Israel & PalestineAsia, Israel, Palestine
Israel has always been a destination that I have wanted to visit; its rich cultural tapestry and the modern city vibe has always lured travellers from across the glove, and many are not put off by its turbulent political controversy, but rather wish to visit to understand fully it’s significance. Many sights to see in the region are legends; biblical settings dating back thousands of years and things that you learn about pre-school. Israel is a schooling in history and culture, even if you aren’t religious.
The main reason for our journey through history was that a rather modern phenomenon was visiting Israel; having won Eurovision in 2018 in Portugal, Tel Aviv would host the Eurovision Song Contest in 2019. Having long been fans of the competition and having got married just a few weeks before it, we decided to “mini-moon” in Israel.
We flew overnight from London Luton to Ben Gurion Airport (which sits on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, but serves the rest of the country. Visitors from the UK are not required to have a visa as tourist and on entry, visitors are granted leave to enter for a period of up to 3 months. Visitors entering via Ben Gurion airport are given an entry card instead of an entry stamp in their passport (keep this safe as you will need it when you leave). We had planned to visit Jerusalem (and slightly further afield) at the beginning of the week before making our way to Tel Aviv towards the end of the week for the competition.
Flying had one complication; we had more rigorous security at the airport and upon boarding, we had more security searches as well as questioning by airline staff. We were asked if we had visited the Middle East before (I had visited Jordan before and they were quite interested in why I had been there and whether I still knew anybody there or in Israel). Matt and I were questioned separately, and for quite some time, so it can be quite an uncomfortable experience!
We had booked the Agripas Boutique Hotel in Jerusalem, which was right by Mahane Yehuda Market. It was a 25 minute walk to the Old City, or a bus ride away. It was on a main road by a roundabout so was a little busy, however the rooms were quiet and there was also a lovely rooftop restaurant and bar which served free frinks and snacks late afternoon.
Day 1: Exploring historical Jerusalem
Our 11:30 PM flight landed at 06:20am (with time differences that’s about 3-4 hours sleep on a plane, if you’re lucky!). The Nesher Service Taxis was super easy to find as they all wait outside the main terminal of the airport. These taxis serve Tel Aviv (~25 minutes) and Jerusalem (~45 minutes), and are ~70 NIS per person; we were advised to call the day before to reserve but when we rang, they told us we didn’t have to. Whether this was due to low demand I’m not sure, but it was easy enough to just turn up and grab a seat. Buses leave when full (10 people, so you won’t be waiting too long!) or when sensible to go based on incoming flights etc, and run 24 hours a day. They also run back to the airport at certain pickups around the cities – call for more info. Our driver even dropped us off right outside our hotel.
Al Haram Ash Sharif / Temple Mount
We headed straight here as it is only open between 08:30 – 11:30, and we were expecting significant queues. The tourist entrance is near to the Western Wall (at the Gate of the Moors), but be warned – we struggled finding it! The area was very busy and not many signs guiding people, but keep an eye out for tourist entrance and you shouldn’t go wrong. You must have your arms and legs covered to enter, but entrance into the site is free (you won’t be able to enter Al Aqsa Mosque or Dome of the Rock). There were very few queues, and it wasn’t crowded at all!
You will see the Western Wall when finding the entrance to Temple Mount, but you can visit properly afterwards. You can even visit the tunnels here on a guided tour, but these have to be booked well in advance.
A Jewish Quarter Combo Ticket (valid for 48 hours) will set you back 60 NIS, but will gain you entry to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, Burnt House, Heroidan Quarter Museum & Hurva Square, and finally Hurva Synagogue (all open 9am-5pm). Visit these in this particular order and you will spend your time wisely
Once you finish at the Synagogue and reach Cardo Maximum, you are into the Christian / Armenian Quarter boundary.
Head north from your current location towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (you will pass St. Marks Chapel, Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Mauristan, Church of St. John the Baptist before reaching the entrance to the church – they are all worth a nosey). The entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is to the south of the building.
