The behemoth hotels forming a kind of fortress between the Mediterranean and the rest of Tel Aviv have been staples of the shoreline for decades. They're not bad if your number one priority is an ocean view or if you're traveling with a big family or are part of a massive tourist group. But savvy travelers who want to be at the heart of Tel Aviv's young, hip action and who value style and intimacy over a monstrous breakfast buffet are finding a slew of chic new options in the center of town.
The Diaghilev Hotel has no sign on its entrance, but apparently people know where to find it. The boutique hotel, one of many new, small-scale luxury accommodations cropping up in Tel Aviv, is currently ranked first among Tel Aviv's 77 hotels on the website Tripadvisor.com, a traveler's bible for many. The Dan Hotel, a Tel Aviv classic, meanwhile, is ranked 13th.
Several other old-time, large hotels along the coast appear on the list but they're topped by smaller boutique hotels that opened in the last few years. These include the Montefiore Hotel, which at four years old is already considered old news, and the Brown TLV, which opened two years ago. Newer hotels include Eden House, Townhouse Tel Aviv, The Rothschild, Varsano Hotel in Neve Tzedek, Eden House in the Yemenite Quarter, Hotel Berdichevsky and Alma, which already has a reputation as the most fascinating addition to the Tel Aviv hotel scene. Many of these boutiques have been open mere months.
Of course, it doesn’t end there. Soon a luxury boutique hotel, The Normans, will open on Mazeh Street, right off Rothschild Boulevard. Nearby, a new hotel will open on Sheinkin Street, then two more in Jaffa and still more in the Nahalat Binyamin and Neve Tzedek neighborhoods.
About 20 hotels in Tel Aviv call themselves boutique. All the owners said they were already planning to open more but they're not interested in 400-room hotels; that size and scale belongs to another era and caters to another audience. They, and their clientele, are after petite and high-quality.
A refuge for the creative class
If you're a local but have never heard of the Diaghilev Hotel, don't feel bad. Owner Avi Ifrach says he’s not catering to Israelis, hence no sign. Almost all his guests are foreign tourists who found the place online and who tend to fit the boutique demographic: well-off, age 30 to 50, here for a few days and preferably without children. A few Israelis come for the weekends, but they're not the target.
The Diaghilev is more than just a place to sleep, it's a lifestyle. Ifrach describes the hotel’s aesthetic as a “design riot,” which includes 400 works of art on display and for sale, 300 custom carpets, industrial elements and more. This attention to detail and the personal touch is what defines most of the boutique hotels in town and is, in fact, a quintessential component of the concept of boutique itself.
Other elements of boutique are uniqueness and intimate architectural design with human warmth. Owners say they cater to the “creative class,” and thus stay away from standardized looks and mass-produced items. Many play with themes in their rooms (art, books, folklore). While boutiques usually have no more than 100 rooms, all the new ones in Tel Aviv have much fewer.
Additionally, boutique hotels are often family business so guests become, in a way, part of the family. Owners see their role as both manager and host. “The hotel owners often stand out front," says Ronit Copeland, owner of a hospitality consulting firm that specializes in boutique hotels. "We know who they are, what they’re like and what their vision is.”
Take the Montefiore Hotel, whose owners, Ruti and Mati Broudo, are highly visible, and the Alma Hotel, where owners (and sisters) Adi and Irit Strauss are active and hands-on. Avi and Anat Ifrach own the Diaghilev Hotel, the Krieger family owns The Rothschild, and the family of Tal Gordon-Levine owns the Berdichevsky.
“It’s hard for me to believe that someone knows who the owners of the Sheraton, the Hilton or even the Dan are,” says Copeland. “At the boutique hotels, you do. Those hotels are their babies, and they keep a close eye on them.” Boutique hotel owners, she says, have a love for design and hospitality, and their personal taste is completely identified with the place.
While the hotel may reflect an owner's vision, a big part of the taste and the implementation of the final look and feel belong to the designers, many of whom get star billing. In some cases, such as the Alma, which was designed by Shaltiel Kastiel and Lauri Recanati, and the Townhouse, designed by Yehoshua and Dafna Kastiel, the designers are even partners in the business.
