I’m Finally Going to Israel

Greece, Israel, Italy and Turkey are the big ones that raise eyebrows when I cop to not having visited (excepting airport connections). With some unexpected time freed up this weekend I am Israel-bound, thanks to a last-minute $521 fare on Aeroflot with good flight and connection times. I used 39k Citi ThankYou Points.

Israel Flag

If all goes well this will be my 149th UN country and 225th Travelers Century Club Country. No way to avoid history or geopolitics on such a trip and I don’t want to. I want to see for myself the land so central to world history and current events. Palestine will be my 226th Travelers Century Club Country. Rick Steves Travel as a Political Act reflects my view of travel and is a good primer.

I will have 2.5 full days. Not enough, you shout. I will do my best. I will see the core religious sites, am looking at a trip up to Haifa and/or down to Masada, and want to head deeper into the West Bank. Hard to narrow the choices when nearly every point on the map, has a ‘that sounds familiar,’ ring. It sounds like the situation in Gaza is not suited to a short there and back trip. Dead Sea is the one typical highlight I may skip.

I will be renting a car, hopefully can find one that allows entry to the West Bank. I have gotten letters of insurance for 3 different credit cards (Chase Hyatt Visa for its raised numbers, Chase United MileagePlus Explorer for another Visa, and Citi Premier MasterCard, my preferred for 3x). I am determined to not pay CDW!

I haven’t yet picked where I will sleep for the nights. The chain hotels look poor value for a traveler who will hardly be in the room and are clustered in Tel Aviv. I will be looking for smaller places along my route.

Readers, this is a land many of you know intimately, what are your suggestions and tips?

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  • Bryce Griffler

    SO COOL! You’ll have a blast. Masada is BEAUTIFUL. Consider also the Bahai Gardens, Tzfat, and even Tel Aviv–happening night life. The Dead Sea was actually a VERY unique experience for me, growing up as a pool rat. The feeling of water being so buoyant was VERY strange. Be careful not to shave a few days prior, though.

    Agree–stay in the smaller places. No need to book a chain. Even the chains aren’t great.

  • Charlie

    Glad you are going and know you will have a great trip! I am not sure if any rental agencies will let you go into the West Bank but I have been there in a rental car before (I honestly forgot it said not to go there – nothing happened!).
    With your manner of travel, I have no doubt that you will see all of the major stuff during your trip. Have a great time and be sure to let me know when you finally make it here to Greece. 🙂

  • Sam

    I will be going to Israel with my wife and kids on Thursday with Air Canada’s price mistake. ($284 per person from EWR)

    There is a ton to do there but here are a few things.

    1. You could go through the old city in Jerusalem and make your way to the Western Wall.

    2. The Dead Sea is amazing. I mean you get to float in the ocean.

    3. Eilat is warmer and more of a beach/ ocean sports and diving kind of place.

    4. If you enjoy a little hike and some natural springs you could go to Ein Gedi.

    5. You could also go to Tiberias and go to the Kineret.

    6. Like you said in your post already you could also go to Masada. You could either hike up or take the cable cars but either way I would definitely make sure you are up there before sunrise because it is a breathtaking view on top at sunrise.

    There is a ton more to do there like off road Jeeping, ATV, Camel Back Riding etc. and of coarse everything has some history behind it as well..

    Have fun!!!

  • Uri

    1. Know exactly where you wanna go in the WB, map and all. One wrong turn with a yellow license plate can be a problem.
    2. I used my Chase Sapphire Preferred to rent. That’s the best solution if you want to avoid paying any CDW or other insurance related payments. Driving in Israelbis crazy and in the WB even crazier. Make sure you call your credit card company and they’ll email you a waiver.
    3. If you end up in Tel Aviv, you’ll many many wonderful restaurants you should try. In Jerusalem, there is one restaurant you must try: Machneyuda, (מחניודה) by the Machneh Yehuda shuk (market), upscale market to table restaurant in an unparalleled atmosphere.
    4. Haifa has the Baha’i garden, a beautiful central location on the Carmel.

    Enjoy!

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Sam – ooh, I don’t remember that Air Canada deal, incredible one, when was that deal?

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Bryce Griffler, Sam, Charlie and Uri – thanks for all the detailed info, sincerely appreciated, I am digesting them en route to country #224, Jamaica!

