One of the greatest trips I made these last years was in Israel in May 2015. My husband and I spent a whole week, equally split between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, as we stayed 4 nights in each city. We managed to organize day trips to other places as well, and to arrange most of our visits all by ourselves. The country is pretty easy to navigate, and you can basically use all types of transportation to almost anywhere you want, as long as you get everyday the latest news about eventual security concerns. Obviously, even though we did a lot, there are plenty more places to visit and activities to experience, so let me list up for you what I think are The First 17 Great Attractions (and More) to Discover Jerusalem on a First Trip.
As usual when you travel, in Israel as in other countries, get a good detailed map, get a guidebook, and at least in Jerusalem consider buying a public transportation pass, it’s worth it because some attractions can be distant from the city center and some streets are going to make your calf muscles suffer (there are small hills to climb like in San Francisco – USA, or like in Porto – Portugal). By the way, Jerusalem in Hebrew is pronounced Yerushalaim (that could come handy to know this when you travel there and talk with locals).
- The Western Wall (aka the Wailing Wall, or in Hebrew, the Kotel). What more emblematic a place could there be in Jerusalem? You can’t go to Jerusalem and not cry against the Wall – and eventually pray; but isn’t that finally the same after all when you’re there. There are 2 distinct sections once you’ve entered the site and got down the stairs to reach the esplanade, one for the men on the left side, a smaller one for the ladies on the right side. Even though it is totally free of charge and there is no need for queuing up to buy tickets, you will have to go through a security gate equipped with electronic doors and scans.
Tips: Think about dressing with decent clothes, and remember that women should not come with mini-shorts and uncovered shoulders when approaching the Wall (simply carry a light jacket in your bag on the day you plan to visit).
Now, if you just want to look at the construction of the Wall and its immediate surrounding environment, it is just an amazing site, especially when you think of how many centuries it survived. And those old stones everywhere on every construction of the old AND the new city, wow, it does “something” to everyone even if you’re usually not too attentive to architecture. At sundown, all the walls and stone buildings of Jerusalem turn golden pink, it is just magical, I don’t know a single soul who has not had a very strong feeling when being on this site of the Western Wall, or even only inside the city of Jerusalem itself.
- The Shuk via the Jaffa Gate. Most people get in the old city the first time by the Jaffa Gate, on the West part of the old city. It takes its name from the fact that it used to be the starting point of the ancient Jaffa Road that led to the portuary city of Jaffa, today called Yafo, in the Southern part of Tel-Aviv. Right after the gate, there is a tourist information center, and for the record this is as well the gate that is located nearby the closest tramway station in the modern town (City Hall), if you’re not reaching the old city by foot. You can visit the Tower of David and its museum – unfortunately we arrived too late in the afternoon – or choose to walk through the Shuk, the “outdoor” covered market.
Tips: Bargain all prices, this is cultural in all the Middle-East! It is a very popular shuk among tourists, as you can buy all kinds of souvenirs that are mostly religion-related items, scarves and hats etc., but beware this is a real maze and all shops look alike. We kinda got lost at some point and finally ended up nearby the Western Wall that was totally across the Old City. A nice, fun and very local atmosphere. If you ever doubted you were in the Middle-East, the shuk will remind you!
- Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum. Get yourself ready for an intense and very emotional visit. The museum is huge, and every aspect of the Shoah is covered. Thousands of items that belonged to deported Jews during WW2 have been gathered together and regrouped by theme, like books, candlesticks, family photographs, jewels, clothes… Apartment sections that had been turned into hide-outs have been reconstituted and displayed. Dozens of videos filming the interview of survivors are played day-round in every room of the museum, all their stories tear your guts apart. The walk through the Children Memorial is a terrible heartbreaking moment. The last room of the Museum is the Archives room, there have been collected all available data on all the Jews who died or were deported during WW2.
Tips: Data is still getting collected, and anyone detaining today the ounce of an information about someone who got deported in the 1940’s is invited to fill in a form that will be taken care of and archived by the museum Fundation for further consultation by anyone who requests it. Even you can do it if you have that kind of information about someone you know. When getting out of the Museum, the pedestrian path that walks visitors to the exit is called the Alley of the Righteous Among the Nations, where trees have been planted to honor each and every known non-Jew who risked their lives and hid Jewish families during the War. Trees are still planted today when new names come up.
- Theodor Herzl Memorial and Israeli political Hot-Shots Cemetery. This site is just before the Yad Vashem museum, therefore it would be wise to group both visits. Theodor Herzl was the founder of modern Zionism. Theodor Herzl has been buried on top of the hill, and just below him there is a large cemetery in which have been buried most of the big names of Israeli politics, such as Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir, for instance.
