Jerusalem tourist advice
January 6, 2006 4:13 AM   Subscribe

Jerusalem tourism advice?

I find myself here unexpectedly for a few days. It's my first trip to Israel. What are your must-sees, must-dos, must-buys, must-eats and must-avoids? Also, would like any cultural tips you might have. Apparently, there is no such thing as waiting your turn on line, so is being pushy just de rigeur? What are basic politeness customs? How do I avoid gaffes? (All I know is to say Shalom to everyone and not attempt to shake hands with Orthodox men. Am essentially clueless.) I'm an atheist girl traveling alone and have a car.
posted by FailedSeductress to Travel & Transportation around Jerusalem, Israel (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Baklava. Unfortunately I can't remember which bakery we used to get it from when we were visiting, but I think many of the bakeries sell it. Yum.
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:01 AM on January 6, 2006

Israelis are notorious for not obeying queues and trying to cut through lines. Just be as aggressive as possible and you'll be fine.

As far as must-sees, well, you're in Jerusalem. There are the stations of the cross, the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock... 300 years of religious history right there.

I couldn't recommend strongly enough going to the English language bookstore (I think there's a WH Smith branch in town?) and getting a J'lem travel guide. Normally travel guides are the suck, but this is one city they help immensely with.
posted by huskerdont at 5:02 AM on January 6, 2006

ok, that should be 3000. bad typo.
posted by huskerdont at 5:03 AM on January 6, 2006

Israeli Culture/Etiquite:
Yes, being pushy is the only way that Israelis know. Lining up / queing up is just not something that you'll see. Israelis are also pretty gruff / direct. If your haircut looks like shit, your friend would definitely tell you so.

For "excuse me", sa say sli-cha (if you can make that gutteral "ch" sound in the back of your throat). Most Israelis speak pretty good english, more so if you're in a touristy area. Israelis are not bashful at all, so don't be bashful to them. Just walk right up and say "Shalom, do you speak english?" and get pointed in the right direction.

Israel has a sabbath day on Friday night to Saturday Night. Many ares of Jerusalem will be very quiet on Saturday. People leave town or hang out around the house, so the streets are quiet, busses don't run, museums and stores are closed.

Things to See in Jerusalem:
Go to the old city. It is quite safe (but I'd avoid it after sundown -- mostly because you'll become crazy lost), and very very beautiful. There are lots of tiny streets and small cafes. I'm not sure what would happen if you tried to sit down in a cafe where you weren't welcome, but I bet you'd get the vibe or they'd tell you and you'd say you're sorry and leave. There is an Arab market in the old city, and it's a great experience to wander around. Arabs make the best bread (IMO), get some snacks including falafel (vegetarian) or schwarma (not). Pile it up with various pickeled salads and fresh veggies and and other drippy things.

If you're into history, go to the temple mount (western wall / wailing wall). The current wall was built by Herod in approx 30 BCE. He needed a flat space on top that was really big, so he built walls around and then filled them all in. There is a mens side and a women's side, but walking up to the wall isn't required. Go up the ramp instead to the Dome of the Rock / Al Aqsa Mosque. You can sometimes go into the Mosque as well, but definitely go into to the Dome. The dome was built in 690ish by Muslims. It commemorates the ascent of Mohammed the prophet up to heaven. There is a "foot print" in the rock inside the dome, where the rock leapt up to grab onto Mohammed's fun. Awesome architecture. Worth a look, but if you're a militant atheist, then maybe not.

Also at the south side of the Temple Mount (as you go back down the ramp you came up, turn left), there is an active archeological dig site. Also you can exit the city walls (built in 1100s, by Suleman to protect against the crusaders, so not that old, haha) through the Dung Gate, and walk left-ish down the hill. On your right, you'll see more ruins and stuff. This is the (supposed) city of david. Basically more old stuff, but kinda cool also.

I'm not a Christian, but I enjoyed going to the Church of the Holy Seplecure as well. There are many types of monks in the church -- they used to fight in the late 1800s and there were even some stabbings as the rival monks tried to edge each other out. But the building is also super cool, with lots of different rooms and stuff. If you're lucky there will be rites / prayers going on and you can watch.

