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Polaroid Of The Week: The Best View Over Tel Aviv

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week israel tel aviv viewsI spent the bigger part of the past week in Israel before returning to Berlin, where I was greeted with snow. It couldn’t have been a greater contrast: On Thursday, I went running in a tank top on the beach, and on Friday I went running across icy & snowy Tempelhof airfield.

After a couple of days in Jerusalem we took the bus to Tel Aviv and spent my final days in Israel in what is one of my favorite cities in the world. It was the perfect way to end my trip – after a few chilly days, the weather was sunny and warm, and we splurged on fancy hotel right by the beach, using a discount code for Hotels.com. We did all the things I love doing in Tel Aviv: morning runs along the beach promenade, strolls through Carmel market and Jaffa flea market, eating lots of sabich sandwiches (I fit in two visits to the legendary sabich sandwich place on the corner of Frishman and Dizengoff Str). Luckily we took advantage of Tel Aviv’s bike sharing system, which I discovered during my last visit, and cycled off some of the calories. We wandered the streets of Old Jaffa, the oldest port town in the world, and went to the hipster neighborhood Florentin to hunt down new street art. We also checked out a brand new indoor food market where I had the only drink of my trip – an Israeli microbrew. I couldn’t leave Israel without trying at least one new craft beer, and we’d gotten to Tel Aviv just in time to break my ‘Dryanuary’ alcohol detox.

I took the Polaroid from a viewpoint I go to every time I am in Tel Aviv: right when you enter Jaffa, which sits on the far southern end of the city, there is a viewpoint halfway up the hill that offers fantastic vistas over the coastline and Tel Aviv. And every time I visit, there are new cranes, building new skyscrapers, adding to the constantly changing skyline. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when I return to Israel.

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Polaroid Of The Week: A Spa Day At The Dead Sea

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week israel dead sea 2017This past week has been an absolute roller coaster of emotions: I got my passport back from the US consulate, with only two days to spare before my flight to Israel, and returned to Israel where I was reunited with one of my favorite people in the world. Sadly, it went downhill from there: first, the half-marathon I was supposed to run yesterday was canceled due to bad weather (heavy rain in the desert means flash floods), and I had trained so hard for this race in Germany’s arctic temperatures this month. And then there was Trump’s first anti-immigration action which caused this brand new immigrant to feel more anxiety than ever before. I’ll leave my full thoughts on that topic for my monthly round-up next week, but this and his other political actions definitely put a damper on my mood.

The plan for the rest of the day yesterday – post-race – was to spend the day at the Dead Sea, in which I floated during my first visit to Israel, and which was one of my favorite experiences in Israel, and to treat myself to a spa in one of the hotels on its shores, but since to get there, we’d have to take the same road that my race would’ve taken place on and which was closed because of flash floods, we had to change our plans.

Today, however, we woke up to beautiful blue skies and the sun was shining – the storm had finally moved on. So we decided to still have our spa day and headed to the desert and to the Dead Sea. It was just as stunning as I remembered it – in fact, driving down Highway 90 again made me think that it felt like yesterday that I’d last been here – and I even ended up braving the chilly 70°F (21°C) temperatures and jumped into the Dead Sea to float in the water again.

Our spa day at the Crowne Plaza Hotel and the road trip to the Dead Sea helped brighten my mood, even though the recent political happenings caused me sleepless nights and a tense feeling in my chest the entire week. I hope that my second week in Israel, which includes time in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, a city I love, will give my strength and my optimism back before I board a plane to New York in early February – the first time officially as an immigrant.

