First Time Israel: Finally Arriving in the Holy Land
Jerusalem – Holy City of three faiths and contested for millennia. It has long been on my list of places I wish to visit in my lifetime. And this is my report on my first time Israel trip.
For many years, the Second Intifada put a stop to that. Then I couldn’t find anyone to travel with. Or my mother told me she would be worried sick if I went. I was never sure if I wanted to go there all by myself.
Table of Contents
First Time Israel and Arrival in Jerusalem
But a cheap budget airline flight later, my first time Israel trip became reality.
Of course I could have joined a tour. Perhaps a Christian pilgrimage tour? But listening to the rosary prayers and nonstop Christian pop is not really my thing. I’ve done it before. It was twelve hours on a coach to attend an open-air mass led by Pope Benedict XVI. It put me off organised pilgrimages for a while.
In the end, it was a brief period of unemployment and the flexibility that it brought and a 70 EURO return ticket that finally got me there.
Arriving in Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport
Arrival was very was straightforward until I started looking for a bus to Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion Airport is a modern, efficient, and pleasant airport. I recommend using it for your first time Israel trip. Even the much-written about fear-inducing security checks on leaving really are not that bad – just very thorough.
There were a few queues at Immigration, but no questions whatsoever, I was handed an electronic gate pass (passport stamps appear to be out right now), pulled shekels from an ATM and walked out. First time Israel trip going very well so far.
But then… every display was in Hebrew. I ended up asking some people and eventually we figured out that Bus 485 would go to Jerusalem (spelled and pronounced Yerushalayim everywhere).
It is worth mentioning that if you happen to arrive on Shabbat, there will be no public transport whatsoever. It’s best to avoid arriving on Shabbat altogether on a first time Israel visit. Alternatively, book a shared taxi (sherut) in advance, which will take you to your door, eliminating the need for further (non-existent) public transport.
After a pleasant ride on a chock-full motorway we were dropped off at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station (CBS), crossed a run-down dark tunnel, and then I took the tram (easy, there is only one line) to my private accommodation.
First time Israel – Exploring Jerusalem on foot
Once in my pleasant home stay in He Haluts near CBS, and keen to explore, I dropped my bag, , took the tram in reverse to City Hall and walked to Jaffa Gate, which is the most popular entry point for visitors and leads right into the Christian Quarter. The right place to start the first time in Israel. Accordingly, it is absolutely full of souvenir shops and very crowded. Thankfully, most of the Old City is pedestrian. Electric bicycles seem to be popular, too, and lots of people zoom about the steep and crowded streets.
I just followed King David Street, the busiest street in the Christian Quarter, for a bit. I had a falafel sandwich, then contemplated which religion to turn to first: Would I walk the famous Western Wall, which is all what remains of the Second Temple? See the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus Christ Crucifixion? Or figure out how to visit the Temple Mount, with its Al-Aqsa Mosque, destination of the Night Journey of Mohammed ?
Then I reminded myself I wasn’t of a tick-it-off-fast tour. I followed King David Street and strolled along the Roman Cardo in the Jewish Quarter, admiring the tasteful Judaica in the shop windows.
If you are interested in learning about Jewish traditions the first time in Israel, this is a good place to start. I looked at some mezuzah, eventually figuring out (with the help of a shopkeeper) what they are used for. And admired an array of menorahs and shabbat candlesticks but didn’t buy any. I certainly liked the idea of the mezuzah.
Most shops were very traditional and seemed to have been here for a long time. After some very pleasant window shopping and seeing some nice excavations of Jerusalem’s oldest street, I eventually wound up at the Western Wall. A famous Old Jerusalem land mark not to muss for any visitor and an important place of Jewish worship – and open to people from all faiths.
The Western Wall (Kotel)
From the Cardo, it was very easy to walk to the Western Wall, as the Old City of Jerusalem is fairly small, and there are signposts everywhere. Visitors of all faiths are welcome. As a male, you must cover your head, and too skimpy a clothing ois frowned upon, other than that, the rules are those of common sense and decency.
