5 Days in Jerusalem

Jerusalem was our first stop in Israel and exceeded my expectations in so many ways. It’s an intense, bustling city, and a deeply religious place. We stayed just outside the Old City walls and spent most of time wandering through the winding laneways of the Jewish, Christian, and Arab quarters.

 Grape shot from Mahane Yehuda Market.

Grape shot from Mahane Yehuda Market.

The diversity within the walls of the Old City was something that surprised me. Jews, Muslims, and Christians live side-by-side, each with their own precincts of services, shops, and sites. Each quarter is made up of a labyrinth of alleys and despite being armed with Google Maps and Lonely Planet, we found ourselves lost in the maze several times.

Outside the Old City walls, Jerusalem is a bastion of Jewish culture. Everywhere you look there are men in tall black hats with curls, women in wigs, and stalls selling Jewish trinkets. Virtually everything is closed for Shabbat from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. Even some international hotels observe Shabbat rituals.

 Remnants of the Roman Cardo in the Jewish Quarter of Old City Jerusalem

Remnants of the Roman Cardo in the Jewish Quarter of Old City Jerusalem

What We Did

#1: Church of the Holy Sepulchre

This is believed to be the home of Jesus’ tomb, and the place where he was crucified. From the outside it doesn’t look very opulent, but Christians from all over the world flock here, and it’s definitely worth seeing if you’re in Jerusalem. Both Jesus' tomb and the site of the crucification (Calvary) are highly adorned and ornate. 

 

#2: Western Wall

The Western Wall (formerly the Wailing Wall) was one of the most interesting places we visited in Israel. It’s considered the holiest place to pray in Judaism, and is built adjacent to the first temple (Temple Mount).

The wall itself is divided into two sides; one side for men, and a smaller section for women. We went down to the wall on Shabbat, and it’s an experience I will never forget. Both men and women were rhythmically rocking and chanting, some with their hands on the wall, others standing further back with the torah open. Over a million prayer notes fare stuffed into the crevices of the Western Wall each year.

 

#3: Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock is significant to Jews and Muslims. Some Jews believe that God created the earth from the dust of the foundation stone under the dome. For Muslims, Dome of the Rock is said to be the place where Muhammed ascended to heaven.

The big gold dome can be seen from multiple vantage points in the Old City however access to the gardens surrounding Dome of the Rock is restricted. For non-Muslims (like us), the gardens are only open 1-2 hours a day.

 

#4: Masada

We did one day trip outside Jerusalem to Masada and the Dead Sea. Leaving Jerusalem was eye-opening. The divide between the Israeli and Palestinian communities was immediately apparent. Tall walls and checkpoints separate Israeli and Palestinian territories, and on the road there are three different types of number plates which determine where you can/cannot travel.

As you get further away from Jerusalem, the landscape turns to desert, and subsistence boudoin communities dot the sides of the highway. Boudoins live in simple, flat shacks, without electricity, and work the land to survive. Incredible!

 Looking over the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea in Masada.

Looking over the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea in Masada.

It took about an hour and a half to get to Masada, a massive fortress built by King Herod on the top of a hill, overlooking the Dead Sea. The palaces are over 2000 years old and remarkably sosphicated given when they were built. Apparently, Herod loved a good steam room. 

 Kalia Beach on the Dead Sea

Kalia Beach on the Dead Sea

#5: The Dead Sea

Yes, we swam, and yes, it’s true that you float. In fact, standing up is pretty tough in such buoyant water. Our stop at Kalia Beach on the Dead Sea was searingly hot (43℃/104℉) so we spent just enough time on the beach to have a quick dip, and cover ourselves in mineral-rich mud (for the anti-aging benefits, obviously). I insisted on getting an ice-cream after our swim which promptly melted all over my hand. It was a hot, salty experience, but I am glad we did it!

 

Where We Stayed

 Golda Vacation Rentals 'Yellow Apartment'

Golda Vacation Rentals 'Yellow Apartment'

Golda Vacation Rentals

We stayed in the 'Yellow Apartment' and booked through VBRO. The apartment was clean, comfortable, and close to the Old City. Our hosts, Neta and Ron, were friendly, communicative and provided us with loads of local recommendations. 

 

Mamilla Hotel

 Breakfast buffet at the Mamilla Hotel

Breakfast buffet at the Mamilla Hotel

My parents stayed here and were less excited about their experience, especially given the price tag. On the plus side, they have a large, modern gym, a swimming pool, and a buffet breakfast to die for. Outdoor exercise is tricky in Jerusalem so the gym was a definite win for us! 