  • Jason

    Been multiple times and lived there for a year last year. If you only have 2.5 days, you will be very rushed. Israel is a small country but if you want to see everything in that amount of time it will literally be a half day in each place. I suggest your first day doing a half day in TLV and a half day in Haifa, which is about an hour away to the north. The second day, I suggest going into the WB for half a day (if you can go on a tour, it would be easier. I did an Abraham Tour’s day trip to Ramallah, Jericho, and Bethlehem) and then the Dead Sea for the other half (I think Masada is beautiful, but you would have to get there early in the morning for the sunrise which is the best part). Otherwise, I suggest Bethlehem for religious and geo-political reasons. The last half day should be in Jerusalem. Best to go to the old city and see all of the sites (and eat hummus at al-arafat in the arab shuk) and then go to machane yehuda market off of jaffa street and get rugelach from Marzipan bakery (honestly the best rugelach you will ever have). From there, take the road from Jerusalem straight to the airport. It’s a great country with great people. 2.5 days isn’t nearly enough!

  • Jason

    Also, parking in Jerusalem is a nightmare, so good luck!

  • sam

    @Rapid Travel Chai
    It was back in mid September when Air Canada was dropping international surcharges. I think there where flights available all through Europe as well with that mistake. I Booked it on 09/18/15

  • Tim A

    Strongly recommend a trip to Tiberias. Even if you aren’t a Christian, the historical area of Galilee is worth seeing.

  • Charlie

    Btw, if you want some wonderful conversation and insight, make sure you visit the shop Shorashim in the old city and talk to Moshe. He loves to talk and is really a depth of information.

  • Dan

    2.5 days is nothing but a tease. I don’t see how you can even get to half of the highlights.

    Jerusalem needs a full day if not 2, Dead sea/Masada/Ein gedi needs a day, TLV/Yafo needs a day, Tzfat/Tiberias needs a day, Golan Heights needs a day, Haifa/Rosh Hanikra needs a day..

    And that’s not even counting the west bank or gaza.

    Also you can’t avoid LI insurance even with a credit card.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Charlie – tentatively Memorial Day week with my wife, so not as ambitious as if alone.

  • me

    skipping the dead sea would be a big mistake IMO

  • Jeff Katz

    I invite you to stay for free at my small hotel in Tzfat
    Artists Colony Inn

    Write me!
    Jeff

  • BradR

    i’m a rare non-jew who visits (for work)… also non-religious, so with that lens:

    tel aviv is meh – sit at a cafe on dizengoff for lunch, walk the beach briefly, and you’ve seen it all. the beach/chain hotels are mostly a ripoff – rates are on par with london/nyc, with the quality somewhere around 1980s mexico.

    agree with the previous comment to half day TA and go up to haifa to see the gardens. not a ton more to see up there, so i’d skip that in deference to jerusalem and an early night so you can get up for masada.

    get up to jerusalem (JM)… if you rent a car from eldan(?) they have matching hotels with deals and parking. you can walk all of JM though will be tired. you can book tours to the other places, but if you go to one of the main gates, get a taxi driver who can take you to bethlehem – cheaper, better, and odds are he’ll take you to something a local would eat at vs a bus full of tourists.

    do masada at sunrise, and because of the distance, it is worth the stop at dead sea and at eingeddi(?). i haven’t had the chance to get further into WB.

    skip eilat… it’s the jersey shore of israel, filled with vacationing russians. if you’re going to go back at some point, do go to eilat and use that as an entrance point to jordan and on to petra. which is well worth it.

    i’ve shifted to airbnb or local hotels when i go there. the first night i will usually go to one of the chains because flights land at odd hours and easier to have a reception desk to work with. i’ve stayed at 5 or 6 of the major places and they all stand out for their mediocrity.

    last time i was there i tried a venezuelan stand at the JM market called Arepas. I highly recommend it. and the market itself is pretty cool.

  • Melanie

    Wonderful! We spent a week in Israel. We took a cab from the Lion’s Gate to Bethlehem, and it cost us $130!!! I’m sure we paid too much, but best get a firm price up front because those cab drivers are ruthless. I didn’t feel like going to West Bank and Bethlehem was worth the time or expense. It’s run down, not beautiful (at least along our drive), and expensive. But Masada and the Dead Sea were worth it! Also, we spent a lot of time ( 1 whole day) walking through the streets of the old city. Fascinating. Also, Tiberias the sea there is sooo beautiful. We went in February last year.

    Place to stay recommendation: Beit Ben Yehuda hostel in Jerusalem. Clean, beautiful hostel with breakfast included. Close to bus lines. Parking is a beast in the Jerusalem area.

    We loved Israel. One week was not long enough!

  • Joseph

    I agree with others, the Dead Sea is like nothing else, you have to swim in that.

