Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tips for Jerusalem and the Dead Sea

These are some generic tips I usually send to Couchsurfers when they're coming to the area. I decided to stop copy-pasting it into CS msgs each time, and just uploading it here instead. This is mostly a travel-blog, after all. If you're not a CSer and you're not in the area, this doesn't concern you much. But of course, you're still welcome to read it...


I (obviously, maybe...) never stayed in a hostel in Jerusalem, but I can give you a few names: Abraham Hostel is the biggest and most "European" hostel in Jerusalem, and maybe in Israel. It's just a few years old, and we've had CS events there a few times- I've never seen its rooms, but its common areas and kitchen are really cool, and they do all kinds of special tours and activities. It's also in a good location in the city center. Another famous one in the "new city" is the Jerusalem Hostel, which I know nothing about except it being in the most central location in the city, in front of Zion Square. If you want to stay in the Old City, there's the Austrian Hospice, a beautiful building which I visit a lot for its great roof view- maybe the best view from inside the Old City. I've always assumed that it's very expensive, but I was told by a German girl that she paid 15eu per night there for a dorm (as of the end of 2011). Besides that, there's many smaller hostels in the old city, which might give a more "authentic" feeling. In Citadel Hostel, close to Jaffa Gate, you can sleep on the roof for the cheapest price in town- 50 shekels per night (as of September 2013).

Some touristic tips:
The free (tip-based) tours of the old city are supposed to be pretty good. They go out of Jaffa gate at 11:00 and 14:30. One place they don't take you to, and is very recommended, is the roof of the Austrian Hospice, which has a great view of the old city from inside the walls. It's pretty close to Damascus Gate- If you ask around somebody is bound to know where it is, it's fairly famous. You gotta ring the bell outside the gate, go into the building, and take the stairs in front of you all the way up (there's an elevator, too, for the lazy ones).
Another thing I'd suggest visiting is the neighbourhood across the valley from Jaffa Gate. There's some art galleries built over the valley, that create a kind of bridge, and after crossing it you go left into Yemin Moshe, which is really nice and picturesque. From there, you can go up to a nice park that has cool views of the walls. It's called Blumfield Garden.
Mt. of Olives, across the valley on the other side of the old city (going out of Dung gate- the one closest to the wailing wall and temple mount), has a beautiful view of the old city (great for sunsets), and on the way up you can visit several important churches (Gethsemane, and especially the ~1000-years old olive trees, are an interesting sight) and some ancient tombs ( &, if that's your kinda thing. And I really recommend going up to the Temple Mount itself. The dome of the rock from up close is just amazing - it's one of the oldest standing buildings in Jerusalem, and one of the oldest Islamic buildings in the world. And of course, it's not just about beauty- the Temple Mount also has all the religious and political importance a place can handle... Opening hours are kinda bad, though: Sunday to Thursday, 9:00-10:30 and 13:30-14:00.
As for the new city, the city center is not a bad place to walk around, with many pedestrian streets, some old (mid 19th century and onwards) neighborhoods and buildings and many alleyways. I recommend just getting lost in it. I especially recommend the Mahane Yehuda Market, on the edge of city center towards the Central Bus Station, and Nakhlaot, a small neighbourhood in front of the market, which is one of the oldest and most mixed (population wise) in Jerusalem, and is mostly made out of very narrow streets and alleyways.
If you have the time, two more places that are worth a visit are Lifta and Ein Karem. They both used to be Arab villages before the 1948 war, and today they are completely different: Lifta is almost entirely abandoned, so you can visit the empty houses, see (or swin in) the old spring pool, and see the view of the Jerusalem hills. It is located right at the entrance to town from the west, a 10-minute walk from the central bus station. Ein Karem, on the other hand, is a lively but quiet neighbourhood (with a bit of a village atmosphere) today, with many important Christian sites (it is considered the birth place of John the Baptist), some restaurants and cafes, and many artist studios. It’s quite picturesque, in my opinion. Since both places are on the edge of the urban area, you can actually hike around the northwest corner of the city from one to the other- it would take about 3-4 hours, I think.
For nightlife, I can give you some of my favorite bars: the Sira (previously the Diwan), which is in the very short Ben Sira alley, is a cool alternative place in an old building with arched ceilings- it's kind of filthy (in a good way), there's usually weird people and music and a good vibe; the Bass, on Hahistadrut street, right next to King George into the pedestrian street, has cool shows and parties and a nice balcony, but they almost always charge something for entry; on Heleny Hamalka street, just off of Jaffa street, there's a place called the Cassette that serves one of the cheapest beers in town - 22 shekels for .5L, and if you get there between 9 and 10pm it's 2 for 26, and right above it there's the Video, one of the only gay bars in town; close to those two, on Aristobulus street, there's the Uganda, which some people say it reminds them of Berlin (I didn't go to many bars in Berlin, so I can't really say); and finally the Gula, another bar, which always has a good vibe and is inside a street/alley/staircase called Hahatzer Hayerushalmit (the Jerusalem patio, I guess...), which is one of the cool architectural quirks of Jerusalem. All of those are in the city center, and I now notice that they're all in alleyways and might be a bit hard to find. I guess that just says something about my taste in places... 
Another option is the many bars in the Mahane Yehuda market. It's a recent phenomenon, only from the last few years, but bars have been popping up in the market like mushrooms after the rain, and today there must be at least ten in the area. I like the 5th of May, which is owned by a commune, the Armadillo which is on Agripas street across the road from the market, and the Slow Moshe, which is in Nissim Bachar street in Nakhlaot, maybe a 2-minutes walk from the market.