Every hotel has a story
Each hotel tries to create a unique story that sets it apart from competitors. “The idea of a boutique hotel,” Copeland explains, “lies mainly in creating a one-of-a-kind experience. Guests don’t come to a hotel like this just for a bed and breakfast. They want an exciting experience, so the hotel planners invent one for them. They look for a unique idea, a story that will spark interest.”
At the Berdichevsky, owner Tal Gordon-Levine described a classic European hotel falling into the heart of Tel Aviv, inspired by the eponymous Hebrew-Russian author of the late 19th century.
At the Townhouse, hotel manager Renana Cohen said the hotel had been designed to provide guests with a homey atmosphere with large mirrors and surprising furniture pieces. Alma takes a different approach, creating an exotic, fantasy-like experience: headboards are decorated with mysterious figures, rooms are painted in bold colors, and exquisite rugs cover the floors. Hotel manager, Galit Dohan, says the high-quality culinary experience of the ground-floor restaurant, the Alma Lounge, run by Chef Yonatan Roshfeld, is part of the overall experience too.
Brown TLV takes inspiration from 1970s Tel Aviv, as indicated by a massive Playboy cover from the April 1970 issue with the headline "The Girls of Israel" that hangs in the lobby. The furniture, while sleek and elegant, uses retro colors and patterns which go hand-in-hand with the background music of the BeeGees and Randy Newman.
At the Diaghilev, Avi Ifrach describes the hotel as “a content center where you can also sleep.” But more than sleep, he says guests come to him for experiences, which include art, industrial design and fashion. “This is a bohemian hotel in its world view,” Ifrach says.
Branding is dead, he adds, only reputation is alive and must be preserved.
From sea view to cityscape
TLV 88 on Hayarkon Street went through many incarnations before it became a boutique hotel as well. Designed by Ruby Israeli, the hotel adopted a "Ralph Lauren on the sea" aesthetic, according to hotel managers Tamar Levi and Marcella Tal. Walls are covered in blue and white stripes and maritime items and model ships are scattered throughout the sea view rooms.
Levi and Tal swear their location across from the beach is the best in Tel Aviv but the new boutique hotels beg to differ. Udi Krieger, the owner of The Rothschild, said today’s guests want to live amongst the city’s residents in something that feels more like an apartment and less like a hotel room. They don’t want a section of the city set aside for tourists and cut off from the city's thriving center. For such guests, the vibrant Rothschild Boulevard, with its rows of cafes and trendy restaurants and the Habima national theater, is ideal.
The boom in hotels downtown changes the hospitality map of Tel Aviv, says Copeland. Tourist activities are no longer concentrated along the shoreline; today, guests in boutique hotels frequent the same places as the residents – and this trend will only grow.
Tel Aviv is a bit behind the downtown boutique phenomenon, says Copeland. In major cities like London, Paris and New York, they became popular 10 years ago. But it's catching on quick here and the next few years will see 10 or more new boutique hotels in Tel Aviv, which she points out, will help fill the shortage of hotel beds that tourism experts say is in the thousands. Building anew is hard in Tel Aviv so renovation will be the solution. But that constraint, says Copeland, "fits the boutique hotels like a glove.”
A partial list of new boutique hotels
The Berdichevsky Hotel, 14 Berdichevsky Street
Opened six months ago. 23 rooms. A cafe that serves a large breakfast and a spa.
Story: “A classic European hotel in Tel Aviv”
Cost of a room for a couple: about $220 per night
Townhouse TLV, 32 Yavne Street
Opened May 2012. 18 rooms. A protected historical building constructed in 1932.
Story: “A home with a young, friendly atmosphere in downtown Tel Aviv”
Cost of a room for a couple: about $220 per night
Alma, 23 Yavne Street
Opened about a month ago. 15 rooms in a building constructed in 1932. A chef’s restaurant, Alma Lounge, on the ground floor.
Story: “Extraordinary design and personal service”
Cost of a room for a couple: about $400 per night
Brown TLV, 25 Kalisher Street
Opened two years ago. 30 rooms.
Story: “A love for the 1970s and for Tel Aviv of days gone by”
Cost of a room: $200–250 per night