about the city
I truly think that everyone should visit Israel at some point in their lives, and if you only have a limited time, I highly suggest staying in Jerusalem for its high concentration of important monuments both within the city and just a short drive away. You will quickly notice the dominance of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, but pay close attention because in not too long of a time, you will also find devout Muslims, and (fewer so) Christians. Jerusalem is the center of the Abrahamic religions, coming together and at head with one another.
I'm warning you now: You will be overwhelmed each and every day. Regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof, seemingly everything in town is important and has changed the course of history in some way or another. The modern political climate is also highly complicated, and you'll hear stories that will shake you, challenge you, and leave you with a lot of questions and items to do more research on. Pay attention, get guides to teach you what you're looking at (I really advise to get off any "I'm against tours"high horse you may have, for there's just way too much that you will miss and not fully understand if you do it self-guided), and build in times for decompressing every day.
Before you go
A very tiny country, Israel is full of more complexity than arguably anywhere else in the world, and Jerusalem is at the heart of it all. One of the highest places of importance for Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike, everyone -- both religious groups and international governments -- has their opinion about who should control the land. I was very confused about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict before I went and couldn't find anyone to just explain it to me at a basic level without any of their own political commentary. But I did some investigating, and I think this is the best video to explain a surface-level of the issue.
Regardless of whose land you think the area should belong to, the treatment of Palestinians trapped behind the illegal wall is an international travesty. Pay attention to the products you are using and where they are from when in Israel. Many go to support the repression of Palestinians by funding Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and/or the Israeli army.
Also, make sure to read up on the U.S.'s unprecedented move to relocate their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and why this is so controversial. If you are an American, you must be prepared to talk about this. All Palestinians and most young people, regardless of Israeli or Palestinian heritage, think this is a devastating blow to peace. The U.S. and Israeli governments say this is a huge step toward it. Maybe best to talk to the oppressed before making that claim...
where to stay
Here are a few options. You'll want to stay in the area around where the following are. Try to stay near Yafo St., as there's a light rail that can quickly take you between Old Town (where all the historic sights are) and city center (where all the action is- bars, restaurants, cafes, etc.). Trust me, after a long day of walking around all the sights, you'll appreciate being able to take the light rail home.
Abraham Hostel Jerusalem- A chain of highly popular hostels across Israel, Abraham Hostel also is connected with its own tour company, Abraham Tours, that is one of the most reputable in the region and attracts even people not staying at Abraham Hostel. The hostel itself is pretty bare-boned for the rooms, but the bar and dining room area are hoping in the mornings and nights with cheap drinks and lots of events (open mic, hummus-making class, Indian food night, etc.). There is also a fabulous rooftop where it's easy to make new friends. I stayed here and would stay here over and over again if on a budget. It's perfect if you're wanting to meet new people from all over the world because of its social, but not crazy party, environment. Non-dorm rooms also available.
The Post Hostel- Another hostel option, although this one is more updated and modern than Abraham. In a walkable location to Old Town and city center. Non-dorm rooms also available.
Ibis- A nicer hotel at a still reasonable price (Jerusalem can be expensive!) in a great location right off of Yafo Street.
Villa Brown- For something much nicer, this is a beautiful boutique hotel set just away from the hustle and bustle but still close enough for easy access. The gorgeous details will leave you speechless.
what to do
As I mentioned in the opening, if you have any prejudice against organized tours, then you need to deal with that right now because Jerusalem is not the place to just come to and wander around. Sure, there's plenty to do that way, but the problem is, you won't be understanding all of the significance of what you're seeing. Jerusalem has plenty of tours catered to people who like to get off the beaten path, hear the truth of what's going on without the coverup, and, well, normally don't like organized tours! Here are the ones I think are essential:
SANDEMANs Holy City tour- If you've read any of my European guides, you'll know I sing the highest praises of SANDEMANs, a company that offers the most consistent, high quality, walking tours of anyone out there. There is a free walking tour (you just tip at the end) that is a couple of hours, but I actually did this paid one, and man did I get way more than my money's worth! It was basically 7 hours of walking and sight-seeing all over Jerusalem, so get ready for an exhausting day, but we saw it all, got the inside pass to skip all the lines, and got a narrative that cut through the b*llshit to hear the truth. It covered:
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre- where Jesus was crucified & buried
Hill of Golgotha
Grave of Adam
Western (Wailing) Wall
The stations of the Cross/Via Dolorosa
Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock/Al-Aqsa Mosque (not offered on Friday & Saturday so try to avoid doing this tour on those days because this was one of my favorite parts!)