Tips: Before arriving at his memorial, walk through the pre-site park in which about a dozen of big signs have been installed. They display texts and pictures that sum-up the creation of the State of Israel throughout the XX-ieth century. It is very interesting to read, and the atmosphere is nice and relaxing under the trees, though it feels at the same time pretty incredible to read about the history of such a country in-the-making.
- Mahane Yehuda Food Market. The top of the best food markets ever! Located in the center of the modern West-Jerusalem, and easy to access with the Tramway just 3 stations from the old city, the Mahane Yehuda market sets you right in the mood for trying everything you see, smell or touch. The Middle-Eastern atmosphere, flavors, aromas and colors all come and kick your senses at once! Vendors technique to sell is fairly easy, you can basically chat and taste almost everything that is displayed, so you’d better come on an empty stomach! Everyone is smiling and inviting you to their shop, chatting, and of course nicely pushing you – Israeli style – to try more and buy more! Locals and tourists alike give in to all this Israeli goodness. Spices, tea leaves and infusions, granola mixes for breakfast bowls or salad plates, huge pickled olives, giant dates and plenty other dried fruits, nuts of all sorts, fresh and shiny vegetables, candies, we basically went for it all! We bought things for ourselves to eat while we stayed in Jerusalem, but went back to the market several times to buy some more to bring back home for ourselves again and for our families and friends. Such great food absolutely must be shared with others! OMG, if I ever were to live in Jerusalem, I’d make the Mahane Yehuda market a daily
pilgrimagevisit! Imagine all the great dishes I’d cook and post about! Aaaaaaaah crazyyyyyy!!!
Tips: Just a few blocks away from the market, there’s a store specialized in all sorts of packagings and disposable dishes. If you buy large bags of food or tea to bring back home for family and friends, buying extra materials will come handy to split your purchases. It is located near the building called Windows of Jerusalem. This is actually where we stayed! It’s a very good and comfortable service apartment located near the tramway station HaDavidka, just one stop away from the Mahane Yehuda station. The store is not located on the street where the tramway rides but on the parallel street that is facing the entrance of the Nahlaot quarter.
- Nahlaot Quarter. The small alley that will walk you in this quarter is located almost across the Mahane Yehuda market main entrance. Completely pedestrian, this area of small streets and houses entirely made out of Jerusalem white stones really is special. It only dates back in the 1860’s, therefore it is pretty “new” compared to the Old City of Jerusalem, but kind of “old” compared to the Modern creation of what we call West-Jerusalem. The Nahlaot Quarter is a maze of small and very quiet streets hosting several synagogues and yeshivot, a Hebrew word that roughly translates into Jewish Studies centers. HaGilboa street is the most interesting alley, as you can walk around lovely small gardens and historical houses, on which wall plates have been pinned to display the story of the families that built them and used to live there.
Tips: If you are looking for more than just a stroll, visiting the Nahlaot Quarter is very nice and instructive at the same time, and a great way to unwind after walking through the crazy active turmoil of the Mahane Yehuda market.
- The Zion Gate. To us, that was one of the most seizing moments of our trip. We got there after a very long and hazardous walk by the old city high Walls. We thought we got lost and might have accidentally crossed over to East-Jerusalem, where it was not recommended at all to go at that time. When we actually reached the Zion Gate, the emotion was palpable. The Zion Gate is cribbled with shotgun bullet marks all over. This is by this gate that Israeli soldiers tried, in vain, to come in the Old City from the Southern entrance in 1948 in order to free the Jewish quarter that was under siege. The mezouza hung on the Zion Gate was made out of cartridges, picked up after the battle. Moving place…
Tips: The closest you walk near the Walls, the less chances you have to miss the Gate as we almost did by following the road on the downside of the hill. If on your way down the road you see a little path with or without stairs that seem to lead to the Walls, take it and climb up! This is the way to the Zion Gate! Then once you’re upstairs, follow the other tourists as there is no sign to show you the way.
- Cardo Maximus in the Old City. This is the Jewish quarter of the Old City. Several synagogues are almost next to one another, and you can shop your souvenirs in actual stores (under arcades) that are a bit more fancy than the Shuk shops that begin showing up just a few blocks away. Prices are still to be bargained down, and even if you don’t like it, bargaining prices is a Middle-Eastern custom. The Hurva square is very nice to unwind from your day.
Tips: For History lovers, or just ecstatic tourists, the whole area presents various sites where archeological discoveries have been excavated more or less recently. It is really amazing to walk some old yet clean and sometimes renovated streets, then suddenly come across a historical site just a level below your feet, and simply continue to the next interesting spot. A beautiful quarter for a nice laid-back stroll.