    Jerusalem is the most gripping place on earth, the vibe encompasses you. You HAVE to visit the souk, and you HAVE to make your way to the top of the Mount of Olives to watch the sun rise on the Old City. God’s sake man you only have 2.5 days, don’t waste a lot of time commuting all over the country, there’s too much to do in Jerusalem alone. Also I’m clamoring for a review of the Waldorf Jerusalem. Make that bad boy happen.

  • DaveS

    If you’re going to Masada you can hardly miss the Dead Sea. In the short time you have, where you stay will be all about easy access and making connections. I’d just find someplace cheap where you expect to end one day and begin the next. There are some destinations where the lodging is part of the experience; given your framework, here it’s just a place to sleep a few hours.

    I doubt you have any reason at all to go to Tel Aviv (nothing there would make my top 50 highlights for Israel / West Bank). As everyone would note, both Israel and West Bank deserve much more time than you’re able to spend this time around. The relatively quick and easy way to get to the West Bank as a tourist is Bus 21 from the bus lot next to the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, which will get you to the outskirts of Bethlehem efficiently and with a minimum of fuss (usually). Not sure I’d want to rent a car as a first timer not familiar with the area. In the West Bank there are places you definitely cannot go, and you don’t want to miss a road sign warning you of that.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Jeff Katz – I will happily accept your offer of hospitality, however I do not accept comps for this blog, so if you have availability I will pay the market rate. The email address you provided bounced back, so please provide another.

  • degania

    It is very tough to see highlights in such limited time. Here are my suggestions (my wife is Israeli and we go there every summer.

    Jerusalem: The old city. I think it worthwhile to visit each religion’s major site: the Western Wall, Dome of the Rock, and Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

    West Bank Towns: Bethlehem is the easiest to visit. Hebron is tense (if that’s what you are looking for). Ramallah is the center of government and technology.

    South of Jerusalem: Masada: Visiting here will give you an idea of the Negev desert, plus you can see the Dead Sea on the way. Although it is for some an experience to float in the water, if it were me, I’d visit the En Gedi national park just west of the Dead Sea.

    North of Jerusalem: If you have time, visit the beautiful Baha’i Temple gardens in Haifa. But you should really try to visit the Galilee. Specifically around the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) as well as the Golan Heights that flank the east side of the sea. The heights are beautiful and give you views of Jordan and Syria.

    I know you are all for independent travel, but this is one of the few times a guide would be invaluable. You can use an Israeli guide and a Palestinian guide. Both can help you with the border process, drive faster than you can, and maximize your time. Using both guides will give you greater perspective.

    Good luck, let me know if you want more info!

  • Shannon

    thumbs up for RTP not accept comps on this blog, not like many out there.

  • Mike Manna

    Don’t miss the underground Tunnels Tours at the Wailing Wall : http://english.thekotel.org
    Or also the tour through Hezekiah’s tunnel at the City of David: http://www.cityofdavid.org.il/en/virtual_tour/hezekiah’s-tunnel-city-david. This tours would be great to book in advance. I like staying in the Old City, but try not to look like a tourist – they have recently been targeted and it is not making Western news according to my Israeli friends.

    I have rented a care twice and they did not let me in West Bank. Better to hire a Palestinian guide with a car for half the day and leave your rental car in Jerusalem.

    Unfortunately, I agree with other comments. No way to see Israel in 2.5 days. 🙁

  • Dan

    Underground Kotel tunnel tour is definitely a must. Make sure to reserve well in advance as it will be sold out closer-in.
    I also love doing the Ramparts walk on top of Jerusalem’s old city walls. A fascinating bird’s eye view of the hustle and bustle in the diverse quarters of the old city below.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Dan – I appreciate both comments, I kept waiting for you to find me a fare that paid me and didn’t route through Kiev, thought this Aeroflot is pretty good and if stereotyping the passengers, I think enough of us that our late pullback from JFK should not prevent making the tight onward connection to TLV.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Shannon – my view is either take comps or not, but disclose and if take comps, don’t self-deceive or pander to readers by saying still objective.

  • Steve

    Perfect timing! We’re heading there (and Jordan) for the first 2 weeks in March. This thread has been full of things to do (but not enough time to do them all!)

  • Songer

    I’m a non-Jewish traveler but married an Israeli woman. In the past 6 years ive been there 14 times. My first time, i did a tour from TA that took me to Ceasaria, Rosh Hanikra and Haifa. The second day, went to Jerusalem and walked the Old City. More than that would be really tough and you end up just checking off items on a list rather than enjoying anything.

    Best food is shwarma, hummus and falafel. Stick with the local favorites.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Songer – I picked the wrong part of Jerusalem for my hotel, YMCA Three Arches, walked a half hour in poring rIn looking for the shwarma stand and struck out, hotel restaurant turns out to be excellent.