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Is This Tel Aviv's Best Hotel?

Going Gaga for the Hotel Diaghilev

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Is This Tel Aviv's Best Hotel?

Lobby of Hotel Diaghilev, Tel Aviv

Photo: Anthony Grant
Beachy, boisterous Tel Aviv has more than its fair share of ungainly old hotels whose chief attributes are semi-obstructed sea views and smaller ones with artsy inclinations where the art is often token. Square footage of rooms can be unwittingly evocative of the size of the country they're in: we're talking tiny. A newcomer, however, escapes these pitfalls, and does it with enough quiet finesse to make it, possibly, Tel Aviv's best hotel.

Despite the boldest moniker going for a hotel here – named for the famed Russian ballet impresario, it seems designed to dispel indifference from the get-go – one of the best features of the Hotel Diaghilev is the calm that reigns within its carefully curated realm. Yes, it bills itself as a "Live Art Hotel," but the niftiest thing about it is its very insider location just off Rothschild Boulevard in the leafy heart of the White City, Tel Aviv's celebrated district of Bauhaus architecture.

This is where the locals are.

The original building, now completely renovated, was designed in 1934 by Joseph and Ze'ev Berlin, and is where the newspaper Haaretz was first printed. On my initial visit to the spare natural light-filled atrium that doubles as lobby there was an artificial "Tree" by Israeli artist Itamar Shimshoni; its chunky wooden branches sprouting soccer ball leaves.

Beyond that is a comfortable and surprisingly sturdy cardboard sofa (hold the cigarettes), the creation of dolphin trainer turned eco-artist Maya Zilber (her paper chairs populate the mezzanine). Behind the reception desk you'll find staff with the kind of all-knowing affability they can't teach you in hospitality management school. It's almost like having a small team of doormen to speed you along to one of the 54 rooms and suites (rates $100-$500 per night) which look and feel more like furnished apartments than hotel rooms: upscale and not overly fancy.

More Israeli art and photography lines the corridors and walls, varying by floor, and regular gallery evenings bring home the point that the Diaghilev exists to pay more than lip service to the creative spirit. The neighborhood percolates with some of that same energy. In a city where everyone's in a rush to get to the next coffeehouse, there are too many within a five-minute walk from the hotel to count.

Follow the tanned and sunglassed locals to one of the coffee kiosks on Rothschild Blvd or go recessionista and make your own coffee in the room and -- if yours is street-facing -- sip it outside on one of the typically rounded Bauhaus balconies as you gaze down on little, vine-covered Mazeh Street where by day birds flutter by and, by night, the occasional fruit bat.

No-nonsense, demonstrably perfectionist owner Avi Ifrach draws a geographic analogy to a big city on the opposite side of the Mediterranean. "Who visiting Barcelona would want to stay on the beach?" he asks. "Here [in the White City] you're close to the best architecture, bars and restaurants."

The hotel’s robust aesthetic can be broken down into various components, some of which hold greater appeal than others. Some of the art is more strange than stirring. The "unique nocturnal concept of perfectly darkened bedrooms and all-black sheets and pillowcases" may indeed promote restorative sleep, unless of course you like white. There’s no on-site breakfast (for now, guests can purchase vouchers for breakfast at an Ifrach-curated selection of area cafes).

But the sheer variety of artwork shakes things up a bit, the linens are crisp and clean, and who can argue with different blends of fragrant Sabon soaps placed in the bathroom every day? A subsequent visit turned up a red macrame orb dripping yarn above a black-and-white video art installation that featured a shapely (Russian?) ballerina shimmying on a loop alongside a (presumably Israeli) hottie in his underwear - take that, Hilton.

Like the city it calls home, the Diaghilev is stylish and slightly incomprehensible. But if its unselfconscious edginess mirrors Tel Aviv's own, it also fairly radiates charm. Upon leaving the arty atrium, destination lesser lodgings across town, I kicked myself for not booking an entire month.

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