|Jerusalem's Old City with the Mount of Olives in the background|
Sara's Top 3:
Old City Jerusalem
Experiencing Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem
David's Top 3:
Jerusalem's Old City
Bethlehem and the West Bank
People watching (especially at the Western Wall and along the Via Dolorosa)
Impressions: Without a doubt, Israel is one of the most interesting places in the world. As such a holy place for three of the world's major religions, Israel certainly attracts fervent followers. We met a lot of really good people in Israel and the West Bank, but we also witnessed a lot of tension and conflict. It was sad to see so much tension, armed security, and animosity in a land that is so holy to so many.
Food: The food in Israel was delicious! We arrived during pumpkin season and enjoyed several different pumpkin salads. We were pleasantly surprised to realize that the ever-present hummus in Jordan was also in Israel!
Accommodation: One of our best decisions was staying at Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem. We spent eight nights there, and it really made a difference staying at a place that we liked so much. The price was great and the location along Jaffa Street couldn’t have been better. We were only a 15 minute walk from the Jaffa Gate of the Old City, a 30 minute walk from the Israel Museum, and a short tram ride from Yad Vashem. We had a private room that was as nice as most of the hotels we had stayed in. The hostel hosts weekly Shabbat dinners and also hosted a Rosh Hashanah dinner while we were there. We were invited to help cook the meal before enjoying it with about 40 other guests at the hostel. These were two of our favorite nights in Jerusalem!
Weather: We were in Israel for just under two weeks in mid-September and the weather was great -- sunny cloudless skies most days and temperatures in the 80s, which felt very comfortable to us after the higher temperatures in Turkey and Jordan.
Itinerary: We spent quite a bit of time looking online at companies that would help us with an Israel itinerary, but everything we found was way out of our budget near the end of our trip. Instead, we decided instead to go it alone. Renting cars and getting around by taxi can be extremely expensive, so we opted to base ourselves primarily in Jerusalem with a couple of days in Tel Aviv on the back end. Basing ourselves in Jerusalem allowed us to explore the city and take short day trips. Through Abraham Hostel we booked day trips to the Sea of Galilee and Masada. We booked our day trip to Bethlehem through Murad Tours, and we both agree that it was an incredible day.
Getting Around: We crossed into Israel at the Aqaba-Eilat border crossing. The crossing itself was fairly straightforward (David had to wait 20 minutes on a bench for some extra background checks), but then we spent the rest of the day at the bus station waiting for a 5 pm Egged bus (Israel's largest bus company) to Jerusalem. To travel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv we took a sherut (shared taxi) that was really quick and easy. Public transportation was a great way to get around Israel -- easy, inexpensive, and safe!
Religion: Everywhere we went in Jerusalem seemed to relate to either the Jewish, Muslim, or Christian faiths. On one of our first nights in the city we learned about Jerusalem Syndrome characterized by religious-themed obsessions or delusions triggered by visiting Jerusalem (there is debate over its validity). Jerusalem is the most religiously intense place that we have ever visited.
Military: National military service, three years for men and two years for women, is mandatory for men and women over 18 years old in Israel. We never really got used seeing men and women fresh out of high school dressed in military uniforms and carrying machine guns everywhere we went.
Safety: We signed up for the State Department's STEP program during most of our trip in order to receive any safety alerts about places we traveled. It wasn't until our first morning in Jerusalem, as we were getting ready to leave our hostel to explore the Old City, that we received our first advisory. It called for extra caution in the Old City. Although we did still spend that day in the Old City, we were definitely extra cautious and avoided areas with barricades and significant military presence. On the surface Israel seemed very peaceful, but the huge military presence kept reminding us that we were in a very tense area.
Money: We found Israel to be very expensive, especially when compared to Jordan. The Israeli New Sheqel (NIS) is the currency.
Clothing: With so many different cultures and religions in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, the clothing we saw ranged from the traditional, conservative clothing worn by Hasidic Jews to the Muslim burqa to Western-style clothing that you might see in any American city. We stuck with conservative (for us) clothing so that we wouldn’t stand out.