Israel had been on my list for a long time but a trip there (work or leisure) had not materialised for a long time until recently. I had a work trip come up so decided to add on an extra day to see a bit of Israel. I decided on spending that day in Jerusalem, given how much there is to see within a very small area – the best way to optimise my 24 hours.
Useful Info: Before getting into the details of Jerusalem, here’s some useful info for all visitors to Israel:
- Weekend in Israel is Fri and Sat. Sat is the day of Shabbat (Sabbath), which begins from roughly 7pm on Fri and lasts until 7pm on Sat. Most public transport stops working at different times on Fri and starts either late on Sat, or on Sun. During this time, there are two main options for transport – taxis and sheruts. Sheruts are point-to-point shared taxis (vans) that carry around 10 passengers and they typically wait for the sherut to be full before they proceed.
- It’s better to take the yellow/white sheruts and not the black vans that drive around soliciting passengers. I got into a black van (Jerusalem-Tel Aviv) that kept driving around for another 20 mins looking for more passengers. Most of us then just got off and got into a yellow/white sherut.
- It’s best to get a Rav-Kav card for public transport. It’s a pre-paid card which is accepted on buses and trains. For trains, one can still buy a single use ticket but buses don’t accept cash.
- Jerusalem has a light rail system. Each ride costs around 5 shekel, and a day pass costs around 15 shekel. So if you expect to take 3 or more rides in a day then it’s worthwhile getting the day pass. If you already have a card then you can add the pass at the ticket machine at the rail stop. Else you can get it added when you buy a Rav-Kav card in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem: I was in Tel Aviv from Mon to Thu and set out for Jerusalem around 3:30pm on Thu. Took a train from central Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, with a change over at the Ben Gurion Airport. I should have reached Jerusalem by 5, but one of the trains got delayed and another got cancelled so reached only around 6pm. Took the light rail to Abraham Hostel and checked in so I could drop off my stuff and set off to explore Jerusalem.
Abraham Hostel turned out to be an excellent choice. Located right next to a light rail stop, 2 stops away from the central train station, and 2 stops away in the other direction from Jaffa Gate, one of the entry points into old Jerusalem. The rooms are clean, beds are comfortable, staff is friendly and it’s a huge place so has the vibe of a college dorm. Ideal for solo travellers, and couples too.
It was around 7pm and would be dark in about an hour so I decided to keep the old city for the Fri and instead explore the area around the Mahane Yehuda Market. It’s a lively market with shops selling spices, olives, nuts, fruits, vegetables, groceries, gifts etc. interspersed with charming cafes, bars and craft bereweries. Wasn’t too hungry yet so ate a few pieces of baklava type desserts from one of the shops.
Continued walking after that, almost all the way down to the old city, through many streets alive with bars, open-air restaurants, street performers, walls with murals, groups of young boys dancing, creating a very happy atmosphere overall.
It was almost 8:30pm and I had walked up quite an appetite (over 25k steps!) and was craving a good shawarma. A search on google maps threw up this place – דוויני פיתה בר – with a 4.6 rating from almost 600 reviews and appeared to be a place popular with locals. It was a bit of a walk getting there but the allure of a delectable shawarma kept me going. The shawarma definitely lived up to the reviews and would probably rank as one of the best I have ever eaten. The lady (I think the owner) also gave a complimentary shot of a homemade liqueur made from Arak (local herbal liqueur) which was delicious too. I would definitely recommend eating here.
It was after 10pm now and it had been a long day for me. The market area was alive with bars and craft breweries full of party crowds. I stopped for some Limonarak (lemon Arak) at a place called Beerbazaar. They also had a good range of craft beers but I gave them a miss and headed back to the hostel and called it a night, after a couple of glasses of wines in the bar/lounge which seemed like another hot party spot.
I wanted to pack in as much as I could the next day (Fri) so woke up early, had a quick breakfast and was out by around 8:15am. My first visit of the day was to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial. A visit to any location memorialising the holocaust is always a very moving experience and this one was no different. Through a detailed account, including many personal stories and possessions, one walks through a chronological reconstruction of events, and by the end of it, is left wondering how something so horrific at this scale could have ever happened.
Yad Vashem opens at 8:30am and it is advisable to reach there early to avoid the many tour buses that begin arriving by 10am. It is very easily accessible by the light rail and a short walk from the Mount Herzl station. Mount Herzl is a popular place to visit as well but I skipped it in favour of maximising my time at Old Town Jerusalem.
After Yad Vashem, I took the light rail back to Old Town Jerusalem and made my way in through the Jaffa Gate. Jerusalem is a fascinating city, full of history, and of religious importance to Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The earliest human settlement in Jerusalem dates back to the 4th Millenium BCE (i.e. more than 6,000 years ago!). During this time, Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, and attacked 52 times (source: wikipedia).
There’s not much point in listing down all the places of interest in Jerusalem as they are well-known, and each person has a different interest in Jerusalem. I picked up a walking map (for 10 shekel I think) at a small shop to the left just after entering through the Jaffa Gate. It’s a good list of all places, and provides a good route to follow.
The places that stood out for me were (1) walking the path that Jesus is believed to have walked to his crucifixion, (2) the room of the last supper, (3) the western wall, (4) Al Aqsa mosque. These places are steeped in history and it is fascinating to just be there and imagine the place thousands of years ago.
The place that was my absolute favourite was Hezekiah’s Tunnel. There are a couple of slightly differing accounts of why the tunnel was built. It was either to (1) access a water source that was just outside the city walls by fortifying the source and then digging a 1/2km long tunnel to bring the water to a pool deep inside the walls, or (2) the source was already inside the walls but the run-off would go into a spring outside the walls so the tunnel was built to deny besieging armies any source of water.
Whatever the reason, the tunnel is absolutely fascinating and one can walk the distance of the tunnel, through ankle deep cold water that in a couple of places could be as high as knee deep. I wasn’t aware of this walk and wasn’t prepared for it. However, I was luckily wearing hiking pants with zip-off legs so I converted them to shorts, stuffed everything from my pockets into my backpack, took off my socks (shoes will dry quickly but being in wet socks is miserable), and used my phone torch for illumination. A torch/flashlight is necessary as there is absolutely no light inside the tunnel so no way for the eyes to adjust either. Flashlights can also be bought at the ticket counters.
After coming out the other end, we (some other tourists and I) took a shuttle van provided by the attraction to return to the old city.
By now I was starving so picked a random place in the muslim quarter for some delicious shwarma and a beer. I was also delighted to find a beautiful set of 4 hand painted ceramic slides from Vic’s Armenian Ceramics & Pottery, a beautiful souvenir to remember Jerusalem.