I passed a security check (commonplace in Israel) and walked up to the female section of the wall. It’s okay to come here if you are not Jewish – just make sure to dress modestly and behave respectfully. I now wish I had visited the Western Wall Tunnels , which date back to the Second Temple era (19 BC).
Walking in the Muslim Quarter of Old Jerusalem
Instead, I walked back through Ha Gai Street in the Muslim Quarter, which soon turned into a colourful street bazaar, as it was getting dark. There were plenty of snack stalls and cafes here, with rather uniform (slightly high) prices, but the fresh orange or pomegranate juice squeezed in front of you might just be worth it. I eyed up smaller lanes going off towards the Temple Mount, but although Muslims are free to enter at any time, everybody else isn’t – there is only one entry point near the Western Wall, and visiting hours are outside Muslim prayer time only.
I tried (in vain) to find the entry to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and somehow ended up at the now closed St Helens Coptic Church, part of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate – at least it offered a great view over the now dark Old City, as well as the company of numerous stray cats.
It got dark early in November, but most of the stalls don’t shut until about 19.00.
Is the Old City of Jerusalem safe?
I cannot answer this in general. On my first time Israel trip, I found every place safe compared to Western Europe.
I walked around Old City of Jerusalem, Damascus Gate, and my own He Haluts neighbourhood in the dark, as well as West and East Jerusalem during day light, and never felt unsafe.
In the larger streets, a market may be in full swing until about 19.00, with plenty of people about, but even the quieter lanes were fine for me. From time to time, there is unrest at Damascus Gate, which is an important public transport stop for both West and East Jerusalem (the tram stops there, too) and it is worth checking the local English media.
I visited during a peaceful period – Temple Mount was open to visitors, there were no warnings against visiting the Mount of Olives, and I experienced no issue whatsoever. Be aware things can change rapidly, and ask your host or hotel staff.
My first Day in Jerusalem concludes
I had been up since about 02:00 am, so I walked out of the Damascus Gate, onto a tram, had dinner in St George Street in the modern centre, checked out the shops and bought my first souvenir – an electric blue wool beret for the cold German winter, traditional yet very practical. Another tram ride, and I was back in my sleepy He Haluts neighbourhood, walked to the supermarket to get some snacks, all kosher, then fell into my comfy bed in my tiny room in a 1930’s apartment!
It’s definitely possible to get an overview of the Old City of Jerusalem (and visits its most famous sights of Via Dolorosa and Western Wall), but you would miss out on Temple Mount and Mount of Olives, as well as the atmospheric streets of the Jewish and Armenian quarter.
What next? A more detailed look at the Christian Sites of Jerusalem, as well as a trip to Bethlehem.
Practicalities for you first time Israel and Jerusalem trip
To clarify: my accommodation and most of the places visited in this post are situated in West Jerusalem, which, at the time of writing, is part of Israel according to United Nations terminology. East Jerusalem, where, among others, the Temple Mount, Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Mount of Olives are located, are part of East Jerusalem, which is part of the occupied Palestinian territory. Hence, the Walled Old City of Jerusalem, which in itself is sectioned into Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters, is mostly located in East Jerusalem.
Please be aware this is a travel blog not a political forum and I am aware that especially Israeli and Palestinian definition of what comprises which part of Jerusalem differ. I have tried my best to use most neutral terminology, but if you feel something requires improvement, please let me know.
The Old City is surrounded by city walls and incorporates the Temple Mount, which is of religious significance to Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. It is divided into four quarters according to different faiths.
The Christian Quarter is the most touristy and crowded one, and contains the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as part of the Via Dolorosa. It’s probably safe at all times, although you won’t find many people here after dark.
The Muslim Quarter is the largest quarter and includes the Temple Mount and the largest part of the Via Dolorosa. I found it safe to visit, but would not stray from the busiest bazaar streets after dark. It also has a lot of small shops – anything from clothing, household goods, produce and souvenirs, and the most authentic if not always cosy dining options.
