TNTP Travels: Israel
Sam and I recently returned from over two weeks traveling throughout Israel and boy do I have a lot of tips and travel reccos for you! First off, major props are due to Sam for planning our itinerary which was an absolutely perfect cadence of chill > busy > chill. We began our trip with five days in Tel Aviv before heading 30 minutes north for two days to a kibbutz for a friend’s wedding. We continued north to Haifa and Tzfat, then rented a car and drove south to the Negev (desert) before looping back up north to Jerusalem for three+ days, stopping at some major sights along the way.
This is a map of our route, starting in Tel Aviv and ending in Jerusalem. Since Israel is so small, you can switch up the route however you choose and honestly visit the various regions of the country in any order you like, not driving more than 4-5 hours in any direction.
Hold onto your socks you guys, this is going to be a long guide! I’ve broken up into “general info” followed by lists of our favorite things we did, saw, and ate in each place we visited. Feel free to read all the way through or scroll on down to find details on anything specific you’re curious about!
The first thing that many people worry about when it comes to traveling to Israel is the question of safety. In general, Israel is usually a safe place to travel. (Birthright wouldn’t send thousands of kids there each year if that weren’t the case!) Israel takes security very seriously, especially around travel, and while measures can sometimes feel inconvenient, I assure you’ll appreciate them overall. That said, do keep an eye on Israeli news leading up to your trip. While conditions are pretty peaceful at the time I’m writing this, that can always change quickly, so it’s best to know the political climate you’re flying into.
First thing’s first: download the Gett app. Gett is a taxi hailing service similar to Uber and Lyft, however it calls actual cabs that charge by the meter. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, we usually only ever waited a few minute before a car arrived.
If your first or last stop on the trip is Jerusalem, there’s an insanely fast train that takes you between Ben Gurion Airport and downtown Jerusalem in just over 20 minutes! A way cheaper and faster option than a taxi.
In Tel Aviv, another great way to get around is by public scooter, which you pick up on the street and leave on the curb when you’re done! There are a few different brands, but we enjoyed using Lime to travel those distances that felt a little too far to walk but not far enough to merit a cab. If you plan on using Lime, be sure to download that app as well.
Renting a car is a great move if you want to road trip around the country and visit all these wonderful places. Four days renting a car cost us about $100 USD not including gas. Just like in the states you can make a reservation online, pick up in one city and drop off in another. We had a car from Haifa to Jerusalem and it was awesome.
Hebrew is the national language of Israel, however most people – especially in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – speak English as well and are very used to conversing with visiting English-speakers. Most street signs and menus have an English or “Ahngleet” option as well so you should be fine in most situations.
There are a few key Hebrew words and phrases that are helpful to use while you’re there:
- Shalom – hello
- Lehitraot – see you later
- Yom Tov – good day or have a good day
- Toda or toda raba – thank you or thank you very much
- B’vakasha – please and you’re welcome
- Sleecha – sorry / excuse me
- Ken – Yes
- Lo – No
- Cheshbon – check
- Yofi – good
- Sababa – cool / all good
- Ta’im – delicious
- B’tay Avon – bon appetit!
Shekels (NIS for short) are the Israeli currency. At the time of publication the exchange rate is about 3.6 Israeli shekels to 1 American dollar, however it fluctuates so be sure to check online for the current conversion rate. I always prefer to withdraw local currency from the ATM when I arrive in a country rather than exchanging currency and inevitably losing money in the process. You’ll find an ATM at the airport just before you exit and walk outside.
Places We Stayed
- Airbnb in Tel Aviv – so cute and right next to the shuk / 10 min walk from the beach!
- Airbnb in Haifa – also very cute and centrally located. Felt very much like a backpackers hostel, as there were maps and cute notes from past visitors tacked up on the wall
- Safed Inn in Tzfat – not our favorite place we stayed but if you need a place near Tzfat, it does the trick. The owners speak English and are very friendly and helpful for getting around the area.
- Green Backpackers Hostel in Mitzpe Ramon – we loved staying here in the en-suite room, which was seriously one of the nicest rooms of our whole trip! It’s a small, clean, friendly hostel right on the crater next to the Camel lookout. But unfortunately it sounds like it’s closing soon!
- Desert Days in Tzukim – this place freaking ROCKED! It was more of an experience than a place to crash. Scroll down to the section on the Negev where I get into more detail on our experience here.
- Airbnb in Jerusalem – the nicest place we stayed on our trip and was such a wonderful respite after lots of traveling around + three days getting shmutzy in the desert. The in-unit washer/dryer is the main highlight!
