Want to Check Out Tel Aviv? Put on Your Sneakers and Run for It

Non-Israelis running in the Tel Aviv marathon Friday may get a glimpse of the city, but marathon tourism doesn’t leave much room for spontaneity. Enter running tours.

Ronen Topelberg

Runners from Addis Ababa, Berlin, Istanbul, Paris and Zurich will get a glimpse of Israel’s culture capital during the Tel Aviv marathon Friday, as they run along the Mediterranean coast and down some of Tel Aviv’s main streets, but let’s face it: They’ll probably be more concerned about their time.

It’s not clear from the marathon website whether the runners listing other countries are in Israel just for the marathon, but marathon tourism is a hobby of sorts for runners who aren’t content with running in their home countries and book races around the world. But while running a marathon in a city you haven’t been to before might be exciting, it’s not something you can do spontaneously or synchronize with an urgent business trip, and it might not even give you much of a chance to see the sights for which the city is best known.

Enter running tourism, which also combines exercise and travel but doesn’t have to take place on a specific date or begin at a set time, and doesn’t involve closed roads or thousands of other runners. Instead, as more and more people around the world have been discovering, running tourism allows visitors to run at their own pace with a guide who knows the area, at a place and time of their own choosing, and with the possibility of choosing which attractions they want to see. And the view is a lot more interesting than the walls of the hotel gym.

For years, physical exertion was not something that interested Yariv, now an Israeli amateur runner in his 50s. There was always something more important to do, he says — until the worrying test results his doctor showed him signaled that the time had come to move. Yariv started running for his health, but it quickly became something he couldn’t live without.

“If suddenly you can’t run, that really annoys you,” said Yariv. “You are addicted at a level that if it doesn’t happen, you start to feel bad.”

Three years ago, before a business trip to Basel, Yariv discovered running tourism. In the morning, just outside the hotel where he was staying, he met a running guide — a journalist who works at a local television station. She takes people out running all over the city not just as a hobby, but as a second income.

“It was wonderful,” Yariv said. “You arrive somewhere you don’t know, a guide takes you running in excellent weather and shows you narrow lanes and charming corners. As someone who spent only two days in Basel, there was no way I could have found them any other way.”

For two hours, Yariv received a tour of the Swiss city while getting in his running fix. “It doesn’t have to be continuous — sometimes you reach a hill that overlooks the city, you stand for a few minutes, she talks while we catch our breath, and then we continue on our run,” said Yariv.

Tourism websites are packed with recommendations for running tours all over the world, most of them very enthusiastic about the urban sporting experience they had.

“Most guys my age get socks, hankies, beer and chocolate for Christmas. While I am happy to receive any of these, the gift of 15km running tour around Barcelona with my favourite (only) daughter was a much better surprise,” wrote Paul from England on the TripAdvisor website. “We were met by Robin at 8 am prompt outside our holiday apartment on the Diagonal and our tour took us down La Rambla, past the marina and along the seafront, with some stunning views of the rising sun, along to the Olympic Village and then up through Citadel park before heading back via a few more sites ... The pace was perfect for us and the route he chose gave us a fantastic overview of Barcelona and where to revisit, either running or at a more leisurely pace over the next few days.”

New York for $40

Running tours are adapted to visitors’ individual needs, and they don’t have to be all running all the time. You can choose when to speed up or slow down, when to run and when to walk — whether on a particularly steep hill or while taking in an iconic building you had previously only seen on postcards.

A number of companies offer a wide range of tours, whether you prefer an old city or a modern neighborhood, running past a night skyline or a rising sun. Guided running tours in Barcelona cost about $57 per person, while a similar jaunt in New York, San Francisco or London will cost you about $40. “Share your love of running with us, and we will share our city with you,” advertises one company promoting running tours.

Tel Aviv also offers running tours — along the Mediterranean, past the historic Bauhaus buildings, through the various outdoor markets.

Yariv’s positive experience in Basel opened his eyes to using his legs, wherever he lands. Now when he packs his suitcase, he makes sure to include his running gear, though he doesn’t always book a guide.

“I order a hotel in advance that will be near a park or place I can run,” said Yariv. “You get into it, and suddenly understand how wonderful it is to see the life of a city through running. When you ask the clerk at the desk where it is worth running in the area, every time he immediately tells you where the route is and how to get there.”

Yariv even ran at an airport in South Korea.

“A few months ago, I spent a day in an airport in Korea,” he said. “I was waiting for a flight to Israel and asked the clerk if there was somewhere to run. He started laughing, took out a map, and showed me a recommended running route between the airport runways. You just have to show an interest. The minute you understand there are a lot of others like you, you ask and they show you the areas that are worth it.”