Israel and Palestine are not your average tourist destination. It’s a region that is usually mentioned in the same breath as conflict. And wherever you go here, sooner or later you’ll be confronted with the fact that this is, and has been throughout history, contested territory. But there’s so much more to this place than just conflict. It’s home to some of the world’s oldest cities, holiest sites and most incredible landscapes. It’s not for nothing that this region has captivated travellers from across the world for centuries.
Israel and Palestine are small and for their size they have an incredible amount of sights and experiences to offer. The advantage is that distances are short and travelling by train, bus or car is easy. The downside is that you have to make choices on what to visit and what to skip (which is never easy, aargh!). I did the following 12-day itinerary and felt it was a great snapshot of the region.
- Enjoy life in laidback Tel Aviv
- Follow the footsteps of crusaders and pilgrims in the mixed cities of Haifa and Akko
- Get a taste of Arab Israel in legendary Nazareth
- Experience Shabbat in Jerusalem
- Discover Bethlehem’s two-sided face
- Attempt to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Hebron
- Visit the Mausoleum of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah
- Taste kunafeh and take a bath in Nablus
- Go back in time in Jericho, the oldest city on earth
- Float on the Dead Sea
Enjoy life in laid back Tel Aviv
Almost any trip to the region starts in Tel Aviv, Israel’s economic capital (and political, depending on which country you’re from…). Cool shops, busy bars, a seaside promenade like the ones you see in holiday brochures – are we really in the ‘war-torn’ Middle East? Admitted, Tel Aviv is a bubble, far away from the tragic scenes you often see on the news. But it’s also a first taste of what’s to come. Walking around Tel Aviv makes you realise that the Middle East is not just conflict. Life for most Israelis and Palestinians continues, regardless of the political troubles. But maybe more than elsewhere in the region, people in Tel Aviv seem to enjoy life to the fullest. The restaurants are busy, local nightlife is legendary and the presence of a beach contributes to the laidback atmosphere too.
The beauty of Tel Aviv is in the smaller things. The city has no significant monumental landmarks, though the ancient fortified port town of Jaffa, now part of greater Tel Aviv, does offer some very pretty sights. Tel Aviv itself is most well-known for its Bauhaus architecture. At first you might not recognise this early 20th century German architectural style. But look well and everywhere you go you’ll discover these typical white minimalistic buildings that are so characteristic of Bauhaus. Tel Aviv has more than 4,000 of them – more than anywhere else in the world – and together they make up the White City. You can find some of the most famous examples of Bauhaus architecture around Dizengoff Circle (for example, Hotel Cinema) and Rothschild Boulevard.
Food lovers are also at the right address in Tel Aviv. The city has a plethora of great restaurants and eateries. Yes, you’ll have more hummus and falafel on a trip to Israel and Palestine than you’d like to imagine. But in Tel Aviv you can find some of the best versions of these regional classics. I’ve had the most deliviously crunchy, moist falafel at HaKosem. If you want to try something new: roasted cauliflower as a snack is a thing in Tel Aviv. Places such as Miznon are famous for it. Want to have a go at making your own? You can find some of the freshest produce at the vibrant Carmel Market. For more shopping, head to the nearby Neve Tzedek neighbourhood. This area has emerged as Tel Aviv’s cool hipster district and is home to many independent shops, bars and galleries.
Follow the footsteps of crusaders and pilgrims in the mixed cities of Haifa and Akko
From Tel Aviv it’s a one hour train ride up north to the stunning seaside cities of Haifa and Akko (Acre). Trains between the cities run regularly and apart from the stringent security checks at the train station it’s an easy and comfortable journey.
Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, has long been an example of a mixed city where Jews and (Muslim) Arabs live together in relative harmony. Although communities live quite segregated from one another there are no major conflicts between them. If there is one place in town where people do come together, though, it’s the central Ben Gurion boulevard. At night, residents and visitors are out and about visiting one of the many eateries, cafes or shisha bars on this street. Restaurant Fattoush is a great spot to try dishes from across the Middle East in a cosy setting. They also have a beautiful lush garden!.
For a taste of Arab Haifa head to Wadi Nisnas, a historic quarter with a lively daily market. A walk through the narrow streets of this neighbourhood is a feast for the senses!
However, Haifa’s most iconic site today are the Bahá’i Gardens. This impeccable terraced garden on the slope of the historic Mount Carmel opened in 2001 and is one of the most important sites for followers of the Bahá’i Faith. This religion originated in Iran in the 19th century and believes in the unity of all faiths and people. At the heart of the gardens is the Shrine of the Báb, the founder of the religious movement. A guided tour of the gardens is an opportunity to learn more about this interesting place and religion and to enjoy some of the best views that Haifa has to offer.
A few kilometres further north lies Akko. This small Mediterranean port town has a long history that goes back a whopping 4,000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns on earth. Its suburbs are mainly Jewish, the town centre predominantly Arab. Add to that centuries of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Christian and Ottoman rule and you’ll understand that this place is a fascinating mix of cultures and religions.
