As a young female travelling solo to Israel, I got a lot of concerned looks and even several “is that safe?”s. One of the tour guides even thanked us all for ignoring such friends and family to be brave enough to visit and see for ourselves! Well, let me tell you that out of all of my solo trips this was by far the smoothest and safest feeling.
For one, all Israeli women are required to serve 2 years in the military (versus the 3 men serve). This has really empowered Israeli women and made Israeli men view women as tuff, capable and equal. Secondly, the military and police presence are a bit unnerving if you aren’t used to seeing people carrying large guns out in the open, or guarding public places. However, most of the military are kind young men and women who are happy to help tourists with directions, and most importantly keep people safe. Thirdly, there are SO many tourists in the parts I visited, especially Jerusalem. This meant it was easy to make friends, even from my hometown. It also means that locals are used to tourists and are very helpful rather than annoyed. Locals want tourists to feel welcome because the country largely runs on tourism.
Jerusalem in January was quite cold at night, dipping down to around 8C at its coldest, and 16C during the day at the warmest. I checked the weather each night and the day it was forecasted to rain I went to the Dead Sea because it tends to be warm and dry in the desert year-round. I was surprised by how warm the water was – both the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Tel Aviv was warm and sunny, ranging between 10-22C.
I did not visit for religious reasons nor did I go on a spiritual journey. I visited Jerusalem for a culture shock; to see people who live differently than I do, and to witness an ancient city that has long attracted people from many walks of life. I truly feel privileged to have experienced such a significant city, which both brings people together and tears them apart. That being said, the experience was nothing like what I expected, but it was an unforgettable one and I hope you will have an equally great time!
Egged is the name of the public buses, which are the cheapest and most practical way of getting around. Cabs can be pretty expensive I was warned, but a bus all the way to Jerusalem from the airport was only 16 NIS. To get to Jerusalem from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv take Egged bus #485, it only took about 30-40 minutes but traffic was light as it was 5.00. Alternatively, there are cabs and even shared cabs available at the airport.
On Shabbat, Friday afternoon through Saturday night, all public transportation stops. As you can imagine, this means all cabs increase their price as well. This is why I stayed in Tel Aviv Friday-Saturday, where most businesses remain open, bikes are available to rent, and so much is within walking distance!
Day 1 – Old City Walking Tour
On my first day, I walked from the central bus station to the Old City. It is a fairly straight shot and takes 30-40 minutes, bringing you to Jaffa Gate. Once you get into the Old City there are signs on nearly every corner pointing the way to popular destinations. You can knock out most of the main sites just by wandering the old alleys of the Old City.
I entered Jaffa Gate where you will immediately see the Tower of David which if you want to go inside you must pay and it takes 1-2 hours. I then visited the Church of Holy Sepulchre which is free entrance but you may want a guided tour for, as there is not much signage. It opens as early as 5.00 and closes at 19.00; I recommend going either early or close to close as it gets busy around lunch time. From here you can find the 14 stages of the cross which are marked in Roman numerals along Via Dolorosa St. From here it is not hard to follow signs to my personal favourite site: the Western Wall, sometimes nicknamed by non-Jews the Wailing Wall. If you’re wondering why so many people are walking backwards after placing their prayer in the stones of the wall, I’ll explain. The large open space you see now did not use to be there, so as you can imagine, the wall used to get quite crowded, forcing people to back away from the wall. In order to honour history, many still back away from the wall. Be sure to explore the tunnels under the wall too! I took the guided tour which took an hour. Behind or on the Western Wall is the Temple Mount – the Western Wall is one of 4 walls that once formed the Temple Mount, a platform for the Dome of the Rock & Al Aqsa Mosque.
Day 2 – The Garden Tomb, Olive Mount, & Yad Vashem
To get some extra facts and ensure I had not missed anything I took a Sandeman free walking tour. Meeting outside Jaffa Gate, we walked for roughly 2 hours, getting an overview but without going inside sites so as to save time. A tip of roughly 50 NIS is suggested at the end. After the tour, I then walked through the Muslim quarter and through Damascus Gate to get to the Garden Tomb which is believed to be the tomb Jesus rose from the death from. The tomb is in a gorgeous garden up on the rocky hill you see across from Damascus Gate. Entrance is free with information in various languages.
Not far from here one can walk to City of David which charges entry but includes one of a few tours. Also in the area are Olive Mount and the Basilica of the Agony also called the Church of All Nations, both of which were free and highly worth the extra walk. Beware, however, that Olive Mount requires a lot of stairs and walking up and down hills. There is a great view of the city and mountains though, and thousands of graves to explore. Many Jews still pay to be buried here, though it’s very expensive. This is also where your prayer will be buried if you leave one on the Western Wall.
After dark, I visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, which remains open late (20.00) on Thursdays, though only for the main exhibit. This museum is a must see if you have any interest in the holocaust. It goes beyond the history of Israel and takes you through concentration camps and ghettos big and small all over the world. It covers the well known and the unknown. It took me just under two hours to complete the main exhibit. There is an outdoor portion of the museum, allowing for a whole day trip if desired. The museum offers plenty of parking and shuttling services, though I recommend taking the light rail (only tram in Jerusalem) to the very last stop and following signs to the museum.
