We've been planning for the craziness of our time in Israel. How do you see so much history in six short days? You just can't.
We arrived in Tel Aviv and spent one night in Florentine area, exploring Old Town Jaffa. The free walking tour offers a great overview of the small Old Town. Old Town Jaffa is a hipster's paradise with coffee shops and rustic cafes lining the main street.
We didn't cross to the modern side of Tel Aviv, but drove through it one morning before a tour. It seemed to have pockets of really neat neighborhoods. If we had had more time, we would have spent it in the city center, since Old Jaffa can be done in a full day.
We took a taxi bus to Jerusalem, about an hour drive for 28 shekels per person. Our AirBnb was in the German Colony neighborhood, but it turned out to be so far away and was frankly, a dump. We spent one night there before ditching for an apartment via Sweet Inn Apartments on Jaffa St, near the Jaffa Gate.
Israel is SO expensive, but this move was definitely the right one and worth every extra penny. Bonus was it had a washer! Clean clothes!
Sandeman's New Tours offers great walking tours around the city. We had the same guide, Yariv, every day for three days and felt we got our money's worth. It is a ton of walking, but we saw nearly everything from the Old City, to the Mount of Olives, and the many places in between. You can explore on your own, but it would just be wandering through the different places, while the tours provide great info without a hard push for any religion.
We had a memorable mishap on our way to the Mount of Olives on our final tour day. As usual, the meeting point was the Jaffa gate. The group of around 15 tourists had to hop on a van to transport us to the Mount. Unfortunately, the company had sent too small of a van, so Lindsay and I were directed to hop into a taxi with another couple. Yariv paid the taxi driver and directed him to take us to the Mount.
It was Friday, the Muslim holy day, and during Ramadan, so tens of thousands of Palestinians bus into Jerusalem to worship at the Dome of the Rock. Traffic is horrendous and streets are shut down to funnel vehicles into and out of the center. The Mount of Olives is located on the opposite side of the Temple Mount. Just 5 minutes down the road, our cab driver, finding his route cut off, forced us out of the taxi on a street corner, refusing to take us any further on account of the traffic. The other couple with us decided to give up and head back to their hotel. Lindsay and I decided to persevere and trek across the city on foot to find a way to the Mount and reunite with our tour.
We called Yariv, who in a flurry of expletives, told us he couldn't do anything for us, but would reimburse another taxi ride if we could find one (which was nearly impossible). We walked back toward the Old City among throngs of corralled Muslim worshippers and very intimidating military checkpoints.
After asking several helpful police officers, we were unable to find a taxi and consigned to walking. Suddenly, a taxi appeared behind us on the desolate road and agreed to take us to the Mount for 100 shekels. A few minutes later, he dropped us at the top of the Mount, where we found our group. It was insane to be abandoned amid the crowded, militaristic scene, but it reinforced our confidence in our wayfinding skills.
Our favorites of Israel included the ruins of Capernaum, on a day-tour we wouldn't recommend with Noah Tours/United Tours. The tour was terrible, but the ruins were incredible to see. Side note: Our guide was a crazy, old lady who rambled the entire trip and ended by singing us "Shalom" in nearly every octave she could imagine.
We also loved Hezekiah's Tunnel. Not recommended for the claustrophobic or very tall, you can walk in the flowing spring water of the nearly 3,000 year old tunnels which provided drinking water to the City of David. Bring a headlamp and water shoes. This is a must-see and was one of our favorite experiences on the entire trip.
The Dead Sea was also such a unique experience. It's almost indescribable the sensation you get in the salt water. We went on a four hour tour with Abraham Hostel and this was the perfect amount of time. We spent about an hour and a half in the water and got to meet some great backpackers from other countries. The weather was balmy and the water so salinated that the tiniest cut stings. The buoyancy of the water is aggressive. You can hardly stand up because the physical force wants to distribute your weight. Nothing to do but lay back and float like a leaf.
Religious & Political Jerusalem
Jerusalem is the true definition of a living, breathing city. The three main religions find a way to live amongst one another (mostly) peacefully. It seems like the best method to maintain the peace is to simply ignore that the other group is present.
We never felt unsafe in Jerusalem. Security is tight and a natural part of every day life. Armed military personnel and cameras are on most streets, especially around Old City. We also never were on public transportation without someone in uniform carrying an assault rifle. Sounds scary? It doesn't feel like it at all. People don't even blink an eye over it.
Unless there is active unrest, the country feels extremely safe, even in Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Our media really sensationalizes what is happening. However, there is a sort of tension we carried with us throughout our time there. Perhaps it was from our preconceived notions from US media or perhaps it's something that truly exists beyond our imaginations.
Many people come to Israel seeking a religious and moving experience. We never quite got that feeling. In many ways, we felt more like we were intruding on the customs of the locals, no matter the religion. As devout tourists weep over statues, rocks or sacred places, locals simply step around them to go about their daily religious traditions.
We were also a bit disappointed because we were hoping to get more of a sense of the history of Jewish traditions from many of the sacred sites. Unfortunately, the mother of Emperor Constantine, Helen, spent time in the Holy Land commandeering relics and erecting a church on every single site of Jesus's time. Shrines and reliquaries exist on every purported spot where Christ walked, or performed miracles, or was crucified. To us, it all draws attention away from the message of Christ. In many ways, the experiences now feel more like idol worship and contributed to the disappointment with our Israel experience.
The "diversity" of food in Israel is an overwhelmingly diverse selection of hummus. Any restaurant, whether Jewish, Palestinian, Iraqi, Western - all serve hummus. The food is extremely fresh in Israel, with nearly everything being cooked to order. We had great hummus lunches from Abu Hassan in Jaffa, Lina in the Old Town Jerusalem, and Moshiko on Ben Yehuda Street. We cooked at home the majority of the time to save money. Lunch every day cost between $25-$30, just for a hummus and pita style lunch.
We are happy we took the time to visit Israel, as it's a place we know many people are hesitant about because of security concerns.
Who knows what Israel will be like in another 50 years? More history is being created and uncovered every day. Maybe one day we will venture back to see how much things have changed while still staying the same.