The Jewish Quarter is relatively small but contains the Western Wall, numerous historic synagogues, among them the Hurva Synagogue and the Four Sephardic Synagogies, , which you can visit, just remember they are usually gender-segregated, and there are some very nice cafes near Hurva Synagogue. I found that the nicest shops for quality Judaica were also in the Jewish Quarter.
The Armenian Quarter is the most quiet, and a large part is occupied by the Armenian Apostolic Churches Jerusalem Patriarchate. There are few attractions, shops and restaurants here, but it is a lovely place for a quiet walk. The Old City is relatively small, so you are unlikely to get totally lost!
Where to enter Old City Jerusalem
Best entry points are the Jaffa Gate (tram Stop City Hall) and the Damascus Gate (tram stop Damascus Gate). Be sensitive to the security situation, as some attackes have taken place at or near Damascus Gate in recent years. There is usually a heavier police presence at Damascus Gate because of this. Coming from the Mount of Olives, the Lion’s Gate is a lovely little gate with ancient reliefs and the Beginning of the traditional Via Dolorosa. If you are heading straight for the Western Wall by car or public transport, the Dung Gate is the most convenient entry point.
I found that for visiting religious places of the three Abrahamic faiths, you’ll never be dressed wrong with long trousers, long shirt and closed shoes (for men) and longish skirt below the knee and long shirt with no decolletage (for women). I took a cotton scarf with me as a head covering, which came in really useful. In more conservative neighbourhoods, even long trousers on women (my usual travelling attire) is considered immodest. Sadly, there were still plenty string vests and teensy shorts about in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which would not have been tolerated in a synagogue and probably no mosque, either!
Transport In Jerusalem
The tram (which goes by the fancy name Jerusalem Light Rail) is great way of getting round Jerusalem. Within the Old City, you’ll have to walk. The tram, coming from the Central Bus Station stops at City Hall (handy for Jaffa Gate, the more touristy entry to the Old City, heading into the Christian Quarter) then at Damascus Gate (one of the Arab Quarter entrances to the Old City and also the main Jerusalem Hub of the East Jerusalem Bus Company, on three plots spread around Damascus Gate). Make sure you have the correct ticket and that you have validated it. In my three days in Jerusalem, my ticket was checked at least four times.
Buses are plentiful and are operated by Egged, the national Bus Cooperative, in West Jerusalem (dark green buses, display destinations in Hebrew only) and by various companies under the umbrella of of the East Jerusalem Bus Company (white and blue, destinations in Arab and English).
You can pick up an Egged Bus pretty much anywhere in town, but due to its route simplicity, I mostly stuck to the tram.
For multiple journeys and when using public buses elsewhere, the best way to avoid buying single tickets is to buy a RavKav electronic smartcard. You can then charge this at ticket machines on the tram and for Egged, as well as other transport companies throughout Israel. Convenient Outlets are the Jerusalem CBS (Second Floor, on the far corner on the right as you stand facing the platforms – there are some really small signs), the City Pass Customer Service Office on 97 Yafo Street just by Ha-Davidka Station (somewhat funny opening hours) and at the Ha-Pa’amon Mall on King George Street just by Yafo Centre tram stop. It’s free, you fill in a form, they take a photo, and it takes less than five minutes.
Mount of Olives and Bethlehem by public transport
The buses to Bethlehem and other West Bank Destinations, including East Jerusalem for the Mount of Olives, leave from three separate plots by Damascus Gate. The large open square right next to the tram stop, facing the Damascus Gate, is for buses to Bethlehem. Bus No.234 goes to Rachel’s Tomb (pedestrian?) checkpoint, and you have to cross into the West Bank by foot and walk or taxi to the Church of the Nativity. However…. you have ample opportunities to see the art on the Separation Wall near the Checkpoint. Bus 231 to Beit Jala goes closer to the town centre, takes longer, as it passes through the Beit Jala check point, and it’s still a 20min uphill walk to the Church of the Nativity. A bus ride costs just under 5 NIS.
