Before traveling to Israel we weren't really sure what to expect, a lot of people we told we were going there often questioned us with a raised eyebrow as to say 'why Israel?' and 'isn't that unsafe?'. Israel is as westernized as any other place we have travelled and was a real shock after crossing the boarder from conservative Jordan. Let's start with that...... we crossed the boarder at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge in Northern Jordan. Buses run from Irbid to the border point but once dropped off on the side of the road you will need to take a taxi through the first checkpoints of the bridge, as you cannot cross on foot. We decided to take a taxi straight from Irbid, through the checkpoints, to the Jordan passport checkpoint. It saved us quite some trouble, taking roughly 40 minutes, and was only about 15 Dinar. We then had to leave the taxi enter the Jordanian passport control office, pay a 10 dinar exit fee each (even though we were told that this exist fee only applied to people who stayed less than 3 days...apparently not) and then pay for a bus to take us through the next checkpoint into the Israel boarder security office. After going through security and answering some pretty standard boarder crossing questions we took an overpriced taxi to Beit Sh'an (apparently the only option unless you want to walk) and caught an onward bus to Nazareth (via Afula).
Another alternative is to catch a bus from Amman straight to Nazareth. We didn't do this but were told about it while in Israel. The bus takes you from Amman, through all the checkpoints at the boarder and then onto Nazareth. If you can organize your itinerary so that Amman is your last stop in Jordan, this is probably the easiest and most affordable way. Check out the booking form here.
On arrival in Israel, the first thing we noticed was the difference in dress code compared to Jordan, especially when it came to the women. Short skirts, spaghetti strap shirts, cleavage- women in Israel wear what they want just like any Western country in the world. The streets and public transportation were clean, efficient and easy to use. The people we encountered were friendly and helpful and all spoke fluent English, which made it easy for us.
We noticed straight away that Nazareth had a real European city vibe, especially in the old city. Cobble stone narrow streets, beautiful old buildings with small balconies covered in flowers and drying washing, and churches at every turn. Roaming the streets, stumbling across markets, bakeries and churches is just a normal day in the old city.
Our second stop, slightly by mistake, was the small seaside town of Jisr Al-Zarqa. We had booked a hostel in "Haifa" without looking at the exact location...which turned out to be about an hour south of actual Haifa. It ended up being a good surprise, as we got to explore the beach and small cliff edge near the water, where we found pieces of old pottery and mosaics from past eras of civilization. We were also rewarded with an amazing sunset on the West Coast of Israel. From Jisr, we were able to visit Caesarea (the old city and aqueduct) and Haifa (the amazing Baha'i gardens) in a day before catching a night bus to Jerusalem. We were travelling on Saturday (during Shabbat which starts at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday in Jewish areas), so there was no bus from Haifa to Jerusalem until 17:30 (arriving in Jerusalem around sunset (in May) at 19:35).
Jerusalem is one of the most historic cities in the world and has so much religious history its almost overwhelming. Christians, Jews and Muslims all have extremely close religious ties to Jerusalem and their most sacred religious sites are with in a stone's throw of each other. Jerusalem's Old City is quite spectacular and for the most part seems like a huge bazaar, with markets lining both sides of the street in a large part of the old city. Crowds can be intense while walking around but more so at the major pilgrimage sites so be prepared to wait in line or make an early (or very late) start to beat the masses. The Old City is divided into 4 quarters: The Christian quarter, the Jewish quarter, the Muslim quarter and the Armenian quarter. It's quite special to see people with different beliefs living in such close quarters. We didn't sense any unrest between the groups, but were told it does exist and precautions are taken (like the schools having armed guards for the children while they play outside at recess). Outside of the Old City is the surprisingly trendy Jerusalem. Fashion stores, eateries and bars are abundant in Jerusalem as well as 'the shuk' (Mahane Yehuda Market) a must see open market with anything from meat to jewellery, and bread to beer. With such a contrast of history with today's society, Jerusalem truly is unique piece of the world.
We took a simple day trip into West Bank to visit the famous sites of Bethlehem. The crossing into Palestine was straightforward after we caught a short bus from Jerusalem. You can either put your walking shoes on and spend a long day covering the sites on foot or barter the best deal you can with the mob of taxi drivers waiting for a bite of the tourist cake once you exist the checkpoint. Bethlehem is as integral to Christianity as anywhere in the world and the most important place to some is the Church of Nativity where it is believed that Christ was born. The church itself isn't spectacular, especially for us as there was a large amount of construction going on and you could hardly see the inside walls. It's what lies underneath the alter that draws pilgrims from every corner. The silver star that symbolizes the birth place of Christ. As you could imagine there is quite the line to see such a site and people become a little bit crazier with every step closer the get to the stairs that descend beneath the alter. If you can bare the long wait, the heat and the pushing pilgrims its quite a historical site to see. Or you can try your luck with a little sneaky entry that some had success with (aka Shane)- be happy enough just to see the church and wait near the alter as others endure the pain of the crazy mob. Like him you may just be lucky enough to be skip the queue and be ushered down the exit stairs by a kind security guard who noticed you waiting quietly and enter the sacred site refreshed as the disheveled masses come down the other stairs.
The West Bank is also home to other sites including the Sheppard's Field, Milk Grotto, and several of Banksy's artworks (and new hotel). The graffiti artwork on the wall dividing Palestine is also an attraction itself. There is a story being told with each piece, and thankfully most are stories of love and wanting peace.
Tel Aviv another city with a familiar Western feel. We were lucky enough to stay a block from the beach and had plenty of time to roam the long coast of the Mediterranean which rolls onto Tel Aviv's shores. Something like you might imagine in Rio, the beach was full of people wearing swimwear that would challenge even the most confident of Europeans. Beer, ball sports, surfing, paddle boarding and swimming are all regular activities then can be found along the sandy shores (even though signs along the coast all state that swimming is prohibited in most places because there are no lifeguards on duty). Tel Aviv also offers quite a contrast from old and new. Street art is alive and thriving in Tel Aviv and is a good way to spend a morning with a coffee in one hand and a camera in the other (check out the Florentin St area). When the coffee starts to wear off and your inner hipster is satisfied you can head for Jaffa Port and take in the juxtaposition of the old port to the contemporary feel of the city.
Overall, Israel was an incredible surprise and over-delivered on expectations. We left feeling a sense of comfort and familiarity after such a short time- a feeling not often felt in a new country. It is clear that there is some conflict between the people of Israel, but never did we feel unsafe or at risk. Be warned however: Israel is really freaking expensive. Make sure you have enough cash to enjoy all the things this amazing country has to offer. And try to avoid visiting when Trump decides to make a celebrity appearance...he shut down most of Jerusalem from an entire day.