 

Where We Ate

 Falafel from Ben Sira: Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. 

Falafel from Ben Sira: Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. 

Ben Sira Hummus

Ben Sira was the first place we ate in Jerusalem and our favorite. In fact, it’s right up there with Dizengoff in Philly as the best hummus I’ve eaten. Served warm, Ben Sira’s hummus comes with a variety of toppings (cauliflower, beef, mushrooms, etc), and is insanely creamy. I could live off this stuff. It's affordable, unpretentious, and simply delicious. We also loved their falafel!

 

 Dessert from Dolphin Yam: Roasted cherry tomatoes, tahini, vanilla ice-cream and halva. Absolutely delicious! 

Dessert from Dolphin Yam: Roasted cherry tomatoes, tahini, vanilla ice-cream and halva. Absolutely delicious! 

Dolphin Yam

Dolphin Yam was one of the few restaurants open on Shabbat in Jerusalem, and it served us up a solid seafood meal. The service was friendly, and after our mains were delayed, they brought us a house dessert which turned out to be the highlight of the meal. Who knew that roasted cherry tomatoes, tahini, ice-cream and halva could be such a great combo?!  It was far better than the picture suggests. 


Mahane Yehuda

 Piles of pastries at Mahane Yehuda Market. 

Piles of pastries at Mahane Yehuda Market. 

We spent our final morning in Jerusalem at Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s big food market. It’s a foodie paradise, filled with stands selling fresh produce, nuts, tea, dried fruit, halva, spices and more. At night time some of the stalls turn into restaurants and bars, but in the morning it’s all about the shopping. Mahane Yehuda was a phenomenal way to end our time in Jerusalem. 

 Dried watermelon at Mahane Yehuda. Yes, please!

Dried watermelon at Mahane Yehuda. Yes, please!

Where To Eat, Drink & Exercise in Tel Aviv

Our trip to Israel and Turkey in June was our first excursion to the Middle East and one of our best adventures yet! We visited the Western Wall on Shabbat, swam in the Dead Sea, ate Israeli street food in Tel Aviv, and spent an afternoon at a haman in Istanbul. It was a trip full of contrasts, and a month later I am still reeling from all that we absorbed. First up on my recap list: Tel Aviv. 

 Tel Aviv's coastline from Jaffa.

Tel Aviv's coastline from Jaffa.

Tel Aviv felt remarkably familiar. It’s hip, gritty, and lively, just like San Francisco. However, the beaches top San Francisco’s offerings hands down. In fact, Tel Aviv beaches are a lot like Sydney’s beaches, except the Star of David dots the shoreline instead of the Union Jack.

It’s easy to forgot that Tel Aviv is only an hour away from Jerusalem in the east, and the Gaza Strip in the south. Tel Aviv is such a laid back place. The only whiff of tension that we got was the occasional military plane flying over the beach, and the extra security at neighborhood schools and shopping centers. Other than that we always felt very safe, and I was comfortable roaming the streets and running on the beach solo.

 

Where We Stayed

We spent most of our time in Tel Aviv at the Sea Executive Suites on the beach however at the end of our trip we had one night at the Shenkin Hotel. Both had their merits, but all-in-all I preferred being on the beach.

 

Sea Executive Suites:

We loved staying here. The rooms are spacious, breezy, modern, and right on the beach. The breakfast was pricey, but offered a solid selection of salads(!), bread, pastries, cheese, and ala carte eggs. The only downside is that Sea Suites is a 15-20 minute walk to most of the eat streets around town, but I think it’s worth it to be on the beach. There’s a small gym in-house, or you can opt to run along the boardwalk/sand.

 Dreamy view from our studio at Sea Executive Suites

Dreamy view from our studio at Sea Executive Suites

 

Shenkin Hotel:

Tucked away in a side street, the Shenkin hotel is a centrally-located, design-forward boutique hotel. We only stayed here a night, but it’s surrounded by loads of coffee shops, and great restaurants and bars. We were initially allocated a tiny room however, after negotiating with the staff, we moved to a bigger room for 20 USD. The room was clean, modern, and comfortable, but it's definitely worth springing for the extra space. We loved the glass of Prosecco on arrival, and were so appreciative when the staff arranged a space for us to have a shower after we checked out and before our long flight back to San Francisco. 

 

Where We Ate

Israeli food is phenomenal, but Tel Aviv offers plenty more than falafel and hummus.

 Fast food I can get behind: Falafel plate at Hakosem. Quick, affordable and outrageously good. 

Fast food I can get behind: Falafel plate at Hakosem. Quick, affordable and outrageously good. 