Also go to Machane Yehudah (esp on friday afternoon, but looks like you're too late for that today!). This is the Jewish market at the top of the Ben Yehudah Street / Tourist District. It is great. You MUST buy a quarter kilo of rugulach at Marzipan. Just follow the sweet smell, or ask someone. It is quite possibly the best thing in the world. It's near one edge of the market... I can't give exact directions, except to say that across the street is (was?) a hardware store.
posted by zpousman at 5:24 AM on January 6, 2006

The rock grabbed onto Mohammed's foot. Sorry, typo.

Outside Jerusalem:
There are lots of day trips that can be taken from Jerusalem and since you have a car, this will be a breeze. Israelis drive like they walk and talk, so you'll have to be somewhat aggressive. I was pretty scared when I drove in Israel, but just gritted my teeth and when I was in doubt, I hit the gas! It depends on what you like, but here are two options. For the urban flavor, Miami beach feel, go to Tel Aviv (and Jaffo). For the outdoorsy types, go to Ein Gedi, Masada, Dead Sea. Both of these can be done in a day, but it's a pretty big day. If you left at 8 am, you could do it and get back to the city to sleep. Tel Aviv is to the West and the outdoorsy stuff is to the East, so you can't well do both.

Tel Aviv is the New York City / Miami of Israel. It is very modern, full of urban things like art galleries and museums. It is on the Med Sea, so I'd just drive until you hit the ocean and park the car and wander down the beach. There is a much older city, Jaffo, nearby (to the south). It's also fun. Walk on Dizengoff street, too. It's the main tourist drag (like Broadway in NYC).

If you go the other way. I'd do Masada in the morning. There are a couple of ways up -- hike the hard way, hike the easy way, and some kind of trolley (if memory serves). Masada is the place where King Herod fled when he became super paranoid / fell from power. Later some others came to the same hilltop fortress and were holed up there hiding from the Romans. There was a long seige and battle. Eventually all of the Jews killed themselves in a mass-suicide so as not to be taken. Good times (heh). But there are ruins at the top to see. If you're not into that, then just skip it. The hike is fun but not amazing. Instead hit Ein Gedi. Ein Gedi is a national park and a spring in the desert. You can hike up and depending on the season, frolic in the pools. You might see ibex and other critters. The Dead Sea can be seen from the top of Masada and from the road. It's an inland salt lake that is slowly evaporating. It's worth a driveby, or a float if you're in the mood. There are some spas and stuff out there as well, if you're into that.
posted by zpousman at 5:38 AM on January 6, 2006

the yad vashem museum was the most memorable and moving place i visited in israel.
posted by RockyChrysler at 7:12 AM on January 6, 2006

Do **not** travel into palestinian controlled areas. (if you are driving a rental, its forbidden according to your rental contract.)

one wrong turn could make for no fun.

if you get lost, ask at a gas station. and do not pick up "hitchhikers", even if they are soilders.

stay away from ramallah, jericho, and other hotspots.
posted by Izzmeister at 7:26 AM on January 6, 2006

It's worth going to Hebrew University (Mount Scopus campus) to take in the extraordinary view of the Old City.

Also recommended: Tea at the historic King David Hotel
posted by dudeman at 7:32 AM on January 6, 2006

I second the recommendation to buy the rugelach at Marzipan. It's fantastic!
posted by dudeman at 7:33 AM on January 6, 2006

You ended up at a strange time in Israel, with what is going with Sharon right now. I guess most time are strange in Israel though. The advice from zpousman is excellent. For the old city I would recommend going on an organzied tour. You will get much more out of it if you go with someone knowledgeable. From frommers:

Zion Walking Tours (tel. 02/652-2568; fax 02/628-7866) offers tours that depart from the Tower of David inside the Jaffa Gate; ask at the tourist office for information. Archeological Seminars Ltd. (tel. 02/ 627-3515) and SPINI (tel. 02/625-2357; fax 02/625-4953) lead guided tours of the City of David.

