During our trip we devoted a full day to visiting Masada. Because the costs of tours were quite high and the prospects of experiencing the traffic and “aggressive” driving habits of the locals, we opted to take public transportation and it was a breeze. The first bus leaves from the Jerusalem Central Station at 8:00 AM and delivers you to the foot of Masada by 9:30 AM. After visiting a very well done Museum (NIS 20 including a great audioguide) we took the Cable Car to the top and with another audioguide spent four hours exploring this moving and breathtaking spot. While we had already done the Dead Sea (from the Jordanian side) the bus stopped at Ein Gedi and Dead Sea so you could do both on the same trip. The bottom line: the bus is clean, efficient and cheap!
While a number of Jewish sites are closed on Shabat, there are some incredible opportunities available during late Friday and Saturday. We walked to the Western Wall at around 4:30 PM and spent three hours experiencing the reverence and celebration of welcoming the arrival of Shabat. Soldiers, Yeshiva students, orthodox Jews, young professionals, an amazing diversity of people, come together in a display which I shall never forget. Visitors are most welcome but remember that the Western Wall is a Synagogue and Shabat is a holy time—so no pictures, no inappropriate dress, just watch and be moved. By the way photos at other times is absolutely fine.
On Saturday morning we visited the Mount of Olives and the six-seven major sites on that mount (including the oldest and most extensive Jewish cemetery in the world). On Saturdays you could take a taxi or an Arab bus (from Damascus Gate) to the top of the Mount but we walked it and found it reasonably easy (but it was cool and would be far more difficult in summer heat), We devoted about three hours to the area and then walked to the Arab Bus Station at the Damascus Gate for a trip to Bethlehem.
Public transportation to Bethlehem is very easy. Going we took a large bus which took about 40 minutes without any stops for the Security Gate and were dropped off at the last stop where many taxis were waiting. We negotiated a 30 NIS fare to take us to manger Square. On the return we took a taxi to the Security Gate, walked through it (showing passport and passing in two minutes and took a small van type bus (waiting on the other side) which dropped us off at the Jaffa Gate. The buses were simple, easy to navigate, and saved us a small fortune in comparison to the tours that were offered.
While every Christian visiting Jerusalem should visit Bethlehem, we were left with a strangely ambiguous feeling about the visit. The Church of the Nativity is remarkable in some was although even in winter the crowds were large. The other sites—Milk Grotto, Shephers Field, etc. were interesting but the commercialism of the city was a mild turn off to us. We are glad we visited but if your time is very limited, I am not sure that a visit to Bethlehem should be at the top of your priorities.
While I will post a more extensive posting on the Tel Aviv site, I wanted to say that a day trip by public transportation to Tel Aviv is very easy. We took an ealy morning bus from Jerusalem Central Bus to tel Aviv Central Bus and it was easy and cheap. The main Tel Avib bus station is, like most big city stations, very busy, kinda dirty, in a sketchy neighborhood, but quite convenient to many sites. If at all possible, consider leaving the city from the Arlozorov station (much better neighborhood and much much easier—actually a bus lot not a station). Traffic in Tel Aviv is extensive so try to have dinner in the city before returning to Jerusalem.
The highlights of our day in Tel Aviv were Independence Hall (reserve in advance); the Disaspora Museum (an incredible insight into the Jewish people worldwide); the Palmach Museum (a great high tech tour with advance reservations). Note that the Observation Desk at tge Shalom Tower has been permanently closed.
There are excellent restaurants throughout Jerusalem but we emphasized the lower to mid range venues. Among the spots we highly recommend: Armenian Taveren and Bulghouri (two great spots in the Armenian Quarter); Amigo Emil (a great restaurant in the Old City); the YMCA Three Arches; Eldad Vezehu Restauarnt (on Jaffa Street); and the restaurant at the Jerusakem Hotel in East Jerusakem; and two remarkable finds—the Modern Restaurant in the Israel Museum. That restaurant had wonderful food and great wine (but the wine list is in Hebrew only but the staff helped us choose a great Israeli wine for a most reasonable price) and Little Jerusalem at the Ticho Hoiuse (which is also a museum worth seeing). By the way none of the restaurants we went to included a service charge and we left between 10 and 15 % (the credit card receipts do not have a spot for tip so we always left the tip in NIS). Note that a famous restaurant in Old City—Papa Andreas—has changed hands and the n ew restaurant was very unappealing—we opted not to eat there although the views are still remarkable.
At least one day you should simply walk and get lost in the Christian and Muslim sections of the Old City. The souqs are an experience and while you will have merchants solicit your business, we found them far less intrusive than in many other cities. We felt totally comfortable and there were always locals and military whou would give you directions. Hint: if lost just ask for one of the Gates (Damascus or Jaffa) and you will soon be on your way. The smells of spices and food, the countless produce stands and women selling their produce, the many stores selling literally everything, the unique experience of finding yourself on the Via Dolorosa, the architecture, the diversity of people—a trip to Jerusalem without a few hours of meandering the streets is unthinkable.
The Jewish Quarter of the city is quite different. The streets are well maintained, the facilities quite modern, the sites quite remarkable (Wohl Archaeological Museum, Burnt House (despite a really over the top introductory film), the Cardo, Hurva Synagogue) and there is a palpable vibrancy. However, the Quarter lacks the color and myriad of smells, sites and sounds that are so overwhelming in the Muslim and Christian Quarters).
As you visit many of the sites in Jerusalem . you will experience vigorous debates over the historical accuracy of many claims—is Golgotha at the Church of the Holy Sepluchre or the Garden Tomb; is King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion or near the City of David; is the Garden of Gesthemane really the site described in the bible; are the various tombs of the prophets and others the actual resting spots. I fully understand that these are legitimate debates but would respectfully submit that concentrating on these issues interferes with what Jerusalem is all about. This is the holiest cities of Christianity and Judiasm and the third holiest city of Islam—and what is remarkable is how easily one finds inner peace, renewed spirituality, respect for the diversity of the city; and the hope that the prayer for Peace for Jerusalem will one day come true.
I shall never forget my trip to Jerusalem and Israel and am already planning a return trip. I have now been back in the United States for over a week but the city, its people, and its spirituality remain vivid in my mind and heart. I am not exaggerating when I say it was a life changing experience.
Thank you all for helping me and know that I feel like we have become friends with the common bond that travel creates.
ShalomEdited: 27 January 2012, 17:30