mount of olives

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to visit Israel, the Holy Land?  Israel dates back 3,500 years and is one of the oldest countries and ancient civilizations in the world.  Come see the past and the present:  rare historical sights and modern history.

Experiencing Israel just might be a life-changing encounter that will both inspire and challenge everything you thought you knew about this country, the Bible, and the history of this tiny country.

I’m lucky that I get to travel and see a lot of places.  If my travels as a photographer have taught me one thing, it’s that you get a better understanding of people and places when you have genuine, human interaction with them.  When I got the unique opportunity to visit Israel, I immediately said yes.  Like so many of you, I love an adventure and it was a chance for me to photograph and learn about a part of the world I’m only familiar with by what I’ve seen through news media, learned in history class, and Sunday School teachings as a child.  So, I want to share my itinerary and my perspective on this breathtaking country as a person on the outside.  I think Israel is often thought of as dangerous and perhaps too conflicted to visit.

Israelwelcomeairport

Welcome to Israel | Arrival and What to Expect

I flew with Lufthansa Airlines to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.  Security was very strict leaving Frankfurt, Germany’s airport , having to go through an additional dedicated security area for flights to Tel Aviv, and if you know anything about the issues Israel has gone through, then you’ll understand why, but I can assure you it is for everyone’s own safety.  I suggest that you arrive a minimum of three hours ahead of time at your airport as you’ll need it for that extra security check, which may also include questioning from the security team.

Will they stamp my passport?

This is a huge deal for some.  They do NOT stamp your passport anymore when you fly in or out.  You receive slips of paper you will NEED to keep in your passport as entry/exit stamps.  Keep these in your passport which you will need until you reach your next destination (outside Israel).

You probably know that if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport you can’t travel to some other Middle Eastern countries, and others will make it difficult.  However, when you cross the borders by car or on foot, they do sometimes stamp your passport.

Tel Aviv, Israel, bauhaus
Tel Aviv | White City

Tel Aviv – Small City with a Big Heart!

Tel Aviv is one magical city and possibly my new favorite!  While flights into Tel Aviv are not exactly cheap, with a little planning ahead and searching for deals on sites like Skyscanner you will be off to a good to start.

Tel Aviv is a walkable city and not very hard to get around.  Despite the warm weather, Tel Avivians love their bikes.  With the Tel Aviv-Yafo bikesharing rental system, you can rent daily, three-days, or weekly a bike via an access card – use one of their 2,000 green bicycles at 200 stations and ride along 130 km of riding lanes.  Sand, sea and skyscrapers.  You will find plenty of things to do including hanging out on the beach, rollerblading along the boardwalk, listening to live music, rooftop bars, nightlife, 24/7 shops, markets, world-class museums and so much more!  Tel Aviv attracts creative and inspirational artists, with many of the art students calling Tel Aviv home after graduation.   If you are looking for the latest on international art galleries, check out the Design Museum and Oh-So-Arty.

Israel’s Mediterranean coast runs for 170 miles, with beaches from the lively shores of Alma Beach in Jaffa to quieter stretches outside of the city.  With 300+ days of sunshine a year, summers are very warm and winters are mild.  The beach promenade is an awesome pedestrian space where you can sit and people-watch, practice yoga, go jogging, exercise on the beach’s equipment, or just have a picnic.

 

Is it Safe?  Let’s talk about Safety and Conflict

Of course, this may be the first thing you think of when you begin planning your visit to Israel.  There are often alerts or State Department warnings to avoid certain areas in Israel.  While the West Bank and Gaza Strip are listed as not to be visited as a tourist, it can also be noted that a trip to Golan Heights and even Jerusalem are not recommended during times of tension.  However, I was able to travel across the border of the West Bank and visit Golan Heights near the Syria border thanks to my trusted private tour guide, Motti Saar | Israeli Tour Guide.   Let him show you Israel!  You will not be disappointed.

In Golan Heights, we could see nearby smoke billowing from a burning tank on the Syrian side from the place we were standing.  There had been reported bombings just days before we visited.  I’m not really the type to worry, and at the time I really didn’t feel my safety was at risk although there were evident signs just across the border.

While we were able to walk around, there are notably signs for mines which had been buried by Israelis in order to keep the land.  Also, there were anti-tank trenches, abandoned tanks, and other signs of previous tension and conflict.  The border is now closed but the UN still has a presence, as we saw and talked with a couple of Canadian/UN military on patrol. However, no matter what is happening with their bordering neighbors, life in Israel still goes on.  People get married, have kids, go to school, go out to dinner, and live their lives to the fullest.  Because I am a visitor from the outside, there were definitely “wow” moments as I was taking in every moment with my eyes wide open and listening to our fantastic guide’s every word.  However, since I also lived for three years in South Korea, just 45 minutes from the fragile North Korea border, I can understand how the constant news hype media fades into the background as you go on about your every day life.

Israel’s government is the only fully democratic country in the Middle East. Elections are held for seats in the parliament every four years. If a party wins 2 percent of the votes, the party gets one or more seats in parliament. No one party has control so they have to work together. The leader of the largest party them becomes prime minister and he/she appoints a cabinet of 120 members which runs the country.  Most Jewish Israeli men and women join the Israeli Defense Forces after they finish school. Men serve for three years and women serve for two.

