Tel Aviv
Credit: Adina Tovy / Getty Images

In Tel Aviv, the beach never feels far away. Israel's second city is rightly known for hedonism and Mediterranean cool thanks to its clubs and restaurants, but it is the sand that serves as the city's common ground. The variety of cultural cohorts — Palestinians, Orthodox Jews, bikinied ravers — frolicking in the sea is as impressive as the architectural hodgepodge — Bauhaus, Art Deco, shimmering high rises lining the boardwalk. As travelers head down the coast from the quiet northern beaches, they're bound to experience a bohemian and welcoming scene. The one constant: the ubiquitous thwack thwack thwacking of Matkot, a vigorous, incredibly popular game of beach paddleball.

Hof HaTzuk is the northernmost beach in the city and is thought by many to be the best. Far away from the tourists, this is a family-oriented, local beach with high-end, well-maintained amenities like volleyball courts, playgrounds, lawns, showers, and cafes. Entrance is free for Tel Avivians but costs 12 Nis (about $3) for tourists.

Just further south, the bright plastic chairs at Mezizim Beach — named for a 1970s cult classic series that was filmed here (it means "peepers") — are full of families and beautiful young urbanites sunbathing and dining on huge fresh salads at 9 Beach restaurant and bar. The vibe is distinctly local and refined.

Mimicking the cheek-by-jowl feel of the city, the neighboring Hof HaDatiyim beach is the separated religious beach. Surrounded by wooden walls, orthodox beachgoers are hidden from view and this section has different days for men (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) and women (Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday). The beach is open to the public as long as you respect the gender-specific days and open to everyone on Saturdays. Ironically, Tel Aviv's unofficial gay beach sits on the other side of the wall.

Hilton Beach is named for the Hilton Hotel perched on the hillside behind it. Looking at the crystalline blue water of the hotel pool and the bikini-clad guests lounging on the bright white deck chairs, makes the area feel more like Miami than the Middle East. The beach is known for great surfing and is home to TopSea — Israel's oldest surfing center.

South of the hippie havens that border the fanciest stretches of water is the border between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, where the Israeli and Arab populations starts to mix. The towering minarets of the Old Jaffa Port are just off in the distance and Alma Beach, right below the upscale MantaRay restaurant, stretches along the promenade. It's not uncommon to see nearly naked joggers sharing the wide walkway with women in long flowing skirts and niqabs (Muslim head coverings). The shore is narrower and a bit rocky here and the atmosphere is peaceful with few tourists and no amenities. The beach is mostly full of young Arab families swimming. This beach is our favorite for swimming and hanging out. There isn't much of a scene, but the scene itself is beautiful.

Alma Beach runs into the ancient Jaffa Port where fishing and tour boats are docked and wizened fishermen cast their poles off of the seawall day in and day out. The walkway has lookouts with gorgeous views back across the Tel Aviv skyline and the port has recently undergone extensive renovations bringing in dozens of trendy restaurants like Container, which has a fantastic seafood-heavy menu with dishes like calamari a la plancha and squid ink pasta, and live music most nights. There is also a brand new marketplace on the port packed with shops selling everything from Israeli desserts, to kitchen supplies and expertly pulled espresso.

These beaches — and a few less attractive options — are the heart of Tel Aviv and the place where Israel seems its most mixed and modern. Sun, sand, and water mix well. Everyone agrees on that.

More information: Many Israeli beaches charge visitors a fee. Consider dressing modestly further south, but understand that more orthodox religious people generally do not expect travelers to mimic their modesty.