Category Archives: Itinerary

What to see in Jerusalem

What to see in Jerusalem and Not Hire a Guide

I’m often asked by people who are planning a trip to Israel what they should do if they have a couple of days to see and experience Jerusalem. Of course, there are many answers, it really depends on what you are interested in. Assuming that this is your first visit, you’ll probably want to start in the Old City so here are my recommendations – note some sites charge an entrance fee.

First, drop by the Tourist Information Center at Jaffa Gate, in the Old City and get a free map and a list of sites to see; say hi to Jennifer, she’ll help by marking sites on the map for you and answering your questions. Then walk around, exploring the 4 Quarters, Armenian, Jewish, Muslim and Christian.

Another possibility is to take the Ramparts Walk starting at Jaffa Gate where you actually walk on the walls built in 1537 by the Ottoman Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent – looking in gives you a birds-eye view of the Old City, looking out gives you a view of the new city.

In terms of churches, I would visit the Church of the Agony/All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane outside of the city walls, re-enter the Old City at Lions Gate, visit the Church of Santa Anna, a Crusader church with incredible acoustics (try singing Amazing Grace or other liturgical melody). Continue and you will come to Station I of the Via Dolorosa, follow the Via Dolorosa counting 8 stations to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the holiest site to Christianity, where Jesus was crucified and buried and according to Christian tradition rose again, stations IX to XIV are at the Church.

Walk through the Arab shuq and take a right at the Cardo to get to the Jewish Quarter. Visit the Wohl archaeological museum to get a feeling for Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period, in the time of Herod and Jesus. If you are interested in more archaeology, then visit the southern wall excavations at the Davidson Center; there is also a movie that describes life at that time.

Visit the Western Wall, the holiest site to Judaism, write your prayer on a paper and tuck it into a crack in the stones of the wall. Try to reserve a Western Wall Tunnel tour in advance, either on their website (if you know some Hebrew) at http://english.thekotel.org/VisitorInfo.asp?id=1 or you can call them at (02) 627-1333 between 8:30-17:00.

It’s worth taking a guided group tour of the City of David – exit the Old City through Dung gate, take a left and then right and the entrance is on your left. If you have “water” shoes and aren’t claustrophobic, you can even walk 45 minutes through Hezekiah’s Tunnel with water up to your knees (you’ll need a flashlight which you can buy at the site or use your cell phone), which is quite an experience.

You might want to walk up onto the Haram el Sharif to see the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa mosque (the third holiest site to Islam) close up (the Muslim Waqf won’t allowed you to enter them unfortunately) but if so you’ll have to do it in the morning and it takes between 1/2 and 1 hour to pass through security at the entrance to the Western Wall Plaza. Make sure you have no religious articles, prayer books or Bibles and no Swiss Army knife, etc. with you – they will be confiscated.

The new Israel Museum is open after extensive renovations and it is now much easier to find your way (for more information check out my blog entry) – the Archaeology wing has been completely redone, the Ethnography section has been expanded and called Jewish Life and the Art gallery includes a new section on Israeli art. The museum includes the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls and other artifacts from Qumran are on display. From the same period, the Holyland model of Jerusalem is now housed on the museum campus. If the weather is cooperative, walk around and enjoy the sculpture garden. If you’re interested in archaeology, you can also visit the Rockefeller museum (on the same admission, there’s even a shuttle bus) which will get you back to the Old City.

For an overview of Jerusalem, there’s a red double-decker bus that takes you for a 2 hour audio tour (explanations in 8 languages) of the whole city:
http://city-tour.co.il/ntext.asp?psn=8375

The Arab shuq/market and the Mahane Yehuda market are great places to get a feel for Jerusalem. There’s the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall, called the Midrahov, and at the bottom Zion Square and the pubs, restaurants and boutique galleries in Nahalat Shiva. There’s live music at the Yellow Submarine in Talpiot.

