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Feature

Tel Aviv by Bike

Rolling through the city to reach the beach.

“Where are you going?” my grandmother asks as I’m getting ready to leave her small apartment.

Most of the time, my grandmother doesn’t know what country I’m in. I live a very independent, adult life that involves traveling between New York and sub-Saharan Africa, where I work as a photojournalist. I swap SIM cards as I cross borders and don’t bother her with the details. But once I’m in Tel Aviv, sleeping on her couch, my clothes and camera gear spread out in the living room, I’m still expected to answer questions.

Today, I tell her, I have one destination in mind: the beach.

And so now, this independent adult is preparing to bike around a city that I don’t really know. Though I’m half-Israeli and have visited Israel countless times, this is one of the first times I’ve ventured out in Tel Aviv on my own. I’m generally shepherded from point A to point B by an entourage of cousins, aunts, other distant relatives and well-wishers who all want nothing more than to feed me.

Tel Aviv is a city of roughly 400,000 in a country of nearly 8 million. Although not traditionally known for biking, it’s a small, flat and easily navigable place and so is quickly making a name for itself as one of the world’s most bikeable cities. From the wide boulevards downtown to the cobblestone alleys in Jaffa (the ancient part of the city), to the hopping boardwalk by the beach, most parts of the city can be reached by bike.

Add to that the fact that taxis are expensive and traffic is always an issue, and it makes sense why bikes are the perfect mode of transportation for exploring this Mediterranean hotspot of modernist architecture and ancient history.

“Tel Aviv is becoming Amsterdam,” says Yotam Avizohar of the Israel Bicycle Association, referring to the Dutch city known for its bike-loving reputation.

In fact, the city has added more than 120 kilometers (roughly 75 miles) of bike lanes in the past five years, with more to come, according to a spokesperson for the Tel Aviv mayor’s office. As an agricultural powerhouse in the arid Middle East, Israel has gained its reputation as an international leader in green technology and green living out of both necessity and choice. Biking — rather than driving — is an integral part of Tel Aviv’s environmentally friendly and active culture.

Some Israelis have their own bikes, and others prefer to use the convenient Tel-O-Fun system, which allows renters to pick up and drop off a bike as needed at one of more than 150 locations around town.


Finding a bike, finding the beach

I walk out of my grandma’s apartment near the city center, past the dentist’s office and the corner café, and into the blazing heat. I’ve always been more of a wanderer than a traveler with a destination, but today isn’t for wandering. My agenda is set: Rent a bike. Get to the beach.

Modest aims, really, but given my shaky grasp of spoken Hebrew and my penchant for distraction, I have to constantly visualize the turquoise water only a couple of kilometers away to keep me on track. (Most people in Tel Aviv speak English, and bigger street signs have Hebrew and English transliteration, but barreling by on a bike makes it hard to catch street signs or stop for directions. Thankfully, all I need to do is head west.)

I walk by the falafel stand, my grandmother’s favorite flower shop and several delicious bakeries before turning onto Kikar Rabin, where I’ll be renting a Tel-O-Fun bike.

In just minutes, I manage to procure my very own bright-green model. After a few seat adjustments and a quick gear check, I’m pedaling west on Frishman, a narrow yet primary Tel Aviv artery that will eventually get me to the water.

I ride down the newly created bike lanes and eventually navigate past throngs of slow-walking pedestrians to hit the intersection at Dizengoff Center, where Israel’s first mall still attracts thousands of shoppers each day. Sidewalk cafés by the dozen tempt me: ice-cold lemonade with fresh nana (mint) — a Tel Aviv favorite; chopped salads filled with diced tomatoes, cucumbers and the occasional radish; and gelato shops that would make any Italian salivate.

I’m hot and sweaty in the midday sun and distracted by the limestone alleyways that beckon me to explore. Florentine, a neighborhood just south of the center, is filled with warehouses converted into art spaces and nightclubs, but the activity usually doesn’t get going until late at night. And Neve Tzedek, dotted with local designer boutiques, restaurants and cafés, is another great place to explore, but it’s too sedate for the afternoon I have planned.

The winding neighborhoods filled with decaying midcentury architecture — shuttered apartment buildings for those who eschew Tel Aviv’s new high rises — eventually give way as Frishman slopes uphill. I shift gears on my Tel-O-Fun to keep my pace. As I approach the beach, I pedal past expensive hotels and busloads of old Russian tourists and their younger American counterparts.

At the top of the mild hill, I stop at a traffic light and glimpse my first view of sea shining in the horizon. The water of the Mediterranean is bathtub-warm this time of year, and the sandy, yellow beach is packed with umbrellas, ice-cream stands, half-naked children and glistening sunbathers.

A more conservative contingent of Orthodox and other religious Jews generally heads to the stretch of beach farther north, just before the Tel Aviv wharf. Everything south of the wharf could easily be confused for Rio or Miami, or any other strip of beach near a city, for that matter.

I drop off my Tel-O-Fun at a docking station (I’ll get a new one when I’m ready to leave) and wander around in search of the perfect patch of sand. In the center, the fancier hotels offer premium-priced chaise lounges. To the south, the beach stretches toward Jaffa, a formerly Arab enclave that’s now home to many hip young Israelis. About halfway down the beach, the always-popular Manta Ray restaurant is, as expected, crowded with patrons waiting in a less-than-patient queue, while a handful of other places serving ice cream, beer, soda and fresh fruit juice also do brisk business.

I head center-south, ditch my stuff and jump immediately into the ocean, my sweaty bike ride rewarded with soft waves and water just a touch cooler than the air. I float and drift with the tides, losing track of time.

The sun sets over the Jaffa clock tower, the water shimmers, the crowds thin, and it’s dark by the time I’m ready to bike back. Riding on Rothschild Boulevard, a wide road with a dedicated bike lane in the median, I find that I’m in good company alongside throngs of young Israelis on bikes.

I join a semi-circle of riders at an intersection to listen to a long-haired, shirtless man drumming away as if performing in front of thousands of fans. The street is his stage, and DJs at a nearby club turn up their amps to compete with his rhythm. I listen to the music for a while and eventually ride back home — the soundtrack of the boulevard still audible as I cycle away.

Glenna Gordon is a freelance documentary photographer and writer who splits her time between West Africa and New York. In addition to her own photo projects, she also covers news and features, does work for NGOs, and trains photographers in Africa.