- Mamilla Food Court and Shopping Center. Modernity is the key word. The Mamilla Shopping Mall’s architecture is trendy, yet it completely fits in the natural decor of the ancient style of Jerusalem. Made of clear and large white stones, it combines straight lines and aesthetic curves, and its alleys are filled with various statues of music bands and other artsy sculptures, giving the whole place a joyful feeling, especially when passing by coffee shops and bakeries where everyone is enjoying their time.
Tips: Israelis really are the type of people who have learnt to live by the day and enjoy all the little pleasures in life. In Israel, you never know what tomorrow will be made of, so everybody is very much on a carpe diem mode, and drinking coffee at a terrace is one of the favorite activities. Sit down, relax, and have coffee too!
- The Bell Tower at YMCA. In the HaMelekh David Street, just opposite to the King David Hotel, the YMCA Hotel is surrounding the Bell Tower that was built in 1933. You might find as interesting as I did, how the city of Jerusalem combines the old and the new, the ancient and the modern, the arid desert and the fresh plantations, but everywhere there is a sort of unity that seems to be set through those white stones on every building and on every pavement in town.
Tips: It is possible to go up the tower for 5 NIS (about 1.30 euros) by an elevator installed inside the hotel. From 46 meters above the ground, you’ll have a stunning 360 degrees view over Jerusalem. It’s a quick tour, but it’s cheap enough to do it, then you can relax downstairs at the café of the hotel on the very nice terrace.
- A Day-Tour in the Negev Desert. Once or twice during a trip abroad, we like to book a day-tour to discover something that it would have been too complicated to organize by ourselves within a short time. Here, at least, someone drives for us, buys entrance tickets for us, and all we have to care about is enjoying the day, taking pictures, and keeping our ears wide-open to learn as much as possible from our driver/guide. We booked a wonderful day tour in the Negev Desert towards the south of Israel, and had a blast!
Tips: Almost twelve hours back and forth, we visited with AbrahamTours several sites in the arid desert such as Sde Boker – where former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his wife are buried, the Natural Reserve of Ein Avdat a little further (incredible site!!!), and the ancient crater (one of the world’s largest) of Mitzpe Ramon where we also took a camel ride. We had top notch hummus and falafels for lunch, sitting next to Tsahal Israeli soldiers stationed in Mitzpe Ramon area. You can read about this day-tour in my post under the Travel section of my blog or by clicking here.
- Learn about the Local Development Projects. Since its creation on, the state of Israel has been pushing for Agriculture projects that have represented quite a challenge to the country, given that we’re talking here about plantations in a desert. Moreover, the concerns around the Water management have always been central, and the matters related to biodiversity have become vital too as the political situation of the country gave Israel the habit of not only relying on its direct neighbors for everything they would need. We’re not talking about autarcy but we’re talking about setting the level very high for creating new ways of being self-sufficient through technology innovations. Currently, Israel is also focusing on developing all kinds of projects related to what we call in our modern times Eco-Tourism. Basically, it consists in funding agricultural and environmental projects through tourism, by associating both activities.
Tips: The family we visited in the Negev desert during our day-tour was settled in an area where they were growing plums and olive trees and they were pressing their own olive oil too. They now organize olive oil tastings and tours of their land, but they also created a service of events hosting on their same land. Groups can spend a night or two in giant tents after they party for weddings or such, in a very unique environment, and enjoy on the next day a cultural tour of the area if desired. That is supposed to help the local farmers with developing further their activity and help the country create new resources while providing a touristic service to visitors at the same time.
- Stroll in the Park down to the big Menorah facing the Knesset. We wanted to visit the Knesset while in session (the Israeli Assembly) but somehow didn’t manage to make it on time as we got lost (again) in a public park on the way. We missed the last entry time by 10 small minutes on our very last day in Jerusalem… I went inside when I was a teenager, but my husband did not, so we were quite disappointed to have missed our chance this time. We simply enjoyed the view from the outside – which is a big wording, given the fact that there is nothing much to see and the front gate is very much guarded.
Good to know: The compensation though was the presence – across the Knesset main gate – of a massive Menorah (candlestick) made of bronze, carved and sculpted with hundreds of micro-representations of the Jewish people’s history through the centuries. The park ended with a botanical garden, and exited near a quite modern and new Multiplex in which we had lunch. We tasted the famous shakshuka, an Israeli dish mostly made of marinated cooked bell peppers and eggs.
- Ben-Yehuda Pedestrian Street. During daytime, Ben-Yehuda is super active with restaurants, cafés, terraces, ice-cream shops, bagels shops, falafels and schwarma shops of course, and souvenirs stores. That’s Jerusalem’s pedestrian street and it is as vibrant as one would expect. Prices are a bit higer than in other places in town, but although I wouldn’t call it a toursit’s trap, you definitely pay for more than just the food, and at least you eat far from the traffic jam.
