Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel
A visit to this ancient city is a spiritual and sensory experience that is second to none, and lends credence to the term “living history.” A stroll through Jerusalem will bring you face-to-face with everyone from steely-eyed nuns to solemn monks, as the pealing of church bells and the shofar compete to be heard in the background and the heady scents of incense waft through the air. The city’s significant past is in the ground itself; the Temple Mount has been one of the holiest places in the world for both monotheistic and pagan religions for centuries. The most elemental and human battles about the most elemental and human beliefs have been waged here, and all it takes is a dig to discover them.
Considering that whole civilizations have devoted their energies to claiming Jerusalem, it’s a surprisingly small city. You will inevitably get lost trying to find your way around the Old City, but it’s so densely packed that you will also (eventually) find your way again. The lack of street signs—and, even worse, the many names each street has acquired over the last few millennia—make this the hardest part of Jerusalem to navigate. Outside, everything has been built up in the last 100 years to follow a more logical grid. Jaffa Rd. and Ben-Yehuda St. are the main streets in West Jerusalem, while East Jerusalem is centered on Nablus Rd. and Salah ad-Din.
Jerusalem’s sights come in two chief varieties, the religious and the archaeological, and share a common significance: they are way old. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre claims to be the site of the Crucifixion, and the holy walk to reach it (the Stations of the Cross) has been performed since the 15th century. The Temple Mount, which has been religiously important pretty much since opposable thumbs became hip, hides such archaeological treasures as the Ark of the Covenant, according to some. Unlike dusty European cathedrals, these significant stones have managed to remain highly relevant. Sights like the City of David are vastly controversial today both in their treatment of present residents and in the stories they construct of the past. It’s in part a reflection on how history works here—if people treat the wars of the 20th century like they occurred in the last hour, then the events of 2000 years ago were only yesterday.
Don’t spend time worrying about which sites to visit. Here are our recommendations. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
If you have an endless appetite for hummus, Jerusalem is worth a culinary pilgrimage in its own right. You’ll find the best cheap eats in Arab districts: Ikermewli in East Jerusalem is superb, and the small shops of the Muslim Quarter (particularly Shab) abound with the sweet grease of street food at its best. The generalization may break down as you hit the more upscale places in East Jerusalem, but it’s indisputable that the best restaurants go to West Jerusalem, where every cuisine imaginable awaits. Be sure to spend ample time close to city center in the small alleys of Rivlin Street and the Feingold Garden—or just head straight for the intellectual coffeehouse mecca that is T’mol Shilshom. Then venture away from the touristy areas; while Zion Square may have enough international restaurants to feed you for a year, a trip to the bakeries of religious Mea She’arim or to the modernized Jewish fare in the German Colony is definitely worth it.
Amba, a popular Israeli condiment, should be treated with due caution: rumor has it that eating large quantities can cause an unusual body odor for up to a week. Originally from India, this pickled mango sauce was brought to Israel by Iraqi Jews. The key ingredient to its smelly magic is the spice fenugreek, which is somewhat bitter when raw. But, when toasted, it is said to taste like maple syrup, and it is this sweet smell which you will supposedly exude from your pores. Amba is found in most restaurants that sell shawarma and falafel, so if smelling like pancakes tickles your fancy—and seriously, whose fancy would not be tickled?—go ahead and load it on.
The best bagels come from Jewish bakeries—you only need a New York minute to figure that one out. So, following that logic, a country where over three-quarters of the population identifies as Jewish should have some pretty kick-ass bagel shops. If you’re looking for a real Israeli bagel, called “beygls” here, you’ll probably just end up with a hard biscuit. But don’t cancel your trip just yet: die-hard bagel fans can get their fix at any Bonkers Bagel, a chain started by two Jewish immigrants from New York. It doesn’t get more “authentic” than that.
Street food is ubiquitous in the Middle East, and Israel is no exception. We’re not just talking about falafel and shawarma variety—here are some equally delicious options to try once you’ve exhausted the traditional chickpea ones.
