We saved the best for last. After 10 days of exploring Israel, we spent almost a week at our final destination: Jerusalem. Known as the “Jewel of Israel”, it didn’t disappoint. Many people come here on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Even for the non-religious (like us), there is so much to see in and around Jerusalem.
The City of Jerusalem
You’d think that after visiting 18 countries this year, most having some city or other known for its quaint “old town”, we’d be tired of cobblestone streets and low doorways. And you’d be right…. except that the Old City of Jerusalem is still really cool. Just don’t expect to do anything on Friday afternoons or Saturdays when literally everything shuts down for Shabbat.
Our first day in the Old City, we took the 4+ hour Holy City walking tour with Sandemans New Jerusalem. The “free” tours that are so popular now, were available but, at only 2 hours in duration, we didn’t think that was nearly long enough to adequately explore the area. With the Holy City tour we were able to actually go onto Temple Mount and into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with a trained guide rather than just seeing them from a distance.
Part of what makes Jerusalem such a fascinating city is the diversity, incorporating sacred sites for Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. This gives the city a unique feel, although has also led to the continuing struggles.
Temple Mount is one of the most prominent attractions when visiting Jerusalem. Unfortunately for non-Muslim visitors, it’s not exactly straightforward. Despite Temple Mount being holy to all three major religions, it is under Muslim control.
This means that visiting hours for non-Muslims are very restricted. And the rule of thumb dress code of covering legs and shoulders everywhere within Jerusalem is not strict enough here – women must also fully cover their arms to enter. Anyone not sufficiently covered either will be denied entry or will have to purchase cover-ups for NIS25 each.
Temple Mount has two highlights, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most important site in Islam, and the Dome of the Rock. Unfortunately, due to ongoing disagreements between religious factions in Jerusalem, non-Muslims are barred from entering either site. The Dome of the Rock, where Muhammed is believed to have ascended to heaven in Islam, and the location of the Foundation Stone in Judaism and Christianity, is still beautiful to look at from the outside and any view with the golden dome in it is an iconic view of Jerusalem.
Outside Temple Mount is the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall). Portions of the other three walls are also visible, but the Western Wall is the wall closest to the original temple on the Mount, and therefore is an important place to pray in Judaism. Believers can be seen pressed against the wall, and even leaving little notes and prayers in the cracks. The notes are removed a couple of times a year, but are treated as Holy scripture and saved, never destroyed.
To understand a bit more of the history, and appreciate the full scale of Temple Mount and the walls, we took the Western Wall Tunnels tour. Over the centuries, the city of Jerusalem built on top of itself, meaning the portions of the walls visible now are only the top portions. Descending into the tunnels gives you a view down to the original base of the walls and allows visitors to walk on some of the stone streets that actually existed 2,000 years ago.
Tracing the Final Days of Jesus
Many Christians come to Jerusalem to follow in the final steps of Jesus. Near the northern exit of Temple Mount is the start of the Via Dolorosa and the 14 Stations of the Cross. This path is followed by everyone from regular tourists like us to pilgrims, and is filled with tour groups most of the day. If you ever needed to buy a souvenir crown of thorns, this is your place.
The Via Dolorosa starts off on relatively quiet streets then proceeds through market streets towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The Church itself is obscured by buildings for most of the walk, but as you get closer, you can sense the crowds of people descending on this one religious site. The Church is actually divided into sections, with each section controlled by a different Christian denomination. The rivalries are so bad that a Muslim family, the Nuseibeh family, actually hold the keys to the church. A member of the family has opened the church doors each morning and locked them again every night since the 11th century.
On entering the Church, a narrow stairway on the right proceeds to Stations 10-12, including the spots where Jesus is believed to have been nailed to the cross and the rock of Golgotha where he was crucified. A line of believers wait patiently, some singing hymns, for a chance to reach through a hole in the floor under the alter to touch the actual rock. This line can easily take up to an hour, so we didn’t bother.
Descending back down to the main level you will find Station 13, the Stone of Anointing where Jesus’ body is believed to have been prepared for burial. In the middle of the day, when the crowds are the biggest, the stone will be covered with people praying and rubbing personal belongings (e.g., photographs, handkerchiefs) over the stone to absorb its energy.
