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Trip Report Trip Report - Jerusalem for return visitors

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Here are some suggestions for return visitors to Jerusalem. This is NOT meant to be a comprehensive guide as many of these activities will not fit in a first-time itinerary. I include here sights and activities that are either new, changed or that I had never experienced before.

This was my 11th trip to Israel over 40 years. I had most recently visited in 2006. My husband and I stayed in Tel Aviv three nights, Jerusalem two weeks and Zichron Ya’acov for the final two nights of our three-week trip. I will post a separate trip report for Zichron Ya’acov.

We stayed at the German Colony Cottage, a guest house one block off Emek Refaim in the heart of the German Colony. See the website or read the reviews at TA, including the one I posted. I recommend an apartment rental for return visitors staying long enough in the city to make it worthwhile. Also, the German Colony is a great location for return visitors who have time to “hang out” in a neighborhood. The cottage is very nice with a lovely courtyard. We had breakfast and lunches there and got take-out for Shabbat dinner from local restaurants. We were extremely happy with these accommodations. While we were very self-sufficient, I’m sure the host would be helpful to visitors who needed advice. However, first-time visitors might prefer to have hotel services including a concierge and a front desk to ask questions. Also, our lengthy stay gave us the time to do grocery shopping and take advantage of having a kitchen. The German Colony is an easy walk or bus ride from all sights and attractions and offers many restaurants and coffee houses.

The best part of spending a full two weeks in Jerusalem was not being in a hurry and enjoying a lot of free time just wandering one of my favorite cities.

You can download free walking tours to your MP3 at this site: http://www.jerusalemp3.com/. Be sure to print out the accompanying maps. This is a great way to see the city.

So, here are my suggestions for return visitors (and first-timers may also get some ideas), in no particular order:

THE OLD CITY

ENTERING FROM MAMILLA MALL -- For those who remember Jerusalem before Mamilla was rebuilt, it is quite a shock to enter the Jaffa Gate from a mall. And not just any mall – but as upscale a mall as one can imagine. Enter Jaffa Gate at least one time this way.

WESTERN WALL TUNNELS – While these are a must for first-time visitors, I include here as well since the tour is constantly expanding. While I booked by email in advance (no advance payment required when booking by email - tours@thekotel.org), I was able to easily change the reservation time once we were in Israel. Phone reservations do require payment by credit card. We were only two, which I’m sure made it much easier to change times. Be sure to ask for senior discount if you qualify. The tour goes further into the tunnels now and brings you out in the Muslim quarter where they escort you back to the Jewish quarter.

HURVA SYNAGOGUE TOUR – I did not see this in any guidebook, since the Hurva synagogue was just rebuilt. In fact, I was disoriented because I didn’t see the distinctive arch in the Jewish Quarter and then just happened upon the sign for the tour! The tour guide mentioned that they see people all the time with older guidebooks looking for the arch – which is no longer there since it has been incorporated into the new construction. English tours are offered several times a day (excluding Shabbat). We took the 4 p.m. tour and I’m not sure of the other times, although they are posted at the entrance door near the Cardo. You buy the admission tickets in the Cardo. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Our excellent tour guide recounted the fascinating history of the synagogue and the tour ended with a trip up to a roof-level balcony where there is a fantastic 360 degree view of the Old City.

FRESH BAKED PITA WITH ZATAR AND ONION -- I think there is one Arab baker left in the Jewish quarter, hidden among the kosher fast-food restaurants. While this now costs 8 shekels and isn’t the bargain it used to be, this is a must for me every time I return.

THE AUSTRIAN HOSPICE – I read about this on TA, but seeing is believing. This is in the Christian Quarter and looks closed. Ring the bell and you will be buzzed in. Walk upstairs and be prepared for a Viennese coffee house in the middle of the Old City. Lovely serene balcony, immaculate toilets and what looked like great apple strudel makes this a “must-stop” in the Old City. We didn’t get up to the roof (we had been climbing all day) but I understand it offers great views.

RAMPARTS WALK – I had not been able to do this entire walk when visiting during the first and second Intifadas, so it was great to be able to go the full length of both the southern and northern sections. We used the tours on our MP3 players and it was really helpful. This is a GREAT activity for all ages, but I would caution against taking small children or anyone with mobility problems. There are a LOT of stairs and uneven walking surfaces. These walks can be done on Saturdays, which is good to know since very few sites are open on Shabbat. The Northern Section that goes through the Muslim and Christian Quarters is closed on Fridays. And the Southern Section, which goes through the Jewish Quarter, is often open evenings in July and August. Both walks begin at the Jaffa Gate. Check on opening times as I have a feeling they vary from year to year and season to season. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for unusual views of the Old City. Also, check on which gates you can go in and out and which are “exit only.” The MP3 tour implied that you could exit and return at the Damascus Gate. I had not been outside the Damascus Gate since before the First Intifada and so was interested to walk around this area. When we tried to get back on the Ramparts Walk we found that there was no longer an entrance due to construction. Fortunately my husband is fluent in Hebrew and after explaining our plight to an Israeli soldier he walked us back to the entrance and showed us how to slither past the turnstile rails to continue our walk on the ramparts. Definitely an “only in Israel” moment. After completing the northern section at the Lion’s Gate, we walked all the way back to the Jaffa Gate through the Muslim and Christian Quarters and walked the Southern Section, which is much shorter. At the end of the Southern Section Ramparts Walk you leave the city walls and go towards the City of David, which we had already visited.