Abraham Tours- The following are some tours I did booked through Abraham Tours who are highly reputable in the region and attract laid-back, adventurous, and curious travelers. I met a ton of really great people from all over the world on these tours, and I highly, highly recommend any of their tours, as they are some of the best things I have honestly ever done on any of my trips. They are connected to Abraham Hostel, but many people who aren't staying at the hostel also book through them. I had friends book a different tour company, had the worst experience, and then rescheduled their tours to go through Abraham. Save yourself the hassle and just do Abraham from the beginning. You won't regret it!
Masada sunrise + Dead Sea- This was one of my favorite things I did! Wake up at 3am (ugh), sleep on the bus, and then get dropped off at the bottom of the Masada Fortress (remains of King Harod's palace!) where you'll hike up to the top and watch the sun rise over the the Judean Desert, Jordan, and the Dead Sea. The golden colors are breathtaking and well worth the early wake-up time! Then, you'll go to the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, which is honestly just okay (call me spoiled by seeing lots of other nature reserves in my life). Top it off with a float and mud bath in the Dead Sea. So fun!! This is the most popular tour Abraham does, and it books up quickly, so don't expect to go on this last-minute! There is also a non-sunrise version if this one is fully booked but really do try and go on the sunrise one.
Best of the West Bank- This is a must-do. I repeat: this is a must-do. You absolutely cannot go to Jerusalem and not enter into Palestine. Don't walk away from Israel only hearing one side of the story. As someone dedicated to responsible tourism, I just won't let you get away with that. First off, this tour takes you to Bethlehem and Jericho where you'll be transported straight into Bible stories you may have grown up hearing in Sunday School, and you'll also see where Jesus was buried (everyone waits 2 hours in line, but Abraham has the hook ups, and you can get right in after 15 minutes. Pretty unreal). Then, you'll get a wake-up call where you'll go to the Palestine wall covered in graffiti that calls for peace and justice for the millions that are trapped in refugee communities by the wall. You'll end at the Banksy Museum that is new an astoundingly well done. This actually helped me understand the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for the first time ever. And no, I never once felt unsafe.
Hebron Dual Narrative Tour- I really, really wish I'd had time to do this tour. Taking you to Hebron, a highly sacred place for both Jews and Muslims, the tour splits the day in two: In the morning you meet with Jewish "settlers" who have made camps on Palestinian land in their quest to take the land back that they believe should be theirs. In the afternoon, you meet with Palestinians to hear their version of feeling like refugees on their own land. I would also say this is a must-do to understand both sides of the conflict.
Depending on how long you have, take a look at all of the Abraham Tours that leave from Jerusalem (they also go to Jordan!). I would do all of them if I could. There really are that good.
where to eat
Israeli food is bombbbbb.
Ishtabach- Oh man, was this good! Get the shamburak, a Syrian-Kurdish savory pastry where you can choose your filling. These are big, but it was so good I ate every. single. bite.
Halitatea- A must-do in Jerusalem, come here to sit back and soak in the Jerusalem atmosphere over a hot tea and Israeli food.
Jachnun Bar- Grab a memulawach, which many say is the best thing they ate in all of Israel, while you stroll around the lively Mahane Yehuda market.
Abu Shukri- Basically "the" place to go in the Old Town, stop here for an unlimited Israeli lunch where they just bring out whatever you want and however much you want. Keep saying "hummus"every time they walk by because you'll want tons of this. ;)