An Awe-Inspiring Visit to Jerusalem

ONE DAY IN JERUSALEM

On an autumn trip to Tel Aviv, I joined a guided day tour to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Looking back at the experience, I think I would have enjoyed exploring Jerusalem more on my own, and having more than 5 hours in the city. But, given the timing of my visit, the tour allowed me to see way more than I would have been able to otherwise.

How was Jerusalem?

Simply put, awe-inspiring.

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Tel Aviv blew me away. After only one day in the city, it immediately ranked as one of my favourite cities in the world- top five even. The coastal city is a place that’s hard to put into words- it’s ancient Middle Eastern history and culture, but mixed with a modern heartbeat- relaxed and fun-loving.

But by contrast, in Jerusalem, the religious history is enough to leave anyone awestruck.

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Home to Jews, Muslims, Christians and Catholics, Jerusalem is a holy city ranking among the oldest cities in the world. The city itself is divided into four parts- Jewish West, Arab East, Me-a Shearim (inhabited by Orthodox Jews) and the Old City.

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On our visit, we only explored the Old City- wandering the streets, markets and visiting a few religious sites.

One thing to note before your visit: Dress modestly. With so many religions, it’s a sign of respect. I wore a sleeveless jumpsuit that hit mid-calf. Once off the bus, I put on a long and wide shawl to cover my shoulders and chest.

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My two favourite sites were visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is said to have been buried and resurrected and the Western Wall.

There were so many tourists, but the church was a must-see. Boasting glittering mosaics and dimply lit lanterns, it’s full of charm, and there’s something particularly moving about observing people to whom the visit holds so much meaning.

At the Wailing Wall, you have to pass through a security check but we didn’t wait long. Once inside, men and women are divided to separate sections of the wall. It’s an intense place- we stayed for a while, listening and observing history.

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We didn’t have time to visit Temple Mount or Damascus Gate, but I’d love to see them on a return trip.

Aside from the religious sites, I also really loved wandering the stone streets- some stones are as old as 2,000 years- and meandering the markets. The markets reminded me a bit of the ones I’ve encountered in Morocco- lots of metallics, dishes, tea, spices and blankets/clothing on offer.

Before we left the city, we stopped at a restaurant for pitas stuffed with falafel, hummus, pickles and tahini. Savoured with a Fanta (so refreshing in the heat), and eaten while on the rooftop overlooking the city, it was a pretty special way to end our time in Jerusalem.

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Couple a visit to Jerusalem with an afternoon spent floating in the Dead Sea, gazing at Jordan in the distance, and you’ll be hard pressed to dream of a better day.

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Have you ever been to Jerusalem or Israel? What tips would you give to someone with one day in Jerusalem? 

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5 Things You Must Eat in Israel

A GUIDE TO THE BEST FOOD IN TEL AVIV

Israel had been on my bucket list of places to travel for so long, After three days spent traveling between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I found myself captivated by Israel. Tel Aviv now even ranks among my favourite cities in the world.

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One of the reasons I loved Israel so much? The food and drink were incredible. Some of my favorite foods come from the Middle East, but I didn’t expect everything to be so great- the flavors didn’t even begin to compare to how Israeli food is adapted in the States or UK.

And, there was no shortage of vegetarian options. Generally, Israelis eat pretty healthy, incorporating a lot of fruits and vegetables into their diet. In recent years, there’s been increased focus in cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on offering vegetarian or vegan dishes, with a whole slew of veg focused restaurants popping up (big fan of Citizen in Tel Aviv).

Needless to say, there was no chance of me going hungry while in Israel. If anything, I had a hard time choosing where to eat and left vowing to return someday, in part, so I could check out places I didn’t make it to.

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THE BEST FOOD IN TEL AVIV

5 Foods You Must Try When Visiting Israel

Falafel: Israel’s unmissable snack. Chickpeas mixed with herbs and spices are shaped into a ball and then deep fried. I’ve had countless falafel over the years, but never realised what proper falafel should taste like until I visited HaKosem in Tel Aviv- next level. Whether you enjoy it alone or stuffed in a pita along with salads, tahini, hummus and pickles, it’s a real treat. In Jerusalem, we had a great falafel pita near the Mahane Yehuda Market.