Hakosem:

This famous hummus and falafel joint lives up to the hype. I think we ended up eating at Hakosem three or four times in total. Crunchy on the outside, and soft on the inside, the falafel is phenomenal, as is the hummus, and all the condiments. Totally worth the trip!

 

 Located in Jaffa's Flea Market, Cafe Puaa offers vintage-chic surrounds and an amazing globally-inspired menu. 

Located in Jaffa's Flea Market, Cafe Puaa offers vintage-chic surrounds and an amazing globally-inspired menu. 

Cafe Puaa:

We stumbled upon this one at the end of our Jaffa tour and it ended up being one of my favorite non-hummus meals in Israel. This vintage-chic stop in Jaffa Flea Market draws inspiration from all over the globe and everything was ate was delicious. We ordered majadera, moussaka, Arabic salad, and cajun chicken, and I wanted more of almost everything.

 

 Colorful eats at Cafe XOHO

Colorful eats at Cafe XOHO

Cafe XOHO:

This hip and healthy cafe was recommended by my dear friend, Jess, and was a great place for lunch. We were ravenous when we got there and ordered kombucha, a turmeric smoothie, the rice bowl, and a classic salmon bagel. All were solid but the turmeric smoothie was my favorite. Cafe XOHO is definitely health-centric, and many options for those with dietary restrictions.

 

Hotel Montefiore:

Hotel Montefiore has a 1920s vibe and was one of the more upscale places we ate in Tel Aviv. The menu is internationally-inspired, and the food flavorful and hearty. It’s more bistro food than fine dining, but a good choice for breaking up falafel and hummus street eats.

 

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Way Cup Coffee:

This was our favorite coffee shop in Tel Aviv. The barista know what they are doing at Way Cup and the coffee is reliably velvety smooth. We loved watching the passing parade of Tel Avivians starting their work day and taking their kids to school from the terrace. The Aussie flag out the front was the icing on the cake.

 

Other noteworthy stops:

Maysha, Cafe Noir, Thai House, Shila, Coffeelix, Coffee 51, The Norman (cocktails) and Miznon.

 

Must Sees

For me, the highlight of Tel Aviv was soaking up the beach life, and enjoying copious quantities of Israeli cuisine. However, these places are also among my must-sees:

  • Jaffa Old City (2000 years old)
  • Jaffa Flea Market
  • Rothschild Boulevard (Bauhaus Architecture)

 

Staying Healthy

Staying healthy in Tel Aviv wasn’t a problem. There are outdoor public gym facilities all over the city, and a well paved area to run along the beach. I did a combo of sand sprints, jogging, and weight training at the hotel gym while I was there, and felt totally comfortable being in running shorts outside. Tel Aviv is hot in the summer, and everyone is minimally clad.

Israeli food is veggie heavy and there are plenty of healthy options to choose from, whether you’re splashing out or traveling on a shoestring. There are also plenty of choices for those with dietary restrictions like gluten free, dairy free, vegetarian and vegan.

 These outdoor stationary bikes are everywhere in Tel Aviv, as are outdoor gyms. 

These outdoor stationary bikes are everywhere in Tel Aviv, as are outdoor gyms. 

Check out my Instagram for more highlights from Tel Aviv. 

 

Food & Fun in Portugal: Part II

The second and third legs of our Portuguese adventure were spent in Porto at the mouth of the Douro River, and Lagos on The Algarve. Once again, we were spoiled with incredible food, and fascinating sights, but this part of the trip came with another bonus: the beach! Check out the details below. 

 A Healthy Traveler’s Guide To Portugal: Porto and The Algarve

A Healthy Traveler’s Guide To Portugal: Porto and The Algarve

Porto

Porto--second largest city in Portugal--was our next stop after Lisbon. After a brief Airbnb mishap, we ended up at Hotel 1829 in a small, but modern room not far from the Douro River.

Porto is a charming old town city, with a lively riverfront connected by 6 bridges. We got into the tourist thing (at least briefly) and took a cable car to the top of Ponte D. Luís I Bridge for a better view of the city, and it was well worth the 6 euros.

Porto is packed with cozy wine bars, port lodges and restaurants, many of which are so popular that it’s hard to score a table without a reservation.  

Our favorite food and drink spots were:

The Coffee Room : This hidden gem sits on the second floor of The Feeting Room, a shoe shop and clothing store, offering some of the most elegant local creations. The coffee is solid, particularly for a place where a good cappuccino is hard to come across.