ELIA PHOTOGRAPHY AND CORAL BEACH SHOP ON AL KHANKA STREET IN CHRISTIAN QUARTER – I read about Elia photo shop in Douglas Duckett’s excellent guide to Israel available to TA readers. (You can easily find info about this guide and see Douglas’s informative postings on the TA forum.) This is a fascinating shop and I also want to mention Coral Beach four doors down which carries a vintage 1930’s poster, “Visit Palestine,” among other items and is run by the very helpful Ibrahim who used to live in Venice Beach in California. He is a character worth meeting.

CITY OF DAVID – I had never been to these excavations and was surprised at the updated and landscaped visitors center about a ten minute walk from the Western Wall. There are a variety of tours and activities, but we selected the Thursday 9 p.m. tour so we could see the area when it wasn’t so hot. This turned out to be a great choice. We happened to get a lousy tour guide (unusual in Israel) but still enjoyed the walk through the excavations and the panoramic view of East Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. Check the City of David website for all the activities as they vary by season. This is not to be confused with the Tower of David.

NEW CITY

MACHANE YEHUDA – The shuk has actually undergone some changes. There are some upscale shops amidst the old-time food vendors as well as new upscale restaurants in the area. The restaurant, “MachaneYuda,” is about 2 blocks from the shuk and is reputed to be the best restaurant in Jerusalem and a tough reservation to snag. We reserved by phone a month in advance. The menu is very inventive, and it’s fun to watch the chefs cooking in the open kitchen, but there is definitely an “attitude” not usually found at Israeli restaurants. The food was good and one could tell they used only the freshest ingredients from the shuk, but the subtext--be grateful you're here, and get out as fast as you can--neither inspires a return visit nor justifies what they charge.

On Monday nights during the summer there is a festival at Machane Yehuda called “Balabusta” and there is music and crowds and all the stalls stay open very late. Fun, but crowded. Don’t forget to get ruggeleh at Marzipan just outside the shuk. They now have a branch in the German Colony. Best right out of the oven. I heard about well-reviewed cooking tours of the shuk, but was not able to find one in English operating when I was there.

NACHLAOT WALKING TOUR – We used the walking tour downloaded to our MP3 players for this walking tour of one of Jerusalem’s original residential neighborhoods outside the Old City. We had been told that this neighborhood, near the shuk, is now trendy. During our tour we didn’t see much sign of this, but did get a chance to appreciate the small neighborhoods and learn about their history. Interesting area to explore.

THE BEGIN CENTER – Regardless of your politics, the museum at the Begin Center offers a very interesting 85-minute tour several times daily, except Shabbat. You must reserve in advance, although I had no problem getting on an English tour calling the same day. I believe the museum tour is fairly new and it uses archival footage combined with modern technology to track the life of Menachem Begin as it follows the history of Israel. I found it very involving and extremely worthwhile….and learned a lot. Be sure to visit the terrace (even if you don’t take the tour) for an incomparable view of the Old City. There is a button to press for “English” on the terrace and you can hear explanations of the view. A great introduction to the geography of the city. The café looked nice, too.

REOPENED ISRAEL MUSEUM – After extensive renovations, the Israel museum reopened last year and is definitely worth visiting. It is breathtaking. The “Jewish life” exhibit is particularly interesting and there are great galleries of Israeli art among others. Seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls is a must, but I had done that in years past, so concentrated on the new parts of the museum. The restaurant is wonderful--truly outstanding food, a lovely terrace--and no attitude.

COOKING CLASS AT JERUSALEM CULINARY INSTITUTE – For something completely different, consider taking a cooking class at this phenomenal kosher cooking school. It is located in Talpiot, an easy walk from the German Colony or an easy bus or taxi ride from the rest of Jerusalem. I checked out the website before I got to Israel and asked to receive the schedule for the time I would be there. There were a couple of classes that interested me and I attended one that featured Thai Chicken and homemade egg noodles. The instructor was extremely well-organized and informative, we had a great group of mostly American tourists, and the end result was absolutely delicious. It was about a two-hour class and cost $50. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED and great fun.

BEZALEL ARTS FAIR ON FRIDAYS – Just about everything shuts down Friday afternoons, so the Bezalel Art Fair was a great activity. (9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in winter; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in summer) We did our Shabbat shopping Friday morning and then headed downtown to where this is held weekly near the Hamashbir Department Store and on two adjacent streets including Bezalel. This is similar to the arts and crafts fair held Tuesdays and Fridays at Nachlat Binyamin in Tel Aviv, with all local artists displaying their wares. Great place to buy gifts. Also at #2 Bezalel Street is what I would call the best gift shop in Jerusalem: “Barbara Shaw Contemporary Gifts.” There is a sameness to the gift items you see at most shops (especially on Ben Yehuda Street), but Barbara designs her own line of giftware that I did not see anywhere else. Some examples I bought: apron and plastic bag holder cleverly designed with Jaffa oranges….at reasonable prices.

JEWISH NATIONAL FUND TOUR OF THE NORTHERN NEGEV FROM JERUSALEM (and Ayalon Institute “bullet factory”) – Every Wednesday JNF offers a guided tour of sites in the south, leaving from Jerusalem. This was a very interesting day seeing places that you would be unlikely to see on your own. The first stop is the Ayalon Institute, which was a secret bullet factory from 1945-48. The guided tour not only allows you to visit the fascinating underground factory, but the guide explains all about the young pioneers involved in this super-secret operation under the noses of the British. The museum is in Rehovot and a visit is highly recommended, especially if traveling with school age children. JNF has helped support this heritage site and the excellent film that explains it, so it’s included in their day-long tour. The museum can also be visited on your own with advance reservations. Other sites on the JNF tour included “the blue box” indoor recreation center built to protect the children of Sderot from missiles, a river park and other projects. A fantastic lunch in Beer Sheva is included in the price of $50. It was a lot of driving, but a really worthwhile day tour. You can get more information at the JNF website.

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