Tips: Thursday night marks the beginning of the weekend, as in Israel the week starts on Sunday and the weekends are Friday and Saturday. Therefore, every thursday, people of Jerusalem go out and have fun in bars and restaurants, while individuals gather together in small groups to play music out in the street on Ben-Yehuda and set a wonderful party ambience that all pedestrians can take part to by dancing or just watching.
- Abundance of Falafel and Schwarma street sellers. Locals and Tourists who are Lovers of Falafels, Hummus, Schwarma and other local delicacies, welcome to Jerusalem, the beating heart of Middle-Eastern cuisine, where all neighbor countries have contributed to enrich what the Israelis are now cooking daily, out of what they successfully grow on their originally arid land. The Israeli way of living is pretty laid-back, and even though fancy restaurants come out every now and then, the culture of street food is very strong in the country, and so is it in Jerusalem too. We can’t say falafels and schwarmas are all excellent, but still we can say they are pretty good almost everywhere. And they are so easy to come by just everywhere!
Tips: As much as I love to eat falafels stuffed in pita, in Jerusalem I must say that I especially loved the schwarma lamb chunks rolled up in a Laffa bread, this large flat bread originally from Iraq in which you can also stuff lots of vegetables and salads with your lamb and tehina sauce (sesame paste based sauce). We had one of them at least once every day that we’ve spent in Yerushalaim. A bit like Israeli kids, I think, who are used to eating pita sandwiches from a very young age, as we can guess thanks to this drawing!
- Dine in one of the many restaurants of Jerusalem. The food scene is nice though not as wide as in other cities, but it doesn’t have to be, does it? As long as it is tasty, when you only visit a few days, what you really want actually is to taste the local food and how it locally tastes! Some places are really fancy, but most places will allow you a very laid-back dinner. Choices of food go from local Israeli to North-African, European, Russian, American or Japanese, and basically you will find the same options as in most European countries.
In other words: After all it’s a very cosmopolitan city and you can’t expect it to have based its food on no foreign influence at all! It’s just the exact opposite.
- Experience taking a Sherut for transportation. A sherut is a pretty unique way of riding long or medium distances in taxi with shared cost. It does have the color of a taxi, but it looks more like a mini-van. The tricky part is that you cannot call or pre-book a sherut, and the driver usually does not leave until the van is full, so that the ride is profitable to him. The first time we took a sherut, we waited no more than 10 minutes for other customers to hop on and the van to depart. The last time we experienced it, we got crazy waiting for almost 2 hours…!!! The more time passed, the more customers who had got in finally decided to get off, making our passengers number problem get bigger by the hour. Ouch!
And now, here are more things to do if you have more time to explore the city as it has a lot more to offer. These are attractions I had originally planned but couldn’t go through with for various reasons (security matters, travel agency’s agenda last minute modification, lack of time…). For sure I’ll make plans for next time I travel to Israel.
- Walk on the Old City Walls. First thing on my to-do-list when visiting Jerusalem again next time! We heard the view of the Old City from above is just amazing!
- Take a Hummus Class. That was part of our original plan, but the session was cancelled by the organizer he decided to set a concert and BBQ night instead.
- Go for a 3 day-tour in Jordan. Departing from Jerusalem, with a tour guide that will help with formalities, you are driven by the Jordanian border and handed to another tour guide (Jordanian) once on the other side. Same protocol on the way back, and in the meantime you get to see Petra and its area while experiencing Jordanian hospitality. Definitely our plan for our next visit!!
- Go to beautiful Ein Kerem village located at a near distance of Jérusalem, and eat at Abu Shukri what seems to be the best hummus in the world (according to many sources).
- Get into a Wine-Tasting Tour. Day-trip (or longer) are available from Jerusalem to different areas, but most likely you’ll want to go to the Galilea area in the North (and so will we!). Yes, wine cultivated in the desert.
- Go to the Dead Sea. We have been there as teenagers, coupled with a visit of Masada. It’s definitely worth it, and next time we go back to Jerusalem we’ll plan to go back to this area and try new activities available on day-tours, why not a Spa Resort to get special treatment with the Salt of the Dead Sea. Or Hiking. Who knows!
And before you leave this page, I’d be happy that you check out the TRAVEL SECTION ON MY BLOG, and if you are into cooking then the page dedicated to my Cookbook.
Created and Written by Sophie Rebibo-Halimi, © 2016 All Rights Reserved.
All itineraries (except the day tour in the Negev desert) also are all created by Sophie Rebibo-Halimi, © 2015 All Rights Reserved, and may not be used as such by a third party for any commercial purpose without prior written agreement with the Author.