Brick Clérigos : This was our first food stop in Porto, and one of my favorite lunches during our trip. After sharing a Mars Bar on the train to Porto I was hankering for a big helping of veggies and that’s exactly what I got at this rustic, farmhouse-inspired cafe. We ordered the vegetarian platter, chicken salad with quinoa, and a chicken and veggie toastie to remedy our hanger. All were excellent, and full of nutrition.

 Inside Brick Clérigos, Porto.

Inside Brick Clérigos, Porto.

 The chicken and quinoa salad, and the vegetarian platter at Brick Clérigos, Porto.

The chicken and quinoa salad, and the vegetarian platter at Brick Clérigos, Porto.

Zenith-Brunch and Cocktail Bar: We had an amazing breakfast here. I had sweet potato toast with avocado, mushrooms, and a poached egg, and Ethan had fried eggs with crispy Iberian ham. We also shared a cocoa smoothie bowl because we were both missing our daily smoothie ritual. The service was slow but the end result was well-worth the wait! Oh, how I love a good smoothie bowl!

 Sweet potato toast with grilled mushrooms, avocado, and a poached egg, and the cocoa smoothie bowl from Zenith-Brunch and Cocktail Bar, Porto.

Sweet potato toast with grilled mushrooms, avocado, and a poached egg, and the cocoa smoothie bowl from Zenith-Brunch and Cocktail Bar, Porto.

Lagos 

Our third stop in Portugal was southern peninsula known as The Algarve. We stayed just outside Lagos at Belmar Resort and Spa overlooking Praia do Porto de Mós. Growing up in Sydney, my bar for coastal towns is high but Praia do Porto de Mós lived up to the hype.

 Belmar Resort and Spa overlooking Praia do Porto de Mós.

Belmar Resort and Spa overlooking Praia do Porto de Mós.

We opted to go without a car which meant that we relied on our legs for transport, and explored the coastline on foot. Our mid-morning walk from Praia do Porto de Mós to neighboring beach town, Luz, was one of the best things we did all trip, and reminded my of the Bondi to Bronte walk in Sydney. Naturally, I took a million and one photos to save the moment. This place is even more beautiful in-person. 

 Praia do Porto de Mós.

Praia do Porto de Mós.

 Praia do Porto de Mós to Luz coastal walk.

Praia do Porto de Mós to Luz coastal walk.

I expected to eat good seafood near the coast, but the creativity and sophistication of our some of our meals in Lagos was a pleasant surprise. Two particular restaurants stuck out. Again, the bills were shockingly affordable for the quality of the dishes.

Don Artistas: Don Artistas has all the bibs and bobs of fine dining without the pretension. The service was seamless, and the food was thoughtful and tasty. We shared fresh octopus with cucumber and quinoa, lobster bisque, red pepper soup, lamb tenderloin with beet chips, and sea bass with gremolata. We left feeling spoiled (and full)!

Restaurant No Patio: Our second dip into The Algarve food scene was at Restaurant No Patio (which does, in fact, have a patio). Restaurant No Patio is more casual than Don Artistas, but the food is sophisticated, and flavorful, and the staff are attentive. We started with sweet grilled prawns over greens and mango salsa, and both had fresh fish as mains. The fish was some of the freshest and tastiest I’ve eaten. New project: Learn how to cook fish like that at home.

Another pleasant surprise in Lagos was meeting-up with fellow dietitian and blogger, Alex Caspero, and her husband, Bryan. Alex runs a great site called Delicious Knowledge, and her and Bryan are equally excited about travel and food as us. We had a fun time sharing travel secrets, and foodie finds at a local bar called Bon Vivant.


Was 10 days in Portugal enough? No. We missed the castles of Sintra, the vineyards of the Douro Valley, The Azores, and other notables. But we’ve seen enough to be wooed by Portugal’s magic. Hopefully, we’ll be back for another glass of port and plate of grilled sardines someday.

Food & Fun in Portugal: Part I

When I told people that I had booked 10 days in Portugal I got a lot of ‘that seems like an odd choice’ looks. However, after exploring three cities I can safely say that Portugal is anything but boring. Vibrant and charming with a breathtakingly beautiful natural landscape, Portugal surpassed my expectations in almost every way. Here’s what we did, where we ate, and why you should add Portugal to your bucket list.

 A Healthy Traveler’s Guide To Portugal: Lisbon

A Healthy Traveler’s Guide To Portugal: Lisbon

As I write this post we’re on the train from The Algarve back to Lisbon for the final leg of our Portuguese journey.  We’ve spent 10 days eating, walking and drinking our way across three cities, but still I feel like we’ve only scraped the surface. I can’t help but wonder why Portugal isn't a more popular holiday destination. 

