When I first moved to Tel Aviv, it was the Carmel Market (“Shouk ha Carmel”) that first stole my heart. I lived a few streets away and took to walking in it daily, not so much to shop as to stare. Its smells and sounds colours and vibrancy overwhelmed it. I was soon an addict – and I still am. One thing though - if you're looking for a Middle Eastern bazaar (like that of Cairo or Istanbul) you'll be disappointed. But if it's Tel Aviv history and atmosphere you're after, then a stroll in the Carmel is a must.
Undercover, and stretching from Allenby down almost to the sea, there's nothing you can't find in this place, from endless fruits and vegetables, gourmet cheeses and succulent olives to flip flops, knock-off sunglasses and “I love Israel” boxer shorts (the perfect gift for any man!) Sandwiched between Nahalat Binyamin (a large pedestrian street that twice-weekly hosts a craft market) and Kerem ha Teimanim, the city's Yemenite quarter, it began in the 20's and was known fondly by locals as 'The Kerem' (The Vineyard). With the help of the city's mayor, Meir Dizengoff, it grew and flourished, and a few years later its name was changed officially to Carmel.
In Israel's early years (when austerity was widespread), the Carmel was understandably popular – fresh, local produce at bargain prices. The charm and 'intimacy' of the market was, no doubt, also a factor – seeing the same friendly faces at the same stalls, week in, week out. (Even today, shopping there regularly, I've developed a close relationship with some of the vendors, who know me, chat with me and occasionally give me a peach or an apple for free!)
The shuk went through hard times in the First and Second Intifadas, when suicide bombings hit Israel in waves. Tourism dried up, whilst many locals avoided going to public places unnecessarily. But in the last ten years, it's clear to everyone that the Carmel's popularity has surged once more. Now, it's no longer just a place to pick up produce...it's packed to the rafters with gourmet bakeries, enticing food stands and trendy espresso bars. I'd recommend Friday afternoons in particular – sure, it's crowded, with hundreds of people jostling to pick up supplies for shabbat, but it's also the best time to people watch. Pick a cafe, order yourself a beer or iced coffee and settle down. Or brave the crowds and wander around – whether its nuts, halva, spices or fresh juices, you're after, I guarantee you'll find them here.
Some of my personal favourites at the Carmel include:
Lechamim - serving fresh artisan breads, its the brainchild of Uri Scheft, (who trained in Denmark and Paris before returning to Israel). The 'krem schnitt' (a traditional Middle European cake, filled with crème patisserie) is to die for. And an hour or two before the place closes, they begin selling things off at up to half price.
Amrani Nuts – whether its fresh-roasted nuts, spices or dried fruits you're after, you're in the right place here. Amrani has been around since the 30's, and its a gem of a find.
Cafe B'Shuk – run by the Schtern family for years, and recently taken over by two young entrepreneurs, this epitomises coffee culture. Order in or take away...this place has a real nostalgic feel to it. Quality coffee, for sure.
Hummus Ha Carmel – you can't live in Israel without developing a hummus addiction. This great little place, with its stained-glass windows, serves up delicious plates of the country's favourite food, at competitive prices. Not to be missed.
Bottom line – put your walking shoes on and head off to the intersection of Allenby, Sheinkin and King George. Every one of your five senses will thank you for it.