Exploring israel

march 2019

discovering the holY land on budget

Duration: 8 days, 7 nights
Location: israel
Budget (for 2): 1100€ + flights (100€) 
Kilometers Travelled: 1200 km

 

As you probably were surprised already to see that small figure behind the flight tickets, you can probably guess how I felt when I saw the offer in November on my screen and why we couldn’t pass on it. 

A. has always been interested in history and religion regarding how it has influenced the world in the past and is doing it now, so when I discovered the tickets for less than 25€/one way, I knew it was something we should seriously consider. Nevertheless, Israel can be pretty pricy and by pretty, I mean you really want to cry when you go to buy a kebab and coffee which costs you the same as dinner out in most European countries.

During our one week there we decided to aim for Jerusalem and South of Israel, as it seemed for us that Tel Aviv is easy to visit in the future but going to the smaller places seem to need more effort and time. I must say I feel like we visited a fraction of places and especially if you consider all the sites connected to religion. Nevertheless, here is our agenda.

Day 1

ARRIVAL & JERUSALEM

We arrived at the Ovda airport which is 60km from Eilat and 280km from Jerusalem to our surprise, as we in our mind bought tickets for Eilat airport. 

Took a bus to Be’er Sheva and from there to Jerusalem where we arrived in the dark, only to check-in and grab some food, although it was Purim festival and the city was flooded with people in costumes. We arrived on the day of Purim when they dressed up and had parties all over the city and our hostel as well.

Day 2

JERUSALEM I

Started our day in the City of David where the guide gave us an overview of the history and showed us around in the ruins and we finished the visit with a walk in the ancient 0.6km water tunnel. 

Afterward, it was the first time to see around the old town itself and how people celebrated Purim, walked around with their food baskets and children dressed up in their best clothes. To end the day we took part in the Shabbat dinner which was served for more than 50 people. 

Day 3

 JERUSALEM II

We woke up around four to arrive at the Holy Sepulchre church by its opening at 5 am to beat the crowds. After that, we caught the sunrise, visited the Tower of David, had some hummus and falafel for lunch and then continued to the Mount of Olives and the Chapel of the Ascension, tombs of the last prophets, the Church of All Nations and Church of Mary’s Tomb.

After resting a bit, at 10 pm we went to the Night Spectacle in the Museum of David (high recommend!). 

Day 4

JERUSALEM III & DEAD SEA

Arrived at the line for Temple Mount before 8 am in rain and while one of us waited, the others got a glimpse at the Western Wall. 

After that visited the Mahane Yehuda market to buy some things for the upcoming road trip to the Dead Sea through the desert. We floated in the Dead Sea and finished the day off having some local cuisine in Arad. 

Day 5

MASADA & MITZPE RAMON

We started driving in rain at 4 am to catch the sunrise in Masada, but had to wait more than an hour to hear that the park is closed because of the heavy floods. Finally, we were one of the few ones allowed up in our own conscious. 

After freezing to half death, we took the direction to Mitzpe Ramon where the sun was shining. Visited the crater, petted some alpacas, llamas, and donkeys and had some falafel for dinner in a local food joint. We finished the day with some wine with our Airbnb host and went stargazing next to the crater, with one of us almost stepping off it. 

Day 6

AVDAT, CRATER & DESERT CAMP

Had breakfast next to the closed Ein Avdat National Park (because of the floods still), visited the ruins of an ancient city of Avdat and after that just visited different sites inside the crater and took some random roads to keep it interesting.

Arrived at our tent in the desert camp a bit before sunset and ran to catch it on a bench on top of the mountains. Finished the night with having a BBQ, wine and common dinner with the semi-permanent visitors and owners of the place + a cat and a dog. 

Day 7

RED CANYON & EILAT

After the amazing breakfast in the desert camp, we drove up to the Red Canyon, passed it in about 20 minutes and then got lost for about a half an hour trying to take a shortcut. 

Arrived in Eilat by noon, we decided to keep the car for one more day and went snorkeling. Watched sunset by the spot you can see Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia at once and finally had a delicious dinner in TripAdvisor recommended Omer’s. 

 

Day 8

DEPARTURE

Had our last Israeli breakfast, returned our rental car and took a bus back to Ovda airport where we had more than an hour wait in the line and then a couple of hours more for our plane. We arrived back home in the late evening after taking a couple of trains.

