Israel is my favorite place in the world. And I don’t say that lightly–it’s the place that feels most like home to me, even including my own city. It’s hard to put into words the love I have for this little country.
As luck would have it, I am marrying into an Israeli family, and Idan and I decided to do a little pre-wedding tour de Holy Land to see his family there. The trip was the perfect blend of family time and solo exploring, and I am still so sad that it’s over.
When I told some of my friends I was traveling to Israel, they looked at me in shock. Was it safe??? Wasn’t I worried about safety?? I always told them that I actually feel the most safe in Israel… more than Chicago! There is something so comforting about the energy there; I can’t explain it!
I wanted to write a blog post outlining all the best things to do, see, and eat in different cities in Israel so you can see for yourself why this place is so special to me. Up first… Tel Aviv!
Flying into Tel Aviv is the coolest thing. If you’re flying from New York, you likely take a red eye and end up there in the morning. This photo doesn’t do it justice, but the view is gorgeous.
Note: If you do arrive in the morning, it is so incredibly important that you keep yourself awake all day to fight jet lag. If you take a nap during the day, you will absolutely hate yourself for the rest of the trip. Fight the urge to close your eyes all day, and you’ll be set for the rest of your trip!
The other most important thing is to hit Aroma Cafe first thing upon arrival. The typical tourist thing to get is an Iced Aroma–I had one every single day of our trip (sometimes two). There is a diet version with much less sugar that tastes the exact same so I recommend getting that! They give you a piece of chocolate with every beverage, too. Aroma is the Starbucks of Israel and they are EVERYWHERE (important when you’re an Iced Aroma addict like myself).
One of the most common (for good reason!) things to do in Tel Aviv is go to the Shuk–the local market. We walked up and down, buying fresh fruit and candy to nosh on later. There are tons of tsotchkes at all the Shuks in Israel, and everything is negotiable. Don’t be a sucker and take the first price–everything is VERY marked up!
One of the most fun things we did was taking Bird and Lime scooters and ride them all over Tel Aviv. Our airbnb was a block away from the beach and boardwalk, and the scooters were aplenty, so we took them everywhere. We went for tons of joyrides up and down the boardwalk!
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We took a very long walk to Rabin Square which is the largest public square in the city. For being a huge gathering place, it felt very calm. The koi pond with water lilies was one of my favorite things.
Yashka was one of our favorite places we went for shawarma.
We also got delicious falafel on our first night at a random street falafel place. It’s not a stereotype; there are falafel and shawarma joints EVERYWHERE in Israel. Walk 10 feet and you’ll find one–just be warned that most places will be closed on Shabbat (Friday sundown – Saturday sundown).
We had falafel almost every single day of this trip.
Tons of cool street art in Tel Aviv.
Iced Aroma #13840 of our trip.
This is one of Idan’s favorite desserts in Tel Aviv: Hamalabiya. I will be honest–Malabi is not my personal cup of tea, but this place was BUMPIN on a weeknight; people love it!
Another incredible falafel and shawarma place: Hakosem. I got shawarma but they put a falafel on top so this photo is deceiving. It was DELICIOUS.
We walked around this neighborhood called Florentin, which is basically where all the hipster Israelis live. There is a TON of really incredible street art, so Idan and I hopped on our trusty scooters and explored the neighborhood. We also ate at a delicious Mexican place with some friends called Mezcal.
Another favorite activity in Tel Aviv: sit at one of the many beach bars, order some pita and hummus, and bask in the Israeli sun. We sat out here until sunset!
Jaffa is essentially part of Tel Aviv, but I thought it needed its own section. It’s that good. Jaffa is an old, old city, and the architecture is stunning. You can easily walk there in 30 mins or so from Tel Aviv, or take a scooter in 12.
We went to my favorite, Dr. Shakshuka, twice during this trip. If you haven’t caught onto the craze yet, shakshuka is a tomato-based egg dish that many people eat for breakfast (but I eat for any meal that I can). It’s served with bread and you are supposed to dip the bread into the tomato sauce and clean your plate with it at the end.