Since there is so much to do, see, and learn in Israel, hiring a tour guide and/or driver is often a very good idea, especially if you’re planning a day trip or touring with a group. If you’re looking for a recommendation, our cousin Elli Shashua is a fabulous guide who can tour you around anywhere in Israel as well as provide transportation should you need it. He is seriously the sweetest young guy and an incredible guide with years of experience. You can find more info on Elli Shashua here.
Foods to TryI’ll get into specific restaurants below but there are a number of typical foods you should be sure to try when you’re in Israel. Of course there is falafel and schwarma, but also…
- Chicken schnitzel: Fried chicken cutlet – this country does it right!
- Bourekas: These are especially prevalent and tasty in Jerusalem! Try to find the pizza swirls at any bakery (shown above) – SO GOOD!
- All dairy: Israel has the best dairy, especially in the category of white cheeses. Cottage cheese, labne, feta and yogurt are all so fresh and creamy – you seriously can’t get dairy like this back in the states!
- Israeli breakfast: If you’re staying in a hotel that provides it or you see an option on a breakfast menu, you have to go for it. You’ll get some combo of salads, delicious cheeses, breads and eggs. The most satisfying!
- Shakshuka: Eggs cooked in a flavorful tomato sauce and served with bread for dipping. It’s even better in its native country!
- Dried fruits and nuts: You’ll find countless stands selling dried fruit and nuts in the shuks (markets) so be sure to try some of what they have to offer! I’m partial to dates and dried strawberries, but get whatever floats your boat. Also try the little dried fruit mixes that look like colorful combos of tiny fruit cubes. They’re straight up candy!
- Creative pita sandwiches: New shops have been popping up offering pita sandwiches way more inventive than traditional falafel. If a place is busy and the fillings sound delicious, it’s probably a good sign!
- Middle Eastern sweets: Another thing you’ll find in the markets! Classic pastries like baklava and knafe are totally worth tasting.
Okay, let’s get into some specifics, shall we? Below are our favorite things we did in each city / region. Since we were there for so many days, Tel Aviv is grouped into three categories: Activities, Food, and Shuks (Markets), while the rest of our stops are recorded in chronological order. Are you ready?! LET’S GOOOO!
Tel Aviv is a fully modern and secular city that is booming with culture, business, and so. much. good. food. The airport is located outside Tel Aviv as well. If you’re visiting Israel, a visit to this city is non-negotiable. Here you should plan to do a lot of walking, eating, and lounging on the beach. What could be better?
Tel Aviv – Activities
Located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Tel Aviv is a beach town through and through. The coast is basically one long public beach that is not only free to access but also provides free chairs and umbrellas! No matter what we were up to each day, we threw bathing suits and towels in our backpack and made a point to head down to the beach before sunset when it was cooler and less crowded.
Most of the beaches are quite similar but some favorites were Charles Klor for its abundance of sea shells and sea glass for scavenging + proximity to the Neve Tzedek neighborhood. Hilton Beach is divided into three parts. The southern section is a surfer’s beach, and the northern section is called Hof HaKlavim (the dog beach!). Middle Hilton Beach is known as the gay beach. We were there during Pride Week so this beach was bumping! Gay or not it definitely seemed like the most “party” beach, so if you’re into that, check it out. Also right on the water there is the Hilton Bay restaurant and bar where we went twice – once during the day and once at night – both awesome times to hang out, grab a drink, and enjoy a delicious meal on the beach!
There are a number of cute neighborhoods that are worth exploring on foot, namely Neve Tzedek, Florentine, and Jaffa.
Neve Tzedek is probably the most charming neighborhood in Tel Aviv, as it’s made up of beautiful flower-covered homes, shops and delicious little restaurants. Grabbing soft serve or gelato at Anita is a must! (More Anita details below.)
Florentine is another young, hip neighborhood in the south of the city. We didn’t spend too much time exploring here unfortunately – next time! – but one thing it’s known for is its abundance of street art. If you’re into that, you can take a graffiti tour around the area, then stop by the Levinsky food market.
Jaffa is an Arab port neighborhood that is known for its beautiful architecture, flea market, and more recently a modern art scene. Pop into shops, grab lunch (see The Old Man and the Sea in the food section!), and kick back at a nargila (hookah) bar.
