While Jerusalem prays, this seaside city plays, the Israelis say. By Andrew Sanger
Awoman stood on a corner near Carmel Market playing folk tunes on a violin. Around her, roaring traffic jumped lights and blared horns. A few coins lay on her optimistically outstretched cloth.

In the market, the city's biggest, there were more violinists. Here, it was loud, with a crush of people talking, yelling, buying and refusing to buy. Women in headscarves elbowed forward to stalls loaded with fruit, tubs of olives in more varieties than I knew existed, heaps of soft, leafy herbs, pyramids of gaudy spices. And shoes, squawking chickens, garlic, peppers, potatoes. East European Jewish life meets Arabia.

If you have time for only one of the many museums, go to the Diaspora Museum at Tel Aviv University. You could spend half a day or more here, wandering down the Jewish generations from Babylon to Brooklyn. The museum's thesis is that religion kept the dispersed nation alive. Ironically, or logically, observance is at an all-time low in Israel.

Walk up Tel Aviv's main avenue, Dizengoff Street, and there are precious few signs of the Jewish, or any other, religion. Dizengoff starts outside Mann Auditorium and Habima Theatre, focal points of Israel's high-brow culture. After Dizengoff Circle, where teenagers hang around with falafel takeaways, the street is lined with book shops, chic boutiques, jewellery stores, snack bars, juice bars and coffee bars and stands selling delicious honey-coated nuts.

The atmosphere is dynamic, noisy, exhilarating, almost joyful. In winter, rain forces pedestrians to shelter in art galleries, exhibitions, shows and, most of all, in the countless, crowded bars, alive with exuberant talk and smelling of strong coffee and delicious cakes.

It's hard to comprehend that 100 years ago Tel Aviv did not exist - not a brick, not a stone. The area simply consisted of sand dunes beside the sea. Isn't there a metaphor about places built on sand? Less than an hour away, Jerusalem reaches deep into the biblical, archaeological rock of Jewish history. Yet Tel Aviv is now the largest Jewish city in history. For Jews, it's a whole state of mind. As I overheard: "I prefer Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, because if I forget Tel Aviv, my tongue won't cleave to the roof of my mouth."

Jerusalem prays, Haifa works, Tel Aviv plays, say the Israelis. But we're not talking fleshpots. Maybe I looked in the wrong places, but the nightlife lacked a certain decadence. It's racier and younger in the southern part of Allenby Street and down towards Jaffa. But cabaret acts tend towards satire, not strippers. People going out for the evening are generally heading for jazz or symphony orchestras or the theatre. (Carmeli Theatre, on the corner of Dizengoff and Freshman, has simultaneous headphone translation into English.)

Tel Aviv is one of the most underestimated of great Mediterranean cities - except by Tel Avivians, who compare it grandly to New York, even Paris. For me, Tel Aviv brought to mind Athens, another hectic 20th-century Mediterranean city of sunshine, traffic and concrete. Even the bagels here are not bagels a la Golders Green, but larger and breadier, like Greek koulouria, and sold by street vendors as in Greece.

And that wonderful beach! Tel Aviv is twinned with Cannes, and that seems right. Even more so than in its Riviera twin, this is a beach city. A glorious five-mile strip of wide, feather-soft white sands and dark blue Mediterranean are at one edge of the city centre. From a boutique on Dizengoff to a deck chair on the beach is only a 10-minute walk. Everyone in Tel Aviv, whether originally from Yemen or Germany, Morocco or Romania, or born and raised in the city, congregates on its broad promenade. Much of the way, it is backed (as in Cannes) by big hotels and beach-front eateries.

During the winter, it's generally too chilly for a dip or a sunbathe. Israelis resolutely refuse to swim out of doors between Sukkot and Pesach (Tabernacles to Passover, October to April), though with daytime temperatures reaching the 70s before December and after February, they still picnic, play and walk by the water.

Every evening, there were buskers on the promenade. Not one strummed a guitar; there were violins and sometimes clarinets. One evening, a string quartet of middle-aged men sat down on the chairs, music stands in front of them, and gave a complete concert under the stars and streetlights. We handed them a few shekelsn

Andrew Sanger is the author of AA Explorer Israel (pounds 12.99)

Tel Aviv city essentials

Getting there: Andrew Sanger used the cheapest scheduled flight from London - El Al's "Instant Express" night flight at pounds 213, booked through Superstar Holidays (0171-957 4300).

Staying there: Most hotels are along Hayarkon Street, backing on to the beach. Smartest and priciest is the Dan Tel Aviv at 99 Hayarkon St (520 2525). Superstar's price for three nights' B&B (with sea view) at the Dan starts at pounds 508. A week costs from pounds 773. The Moss Hotel costs pounds 365 per person for three nights' B&B including flights and transfers.

Getting around: Buses are frequent, and fares are around three shekels (75p). Most drivers speak some English. Get a free map from the tourist office at 5 Shalom Aleichem Street.