I recommend taking at least one of the many tours offered around Jerusalem even if just the free (tips based) 2-hour tour by Sandeman as I did. The city has done a great job of honouring history in hidden little ways, like planting palm trees in the exact place ancient pillars stood or a stripe in the stone to signify the old city walls. If a tour is not an option, however, you can still get all the main sites and facts in on a self-guided tour. I used the app Visit a City – you can download trip plan to work offline and it provides a short description and map of all the main places to visit.
The Dead Sea
To get to the Dead Sea from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv take an Egged bus. Jerusalem is closer so I took the bus from there by going to the top floor of Central Station and purchasing a ticket from the window next to the information centre. The terminal is right around the corner and cost around 16 NIS one-way, but I recommend buying a day pass, allowing you to make stops for a hike or a bite. The pass is put on a green refillable card that costs 5 NIS usually but is free if you show your foreign passport (and get there early enough to do so).
Ein Gedi Spa
The bus ride took about an hour to Ein Gedi Spa. If you have the time, the Ein Gedi hotel stop right before the hotel offers a nice walk through botanical gardens and a lookout over the Dead Sea. You can walk around for an hour and then catch the next bus to the spa, as I did. The free public beaches in the area were closed (January 2018) due to sinkholes, so the spa was the only option. It was worth the money though, as I spend the day there, floating in the Dead Sea, bathing in the sulphur baths, and covering myself in the mineral-rich mud. There is a restaurant and a shuttle to the Sea if you do not want to walk. Even in January, the water was warm but it was chilly in the wind after getting out. Entrance, including lunch, cost 95 NIS.
There is no way of describing the feeling of the Dead Sea. I have always been a swimmer so to have all familiarity with water taken away from me was incredible. To give you some perspective of just how salty it is, human sweat is roughly 3.5% salt and the Dead Sea is roughly 33.5%!
This gorgeous vacation city has it all – the modern, buzzing city of northern Tel Aviv and the ancient, historic streets of Jaffa. Beaches, palm trees, warm weather, great food and quite the nightlife! As the vegan capital of the world and the gay city of the Middle East, Tel Aviv has something for everyone. Top-notch restaurants and cafes line the promenade. The nightlife goes long into the night, even on Shabbat, as Tel Aviv is very liberal and has a large percentage of Muslim and Christians.
The new city is quite large, though not so exciting as you move inland. As for the old city of Tel Aviv-Yafo, also called Jaffa, one day is enough to see all the sights, though I am sure you will want longer!
Transporation & Business Hours
You can rent bikes from all over the city. They are lime green and each station has about 20 parked side-by-side with a little green machine. The first 30 minutes are free, but a credit card is needed regardless. No cash is accepted.
Even though most businesses remain open during Shabbat, with Israel being a Jewish nation, all public transportation and some chain businesses shut down Friday afternoon through Saturday. Museums are either closed or have limited weekend hours so plan accordingly and beware of taxi prices during this time.
Day 1 – Old Jaffa Walking Tour
Tel Aviv-Yafo, also called Tel Aviv-Yafa, refers to Old City Jaffa located on the southern coast of Tel Aviv. On my first day in Jaffa, I took another free 2-hour walking tour by Sandeman. We met at the Jaffa Clock Tower at 11.00, though they also offer tours at 14.00. Since Jaffa is pretty small though filled with history, this tour was definitely worth it.You can register online so they know to expect you or just show up, but check their website first. If this tour is not an option, the city has signs at all the main places so wandering around will still get you far. Jaffa has everything from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to modern art all well-meshed in this beach city overlooking the ocean.
As the day came to a close I watched the sunset over Jaffa Port. At night there are plenty of restaurants and bars open in Jaffa, I recommend trying the dish shakshuka. Be sure to also check out some of the local artists, they also won’t haggle you as the shopkeepers from the Jaffa Bazaar will.
Day 2 – Biking, Swimming, & Sun
Day 2 was spent with a traditional breakfast out on the patio of my hostel, Old Jaffa Hostel. I then rented a bike and rode straight up the promenade to the hip, modern part or north Tel Aviv. A friend I met along the way and I went for a swim, yes swimming was entirely possible in January! All of the beaches said “swimming prohibited” but the locals all say it is fine as long as you do not go far out. If you are wondering what the tiny, fishing line-looking thread around the beach is, it is for Jews during Shabbat, so they do not go beyond these areas. Shabbat (Friday afternoon through Saturday night) is a time for rest and prayer, not travelling outside the city or swimming in the sea.
Even during Shabbat, there was plenty to do here, and after a long week of travels, it was nice to soak up the sun and spend a couple hours eating some delicious food and drinking Israeli beer with some of the great people I crossed paths with. Tel Aviv is a place for strolling around and enjoying the many shops, art, cafes, restaurants, and bars,
The cheapest option of getting back to Ben Gurion Airport is to take a public bus to Central Station and then taking a train. The buses will drop you off down the road from the trains, but don’t be afraid to can ask for help. It is about a 5-minute walk. Alternatively, especially if you are solo and leaving after dark, I suggest taking a cab to the central train station and taking the train directly to the airport from there. This area after dark was the only part of Israel that made me slightly uneasy. Ticket machines are right inside the entrance and you can purchase a ticket with cash or card for much cheaper than a cab. Safe travels!