Apart from the market, the narrow streets and intimate squares, that come to live at night, Akko’s major tourist draw is the Crusader Fortress. Built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century, when Akko was the region’s main port and gateway to the Holy Land, this enormous complex of halls with vaulted ceilings and stone floors was used by crusaders as a hospital, public bathroom, dining area and for ceremonies. An underground tunnel connecting the fortress to the seaside was used during times of siege.
With so many layers of history and so much to see and learn in such a relatively small place, Akko makes for a brilliant experience. Although the town can be visited as part of a day trip from Haifa, I found out that one day is not enough to explore everything it has to offer. If there’s one place in Israel I’d go back to, it’s Akko.
Get a taste of Arab Israel in legendary Nazareth
Entering Nazareth is a bit underwhelming. You’d expect it to be a quaint historic village, but in reality it’s a bustling Arab town complete with traffic jams and shops that spill onto the pavements. But as soon as you enter the town’s centre you feel like you’re going back in time. It’s a web of narrow steep alleys surrounded by churches, mosques and a souq.
Nazareth’s main tourist draw is the Church of the Annunciation. In fact, there are two of them – a Roman Catholic one and a Greek Orthodox one. Each of these strands of Christianity argues that it’s on their site that Mary received the miraculous news she was to give birth to Jesus. Both churches are interesting to visit, but neither are breathtakingly beautiful.
More interesting, if you’d ask me, is the Marie de Nazareth International Centre just down the road. This multimedia museum displays excavations from ancient times and shows films explaining the roots of Christianity. What’s more, they have a stunning roof terrace with 360 degrees views of Nazareth.
As Israel’s largest Arab city – almost the entire population is Arab – Nazareth has a distinct feel. Interestingly, 31% of the Arabs here are Christian, while the remaining 69% are Muslim. What’s more, when talking to people I found out that many locals first and foremost identify as Arab, then as either Muslim or Christian and only then as Israeli. It just goes to show how complex the issue of identity is in this region!
Experience Shabbat in Jerusalem
Jeru Shalaim, City of Peace. Sadly this place does not live up to its name. Jerusalem is a fascinatingly beautiful city though. Walking through the labyrinth of small streets and alleys you suddenly become aware that some of history’s most mythical figures stepped on these very stones centuries ago. Surrounded by a 16th century city wall, Old Jerusalem can be divided into 4 quarters.
The Christian Quarter is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was built on the spot where Jesus is said to be crucified and buried. Follow the Via Dolorosa, the street that led Jesus to his crucifixion, and you’ll end up in the Muslim Quarter. This is the largest and most populous of the four and has a completely different feel and vibe. Its alleys are filled with market stalls and shops which unfortunately mainly sell tacky tourist souvenirs. The smallest quarter is the Armenian Quarter. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its national religion in the fourth century AC and since then Armenian monks have lived in Jerusalem. Today, the Armenian Quarter has a number of churches and monasteries and you can also find the ancient Tower of David here.
Finally, the Jewish Quarter is characterised by small streets that open up to the Western Wall. This is a remnant of a 2,000 year old wall erected around a hill on top of which once stood a holy Jewish temple. The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AC. Now it’s the site of the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine. Since the Six Day War in 1967, Temple Mount – as the hilltop is known – is administered by Jordan and Jews cannot access it. For them, the closest they can get is the Western Wall. This is why it’s is also known as the Wailing Wall, as it’s the place where Jews come to mourn the destruction of the Jewish temple that once stood on Temple Mount. The continuing struggle over who should control Temple Mount is essentially one of the key aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One of the most captivating moments to visit Old Jerusalem, and the Jewish Quarter in particular, is at dusk on Friday evening, when the Jewish weekly holiday Shabbat starts. As soon as day light starts to fade hundreds of Orthodox Jews rush to the Western Wall to pray, sing and dance. It’s a mesmerising sight that epitomises everything Jerusalem is about: devotion.
There’s plenty to see and do outside the Old City, too. For incredible views of Temple Mount head to the Mount of Olives. On your way you’ll pass the Tomb and the Prophets, where three biblical prophets are said to be buried, and the Garden of Gethsemane, which is where Jesus supposedly was arrested by Roman soldiers before being crucified. If only the 2,000 year old olive trees here could talk…!
For some authentic kosher shopping visit the Mahane Yehuda market in West Jerusalem. With hundreds of stalls selling fruit, veg, kosher meals and pastries this is a perfect spot to grab a bite and taste some of the best that this region has to offer.
Lastly, a trip to Jerusalem is not complete without a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Museum. Located in a series of stunning modern buildings on the outskirts of Jerusalem, there are few other museums that have left me so speechless.
Discover Bethlehem’s two-sided face
A short ride away from Jerusalem, Bethlehem is for most people their first (and only) stop on the West Bank. It’s said to be the place where Jesus was born after his parents had to leave Nazareth. The 1,700 year old Church of the Nativity in the heart of the city commemorates this event.
