When a “didn’t see that coming” country/city gets added into anyone’s travel, a friend, most likely who you’ve met from your travels or a friend who is now living in said country/city is the culprit. Sweden, Canada, Manchester and the Canary Islands are prime examples of countries/cities that were added to my Girl Takes Mundo plans because friends were there and Israel was no exception to this rule.
Visiting friends, who know the ins and outs of their city and have a desire to show you around certainly make deciding to visit a place more appealing. They double as local guides and you kill two birds with one stone by being able to reconnect with them as well. Definitely leverage if you have an opportunity like this. I always feel like a VIP tourist who is getting an insider tour of said country/city as I know that a regular tourist wouldn’t get the same exposure to a city as I would since I’m visiting friends.
In the case of Israel, hearing it was on the top of the list of many fellow travelers I met and adding some quality time with Ronnie who I traveled with in Cambodia made this trip a no brainer. (FYI: Ronnie has made various appearances on this site and in my life since meeting and traveling through Cambodia together. Thanks to her I knew what to visit, eat and do in South Africa, I created my own Girl Takes Mundo VIP tour of Chicago when she came to visit me while I was home back in February and most importantly, I found a friend who I reached out to when things got tough while in this Girl Takes Mundo journey.)
So, on the day that marked our 1-year friendiversary, (which was completely a coincidence but a nice one for that matter) I landed in Israel to spend time with Ronnie whom I developed a “didn’t see that coming” friendship and visiting a “didn’t see that coming” country.
Don’t have a friend/insider guide in Israel to make you feel like a VIP tourist like I did? Don’t worry, use my country guide below for your own VIP tour of Israel and BIG thank you to Ronnie who was able to transfer her love for this country to me and help me better understand the politics/culture of this country via the people she had me meet during my visit here. A truly VIP insider experience.
- You are given a visa upon arrival (no fee for United States passport holders). While I typically don’t like carrying my passport with me and opt to instead have a picture of it on my phone I would still recommend at the very least to carry the visa card you are given when you arrive as you may get stopped and asked to show your passport and visa. #dontgohomewithoutit
- Hebrew is the native language in Israel but if you haven’t brushed up on your Hebrew the majority of people in bigger cities do speak English as it’s taught in school so traveling to Israel should be very doable with regards to communicating here.
Public transportation is a common way of not only getting around in the bigger cities but also for intercity travel. Just visit the cities central bus stations to hop on coach busses that will take you to other cities. Very easy, safe and economical.
Bus and monorails within cities are 5.90 ILS aka $1.62 USD each ride but getting the day pass for 13.50 ILS aka $3.71 saves you a lot of shekels if you’re visiting a number of sites in one day.
When using taxis in Israel ensure drivers use their meter and “ways app”. They are very use to being asked by locals for this but will try to set more expensive flat rates or take longer routes for tourists. Don’t get taken advantage of.
Where I Went
Tel Aviv is certainly Tel Aviv and nothing like the rest of Israel nor what many tourists expect when visiting Israel. A big cosmopolitan city with Miami vibes is how I would best describe Tel Aviv BUT let this not deteriorate you from visiting as there are tons of bars, restaurants and a great beach to keep you busy for days on end. Once you get past the idea that this city is very different from what one expects in Israel the energy of this city becomes quite addictive or it was for me…having a local guide like my friend Ronnie who prides herself in knowing the ins and outs of this city certainly helped with solidifying my addition to this city.
- A night out in the great synagogue area. Check out “Otsar Bar” and “Sputnik” for dancing and drinks and try the admittedly not very good but apparently thing to do after a night of drinking of grabbing a slice of Tony Vespa Pizza. (FYI: Thursday is Israel’s Friday due to Shabbat being on Saturday so many people come out on Thursday.)
- “Shlomo and Doron”, considered one of the best hummus spots in Tel Aviv.
- “Dalida”, shareable food spot with super friendly staff and delicious food to match. Try the spicy feta burle as it’s what they are known for.
- Check out Florentine, a hipter neighborhood with great street art, restaurants and hip bars.
- “Teder”, a bar/pizza spot in a open beer garden esque space between buildings similar to the inside of a Moroccan riad.
- “Romano”, restaurant by day, dance/bar club at night located in the same space as “Teder”. A big selling point for me was the eclectic vinyl dj playing the night I was there with his funky set.
- Frishman beach, a perfect way to spend Shabbat while in Tel Aviv and mingle with locals.
- “Tamara”, having started to indulge in froyo (frozen yogurt) this spot was a match made in heaven for me and the array of Israeli toppings allowed me to make my froyo a very Israeli themed treat.
- Sunset on Hilton Hill (hill next to Hilton hotel). Be sure to bring a blanket, drinks and snacks of your choice for a perfect night. (FYI: a great place for a date.)
- “Taqueria”, a Mexican restaurant whose corn on the cob was delicious.
- Rabin Square, is a large public square in the city where many rallies, protests and parades take place. It was renamed to Rabin square after the assassination of the former prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin occurred here.
