If you know me (or follow my blog) you’ll know I can’t resist a new country. I love to maximise value from my travels and if there’s a new country within reach, I’ll visit it. I’ve been to over 80 countries now – read my blog about how to make travelling a habit!
When planning a road trip in Jordan with my friend Paula, looking at the map I realised there’s a land border with Israel right next to Amman. On the spot I decided instead of flying back to the UK from Queen Alia Airport in Jordan I’d cross the border and fly home from Tel Aviv instead. Hello country number 85!
Of course, crossing the border cost as much as my flight from Tel Aviv, although I think that says more about the ridiculous cheapness of flights. I try to stay environmentally conscious and reduce the amount of flights I take but travel is unfortunately my first love. Here’s how I spent my five days or long weekend in Israel.
Day one – crossing the King Hussain border from Amman to Jerusalem
Fair warning, the King Hussain border is one of the most expensive border crossings I’ve experienced! There is a JETT (Jordanian bus service) from the Abdali office at 7.15am (winter times – it’s earlier in summer), arriving at the border just as it opens. This costs 11 dinar. I paid a 10 dinar exit tax (land crossings only, not applicable at the airport), then another 7 dinar to travel on the bus between the Jordan exit office and the Israel arrivals office (no walking allowed, even though it’s barely a couple of kilometres). A shared taxi (minibus) to Jerusalem is then another 11 dinar or 105 sheikals. In English money this added up to £45, more than my five hour flight from Tel Aviv to Gatwick!
It’s all good travelling fun though and although there was lots of queuing and the usual poor signage and confusion at the border, I enjoyed the four hours the whole experience took. With a one hour time difference, I was at my Jerusalem hostel by 1pm to drop off my bag and head straight out to experience Friday afternoon mayhem at Mahane Yehudah market.
In Israel Friday sunset until Saturday sunset is Shabbat (the weekly day of rest) and Jerusalem in particular, being a holy city, shuts down almost completely. The market was a heaving mass of people doing their final shopping, drinking takeaway beer and eating delicious looking sugary treats. Later I explored the Old City, a 1km square walled city, divided into quarters – Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian. During Shabbat, businesses and tourist attractions in the Jewish section are closed but the other sections operate as normal.
I visited the Western Wall, also called the Wailing Wall, as this is where Jewish people come to pray and lament the loss of the Second Temple, which was built over 2,000 years ago. The temple was destroyed in AD 70, the Western Wall the only surviving piece, the Jews were exiled from the city and it is now a place of pilgrimage, effectively an open air synagogue. It was really busy on Friday evening, an important prayer time.
The narrow, pedestrian streets of the Old City are great to wander at any time of day or night. Although some sections are very touristy, filled with souvenir stalls, it’s easy enough to find alleyways where locals do their shopping, from fruit and vegetables to clothing and shoes.
I dropped by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a church built atop the widely believed place of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and final resting place, where pilgrims queue to see the tomb. The Church is shared by different Christian denominations so there were various services going on at seemingly the same time.
Day two – getting the public bus 231 to Bethlehem
When I crossed the border from Jordan, I actually arrived in the West Bank or the Occupied Territories of Palestine. The shared taxi then crossed a military checkpoint into Israel at the edge of Jerusalem. Bethlehem is inside the West Bank as well, so visiting the city involves another checkpoint (on the return to Jerusalem). Although on Shabbat no public transport operates in Jerusalem, buses to Bethlehem are Arab-run so continue to travel back and forth every 30 minutes or so.
I spent the morning exploring Bethlehem, a very different experience to Jerusalem, and if you’re thinking it’s a quaint, peaceful village, you’re wrong! It may be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, but it’s a bustling busy city, with the narrow streets around Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, busy with Palestinians going about their daily routines.
The main attraction here is queuing to see (and touch) the silver star in the cave below the church, marking the spot where many believe Mary gave birth. It was about a 40 minute wait in the church, where I was sandwiched between a Chinese tour group and a South American tour group. Not many visitors seem to visit Bethlehem independently!
Day 3 – Jerusalem to Tel Aviv by bus
It’s easy enough to get the bus to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem central bus station. It only takes an hour. Arriving on level 7 at Tel Aviv sprawling multistorey bus station wasn’t too welcoming but a 30 minute walk took me to my pod hostel right on the beach. I’ve never stayed in a pod or capsule hostel before. Everyone has their own tiny room and you have either a bottom or a top bed. Mine was a bottom bed, meaning the bed above me was part of the next room – an odd concept to get used to! Prices in Israel are pretty high though and after sharing a ten bed dorm room in Jerusalem, I decided to pay a few pounds more for a private space.
Tel Aviv is known for its arty and foodie scene more than traditional tourist sights and I headed straight down to Jaffa, the ancient port city out of which Tel Aviv grew. Here surfers were catching waves, tourists were exploring the old fort area and locals were having lunch in the trendy cafes around the flea market.
Later I walked to the main bar and shopping district, along Dizengoff Street, where at sunset the bar owners were just starting to open up and the famous Tel Aviv nightlife was starting. Apparently strolling the street is so popular, there’s even a special Hebrew word for it – “l’hizdangef”.
Day 4 – Tel Aviv to Acre (Akko) day trip by train
I was hoping to visit the Baha’i Gardens, the most holy site of the Bahai faith, located in Haifa an hour north of Tel Aviv. However they are best seen by (free) guided tour and the next available tour was several days after my departure date. Instead I decided to go straight through Haifa and on to Akko, a pretty walled city, dating back to the Bronze Age and now a UNESCO heritage site. The old city is built on two layers, with the remains of Ottoman buildings sitting atop hidden Crusader-era ruins.
The highlight for me was exploring the six vaulted halls of the Hospitaller Fortress, now almost completely underground, including the Knights Hall and Dining Hall, great examples of the Gothic architecture of the medieval Crusader period. The Old City is predominantly Muslim and I enjoyed wandering the narrow streets, exploring the souks and brightly coloured market stalls.
Day 5 – Tel Aviv markets and trying Sabich for the first time
On my last day, I nearly hit the Tel Aviv art museum but instead decided on a walking tour of the different neighbourhoods. There seems to be a market at every turn!
First up was the Sarona market, located next to the Sarona complex, 33 stone buildings built by the German Templar settlers in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The food market is a gourmet feast of different international dishes and my advice is to go hungry! I wanted to try everything.
Up next, was the Carmel Market, a more down to earth affair, with just as many food stalls and outdoor beer stalls, but interspersed with spice stalls, shoes and clothes shops and fruit and veg kiosks. I stopped by Sabich Tchernikhovski, for my long anticipated first taste of Sabich, a sandwich introduced by Iraqi Jews. It’s a mouthwatering mix of caramelised aubergine and hardboiled egg, with the usual selection of salads and pickles, and it did not disappoint! Something I’ll be trying to reproduce at home, I’m sure.
Lastly I headed down to Florentin and Lewinsky Market. This area is a little more grungy than the previous two, with second hand clothes shops, street art galore and small hole-in-the-wall eateries.
With just an hour to go before getting the train to Ben Gurion airport, only a ten minute ride from Tel Aviv, I decided on one last ramble along the beachfront and my last Israeli sunset.
Enjoyed reading this blog? Check out my Jordan one week driving itinerary.