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Tel Aviv On A Shoestring

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If you are too lazy to read my 2,000 words on how to visit Tel Aviv on a shoestring, check out the video instead: bit.ly/TLV-69  🙂

When I went to Tel Aviv this month on a budget challenge, I thought I could easily stay within my $77 / €69 budget per day – I even wanted to challenge myself and stick to $50 a day! Well, it turned out that it was more of a challenge than I had anticipated. Tel Aviv is much more expensive than one might think, but the good news is that not everything is expensive, and if you spend your money wisely, you’ll be able to fully enjoy the city without breaking the bank.tel aviv sunsetI took down all my expenses in Tel Aviv and was on the lookout for inexpensive things to do and places to eat the entire time so that I can share them with you. So without further ado, here are my tips on how to visit Tel Aviv on a shoestring:

Accommodation: Hotels vs Hostels vs Airbnb

Your biggest expense in Tel Aviv will be your accommodation, unless you couchsurf. Because of the strengtening shekel anda number of other reasons (as reported in this article) accommodation in Tel Aviv is much more expensive than in London or even Iceland! But the good news is that there are several hostels and AirBnB has become more and more popular in Israel, allowing cash-strapped travelholics (like me!) to rent out their places while they’re traveling, or rent out rooms in their apartments allowing them to save up money to travel.

I was an AirBnB host in New York last summer myself, so I’m all about this concept (and pretty much every other sharing economy concept), which is why I ended up staying in an apartment this time, sharing it with two other travelers while the owners were traveling in Romania. Between the three of us, we paid $99/€90, or $33/€30 each, for our own private room, and had two bathrooms and a kitchen to share between us. I thought that this was an amazing deal, considering private rooms in Tel Aviv’s best rated hostels start at $150/€135. Even private rooms in hostels are pricey, starting at $90/€99.tel aviv jaffa stairsHowever, if you prefer staying in a hostel to meet other travelers, there are several ones to choose from and dorm beds start at $15.50/€14.00 (for a fabulous hostel expect to pay around $22/€20 and for a beachfront hostel $33/€30. And Abraham hostel, where I spent an entire week at last year in Jerusalem just opened its brand new TLV branch (which means I’ll have to go back soon to check out if it’s as good as the Jerusalem hostel.)

Cost for accommodation: Expect to pay around $22 for a bunk bed, around $30 for a room in an AirBnb apartment, $99 for a private room in a hostel, or an entire AirBnb apartment starts at around $100. If you’re not using AirBnb yet, you can get $20 off your first booking by signing up through this link. (There are some great apartments listed in Tel Aviv on AirBnb!).tel aviv windows

Food: Develop a love for hummus and falafel

The bad news: Every time I sat down in a restaurant and looked at a menu, main dishes started at ILS40, sometimes ILS50 ($10-13/€9.50-12) – and that’s for the cheapest dish! Eating out is definitely not cheap in Tel Aviv. The good news, however, is that there’s plenty of cheep street food to be had in Tel Aviv, with falafel, sabich sandwiches, hummus & pita plates all for around ILS16-20 ($42.0-5.15 /€3.70-4.70). Don’t expect a fancy restaurant for this kind of money – it’ll be more like a hole-in-the-wall kinda place – but expect to have your taste buds blown away every time you have a meal. Tel Aviv FoodI love Israeli food, and I could happily eat hummus and falafel every single day. So get ready for lots of Israeli sandwiches and lots of vegetarian food (I promise you won’t even miss meat!).

Cost for food: About ILS20 ($5.15/€4.70) for a quick meal, about ILS50 ($13/€12) for a sit-down meal in a restaurant.