 

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Jerusalem Highlights

Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, is considered a holy city by Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. Jerusalem is the historical hub of all three religions and faithful followers of each religion have long fought over this land. Jews believe the Messiah will one day appear here, Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven from here, and Christians believe this is where Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

Jerusalem Old City is one of the holiest and most historical places on Earth.  The Old City has ancient ruins, historical streets, religious sites, and modern neighborhoods with a vibrant downtown district.  With so much to explore, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of this city.  I will briefly share some of the highlights of this fascinating city!

The original stone wall was rebuilt during the Ottoman Empire between 1537 and 1541.  The Walls of Jerusalem surrounding the Old City are over two kilometers long, with 34 watchtowers and seven main gates.

Western Wall

The holiest and most important shrine of the Jewish faith.  Visitors can pray at the wall, place a prayer or personal note within the cracks of the stone, or view the wall from a distance.  Men and women must go to separate areas to visit and pray (all faiths must abide by this rule).  No matter what faith you believe in, I would suggest taking a few quiet moments to write a memorable prayer to place in the wall and feel the spirituality that surrounds you at the moment.  The fallen notes are collected several times a year and are buried within a Jewish cemetery.

western wall, wailing wall
Western Wall
western wall, wailing wall, prayer notes
Prayer note

Our incredible itinerary took us through the ancient architectural streets of Jerusalem, including the Four Quarters (Armenian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim); Garden of Gethsamane, Mount of Olives, Church of Holy Sepulchre and prayer at the Western Wall.

Garden of Gethsamane, Jerusalem, Israel
Garden of Gethsamane
Holy Church of Sepulchre | Photo credit Gary Bembridge
Famous ladder at Church of Holy Sepulchre

 

We also drove through Armageddon known in Hebrew as Megiddo; crossed the Judaean Desert, and I floated effortlessly in the Dead Sea.  Drove through the West Bank, hiked to the five waterfalls of En Gedi Nature Reserve, climbed Herod’s Masada, and waded my feet in the famous Jordan River. An eye-opening drive to Golan Heights took us within a mere .5 kilometer of the Syrian border conflict. In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights after capturing it in 1967—however, Syria still claims this territory.  Driving through the Negev Desert showed us a differing landscape in contrast to the look of the Judaen Desert.

dead sea, israel
Dead Sea, Israel
Masada, King Herod, Israel
Masada
En Gedi, nature, Israel, Judaen desert
En Gedi Nature Reserve
lsrael, salt
Mountains of salt

Israel offers a spiritual experience for the three monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.  For Muslims, the third holiest site in the world is in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The Hebrew tzitzit [tsiˈtsit] (Hebrew: ציצית, Modern tzitzit) is the name for the specially  knotted ritual fringes, or tassels, worn in antiquity by Israelites and today by observant Jews and Samaritans. Tzitzit are attached to the four corners of the tallit (prayer shawl) and tallit katan (everyday undergarment).

Jewish, tassels, tzitzit
Jewish tzitzit (tassels)

 

Dead Sea, Lowest Place on Earth, Israel
Dead Sea, Lowest Place on Earth
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Local graffiti covered building
Druze
Druze man teaching math tricks
Striking a pose

 

Food, the Flavor is Devine

Let’s talk about their food!  I’m not sure if it’s the unique mix of spices or all of the fresh Kosher ingredients, but Israel has some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted!  Tel Aviv is popular for its international cuisine and there are plenty of restaurants worth checking out.  Obviously, there is delicious shawarma and falafel, but there’s also sushi, hummus, shakshuka, salads and more.

Traditional Jewish people take off Shabbat, or a day of rest, which begins on Friday at sundown and continues through Saturday evening. Stores and kosher restaurants are closed and work isn’t permitted on Shabbat.  However, you will be able to find non-kosher restaurants open for business.

I would recommend a visit to Israel without hesitation. Hiring a trusted tour guide for at least part of your visit is worthwhile. especially if you are short on time. Our guide recommended a 3-day itinerary which took us North, South, East and West within the country.  You will peel back and discover the multi-layers of this fascinating country’s  history.  After my 3-days tours, the rest of the time I relaxed on Tel Aviv’s beaches, perused the local markets, strolled along the boardwalk, listened to live music, and ate at some of the most amazing restaurants.  I loved all of the opportunities to explore Israel, learned an incredible amount of its history and how they co-exist in times of war and peace, and truly savored every delicious moment of this adventure of a lifetime.

 

Tour Highlights:

Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane,  Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Room of the Last Supper
Visit Old City of Jerusalem and Four Quarters
Prayer at Western Wall
King David’s Tomb
Judaen Desert
The Dead Sea
Ein Gedi Nature Reserve
Sea of Galilee – Jordan River
Masada
Lot’s Wife location
Golan Heights
Carmel Outdoor Market
and much more…

Fast Facts:

OFFICIAL NAME: State of Israel
FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Parliamentary Democracy
CAPITAL: Jerusalem
POPULATION: 8,299,706
AREA: 8,550 square miles (22,145 square kilometers)
OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: Hebrew, Arabic
MONEY: Shekel

 

MAP OF ISRAEL

 

Resources:

Motti Saar | Israeli Tour Guide

Israel Tourism | Official Site

Viator | Israel Tourism

Visit Israel

Masada

Ynet News

Druze in Israel

2 thoughts on “Incredible Israel | A Destination That Wasn’t On Your Bucket List, Until Now

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