So you’ve decided – you want to see Jerusalem, in the Holy Land. There are many reasons to visit, and there is a lot of religious tourism as you might expect, however Jerusalem is such an historic city that even if you are like me, and don’t profess to belong to a particular religion, you will find it an amazing and fascinating place to visit. However, there are some things you will need to know before you head there.
Security is a Real Thing
I mean, of course it is, Israel is a state which has a series of challenges in front of it relating to security. So coming in or leaving the country, you’re going to find more hoops to jump through than you may be useful.
Actually, coming to Israel seems easier than leaving. A lot of countries do not require a visa, including Australia and the USA, so you don’t need to get one before you leave. What you do get is an entry and exit permit at passport control. Because Israel is not a popular neighbour in the region, an Israeli stamp in your passport will often prevent you from entering a number of Middle Eastern or Muslim countries. Israel have quite graciously I think conceded to give you these little strips with a photo, barcode and passport details on them instead of stamping your passport, to avoid evidence of travel to Israel.
Of course, be careful not to lose them because I imagine you’ll be in a world of hurt trying to exit without them. The security you face entering Israel is generally at the airport you depart from. A thorough bag search at the gate in Istanbul is what I faced, every passenger had that and was patted down. But I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, which is the country’s main airport, there wasn’t much in the way of checks. The immigration gates were chaotic, and the queues weren’t really existent. It took a long time to get through because of the sheer volume of people, and the lack of organisation.
Exiting is hard to do…
Leaving Israel is another kettle of fish altogether. I guess they have had cases of bombs on board planes in the past. So anyways I found that the exit procedure was certainly a lot more work than the entering one.
I presented myself at the counter to check in. There was a line behind me – several lines, which were for security but I had entered a different way (from the side) and so I didn’t realise I needed to go through this check before checking in. I didn’t realise until I got to the front of the line so then I had to swing around, with my bags, and wait in the security line.
Once I got to the front of that line, I was met with a security officer who asked me a series of questions. What was I doing in Israel and where had I been beforehand essentially (a few others too). He flipped through my passport and asked me questions about the stamps in there – where they were from, could I tell him a bit about the places I had been etc. At the end of that I was given something to indicate a category I guess, a note that I needed to show when I went through security proper. THEN I was able to check in.
After check in, the category you’re placed in dictates what section of security you need to pass through, but it seemed that everyone was getting their hand luggage pulled apart. All electronic devices needed to be out of bags and covers. It was very thorough and all in all, it took a while too and you need that three hours before your flight. Passport check was, from memory, very quick. At the end of the day, they do what they need to do and I guess this is not an airport to much around in.
As for around town I expected to see a strong military presence, and whilst there was a presence it wasn’t as strong as I guess it might have been. The Old City has a military section there which could be an academy of barracks of some sort. I guess if there is some issue in the city they can dispatch soldiers to it. And I saw soldiers regularly in the busy parts of the Old City (and indeed outside) – especially at points where there are a lot of people. To enter the Temple Mount Area there is a security check with bags x-rayed and so on.
But the long and the short of it is I didn’t feel like I was visiting some sort of military state, and I didn’t feel like everywhere I looked I saw soldiers. Of course, I did get to visit the ‘wall’ and the reality for Palestinians is a totally different kettle of fish.
Transport in Jerusalem and to/from Ben Gurion Airport
There are few options into town from the airport, which is not close to Jerusalem (around 70km) and actually not that close to Tel Aviv either (but it a bit closer). There are buses I believe which take a fair bit of time, but would be the cheapest option. The interweb tells me that it costs 70 Euros for a taxi. At 64 Shekel (around 16 Euro) a Sherut (Company is called ‘Nesher’) is a mini-van of sorts that takes people into Jerusalem and drops them off at hotel. Having said that they charged me slightly more, and I’m not sure why. The driver said something about two more shekels for my bag, but everyone had at least two bags so why I was charged for it, I don’t know.
The ride is an interesting one from the airport, at times very arid, and at other times it’s well forested, and you see a lot of fences, some quite high and I wondered why that is because I don’t think we were passing the West Bank – although Google Maps shows a fenced off section which may well be that. And the road passes along and through it at times.
Once in Jerusalem itself there are a couple of networks of buses that you can use, and the tram which seems to cover a fair distance through the city. I didn’t succumb to the need for a taxi whilst I was there I’m proud to say, and with a little help from hotel staff and the ol’ interweb I navigated my way around the city okay.