However, these days Bethlehem is also known for something that’s not so pretty: a seven meter high wall that runs right around the city, along the border between Israel and Palestine. Israel began the construction of this separation wall in 2,000 to stop a wave of Palestinian suicide bombers. Upon completion it will be a whopping 708 kilometres long. Though the number of suicide bombings has dropped, the wall has further segregated Israelis and Palestinians and has cut off large numbers of Palestinian families from each other.
For an impression of the wall, take a taxi to the outskirts of Bethlehem where you’ll find the Walled Off Hotel. Designed by UK street artist Banksy, it describes itself as ‘the hotel with the worst view in the world’. Apart from its quirky interior, the hotel has a small museum that explains the impact of the wall. The stretch of wall just outside has some of the most famous pieces of graffiti art by Banksy and other local and international street artists.
Attempt to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Hebron
I specifically say ‘attempt’ here, because fully grasping the seemingly never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine is virtually impossible. And if the overall situation in the region wasn’t incomprehensible enough, things get pretty damn complicated in Hebron. Home to one of the most important sites of worship for both Jews and Muslims – the beautiful Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque – Palestine’s largest city has been at the frontline of the conflict for the past decades. After the 1993 peace agreement the map of Hebron has become a patchwork of enclaves within enclaves. Life for locals is tough. People visiting family or friends in another part of town or even around the corner are subject to strict ID and security controls. Moreover, business after business has had to shut down as the flow of customers dried out.
A guided tour through Hebron is a unique experience that provides visitors with a close-up view of the Middle Eastern conflict. In fact, I would even argue that any trip to the region is not complete without visiting Hebron. Read more about my experience in Hebron here.
Visit the Mausoleum of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah
Ramallah is not particularly beautiful. It’s busy and polluted, but contrary to Hebron, it is a bustling city with lots of small businesses, shops and restaurants. Visiting Ramallah gives you a nice impression of daily life in a city on the West Bank. Moreover, it’s a great base from which to discover the rest of Palestine.
There are no real historical landmarks worth discovering, but one of the most impressive sights in Ramallah is the Mausoleum of the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Regardless of your political convictions, a visit to his Mausoleum makes for an interesting experience. Not just because it gives you the opportunity to learn something about Palestinian modern history, but also because the Mausoleum is a welcome serene oasis in the heart of this hectic city.
Taste kunafeh and take a bath in Nablus
It’s a shame that not more visitors make it to Nablus, because Palestine’s second city is a delight. Its vibrant old city centre has one of the largest souqs in the region, which is a perfect place to buy local authentic souvenirs, such as local herbs and spices (za’atar is my fave!) or handmade olive oil soaps. This is also a great moment to try one of the local street food delicacies: kunafeh. This sweet snack made of grilled cheese and wheat drenched in sugar syrup is prepared, served and eaten on the spot. Although kunafeh is made across the country, they sell the best version here in central Nablus. Simply ask a local or follow the crowds until you bump into a large queue of people waiting for this dish of sweet delight.
Another unforgettable experience in Nablus is to visit one of the 2 Ottoman-era hamams that the city is rich. For less than €10 you can get a full 40-minute spa treatment, including a steam room, body scrub and a quick full-body massage. You’ll leave Nablus feeling like a new person! Check my post about Nablus for more details.
Go back in time in Jericho, the oldest city on earth
Did you know that the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth is over 11,000 years old and that it’s located near the Dead Sea? Let me introduce to you: Jericho. I myself had heard its name but was never aware of this place’s incredibly long history. The two hour drive from Ramallah by taxi-bus alone is worth it because of the stunning landscapes you’ll pass on your descend. Upon arrival in modern Jericho you might wonder what’s to see here. But it’s the ancient parts of town outside the new city centre where it’s at.
The oldest site is known as Tell es-Sultan, a permanent hunter’s settlement dating back to 9,000 BCE that developed into a fortified town by 8,000 BCE. Although the site lacks clear signage and explanation in English, remnants of a stone tower can be seen. It’s extraordinary to think that this was built 10,000 years ago!
There are several other nearby excavation sites from various historical periods, but one of the most beautiful ones is Hisham’s Palace. Taking a leap forwards in time, this early Islamic palace was built in the 8th century and the remains of some of its rooms, bath house and gardens can be seen today. A truly fascinating place that I highly recommend you visit when in Jericho.
Float on the Dead Sea
An afternoon floating on the earth’s lowest lake (431 meters below sea level – how low can one go!) is an experience you can’t miss when in Israel and Palestine. There are several (paid) beaches and spas along the lake’s shores where you can enjoy its salty waters and the mineral-rich mud (which really does make your skin feel brand new!).
And when you’re here anyways, why not make a little detour to the breath-taking fortress of Masada? This ancient Jewish fortification is located near the Dead Sea on top of an isolated rock plateau. Built in 30 BCE, it was besieged by the Romans 140 years later. The 960 Jews living at the fortress chose to jump off the cliff rather than to fall in the hands of their captors. It’s this story of martyrdom that has captivated and inspired many Jews and others to this date. The fortress can be visited by foot or cable car. Make sure though to check opening times as you wouldn’t want to drive all this way to find it’s closed (which is exactly what happened to me when I got here at 2pm on Shabbat…)!