While I am not religious, I am a history buff and therefore Israel has always been on my list. Having recently discovered some ethnically Jewish roots, my brother and I decided it was finally time to go. We booked tickets in June for a December departure. Roundtrip from Chicago to Tel Aviv, with a layover in Paris each way was about $750 per person on Air France. As we got closer to our departure date, I decided to splurge and for an extra $95 per person, we upgraded to Air France’s Premium Economy. The extra legroom was nice and probably worth it for an 8 hour flight. However, there weren’t many other perks. Once we arrived in Paris, it was a quick layover before a 4.5 hour flight to Tel Aviv. Upon entering Israeli airspace, the pilot made an announcement that it was a legal requirement for everyone to remain seated (flight attendants included) until we were on the ground. Struck us as a little odd, but we knew traveling to the Middle East would come with some extra security measures that we weren’t normally accustomed to. Along the lines of security- more info on our airport experiences in Israel as well as crossing the border into Jordan later in this post!
What I Packed
We traveled over New Year’s- December 2016 – January 2017. The weather was sunny and 70°F some days, and 50°F and rainy other days. Knowing that, we packed lots of layers – mostly jeans, good walking shoes, long sleeve shirts, scarves, a rain coat and a spring-type jacket. A bathing suit and some sturdy flip flops were also necessary knowing that we would be going in to the Dead Sea. While hiking boots were not necessary for our day trip to Petra, they were very helpful to have. I brought my big suitcase and checked it, resorting to my old overpacking ways. However, I ended up wearing every item I packed, so I felt pretty good about that at the end of my trip!
How I Got Around
Taxis were easy to catch on busy streets. A taxi from Tel Aviv-Yafo Airport to central Tel Aviv was 155 Shekels or about $40. Uber was available as well and that’s what we mostly stuck to. We also walked a lot as it was quite fun to discover different shops, bars, and restaurant by foot. While we did not use Tel Aviv’s public bus system, we did use Haifa’s which was about $3 per ride. Tel Aviv also has a bike share program that anyone can use, which we did. Our first day in the city, we walked to the beach and rented bikes from the Tel-O-Fun station right on the boardwalk. It was about $13 per person for a full day rental. Israel has a fantastic railway system that connects the entire country. We decided to take a train to Haifa for the day, which was about a 2 hour train ride north of the city. Round trip tickets were $14 and our experience was just like any European train experience- clean, efficient, and on time.
Where I Stayed
Being a small country, we decided to base ourselves in Tel Aviv for the entire trip and book day trips to the cities we wanted to see. I’ve been on trips where I’ve constantly bounced around, only spending 1-2 nights in different hotels for a week. It was nice to be able to stay in the same place the entire time and not have to unpack and repack each morning. We stayed at White House Boutique Hotel (http://www.whitehousetlv.com/) on Dizengoff Street – a hip area with lots of 20-30 year olds and plenty of swanky shops and unique bars. It’s considered the City Center and it shows. It was the perfect place to stay. The hotel was definitely boutique – small rooms but cozy and clean nonetheless. We paid $870 for 6 nights in a double room. The front desk staff was incredibly helpful and I highly recommend staying here.
What I Ate
The food. The food, the food, the food. That’s all that runs through my mind when I think back on this trip. I ate such great food in every part of Israel. Let’s start with breakfast. Our hotel included breakfast each day. I have stayed in many a hotel with “breakfast included” only to awaken to cold coffee, runny eggs, and watery juice. I have learned to expect this especially when traveling abroad. That being said, we booked many day trips that required us to leave around 6am, missing breakfast. Huge mistake. The breakfast that the hotel offered was actually vouchers for two different restaurants – Landwar, which was directly across the street from the hotel, and Breadstory, which was one block down the street. Both were incredible. Landwar had a set meal that came with coffee, eggs any way you wanted, salad, bread, rolls, hummus, tuna, yogurt and granola, olives, jellies, jams, butters, all kinds of dips – amazing. All we had to do was leave a tip. We couldn’t believe that this was the breakfast included! At Breadstory, there was a menu we could choose from. I opted for a savory spinach, feta, egg pastry, while my brother went for some challah bread French toast. Again, nothing disappointed! We were sad we couldn’t make breakfast on the other days.
Our other favorite meal was in Haifa at a great Lebanese restaurant called Fattoush. We started with hummus then indulged in some grilled chicken with hummus and tabouli. This restaurant was quaint and cute and had a little boutique upstairs where we bought a bunch of souvenirs for ourselves and friends. Definitely recommend this place.