With that in mind, I wanted to provide a snapshot of our adventure across Europe’s westernmost country. We ate, slept and explored tons of great places, and it would be remiss not to share our discoveries with other health-conscious travel lovers.

Our itinerary included 4 nights in Lisbon, 2 in Porto, and another 3 in Porto de Mos just outside of Lagos. This first post is all about colorful, gritty Lisboa.

 

Where We Stayed

We stayed in Santa Catarina in this apartment, and then this one-bedder on our final night in Portugal. Both were comfortable, clean and convenient. Santa Catarina is less touristy and quieter than Barrio Alto but within walking distance to just about everything. I loved running along the Rio Tejo, exploring the quirky shops of São Bento, and tramping up the old, winding streets of Alfama. We usually pick a museum or two to explore when we visit a new city but this time we opted to get lost on foot, and immerse ourselves in local culture instead. We were also epically jet-lagged when we arrived in Lisbon so sun exposure was essential!

 

The Food

Lisbon has an excellent (and affordable) food scene that incorporates European, and Moorish flavors, and celebrates it’s proximity to the ocean. We enjoyed an endless run of great food in Lisbon, but these gems were our favorites:

The Mill: This bustling coffee joint in Santa Catarina makes a mean cup of coffee, and a brag-worthy breakfast. I had the bircher muesli and Ethan had the 'The Breakfast Stack'; both were delicious and beautifully presented. In a country that loves a good pastry for breakfast, this was a welcome healthy reprieve.

 The Breakfast Stack at The Mill: Tomatoes, chorizo and spinach on top of bread with a fried egg, and toast.

The Breakfast Stack at The Mill: Tomatoes, chorizo and spinach on top of bread with a fried egg, and toast.

Hello, Kristof: Hip coffee and magazine spot with a small, but reliable menu. My avocado toast with tomato and pistachios was nothing short of excellent, and just what I needed to shake-off 24 hours of substandard travel food. They have gluten-free bread for those who prefer to eat sans gluten, and a cool-as-sh*% space to ponder your next stop.

 Avocado toast with tomato, crushed pistachios, peppercorns and salt at Hello, Kristof.

Avocado toast with tomato, crushed pistachios, peppercorns and salt at Hello, Kristof.

Time Out Market Lisboa: Opened in 2014, Time Out Market Lisboa is the Eataly of Portuguese food and aggregates some of the best regional food options. This place offers everything from local favorites like custard tarts and grilled sardines, to burgers and pizza for the less adventurous palate. Surprisingly, takeout is not an option--every dish is elegantly styled and served on porcelain. And if it’s booze you’re after there’s plenty of that too.

Pistola y Corazon Taqueria: Lisbon may be a far cry from Mexico, but this lively bar serves up some seriously delicious Mexican fare. I had shrimp tacos, and Ethan had posole to remedy a 24-hour tummy bug. Both were flavorful and fresh, and I’d go back in a heartbeat.

Yao Pressed Juicery: A hole-in-the wall juicery and smoothie stop that makes their own almond milk and boasts uber-hip toppings like bee pollen and hemp seeds. A great stop for anyone lusting after a quick dose of fruit and veggies after indulging in one too many custard tarts.

 The blueberry muffin smoothie from Yao Pressed Juicery.

The blueberry muffin smoothie from Yao Pressed Juicery.

Hotel do Chiado Rooftop Bar: With gorgeous view of Rio Tejo, and The Alfama this chic terrace bar is hard to beat for happy hour. This is where we spent our last night in Lisbon, before dining at Mini-Bar. Bring your jacket if it’s a cool day.

 Looking over Alfama from Hotel do Chiado's rooftop bar.

Looking over Alfama from Hotel do Chiado's rooftop bar.

Mini Bar: Run by Portugal’s most famous chef, José Avillez, Mini-Bar feels like Moulin Rouge minus the adult entertainment, and serves-up inventive small plates. We shared 7 dishes and 2 desserts. The avocado tempura with dehydrated kimchi was our favorite, followed by the ‘roasted chicken’ (a chicken skin chip with smoked cottage cheese and avocado), and the steak tataki. The savory selections were better than our dessert.

Prior to our trip I'd heard mixed reviews about Lisbon but I really enjoyed it. Yes, it's gritty but there's something about jeweled-toned buildings with terracotta roofs, and laundry displayed proudly in the street that's incredibly charming. In many way Lisbon is similar to San Francisco. It's been roughed-up by earthquakes several times, has the same undulating terrain, and celebrates good food and drink much like San Francisco.