If you look closely, you’ll see that behind me in that picture, Dr. Shakshuka himself is right behind me!! I chickened out of getting a photo with him, but I did meet him and shake his hand.
I should mention there are a LOT of stray cats all over Israel. It’s a thing.
The Jaffa Flea Market is the main attraction there. You could walk around there forever!
We got some amazing za’atar bread at Abouelafia Bakery in Jaffa. It’s so aesthetically pleasing, and their baked goods are world famous.
One of the nights for dinner, we went to a blackout dinner at Na Laga’at. The dinner was completely pitch black, which was extremely uncomfortable for about 20 minutes until we got used to the darkness. The servers were all blind, and it was a very interesting experience. I highly highly highly recommend doing this! It was a big highlight of the trip. You do need reservations in advance!
We rented a car and took an overnight trip to Haifa, and stopped in Akko (Acre) on the way there. Akko, like most of Israel, perfectly blends faiths; Jews, Christians and Muslims coexist there in the most beautiful way. Akko has an insane amount of history (read a bit here) and is gorgeous. We only stayed for a few hours, but could have spent way longer here.
The big thing we did in Akko was tour the Hall of the Knights. We received audio guides and walked around this incredible piece of history.
We also visited a really beautiful mosque where a very nice man gave us a free tour. He, of course, wanted a tip at the end, but it was well worth it. They had scarves readily available for ladies to cover their heads, so don’t worry about bringing one!
We also walked around their local market which was all set for Purim, a Jewish holiday where everyone dresses up in costumes (like Halloween, but not.). Hence the masks!
Ugh, you guys, I wish I had more to say about Haifa. It’s a really cool city; it’s all on a hill so you have to walk up and down a LOT. We stayed at the Dan Panorama Haifa which is basically at the top of the city, and our first night there we walked allllll the way down to the bottom and took a cab back up to the top! We were so exhausted! The hotel was amazing.
For dinner, we heard about these two really yummy falafel places that were right across the street from each other. Idan and I, being the competitive people we are, decided to test them against each other. I went to Falafel Hazkenim, and he went to Michelle Falafel. We both thought our respective places were better, so I guess it’s a tie!
Pro tip: Go to both of them and ask for a sample. They will happily oblige!
The big thing to do in Haifa is see the beautiful Baha’i Gardens. Well…. it turns out that the gardens are closed on Wednesdays. We showed up on a Wednesday. Wooomp womp. I hope we get to go back one day! But for now this little view will have to do–still gorgeous, right?
Also, see what I mean about Haifa basically being a vertical city?
Because we had nothing left to do in Haifa, we decided to take an unplanned trip to Carmel, which is Israel’s wine country. I am SO glad we did! Carmel was a huge highlight of the trip; we hung out in the cutest little town and ate delicious gelato and it was just great.
I’m obsessed with my Sony a6000 camera and bring it EVERYWHERE.
Jachnun is one of Idan’s favorite foods, so I happily obliged. It was just as good as he described. We got it at a street place in Carmel!
Walking around Carmel was a true delight; we sipped wine, ate gelato, and visited some very cool art studios.
We also visited this amazing garden called Ramat HaNadiv. It’s so peaceful and we loved walking around! We especially loved the spice garden, where we got to smell all our favorites, like lavender and za’atar.
Honestly, Jerusalem probably warranted its own blog post, but we’re just going to go with the all-in-one Israel package.
We took a taxi to Jerusalem, which sounds expensive but really isn’t. Outside the big bus station in Tel Aviv, there are a ton of taxis waiting outside the other side, all going to Jerusalem. You pay a really small fare and share a cab with a bunch of strangers. The drive isn’t very long at all, so it’s not too bad! The taxis are called Monit Sherut and are about 24 nis/person.
The second we arrived at the hotel (the Leonardo Plaza), we dropped our bags and booked it to the Shuk. To say the Shuk in Jerusalem is my favorite thing is an understatement. It’s filled with spices and treats, hustle and bustle, and you will probably never have seen anything like it. This particular Shuk is called Machne Yehuda.
Obligatory “Iced Aroma at the Shuk” pic.