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Hummus: You haven’t had hummus until you’ve had it in Israel. Served warm and topped with olive oil, chickpeas, spices, and herbs, it’s divine to dip pita bread or crunchy onion in. Abu Hassan was the best hummus I had in Tel Aviv, and I loved that it’s a small, family owned place that hasn’t lost its charm despite experiencing an influx of visitors.

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Salads: No Israeli meal is complete without salads. My go-to combination when ordering: cucumber, tomato, parsley, bulgar wheat seasoned with olive oil (also known as tabbouleh).

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Halva: Found across the Middle East and Northern Africa, Israeli halva is made of tahini and nut butters/sugar, plus other ingredients to add flavor variety. Generally, it’s sweet and has a crumbly texture. If you’re in Tel Aviv, try some at the Levinsky or Carmel markets.

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Malabi: An old-fashioned dessert, I was excited to try malabi on my Carmel market tour. What is malabi? A milk pudding topped traditionally with rosewater syrup, coconut and peanuts. I had mine with a lemon and cardamon syrup and coconut shavings – sweet, but not overly saccharine. Easy to see why Israelis love this as a dessert treat- it’s great on hot days.

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And, while not something to eat per se, sidewalk cafe culture is important in Israel- they’re everywhere. A few spots I loved to sip coffee and people watch: Yom Tov (near Carmel Market), Nahat Cafe (great for third wave coffee), Puaa (Jaffa Flea Market), and Basma Coffee (Jaffa). Not into coffee? Hit up any of the markets for fresh pomegranate or fruit juice, Levinsky 41 Cafe does excellent, fresh kombuca, and the lemonade at Shaffa Bar is the epitome of refreshing.

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Tel Aviv City Guide: What to Do, Eat & Drink

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO TEL AVIV

After only one day in Tel Aviv, it ranked as one of my favourite cities in the world- top five even.

The coastal city is a place that’s hard to put into words- it’s ancient Middle Eastern history and culture, but mixed with a modern, progressive heartbeat- relaxed and fun-loving.

It’s easy to see why it’s quickly becoming a hot travel destination. 

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When I visited, I had three days in Israel- two of which I spent in Tel Aviv.

On the other day, I took a day trip to Jerusalem and the Dead SeaBy contrast to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem is enough religious history to leave anyone awestruck. Couple these two cities with an afternoon spent floating in the Dead Sea, gazing at Jordan in the distance, and I’m hard pressed to dream of a better holiday.

City, beach, history, nightlife, desert sun, delicious eats and excellent cocktails- Tel Aviv was everything I love about a holiday.

I’m not sure when I’ll make it back there, but there’s no question it earned a place on my list of places to visit more than once. 

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A COMPLETE GUIDE TO TEL AVIV

What To Do

  • Wander the city, there’s so much to see and explore
  • Visit Jaffa, a city conjoined to Tel Aviv, is an ancient port city that feels like stepping back in time. Be sure to wander the old town- there are so many alleyways to get lost in, and great views of the sea. It’s believed this is the area where Jonah left from the biblical story of Jonah and the whale
  • Walk along the beach. Tel Aviv’s west side faces the Mediterranean Sea and has nine miles of beaches. You can even walk from Tel Aviv to Jaffa along the promenade. My hotel was a 5 minute walk from the beach, so I headed down there every morning to talk full advantage of sandy strolls
  • Visit the shuks. One of my favourite things to do in any city is browse the local markets, and Tel Aviv has great ones. Known to locals as shucks, Shuk HaCarmel is the most famous one and it’s been around for hundreds of years. Offering fresh food, spices, sweets, clothing, plants and housewares, it’s a bustling place. I did a tour of HaCarmel with Be Tel Aviv and LOVED it. As someone that travels with anaphylactic nut allergies, I’m always hesitant about trying new foods, and won’t eat anything if the ingredients can’t be guaranteed to be nut free. As much as I love perusing markets, they’re not always the easiest places for me to eat. Cue: Be Tel Aviv, not only were the guides fantastic, regaling us with history of the market and the city, but they also had thorough exchanges with vendors to ensure food was safe for me. I tried so many things I never would have on my own. Nearby Carmel Market is Levinsky Market. I enjoyed this market as well, but it’s smaller in scale, and more so composed of shop fonts (think spices, nuts, olives, grains, beans)
  • Take a day trip to the Dead Sea and/or Jerusalem. I opted for a guided tour because I was short on time, but a high speed railway connects Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, so it’s possible to visit on your own