For Mount of Olives, walk along a little further then turn left into a Bus Station. Bus No 75 goes to Mount of Olives. It goes in a different direction first, but don’t worry. Just get off at Chapel of the Ascension/Rabi’a Al-Adawiya, which should take 10-15min from Damascus Gate. You will also find plenty taxis offering to take you there, but it is not really necessary. I walked from the Chapel of the Ascension to the viewpoint, then walked down past the cemetery to the Garden of Gethsemane – best do do in this direction, as its a very steep hill! When I visited (November 2018) I felt very safe walking on my own.
I stayed in an AirBnB in West Jerusalem close to He Haluts Station. I highly recommend staying close to the Light Railway. You may find more quiet the more Western you go, whereas from Central Station East you’ll be right in the shopping and business district with a lot of dining options, too. With the Light Rail going at least every ten minutes even late in teh evening, it’s really easy to get around. The well-known Abraham Hostel, for example, is very centrally located by the Ha Davidtka Stop. Since I was travelling on my own on a budget of 500 EURO (for the entire week), hotels were out of the question this time.
The well-known Abraham Hostel*, for example, is very centrally located by the Ha Davidtka Tram Stop, taking you to both bus station and Old City in less than five minutes, It is quite an institution in Jerusalem, and gets consistently good reviews and has its own travel agency offering very reasonably priced day trips, for example where independent travel might be more difficult, such as Hebron.
Another sweet hotel with simple but tasteful rooms in the new part of town right by the tram is the Kaplan Hotel*. Double Rooms from about 80 Euro per night, which, for Jerusalem, is an absolute steal.
The YMCA Three Arches Hotel* offers grandeur and greenery with a lot of history in its 1933 Deco-Byzantine purpose-built home. There are private rooms only, starting at around 100 Euro per night. For this you get extensive gardens and communal areas, some use of the pool and fitness centre and free classes! There is no tram, but plenty of buses, and the Old City is about a km away.
Every big city has its Grand Hotel, and in Jerusalem this is probably the King David Hotel*. Staying here might well set you back 300Euro per night. Anyone who’s someone stayed here during their Jerusalem visits, and interestingly, it’s also been the home of several emigre royals. It’s right opposite the YMCA, in similar but even grander Deco style, and has the usual trappings of a modern five-star plus a whole lot of history. The kind of once-in-a-while splurge.
Jerusalem has lots and lots of eating places. The Old City ones are touristy, as you would expect! As I travelled by myself on a budget I skipped the fancier places this time and stuck to simple cafe-style places.
My recommendations for the Old City are:
Abu Shukri (no website), conveniently very close to Via Dolorosa on Beit HaBad Street. It also has a large sign and crowds, so it’s hard to miss. It’s very basic, visited by locals and tour groups alike, the food (hummus and falafel and not much else) was okay and very reasonably priced for about 30 NIS with a soft drink. Usually closes before 16.00
Lina Restaurant (no website) is close by – look out for Station VIII of Via Dolorosa and it’s opposite. The menu is somewhat bigger than at Abu Shukri, also offers fresh juices. Altogether it looked tidier than Abu Shukri, regarding taste and price, it was similar. It has loads of electricity outlets for charging your phone, too!
My recommendations for Central Jerusalem are:
Maoz Falafel, 19 King George Street, Jerusalem. Kosher snack bar with really tasty falafel, but don’t expect tables and chairs – its just a hole-in-the-wall.
Hummus Ben Sira, Ben Sira St 3, Jerusalem. Another tiny cafe with a more expensive menu and more comfy seating!
Cofix – has outlets virtually everywhere. Everything costs 6 NIS – an unbeatable price, good quality coffee, but don’t expect comfy armchairs and newspapers!