Booze: Moderate your alcohol consumption

If you’re planning to party, this one won’t be easy, but even if you are on a $50 a day budget and spend your money wisely you should be able to enjoy a beer or two. Alcohol is without a doubt an expense in Tel Aviv that can put a dent into your budget – it’s pricey! Even in the supermarket a bottle of beer can easily cost ILS9 ($2.30/€2.10), which is pricey compared to German beer prices (I rarely pay more than €0.69 a bottle of beer in the supermarket) Buying beers in a bar is what really hurts though: a pint usually ranges from ILS 31 – 34 ($8-9/€7.20-8)! The cheapest pint I’ve found in Tel Aviv was ILS27 ($7/€6.30), and cocktails usually start at a whopping ILS45 ($12/€10.50).tel aviv cocktail pricesThat’s where you can go over budget easily. What can you do? I’ve found some liquor stores around town that have special offers on beer, for example two Goldstar beers for ILS16 ($4.10/€3.75), or three cheapie beers from Russia or the Czech Republic for ILS21 ($5.40/€4.90). If you see one of these offers, grab a few beers to drink in your apartment /hostel before you go out. When you go out at night, look for special promotions and happy hours and avoid the pricey parts of Tel Aviv. The Florentine neighborhood is much cheaper than the fancy bars around the port. Often bars have promotions for a beer and a chaser, which is how you get the most bang for your buck.

Stick to water

If you’re not into going out / don’t drink, you’ll find it much easier to stick to your budget. Tap water is free in restaurants for example, and if you bring a reusable bottle you can always fill it up from the tap instead of paying for bottled water. Soft drinks and sodas are also not particularly cheap – try to cut down on those. Instead, search out the cheap juice places in the market that offer fresh fruit juices for little money. tel aviv carmel market fruitI also cut down on coffee during my visit because these iced coffees, even though they’re delicious, add up quickly at ILS16 ($4.10/€3.75) per drink, and cappuccinos are around the same price. The cheapest espresso I found was ILS9 ($2.30/€2.10).

Sightseeing: Take advantage of free attractions

The good thing about Tel Aviv is that there aren’t a lot of pricey attractions – unlike New York or London where sights like the Empire State Building or Westminster Abbey can hurt your budget a lot.

My favorite attraction in Tel Aviv, the beaches, is entirely free, and should be on your agenda every day while you’re in town! Another thing I love is Carmel Market, and a market stroll is always free – but even if you end up picking up something here, it’s not going to cost you a lot.tel aviv beach lifeThere are a few museums worth paying for, like the Tel Aviv Museum Of Art (ILS50/$12.85/€11.65) or the fabulous Ilana Goor Art Gallery (30ILS/$7.70/€7), but you could also just wander the streets of Jaffa which feels like an outdoor museum in itself, taking you a few centuries back with its well-maintained ocher colored stone buildings to the time when Jaffa was one of the most important port towns of the regions. Pop into the many art galleries that line the narrow alleys and you’ll be entertained for hours. Tel Aviv Jaffa sightseengIf you want more background information on the places you pass, you can join the free Tel Aviv walking tour which focuses mainly on Jaffa (don’t forget to tip your guide though!), and simply walking all the different neighborhoods is the best way to get a feel for the city.

Cost for attractions: Appr. $0 – $10

Transportation: Work your legs

Luckily Tel Aviv is pretty compact and unless you’re staying somewhere in the far northern or far southern part of town you can walk pretty much anywhere in 35 minutes. There is a functional bus network (no trams or subways) – a ride is ILS6.90 ($ 1.77/€1.60) – and there are sheruts, shared taxis that go along certain routes and are ILS6.50 ($1.65/€1.50). The great thing about sheruts is that they run during Shabat, when buses don’t run.jaffa israelIf you are planning to travel to other places in Israel, take the train, which is not expensive at all and connects Tel Aviv with places like Jerusalem and Haifa (less than $10/€9 to get to). To get to the beautiful Red Sea beaches of Eilat, you’ll have to take a train to Be’er Sheeva and a bus from there (total cost around $38/€35). 