Explore the German Colony: for a local movie theater from the British Mandate period with restaurant/pub check out the Smadar; for artistic films, check Cinemateque. For music, dance and theater try the Mabada. There are plenty of places to eat in this neighborhood (including my house 8-))

All this without hiring a guide, but to be fair how about reading my post, Why hire a guide?

4–Day Itinerary

I’m happy when people contact me looking for a multi-day itinerary based from Jerusalem. It’s definitely worth a few days if you have the time. I’d like to share one itinerary that I guided for clients a couple of weeks ago. Of course, this itinerary is just to give you the idea – when you hire me as your guide you get a personalized itinerary that matches your interests.

Day 1

  • We started with an overview of Jerusalem from the promenade at Armon HaNatziv, learned about the aquaduct that brought water to the city from Hasmonean times (100 BCE). From there we drove to Herodium for a comprehensive tour: the lower city (pool, Roman bath, monumental building, Byzantine church) outside the park and the palace/fortress on the manmade mountain top built by King Herod including the latest excavation by Netzer of the tomb and Roman theater discovered on the north-east side of the mountain.
  • Visit to Gush Etzion (Etzion Bloc) to learn about the history of the Gush and memorial to the defenders of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in 1948. Lunch at a lovely restaurant called Gavna in the forest of Kibbutz Massuot Yitzhak with a view all the way to the coastal plain.
  • Visit to Hebron and the Cave of Machpela, that Abraham purchased to bury Sarah in which our forefathers and 3/4 mothers are buried. The building over the cave was built by Herod. Walk around the city to try to understand the current political reality.

Day 2

  • Walking tour of the Old City covering the 4 quarters, the 3 religions and 3000 years of history, including Herodian, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader periods. Views of the city from above and exploring underground. Tastes of the city for lunch.

Day 3

  • Visit the Israel museum to see the 2nd Temple model of Jerusalem. Tour of the Shrine of the Book, the unique architecture, the exhibits of artifacts from Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
  • Opportunity to stroll through the Sculpture garden.
  • Visit the City of David, the walled Jebusite city captured by King David in 1004BCE and made the capital of his kingdom. Learn about the extensive archaeology going on there and the politics. Possibility of walking through Hezekiah’s tunnel.

Day 4

  • Drive from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and Judean desert, the lowest point on earth, only 42 km away but 1170 meters lower. Learn about the African Rift valley, water, shrinking of Dead Sea, sink-holes, flora and fauna.
  • Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in passing.
  • At Ein Gedi, hike Nahal David to waterfalls and natural pools (it’s delightful to take a dip even in the winter months). Visit the ruins of the Jewish synagogue with mosaic floor.
  • Continue south to Masada, Hasmonean fortress in the desert extensively renovated by Herod, used by the Jewish rebels against the Roman and later by some Byzantine monks. Visit the new museum at Masada.

Mount Sodom

Mount Sodom

South of Masada along highway 90 there is a hike up Mount Sodom, a hill that is made up almost entirely of halite or rock salt. It is 226 meters above the Dead Sea with some great views (and photography opportunities) but still 170 meters below sea level. Don’t miss the rock formation that has separated from the cliff face due to weathering. It is known as Lot’s wife, a reference to the Biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and how Lot’s wife looked back as they left and was turned into a pillar of salt. Interestingly there are other rock outcrops that are called Lot’s wife in other parts of the world, check Wikipedia for some fascinating accounts like a basalt pillar, a deserted, volcanic island in the Philipines Sea, at the southernmost tip of the Izu archipelago in Japan.

Lot's wife as a pillar of salt, © 2009 Shmuel Browns

Dead Sea pools

Nimrod, Golan

The alarm clock went off at 5am Sunday morning. We were to drive our 2 sons, Amitai and AdirChai and his friend Ariel, from Jerusalem to the Hermon to hike the Golan Trail. We had 2 days to explore the area.