Following the signs around the edge of the church brings you to the line for the Holy Tomb, where Jesus is believed to have been buried and was resurrected. This line can last anywhere up to 8 hours. According to our guide, the Church opens at 6am, so anyone really wanting to see the Tomb or touch the Rock of Golgotha should arrive before 9am to beat the tour groups who descend on the area later in the day.
Mount of Olives
The Mount of Olives is a hill east of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is important again to believers in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, as the location where the Messiah will come on Judgement Day. At the base, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is believed to have prayed with his disciples the day before his crucifixion. Nearby is the Tomb of Mary.
Climbing to the top (there are stairs, but they are long and steep) brings you to the Church of the Ascension. Despite being a rather unassuming church, this is believed to be the spot where Jesus ascended to heaven. It’s also believed by some to be the spot where the apocalypse will start. So yeah, that’s a bit of a downer. But until that happens, there is a great viewpoint near the church, out over Jerusalem.
Just be careful – we’ve heard and read stories of tourists being harassed by angry locals (even so far as having stones thrown at them) on the Mount of Olives, although we thankfully didn’t have any issues.
Elsewhere Near the Old City
Near the Zion Gate are two important religious spots, including the Room of the Last Supper and King David’s Tomb. Both are easy to access, although there will be many tour groups coming and going.
Nearby, in the Catholic Cementary, is the grave of Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,200 Jews during the holocaust, and is best known from the movie by Steven Spielberg.
We both have an interest in WWII history, and a key part of that history is the holocaust. We’ve visited holocaust memorials in Washington D.C. and elsewhere, and earlier in this trip we visited Auschwitz while staying in Krakow.
Yad Vashem is a large complex of memorials, surrounding a fantastic but sobering museum. Entrance is free, although there are 2 hour guided tours available for NIS32 each. Audio guides are also available. We found the tour and guides were unnecessary, as signage is excellent. Unfortunately, there are so many tour groups in the museum that the biggest issue is not getting stuck in the crowds.
Mahane Yehuda (Market)
While the Old City is full of vendors hawking souvenirs, for a more authentic market experience you need to head a 20 minute walk west (also on the tram line) to Mahane Yehuda. Everything is available here, although it is primarily a food market with fresh produce, meat, and baked goods. We didn’t find it particularly cheap, but it’s definitely more fun than just going to a supermarket.
The Other Side of the Wall
From Jerusalem, we did a day tour into the Palestinian-occupied West Bank to see the cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem. The tour turned out to be much more political than we expected, and our guide was a proud Palestinian. It would be interesting to do the same tour with an Israeli, to hear the other point of view. There’s clearly no right answer to the challenges in this area, so we aren’t even going to try to discuss the politics here.
When we told some friends that we were going to Israel, we often got the question “Is it safe?”. That goes doubly so for the West Bank and a city like Ramallah, where whenever we hear it mentioned in North America, it’s rarely in a positive context.
Granted we were only there for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, but it looked like a bustling, busy, lively city. The streets were full of people, and the market was packed. But it was also easy to see the difference between Ramallah and many of the cities we’d seen in the rest of Israel, with Ramallah feeling and looking a bit rougher.
The Yasser Arafat Museum had literally opened the day before, so our guide took us in to see the rooms where Arafat lived while under siege by the Israeli military in the last years before his death.
From Ramallah, we drove around the city towards Bethlehem. Since our tour bus had Palestinian license plates, we could not drive through the Israeli check points. The trip that could take as little as 20-30 minutes for an Israeli ended up taking us more than an hour, which we were told is typical. On the drive we were able to see many of the Israeli Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as our guide explained his perspective on the territorial disputes.
Although we’re not religious, we wanted to see Bethlehem.
The main attraction is the Church of the Nativity, where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was born. From the outside, the Church is again nothing to write home about. It’s currently undergoing repairs, so scaffolding covers much of the exterior. Manger Square is also a busy parking lot in front of the church.
Inside the church is no less crazy. The line to see the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born can last 2-3 hours, which we didn’t have time for. Our guide tried to sneak a few of us in the exit (this seemed to be common for small groups), but because the part of the church we needed to sneak through is run by the Greek Orthodox, only the two Greeks in our group were allowed in.