As one of two of Israel’s biggest cities, Tel Aviv of course has a number of wonderful museums to visit such as The Tel Aviv Museum of Art, The Museum of the Jewish People, and Eretz Israel Museum. Since we spent most of our time eating, exploring, beaching and seeing friends, we visited just one while we were there: the Palmach Museum – a museum dedicated to sharing the story of the original Israeli army that helped lead the formation of Israel. What’s cool about this museum is that it’s an interactive exhibit that takes you through the story of the formation of the Palmach, the various challenges and battles they participated in and the importance of their work in ensuring the creation of the Jewish state. If you’re interested in Israeli history, this museum is worth checking out!
Tel Aviv – Food
The food in Israel was for sure a top highlight for us, and Tel Aviv has some of the best eats in the country. Here are all of our favorite places we ate during our five days there:
Shuk HaCarmel is not only a food market to shop for ingredients, but is also home to a ton of small restaurants, many of which use the produce right from the market! Panda Pita – a new hip pita sandwich spot – had one of our favorite pita sandwiches from the whole trip. (Photo in the general food section of this post!) Definitely don’t miss this place!
Shukshuka is exactly what its name states – a shakshuka restaurant in the shuk. They have a few different types of shakshuka plus salads, appetizers, and more. The vibes and music are great. We sat at the bar and enjoyed the Italian shakshuka, fish cigars, and a special salad of black lentils, fresh herbs, tomatoes, and tzatziki. YUM!
“Bourekas Turkey” is a small storefront near the Allenby St entrance of the shuk on the right side behind the vendors. Look for a yellow boureka stand with black Hebrew writing filled with giant oval-shaped bourekas and order a cheese one! It’s HUGE – seriously a whole meal in itself as it comes with a hard-boiled egg and pickles. So damn good! More Shuk food reccos here!
Chef Eyal Shani is having a moment in the Israeli food scene and we ate at not one, not two, but three of his restaurants in Tel Aviv! Miznon is a fast casual pita spot which we also have in NYC, so we had to see how the TLV outpost stood up. Along with Panda Pita, this was my other favorite pita sandwich of the whole trip. We had the lima bean pita, but the menu is constantly changing and everything is freaking delicious! If you’re really hungry, try one of the veggie side dishes too. I love the run-over potato and green beans.
Port Saïd is a casual sit-down spot that’s mostly outside (awesome!) and has some items you may recognize from Miznon and then some. We had a beef stew of some sort that was out of control, more lima beans, green beans, and ratatouille. We sipped on the “Almost Mojito” which was basically a cross between a Moscow mule and a mojito and was so delicious.
North Abraxas, while still quite casual, is the nicest and most “experiential” of the three restaurants. I won’t spoil too much since the dining experience there is quite unique but order as a table, share everything, and be sure to get the chocolate mousse!
HaKosem came highly recommended and was at the top of my TLV eats wish list. They’re known for their fried eggplant and I was literally daydreaming about it for weeks leading up to our trip. We went late night after drinking so I think I made some mistakes with my order but everyone else loved theirs. I ordered the sabich pita with all the fixings. Next time I go back, I’ll keep it way more simple so I can enjoy the eggplant rather than it be swimming in hummus and tehina. But the schnitzel. OMG. I went back and ordered just a piece of schnitz and was in total heaven. SO GOOD! Definitely check this place out and decide for yourself.
If you’re looking for a casual spot for brunch or lunch in the north of the city, Java is where it’s at! It’s a cute spot with surfer vibes and a yummy menu with plenty of outdoor seating.
When you visit Jaffa, plan to eat lunch at Old Man and the Sea and GO HUNGRY! I can’t overstate that last part. This restaurant is right on the port where the boats are docked and boasts total Arab beach-town vibes. Your meal will come with 20 salads (no joke), laffa bread and a pitcher of lemonade. The bigger the group for salad sharing, the better!
Bicicletta is a great place to grab drinks and a bite near Shuk HaCarmel. Go early if you can to try to get a spot in the courtyard. Worst case you’ll end up waiting in the plant store on site where they’ll start serving you their delicious cocktails right away!
Anita ice cream is a MUST when walking around the Neve Tzedek neighborhood. The most important thing to note is that it has two stores located a block away from one another. One sells soft-serve with a wild array of toppings, while the other is a gelato shop. We went gelato and got half banana-date, half watermelon-mint. I’m salivating just thinking about it…
Abulafia is your answer for drunk food in in Tel Aviv, if you find yourself in need. Open 24 hours, they have a wide selection of boureka- and calzone-type creations filled with all sorts of cheese, veggies, eggs, etc. that come nice and hot. We had this our first night in TLV and practically cried tears of joy. There are a few around the city – ours was across the street from the main entrance of Shuk HaCarmel on Allenby St.
