Tel Aviv is the size of Bristol, with about 400,000 residents each. While Bristol has 400 pubs and bars, and just shy of a thousand restaurants, the rough concrete charm of Tel Aviv yields no fewer than 1,750 cafes, bars and clubs and more than 4,000 places to eat. Tel Aviv is a dense, hedonistic city: friendly, creative and edgy without the nasty underbelly of European cities. It is known in Israel as ‘the bubble’, secular and in its own world of sun, sea, late nights and wine, apparently separated from the problems of wider Israel.
It’s not that Tel Aviv is inviolate; it has been attacked by terrorists within and without since the beginning of the Jewish state. The Iron Dome regularly intercepts rockets aimed at its homes and skyscrapers. And yet mostly the party went on. But 2023 changed that. There were protests against proposed judicial reforms, which mobilised unprecedented numbers of people, drawing them away from the revelry. And then came 7 October, piercing the bubble, sending people indoors, shaking in anguish and low with depression.
Six weeks later, people are returning to the streets and bars, albeit in a subdued fashion. On a visit last week, I went with a friend – the Israeli musician Nadav Hollander, a kind of cross between John and Paul – to his favourite bar, Nilus (the Nile). It closed for nearly a month after the Hamas attacks and on the night we visited, a Wednesday, it would normally be impossible to sit down, but we easily found a table. Sitting at the bar was Moran Alon, Nilus’s owner, a pretty 42-year-old mum and former social worker who runs the place like a salon and seems to know everyone who comes in.
Nilus is in central Tel Aviv, on Allenby Street, which is named after the British General who took Jerusalem in 1917.