Israel Capital Of Cool
Tue, 01/25/2011
Travel Writer
Santiago Calatrava’s Chords Bridge, a symbol of the new Jerusalem.
Santiago Calatrava’s Chords Bridge, a symbol of the new Jerusalem.

The sandy stones of
Jerusalem’s ancient center, bathed in the golden light of afternoon, speak of a history that is as ancient as it is eternal. As you stroll through the Old City, in the hush of Shabbat or the bustle of a daily worship hour, the sensory weight of tradition is almost overwhelming.

Dusty-sand facades continue unbroken as you exit westward from Jaffa Gate; what’s this? The facades may be ancient, but that gorgeous new resort hotel — with its rooftop bar, spa, and posh designer interiors — is most definitely not, nor are the neighboring luxury apartments and boutiques, where crowds of well-heeled shoppers mingle in what was once a blighted zone.

This is the Mamilla Hotel and shopping mall, among the most visible embodiments of the chic new spirit coursing through Jerusalem. Not content to cruise on its tourist identity as a repository of the past, Jerusalem is challenging cities like Berlin and Hong Kong for attention as a hip, international destination —all while retaining its uniquely religious, kosher- and Shabbat-observing soul.

“This perception of an ancient city — specifically, this perception that unless you’re into the holy aspect of Jerusalem, there isn’t much to interest you — it’s the biggest misconception about Jerusalem,” said Ben Jacobson, co-director of content for GoJerusalem.com. The comprehensive 2-year-old website’s direct-booking tools, compulsively readable articles and social-networking presence have drawn a devoted following.

While the Old City remains the unchanging heart of Jerusalem, a series of innovations have been reinvigorating and adding splash to the modern city. The spectacularly reinvented Israel Museum, a soaring bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava, a new museum addition at Yad Vashem, a crop of trend-setting eateries, and vibrantly bohemian neighborhoods are transforming what was once thought of as a venerable but stodgy burg into one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. Jerusalem is giving Tel Aviv a run for its money as Israel’s capital of cool.

And a highly anticipated light-rail system is about to begin service in downtown Jerusalem, making it easier for visitors to navigate both the historic zones and newly hip neighborhoods. After months of bothersome closures along parts of Jaffa Road, a swath of the central city is evolving into a pedestrian-friendly zone, in keeping with trends that have marginalized the car in city cores across Europe.

“Jerusalem has definitely become a destination — not just the museum, but the city itself," said a press spokesperson for the Israel Museum. “People are coming from around Israel just to spend time in Jerusalem and experience what is here. It’s definitely something quite new.”

The museum itself feels quite new. Last July, it inaugurated its renewed campus after a three-year, $100 million expansion that solidified the museum's status as a world-class institution. Record numbers of visitors have flocked to see the light-filled, spacious galleries, newly displayed collections and site-specific installations by Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor.

Just last week, the museum welcomed the installation of a major sculpture by the American artist Roxy Paine. “There's always lots that’s new here,” said the museum spokesperson. “If people came here just six months ago, they’d have a whole host of new things to look at today.”

The Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem is the other major novelty in Jerusalem’s institutional world, having drawn enthusiastic crowds since it opened in 2005. The striking building — designed by Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, who is also responsible for the Mamilla complex — adds a modern note to Yad Vashem’s timeless setting in the Western hills.

While the museums are busier than ever, many of Jerusalem’s visitors also head for the newly hip neighborhoods like Nachlaot, a formerly blue-collar area adjacent to the Machane Yehuda market, where gentrification has done little to alter a bohemian, counter-culture vibe. Recent years have brought an influx of international, English-speaking young people and Israeli “religious hippie” types fresh off a year of roaming through India or New Zealand, enhancing the area’s hipster vibe, said Jacobson of GoJerusalem.com.

The nearby Machane Yehuda bazaar, long a tourist destination in West Jerusalem, has also evolved for a new era, said Jacobson. “With the economy growing, the cultural mix is changing,” he noted; clothing boutiques and art galleries are taking their place alongside the market’s traditional fishmongers and vegetable stalls.

Jerusalem’s longtime distinction as an international destination for culture will assert itself this May, as the city plays host to the First Annual Jerusalem Season of Culture. The event, designed to showcase both local and international talent, is the initiative of philanthropist Lynn Schusterman’s Schusterman Foundation-Israel, with support from the Jerusalem Foundation and other entities.

American diva Renee Fleming will sing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company will perform at the Israel Museum, the Machane Yehuda Market will hold open-air cultural evenings and the Jewish Theater of Sweden will stage a Steve Reich work at the Tower of David Museum, among other events.

Those who come for the festival may well stay at the Mamilla Hotel, which opened in 2009 — designed, along with the surrounding multi-use residential and commercial complex, by Moshe Safdie. In its façade, and in its stylish interiors by Piero Lissoni, the Mamilla Hotel combines urban chic with a distinct sense of place. Beige-sand stonework, soaring ceilings and views over the Old City are continual reminders that one is in Jerusalem.

And it’s not just foreign visitors who are flocking to the hotel, but also hip locals, who gather at the Mirror Bar for cocktails on many an evening. Last week they had yet another reason to come, as the Mamilla Hotel unveiled the latest in its collection of cutting-edge lifestyle amenities: Akasha, a 3,000-square-foot “holistic wellbeing spa.”

Andres Pajon-Leite, a spokesperson for the hotel, said Mamilla was designed to appeal to the tastes of a global generation. “It is radically different from anything else in Israel, not just by offering world-class accommodation but also by catering to the lifestyle needs that a well-traveled, in-the-know clientele expect: design, culture and style,” he wrote in an e-mail message.

That clientele — a mix of globe-trotting Israelis and savvy foreigners — is also driving the evolving sophistication of Jerusalem’s dining scene. While retaining the kosher-oriented, uniquely Israeli character that has always defined Jerusalem restaurants, the hottest new eateries are increasingly using words like local, seasonal, and pan-Mediterranean — terms you’d hear in foodie destinations around the globe.

The culinary ambition of newer places like Lara, an upscale, Mediterranean-kosher spot in the city’s center, is obviously aimed at attracting the kind of crowd accustomed to the latest from Paris and San Francisco. Lara’s chef, Lior Heftzadi, spent time in a Michelin-starred kitchen in Italy, as well as in some of Jerusalem’s most exclusive restaurants. His cosmopolitanism shows in Lara’s open kitchen, tastefully ethnic decor and influences from as far away as as Spain and North Africa.

A hot trend right now is the bar-restaurant hybrid, which serves up serious food alongside cocktails and a youthful, nightlife vibe. Just outside the Jaffa Gate is one of the most popular of these: the Colony Salon, a bar and lounge, is known for its steaks and locally-sourced salads, soft jazz and sexy lighting.

“These high-concept places, they’re where are all the cool kids are hanging out,” said Jacobson of GoJerusalem.com — whose restaurant listings, with lively descriptions and photos attract even non-traveling readers.

In many ways, the Chords Bridge, designed by the Spanish celebrity architect Santiago Calatrava, is the defining symbol for Jerusalem’s new face. When it was erected in 2008 at the city’s western entrance, its soaring white cables and swooping cantilevers were an instantly provocative contrast to Jerusalem's ancient skyline, leaving many residents dumbstruck.

“People said, ‘This is so wild-looking, this is so different from everything else that’s here,’” recalled Jacobson. “But then people started saying, ‘Hey, maybe the rest of the area can live up to this level of coolness.’”

Two years later, it seems the optimists were right.