Day 1: Nimrod
After seeing the boys off, we drove to Nimrod, just 5 families on the southern slope of the Hermon and at 1110 meters above sea level, the highest settlement in Israel.  There is a great view of Birkat Ram to the south-east and the Nimrod fortress to the west. As you enter, there’s a blue boxy concrete building, a gallery of paintings by Diego Goldfarb and next to it a restaurant (not kosher) called the Witch and the Milkman. They carry artisan cheeses from the HaNoked Dairy and give tastes. We bought two cheeses, a hard Tome style (French) goat cheese treated with red wine and a Manchego like (Spanish) sheep’s cheese treated with Chardonnay to go with the crackers I had made (I think I’m the only tour guide who bakes homemade organic whole wheat crackers to share with my clients).

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From there we drove 8 km to the Nimrod fortress off of highway <989>, part of the Parks Authority with an entrance fee of 20 NIS per person.  The fortress controlled one of the main roads that ran from Tyre to Damascus. It was built around 1229 by the Ayyubid ruler Al-Aziz Uthman, nephew of Salah ad-Din. Later additions by the Mameluk sultan Baybars in 1260 (actually his second in command Bilik) are commemorated by a large, beautifully carved inscription in Arabic.

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Also found was a stone relief of a very cute looking lion, the symbol of Baybars.

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The fortress is the largest in Israel and includes a large water cistern and a donjon (keep), surrounded by a moat, probably the two most important things against a siege.

There are 2 incredible things about this fortress that I experienced when I visited it for the first time on the guide course:

  1. I took this photo of the arch above the entrance to the northwest tower where a number of stones have slipped due to an earthquake in 1759 and are hanging suspended to this day.
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  2. Nearby is the vaulted stairway  of the secret tunnel. I noticed that it was quite damp and in looking up I saw stalactites growing from the ceiling and I understood that since the fortress is built of limestone from the Hermon (as opposed to the basalt of the Golan) the water seeping through is dissolving the limestone blocks just like in a natural cave.
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Hiking Nahal Yehudia

Day 2: Hiking Nahal Yehudia
After a breakfast of fruit and homemade granola we drove to Nahal Yehudia off highway <87>. The hike is listed as appropriate for good hikers who can swim as there are a couple of places where you have to climb down the rock face with the help of handholds or a ladder into a deep pool that you have to swim across. The trail is one of eleven listed in the Park’s brochure on the Yehudia Forest Reserve, including Nahal Zavitan, the Meshushim (hexagonal basalt pillars) pool and Gamla which includes the archaeological remains of the Jewish town that fought against Vespasian at the start of the Jewish Revolt in 66CE and Griffon vultures that can be seen flying overhead. There is parking, bathrooms, drinking water, a snack bar and information center (the park warden we spoke to was very helpful); the entrance fee was 20 NIS per person. Note that you must start out on the trail by noon.

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The hike starts above the wadi, walking through a deserted Syrian village built on the remains of an earlier Jewish one of basalt field stones from the Roman-Byzantine period. Remains of a wall have led archaeologists to suggest that Yehudia is Soganey, one of the three fortresses (the other two are Gamla and Sele’ukya) in the Golan built by Josephus at the time of the Roman Revolt. You walk on a path strewn with basalt, by pasture land where you may see cattle grazing.

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Then you walk down into the wadi to the Yehudia Falls and the first pool, good for a cool dip especially if it’s a hot day.

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At this point we changed out of our hiking boots and into water sandals as there are places where you walk in the water. Continuing along the wadi you get to the first descent. U-shaped handholds have been attached to the rock to help you get down about 4 meters. This is just your warm up. The trail brings you to a cliff where you descend 9 meters by metal ladder into a pool. There is no place to stand, you step off the bottom rung of the ladder and swim across to the other side of the pool.

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The challenge is what to do to keep your gear dry (and in this day and age with cell phones, cameras, car keys with electronic locks, etc. we have stuff that won’t work if it gets wet). We used the double garbage bag technique but also saw a group float their packs across on a small inflatable boat, you can rig up a rope and omega your pack across or probably safest, pack in professional waterproof bags used for kayaking.