Tel Aviv – Shuks aka Markets
Shuk HaCarmel, which I’ve already mentioned–while known best of all for its food–also sells an array of souvenir-type items, as a good shuk should! Stop in here if you’re in need of gifts and try to find the vendor pictured above where I did the most damage, snagging a bunch of evil eye goodies like giant glass eyes, charms and a beaded eye bracelet.
Jaffa Flea Market is a dusty Arab flea market surrounded by antique shops. It’s just not as great as I wish it were, but the shops around it are worth checking out and the whole area looks like a movie set. If you’re planning to visit Jaffa, don’t miss a stroll around this area.
Nachlat Binyamin Market, a modern craft market that pops up on Nachlat Binyamin street every Tuesday, was my favorite market for shopping in Tel Aviv. It’s a fantastic opportunity to shop handmade items from local Israeli makers. We picked up a couple special gifts there! On Tuesdays and all week long, Nachlat Binyamin is lined with trim and fabric shops full of fun and colorful craft supplies! I could hardly contain my excitement in these shops! The one thing to note is that almost everything is imported from India, China and beyond, but the selections are super fun!
Levinsky Market is a food market in the trendy Florentine neighborhood, which I regret we didn’t have time to check out thoroughly. It’s at the top of my list for next time, though! I get the feeling it’s a less-crowded, more foodie market. Definitely make it a point to stop in if you’re walking around Florentine!
HADASSA & MANNY’S WEDDING
Our second stop on our trip was for the main event — our good friend Hadassa & Manny’s wedding (!!), on a hotel kibbutz just 30 min north of Tel Aviv called Shefayim. Hadassa & Manny are both American so the wedding was the perfect blend of Israeli chill-ness (and deliciousness!) mixed with American and Jewish traditions. (If you caught my IG story while in Israel, you may or may have seen me dressed up as a giraffe for schtick – a Jewish wedding tradition where guests entertain the couple with wild dancing and silly antics.)
It was a wonderful treat to break up the travel with a couple chill days spent with dear friends — vacation with friends is just the best! The wedding was just gorgeous and it was easily our most fun night of the trip! MAZAL TOV HADASSA & MANNY!!!
Haifa is an interesting city located on the northwest coast of Israel. The city is built into the slopes of Mount Carmel, so prepare for lots of walking — not dissimilar to San Francisco. Also similar to SF is Haifa’s status as an innovation center of Israel. The Technion is Israel’s esteemed science and tech university. Its 300-acre main campus is located up on Mount Carmel.
The city is divided into three sections: the Upper, Middle, and Lower Cities. We mostly hung out in the Lower City down near the water, but made our way to the upper city to catch a beautiful view of the famed Bahai Gardens and the bay from the Louis Promenade.
It wouldn’t be a visit to an Israeli city without a trip to the local shuk! We spent most of our one day in Haifa walking around, starting with a stroll through Wadi Nisnas, the Arab market, which was by far the most authentic Arab experience we had in Israel. We must have been the only tourists walking through the market.
We picked out some hot food from a woman selling her homemade specialties from a long folding table of aluminum trays, then stumbled upon Konditoria HaMizrach – apparently a celebrated sweets shop – on our way out, grabbing a couple items for dessert before taking everything to a park for a little picnic.
Sam lived in Haifa for three of his nine months living in Israel so after filling up on food we spent time visiting his old stomping grounds, including his apartment and the first aid station where he volunteered, then chilled at a nargila spot called Kingdom in the nearby German colony.
Next, we took a cab up to the Louis Promenade to take in the view of the stunning Bahai Gardens. Unless you’re really into seeing them, there’s no need to make time to visit the actual gardens. If you do care to visit, you’ll have to make an appointment with a tour group so be sure to book ahead!
One thing we missed that I’d love to check out next time is the artist village of Ein Hod. There you can take art classes and tour galleries belonging to local artists. You can book a tour of Ein Hod here and learn more about the area on Trip Advisor.
For more ideas of how to spend your time in Haifa, discover the 10 Essential Things to Do in Haifa here!
Tzfat (or Safed) is one of my favorite places in all of Israel. This small city in the north is very special to Judaism, as it’s the place of origin of the study of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. The city is mystical indeed, especially in the way it’s painted blue everywhere – a nod to the blue of the heavens.
Tzfat is also an artist colony and is filled with galleries featuring Israeli artists. If you’re hoping to pick up a piece of art while in Israel, Tzfat is the best place to do that. Sam and I found a magnificent piece by an up-and-coming local artist that we cannot wait to display in our home for the rest of our lives!
