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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
#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
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
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!
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.
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.