We next walked through the old town streets of Bethlehem, which used to be filled with tourist shops and tourists before the last Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now the buses drop people off directly at the church, so many of the stores in the surrounding streets that used to cater to tourists have shut down. Bethlehem was easily the least interesting part of the tour, and would really only be interesting to devout Christians who are willing to wait the 3 hours in line to see the grotto under the Church. For anyone else, there are many more interesting places in the West Bank to explore.
Aida Refugee Camp
Just outside of Bethlehem, and much more interesting, lies the Aida refugee camp. The “camp”, which is really an entire neighbourhood, is located right beside the large, imposing separation wall. Israeli military is a constant presence inside and around the camp. Visiting this camp and seeing the poor living conditions of the Palestinians in the camp, while under the watch of snipers, was a surreal experience.
The Separation Wall
Even when the military isn’t visible, the presence of the separation wall was always imposing. The wall towered over the buildings in the refugee camp, and was often covered in graffiti with messages about hope and peace.
And that’s a wrap for Trevor and Christine’s tour of Israel
Israel was a bit of a wildcard, being completely different to any of the other countries we visited on this trip. We originally chose it because we thought it would be interesting (it was), the weather would still be warm in November (it was even better than expected) and there are direct flights back to Toronto.
There were several positives to take away from our trip. From a historical and cultural perspective, Israel was fascinating. Even though neither of us is religious, seeing the places and sites where the Biblical stories are based is pretty cool. As expected, the weather was amazing. We got essentially no rain in 17 days, and pretty much every day was hot and sunny. The food in Israel is also fantastic. We probably put on a few pounds eating high-quality chicken shawarma and falafels, fresh hummus, and heavenly baklava. Finally, we both loved visiting the Negev desert for its spectacular scenery, good hiking, and for the opportunity to ride camels.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all great. First, Israel is expensive. Aside from rental cars (which were reasonable), we’d say Israel was almost as expensive as Iceland. This really surprised us, given how much lower average salaries are in Israel.
Second, we also found it not to be particularly welcoming to tourists. Most signs are only in Hebrew, even though most people speak English AND it’s a country whose economy is dependent on tourists. This made it hard to find places, to buy anything in stores, to pump gas, or in restaurants to know what to order or whether you were paying the correct prices. We found many locals didn’t seem particularly friendly, and when they realized we didn’t understand Hebrew, there would almost always be a bit of a smirk and/or attitude. This just left us feeling unwelcome there.
Third, there is a massive military presence in the country. Given the recent conflicts in Gaza and the West Bank and with its neighbours, Lebanon and Syria, as well shaky relations with neighbours Jordan and Egypt, we get it. Israel has a lot of enemies. Still, it’s a bit off-putting see military personnel carrying massive machine guns everywhere we went. It’s also a bit weird to go hiking on isolated desert trails and to be constantly seeing/hearing low-flying fighter planes and to hear the blasts from the nearby firing ranges.
To reiterate, it was an interesting country to explore. Would we go back? Probably not. But we’re glad we saw it once.
- We highly recommend the Ramallah and Bethlehem tour by Green Olive Tours. But take the political commentary with a grain of salt, as it is obviously only one side of the story
- As we have in other cities, we highly recommend the Sandeman walking tours. In Jerusalem, the Holy City tour is great (although for a set price rather than “tips”). The only downside is our group was 35 people strong. That size was unwieldy in the narrow streets of the Old City. A 2nd guide would have been appreciated since we were all paying €28 each for the tour
- Israel is expensive. Value for money is much worse than almost anywhere else we went on this trip. Just be prepared
- For whatever reason, transfers between the main international airport (Ben Gurion) and Jerusalem are very limited. There are public buses , but not direct and therefore not convenient. There are shared shuttles leaving from the same Central Bus Station, but they don’t run on any schedule. If you’re the first on, you’ll be waiting a while until the bus fills up. A scheduled shared shuttle, run by Nesher is also available, and does hotel pick-ups. However, despite what their website says, they don’t run hourly. They don’t allow you to pre-book more than 24 hours in advance, and then only by phone. And on top of that, we generally found them to be rude and unhelpful. Conversely, there are regular trains from the airport into Tel Aviv and on to Haifa.