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Where to Have Coffee

  • Cofix: The go-to spot for cheap, but good coffee- it’s easy to see why Starbucks didn’t stand a chance in Israel. The one near Levinsky Market is spacious, and has awesome (strong) cold drip

  • Yom Tov Cafe: Near HaCarmel Market, the coffee is good, decor is cute, and breakfast bowls are lovely 

  • Nahat Cafe: My favourite place for third-wave coffee in Tel Aviv- I even bought back a bag of beans to make my own cold brew at home 

  • Amalia: Stumbled across this cafe looking for coffee before my Carmel Market tour. Cosy cafe with good iced lattes

  • Basma Coffee: Beautiful coffee shop in Jaffa 

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Where to Eat

  • Abu Hasson: The best hummus I’ve ever had, no competition. Served warm with herbs and spices on top, it’s nothing short of incredible

  • Puaa: A beautiful, vintage cafe in the heart of the Jaffa flea market- this was one of my favourite places in Tel Aviv. Come for breakfast, sit outside and watch the city wake up while sipping homemade lemonade 

  • Citizen: Vegetarian food and detox juice heaven 

  • HaKosem Falafel: Could not believe how great the falafel here was. So great, I came back twice

  • Night Kitchen: The beetroot and artichoke salads were delicious

  • Bucke Cafe: Healthy, colourful food. Lots of vegetarian options
  • Abraxas North: Quickly established as one of Tel Aviv’s go-to hot spots, Chef Eyal Shani’s food is fantastic. Don’t miss the cauliflower and artichoke

  • La Shuk: This places deserves two thumbs up, one for being near my hotel and two for having some of Tel Aviv’s best Mediterranean tapas 

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Where to Drink

  • Levinsky 41 Cafe: Order a kombucha and then revel in delight when you see it comes with a flower and herb bouquet, and a bunch of fresh fruit
  • Shaffa Bar: Sip on homemade lemonade with mint and spice syrup while people watching at one of the street tables
  • Jusa: Great for cold pressed juices
  • Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar: On my never ending hunt to visit the world’s best bars, I knew I had to stop at this place after seeing it rank on the 2017 list. Hidden behind an unassuming hotel lobby, the bartenders seriously know their stuff 

  • Bell-Boy: A prohibition style bar with fun delicious cocktails. I had two drinks here, each was excellent. And, as a fun touch, they serve shots of the house punch from oyster shells

  • Mabrouk + Denim: Fun, lively bars with good late night specials. I stopped by both post Bell-Boy on my way to falafel, and genuinely enjoyed sipping wine and chatting up a few locals. Sidewalk drinking culture is a thing in Tel Aviv, and I’m here for it 

  • Breakfast Club: This place came recommended from a few friends as part of Tel Aviv’s club scene for its techno and deep house

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Extra Travel Tips

  • Language: Hebrew, Arabic and English. Everyone I encountered spoke great conversational English
  • Currency: Israeli New Shekel. I withdrew some Shekels to have in case anything was cash only, but pleased to find most places accepted contactless payment
  • Getting There: I flew into Tel Aviv from Bucharest (was previously there for a conference), and then returned to London. From London, the flight deals are too good to pass up- usually less than £200 return
  • Getting Around: Walk. For super long distances (e.g. Jaffa to Dizengoff Square where my hotel was located, I walked one way and Uber’d back to save time)
  • When to Visit: I visited in early October, and had sunny, warm days. Generally, I’ve heard March-April and September – November are best, usually cooler and less crowded 
  • Tipping: Waitstaff and bartenders expect 10-15%
  • Wifi Access: Every cafe, restaurant, bar and coffee shop offers wifi, just ask for the password. I didn’t have service- I relied on wifi to get around and had no issues 

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Must Know Tips Before Visiting the Dead Sea

When you think of the Dead Sea, chances are you immediately picture someone floating on their back- maybe even with a book in hand.

Known as one of the saltiest bodies of water and the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea is a terminus for rain and surface water- meaning water flows in, but doesn’t flow back out, so it’s left there to evaporate. High temperatures in the region mean minerals left behind from evaporation become very concentrated, and no surprise- salt is prominent among them.

Geographically, you have Israel to the East and Jordan to the West. While floating in Israel on a clear day, you can even see Jordan.