If Jerusalem’s mix of irreconcilable political division, millennia-old religious struggle, and cultural segregation is no longer exciting enough for you, an escape into air-conditioned theaters and loud concerts is a solid backup plan. Jerusalem may not be on the same level as, say, Tel Aviv, but its art scene is colored by a distinctive tinge of political and religious motivation (surprised?), on display at such establishments as the Palestinian National Theater and the Jerusalem English-Speaking Theater. Lighter entertainment is also around, both at the artsier-than-thou performance space The Lab and at such music venues as Yellow Submarine. Just because this is the home of everyone’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother doesn’t mean you can’t get your grind on.
Some expect the Rapture to begin at an old rock (or a smooth old rock, or a pile of smooth old rocks, or whatever) but plenty of Jerusalemites prefer just to rock instead. While Jerusalem may not be as wild as Tel Aviv, the modern part of the city has a great bar scene and the occasional club. You’ll find plenty to do come sunset, as long as you stick close to Zion Square. In particular, Israeli families mingle with noisy Birthrighters on Ben-Yehuda Street, where food stands are open late and yarmulke-donning break dancers bust their moves. Rivlin Street is packed with overpriced bars geared toward tourists, while locals crowd the area’s hipster bars. You just have to take Jerusalem nightlife as it comes and realize that, unlike in Tel Aviv, posture doesn’t go very far here. The see-and-be-seen type have all migrated west, leaving a bunch of happy-go-lucky 20-somethings who have just as much fun casually sipping beers in jeans and T-shirts as they do pounding their heads to dubstep in a sweaty basement.
Haggling is an acceptable practice in Israel, although this exercise is not for the faint-of-heart. While it is generally not acceptable in smaller family-run stores, it is expected that you get sassy in order to shop savvy at souqs, the open markets stuffed with textiles, jewelry, food, and trinkets. Also, don’t be alarmed by the large men with guns standing in the entrances to department stores checking bags; they’re government soldiers mandated for your safety. Just make a point not to try the five-finger discount – there’s always a chance they might be trigger-happy.
Israel is a country with torrid political backgrounds and the birthplaces to multiple major religions. Respect for religious places, symbols, and monuments is very important, and in general, a conscientious attitude toward topics of potential conflict is recommended. This conscientiousness extends to clothing: churches, temples, and mosques often refuse entrance to those sporting bare shoulders, upper arms, backs, or legs, so save the miniskirts (even shorts and tank tops) for the clubs of Tel Aviv. You don’t need to wear a burka, but carrying a scarf to help you cover up is probably a smart move.
It’s also good to remember that while about 75% of Israelis consider themselves Jewish, the country houses the religious monuments and cultures of several other prominent religions. Islam has substantial ties to the region as do Christianity and the religion of Baha’i. When traveling and sightseeing, be sure to remember that sites holy to some religions, others may feel equal ownership to as well.
Another important fact is that many neighboring Arab countries will deny access to travelers who have Israeli stamps on their passports. If you’re planning on making a hajj anytime in the near future, it might be prudent to ask the customs official to stamp another piece of paper that can be easily removed from your passport before the next set of customs.
Israelis are notorious for valuing honesty over politeness. Given a long history of persecution, Israelis have developed a culture in which arguing for what you believe in is worth far more than protecting the feelings of those around you, and a person’s deepest personal opinions are far more interesting than his or her thoughts on the weather. Don’t be offended if conversations seem personal or heated; chances are your acquaintances is genuinely interested in what you have to say.
Despite its reputation as fairly conservative, Israel is probably one of the most accepting of the Middle Eastern countries to gay and lesbian tourists. Several of the world’s more famous transsexual and transgender musicians, performers, and public figures hail from Israel, including Sharon Cohen (Better known as Dana International) and Aderet. Although Tel Aviv is known a gay haven in the Middle East, GLBT travelers may want to be careful about letting that pride flag fly in the more religious parts of the country, such as the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem.