The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Israel: Joe Yudin of Touring Israel.
After graduating from Boston University, Joe moved to Israel and was drafted by the Israeli Defense Forces, where he served as a paratrooper. He then received a master’s degree in the Land of Israel Studies program at the University of Haifa—he’s currently working toward a PhD in the same field—and he and his family now live on a kibbutz in northern Israel. But he gained his travel chops by working as a guide, and, based on everything he learned about what sophisticated travelers to Israel really want, he founded Touring Israel. Joe takes great pleasure in helping travelers understand the country’s complicated politics and history by introducing them to locals from varied backgrounds, including Muslim and Jewish journalists, politicians, even an expert on the Tel Aviv fashion scene. He likes to keep his itineraries delightfully unconventional—under his care, you might camp in a Bedouin tent, bike through the Negev desert, or take part in the excavation of 5,000-year-old ruins—and he handpicks the most charismatic guides, who often have advanced degrees. His itineraries might cost more than others, but it’s because his guides are the savviest and most well-connected, so they command high fees (beware of unlicensed guides driving unlicensed, uninsured vehicles, which is not just illegal but unsafe). And when you book a guide or vehicle with Joe, you have them for the entire day–no nickel-and-diming for overtime or extra mileage. For travelers skittish about traveling in the region, Joe and his team are on hand 24/7 to field questions and make any necessary last-minute changes to travel plans. Joe was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
The brand-new Waldorf Astoria is arguably the most luxurious hotel in the city right now. The service is exceptional, the lobby is as grand as grand can be, and even the standard rooms are big and beautifully decorated, not to mention a great value! My favorite rooms are the Junior Suites, which are enormous. But the Waldorf Astoria has two notable drawbacks: It has neither a view of the Old City nor an outdoor pool. For the first, you’ll have to go to the David Citadel or the King David. If a pool is a must, then the King David is your best bet, and for historical significance, no hotel in town can match it.
Restaurant the locals love
Hummus Ben Sira, around the corner from the main hotels and close to the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall, is small and usually packed with locals at lunchtime. It specializes in—you guessed it—hummus. But this is not the cold version you buy in U.S. supermarkets and spread on a sandwich; the hummus here is made fresh and served hot. Try it with ground beef and pine nuts.
At Chakra, in the New City, order the dessert made from vanilla ice cream, tahini, halva, and date honey. It may not be on the menu, but ask for it.
In the Old City, try knafah, a Palestinian dish of fried cheese with flour, pistachio, and sugar water—check your cholesterol levels before and after eating!
Meal worth the splurge
Chef Tali Friedman offers a culinary tour of the Mahane Yehuda Market, followed by a cooking workshop and finally a gourmet meal in her cooking studio overlooking the market. It’s not cheap, and it’s only available to parties of 4–15 people, but our clients always love it.
What to See and Do
The City of David, in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, is an absolutely fascinating archeological site with remains dating back more than 5,000 years. The site is controversial—some say it’s being used as nationalist propaganda since it shows a millennia-old Jewish connection to an area that’s now mostly Palestinian. But don’t let the controversy put you off—this is one of the most interesting and extensive archeological parks in Israel, regardless of politics. A bonus is wading through the 500-meter Hezekiah’s Tunnel—an underground aqueduct, dating from the eighth century B.C., built by the Israelites to defend the city. The tunnel empties out into the first-century Siloam Pool, where Jesus is said to have healed a blind man. Make sure you bring water shoes and a flashlight.
On top of Mount Eitan, just above one of Jerusalem’s more picturesque neighborhoods, Ein Kerem (where John the Baptist was born), is a beautiful overlook and picnic area with views of western Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Forest. The mountain and forest are crisscrossed by mountain-bike and hiking trails suitable for every level. One trail takes you down the hill— through a village dating back to Canaanite and Israelite times and 5,000-year-old agricultural terraces that are now being farmed again—to Sataf Springs, which have been used to water crops for millennia. Make sure to bring your water shoes, bathing suit, flashlight, and all five senses—wildflowers, herbs, and various fruit trees dot the green landscape. Swimming is forbidden at the water holes, but this doesn’t stop the locals from jumping in.
Spending too much time in the Arab Market in the Old City. Sure, you can buy almost anything you want here, as long as it’s made in China. The market is colorful, full of exotic flavors and scents, and worth a leisurely stroll—but not more than 90 minutes of your precious time. And try not to get into conversation with a merchant unless you really do want to buy something. The merchants here tend to be aggressive; if you go into a shop, you are likely to leave with something. A few stores have some gems, but you have to know where to find them.
Ein Sukim Sifting Project. Archaeologists have gathered hundreds of tons of dirt from the Temple Mount at a nearby site and have been sifting through it for the past nine years, regularly finding artifacts dating back to the time of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem through the Maccabean, Crusader, and early Arab periods. For five bucks you can sift for hours with world-renowned archaeologists and their students looking for treasure buried thousands of years ago.
We can arrange for Eli Shukran, a noted archaeologist, to take you around the City of David. Shukran, who has been excavating this ancient city for most of his adult life, is the ultimate guide. He will take you into places that are generally closed to the public, explain what he found where, and tell the stories behind some of his most incredible finds.
Plenty of people visit the Israel Museum—fresh from a recent renovation, it houses all kinds of art treasures, fascinating archaeological artifacts (hello, Dead Sea scrolls!), and Judaica—but we can arrange for you to see it with one of the curators. Who better to explain the significance of the museum’s must-see sights, including the Curaçao Synagogue , which was relocated here? The curator can also take you into the vaults, where only staff are allowed, to see the scores of other antiquities that the museum doesn’t have the space to display.
Blumfield Garden behind the King David Hotel has incredible views of the Old City, and the nicely trimmed lawns make it a favorite with the locals for a picnic or a prewedding photo op. Make sure to check out the nineteenth-century windmill and nearby alleyways in Yemin Moshe while you’re there.
From the rooftop of the lovely nineteenth-century Austrian Hospice building you can see all four quarters of the Old City, all the way to the Mount of Olives and the Judean Desert. When you are done soaking up the view, go down into the garden café and try the apple strudel. If the front desk clerk is in a good mood, he might even give you a key to the beautifully painted salon where Abba Eban, the famous Israeli diplomat, used to teach Hebrew to the British soldiers stationed there.
On the Via Dolorosa is a hidden alleyway (the address is 15 Via Dolorosa) that leads to Jerusalem Pottery, the workshop of the Karakashian family, Armenian ceramists who came to Jerusalem from Turkey a century ago to repair the tiles on the Dome of the Rock. Armenian pottery has a long and fascinating history in Jerusalem, and the workshop and store are well worth a visit.
The absolute best time to visit Jerusalem is after Passover and before summer (mid-April through May), when the weather is pleasant and the hotel rates are lower.
Autumn is good too, weatherwise, with September being especially nice.
While the summer months can be unbearably hot, Jerusalem is 800 meters above sea level, so it tends to be cooler than the rest of the country.
Unless you love crowds and high prices, avoid the peak-season periods of Passover and Easter (usually in late March or early April), the High Holidays (usually September), Sukkot (usually early October), the last half of June, and from December 20 through January 3.
December through February can be cold and rainy, although not nearly as cold and wet as the northeastern United States, and if you’re lucky enough to be in Jerusalem when it snows, you’ll never forget it. March can be rainy too, though less predictable.
Not staying near the center of town, where you are walking distance from the Old City, the center of the New City, and hundreds of restaurants, bars, and cafés.
Not reading the fine print before booking your hotel online. Often, breakfast is not included in your “special rate,” which means you’ll either miss out on the famous Israeli breakfast spread, which will get you through to dinner, or wind up paying double.
The free walking tours offered by the guides standing outside the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City. The guides usually spend most of the tour pushing you into tacky souvenir stores and touristy restaurants where they earn a commission on sales. They also hard-sell you on other tours that aren’t free.
From Ben Gurion International Airport you can catch a train, bus, or taxi into Tel Aviv, which is only ten minutes away (unless it’s rush hour), or a bus or taxi to Jerusalem, which is only 40 minutes away. Everything is well signed in English, and it’s almost impossible to get lost. Taxis have set prices: To Tel Aviv, the fare is 144 NIS (about $45), and to Jerusalem it’s 273 NIS (about $80). Higher fares are imposed at night and on Jewish holidays.
Tipping is American-style, so tip waiters, taxi drivers, bellboys, housekeepers, room service, the gal/guy who washes your hair at the salon. Tip just as you would at home. Tour guides should get 15 to 20 percent of the daily rate.