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Swimming in the Dead Sea has always been on the list of things I’d like to do someday, but it didn’t become a priority until I started thinking about a few days in Tel Aviv. I quickly realised I wanted to see Jerusalem as part of the trip, and decided to add in the Dead Sea as a ‘must do’ on the trip when I found a day tour that spent the morning/early afternoon in Jerusalem, and mid-afternoon at the Dead Sea.

Because I visited as part of an organised tour, we stopped at Kalia Beach, a popular tourism beach with bathrooms, changing areas, shower, a bar and lifeguards. If I’d had more time in Israel and drove around the region, I’d try to find a less touristy spot, but Kalia was great for the couple of hours spent there.

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What’s it like to swim in the Dead Sea?

Well, first off- you’re not really swimming- the water is so concentrated with salt, it’s impossible to actually swim. Instead, you bob about. It’s a pretty cool sensation and a strange feeling all at once. At one point, I was even kind of sitting in the water with my ankles crossed. The buoyancy of the sea is bizarre, but also enjoyable. And, the water temperature was just warm enough to keep me in the sea for over an hour. I visited din early October- sunny and hot (41° C / 105° F), perfect for floating.

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10 Things to Know Before Visiting the Dead Sea

Do not shave at least a few days before visiting, even micro cuts will sting when they come into contact with salt water.

Bring a towel, shampoo/soap and moisturiser: You’ll want the soap while showering post-swim, and although the Dead Sea water left my skin feeling super soft, I also felt like I needed lots of lotion.

Wear sunscreen and re-apply regularly, even on cloudy days.

Wear a dark bathing suit– trust me, mud will get all over it.

Do not put water on your face or anywhere near your eyes. At one point, I decided to taste the tiniest drop of water- I wanted to see just how salty it was. Cue a super pucker face, I couldn’t even have prepared myself for that level of salt.

Do not splash around or try to swim on your stomach– the stomach advice is for safety (it can be difficult to turn back over), and they ask you not to splash around because so many people are relaxing / floating.

Tread slowly getting in the water. No one told me this, and I fell, hitting my knee off a big rock on the way down. Luckily I was fine, just a cut that surprisingly didn’t hurt (maybe because it happened in salt water?). The easiest way to get in the Dead Sea is just sit down immediately, even if the water is shallow- sit down and start floating further out. Trust me on this one, after I fell, I watched so many other people fall too. It’s almost impossible to get steady footing- the mud shifts way too much.

Bring water shoes and/or flip flops to wear on the beach. Water shoes would be a nice to have, but not necessary for swimming (they wont’ give you better traction), but I really wished I had flip flops for the walk back up to the changing rooms. My feet were wet/muddy from the sea, and so I avoided putting my trainers on right away. The only unfortunate bit was the gravel- it was uncomfortable to walk on, and the ground was scalding hot.

Ask the guards to dig you up some mud. You can dig some yourself, but it’s better if they dig further down (less gravel, or so I’m told). Once you have the mud, rub it all over your body, but avoid your face (unless you have freshwater handy to wash it off with).

And finally, re-hydrate really well afterwards. I held off on drinking a lot of water because I knew I was getting back on a bus with a 2 hour ride to Tel Aviv. But, that meant I got back to Tel Aviv and felt extremely de-hydrated. Not advised.

Have you ever been to the Dead Sea? Is it on your list of places you’d like to visit someday? 

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Inspiration to Visit Israel, in Photos

Tel Aviv blew me away. After only one day in the city, it immediately ranked as one of my favourite cities in the world- top five even.

The coastal city is a place that’s hard to put into words- it’s ancient Middle Eastern history and culture, but mixed with a modern heartbeat- relaxed and fun-loving.

And by contrast, in Jerusalem, the religious history is enough to leave anyone awestruck.

Couple these two special cities with an afternoon spent floating in the Dead Sea, gazing at Jordan in the distance, and you’ll be hard pressed to dream of a better holiday.

City, beach, history, nightlife, desert sun, delicious eats and excellent cocktails. Everything I love about a holiday.

Full posts on my favourite things to do in Tel Aviv, and recaps of my visits to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea coming soon, but until then- hope these photos cue wanderlust for visiting Israel.

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Have you ever been to Israel? What was your favourite part of your visit? 

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