Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh… gifts to bring back from Israel
Compared to most countries in Europe, including my native Germany, Israel is a rather expensive country. So, would I find some special Israel souvenirs? Ryanair hand luggage limitations and an already full apartment aside, my shopping sprees where somewhat limited by my 500 EURO budget for the entire trip, including flights, accommodation, food and local transport. Did I manage? Yes – but I ate nothing but hummus and falafel all week and I skipped those pretty gifts like silver mezuzah cases and Roman coin earrings.
So, please read on if you’re interested in frugal but nice Israel souvenirs that will remind you of your journey in the Holy Land. If your budget is big, head straight to the Cardo in Jerusalem Old City for Judaica and the best jewellers in Tel Aviv!
The currency if Israel is the New Israeli Shekel (NIS), and in most places, cash rules, though credit card payments are possible in upmarket shops, malls and supermarkets. There are several ATMs in Ben Gurion Airport right after immigration. In Israel and Tel Aviv, cash machines that take international cards can be found in most large business streets, less so in Jerusalem Old City, usually attached to banks. Most prices seemed fixed – when I enquired about the price of something, the price was given and seemed reasonable, none of that “tell me your best price” spiel. The only haggling I did was for cab fare in the West Bank.
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Cheap and Cheerful Israel Souvenirs
My first buy was, quite fittingly, incense. I chanced upon this corner stall across the the Cotton Souk. Everything smelled so good! There isn’t even a need to light this incense if you’re just after a light scent. The choice was extremely difficult.
I got some amber and, just in case I want to light it, some coal. The coal is quite easy to come buy here in Europe – either bring some back from an Orthodox country like Greece or buy on the internet. The price for the lot of amber and two rolls of coal – perhaps 40 or 50 NIS.
Saffron incense – so there are grains of incense as well as some spices mixed in. Smells great, I use it a bit like potpourri.
Israel is great for ladies hats!
On my first night, I strolled along King George Avenue in Jerusalem, looking for dinner. I found a couple very simple falafel joints, and TWO branches of Horovitz, a Jerusalem-based milliner. Some of the head coverings for married Orthodox women came in some very cool colours. I love berets and bought these two pure wool berets. Along with the more traditional berets and scarves, they also had some beautiful and full hats.
And the most famous cosmetics from Israel are… Ahava
When in Israel… buy Ahava products, some say. There are shops literally everywhere with tourists, but prices were similar to Europe. Also, there is some controversy about where the company sources its raw product from, as some say it lies within the West Bank and therefor the State of Palestine is being exploited for its natural resources. The company has responded by building a new plant on Israeli territory now. They used to be vegan and cruelty-free, and while the products are still vegan, the company was sold to Chinese investors in 2016 but they are still not marketed and sold in China – so still cruelty-free, I guess.
Because I didn’t make it to the Dead Sea, I caved in and I bought some Dead Sea Mud for the princely sum of 12 US-Dollars, as well as some body cream in Ben Gurion Airport Duty-Free, so even if you travel with just hand luggage, they are okay to take, as Duty Free is after Security Control. I found prices pretty uniform throughout all outlets although at the Dead Sea Factory Shop you find them slightly cheaper.
Foodie Israel Souvenirs
For food gifts, head to Mahane Jehuda Market in Jerusalem (even has its own tram station). Here are some portable and colourful fruit teas – you can find them in many places in Israel, but the choice here was the best.
I didn’t want to cart my foodstuffs around in my backpack, so I went for a last-minute shop in Lewinsky Market in Tel Aviv the morning of my departure. It had only just opened, and was much more chilled than Mahane Jehuda.
I spent my last shekels minus train fare and lunch money on pine nuts – not only do they taste great in hummus (which I don’t make very often) but also in pesto (which I make every other week)
Some sesame seed snack picked up during the week…
And Zaatar, a common Middle Eastern Spice mixture, consisting of thyme, oregano, sesame seeds and probably some other spices. Dirt cheap and very reminiscent of holiday food when sprinkled on flat bread and toasted.
Everything else: religious paraphernalia and, of course, fabric
In Jerusalems Old City, there is no shortage of Christian souvenirs. Huge crosses, small crosses, genuine gold and silver crosses, fake silver crosses, water from the River Jordan – you name it. I found most of them totally garish. I eventually bought this olive wood rosary from the Franciscan gift shop near Jaffa Gate but this is the only Christian souvenir I have to remind me of my trip.
I often bring a piece of cloth from a trip, hoping to turn it into a garment eventually. When researching good places to buy fabrics, I came across Nahlat Ninyamin Street in Tel Aviv. It sounded like lace and jewelled brocade heaven. I strolled along the street on Shabbat, admiring the window displays in some shops (a lot are shuttered, though). Indeed, there was a lot of heavily jewelled and lace fabrics on display – apparently, a lot of wedding and evening wear designers get their fabric here. People on internet forums also reported finding Elie Saab and other designer fabrics here (didn’t mention the price, though!) and on my last day, returning from Jerusalem, I hurried there just before most shops closed. The cream lace or embroidered fabrics were a bit out of my price range, so I got this linen mix. If you sew, or love fashion, a stroll along this street is a must. I think in terms of value for money, nothing beats certain London outlet shops, but I like to bring a piece of fabric back form most my trips – if and when they eventually make it into a garment, they will be a pleasant memento of my journey. I’m a bit concerned this might be a bit too stiff for a dress, its more like a canvas/ jacket fabric. If you manage to go there on a Tuesday or Friday, check out the craft market, too!