There is also a new shuttle bus service called Flo Shuttle which offers airport transfers (pick-up / drop-off directly at your hostel/hotel) for only $17, which is 1/8 of what a taxi would cost you! Flo Shuttle also offers transportation from Tel Aviv to Eilat for only $17 – an unbeatable price!jaffa flea market israelIsrael’s railway has an easy to use website in English. You can also take the train from the airport into Tel Aviv for only 16ILS ($4.10/€3.75) – compared to a ILS150 ($38.50/€35) taxi ride. Speaking of taxis: I recommend avoiding taxis at all costs, since they are pricey and will hurt your budget for sure. If you don’t feel like walking, I recommend Tel Aviv’s public shared bike system Tel-o-fun. The bikes cost ILS17 ($4.35/€4) for 24 hours (ILS23/$5.90/€5.37 on public holidays and Saturdays), but you have to return them to a station every 30 minutes. Thirty minutes is plenty though to get halfway around town, and should it take you longer, you just switch bikes at a station after 30 minutes. For smooth sailing I recommend downloading the tel-o-fun app which shows you the locations of all stations, how many bikes are available there and how many free spots.Tel aviv florentine telo bikesCost for transportation: ILS6.90 per bus ride, or ILS17 for a Tel-o-bike, or nothing at all if you walk.

Is it possible to visit Tel Aviv on $50 a day?

Circling back to my initial challenge of visiting Tel Aviv on $77/€69 a day, which I didn’t only want to beat but also undercut, and see if I could visit Tel Aviv on $50/€45 per day. Is it possible to visit Tel Aviv on $77 per day? Yes, absolutely. You have to be careful with your spending though – I easily could have exceeded my daily ‘allowance’ a few times. $33 for accommodation, $20 for food and coffee, and I had a mere $24 left for transportation, entertainment and going out. Had I splurged on a sit-down meal and a cocktail in addition to everything else I spent, I would have probably spent around $100 per day.

$50 a day? Yes, that’s possible, too, but it’s real shoestring travel: Staying in one of the cheaper hostels and avoiding drinking in bars. If you live off street food, buy beers in shops instead of bars, walk and don’t take any public transportation, it’s doable. But I wanted a little more fun: enjoy the nightlife, rent a bike, have a private room. Tel Aviv 2015

Is Tel Aviv worth a visit?

Absolutely! The city was among my absolute favorite destinations of my 2014 travels and I am still planning a longer stint there – ideally a month! It’s such a liberal, open-minded and laid-back city, and I love the beaches, the distinctly different neighborhoods, the vibrant bar scene and nightlife (and as a lesbian traveler I have to mention the large LGBT scene!). The Florentine neighborhood, where I stayed, was recently named as #2 on a list of the 10 most hipster neighborhoods on earth, right after Williamsburg, Brooklyn, so no wonder I felt right at home 🙂Tel aviv florentine street art lips

How to get to Tel Aviv on the cheap

If you are traveling to Tel Aviv from Europe, you’re in luck: Most of the European low-cost carriers have direct flights to Tel Aviv , such as Easyjet, Germanwings or smartwings. I have flown both AirBerlin and Up, which is the low-cost of arm of Israel’s national carrier El Al, and had decent experiences with both. Up beats AirBerlin with prices as low as $65/€59 one way (on the sample searches I did tickets averaged $98/€89), but AirBerlin was not that much more expensive with $243/€221 for a return flight directly from Berlin.

I usually consult Google Flights to find the cheapest airfare, and if you’re a little flexible with your dates and plan a couple of months in advance, you should be able to fly to Tel Aviv for less than $200/€180 (round-trip). If you’re planning to visit Israel from North America, the cheapest round-trip tickets I’ve seen were around $650, but the Ministry Of Tourism just launched a campaign with Groupon, offering people in the U.S. package deals to Israel for $999, including flights, transportation, hotels and most meals for a week, which is an amazing deal, well worth checking out!

Up by El Al berlin to tel avivHave you been to Tel Aviv? If you have more budget tips, I’d love to hear them in the comments.

For more information on Tel Aviv and Israel, check out GoIsrael.

