Cars screeched to a standstill as drivers abandoned vehicles, lunchtime joggers jumped into flower beds for cover and office managers screamed at staff to run for the stairs.
On the first-floor landing of the beachside hotel, breathless strangers huddled in fear as the city's air raid sirens signalled an impending strike.
The rocket fell short and hit the sea, but the explosion shook the building. Two women retched with anxiety.
Tel Aviv, Israel's biggest city, threw open its air raid shelters after rockets landed inside the city boundaries for the first time in 20 years after being launched by fundamentalist Palestinian groups from Gaza. Scenes once confined to backwater towns near the border played out in the heart of the Jewish state for the first time since Gulf War in 1991.
The gnawing fear of doing the wrong thing was as powerful as the shock of the wailing alarm. "Go to the stairs, stay there for 10 minutes. It's all I know to do," said Michelle Oren, the hotel manager. "I don't even know if its right but it's what I learnt at school and I feel safe for now."
The rocket dropped into the Mediterranean less than 200 yards from a shoreline clustered with embassies and five-star hotels. Two strikes on Thursday had also targeted Tel Aviv but both fell short - one in the outer suburbs and another further out to sea.
Micky Rosenfeld, the spokesman for Israel's police force, confirmed the Fajr-5, an Iranian-made rocket, was considered to have landed in the city of 400,000, albeit not on land. Within hours Tel Aviv's municipal government had opened the reinforced concrete shelters and underground bunkers that have only been used for drills for two decades.
"Tel Aviv is very much prepared for this, we have bomb shelters and air raid shelters throughout the city," said Eytan Schwartz, an adviser to the city government. "There is a system in place for both alerting Tel Aviv and evacuating if need be." With nerves on edge and confusion over the scale of the threat Tel Aviv faced, visitors to the city were left with feelings of helpless desperation.
"I'm very worried. My flight isn't until Sunday and I've no money to change it," said Gisha Garcia, a grandmother from Renfrewshire, Scotland. "I've a daughter here who can't leave because she is pregnant. I don't know what to do."
Executives working in the Israeli business capital were also weighing up their options. "I was in the shower when the alarm went off. By the time I got out, dried off and dressed, the alarm was over," said Peter Bastiaansen, a Dutch engineer. "I spoke with my company who said they didn't know what to do. I think I'll risk it until the end of next week."
When the moment of panic had passed Tel Aviv residents affected an attitude of indifference.
Frishman beach, which lies opposite the point were the rocket fell, was full of bathers at sunset. Aki Coren, 66, a former deep-sea diver, recalled the barrage of Scud missiles fired by Saddam Hussein in 1991 as he dismissed the present danger. "I don't give a damn about these rockets from Gaza," he said as he drank coffee on the pavement near the beach. "The Gulf War sent us some real trouble to talk about but these Gaza attacks are just something to worry the children."
"They love us, those Arabs, so much that they send all their love in big explosive packages," said Tovah Sukhol, a shop assistant who had moments earlier been dancing to the sound pumped out of a passing van's stereo system.
Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, said the attacks on Tel Aviv represented the kind of external aggression that justified the decision to launch air strikes against Gaza.
"This escalation will exact a price that the other side will have to pay," Barak said. "Today in Tel Aviv we are feeling what over a million residents of the South have been feeling for a long time."
Experts in missile defence warned that the repeated firing of Fajr-5 rockets added a dangerous new dimension to the conflict. Arieh Hertzog, who retired as head of Israel's Missile Defence Agency in January, said: "I do not believe that any rocket that [Hamas] could produce by themselves could reach Tel Aviv.
"It is a big rocket, with a heavy warhead that needs its own launcher. It would have to come from Iran."