Shalom and Salaam Aleckum from one of the most fascinating and awe-inspiring nations to grace our map. Though our trip was haphazardly planned and executed within a week, it was the best experience of my life. It also taught us a valuable lesson that planning a trip as you go can save you money. Meet people, talk to locals, have drinks with the people in your hostel. Our hosts at our hostels gave us some sweet hook ups!

Getting There:

Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv is a gorgeous airport that was almost worth the trip alone. After a 13 hours direct flight from NY, jetlag couldn’t keep us down (well except my wife who fell asleep with her eyes open at dinner.) Be patient, security is no joke in Israel (as should be expected) so always allot time going and coming for extra screenings and such.

There is a train system that will get you around, but it’s not designed like a metro. Cabs are really your best bet to get around except for direct routes to/from the airport.

Getting Around Tel Aviv:

Which brings me to the taxi system. It’s a giant scam and they will see you coming. MAKE SURE THEY USE THE METER!! They will try not to, but insist upon it. The country of Israel is rooted in bargaining, so get out your haggling pants and your game face.

Sheruit Taxis are also pretty great. It’s like a carpool with strangers. They are van type taxis in which you pay a flat rate per person and it picks various people up and drops them off along the way. It’s honestly the best way to go considering the lack of metro and the expensive cab rides.

If you are using a hostel may I make a suggestion, Gordon Inn. The price and location were unbeatable and included chair rentals on the beach (which it is only a few blocks from) and also a free dinner at a beach side restaurant. We got really lucky with this place and they deserve the business.

The place to shop and walk around was apparently Sheinkin Rd, but I didn’t get what all the fuss was about. But DO check out Cup O Joe for breakfast on Dizengoff. It is, to date, the best breakfast I have ever had in my life. They do that meal right in Israel, and it deserves respect.

For a little trip outside the beach bustle, go to Joffa. It’s a quick, 10-minute cab ride and is so awesome. The architecture is more gothic looking than the modern Tel Aviv. There are castle-type structures and little alley ways filled with art galleries and wine tastings (and stray cats…everywhere).

(Aside on the strays: cats and unleashed dogs are everywhere. BEWARE. My wife was shopping at a street vendor and got so lost in her purchase that a mischievous pup peed on her for a good 10 seconds without her noticing. The 3 other people in our party all watch from afar, also peeing our pants)

Anyway, there are bazaars and vendors everywhere with products ranging from candy to t-shirts, to fish, to live stock. And I can’t reiterate enough….BARGAIN!!

To Jerusalem:

It’s a simple 40 minute bus ride from the central terminal in Tel Aviv to the Central Terminal in  Jerusalem. I think I still have my ticket stub and it was like $10 (nice exchange rate, suck it Europe!) The bus system in Jerusalem will suffice but again, it’s kind of tricky and we weren’t always on top of where we were headed. Taxis run the same there as in Tel Aviv.

Once again, we got super lucky with our hostel. We stayed in the Old City in the Muslim Quarter. Like any misinformed American, I was a bit nervous about it but it turned out to be one of the best decisions we made. The Old City is within the walls and is made up of four quarters, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian. They are all starkly different and you should explore all 4 and the different vibes each offers. Duck into little restaurants and grab some falafel or schnitzel. You literally travel 2000 years into the past when you are within these walls and you are at the center of the civilization.

Any travel book will give you the highlights, but here are just a handful of what we loved:

Church of the Holy Sepulcher:

Best moment of my life involved an eastern European man laying across Jesus’s tomb and a Greek Orthodox Priest hitting him in the back of the head while we watched on in horror/amazement. Any sense of “American niceties” is non-existent here. Leave the West behind

Wailing Wall:

Men and women have separate sections to pray at. Women need to have shoulders and knees covered. I strongly suggest taking the tour beneath the Wailing Wall. Turns out the current city is actually built ON TOP of what used to be there. I don’t want to ruin the ending…take the tour.

City of David:

Walkable, right outside the walls. Take a tour in the caverns where David entered the city and defeated an entire city from within. If you’re claustrophobic, you may walk around like half our party did. Bring your walking shoes, it’s a trek.

Mount of Olives:

This was a fiasco to get to thanks to poor bus service and us having a party of 5 that didn’t fit well in taxis. At the top is where Jesus ascended and there are footprints that were maintained. Oh and don’t eat the olives. They are gross. You’re gonna want to eat them, but don’t do it…you’re still gonna do it aren’t you?

Dome of the Rock:

We, unfortunately, were barred from the Dome because we went during Ramadan. We tried, really badly. Oh, and foot traffic is UNBEARABLE during Friday services. It’s like rush hour, except with human bodies.

Via Dolorosa

This is the path Jesus took on his way to crucifixion. There are placards to designate the places within the city. It’s easy to follow, especially since there are a million tour groups walking it. So just hop on one of those. My savings tip for any trip…hop on someone else’s tour.

Mary’s Tomb

Probably the most reverent and quiet place in the city. It’s outside the Old City, and off the beaten path.

Church of All Nations

Located next to the Garden of Gethsemane, this is an all-encompassing trip. Also located outside the city walls, you’ll walk through the garden to get to the church which was built upon the the bedrock where Jesus prayed in the garden. Services are held and you can participate. The ceiling is also adorned with countries’ flags that have donated money to the church.

Out of the city

Our hostel hooked us up with an amazing day trip. Shout out to Saleh and Sofia at Hostel Hashimi. Amazing price and the most beautiful building I’ve ever stayed in. The rooms left much to be desired, but the rooftop overlooking the city, marble lobby, and the kindest staff just went above and beyond anything I expected. Back to the trip…

We took a private (and super inexpensive) trip to the Dead Sea (Ein Gedi), Qum’ran, and Masada.

Qum’ran

This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. You can walk the rocks and hills and see where they were found. Very touristy, complete with historic movie in multiple languages. Pretty cool stuff. Small entrance fee

Masada:

King Herod’s fortress carved out of a mountain. Breathtaking. You take a gondola up to the site and tour around the ruins of what used to be. The views of the Dead Sea don’t hurt either. Brush up on the history and rent the film, Masada. Entrance fee depends on what you want to do (audio tour, etc).

Ein Gedi:

Israel’s biggest practical joke on tourists. This “spa” experience involves bathing in mineral water, covering your body in mud, and then washing off in sulfur water. Sounds like a scam, but we ate it up. Afterwards you take a little truck ride to the Dead Sea where you have no choice but to float. Oh, and please learn from my mistake, do not get the salt water in your eye or wash your face with the sulfur water. It’ll ruin your day.

And just a note on traveling outside the city, there are roadblocks and military presence almost everywhere you go. So travel with a local or a guide, it’s worth the money. And almost everyone speaks English, which is extremely helpful (see, it’s not that hard France!)

Right outside the Jewish Quarter is your modern day, outdoor mall with cafes and stores. So if you miss your Starbucks while you’re there, check out Aroma café (which they just opened one in NY, score!) Shopping is pretty pricey despite the exchange rate. I’d stick with haggling in the marketplace and little shops.

Overall, the people here are a great bunch. The Muslims were just the kindest and most helpful people we could’ve met. The Orthodox Jews were a little more reserved and standoffish…forget about asking them to take a picture of you on Shabbat. The military is everywhere and do help with a feeling of security and safety throughout the city. (I think the yelling and gunshots at 5pm were normal…)

I leave you with this one note…HAGGLE!!!! From food, to clothes, to hostels, to trips, to taxis. They will feed you first and discuss price once you’ve eaten. You have the upper hand, now take it.

Advertisements