Tel Aviv, Israel

  • Visited September 2018

Whilst Jerusalem is like your serious and sober born-again elder relative, Tel Aviv is your funky, forward-thinking and carefree friend. It is relaxed and progressive, a place where everyone is welcome and encouraged to be themselves. Those of you familiar with London, think Camden/Shoreditch vibes. It’s a great holiday destination. Visitors mainly come here for the beach, to see Jaffa Old City and Port, and to party, and I very much enjoyed all three.

Along the coast there are various beaches to choose from. Jaffa Beach tends to be less crowded and its beach is devoid of loungers and umbrellas so it feels less ‘resorty’ and ‘touristy’. The other beaches offer similar facilities: loungers, umbrellas, toilets, and beachside restaurants. I spent a day at Gordon Beach, next to Lala Land, which provides music and drink/food service to those topping up their tans. A lounger and umbrella cost me 18 NIS. A good way to spend a Shabbat Saturday. Just a short walk away, in between Gordon Beach and Frishman Beach, you will find London Restaurant which is a lovely place for a treat meal watching the the sun go down.

My visit coincided with Rosh Hashanah which meant many things were closed for two days so I spent some time just walking around the various neighbourhoods. Tel Aviv is a fab place to mooch around. The White City of Tel Aviv, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the world’s largest collection of Bauhaus style buildings and you can take an architecture tour if you want to learn more.

Free walking tours of the Old City of Jaffa leave daily from the Clock Tower and can be pre-booked online.  Though many places do close in Tel Aviv for Shabbat (though not as many as Jerusalem) Jaffa (also known as Yafo), tends to stay lively. I had a really fun Friday afternoon/evening working my way through a pitcher of beer and a pizza at The Old Lady pub listening to a live band playing in the street. The area was absolutely buzzing. Strolling round the flea market is also an enjoyable experience. In the Jaffa Port area you will find the Old Man and the Sea Restaurant – a meal here is absolutely unmissable! Myself and friends had what we reckon was one of the best meals we’ve ever had. Before you even place your order, you are served twenty small plates of various salads and dips, bread and lemonade. We had a sharing platter of seafood as our main course and it was delicious. The service was also excellent.

Another restaurant recommendation for you is Benedict Rothschild which specialises in breakfast meals and is open 24/7. My Eggs Benedict Royal, served with a Peach Mimosa, was so tasty. The creamed spinach is highly recommended. You may have to wait for a table when you arrive but trust me, it is worth any wait.

To come to Tel Aviv and not party could almost be regarded as sacrilegious ha ha. There are many cool bars and clubs in the city as you would expect from a party capital. I did a couple of pub crawls organised by my hostel and a big fave with the crowd was Kuli Alma with its vibrant atmosphere and pumping music.

An interesting trip out of the city is a visit to a kibbutz. I did the Kibbutz Experience tour organised by my hostel which took us to Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael and it was really insightful. Our lovely host spent some time explaining what a kibbutz is, how their particular kibbutz works and then gave us a tour of the site. Kibbutz’s are an important part of Israel’s culture and heritage so take the time to visit one of you can.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

 

 

Jerusalem, Israel

  • Visited September 2018

If Jerusalem had a relationship status on Facebook, it would be ‘It’s complicated’. It even has its own syndrome (Jerusalem Syndrome – Google it). It’s a place that forces you to contemplate/confront your belief system whether you want to or not. A place with this much history and numerous sites of religious significance across the faiths is always going to be complex, not your average holiday destination. Jerusalem is challenging, magnificent, vibrant, a curious blend of past and present, and unlike any other place I’ve visited. I loved it and felt very safe and comfortable there – but was unprepared for the mental and emotional impact it had upon me.  

I’m not a religious person (considering myself spiritual instead) but can appreciate the importance of faith to those who are; Jerusalem is considered by many to be one of the holiest places in the world and when there, you cannot avoid thinking about your own ideologies. Although I tended to be impressed by the historical context of sites visited rather than their religious importance, Jerusalem has a multi-layered fabric of stories ready to share with travellers, from the 3,000 year old City of David to the unmissable Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. This is not a place you come to relax, there’s simply so much to do and that can be physically exhausting. Give yourself plenty of time to uncover the layers and you will be rewarded. I spent ten days in Jerusalem – I didn’t manage to do everything but ten days was enough time for me to get round the key sites I wanted to get to and have an overnight trip to Bethlehem (read about my stay here https://wp.me/p9u5hw-K7). If you visit anywhere in Israel you will have to keep in mind Shabbat. Every week, from Friday evening to Saturday evening, the majority of things will be closed (i.e. most museums, shops etc) and Israeli public transport stops running, so you will need to factor that into your planning. An excellent website that will help with planning your trip to Israel is https://www.touristisrael.com/