BUDGET

As said before, traveling in Israel can set you back quite a bit. Our overall budget was 1200€ of which 1100€ was to spend in the country. We managed to keep our cost low thanks to staying in Abraham Hostels (blog post about them) in Jerusalem and otherwise booking reasonably priced places (yes, you know it, lowest prices first) through Airbnb or Booking.com. Our average price for 2 was ~45€/night.

We made a deal that in general we only eat out once a day, so a lot of the times we bought food from (super)markets and ate when actually hungry and not just when feeling like having a break. Surprisingly I wasn’t dissatisfied with this solution and will try to implement it as much as possible in the future. In the past, we have spent way too much on eating out just to go check out a place or try a certain dish. Grabbing something from a fast food joint is usually around 10€, dining in a restaurant about 30€ without alcohol. The latest is seriously expensive – ~8-10€ for a beer/glass of wine while eating out.

We took a bus to Jerusalem and after 3 days there we rented a car that set us back 85€ for 3 days (+36€ one extra day in Eilat) and 70€ for fuel. It’s just essential to have a car when you want to visit the somewhat unbeaten tracks and have the freedom to decide when you want to go. Otherwise, you would have to either rely a lot on bus schedules or book a tour to every place (Masada, Red Canyon, Avdat, etc). Renting a car also kept our sightseeing budget lower as we only paid an entrance fee and had a wider selection of activities.

  • sightseeing 15% 15%
  • transport 20% 20%
  • food 30% 30%
  • accomodation 30% 30%
  • other 5% 5%

storytime

They say the best time to travel in most parts of Israel is April-May. As our trip was planned for the last week of March, I wasn’t too worried about the weather. Although we had encountered lower temperatures in Jerusalem than expected (12-18 degrees), everything was still alright. Arriving at Dead Sea region, the weather got a bit warmer but not excessively. We floated in the saltwater in the afternoon and got some groceries for the sunrise breakfast in Masada overlooking Dead Sea and Jordan. Or so we thought.

Masada is an ancient Jewish fortification that sits in solitude on rock plateau that was the last act of the Jewish war in A.D. 73.  It is one of Israel’s most known tourist attractions, so we decided to beat the crowds and arrive there by sunrise. As our days in Jerusalem were exhausting, to say the least, we slept through the crazy (as we heard) rain and thunderstorms during the night and were ready to start our journey at 4 am. The main road was closed, the was a police escort whose only instruction when showing them Google Maps was to turn left from the next one. After circling for about 15 minutes we finally found the right path and the journey continued, only to be interrupted by the fact that sunrise was in about 45 minutes and they were not letting anyone in. Because of the floods they had to wait for a supervisor to decide if it’s safe enough for visitors. After more than half an hour of wait in the car, two tour busses in front of us and cars piling behind us, the wait was over. They decided to keep the park closed the park for the day.

We were slow in leaving the queue as we were discussing what to do next. All our activities had been connected with the outdoors and nature. I saw some people arguing with the park guard and went to look – as the rain had ended and an Israeli guy’s voice was rising higher and higher when explaining that he has important people waiting for this in the car, he decided to let us go up in our own conscious. I can swear he regretted it later. A group of young men stormed up, two tour buses gathering behind them and us cursing quietly how many people are going to end up there while trying not to slip in red wed clay and mud. Five minutes in and someone opened up the gates upstairs and it started pouring rain as it was thrown down with a bucket. We took the only shelter under some rocks that barely covered half of our bodies. Students from the bus tour turned back down. We continued.

It was before 7 am we reached up, winds almost blowing us away and rain pounding in our face. So much of having breakfast in serenity while watching the sunrise behind Jordan mountains and coloring the Dead Sea in pastel. We took shelter in one of the ‘buildings’ that had a roof built on old construction and had our breakfast in somewhat shivering silence and hoping that the rain will give in finally. It didn’t and we decided to make a small round in the compound and get it over with, so do say. The wind was just cutting through our skin and as we later realised, it would have been smarter to find some real house like shelters till the storm passed, as the group before us did. By the almost end of the round, we were soaking wet, wearing every piece of clothing we had for our warm Israel trip, thoroughly frozen when the sun started to get out and it finally stopped raining. Seeing the last part of Masada fortress but definitely memorable thanks to the views that clearing sky gave us of the Dead Sea, rushing waterfalls that are only seen by few probably and expansive red desert surrounding the plateau.

