TEL AVIV, Israel — We were biking through the Jaffa flea market in southern Tel Aviv when we found ourselves in a narrow alley, threading our way past vintage clothing, stacks of Oriental rugs and a life-size neon likeness of Marilyn Monroe.
It was the eve of a holiday, and the sidewalks were crowded with shoppers — uniformed soldiers on leave, families with children darting about. My 14-year-old had just missed knocking over a vendor selling jewelry. Then my friend Judy shrieked: A driver who had parked on the sidewalk started reversing out of his spot — just as three of our seven kids, riding on the sidewalk, approached on their bikes.
I was beginning to wonder whether this expedition was a wise idea, but an hour later, as we glided through downtown Tel Aviv on a broad, shaded sidewalk, I couldn't imagine seeing this bustling, seaside metropolis any other way. We had quickly learned that a car is an albatross in traffic-snarled Tel Aviv. And for tourists, biking offers a more intimate glimpse of real life here.
For those who aren't particularly athletic, the city is almost uniformly flat: You're not likely to get anything approaching a cardiovascular workout if you stay in the city limits. But this is urban biking, and it takes some getting used to. While the city takes biking seriously — it recently implemented a self-service bike rental system similar to the Velib' system in Paris — the bike paths, which are either on double-wide sidewalks or on shaded lanes that run down the middle of the street, are a work in progress.
The system tends to break down along narrower streets and alleyways. In general, biking here involves a lot of stops and starts, all the better for close-up people watching or taking a break at a sidewalk cafe for a cafe hafuch, Israel's creamy version of a latte that is unmatched anywhere, as far as I'm concerned.
On a recent visit, my family and I rented bicycles at a shop near our hotel, and over the course of three days, cycled along the beach, through residential areas and the business and cultural center. We also cycled north of the city on a trail that hugs the Mediterranean, stopping to sample artisanal cheeses and baked goods at the farmers market by the old port just north of the city, and then biked along Hayarkon Park's 3.5 miles of jogging trails.
The morning we took the coastal route to Jaffa, the beach was quiet. There were no signs of the plastic chaise lounges that had covered the sand the day before. We rode along the broad Tayelet boardwalk, the sound of our tires startling the pigeons off the walkway. On the vast public beach, the sand had been shaped into gentle scalloped peaks by the night winds. Two surfers in wet suits were already wading into the blue Mediterranean with their boards.
"That's the religious beach," Judy, our host in Tel Aviv, called out to me, pointing to slab concrete walls surrounding a section of prime beachfront property. "Looks like a prison, right? They have different bathing hours for men and women."
We weren't alone, as it turned out. Swimmers were doing laps at a pool, which is filled with seawater every morning and emptied every night, and a few dog owners were running their labs on what locals call the "dog beach" — a stretch of sand where dogs are allowed.
It was getting hot, so we parked our bikes at Charles Clore Park, right along the shore, and took long swigs from our water bottles. The park is a beautiful spot that juts into the Mediterranean and is surrounded by rocky ledges that the waves crash up against. There is a great view of Jaffa, an ancient port city of limestone on the sea, surrounded by protective walls and crowned by palm trees, a minaret and a church bell tower.
Two women wearing the traditional Muslim hijab hair covering walked through the park deep in conversation, while a pair of middle-age Israeli men hunched over what seemed a serious game of dominoes. An Orthodox Jew in a pinstriped robe and fur hat strolled by, trying to keep his five children in tow.
"People say Tel Aviv is a bubble — an anomaly — within Israel," said Judy's husband, Amit Schejter, a Tel Aviv native, along for the ride with me and my husband and our families. "You don't have the tension between religious and secular Jews that you feel in Jerusalem, and the political tension is less palpable."
Not that there weren't reminders of the Mideast conflict.
Just before the park, we had passed the Dolphinarium discotheque, where a suicide bomber had blown himself up on a Saturday night in 2001. A small monument out front lists the names of the victims in Russian, since most were immigrants from the former Soviet Union. All in all, 21 people were killed, almost all of them teenagers.
We had learned something from our little misadventure in the Jaffa market: If there's no place for your elbows, there's no place for your bike, and it will probably be safer — and less stressful — to get off and walk. So when we hit the narrow, winding streets of Neve Tzedek, a cramped neighborhood that was one of the first Jewish areas settled outside the Jaffa walls, we walked our bikes and got back on them only 20 minutes later, when we reached the modern city center, with its graceful colonial-era boulevards divided by islands with broad, tree-lined sidewalk lanes. Here the riding was smooth and easy. The tree cover shaded us from the sun, and we had plenty of room, so we were able to move at a nice clip and still keep the children in our sight.
We cycled past the historic building where Israel declared independence in 1948 and stopped for a moment of reflection at the memorial for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 after a peace rally.
By the time we reached the arts and crafts fair on Nachlat Binyamin Street, the crowds were dissipating, and we were able to walk our bikes down the stone-paved streets, examining Ethiopian pottery, stained-glass mezuzas, pomegranate-shaped earrings (a symbol of fertility), Jewish star and Chai necklaces and my favorite good luck charm, hamsa hands, made of clay, glass, wood and almost every other conceivable material. I stopped to look at Mosh Shternberg's silver work and bought a spiral-shaped ring that wraps around my ring finger, for the equivalent then of about $37. At a little restaurant called Paamayim, we tasted the shakshuka, a Middle Eastern delicacy that involves frying an egg in spicy tomato sauce.
When we got to Shouk Hacarmel, a bustling outdoor food market, we stowed our bikes and fought the crowds to bargain for T-shirts with the Coca-Cola logo in Hebrew script. We purchased spicy olives and a kilo of apricots and tasted fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice for the first time. Then we headed back to our hotel, where we started to plan the next day's ride. It would be our last chance to get some exercise before the 11-hour flight back home.
Bicyclists in Tel Aviv are strictly forbidden from riding in the traffic on the street and must share the sidewalks with pedestrians.
The system works pretty well along the city's major arteries, broad boulevards graced with either double-wide sidewalks or broad shaded islands that run down the middle of the road, with white lines clearly delineating the separate biking and walking lanes and arrows indicating the traffic flow. A tip: You may want to see Jaffa on foot.
Helmets are required but few people wear them (and it may be hard to find one that fits, so consider packing one in your suitcase). Israeli bicyclists have elevated multitasking to an art, so watch out for bikers toting their surfboards to the beach, a cellphone or espresso (or both) in one hand. Look out for pedestrians; they're fearless and walk anywhere they like. And be aware that it can get quite hot at midday; be sure to have plenty of water.
There are dozens of bike rental stores in Tel Aviv. We did well at Cycle (147 Ben Yehuda St, 972-3-5293037; cycle.co.il), which is just a few blocks from the beachfront hotels. Rentals are 60 shekels a day, or about $16 at 3.7 shekels to the dollar.
— Roni Caryn Rabin