Even if you’ve been to Israel a dozen times, the seemingly kitschy exhibit at Mini Israel might reveal to you the hidden gems you’ve been missing on prior visits. Mini-Israel is a tourist attraction situated about half-way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on the outskirts of Latrun, a Trappist Monastery famous for its delicious wines and the nearby “Yad Lashirion” memorial and museum for Israel’s tank units. As one might imagine, the park contains a number of 2-5 foot models of many of Israel’s iconic sites amongst which you can walk to get a feel for the whole country in a short time. The exhibits are visually stunning and many have audio elements as well. There are mini cars and buses driving on mini roads, mini people walking and chatting at mini-cafes and mini-houses. There are even mini-worshippers praying in mini-synagogues, mini-churches and mini-mosques (try saying that ten times fast!) in their own languages according to their own different traditions, cultures, and religions.
I’ve been living in Tel Aviv for a few months now and have a good sense of what is what around town. But I surprised to find that in mini-Tel Aviv I found several amazing buildings and places I’ve never visited before. Some of them are really hidden in the labyrinths of streets and to find them you need to know where to look. But there were others that I had passed million times and just never noticed.
These four locations stuck out to me for their beauty, unique representation of “Tel Avivi” style, and the fact that I didn’t even know that they existed!
1. The “Shell” Synagogue
The synagogue’s real name is Hechal Yehuda, but one look at the building will explain why it got such a nickname. Situated on Ben Saruk street, 13, hidden in-between tall modern buildings and parking lot, this amazing building has a funky architecture that definitely diverges from traditional synagogue designs. I think this is a perfect representation of a city that has houses hundreds of synagogues and sponsors pluralist Kabbalat Shabbat services, despite its secular reputation.
2. “The Crazy House”
Once again, the name speaks for itself. This gaudy building on HaYarkon street 181, just next to Marina Hotel, looks like it’s out of a Tim Burton movie. Tel Aviv, like many big cities, is full of people trying to stand through clothing, hair styles, tattoos, or even how their dog is groomed. No structure in town is more unconventional, loud, and noticeable than this though.
3. Pagoda house
Situated in the center of the city, the Pagoda House has a funky mix of Japanese, German, and Middle Eastern styles that truly illustrates the international, multi-cultural mix that Tel Aviv strives for. The former residents of this building include the chief editor of “Ha’aretz,” Israel’s oldest newspaper and the Polish ambassador. Fun fact: this was the first house in Tel Aviv to have a passenger elevator.
4. Bialik square
This little square is lined with multicolored buildings built in the old Tel Aviv style with beautiful balconies and an elegant fountain – tucked quietly away just three blocks from the shuk! The beautiful orange, white, and blue colored buildings include the first city hall, the Bialik Museum, and the Rubin Museum. This was the center of Hebrew culture in the first years of pre-state Israel. The Bialik Museum used to be the house of Israel’s first Poet Laureate Chaim Nahman Bialik, and the Rubin Museum was the house of Reuven Rubin, one of Israel’s most famous painters. The place is the physical embodiment of the Hebrew culture reborn in Tel Aviv, built from Hebrew poetry, music, and art.
It is always great to be reminded that where you live is full of secret beauty. My trip to mini-Israel certainly retaught me that lesson. Living in a city with as much to offer as Tel Aviv is an opportunity that I relish every day.