My Itinerary:

  • Day 1 – I took the 2 hour free walking tour that leaves from Jaffa Gate at 11 am and 2pm. This tour gives a good introduction to the city and takes you round the Old City. You are expected to tip the guide.
  • Day 2 – I walked towards Mount Zion, visited Oskar Schindler’s grave which is nearby, then walked to the Tomb of David, the Room of the Last Supper and then went to the Tower of David museum (if you buy an 80 NIS combo ticket this will admit you entry to the museum and a night show at the Tower – you will have to book a showtime then you buy the ticket). As this was a Friday, I stayed at the hostel in the evening and took part in the Shabbat dinner.
  • Day 3 – Most things were closed until the evening as this was a Saturday. As I love street art, I visited the Machane Yehuda market which was closed but reveals street art on all the stall shutters when closed. I then walked to the Israel Museum, one of the few places open on a Saturday. Entrance is 54 NIS and you get an audio guide included. This is an excellent museum – I was there four hours and didn’t get to see everything. Though the museum is open on a Saturday, its cafes are not so take plenty of water and a snack with you. I saw the ‘King David’ light and sound show at the Tower of David in the evening. Everyone seems to love this but I was underwhelmed – it’s probably good for kids though.
  • Day 4 – Visited Yad Vashem. Do not miss this if you visit Jerusalem. It’s incredibly moving and informative. It’s free to get in. You can get an audio guide but don’t bother – the History Museum has detailed signage in English throughout. Give yourself plenty of time to get round everything – I was in the History Museum for 3 hours. When there, you must see the Children’s Memorial and the cattle car Memorial to the Deportees – both chilling.
  • Day 5 – I took a Mount of Olives guided tour arranged through my hostel. This cost 120 NIS. You will see the the Church of the Ascension – the place where Jesus is said to have ascended, the garden of Gethsemane, a couple of other sites and get a great view of the Dome of the Rock. I recommend this tour. In the evening I did the Western Wall Tunnels tour – this cost 30 NIS and you get to go under the Western Wall to visit the tunnels. A fascinating insight.
  • Day 6 – I took a ‘Holy City’ guided tour arranged through my hostel. This cost 110 NIS. I was disappointed with this. The guide talked at us too much and the tour seemed to drag rather than be enjoyable. My friend and I left early (after 4 hours with no rest break…). Although you do get to go into Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you could easily do these by yourself. Save your cash and don’t bother with this tour.
  • Day 7 – My overnight trip to Bethlehem.
  • Day 8 – travelled back from Bethlehem and had dinner with hostel buddies.
  • Day 9 – re-visited the market (Friday is a good day to go as you’ll see the locals in action buying supplies for their Shabbat dinners) and went to the Museum on the Seam, a socio-political contemporary art museum. This cost 30 NIS. It’s a small but interesting place. Nice rooftop cafe with an observation point. Give it a miss if you are not into art though. Second Shabbat dinner in the evening at the hostel.
  • Day 10 – I was exhausted! On my last day I took advantage of Shabbat to rest, do laundry and catch up on some blogging. 

Other things you can do in Jerusalem include visiting the City of David, guided tours to the West Bank, trips to the Masada Fortress and the Dead Sea. You can also do a Shabbat Experience tour on a Friday evening in the Old City.

Just a note about Ultra-Orthodox Jews and the area Mea She’arim. Whilst it is fascinating to see Ultra-Orthodox Jews dressed in their conservative dress, you will need to respect the fact that they do not appreciate being stared at, photographed or spoken to by outsiders (even if you are just asking for directions). Mea She’arim is the main area where they chose to live and though it may be tempting to wander there to go and have a look at the old-fashioned way they choose to live, my advice is just leave them be. They do not welcome outsiders (particularly hating large tour groups) so you go there at your own peril. If you are not modestly dressed, expect to be verbally abused or spit on. They get angry when people do not respect the rules of Shabbat too – so if you drive near Mea She’arim during Shabbat, expect rocks to be thrown at your car!

Though Shabbat can feel a bit inconvenient with so many things being closed, just incorporate it into your planning and go with the flow. Jerusalem becomes quiet and peaceful during Shabbat so embrace it and enjoy it. Use the time to contemplate your beliefs… or for planning your next travel adventure.     