If you are after Judaica, I would recommend looking around Jerusalem. For everyday items and books, Me’a She’arim neighbourhood (it’s ultra orthodox, so dress accordingly and leave the camera at home) is thought to offer a great choice. For something hand-made, or made from precious material, I really liked the stores in the Cardo in Jerusalem Old City. Also, Tzfat has many Judaica stores, though styles a re more whimsical and not quite as classic as in upmarket Jerusalem shops.
Instead of the Roman coin earrings, which I liked very much (but did not want to spend the equivalent of the entire trip on a single piece of jewellery), I bought a very plain silver band in Tzfat, engraved with the Schma Israel (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל). Together with the berets and the fabric, this was my most expensive souvenir at about 80 shekels.
So, I managed to constrain myself, and returned with my hand luggage allowance still intact… if you have no limitations concerning budget or space, some pretty cool jewellery stores can be found in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Especially diamond cutting is a traditional Jewish craft and Israel has a major diamond cutting industry.
Israeli wine is a lot cheaper, and very good! Get it in supermarkets or wine shops across the country. Larger wineries like Carmel in Zichron Ya’akov (day trip from Haifa) or Golan Heights (bit tricky to get there without private transport) do tours as well. I just cheated slightly and bought a couple of bottles online when I got back…
Funnily enough, most of my shopping was done in Jerusalem, as I spent a day and a half and then another full day there, and I was in Tel Aviv only during Shabbat and the evneing before my departure.
Other than that, Tel Aviv has the best shops. Going from the Dizengoff Centre along King George and Allenby Streets and then along Nahalat Binyamin Street made me wish I had more time in Tel Aviv! Lots of small shops with pretty modern and funky designs here. If you like fashion or sewing, Nahalat Binyamin Street is a must – I have never seen so many embellished fabric ina single place! Sadly, prices are not cheap here, and until I feel the need for an OTT red carpet dress or a wedding gown, I better stay away. If you like crazy fashion and big gowns, you can spend hours here! I found the Flea Market in Jaffa (even though I visited on the weekend) really, really underwhelming – it was crowded, but no fun. I did not go to Carmel Market, but on the day of my departure, passed the much smaller food market at the Western part of Levinsky Street. This is apparantly where the real foodies shop! It was not very crowded in the morning and I really liked its relaxed atmosphere.
In Jerusalem, King George Street has some fairly nice, traditional, but not too trendy fashion stores. The Old City, especially the Arab Souk near the Damascus Gate and then again, Ha Gai Street have some extremely cheap clothing stalls. There is a nice place to buy coffee and traditional incense on the corner of Ha Gai and Suq el Quattanin. For antiquities, head to the Via Dolorosa but be aware these are in a very touristy area. There are one or two Jewellers and Judaica shops in the Cardo that deal in ancient coins and coin jewellery at higher prices than on Via Dolorosa, but their pieces all come with certificates and VAT certificates. In Yafo Street, Baltinester is another nice traditional place to go for jewellery -their website is massive, but the actual shop is quite tiny!
Don’t bother much with shopping in Haifa. Haifa is pleasant (and has the best hummus cafe I came across, Abu Shaker), but shopping opportunities come in the form of huge out-of-town malls.
In Jerusalem, I stayed in an AirBnB private room 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 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).
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.
In Tel Aviv, I stayed in an AirBnB studio apartment off Shalma Road in Florentine. North of Shalma Roads and towards Florentine Boulevard, you find numerous options for cafes, lunch and dinner. Buses run by Egged and Dan ply Shalma Road every couple of minutes, ready to take you almost anywhere in the city. I also found the area safe at night. I used buses pretty much all the time while in Tel Aviv, and Tel Aviv New CEntral Bus Station for long distance Egged Buses and Ha Hagana for the train to the airport. Both were easily walkable from my apartment when I arrived shortly before Shabbat started (however modern Tel Aviv is, there is still no public transport on Shabbat)
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 mto be much more expensive.
I didn’t push the boat out, food-wise, in Tel Aviv. I know its pretty sad! My diet on my three nights there consisted of mainly of avocado toast made in my kitchen, pomegranate juice and the occasional falafel sandwich… Levinsky Road has some great Ethiopian juice and coffee stalls every few metres, Allenby Street has plenty of juice bars and snack stalls, and for some fancy coffee, the Southern end of Rothschild Boulevard is a good bet! Also, Magen David Square north of Carmel Market has large choice of cool-looking cafes, and is great for people-watching. For a chain, Landwer (near Dizengoff Centre, part of a national chain) is pretty decent and has free Wifi, and of course, for a quick fix, Cofix is almost everywhere and offers good quality for very little money.