You only need a day in Tzfat and I highly recommend hiring a guide to tour you around the streets, synagogues and other remarkable sights so you can fully understand and appreciate this beautiful town. We hired a guide named David who came highly recommended and was fantastic! He doesn’t have a website or Trip Advisor page, so if you’d like his info, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll give you his WhatsApp number.
If you’re in the market for art in Tzfat, there are many wonderful galleries to check out. We stopped in Olive Tree Gallery in the center of town which was fantastic, but ultimately found our big purchase at the General Exhibition Gallery, just a block away. You can find a list of Tzfat galleries here on TripAdvisor, plus you’re sure to pass a number of wonderful single-artists galleries as your walk through the Jewish Quarter.
There are two fabulous places to get lunch in Tzfat. If you’re in the Jewish quarter by the galleries, you have to get a Yemenite sandwich at Lahuhe Original Food Bar. You can’t miss it! It was a basically a pancake-panini filled with cheese, olives, tomatoes and hot sauce, fresh off the frying pan, which we ordered with a horchata-like drink to wash it down. Delish!
Back by the big general galleries is Esther & Yonatan, a modern eatery owned by and named after a young Jewish couple. We didn’t have a chance to eat there but we were introduced to the couple who couldn’t have been nicer and the food looked amazing!
NEGEV & DEAD SEA
One of the best things about Israel is its dramatically varied landscape for such a small country. On the coast, you’ll find gorgeous beaches, the North is filled with lush forests, and down south is straight desert! If you have the time while you’re in Israel, I highly recommend including an “outdoor adventure” leg of your trip – think: canyon hikes, camel rides, sleeping in Bedouin tents, floating in the Dead Sea, and chasing waterfalls at Ein Gedi National Park. These types of experiences paired with Israel’s wondrous cities will together give you the full Israel experience.
The two and a half days we spent around the Negev (desert) was one of the biggest highlights of our trip! We crammed many fun outdoor activities into our short time there. Here’s a play-by-play of what we did, especially in case you’d like to follow our two-and-a-half day itinerary yourself!
Mitzpe Ramon in a small, rustic yet polished town on the edge of the Makhtesh Ramon or Ramon Crator (which we quickly learned is not a crater at all but rather a canyon, not unlike America’s Grand Canyon). Most of the activities here are centered around the canyon — hikes, Jeep tours, camel rides, etc. — but the town also has some bustling little action with a cute downtown area filled with restaurants and bars.
The Alpaca Farm, which is literally called Alpacas Farm, was only a 10 minute drive from the center of town and had sooo much more than alpacas!! As far as animals there were also llamas, goats, horses, donkey, chickens, dogs, and a freaking CAMEL! They also spin the alpaca and llama wool into yarn and offer spinning and weaving demonstrations and workshops! Needless to say I was in HEAVEN and Sam was too!
Upon arriving at the Alpaca Farm, you’re offered a bag of food for feeding the llamas, alpacas, goats, and horses. While most of the animals are in large pens, many of them are wandering around in search of food from nice visitors like us. The loose animals were so friendly, coming up to us for treats and letting us pet and hang out with them. Sam and I are both animal lovers — llamas especially, hence our wedding!!! — so like I said, HEAVEN!!
The Alpaca Farm was easily in our Top 5 favorite activities from this trip. If you’re in Mitzpe Ramon and you’re an animal lover too, this place is NOT to be missed!!!
After the farm, we headed up Camel Hill lookout — across the street from our hostel — to watch the gorgeous sunset over the canyon. There’s truly nothing quite like a desert sunset!
Afterwards, we ventured into town for a delicious meal at HaHavit, which everyone at the hostel recommended. We ordered grilled eggplant with tehina and a steak, both to share. After over a week of taking photos, I let my phone remain in my purse for this meal, but it was one of the best we ate the whole trip. (Turns out, this place is TripAdvisor’s #1 restaurant in Mitzpe Ramon!)
At dinner, we also made friends with some American families staying at Mitzpe Ramon’s luxury hotel & resort Beresheet. Though this hotel had been recommended to us by a number of friends, the steep price tag on our long and already not-so-cheap trip scared us away. By chance one of the families asked us for a ride back to the hotel, which we happily obliged and took the opportunity to peek at what all the hype was about. The hotel is stunning for sure, but the real hype is the infinity pool overlooking the canyon, which we couldn’t see in the night sky. After much debate, we decided to try our luck again in daylight the following day…
The next morning we woke up bright and early (around 7:00 am) for a hike before the desert sun became too strong. The trail was around Harut Hill (park at Ramat Saharonim Parking and walk the path towards the hill – more details & directions here!) and was exactly what we wanted: short but sweet! The hike was about two hours total, ended with an amazing view at the top of a short peak with unobstructed canyon views, where we ate a simple breakfast of hardboiled eggs and granola bars.
After our hike, we checked out of our hostel then decided it was the perfect time to cool off at Beresheet Hotel. We had just missed the beautiful breakfast buffet so we went to the hotel’s other restaurant for lunch on the balcony overlooking the crater. Not a bad option! The view was incredible indeed and the food was delicious. Afterwards we snuck down to the pool in our bathing suits where we had no trouble finding two chairs. We enjoyed the pool for a couple hours and even ran into all our new friends from dinner!
After the pool, we picked up some groceries to bring to our next stop: Desert Days Ecolodge, a “glamp” site a bit further north in a town called Tzukim.
Desert Days Ecolodge in Tzukim
Oh man, I could go on for days about how awesome Desert Days is, but seeing as I’m already over 5000 words, I’ll keep my gushing brief. The gist is that it’s a desert “glamp” site featuring mud huts and other mud structures that has all the amenities you want for comfort (running water! lovely shower! kitchenette! AIR CONDITIONING!!) but all activities are totally out in nature. Build a camp fire, grill out on their mini grills (BRING COALS!!), lounge in a hammock, or cool off in their on-site concrete swimming pool.
We did all the above and it was GLORIOUS. We were only there for an evening and a morning, but we managed to sneak in a swim, followed by showers, then a camp fire and bbq right outside our adorable mud hut. We befriended a sweet desert pup named Shoom-Shoom who, despite stealing one of our chicken legs right off our dinner table, totally stole our hearts.
After breakfast the next morning, it was time to pack up and head to our day’s activity: the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi, just an hour and an hour-and-a-half away respectively.
One interesting thing to note: we stayed over on a Tuesday night and there was hardly anyone else there, which on one hand was kinda weird because it was so quiet, but on the other hand, we basically had free rein of the place which was kind of awesome. Apparently they get more people on the weekends so if you’re interested in meeting/being around other people there, the weekend is probably your best bet!
The last caveat was the service wasn’t fabulous, but it could have just been the one person there helping us out. We were given hardly any info on what the deal with the place was and had to figure out a little bit as we went along, but luckily nothing too dramatic — things like where to find the grills and where the heck everyone else was!
Overall, it was another one of my favorite experiences from the whole trip and a great location about halfway between Mitzpe Ramon and Ein Gedi.
Dead Sea & Ein Gedi
I’ll preface this section by sharing that we made this day trip in the wrong order. Traveling north from Tzukim, the best place to visit the Dead Sea — Ein Bokek — comes first before Ein Gedi National Park. We accidentally did the opposite, thinking we’d find an entrance to the Dead Sea right near Ein Gedi — well turned out the nearest place was back the other way or in the West Bank. Luckily it was less than 30 minutes away and we had just enough time to do both, even with the backtracking. In short: don’t make the same mistake as us!
Okay, moving on…
Ein Gedi National Park was smaller and more fun than I expected! If you’re not familiar (I wasn’t!), Ein Gedi is a collection of natural waterfalls and springs on side of a mountain in the desert, right across the street from the Dead Sea. You have two options when visiting: take the short loop around, enjoying the waterfalls and springs along the way, or do the long hike up the side of the mountain and experience more of the flora and fauna of the area. We kept it simple and did the short loop, taking our time at each of the waterfalls, splashing around and exploring!
If you’re planning a visit, wear a bathing suit and water shoes if you have (we wore sneakers which got wet) and pack plenty of sunscreen and a towel! You can also pack a picnic to eat at picnic tables at the entrance to the park, or order food from the on-site fast food vendor.
As I mentioned, the resort town of Ein Bokek is the best place to float in the Dead Sea. The beach there is open to the public and there are free bathrooms and showers, which you’ll need to rinse the thick slick salt water off your body, as well as rinse your eyes when some water inevitably splashes into them. (Warning: do not touch your eyes in the Dead Sea!)
We went in for all of 10 minutes, which was totally sufficient, though we would have probably stayed a little longer if we didn’t have to make it to our last stop of the trip in time to drop off our rental car.
Jerusalem if I forget youuu…! (Matisyahu anyone?!)
Man, just thinking of this city brings me to tears. How special it was to end our trip here, in the most holy place in world to the Jews and so many others, after two straight weeks of meaningful sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and experiences in the homeland of our people. You can read more about how this trip affected me on a deeper level here in this blog post.
We arrived in Jerusalem in the early evening to our refuge of an Airbnb. After three days in the desert, we were in desperate need of a hot shower and laundry — both of which our rental apartment offered, thank goodness!
After washing up and getting settled, we figured we’d attempt to get a table at Machneyahuda, a restaurant everyone and their mom told us to eat at in Jerusalem. We had tried to make a reservation since the beginning of our trip but that place books up like hotcakes! Luckily, we were seated at the bar right away — one hour, they said, but no one kicked us out after we hit 60 minutes! That’s Israel, man. That said, do no make the same mistake as us. Make a reservation as soon as you know you’re going to Jeru – you won’t regret it!
Named after the adjacent Machane Yehuda Market, this spot is half restaurant, half party. The music is bumping, if you sit at the bar the bartender will likely give you a complementary shot, and just wait to see what happens when someone orders the big shebang dessert! (You’ll know when it’s happening.) But the food is damn good. Truffled polenta in a glass jar. The best vegetable lettuce wraps that Sam would not shut up about. Grilled lamb. And awesome cocktails. The perfect way to kick of the last leg of our trip!
We were staying next to the Machane Yehuda Market, so the next day began with bourekas from a bakery across the street from the Jaffa street market entrance that I listed in the food section at the beginning of the post! (PIZZA SWIRLS!!) I believe it’s called Mapiot Chava, but it’s unmarked so hopefully the photo above will help! I’m still dreaming of the savory pastries there!
After fueling up, we headed into the Old City to the Arab Market — the best non-food centric market of our whole trip.
The Arab Market is located within the walls of the Old City in the Muslim Quarter and legitimately feels like a movie set with its tight alleyways filled with assorted treasures and treats. There’s plenty of typical souvenir-type items mixed with authentic textiles, glassware, pottery, lanterns, jewelry, and so much more. Sam and I snagged a couple of woven Bedouin throw rugs (see photo above!), which we were very pleased about.
One thing I have to share: I felt very uncomfortable wearing short in Jerusalem in general (this was our first day!) but especially in the Arab market. No one said anything nasty to me, but it seemed like not a single woman around me in the middle of June was wearing shorts — either pants or a skirt. (Of course one woman in the photo above is wearing shorts — ha! — but they’re longer than mine which were borderline bootie shorts.) For your own comfort and safety, just wear something longer than I did. You’ll be happy you did!
Two fun facts: 1.) Thursday night is party night in Israel, since the weekend there begins on Friday for Shabbat. 2.) Machane Yehuda Market turns into a full-on street party on Thursday nights. Being that it was Thursday and we were staying right next to the market, we had to partake! We started off our evening in the market with a little happy hour at Beer Bazaar, an awesome local chain of beer bars that not only specializes in Israeli beers, it also has its own brewery that local brewers can use to create their products. This place is a beloved staple in Israeli beer culture! Oh, and they have kosher beef jerky, which we were allll about!
Machane Yehuda Market is a food-lover’s paradise! What began as a prime local grocery destination for fresh produce, bread, meat, fish, and more now has tons of delicious restaurants and bars in and around the market. It’s always busy and a Top 2 must-visit in Jerusalem, along with the Western Wall (if you’re Jewish)!
We stocked up on dried fruit, spices, and kosher gummies, as well as made an obligatory stop a half block outside the market at Marzipan — the bakery best known for its ooey-gooey chocolate ruggelach. Pro tip: bring at least one tray of these with you back to the states. Your family and friends will kiss you for blessing their taste buds with these rich, chewy chocolate morsels!
After snack- and drink-hopping around the shuk, we landed at the biggest party we could find, which was mostly filled with Birthright groups and other assorted Americans. We felt like we were in college again and joined right in the party drinking beer and smoking nargila (hookah) right in the middle of the alleyway. This was easily one of the most fun and memorable nights of my life!
Friday morning, we had a reservation for a tunnel tour in the underground of the Old City where remnants of the real Old City continue to be discovered! There are a couple different options for tours — I believe ours was the “Behind the Scenes” tour where we saw some of the more recent discoveries — but you really can’t go wrong. They’re all city ruins dating back to the Second Temple and beyond! The whole thing is simply mind-blowing and truly not-to-be-missed.