Mahane Jehuda Market – it’s a food market, but one part has small cafes, and takeway stalls are just everywhere. Also nice for getting provisions if you are self-catering, supermarkets tend to be much more expensive.
Tours and Excursions
Jerusalem is easily explored on foot. Sandeman’s offers a free walking tour every day. For a tour of the city’s sights, Sandemans, Abraham Tours and Tourist Israel are good places to start looking, and all offer online booking.
When I visited, the situation in Jerusalem was safe and it was easy to visit Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, and Bethlehem independently and as a solo female. These are the destinations on top of many travellers list, but I would highly encourage you to visit Rachels Tomb as well. I recommend before you attempt any solo excursions, that you checkyour country’s travel safety advice as well as local news. Especially in the Middle East, the situation can change rapidly and without much notice. Unlike in some other countries, tourists are generally not a specific target in Israel and Palestine.
For hearing different sides of the story, something I highly recommend in a place as disputed and debated as Israel and Palestine would be seeking dialogue with Israelis and Palestinians. A fellow traveller went on a Hebron Dual Narrative Tour and highly recommended it. I don’t think I would have dared to visit Hebron by myself either, due to the complexities of the zones and checkpoints, and this is the tour I would have gone on given more time.
First time Israel – where to be and what to do on Shabbat
If you celebrate it you probably know very well what to do, For those who don’t, well, there are plenty of things to do! On a first time Israel trip, read a little about Shabbat in Jerusalem and what it means to you as a visitor. If you find yourself in Jerusalem: There will be no public transport, and restaurants and shops will be shut. Except in the Muslim Quarter and East Jerusalem. Many of the Christian and Muslim Holy places will be open as usual.
A good city to be in would be Haifa, as its population is mixed in faith, and it has public transport running, and many restaurants are open.
In Tel Aviv, there may be no public transport, but if you base yourself in the centre, you can walk everywhere. Many restaurants (but no shops) will be open. I was in Tel Aviv on Shabbat. First I had coffee, then did a nice self-guided architecture walk. I criss-crossed the Rothschild Boulevard and walked back to Florentin, then took loads of pictures of Street Art before walking to Old Jaffa and its cool but super crowded market.
For your first time Israel trip, arm yourself with a good guidebook. I had a 2011 Bradt Guide and WiFi in pretty all public places which was more than enough. The Bradt Guide does not include the Palestinian Territories. My 2011 edition was well out of date regarding prices and accommodation options. A new edition (minus Palestinian Territories!) is now out. Lonely Planet includes the Palestine Territories and is also available in a 2018 edition. I generally prefer the Rough Guide, as it’s stronger on history and culture and has diverse accommodation and dining options. Sadly, its Israel and Jerusalem guidebooks don’t look like they have been updated in the last years.
History, food and novels
For a very extensive history of Jerusalem, I would read “Jerusalem: The Biography” by Simon Sebag-Montefiore – at nearly 800 pages, it’s not an easy holiday read! Unfortunately I just started reading it after my trip. It will make you want to turn every stone, for which there would be plenty of opportunity. Temple Mount, Western Wall Tunnels and the City of David are close to each other, revealing many layers of this fascinating city. I now wish I had read it before my first time Israel trip.
I read Exodus by Leon Uris, which is a somewhat Americanised account of the history of the Country of Israel, but it’s an easy read and was hugely popular when it first came out.
Do you want to recreate the beautiful Middle Eastern Dishes after your trip? You can try any book by Yotam Ottolenghi. He even has a dedicated cook book on Jerusalem. As someone who never eats meat, I prefer Plenty and Plenty More, which are essentially vegetarian, and even those huge ingredient lists no longer scare me, since most you can store at home and buy in any decent Middle Eastern supermarket.
More information on Israel Immigration can be found at the Ministry of Tourism.
The small print
I visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in November 2017 on a self organised trip that I paid for myself. I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for recommending places, apart from some affiliate links to Booking.com. If you make a booking through an affiliate link, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. This post was first published February 2018 and updated December 2019.