Also in Jerusalem I would recommend seeing the museums. There is the Israel museum that combines art and history, including the dead sea scrolls. Near it is another fascinating museum about the ancient history of the middle east (the real cradle of civilization). Also, Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum is a must see for many.

If you want a quick overview of Israel, there is a mini-Israel, miniatures of key sites near Jerusalem in Latrun, which is a half hour from the city.

In terms of food, this time of year in Jerusalem I would look for a restaurant that serves kibe soup and another one that serves "meurav yerushalmi", which is a meat dish. In israel you should try falafel from street merchants. Ask people for restaurants (meat or fish) with good majatim. It is a custom imported from lebanon, where upon sitting down they bring you 10-15 small salads of various sorts complimentary as part of your meal.

In terms of driving I concur. My general strategy is to just not be surprised when things happen, expect the unexpected from people. In driving you will need to be pushier than in the US, e.g, if you want to shift lanes, turning you blinker on isn't enough, you have to start pointing there to convince people you are serious about your intentions. In other respects Israelies are a mixed bag, sometimes polite sometimes not, its hard to really generalize. With secular people there is little chance of social gaffes, beyond the obvious. In terms of others they will excuse you as long as they realize you didnt know. One other thing, Israelies stare at each other all the time, on the streets, in their cars, etc.. they are not, judging you, necessarily initiating contact or want you to say "hi" .. it just is what it is.
posted by blueyellow at 7:36 AM on January 6, 2006

Having lived in Jerusalem for five years, I know certain residents would be happier if you greeted them with "Marhaba" (مرحبا), but that opens up the problem for you of knowing whether you're speaking to a Jew or an Arab, i.e. it's something that's might not be easy for you and set the cultural gaffes aflowing.

The Old City (in all quarters except the Jewish quarter) is where I'd recommend using the Arabic greeting most of the time, but considering the people there work with the tourist trade they're pretty used to hearing "Shalom" (שלום).

If you're only there for a few days I'd recommend the Old City. Explore everywhere. It's got Ethiopian monks living on top of the Holy Sephulchre and tiny mosques, churches and synagogues accessible through little doors that often are only distinguished by a small sign. It's like a rabbit warren. If you're interested in old stones, I would definitely suggest The Holy Land : An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700. The man who wrote it gives tours, or used to, but that's something to look into.

If you do decide to explore the Old City, I would also give the clichéd advice of "dressing modestly". By which I mean covering your legs, shoulders and midriff (and presumably the parts covered most of the time in Western society, too). I think a lot of the time it's sexist bullshit, but it's exactly the sort of thing to start some old cleric or doorkeeper tut-tutting at you in broken English (or, who knows, perfectly fluent). Being male, I can't really know exactly what it's like to wander around the place as a single female, but I would suggest being confident and ignoring any rudeness as best you can. I could only see this happening with younger males. Most of the shopkeepers are older and affect an avuncular charm. I have had experiences (such as crowds in snug gates and streets during a Friday in Ramadan) where I was pretty sure being a western female would have made the experience quite a bit unpleasant.

If you're not into all that, then remember this old chestnut..."Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays and Haifa works" (I can't remember if the Tel Aviv one is exactly correct and you might want to add that Eilat swims).

Basically, if you enjoy a rush of history and religion to the skull that Jerusalem will give you, try the Old City. But if you really don't care for that at all, then check out some of zpousman's recommendations.

Per Izzmeister's advice: I certainly wouldn't recommend going in your rental car to the West Bank. I'm sure they have trackers installed, and when my family went in our own car, with its insurance trackers, we would get calls asking if the car was stolen. At this particular moment I think it might not be the best idea, but there are ways to get tours of the area. The West Bank is covered by checkpoints and very difficult to travel around anyway. And not to bring up the Old City advice too much, but I suspect that's the safest place. Places with majority Palestinian population in Jerusalem don't get hit by Palestinian suicide bombers and Israeli helicopter gunships aren't going to attack what they consider their own capital city (ESPECIALLY not the Old City).
posted by Gnatcho at 7:38 AM on January 6, 2006

Gnatcho is right about Marhaba, but as he said, it's hard to who to address with one versus the other. Shalom is safer in most places you'll go, but that doesn't make it right, of course.