- “HaBasta”, considered one of the best restaurants in Tel Aviv. Reservations are required and while the meal comes at a bigger price tag the food is delicious so it’s certainly was a special treat yourself meal.
- “Yan Sushi House”, great sushi spot with a laid back environment along King George St.
- Walk around Neve tzedeck, Old Jaffa along the port (FYI: free walking tour provided at 11a and 5pm) and Jaffa the “newer” Jaffa.
- “Miznon”, Delicious and must try pita sandwich restaurant. Great prices, fast, and did I mention delicious?!?!? While google will categorize them as a late night food spot I would recommend going early if you want to try their must have items like the whole cauliflower or deep satisfaction pita sandwich as these items tend to run out.
- “Cafe Suzanna”, a great brunch spot in Jaffa whose large tree covering their patio area makes brunching on those hot summer days very cooling and refreshing.
The “Holy Land” as many refer to Jerusalem is the birthplace of 3 of the biggest religions in the world and a must visit while in Israel. So much history can be found in this city. For someone who was raised Catholic and being in the places first hand which I learned about in my catholic schooling and by family really brought back many memories of my childhood. What was even more important for the now spiritualist of me was able to appreciate not only the sites considered important to Catholics but learn and appreciate the Muslim and Jewish sites as well.
- Mount Herzl, This memorial park and cemetery is the final resting place of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, and other noted leaders and soldiers for the Jewish state.
- Walk through the old city via a free walking tour (Tip based). Daily 2 hour long tours begins at 11a and 2pm. See highlights and additional information here.
- Mount of Olives, the oldest cemetery in the world offering panoramic views of the old city and described as the place from which Jesus ascended to heaven after his crucifixion.
- Western Wall, or also known as the wailing wall is considered one of the most religious sites in the world for the Jewish people due to its proximity to Temple Mount. Since Temple Mount entry restrictions are very strict, the Wall is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray.
- Via Dolores, walk the path said to have been traveled by Jesus with his cross to his crucifixion. It’s not uncommon to see groups of people doing this path and recreating the stations of the cross (see image below for description.). Again, seeing this made me quite emotional as it reminded me of the many times my sisters and I as children were dragged by our Grama to partake in these during lent at church.
- Treated myself to a “Kunefe” (cheese dessert from Arabic) in a bakery cafe near the old city. Many bakeries carry this so just pick one up and enjoy.
- Mahane Yehuda Market, is a great place if you’re interested in buying fresh and tasty foods during the day and eating and drinking your hearts desires at night with the array of restaurants and bars that open up. On Thursday nights the place is packed with teens and young adults drinking, dancing and having fun. (FYI: At night, you get treated to the beautiful street art painted on the stalls that are closed in the market so stroll around to take in the art or take a graffiti tour if it’s available.)
- Jewish quarter, this quarter is night and day from the other quarters in the old city. Visit the Western Cardo’s mosaic wall exhibit that involves 9 artist renderings of stalls featuring products or artisans in a market.
- Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site is considered to be the place where Jesus’s tomb is located. The church itself is very beautiful and large but expect large queues to enter the tomb area. Admittedly, I skipped the tomb and decide to get lost in the various levels of the church instead.
- Temple Mount, the place where 3 major world faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Muslim) claim as their holy place. The Dome of the Rock is the Muslim shrine built on Temple Mount and it is the oldest still existing Islamic building. (FYI: Non-Muslims can visit Temple Mount from Sunday to Friday from 07:00am to 11:00am and from 01:30pm to 02:30pm. Don’t forget your passport, dress conservative and be prepared for strict security checks.)
- Garden of Gethsemane, this urban garden is located at the foot of the Mount of Olives within a church and is known to be the place where Jesus prayed and his disciples slept the night before his crucifixion when Judus betrayed Jesus by revealing his identity.
- The Garden Tomb, a burial site cut out of the mountain rock and for some believed to be the true location of the burial site and place of resurrection of Jesus based off the Bible. Very beautiful garden and while it’s free to enter this was the first place I was asked for a donation.
Where To Stay: “Stay Inn Hostel”, this hostel is awesome especially after taking a chance and not booking in the popular and more known “Abraham Hostel Jerusalem”. I was partly sold after seeing their comfier beds and this place exceeded my expectations. Super cool spaces ie. it’s terrace, kitchen and rooms. Everything looks new, super clean, close to transportation and definitely under priced for what you get. A must if you decide to stay a couple nights in Jerusalem if you ask me.
(FYI: From Tel Aviv it is only a short hour ride via bus #480 from Savidor Center in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem Central Station. The fare is 16 ILS aka $4.40 USD.)
The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth and also where the salt content on its lake is so high that floating is extremely easy. Additionally, the natural clay produced in this sea is used for many cosmetic products. A visit to Israel isn’t complete without a visit here.