For Middle Eastern/Israeli food, some of the things I suggest trying are:
- Hummus, of course. Try it again and again in as many places as possible- every place does it differently. I recommend Akramawi, in front of Damascus Gate, and Hummus Ben Sıra, on Ben Sira 3 in city center.
- Falafel- deep fried balls made up of chickpeas, eaten usually as street food inside pita bread with many other things put in it (just in case you didn't know already... hey , it could happen...). One place I suggest in Jerusalem for falafel is Sheikh Amin, in the old city on the way from the Wailing Wall to Damascus Gate. He has a sign outside that says lots of stuff in Arabic and "I have good falafel" in English. It's good, very cheap (5 shekels) and he's friendly and quite a character, too. If you're in French Hill, there's two falafel places on Lehi street- the one down the street is better, in my opinion, and if you order your falafel in a lafa (a wrap, kinda like a big tortilla) they will give it to you open and you can add different things (fried cauliflower!) before they roll it for you.
- Sabich- hummus, eggplant and hard boiled egg, with other salads of your choice, in a pita. Across the McDonald's in the city center there's a place called HaSabichia, which makes a great sabich, albeit a bit expensive (18 shekels as of Sept. 2013).
- Shakshuka- basically eggs cooked inside tomato sauce. I know it doesn't sound like much, but it's great.
- Baklava and knafe- Arabic/Middle Eastern style sweets. Baklava is usually done with philo dough, nuts, pistachios and tons of sugar syrup, and knafe is melted cheese with kadaif noodles, pistachios and (you guessed it) tons of sugar syrup. You can get them in many places in Mahane Yehuda market and in the Old City market- I usually go to Jafar, on Beit Habad street in the Old City.
- Halva- sweet cubes made out of sesame. The commercial one is OK, but try the ones from the market - there's one famous place called the Kingdom of Halva that mixes halva with anything you can imagine in Mahane Yehuda Market, and many places that sell it in the Old City.
I think that should be enough to get you fat. Bete'avon.

Dead Sea

As far as I know, there are only two free beaches: the beach of Ein Gedi, which has infrastructure, toilets, showers, kiosks, palm trees, etc, and Dragot beach (AKA the checkpoint beach, the hippie beach, the nudist beach, or Metzokey), which is completely rustic, but has 2-3 spring-pools where you can swim (well, more like sit around in the water), and good trees for shade. You can camp in both places, if you’re into camping. I like the latter better, since it is much quieter, more natural, has sand (which is not common on the Dead Sea coast) and there are cool people (kinda hippy, and there are often nudists, which is not common in Israel). Reaching Ein Gedi beach is easy, and can be done with public transport- everyone knows it and buses stop there. To reach Dragot beach, you have to get off at the checkpoint (the place where soldiers check the passing cars) at the junction with the road up to Metzokey Dragot, and walk down from there to the coast. The springs are about 500m to the right (facing the sea), one among the plants and the other just on the coast. The spring water is fresh but with a very high concentration of minerals, so you should definitely not drink it. Wherever you go, bring water with you, because it might be hard to find a place to fill up bottles, and they’re very expensive to buy in Ein Gedi beach and virtually impossible to get in Dragot beach. You can fill up water bottles in the two national parks, and I think in Ein Gedi beach as well.
Well, beyond the beaches, the Ein Gedi nature reserve is very nice. There's two canyons you can hike in, with flowing water and very nice waterfalls in the middle of the desert, an ancient synagogue and the chance to see ibexes. Masada, a few KMs south, is a very interesting site, an ancient Roman fortress located on a sort of table mountain, with cliffs falling dramatically on all sides, and a very interesting history from the Jewish revolution in the first century. The entrance fee for the park and/or Masada is 27-30 shekels each.
There are also hot springs between Dragot and Ein Gedi, but they’re kinda difficult to reach... They are in a place called Qedem- there is a sign on the road, but you have to find a good place to stop the car. From the road there are about 15-20 minutes of walking on rocks, without a path, down to the coast. If you walk around the coast you will find some small pools of thermal water - I wish I could give a better indication, but if you follow the coastline to either direction you're bound to find one of them. I always walk straight down from the sign to the coast, then turn right and about 500 metres away there's a pool that never fails me. Keep in mind that this place is completely rustic, so you have to bring everything you need (drinking water!) and you almost never meet other people there. It’s good especially for the evening and a night’s campout, because by day it will probably be too hot for thermal water. And bring a bottle of wine! You won't regret it.

If you start early, there should be no problem going from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, see the beaches and the two parks, and return that evening. I would suggest camping on the beach, but that is a matter of personal preference.
To hitchhike to the Dead Sea from Jerusalem, you can follow the instructions under French Hill Junction (written by yours truly...) here:
Near the Dead Sea there are two religious sites I can think of: Kaser Al-Yahud, on the Jordan river, where John the Baptist supposedly baptised Jesus (although there is another place where they claim this happened, up north near the sea of Galilee); and the Qarantal monastery in Jericho, that is connected to the story of Jesus' temptations by the Devil. I myself do not believe in any religion, but I think most of these places are worth a visit even if they're not sacred to me (or you).
And last of all, some friendly advice: if you're traveling by car and are planning to have weed (or anything else) on you, keep in mind that it's fairly common for police to stop cars for random drug checks on the road down to the Dead Sea. 

Hope this helps, have a great time!

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