These options are for people who really want to get to know Israel via spaces most people either don’t know about, or don’t have access to.”
Eager Tourist’s most popular tour is its nightlife option, which takes Tel Aviv visitors to the kinds of insider club nights or underground bars that non-Hebrew-speakers might never discover. “A lot of the best events aren’t really publicized in English,” Belfer told me. His other popular options are the architecture tours of Bauhaus and Eclectic buildings throughout Tel Aviv, Ottoman-era gems in Jaffa and a Brewmaster’s Beer Excursion that takes visitors to home-based breweries and beer-centric bars to sample dozens of the city’s boutique brews — and to chat with their makers.
For some tours, like the Beer Excursion, Eager Tourist pairs with Telavivian, a kind of portal for all things Tel Aviv. Born as an online magazine, Telavivian has evolved to include arts events and small-group, three-to-four-hour tours highlighting aspects of the city’s distinctive culture. A typical offering is a swing through the city’s new central bus station, a peculiar and fascinating underground space that harbors a bat cave, a Yiddish museum and six abandoned movie theaters — all viewed by cellphone flashlight.
Another Telavivian tour explores Neve Shaanan, an oft-overlooked immigrant neighborhood in the city’s south, where more than three dozen home countries are represented in a densely packed district. Travelers often say they want authentic contact with locals, and this tour certainly offers it: Participants will enter a 28-person apartment, watch as residents get their mail in neighborhood bars, and sip Eritrean coffee with newcomers from Africa. As with most Eager Tourist and Telavivian offerings, the Neve Shaanan tour can be arranged for just one person or a dozen, with per-person prices varying accordingly.
Oh-So-Arty is another example of the trend, with tours focused on the burgeoning Israeli art scene. Tel Aviv transplant (and Telavivian contributor) Sarah Peguine, a London-educated former gallerist, expertly navigates the city’s contemporary art spaces for visitors, with one-to-three-hour itineraries in English, French or Hebrew. Popular tours include a curated walk around Tel Aviv’s urban artwork and a guided tour focused on investment opportunities in the Israeli art market.
Then there’s Puzzle Israel, a Tel Aviv-based outfit that advertises completely customizable, immersive Israel experiences centered on food and yoga. Founded by chefs and geared to families of all ages in groups as small as eight, Puzzle Israel offers tours that can be adapted to disabilities and idiosyncratic interests, from gluten-free cuisine to philanthropy. A typical itinerary might include hands-on cooking with Samaritan and Druze families; transport by helicopter or hot air balloon; or a women-only tour, where all-day hikes and desert scavenger hunts culminate in bonding over wine around a bonfire.
Especially popular are Puzzle Israel’s new yoga tours around the varied Israeli terrain, from the Dead Sea to the mountains of Judea, with guided meditation and Kabbalah. The packages include dinners of Circassian, Bedouin and other Israeli cuisines with local hosts, along with stops at organic farms and wineries.
It’s all a far cry from the familiar loop around the Western Wall and Masada. But for those with a spare afternoon in Tel Aviv or an urge to see Israel from a new angle, these alternative tours fill a need. “People are looking for that niche experience,” said Belfer. “It’s walking, it’s eating, it’s drinking. You’re having fun while exploring Israel.”