We were surprised that no other people were coming up while we were there and as we later understood, Masada (and most of the other nature parks in Israel) were closed. So were our plans for that day. We drove through big rain ponds and took the direction to Mitzpe Ramon with its microclimate and blue sky.

TOP 3 places to visit

TOWER OF daviD 

This museum is not just spectacular to look at with its supreme views over the city, but also it gives such a profound overview of Jerusalem thanks to its audioguides. That being the reason why I would suggest it to be your first spot if you’re not completely at home with the history or want to refresh your memory.

Secondly, you can buy museum + night spectacle combined ticket (21€ for adult and 17€ for student). The night spectacle is one of the most magnificent things I have seen and I would recommend it to anyone to see. Although it’s recommended to know about history before to actually understand.

mitzpe ramon & Ramon crater

When other parts of Israel were flooded, in Mitzpe Ramon the sun was shining. It is said to have a microclimate and being the coldest place in Israel. The city itself is located on the edge of Ramon crater in Negev desert. 

The views are out of this world, but there is also a lot to do around the city and in the crater. You can go on jeep tours, rappel over the cliffs or visit alpaca farm. Close to Mitzpe Ramon there are ruins of Avdat and Ein Avdat national park. Also, Mitzpe Ramon is known for its rather hip cafe scene and boutique stores in Spice Route Quarter.

dead sea

If you have never had this floating feeling, then it’s just a must. Don’t expect to find serenity and natural places, as the area is largely commercial and filled with hotels. Nevertheless, floating in the Dead Sea near the hotel complexes is free, you can rinse yourself off with water later (till 6 pm). You might think that you don’t need it, but trust me, you do. 

If you have some water shoes, they are recommended as walking on sharp salt can be painful. Even with rather low temperatures (18-20 degrees), the water was warm enough to go in. 

travel tips

– If you’re staying for more than 5 days buy a SIM card from a local telecommunication shop. We got one when everything was closed on Friday and managed to find a couple of stores that offered only 20GB ones for 15€.

– You should tip 10-15% when you visit a restaurant. In a bar few shekels are fine.

– Before automatically ordering a beer at the end of the day in a cafe or restaurant, check prices. Having two drinks probably costs you the same as your food, or grabbing a kebab will be as expensive as this bottle of beer. So, don’t be surprised to receive a bill in double the sum you expected, as we did.

ATTENTION! From Friday before sundown to Saturday sundown all public transport is closed because of Shabbat, which means that if you arrive around that time, the only viable option is a taxi. Also, almost all of the stores are closed as well as most restaurants (that goes especially for Jerusalem). 

– Although Israel should have different electrical sockets, we didn’t have any problem with it, so European sockets are fine.

– They will not stamp your passport if you arrive by plane (otherwise you would have trouble entering other Arab nations), but they do question you excessively entering and exiting the country about the purpose of your visit if you know anyone in the country, etc.

Bargaining is accepted in most of the places, but prices are fixed in restaurants and supermarkets.

Be sensitive to cultural traditions and political tensions. It is completely safe to travel (also alone), but just general caution goes without saying, as always.

Best Food & Drink

 

FALAFEL & HUMMUS

 

Two of the things I was almost the most excited to go to Israel for. Did you know there was ‘Israeli-Lebanese Hummus wars’ of who can claim ownership of the dish and who can prepare more of it at once? I’m talking about 10 and 15 tonnes of it. You can get it with different toppings and flavours and what better to dip into it than falafel, or to roll it up into a wrap. In Jerusalem would recommend going to Tala Hummus and Falafel where one portion of hummus with falafel, salad and bread is ~10€ (as on the photo).

SHAKSHUKA

Traditional Israeli breakfast consisting of cooked tomatoes where several eggs are nesting together with spices and herbs. Delicious, somewhat healthy and oh how warming. You can dip your pita bread inside runny egg yolks. I have been a fan of it for a while, as I tried it first in Cyprus and also Morocco etc and I always manage to overcook the egg yolks, so keep it to the professionals and if you haven’t tried, do it. 

SELECTION OF LITTLE PLATES

I would definitely recommend getting their selection of appetisers consisting of juicy olives, tomato salad, lentil-herb mix, pickled peppers and vegetables, halloumi and grilled aubergines served with tahini and olive oil next to warm pita bread. 

 

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