Speaking of hummus, we went to Abu Hassan – way off the beaten path and located in Jaffa. There is no menu, you sit down and they bring you two bowls of two different styles of hummus, lots of pita bread and raw onion, and you’re good to go. Best hummus I’ve ever had – I still think about it. Be sure to get there early because there is always a line and as soon as they run out of the day’s hummus, they close!
What I Did
The best way to describe Tel Aviv was like a mixture of New York and Paris. Modern city with some old world flair. And in the case of Israel, REAL old. Lots of cafes, shopping, museums, a great boardwalk, markets, etc. We visited the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on our first day, which was lots of fun. On our last day in Israel, we spent the majority in Jaffa. Lots of open air markets, flea markets, antique shops – lots of fun.
We visited Jerusalem with a tour group and I’m glad we did. The “old” part of town has tiny narrow passageways and is very easy to get lost. On top of that (quite literally) there are passageways along the rooftops, so there’s basically two levels to the city. With our tour group, we were able to see the Western Wall, the church where Jesus was believed to be crucified and buried, views of the Dome of the Rock, as well as the Via Dolorosa. Afterward, we were able to visit Yad Vashem – the official Israeli memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. A very somber yet beautiful experience.
Dead Sea and Masada
Masada wasn’t really high on my list of places to visit, however the Dead Sea tour included a tour of the fortress as well so we thought, “Why not?” While definitely a cool historical site, it didn’t really peak our interest. There’s an option to hike to the top of the fortress, but we took the gondola up. Lots of cool views of the desert and the West Bank, but again not too interesting.
The Dead Sea was great. Our tour gave us some free time to float and that we did. I recommend wearing flip flops or water shoes as it is quite a muddy/ rocky bottom. It’s so interesting how much you MUST float due to the high salinity!
Haifa was our favorite part of Israel and I wish we could have spent more time there. They call it the San Francisco of Israel and for good reason- like San Francisco, it’s located on the northern coast with lots of hilly, green land. It was a very laid back town with lots of different restaurants, bars, and art. Haifa is also home to the Baha’i temple and terraced gardens. We weren’t able to go in to the gardens as they were closed the day we visited, but we were able to visit the top portion which gave us some great views of the city!
We opted for a day trip to Petra from Tel Aviv, which was quite expensive (about $400 per person) but worth every penny. It was quite a long day, having to be at Sde Dov airport by 4am. The flight to Eilat in the south of Israel was quite fast, about 40 minutes. Upon landing, we met our group and took a 3 minute bus ride to cross the border into Jordan. Walking across the border took about 2 minutes but actually getting into Jordan took about an hour. They had to check and double check everyone’s paperwork before passing our group through. From there, it was a 2 hour charter bus ride to Petra. Our Jordanian guide was sure to point out things along the way and we even made a rest stop. Once we arrived at Petra, our guide continued the tour for the hour walk to the Treasury. From there we had 2 hours to explore on our own and meet back at the front gate. We were then bussed off to a local restaurant where a full buffet was laid out for us. Naturally it was delicious. Another 2 hour bus ride back to the border, another hour to get across, 2 hours to get through airport security, an hour flight back to Tel Aviv – it was a LONG day. Worth it if you’re short on time but it would have been nice to have a second day there.
About halfway into the flight from Paris to Tel Aviv, the realization hit me that we were en route to the Middle East. I had a slightly unsettled feeling but once we were on the ground, I felt completely safe the entire time we were in Israel. It is common knowledge that military duty is a requirement for all Israeli citizens, so you will frequently see young people carrying around their huge guns while out and about. It was actually slightly comforting to see that. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, there was an additional security checkpoint to get in to the area which also provided some sense of security. Staying alert and away from large crowds and narrow passage ways is always your best bet, no matter which country you are traveling in. Doing group tours was the most convenient because they guides knew exactly where to go and what to do in case of any incidents.
Tips and Tricks
Basing yourself in Tel Aviv is probably your best bet as it’s easy to book day trips to literally anywhere in the country, even Jordan. Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time if you’re headed to the airport as there are many security checks. Just to get in to the airport, you have to go through an interrogation process which can be quite intimidating. After that fun experience you go through a TSA-equivalent checkpoint on top of an additional baggage scanning process. They aren’t exaggerating when they say to be at the airport 3 hours prior to your flight from Ben Gurion Airport. When we flew out of Sde Dov, a much smaller airport, 2 hours prior to the flight was enough time.
Haggling is totally common at all market places. Walk away if they aren’t coming down on prices and they will chase after you accepting your final bid.
Ladies, keep a scarf on you at all times. Some religious sites required head coverings to visit, such as the Western Wall. They had plenty of disposable yarmulkes for gentlemen, however!
Overall, I loved Israel and it is a place I would definitely love to return to! Great introduction to the Middle East!