I took a bus out to the Jewish Museum, and one back and that used the same sort of tickets as the tram. The tram winds around many streets and goes all the way to the Old City, making a turn at the Damascus Gate which will take you up Jerusalem’s main ‘drag’ as it were – Jaffa Road. It goes past the market Mahane Yehuda, the Central station and all the way to Mount Herzl where you can alight and walk to Holocaust Museum and Memorial, Yad Vesham.
I took a bus from Damascus Gate around the back of the old city to the Mount of Olives and from there saw the sights of this amazing location too. This was a different bus company and I had to buy a ticket for it. Tickets generally are 5 – 6 shekels (tram is 5.90 Shekel for example) which is around $1.60USD, so they are not expensive like most of the city!
So I didn’t eat at any amazing restaurants when I was in Jerusalem. Spoiler alert – Jerusalem is expensive as! I genuinely can’t think of a more expensive city that I have visited, and I’ve been to London (the closest I guess), Moscow, Tokyo and Paris. So anyways, eating out in Jerusalem is not for the thin of wallet.
So what did I do? Well, I was there for five days and I ate a lot of shawarma. What is shawarma? It’s basically a kebab I guess. Except red cabbage is a key ingredient and it tastes awesome. For a decent meal for around $10USD I heartily recommend ‘King of Shawarma’ which is just outside the Damascus Gate. I went there at least four times. It’s a tight fit in the store, you order, and eat outside in a covered area which rarely fits all the people who want to use it. Comparatively, McDonald’s was significantly more expensive, and not nearly as nice.
Inside the city walls you are going to struggle a bit more. I found another shawarma place that did a few different things in the Jewish Quarter but was significantly more expensive and not quite as good. But still on the cheaper side for inside the city walls. I tried ‘Family Restaurant’ on my second day, and that especially expensive for a couple of skewers, a drink and chips it was around $42AUD so just under $30USD. It was decent food mind. Inside the city, and you get stuck there because there is SO MUCH to see inside those walls, prices are in all cases significantly more expensive. Even for bottles of water. Restaurants seemed to be a minimum of an extra 30 per cent.
Self catering may be a reasonable option, if you are in a place where you have access to cooking facilities. My hotel had breakfast included in the price – that saves you a meal a day and there was a decent spread too. There are plenty of little grocery stores in the Arab Quarter too, and if like me you are a fan of 7-Days croissants, fear ye not, you can get them in these stores!
Finding a place to sleep.
Ahhh okay so I’ll keep this section short. You can see my review on Victoria Hotel where I stayed here. The hostel I see mostly popping up on searches is the Abraham Hostel, it looks expensive but if you find a decent hostel for the price of a cheap hotel – and beds seem to start at around $60AUD or $40USD, you may then have the chance to self-cater and keep your costs down. Which is certainly a challenge in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem has a large number of much higher-end hotels if that’s what you are looking for, but that’s not where I stayed so I can’t offer a lot of advice on that count.
What to See and How Long do you Need?
So, I will do a separate post on this because there is a lot to see. But I will include a list here of what I saw. Suffice to say that I spent five days there, although really only four of sight-seeing, and either way that was not a long enough time JUST FOR JERUSALEM. So I recommend at least a week. Then if you want to venture out to Bethlehem or other nearby places, you’re going to have add more days on. So, in short, things I saw.
Inside the Old City (which you could easily spend 3 days in alone)
Church of the Holy Sepulchre (ancient church supposedly on the sight of where Jesus was crucified), Dome of the Rock/Temple Mount (an essential Jerusalem Site), The Wailing Wall, The Western Wall Tour (a tour taking you under the city), The Four Sephardi Synagogues, The Wohl Archaeological Museum, Harkado Street, the Hurva Synagogue.
** Dome of the Rock can only be visited at certain times, usually before 1130am.
On the Mount of Olives –
Elsewhere in Jerusalem –
Jewish Museum (you need a minimum of a full day), Yad Vashem (Holocaust Memorial and Museum)
A Final Note – CROWDS!
Jerusalem is a seriously busy tourist city. Outside the walls of the Old City, it’s not too bad but inside it’s as crowded as any tourist site I can recall. For me, who was slightly under the weather when I was there, it really detracted from the experience. No where was it worse than the Church of the Hold Sepulchre. So be prepared!
But – it’s also a very rewarding city, and you really must go if any of the sites seem like something you want to see. Have you visited and what was your experience? Please do comment below!
Thanks and as always – May the Journey Never End!