After our tour, we rose aboveground for an obligatory pilgrimage to the Western Wall or kotel — the holiest place int the world to the Jewish people. It was my second time visiting the kotel and just as powerful of an experience as I could remember. The energy there is palpable. Millions upon millions of prayers offered up in this one small spot, generation after generation. It’s hard not to cry and offer up prayers of your own. I certainly did.
Something that’s important to note is that there is a dress code due to the religious significance of the site. Men must cover their heads and women must cover their shoulders and either wear pants or knee length skirts. Guards will provide what are essentially strips of fabric to anyone who does not meet these standards.
On our way back to our Airbnb we made a couple fun pit stops including a craft fair called Bezalel Fair, which pops up in Jerusalem every Friday. Much like Nachalat Benyamin Market, local artists tout their wares at this small but robust fair. We didn’t purchase anything, but I still think about some of the pottery we saw there and wish we had!
Late lunch was at Dwiny, a pita bar back near our Airbnb in the Machane Yahuda area. This place came highly recommended by a friend and Jerusalem resident Caleb, who we saw the next day, and didn’t disappoint! I was honestly so tired and hungry when the food finally came that I don’t totally remember what we ate (oops!) but I was very, very pleased with the fizzy bubbelech on tap.
After lunch it was back to the Airbnb to get dressed for Shabbat dinner at a local family’s home. In Jerusalem, most of the city shuts down for Shabbat and nearly everyone is in the Shabbos spirit, so we made it a point to find a way to partake. Enter: Jeff Seidel – a man whose mission is to make sure that every student and traveler passing through Jerusalem has a place to celebrate Shabbat. He came recommended to us when we reached out to the local Chabad Young Professionals congregation who unfortunately weren’t hosting that weekend. The family turned out to be American who had recently made aliyah (became citizens of Israel) and were a total riot! We had a lovely meal full of hilarious stories and ice breakers. We’re so grateful to have had a place to celebrate Shabbat and totally recommend reaching out to Chabad Young Professionals Jerusalem or Jeff Seidel should you also be in need of Shabbat meal while in town.
The next day, Saturday, was our last full day in Israel. Being that it was still Shabbat we had limited activity options. We discovered earlier in the week that the Israel Museum is open for business as usual on Shabbat! Pro tip right there if you’re not Shabbos observant and looking for something worthwhile to do.
This museum genuinely blew my mind. The artifacts it contains (and the sheer amount of them!) are incredible. We intended to visit for an hour or two, which quickly turned into close to three hours! I could have spent all weekend there! Some highlights include:
- Sprawling 3D model of the Old City at the time of the Second Temple, including the Temple smack in the middle where the Western Wall is
- Dead Sea scroll exhibit and pieces of the scrolls, housed in a white tile funnel-shaped structure pictured above
- Four synagogues from around the world whose components were shipped to Israel and re-built inside the museum
- Some of the oldest artifacts in the world
- Clothing and accessories and decorative items from Jews around the world
- I could go on!
This museum is high on my must-go-back list for our next trip to Israel. We saw a lot, but it was still only a small portion of everything the museum contains! Learn more about the Israel Museum here.
After the museum, we met up with our friend Caleb who was on the same gap year program as Sam back in 2007. Caleb (American-born) lives and works in Jerusalem and was awesome enough to show us around some of his favorite spots open on Shabbat, namely the beautiful, largely Christian / artist-inhabited Ein Kerem, just 20 minutes outside of the city. It’s a beautiful little town that has much significance in the Christian religion, as it is thought to be the location of the Immaculate Conception. For us, we enjoyed walking around, peeping artist studios, and eating gelato.
After our walking around Ein Kerem, we headed back into the city to First Station, something we’d wanted to check out the whole time we were there! It’s an old train station that’s now lined with restaurants and bars, plus vendor stalls running down the center. It’s meant to be a multi-cultural meeting place for all citizens of Israel to feel welcome, no matter their religion or background. It’s for this reason, most of the restaurants are open here on Saturday, however the shopping stalls were closed. It’s a very lively destination with music playing, children running around, and special events. Definitely check it out if you can!
We ended our whirlwind tour of Israel the best way possible: meeting up with family for dinner. This is Yami and Elli and their adorable children. Both tour guides, Elli was leading a Birthright trip and happened to be in Jerusalem for Shabbat as well so we did the natural thing and met up on Ben Yehuda Street – a bustling shopping street that’s filled with plenty of souvenir shops and even more Birthright kids.
And just like that, we headed home the next morning, so sad it was over, but feeling oh so blessed to have this true trip of lifetime. Please drop any and all questions below!
Shalom, ahava v’neon,