I toured Israel as part of a birthright group in July 2010. I was there for 13 days, and we tried to cram in as much as possible, waking up each day at 6:30 a.m. and not stopping until after the sun had set. Here are the notes I took based on my experience in the Holy Land:
Considered the “country” area, it’s got a lot of mountains, hills and cool hiking trails. I hiked Mount Mehron and somewhere in the Golan Heights that led to an amazing waterfall. The water was freezing even though it was July and about 85 degrees out. It was very close to the Syria and Jordan borders. A few places and things to check out:
Syrian bunkers– old army bunkers that were once occupied by the Syrian army. From there you can get great pictures of the Syrian border. There are still huge areas gated off because of possible land mines, which was a little scary.
Caesarea- a ritzy beach town with beautiful houses and ancient Roman ruins right on the beach.
Tzfat/Zefat– a very old, historic religious town built on the side of a mountain. Make sure your shoulders and elbows are covered when you go here because they are so crazy religious that there are certain places you won’t be able to go inside without doing so. Since it was hot I wore a tank top and just covered myself with a scarf when necessary. It’s very pretty and “old Israel” style. There are lots of good places to eat and shop for art and cheap souvenirs.
Haifa- a big, modern city. Kind of dirty. It’s called the “New Jersey of Israel” for a reason. We went to Panorama Street which gives amazing views. From there you can see the city, port, bays, and the Bahai Gardens, which is acres of the prettiest landscape overlooking the city.
Tel Aviv- what I saw to be the most modern city in Israel. Not sure of the real name, but “Cheech Beach” is a hot spot to lay out and go swim in the Mediterranean. Also check out the market. It’s hot, smelly and REALLY packed, but it’s an experience. Watch the vendors and locals argue and haggle and try to haggle for anything you may want to buy. It’s a good place to buy fresh baked goods (especially challah bread), local produce and souvenirs.
Jaffa/Yaffa- located just outside of Tel Aviv, another old historic city by the beach. It’s where I did my best shopping. It’s a REALLY good place to buy unique souvenirs, art and antiques. The vendors don’t just offer the same crap as everywhere else in the country, which was nice. And you can haggle everything. Here’s a picture of my favorite store:
Things to see in Jerusalem-
Another crazy marketplace– not as crowded or dirty as the one in Tel Aviv.
Old city/Western Wall- Write prayers/wishes/ideas on a sheet of paper and place in the cracks of the walls. If you are a woman, make sure your knees and elbows or covered. If not, a shawl will be provided.
Ben Yahuda- a touristy street of shops where you can haggle and buy all sorts of crap. A good time to go is Saturday evening after Shabbat has ended. Everyone is out and about.
Mount Herzel- the soldier cemetery. It’s really sad but well-maintained and beautiful.
Yad Vashem- The Holocaust museum- It will take at least half a day to get through it, and that’s if you rush. It is really graphic and sad. Bring tissues!
The street art- not just some awesome graffiti, but there are the sides of some old buildings painted with scenes from the city. They portray real members of the community.
Dead Sea- Spend the $5 and buy the mud! Girls, I wouldn’t shave the morning of going in the Dead Sea because it will sting.
Masada- an ancient Roman fortress community that overlooks the Dead Sea. There’s three ways to get to the top: hike the Snake Path (hard) or Roman Ramp (easy) or take the cable car. We hiked up the Roman Ramp in the pitch black darkness before sunrise and watched it rise from the top. Absolutely beautiful. We took the Snake Path down which was extremely hard on the ankles and knees. My suggestion would be to take the Snake Path up if you’re looking for a challenge, and the Roman Ramp down.
Negev Desert- While driving through we’d pass a small town here and there, but there wasn’t much to see except orange sand. There’s not much to do here besides hike in extreme heat (the temperature got to about 105 degrees in July), but this is where I rode the camels. They were at a Bedouin camping ground. In the desert there is also something called a maktesh (pronounced mock-tesh). It’s a giant hole in the earth, similar to the Grand Canyon. It’s considered a wonder because there’s only three in the world, all in Israel.
OTHER THINGS TO KNOW
Shabbat- from sundown on Friday to Saturday evening, the entire country observes Shabbat. There is NOTHING to do during this time. Every business will be closed, so stock up on anything you may need beforehand and use the day to relax.
Food- Israel is big on ice cream bars. Lots of fancy frozen things on sticks.
Apparently Israelites are not that into international cuisine because it was hard to find. I thought their food was pretty good, but there was not a lot of variety. By the fifth or sixth day I was craving anything other than hummus, falafel and schwarma. I was told that when we arrived in Tev Aviv (a more modern city) there would be sushi, cheeseburgers and pizza. Go figure that when we arrived it was a Friday evening and everything was closed. Here’s the “24-hour” restaurant closed for Shabbat:
Also remember that Jews do not mix meat and dairy together. No meat lovers pizza, no cheeseburgers and no sandwiches with cheese. In fact, many restaurants that serve meat will not even serve dairy in the same establishment, and vice versa. One deli that did sell ice cream only sold it out of a little cooler outside, and I was not allowed to bring my ice cream bar to a table inside.
Stray cats- the country, Jerusalem especially, has quite a problem. I saw a lot more dead kittens in the streets than I would’ve liked to.