The Carmel Market (or Shook HaCarmel, in Hebrew) is both the backbone and the belly of Tel Aviv. It stretches south from busy Allenby Street for about a mile and a half, with narrow alleyways lined on both sides and stalls selling everything from rare spices to vibrant produce to fake Adidas. The vendors are famous for hawking their ways in a loud, intimate, but rather charming fashion. Carmel Market is where chefs and budgeting homemakers shop.
It’s not surprising that this iconic market is a theme of countless walking tours in Tel Aviv. I’ve been on a few myself and highly recommend taking one. (I recommend Delicious Tours for a real, in-depth tour of the market.)
Insider Tip: Among the great local treats to pick up at Carmel Market are halva, medjool dates, olive oil, and spices.
On my last trip to Tel Aviv, however, I went on a tour near the market, but not about it. Instead, the themed guided walk I took part in was called the Disappearing Professions Tour. Focusing on small business shops nearby, we explored the shoe repair store with the old cobbler sitting on a worn chair waiting for customers, the dusty store of a window glazier, and the shop with the rotting old sign signaling the bookbinder.
You might wonder why I signed up for a walking tour that stops at such prosaic places. Would you believe me if I said I thought it was one of the best ways to get to know the city and its history?
1. Another Side Of Tel Aviv
The Disappearing Professions Tour was created by Meital Katz, a former fashion designer, who got the idea after noticing how many of the businesses in her own field were disappearing. “The fabric sellers, the button designer, the whole chain,” she says.
The clincher was when she walked over to a shoe repair shop in the neighborhood. “The owner was more than 80,” Katz continued. “Once upon a time, these kinds of shops were fixtures of the city. There would be lines outside and many shops like his. But today, he was just sitting outside the shop and had no work. ‘Today, you don’t fix it, you buy new,’ he told me. When you come to a country, you want to experience the culture in a different way; not just museums. I think my tour tells the story of the culture of Israel and the people that made the country, and how we’ve lived here. For many, it’s a journey back to old memories, too.”
Connecting The Past To The Present
“It’s an opportunity, perhaps the last to see their world,” National Geographic wrote about the tour. For me, the tour combined history with a truly authentic experience: Nothing makes me more fulfilled than feeling like a local when I’m traveling. This was the ultimate foray into day-to-day life.
Insider Tip: Tours can be three, four, or four and half hours and private or groups of up to twenty. They can be walking or minibus tours. They are given in English or Hebrew and cost varies but is about 75 dollars.
2. One Of Tel Aviv’s First Neighborhoods
Along with the Carmel Market neighborhood, Katz takes visitors to the gentrifying neighborhood of Florentin in South Tel Aviv. Named after a Jewish immigrant from Salonika, Florentin was long home to fellow Greek immigrants who worked in exactly these kinds of shops. These artisans, craftsmen, and repair people were once the fabric of the city.
Over the past 15 years, the cash-strapped creative class, many of them art students, have moved in. Hip bars and cafés now exist alongside the remaining ones. Stops on the tour can include the shops of Avi the iron forger, Zimber the bookbinder, or Shai the furniture restorer.
A popular stop on the tour is the Gluska tile factory, where hand-painted floor tiles known eponymously as Gluska tiles are manufactured. These tiles are as famous to Tel Aviv’s domestic design as a white picket fence is to suburban America. Some spots are really unique on this tour.
3. An Easily Walkable Mishmash Of Neighborhoods
It’s an easy tour to take part in. Tel Aviv is a compact and walkable city with few steep spots, making multiple neighborhood forays easy physically. That said, its layout is a bit of a mishmash, the result of a city built in a hurry. A guide is almost essential for first-time visitors.
Insider Tip: In Florentin, each neighborhood street has a specialty. Herzl Street is where you can see carpenters’ handmade furniture that draws people from all over the city for quality and cheaper prices. Wolfson Street is known for chandeliers, Matalon Street for household goods, and Kfar Giladi Street for artisan costume jewelry, if you are looking for more luggage-friendly souvenirs.
4. Finding The Last Artisans In Tel Aviv
By taking us to the different artisans and their varied styles of ornamentation, we also saw how Tel Aviv is made up of people from all corners of the Earth. From the Ottoman era to Oriental style to the ‘30s European Modernists, these were the craftspeople and artisans who shaped the city. It wasn’t surprising to learn that one of Tel Aviv’s prominent architectural styles is known as Eclecticism.
Katz can take a tour group to the one person in the country who repairs old bells. Katz finds these artisans in multiple ways: Good old footwork, her own internet research, and as her tour becomes more well known, people reach out to her, either the artisans themselves or more often people who know or know of them. Recently, she learned about a man who is the last to make a certain kind of guitar, for example. She now has about 100 artisans and craftspeople on her list. Of course, the idea is not to gawk at them or treat them as relics, but to hear their stories and their histories.
5. A Growing Phenomenon
Such artisan tours are a budding trend. I’ve heard of them in Paris and Tuscany. And their appeal is reaching beyond the demographic with direct memories of these types of businesses. As the retail focus reverts back to well-crafted, artisan goods, and as we aim to become conscious consumers, the work of craftspeople and dying crafts is being pushed to the forefront.
Katz’s tour operates under the umbrella of BE Tel Aviv Tours, a company that was started by Israeli-American Eviatar Gover, specializing in other great tours, including popular graffiti tours of Tel Aviv or vegan tours of the city.
Insider Tip: Tel Aviv is one of the vegan capitals of the world. Nearly one in 10 Tel Avivians is vegan with 400 vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants. Some of the best in and around Florentin include Aja and Meshek Barzilay.
I asked Katz about the vendors during her disappearing professions tour. They are old and won’t live forever. Besides sparking nostalgia, did her tour also ignite a resurgence of actual artisans and craftsmen? Did it spur some of the children or grandchildren of the few remaining artisans to keep the family business alive? Or other younger people to learn a trade?
She says that even if they don’t make their careers in these kinds of jobs, many young people are taking them up as a hobby. As trends for sustainability and owning fewer things that are better made and have a sense of purpose continue to grow, perhaps this won’t just be a tour walking backward in time for long.
Where To Stay In Tel Aviv
The ancient port city conjoined with Tel Aviv is one of narrow alleyways, millennia-old buildings, and small galleries and shops. Stay at the well-located Casa Nova Hotel right near St. Peters with grand views of the Mediterranean.
Near The Carmel Market
The Fabric Hotel is a great boutique hotel in a converted fabric-manufacturing facility near shops and restaurants.
Tel Aviv’s first neighborhood after Jaffa has been revamped into a boho-chic haven of beautiful boutiques and charming restaurants. It borders Florentin. Stay at The Vera, which boasts charming locally furnished rooms and the best breakfast in town.