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Eilat, Israel

  • Visited August 2018

Shalom! I crossed the border at The Yitzhak Rabin Border Crossing (also known as Wadi Araba Crossing) from Aqaba into Eilat, and it was by far the toughest entry into a country I have ever experienced – which is saying something after 10 years of travelling the world. I had been pre-warned that it can be an intense experience and it was certainly that. Leaving Jordan itself was easy enough. Mohammed was true to his word – I WhatsApped him to arrange a pick up and he charged me the discounted price of 15JD as promised to take me to the border. I had to pass my luggage through a security scanner, show my passport at window 7 and that was me out of Jordan. I was expecting to pay 10JD exit fee when leaving Jordan but I wasn’t asked to pay this – I think if you stay for a certain amount of time then this is waived.

UK citizens do not need a visa to enter Israel. This does not mean that it is easy to enter. Your luggage is scanned two more times and you can be asked to unpack your luggage but that didn’t happen to me. I was, however, given an absolute grilling for 15 minutes by the passport control guard and had to show evidence of all hostel bookings in Israel and the reservation for my flight out of the country. I was asked many questions: why did I want to come to Israel, where had I been in Jordan, did I know anyone in any Middle East country, why had I stayed in the Middle East for so long (I taught in Dubai for over ten years), did I intend to visit the West Bank (say no even if you intend to), was I or my family religious. I have a new passport as my old one was due to expire this year – I was asked why I had changed my passport, requested to show the old one (luckily I had that with me), and did I have a second passport for another country. She seemed very concerned that I had chosen to spend so much time in Middle Eastern countries but I insisted I had stayed in Dubai for the tax-free salary only and had visited many countries around the world, such as Japan and China, not just the Middle East. I hear that everyone entering gets the third-degree but I think my connection to Dubai made it a more thorough grilling. I wasn’t convinced the guard was going to let me enter she was so tough on me; I thought she was going to ask for stool and DNA samples ha ha. The trick is to stay calm, just give the information they ask for and don’t volunteer any extra information. They no longer stamp your passport on entry to Israel but you are given a card that you have to keep with you.

When you finally get through, border staff will call a taxi for you if none are waiting. I waited 30 minutes for a taxi and then I was on my way. The good news is here the taxis are metered so no fear of being ripped off by dodgy drivers, though the fares are not cheap – nothing in Israel is cheap. A 25 minute drive cost me 56 shekel (NIS).

An Israeli lady I met told me that Eilat is where the Israelis come on holiday. It is a Red Sea beach resort with all the usual things you would expect: beachside clubs, bars, diving and snorkelling centres etc. Other than spending time at the beach, doing water sports and so on, there isn’t much else to do. This isn’t where you come for a low-budget break but you can certainly have a nice time here if you like the beach. It doesn’t feel very International, with the majority of signs, menus and things written in Hebrew but I quite liked that. Lots of people here speak English which is helpful so you will be able to get by.

The hostel I stayed in was opposite the beach, which was convenient, but it was quite a congested beach area, near the big hotel resorts with the strips of beach packed with sunloungers. There were nicer beaches a short drive away. Dolphin Reef and Coral Beach Nature Reserve are two places you pay to enter to access lovely beaches, good snorkelling, facilities such as showers etc and at the Dolphin Reef you can pay to swim/snorkel with the dolphins. They are keen to explain on their website that you will see the Dolphins in their natural habitat and that the dolphins are looked after. When I took a ten-minute taxi ride with the intention of going to the Coral Beach Nature Reserve, the sweet taxi driver told me I should save my money and he dropped me off at the free Coral Beach, next door to the Reserve, in front of Aqua Sport. It was a good decision. Without paying for entry, I had access to the same attractive beach as the Reserve, with water so clear you could see the fish without the need for a snorkelling mask and Aqua Sport has a bar, food, cool music and free wifi. You can pay 12 NIS for a sunlounger or lie on the sand for free. Another main attraction here, the Underwater Observatory Marine Park, is just 1km away from Coral Beach, so you could easily visit both on the same day.

I only have one restaurant recommendation for you this time. Although I usually try out a range of places in each destination, in Eilat I spent my evenings at Paddy’s Irish Pub & Restaurant as it was so close to my hostel and the food was great. The staff here are very welcoming, providing excellent friendly service. Families are welcome and you can choose to sit inside or outside on the terrace. On the 2nd and 3rd nights they gave me a free shot of whiskey (Irish spelling) to thank me for coming back! I don’t usually drink whiskey but when it’s going free….

Selection of pictures from my stay: