10. Walking in the Baha’i Gardens. The Baha’i Gardens are one of the holiest places in the Baha’i faith, and climbing the 19 terraces fulfills their pilgrimage. The Gardens are also picturesque, and obviously make some great instas. If you want to take a full tour of the Gardens, you will have to sign up for a paid tour, but if you are content with wandering around the lower levels (which I was fine with), entrance is free. Make sure you check the opening and closing hours before visiting, and like any other religious site in Israel, dress appropriately.
9. Wandering around the ancient city of Akko. All you have to do is tell me some place is a UNESCO World Heritage site and I’ll put it at the top of my travel priorities. I love those small, quaint villages that transport you back in time, or at least, I love the idea of them. When I read about Akko (or Acre), I knew I had to visit. Akko is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world! Evidence shows that the first settlement was in 3000 BC; Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, and Ottomans have all ruled over this city. Akko is just a short one-hour bus ride from Haifa, so you can visit the Gardens in the morning and then head over to Akko for the rest of the day. The most interesting part of the city is visiting the Knights Hall and the underground tunnel built by the crusaders! We also wandered down to the dock area and found lots of cheap options to do a quick boat ride around the bay – this gave us the perfect view for a picture of the city from afar.
8. Shopping in Jaffa, Tel Aviv. Jaffa, the old quarter of Tel Aviv, is perfect for just a simple stroll and seeing where the alleyways lead you. A scenic Mediterranean town, Jaffa has impeccable, and cliché views of the Tel Aviv beaches. The walk up to Jaffa provides you with the opportunity to take a post card like photo here:
Jaffa has plenty of small shops run by craftsman. My personal favorite was Abramson Gallery, which is a small jewelry shop. The woman is very friendly, and makes beautiful earrings. There are also many small museums in Jaffa, where you can learn about tea making or silversmithing. Sitting in the shade in a grassy area is the perfect opportunity to relax, look out at the ocean, and hear the call to prayer from the nearby Sea Mosque.
7. Wandering the streets of the Old City, Jerusalem. The Old City of Jerusalem is like a Biblical Disney Land in the best and worst ways. Wandering the alleys of Jerusalem feels awesome, like you are being transported back in time, but at the same time, you feel like, please stop throwing T-shirts in my face. The alleyways are packed and there are so many cheap tourist stands, all selling the same stuff, it’s almost unbearable. Hilariously, all of these places will have “I ❤ Israel” and “I ❤ Palestine” T-shirts for sale. I guess no one discriminates against money.
We stayed in the Citadel Hostel located on a quite street in the old town. The Hostel is in a 700 year old building. It is definitely unlike any other building I’ve stayed in before. And if you’re on a really cheap budget you can sleep on the roof deck under the stars.
If you think the Old City sounds to infuriating to deal with staying in (because it will definitely get to you), then stay at the Abraham Hostel, which is where we stayed for the second half of our stay. Just a short walk from the old city, the Abraham Hostel is fairly large, and more like a cross between a hotel and a hostel. They offer daily tours to the Dead Sea, Masada, Ramallah, Hebron, etc. So they have something for everyone.
6. Visiting the Church of the Nativity. The Church of the Nativity is the oldest operating church in the world, and has a specific spot which marks the supposed birth place of Jesus. The church is beautiful and has many side grottos to explore. I found visiting the Church of the Nativity important not just because of the church, but because it offered us a chance to see part of Palestine. The time at which Anna and I were traveling was a particularly intense one, so our thoughts of visiting other Palestinians cities were discouraged. I thought it was important that while in Israel we experience the political situation in person, so seeing the wall and passing through a checkpoint was interesting, even though Bethlehem is one of the lower key cities.
5. Staying at an old Arab Mansion in Nazareth. Nazareth is a little bit off the beaten path for tourists in Israel. Most people don’t come to Nazareth, because there isn’t necessarily anything important to do. But going to Nazareth and just wandering through the alleyways is the best part of being here. This small town actually feels like an authentic old town that has not been turned into a tourist spectacle. We stayed at the Al Mutran Guest House, which is a beautiful 200 year old Arab Mansion turned into a bed & breakfast. There is also the option of the Fauzi Azar Inn, another beautiful old mansion in the heart of Nazareth.
4. Floating in the Dead Sea. Visiting the Dead Sea was one of the most enjoyable parts of our trip. The Dead Sea is easy to get to via bus from Jerusalem, just ask your hostel/hotel for info on which bus to take, or if you prefer just sign up for a day tour. Almost every hostel will have one, or have a company they can sign you up with.
We opted to do it our selves, and hopped on a long-distance bus heading south. We picked Ein Gedi, a popular Dead Sea spot, and asked our driver to tell us when we reached that stop. Ein Gedi is a slightly nicer beach that we had to pay for access. Paying a fee for Ein Gedi beach included access to the beach, sulfur pools, a spa, and the mud. The fee wasn’t too expensive, and I am glad we did the slightly nicer beach, than go to the free beach, because the additional amenities were really nice and definitely worth it (such as lockers, showers, actual shade, etc.) First we chilled with some old ladies in the sulfur pools (It was lolz), then we covered ourselves in mud (which was also lolz), and ran around waiting for the mud to dry. Warning: don’t try to rinse the mud off in the sulfur showers. Anna made this mistake and was unable to open her eyes. Of course, the last and best part of the trip was floating around in the Dead Sea. Everyone tells you how buoyant you are going to be, but it just feels really weird once you actually do it. Trying to flip from my stomach to my back was actually difficult and awkward. Another warning: don’t have any open cuts or scrapes, and also randomly, DO NOT shave the day before going to the Dead Sea, or the salt water will sting very badly.
3. Visiting the Western Wall on Friday Afternoon. The Western Wall, built thousands of years ago, was originally built as a mere wall surrounding the Temple Mount. After the Temple was destroyed, the wall became the holiest of places used for prayer in Judaism, while the Temple Mount remains too holy to tread on. The best time to visit the Wailing Wall, in my opinion, is Friday afternoon, before the sun sets. You’ll see the most activity around then. The wall has a divider to separate the men and women, and anyone is welcome to pray at the wall. You can see the wall from high up, if you would like to observe from afar, or you can pass through security to see the wall at ground level. You’ll see Israelis and tourists alike both praying at the wall. If you do choose to approach or pray the wall, notice that people do not turn their backs to the wall, instead they will walk backwards while when moving away from the wall.
2. Visiting The Dome of the Rock. One of the holiest places in Islam, the Dome of the Rock surrounds the rock from which Muhammad ascended into heaven. The Dome of the Rock is the crown jewel of Jerusalem. I have to recommend visiting the Dome of the Rock first thing in the morning, when it opens. Anna and I were almost the first people in line for the Dome of the Rock, and it paid off. First, you obviously need to be completely covered to enter this area, so the early morning makes the heat a little more bearable. Second, visiting early gives you the opportunity to see the area and take some pictures while no one else is around.
The Dome of the Rock is absolutely the most beautiful building in Jerusalem, and a must see. As a side note, the IDF runs a security check point when you enter. We were asked for our passports.
Let me make it clear that anyone is allowed to visit the Dome of the Rock. There is a common misconception that Jews are not allowed to enter. What the problem really is, according to Jewish law, the Temple Mount is too holy of a place for Jews to set foot on before the return of the Messiah. Additionally, Israeli Law forbids Jews form praying at the Temple Mount, for fear of causing tension between Jews and Muslims. Despite all of this, Jews are allowed to enter to the premises at the same time as any other tourists. As Anna and I came down through the gates back into the city, we saw a couple of American Hassidic Jews trying to take some pictures of the Dome of the Rock through the side gate, so if you do not want to enter the grounds, there is still some opportunity to sneak a peak.
1. Sunday Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. First, whether or not you are Christian or religious, you will find this church BEAUTIFUL, and fascinating. According to legend, the place where Jesus was hung on the cross, and later buried and rose from the dead, are both in this church, with the opportunity to pray at both areas, if you would like. This site was chosen/believed to be Jesus’ site of crucifixion when Queen Helena of the Byzantine empire visited this site and noted that she thought the pagan temple on the site had been built in order to thwart early Christians from worshiping at there. A later excavation revealed three crosses, leading the queen to officially declare this the site of Calvary. Catholics, Coptics, Franciscans, and Greek Orthodox, all have some role in this church, each holding separate prayers. Anna and I first attempted to visit the church on Saturday afternoon. We thought, oh today’s Shabbat, no one will be around, the church won’t be crowded. We were SO wrong. It was a mad house. It was literally too packed to walk anywhere in church; we couldn’t get past the front section. The church had no charm in this condition, so we decided to wake up at 5:45 the next morning, and show up at 6:00am when the church opened. At least this way the weather would be cooler, and we would have less people around.
So we showed up at six am, and barely anyone was there, except for us and a group of Italian tourists. It wasn’t only us tourists though. The priests from the Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Coptic churches were all there to lead Sunday Services. With the church empty we were actually able to see the entire church, and even enjoy it too! The addition of the songs from all three services mixing together was beautiful. It really was a unique experience, and if you want to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre I recommend you do it early Sunday morning, like we did. Also, anyone is welcome to take part in the Sunday services, if you wish to do so. The Greek Orthodox Church, holds their service up by the stone where Jesus was supposedly crucified, and the Catholics hold mass at Jesus’ supposed tomb. The Coptic priest is on the opposite side of the tomb from the Catholics, not leading service but continuously chanting.