After traversing the pool you come to another descent, this time about 4 meters with only handholds. At the bottom you have the option of swimming or walking across the pool as it isn’t that deep. Be careful as it is slippery walking on the rocks. The water can be quite cold so it’s great that there is a place in the sun to sit on some large rocks and have a snack.

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Using the 2 large plastic bags that we had brought for our packs, we picked up a bunch of garbage that we carried out with us. We continued along the wadi, sometimes walking on the rocks, sometimes in the water. At the well marked junction you can leave the red trail to take the green back to the Syrian village or continue  along the wadi a bit further to one last pool and waterfall. Then we backtracked and took the green trail up out of the wadi, back to the Syrian village and the trail head. It was just the middle of November but there were already cyclamen and narcissus in bloom.

You can view a fuller set of photographs from this Golan trip on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/27944012@N06/sets/72157622790431204/

Negev desert

The Negev desert, shaped like a 4700 square mile inverted triangle in the south of Israel, makes up more than half of the country’s land area. I can arrange to make a visit to the Negev part of your itinerary, you have to experience the desert to understand its importance.

Geographically the Negev can be divided into 5 areas: the northern, western and central Negev, the high plateau and the Arava Valley. This article focuses on the high plateau area, Ramat HaNegev (Negev Heights). The plateau stands between 370 metres and 520 metres above sea level and has extreme temperatures in summer and winter and significant differences in temperature between day and night. Even though the area gets only 100 mm of rainfall per year and the soil is poor and quite salty, Israel is successfully growing olives, pomegranates, pistachios and grapes for wine.

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Here are some places to add to your itinerary as you explore Ramat HaNegev.

  • Kibbutz Revivim is growing 5 varieties of olives using brackish water and selling the olives and olive oil in an upmarket boutique dedicated to their products in Tel Aviv.

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  • Park Golda includes a lake and picnic tables to eat your lunch or for an unforgettable desert experience, try Beduin hospitality in a black goat’s hair tent followed by a camel ride.

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  • The Large Makhtesh is one of 3 craters in the region, a unique formation to the Negev, where the inside of a mountain is eroded by water, leaving the outer shell.
  • Visit the tzrif on Kibbutz Sde Boker to get a glimpse of how Ben-Gurion and Paula lived. The Ben-Gurion Institute, a research facility for the study and the dissemination of his writings, offers visitors a multi-media program about the man and his vision.
  • You can visit a string of family farms along route <40> for wine and cheese tasting and even sleep over in one of their cabins under the desert stars. On farms that are growing grapes and making wine, the vines have been planted on the same 1500 year old terraces that were prepared by the Nabateans and take advantage of runoff from the winter rains. These farms are also a symbol of Israel’s pioneering spirit in the 21st century, composting their waste, recycling their grey water and generating electricity using solar photovoltaic panels.

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  • Hike into the canyon at the Ein Avdat National Park with springs, pools and waterfalls, an oasis in the desert or from the Roman bath house (below Avdat) supplied with water drawn from a well tunneled 70 meters through bedrock hike north along the Israel Trail to the Ein Eikev spring that flows year round.
  • Visit the remains of the Nabatean city of Avdat which was probably the regional capital. Located at the crossroads that join Petra in Trans-Jordan to Eilat and to Gaza, Avdat controlled the passage of the caravans from India and Arabia. Conquered in 106 CE by the Roman Emperor Trajan, it lost its importance when a road was built between Eilat and Damascus. Avdat adjusted by adopting agriculture, particularly the production of wine, as its means of subsistence. Numerous terraced farms and water channels were built throughout the region in order to collect enough run-off from winter rains to support agriculture in the hyper arid zone of the Negev. At least five wine presses dated to the Byzantine period have been found at the site showing us how important wine-making was in this region. In the Byzantine period (5th and 6th century) a citadel and a monastery with two churches were built on the acropolis of Avdat on the ruins of earlier pagan temples. The town was totally destroyed by a local earthquake in the early seventh century and was never reinhabited.