If traveling from Jerusalem, bus 486 that leaves from Central Station will take you to the major stops along the Dead Sea. Major stops include Kalia Beach Which is a hour into the ride (note that there is a fee to enter this beach), Ein Gedi Spa an hour and a half into the ride (note that there is a fee to enter this area as well) and Ein Bokek at 2 hours into the ride (no fee to enter and considered the public beach of the Dead Sea).
After the realization that going to Ein Gedi Park (also a stop on the bus route) would not provide me with the beach time I wanted due to the sink holes found along the Dead Sea including this area I headed to Ein Bokek and couldn’t rave enough how worth the 2 hour journey was. The public beach is beautiful, clean and with facilities including showers, changing rooms and an outdoor gym. This resort town along the Dead Sea has everything you need for a relaxing day at the beach.
(FYI: A one-way fare on the bus is 37.50 ILS aka $10.32 USD to Ein Bokek and decreases in cost if you decide to go to the other spots closer to Jerusalem.)
Bethlehem is a Palestinian city in the central West Bank and quite a bustling city then many would expect. Since Bethlehem is in Palestine the people are predominantly Muslim so keep this in mind when you prepare for your visit and remember to dress and act conservative when you are there. (Wondering what “dress and act conservative” means? Check my tips in my Morocco and Egypt post by clicking the cities.)
Additionally, if returning to Jerusalem from Bethlehem your passport and visa will be checked before you can enter “Israel Proper” aka “within the green-line” so make sure you have this or risk being unable or delayed to enter. Not sure what “Israeli Proper”, “within the green-line” means or why you get checked before being able to enter an area that is still Israel? It all has to do with the politics of this country but since I don’t want to confuse, misspeak or talk politics I welcome you to search on google and learn all about the current politics of Israel.
Given my short amount of time in Jerusalem yet still wanting to make the visit to Bethlehem while I was here knowing it wasn’t far from Jerusalem I decided to visit the place that stood out the most for me in Bethlehem. See below.
- Church of Nativity – A church that was built above the cave that is said to be the exact birth place where Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The queue to enter the cave is a bit disorganized so expect to wait a bit to enter.
(FYI: From Jerusalem bus 231 can get you to Bethlehem for 6.80 ILS or $1.86 USD each way in about an hour.)
Just a short hour train ride from Tel Aviv you will find one of the most liberal and mixed city’s in Israel, meaning that Arabs and Jews all live together compared to the rest of the country.
Haifa is also one of the only cities that bus, trains etc. still operate on Shabbat even though observing Shabbat is a national law in Israel. (Wondering what Shabbat is? See picture below and click here to learn more.)
(FYI: Train ticket from Tel Aviv one way is 27.50 ILS or $7.54 USD.)
- Bahia Garden, also known as the “Hanging Gardens of Haifa” is a must when visiting Haifa and the reason many tourist visit Haifa all together. This stunning garden is located on Mt. Carmel and features 19 terraces of beautiful greenery and flowers. (FYI: The shrine and the inner gardens can only be visited from 9:00 to 12:00 noon. After 12:00 noon you may prefer to visit the Yefe Nof Balcony (location 2) with its panoramic views of the gardens. My recommendation is to plan your visit between 9am – 12pm and begin by going to location 2 to see the shrine and then making your way to the top location around 11:30am – 11:45am to catch the free 45-minute tour that begins at noon and takes you through the inside gardens. Additionally, dress conservatively with shoulders covered and skirts/shorts/dresses at a maximum slightly above the knee to be allowed to enter the inner gardens and shrine and be able to be part of the free tour.
- Shrine of the Bab, consider getting two sites for one as this gold-domed shrine is the centerpiece of the Bahia temple and contains the tomb of Siyyad Ali Muhammed.
- Elija cave, The Cave of Elijah is a grotto on mount Carmel written about in the Hebrew Bible, where the prophet Elijah took shelter during a journey into the wilderness that has significance for Muslims, Jewish and Christian faith. It is also an UNESCO site.
- Visit the beaches along the port or do a stroll along the beach while here.
- Grab a bite a the relaxing cafe, Palmer, and ask for the dessert Babka which is quite delicious here.
Kishorit in Karmel
If you are traveling to Israel this is a MUST. Just a 2 hour train ride from Tel Aviv you will find yourself in Karmel. This northern city in Galilee which feels like night and day from Tel Aviv and the south of Israel.
(FYI: Train ticket from Tel Aviv one way is 39.50 ILS or $10.79 USD.)
- Kishorit Kibbutz, such an amazing experience visiting this sustainable community intended for adults with special needs. To hear how the residents feel important and part of a bigger mission here really puts into perspective the importance of this unique Kibbutz. Plan your visit and learn more about this amazing place here. (Be sure to keep your eyes peeled on your way to Kishorit Kibbutz and see these northern villages as they differ from towns in the south.)
- Kosher winery, located in the Kishorit Kibbutz. This winery is also run by the kibbutz community so not only has this wine received many awards for taste but it’s truly a wine with a mission and who can’t say no to a wine with a mission.