The Ultimate Travel Guide To Jerusalem #1: Introduction
I’m always surprised to find that people are afraid to travel to Jerusalem, that they think it ‘unsafe’. Most people I encounter seem to have this fear competing fiercely with their curiosity about the historical and cultural patchwork that is the heart of the Holy Land, leaving them on the fence and undecided about whether to visit. Yet in my travels, I have never felt safer than in the midst of this city that I keep returning to, like a moth to a flame. Yes, it is a Middle Eastern city, in a country at war, but if you take the right precautions and stay aware of your surroundings, there is honestly nothing to fear.
Somehow, over the past 3 years, I seem to have developed Jerusalemitis. No matter how hard I try, how strictly I plan and budget and travels, I always end up ignoring The Plan and going back, sometimes staying for weeks at a time. In that peculiar gem of a city, I feel at home. People who get over the obligatory Race to See ALL the Sites usually do. Unfortunately, most people don’t stay that long. They visit the landmarks, take pictures, send a postcard, and move on. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good start – but there’s so much more to Jerusalem than this.
So, without further ado, I present to you the Ultimate Jerusalem Travel Guide, in two versions (and two shiny new blog posts): the 4-day Hurried Traveller Itinerary, and the one-week-plus Checklist for Chilled People.
Preliminary note - things you should know before travelling to Jerusalem:
- Cultural Background:
The city of Jerusalem is officially divided into two: West Jerusalem, on the Israeli side of the border, and East Jerusalem, on the Palestinian side. Both have a very different feel to them, yet they are, arguably, two sides of the same, multicultural city. At the heart of it is the Old City, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, key religious centre for Jews, Muslims and Christians: the Temple Mount and its Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock with the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - but not only. The Old City is divided into 4 quarters - the Armenian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter, each home to their own treasures.
- Getting there:
From Ben Gurion airport and most cities, you have four options:
- Trains: probably the fastest way around the country, and fairly cheap, but not the most convenient. From the airport you would need to change at Tel Aviv HaHagana station and get on the right train.
- Buses: Egged buses are also cheap, but you will need to recognize the station (stay awake!), and if you are going straight from the airport you will also need to change buses. It is probably the most cost-effective way if you're travelling light. Remember to tell the driver to open the trunk as you get off to get your suitcase back!
- Private taxis: I don't recommend travelling between cities in Israel by private taxi. It costs a fortune and there are other, cheaper ways that are just as easy. The only advantage is that they will drop you off at your exact destination. If you insist on travelling by private taxi, it'll cost you around 200-300 shekels from the airport.
- "Sherut", or shared taxis. They look like yellow minivans and are the easiest way to travel from city to city. Verify with the driver that he is going to Jerusalem, and then you can pay on board.
Finally, don't plan to arrive on shabbat! Public transport (excluding taxis) close from early friday afternoon until saturday at sundown, so it'll be a nightmare for you to get anywhere then.
- Safety precautions:
To be completely honest with you, Jerusalem is as safe or unsafe as any other city, and these precautions you should take anywhere. Try not to walk around the city with your passport and other important documents - my friend got her wallet stolen a few summers back and it was hell getting her a new passport. Look out for hostels with lockers available to rent to that effect. I don't recommend women walk around the Old City souk or some parts of East Jerusalem alone, as some men can get touchy and generally offensive. Avoid the old graveyard outside the Mamilla (near the Jaffa Gate). All in all the rest of the city is pretty safe, even at night.
- This is a country at war. It may be hard to forget when you’re preparing your trip, but it’s often uncannily easy to forget once you get there. Try to stay aware of political sensitivity in both East and West Jerusalem to avoid offending anyone. Stay out of trouble, kids.
- What to Wear in Jerusalem:
While guys can wear pretty much whatever they want in Jerusalem, it’s a bit trickier for girls. The rest of the country may be very open-minded, but as the heart of religious beliefs Jerusalem is more traditional in its conventions. In the Old City especially – girls are recommended to wear skirts that are knee-length or longer, if anything to avoid nasty comments in the souk. When visiting religious monuments (which you most likely will), you’ll be required to cover your shoulders: a handy solution is to carry a scarf in your bag. For nights out in the modern part of the city, the dress code needn’t be as strict, but bear in mind that in Israel going out is a casual affair: if you want to fit in, don’t dress up.
Finally, remember that the weather gets absolutely boiling in the summer, so take all the precautions you need!
- Travelling around Jerusalem:
Walking is the best way to discover the city, and my favourite by far - try to travel light (comfy shoes, minimal handbag for women) and watch out for the sun. Note that the Old City is pedestrian-only.
The second easiest way to get around the city is via the brand new tramway line. Relatively cheap, the Light Rail goes along Jaffa road - one of the main commercial streets in the New City - and runs from 5.30 to midnight sunday to thursday.
There is a network of buses covering most the city. These don't run on shabbat. The best way to navigate your way around buses is to ask around - a lot of people speak english and will be happy to help.
Finally, cabs - the only means of transport that operates on friday afternoons and saturdays. When travelling by cab in Israel, the driver will most likely give you a price before you get on: always ask them to switch on the meter instead. Don't try to bargain until you get a clear idea of the prices (no point in paying more than what you would be charged by the meter). Keep in mind there is an extra charge on shabbat!
- Passport Stamping:
If, for any reason, you don't want your passport stamped when getting into the country, you can explain it to the border control officers at the airport, and they will stamp a separate piece of paper instead. However, be aware that a) if you intend to visit the West Bank on your trip, you may get held back and questioned more thoroughly on your way back into Jerusalem if there is no stamp in your passport; and b) if you cross any land borders (for instance if you want to go to neighbouring Jordan and visit Petra), you will get a stamp on your way out of the country. Day trips to Petra and the West Bank from Jerusalem will be covered in detail in future articles.