Also, I totally forgot the modesty thing. If you do the Jerusalem stuff on my list, you'll need to be dressed modestly, as Gnatcho describes above. Pants are an option, but a skirt is best.

Yad Va'shem is a very good museum. The others I wasn't that impressed by. Besides, if you're in a country where the whole damn place is a museum, then just get out there and explore it. You won't see any dead sea scrolls, but heck, they look like you'd expect, tattered fragments of scrolls with hebrew on them. And I say that after working for a while at the Orion Institute for Dead Sea Scroll Research. If you're an atheist, I don't think that they're impressive. Would an Amish person really dig a car museum ("Ohhhh.... nice Porche 959!!")?
posted by zpousman at 7:48 AM on January 6, 2006

This is a reasonable restaurant list.

Sima's has the "meurav yeushalmi", mixed grill.
Sea Dolphin is probably a good treat combining excellent seafood with majatim (messe).
Abu Shukri has Kubbeh, not sure if the soup though.
The list has other restaurants that make my mouth water reading about them.
posted by blueyellow at 7:49 AM on January 6, 2006

Is Mr. T's still in business on Ben Yehudah Street? If so, stop in to check out the touristy T-shirts and army surplus. Lots of fun.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:03 AM on January 6, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks so much you guys. I had most of the day off today and wandered a little in the Old City. Gorgeous. (I'm a huge ancient history buff and know all about not dressing like an idiot, but do I need a hair scarf anywhere?) I'll go back with a guide book, the one gnatcho suggested if I can find it.

Restaurant-wise, I hate eating alone but my mouth started watering too, so I'm going to try a few when Shabat is over.
posted by FailedSeductress at 9:37 AM on January 6, 2006

I think a veil might be necessary for the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif and likely for other Islamic sites. As for restaurants on Shabbat (if you decide not to wait, and haven't already had a meal), East Jerusalem would be the best to try (considering stuff will be open). Philadelphia (9 Al-Zahra St.) is good, and I think there are some other similar places nearby. Philadelphia is a unusual name, until you learn it's an old name for Amman.

If you want to eat in a nice garden courtyard setting (or indoors), where all the journalists, UN types and other internationals go for a nice meal or drink, check out the American Colony (an institution) (WARNING: the website plays music). There's a Library of Congress thing about it here. Also, it has a really nice bookshop on its property. It also has the very pretentious guestbook "shrine" where you can see a list of all the famous people who have stayed at the American Colony.
posted by Gnatcho at 10:20 AM on January 6, 2006

Philadelphia's number, according to some web page: (02) 627-6227.
posted by Gnatcho at 10:24 AM on January 6, 2006

I think a veil might be necessary for the Temple Mount

For what it's worth, I think I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and sneakers when I was at the Dome of the Rock (and the Western Wall, too, which I visited the same day), and certainly no headscarf. But that was a decade ago, pre-Intifada, and I was barely a teenager, which meant there was very little to cover up even if I had wanted to.
posted by Asparagirl at 11:06 AM on January 6, 2006

Yad Vashem is amazing. If you like hiking, I can NOT recommend a sunrise hike up Masada. It's a life changing/affirming experience.
posted by youcancallmeal at 5:03 PM on January 6, 2006

If you like hiking, I can NOT recommend a sunrise hike up Masada.

Forgive me, but I don't get that. What do you mean?
posted by mediareport at 12:06 AM on January 7, 2006

Response by poster: For posterity, some random things I learned:

Don't jaywalk. I got stopped by cops, who, with delicious irony, demanded my papers. (Carry your passport.)

If you see a portrait of a young man framed in a store, don't cheerily ask who it is. It's probably the store owner's dead son.

Beware of the shopkeeper who quotes you a price while browsing, then charges you more when the item is bagged up for you.
posted by FailedSeductress at 8:25 AM on January 9, 2006

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