Travel stories from my trip to Israel (and Palestine)
Israel Photo Album | Top 30 | Jerusalem | Dead Sea | Galilee | Bethlehem (West Bank)
Two-week Israel itinerary
I spent about two weeks travelling in Israel – it’s not a huge country so in theory you can get from one end to the other in a half a day. Most tourist itineraries revolve around religious places, and Israel is full of various holy sites mentioned in Abrahamic scriptures. There’s a lot more to do though, including plenty of active outdoorsy stuff like cycling, camping, hiking, and excursions to the Palestenian territories which is adventurous in its own way.
I embraced Israel right away by diving straight into the heart of the old city, Jerusalem, and partaking in the Shabbat celebrations at the Western Wall. The heightened level of excitement carried through next few days of visiting the Bethlehem and other parts of the West Bank.
On a very crowded Sunday, I took a bus from Jerusalem to Tiberias, and rented a bike the next day to ride around the Sea of Galilee which has numerous old sites from the Bible. Roman ruins at Beit She’an are impressive, and so is the serenity atop the town of Safed, the centre of the Kabbalah mystical branch of Judaism.
Haifa was next on my itinerary, closely followed by a day trip to Acre and it’s fascinating old city and crusader forts. Tel Aviv is a city that never sleeps, except Jaffa which is the old part Tel Aviv that is excellent for winding down.
Scrolls from the Holy Land: Travelogue series
I visited Israel back in 2007; it was the first time I travelled to a foreign country that wasn’t India or Canada where I lived. Whilst it was my first international travel, I wasn’t unfamiliar at all with backpacking or travelling solo. I had, by then, travelled to different parts of India, which feel like visiting a different country each time – if you’ve been to India, you’ll know what I mean.
In a way I found lots of similarities between Israel and India. Perhaps it was the dominant prevalence of religion, a sense of order behind all the inter-ethnic tension, being established as independent countries around the same time, and experiencing some similar type of conflicts (extremism, identity, democracy, etc.). While the country might look predominantly “western”, I thought the people were very “eastern” when it came to things like personal space, respect, and general day-to-day living.
A constant joke was that half the Israelis were holidaying in India.
I reached Israel on a Friday afternoon (in retrospect, this was error 1) and went to Jerusalem rightaway (error 2). By the time my bus pulled into Jerusalem, the sun was just setting and Shabbat had arrived. It meant the city literally shut down and it became very difficult to reach my hostel from the bus station because motorized vehicles didn’t operate once Sabbath hit.
I was left at the mercy of enterprising taxi drivers, many of whom refused the short drive to the old city. The one that did end up picking me gave me a 10 agorot coin in change for the fare instead of a 10 shekel one. In other words, I received 10 cents instead of 10 dollars. I was too exhausted and unfamilar to tell the difference until the next day when I tried to buy a bottle of water.
There is no parallel I can think of for the Shabbat spectacle at the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem. It is an immensely powerful spiritual experience and if there is one thing you want to do in Israel, I’d say this is it. The joy of mingling with the crowds, celebrating, dancing, singing, the arrival of Saturday, which is just a day in our calendar, something that seems very menial and routine but has a very profound meaning for the Jewish people, is worth experiencing first hand.
Rest of the Old city is literally littered with religious sites that are found all over the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran – be it the site of Jesus’ crucification, Dome of the rock, Temple mount, Western wall, Mt. Zion, etc. to name a few. I can still recall the invigorating feeling of being inside the room of the last supper, and walking the path along the stations of the cross, and climbing to the Dome of the Rock. These represent the holiest of the holy sites in the three Abrahamic religions.
I stayed in a hostel in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem and I asked them if it would be possible to visit Palestine. You are already there, they said jokingly(?), while giving me detailed directions on how to use the Arab bus network (white minibuses) that will take me to Bethlehem and parts of east Jerusalem.
I was excited to go to the West Bank, having heard so much about it, and cross the protection/apartheid wall, and visit the other side. I boarded a bus going to Bethlemen but it dropped me off quite far from where I wanted to go – the Church of Nativity. It meant walking through the suburbian neighbourhoods and markets to get to the downtown area, in what I thought was a totally unexpected walking tour.
Visiting the birthplace of Jesus a couple of days before his commonly celebrated birthday was special. In retrospect I’m kinda sad I didn’t target Christmas day, that day attracts huge crowds and revellers I’m told.
My subsequent attempt to visit the Gaza strip didn’t work out because of rocket attacks from the terrorists there, and the possibility of escalation and/or intervention by the Israeli military.
Bethlehem’s Church of Nativity
Spending Christmas eve in Nazareth in a barn
Gaza strip – maybe, maybe not
To the north east of Israel and bordering the Golan heights territory next to Syria is the Galilee region – very quiet and tranquil and home to a number of religious sites. The best way to visit the places around the Sea of Galilee is to rent a bike and go on a one-day tour. It was by far the most fun adventure I had in Israel.
Beit She’an and Tsfat are other two places of interest nearby which are conveniently connected to Tiberias by bus. Day trip should be enough I reckon unless you are interested in the mystical aspect of the Kabbalah tradition in Judaism in which case Safed is the place to be.
5. Haifa and Acre
I had fun in Haifa – it’s a very industrial and commercial city and acts as Israel’s logistics hub. A fast train connects it straight to Tel Aviv, the business hub. I thought Haifa was very efficient for that reason.
The city spreads over a hill overlooking the bay of Haifa. The Bahá’í World Centre, a UNESCO world heritage site, is located in the middle of the city, its gardens descending on the slopes of Mount Carmel to the main site, the shrine of the Bab.
Acre, or Akko, located north of Haifa, is well worth a day trip. It’s old city is full of ruins including sites that were used during by a slew of older civilizations including the crusaders. Akko is quite small, but has a dense concentration of religious sites for the Jews, Christians, Muslims, and the Bahá’ís.
6. Dead Sea
The Dead Sea has been known to the mankind since antiquity, and appears in many old legends. I had seen pictures and read about floating in the dead sea but didn’t actually believe it could do it. Well, what do you know, you CAN float in the dead sea! It is incredible!! Make sure you smear yourself with some of the rich magic mud. I would also advice caution – there are lots of sink holes and toxic pools of water with poisionous mud. Stick to the well marked areas.
Masada is a fortress on top of a hill near the dead sea. It was a setting for many significant battles, including one of the decisive battles of Jewish resistance of the Roman empire. The location of this fort is dramatic!
7. Tel Aviv
Jerusalem to pray, Tel Aviv to play, you’ll here that common expression. My memories of Tel Aviv are parties, lovely beaches, farmers markets, the shiny business district, leafy boulevards, and so on. Tel Aviv does have a historic district (Jaffa) which is a place to chill out.
8. General posts
I think a two-week itinerary is a good amount of time to do the circular route that I did. If you’d like to venture into the desert to the south or spend more time in Palestine, a three week trip to Israel can do the job.
Story so far…
Crossing into the Sinai Peninsula
Everyone carries a gun
Gay travel in Israel