The best thing I ate in Israel, hands down, is Malawach (pictured above). Malawach is a yummy, fluffy dough that they fry up in a frying pan.
At Jahnun Bar in the Shuk, they fill the Malawach with all the good stuff: fried eggplant, fried onions, tahini, hummus, schug, hardboiled egg, za’atar, and tomato. You can customize it, though! DEFINITELY stop here if you’re going to the Shuk in Jerusalem.
The Old City of Jerusalem is the main attraction there, and is so special to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.
The Jewish Quarter is a great place to walk around and shop for goodies. The halls are winding and it’s pretty easy to get lost, but any shop owner can point you in the right direction to where you want to go. It’s also very easy to find yourself in the Muslim and Christian quarters, which are both also lovely.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is incredible. It’s identified as the place both of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. I don’t know a lot about its history other than that, but there were a ton of people in there waiting in lines to pray at this very holy site.
The Western Wall is probably the most recognizable site in Israel. It’s the holiest place for Jews, and people come from all over the world to pray. People were singing and dancing in groups and it was just beautiful. Many people who visit bring a folded note with a prayer on it, and stick it in the cracks of the wall.
Note: If you go up to the Wall to pray, you will need to go to either the men’s side or the women’s side. I will stay mum on this policy.
Another really cool thing we did was take a tour of the tunnels underneath the Western Wall. It is NOT for claustrophobic people, but it was really awesome.
We also went to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which is incredible and has hours and hours worth of things to see, including the Dead Sea Scrolls! Definitely worth a trip, and plan lots of time for it!
Model of the Old City of Jerusalem at the Israel Museum.
This says “ahava,” which means “love.”
Israeli fashion exhibit.
We had the MOST amazing meal at Mona in Jerusalem. The food was incredible, and the service was so good. The setting is really romantic and it was the best date night for Idan and I.
On our way back to Tel Aviv, we took the bus instead of a taxi. The security to get into the bus station is VERY stringent, so you should build in time for that. I will say the bus is a lot more comfortable than the taxi, but less convenient because you are on their time table (vs taxis which leave every 10 mins or so).
TIPS FOR TRAVELING TO ISRAEL
- You will see many IDF soldiers with guns strapped onto them. Don’t be alarmed! They are required to carry their weapons on them. You’ll get used to it–and hopefully feel safer because of it.
- The security pretty much everywhere is very stringent. You’ll need to go through metal detectors to get into any public place.
- The security at the airport to and from Israel is also really intense, so make sure you build in a lot of time for this. In the American airport you leave from, there will be a second and sometimes third screening process. You will be questioned about why you’re traveling to Israel, if you packed your own bag, etc. Don’t be alarmed at this either! It’s part of what makes Israel feel so safe.
- Most people in Israel speak English, and all the signs are in English as well as Hebrew and Arabic. Yay!
- Most restaurants and shops are closed from Friday night to Saturday night for Shabbat, especially in Jerusalem. If you want to do any activities during Shabbat, make sure you are NOT in Jerusalem as you will be very bored.
- Pack appropriate clothing to wear in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a very holy city and people will not be pleased with you if you’re baring your shoulders and legs.
- There isn’t Uber in Israel; they use an app called Gett instead, which is basically a taxi service.
- If you visit the Dead Sea (which we didn’t during this trip but I’ve been and highly recommend it!), do NOTTTT shave any part of your body for a few days beforehand. That much salt meets 1,000 tiny wounds… ouch.
- A few words and phrases that are nice to know:
- Slicha (slee-ha): Excuse me
- Shalom: Hello, goodbye
- L’hitraot (le-heet-rah-oht): See you later!
- Todah (toad-ah): Thank you
- Todah rabah (toad-ah rah-bah): Thank you very much!
- B’vakasha (be-vah-kah-shah): Please
Things To Do in Israel (That Weren’t Mentioned Above)
There are countless things to do in Israel, but here are a few that we didn’t do on this trip:
- Swim in the Dead Sea and hike Masada
- Go to the Golan Heights, Banias Nature Reserve, and the Sea of Galilee
- Ein Gedi National Park–it’s incredible
- Visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust museum
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