Open 5am – 9pm (8pm on Sundays) and free to enter, the church is believed by most Christians to be built over the site where Jesus was nailed to the cross, died and rose from the dead. For the past 16 centuries pilgrims have travelled far and wide to worship here; you should expect noisy crowds rather than quiet contemplation. For even the least religious, there is something quite magical about this place. The Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre sits bolding in the middle of the church, and will more than likely have the largest queue – pilgrims queue to enter the tiny space and are given a few moments of contemplation inside before being hurried by a priest on door duty.
After experiencing the church, we decided to walk the ‘Via Dolorosa’ – the processional route believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Most sacred visitors will want to experience this walk in numerical order (starting at Lions’ Gate further East) but we decided to go backwards (easier as downhill!). The “stations” are often marked throughout the route, and are all places associated with the crucifixion. The walk will talk you around an hour. Use a guide book or map available in most shops around here to help you find these stations and to give you more information about them. After completing the walk, we were very close to the Garden of Gethsemane, and so we headed there for some quiet contemplation time.
We then retraced our steps and headed back to the citadel for an explore of the Tower of David. As we missed this out earlier on, we wanted to visit but the Citadel is only open 9am-4pm. We arrived with an hour left before closure, so had a very quick tour! Entrance here is 40 NIS, and it is home to the Museum of the History of Jerusalem, which tells the city’s story in a series of different exhibits. The building started life as a palace of Herod the Great, and was then used by the Romans, Crusaders, Mamluks and even the Ottomans. You could easily spend a couple of hours here, and there is even a long series of tunnels to explore (for an extra fee) and a 3D film to immerse yourself in!
By this time, it was late in the afternoon so we headed back to the hotel to shower and get ready for a dinner and a semi-final of Eurovision (which we would watch in a bar or in the hotel). If you still have time and energy, you can walk further south and leave Zion Gate to see St David’s tomb.
The Muslim Quarter (further north) also has a couple of sites to see, although we didn’t have time to see much here. Walk from Lions Gate to Damascus Gate through the Souq and look out for beautiful architecture. The Palestinian Heritage Museum (in East Jerusalem) is well worth a visit if you have time.
For dinner we decided to stay close to our hotel and tried Ishtabach, a restaurant nestled on the outskirts of the Mahane Yehuda Market that serves delicious shamburak, a Kurdish stuffed pastry that was fantastic! The siske filling is beef that’s been slow cooked for more than 15 hours – mouth-watering-ly good!
Day 2: Palestine
Getting into Palestine
The 231 bus (should be 10 NIS) is the best public transport to take to get into West Bank as it takes you straight into Bethlehem. From Damascus Bus Station (direct opposite the Old City, with stops along the way), the bus departs every 15 mins from 6am – 9pm and takes 30 mins to reach the checkpoint. Tourists may remain on the bus during passport check (Palestinian passengers have to line up outside), but it’s open 24/7 and super easy.
The 234 bus takes you via Checkpoint 300, where you will need to pass through on foot. Both are easy, but once you have passed through this checkpoint on foot, you will then have to bargain with a taxi driver to take you into Bethlehem, as it’s quite a walk.
We were travelling during Ramadan and on a Friday (the sacred day of worship), and so the 231 bus was not running. This didn’t give us many problems here, but caused us major issues on the way back to Jerusalem – you can read about that later!
On passing through the checkpoint you’ll notice lots of graffiti and wall art on Israel’s separation wall, most of which is pro-Palestinian propaganda, as well as Banksy’s ‘Walled Off Hotel,’ which promises “the worst view in the world.”
Bethlehem might not be the “little town” it once was, but you won’t have to dig deep to find stories. The Church of the Nativity (7am – 7pm, free entrance) contains a grotto that holds a prominent religious significance as the birthplace of Jesus. It is the oldest site continuously used as a place of worship in Christianity, and the basilica is the oldest major church in the Holy Land. St. Catherine’s Church is accessible via the Church of Nativity if you walk through the Franciscan cloister out the back. The Bethlehem Museum is recreated as a tradition Bethlehem family home, with exhibits dating back more than 200 years. Legend has it the Milk Grotto Chapel is where Mary and Joseph stopped to feed Jesus during their flight to Egypt – and a drop of milk touch the red rock, turning it white. We also visited the Shepherds’ Field, which has a small church and chapel.
We had also planned to journey onto Ramallah, but as we were short on time we couldn’t visit. Visiting Ramallah requires using a different checkpoint, and so if doing the journey by yourselves, you would have to journey back to Jerusalem to travel out to Ramallah again. The only way around this is to book onto a private tour (which many tourist companies offer) who will take you to Bethlehem and Ramallah. This is quite a good way to go if you are nervous about the checkpoint crossings, and also will save you money trying to sort taxis between checkpoints, towns, and sights.
As we were travelling on a Friday during Ramadan, the direct bus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem wasn’t running. We had waited for the 231 on the main road (which seemed to be very quiet) and we knew we were in a rush to get back to Jerusalem and onwards to Tel Aviv – we had a live show tonight that we were watching! We eventually decided (after failed attempts to get a taxi or a bus to Jerusalem) to get back to Checkpoint 300 and managed to grab a taxi to take us there. The queues were starting to build and as we made our way to the entrance, we realised the checkpoint was closed! There were about 50 of us, tourists, Palestinians and Israeli alike, waiting at the entrance. We waited for about 45 minutes, but other people there told us they had been there for hours already! The guards occasionally let a couple of people through if they were old or had children with them, and every time a guard appeared there was a lot of shouting and pushing trying to get through! With a good lot of elbow shoving through to the front, we eventually managed to wave our British passports under the noses of the guards, who saw this and let us move through in a small group. Minutes later they closed the checkpoint again, so we were very lucky to get through! A bus back to Jerusalem was waiting outside and we were away within minutes!
On the walk back to the hotel, we found the bus stop for shuttle buses to Tel Aviv, so we rushed back to grab our luggage and then back to the shuttle to journey onwards for our live show! We had planned to grab the public bus as it was a bit cheaper, but it was much easier to do this as it was closer to our hotel than the bus station.
Bus 405 (every 15 minutes) from platform 315 in from Jerusalem Central bus station leaves to Tel Aviv Central bus station is 16 NIS and takes 1 hour. The last bus arrives an hour before sunset (leaving 4~5pm). If you miss the last bus, you can get the shared minibus, which is what we did, for about 30 NIS each.
Day 3: Tel Aviv
We were planning to relax a little more in Tel Aviv; we had certainly covered a lot of ground over the last couple of days, and with the live Eurovision shows being quite late, we didn’t want to wear ourselves out. We took Tel Aviv a little more steadily.
We had booked the Hotel Orchid, right on Bograshov Beach, which meant we were fairly central to most things to see in the short time we had. We first explored the area on foot, starting at our hotel and wandering south. We were on the cusp of the Yemenite Quarter and first found Carmel market. Have an explore here, taking in the wonderful colours and artwork. This area is very cool. We wandered the bars and restaurants through Allenby Street, and head towards Rothschild Blvd. After a while wandering, we ended up heading back to our hotel for some well needed beach time!
Day 4: Exploring Jaffa
After feeling a little hungover on Sunday morning (the Eurovision final was on Saturday evening, and we watched it at a bar) we had breakfast at our hotel, and then wandered down to Jaffa flea market (open 10 – 3 on Sundays) & the port area for a lazy morning. We visited the Old Railway Station, which has been converted from the original terminus train station into a site for local shops and restaurants. This area was super cute, and well worth a visit.
We then met up with good friends who were making their regular visit to Tel Aviv, and had a spectacular lunch at Yulia TLV, just north of Metsitsim beach. Further up is Old Tel Aviv Port area, which is a nice spot to visit to walk to pier.
We got the bus back to the airport (make sure you still have some change for your bus ticket!) in time for our evening flight at 18:45 PM, which landed at Luton at 22:10 – perfect to get home and sleep after a whirlwind journey! Our trip was quick, and with more time you could certainly relax a little more, or take more in, but it was the perfect little getaway for our post-wedding, Eurovision week holiday.