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Polaroid of the week: A breathtaking Tel Aviv sunset

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polaroid of the week israel tel avivYou might remember that I really wanted to spend a month or longer in Tel Aviv after visiting the city last year, which is why I was stoked when the opportunity arose to return this month, finally, about twelve months after my first visit. I was a bit nervous, not sure if I’d still love the city as much as I did last year, but I didn’t have anything to worry about. The minute I stepped off the plane and felt the warm Mediterranean air, I knew I’d have a great time. After checking into my apartment I went straight to the beach to watch the sunrise, followed by a delicious Israeli breakfast. It felt amazing coming from chilly Germany to summery Tel Aviv, where temperatures were still in the 80s and the Med was warm enough to go for swims in the sea.

Being in Tel Aviv on a budget challenge was an interesting experience – on the one hand I realized that Tel Aviv is indeed quite pricey, but on the other hand I found a ton of free stuff to do (I’ll be sharing my budget tips for Tel Aviv shortly). My favorite free activity? The beaches, no question! Every day in Tel Aviv has to involve a visit to the beach – ideally during sunset, or a long run along the promenade. The agenda for my second visit? I wanted to revisit old favorites but also experience a few things I didn’t get around to doing last year. I strolled through the narrow alleys of Jaffa again, took in the vistas over the city from there, had what is supposedly the best hummus in all of Israel (and I can now confirm that it really is the best hummus in Israel!) and visited the amazing Ilana Goor art museum (a first for me, and so worth it). I also made time for a visit to Carmel market, a walk down the beautiful Rothschild Boulevard, and for some gift and souvenir shopping in Jaffa Flea Market.

Last time I didn’t have time to go on the street art tour in the Florentine neighborhood I was keen on checking out – this time, I got was able to join it and it was fantastic! It’s run by Guy Sharret, who also hosts the StreetWise Hebrew podcast which I love, and I got to see so much more street art than I would’ve found on my own, even though I was staying in Florentine. Speaking of this cool neighborhood: I also got a taste of the nightlife in this area of Tel Aviv, I visited some of the gay and lesbian bars I didn’t make it to on my first trip, and I joined the superb Tel Aviv pub crawl (because I still had great memories of the pub crawl in Jerusalem I went on last year). Another first: renting a Tel-O-Fun bike, a public bike sharing program similar to New York’s Citibikes or London’s Santander Cycles. For only ILS17 (US$4.50) per 24 hours, they turned out to be the best way to get around the city on the budget. Of course I also ate my way around town, I made new friends, got an invitation to try kite-boarding next time I’m in town (check out the awesome KB4girls if you plan a visit to Israel), and I am already contemplating my next trip to Tel Aviv. I still feel I have only scratched the surface of all the great things the city has to offer, and once again I have to say: Tel Aviv deserves a longer visit, and I hope I can make a extended stay there happen rather sooner than later.

For more information on Tel Aviv and Israel, check out GoIsrael.

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Travel Challenge: Is it possible to visit Tel Aviv on a budget?

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I am so stoked about returning to Tel Aviv tomorrow! I’ve already mentioned it briefly in my monthly round-up last week, but I wanted to share some more details about the trip, and last but not least: I’d love your input, if you’ve been to Tel Aviv!tel aviv beach view

What makes Tel Aviv such an awesome destination?

You might remember that when I visited Tel Aviv for the first time last year, I completely (and unexpectedly!) fell for the city. I loved the vibrant coffee shop scene, the nightlife, the beaches right in the city, the old port town of Jaffa on the southern end of the city, and how people were enjoying life there. I spent my days strolling through El Carmel market, running along the promenade, watching the sunset with hundreds of people on the beach every night before checking out some of the many fancy bars. I searched (and found) the street art I’d heard so much about, and I ate my way around town, or through all of Israel to be precise, because Tel Aviv has some of the best food I’ve had anywhere in the world – I am still talking about the delicious dishes I had there all the time, and just the thought of all the good food I’ll eat when I get back to Tel Aviv makes my mouth water. dani in akkoI dove into the gay scene, and one of the things I loved most about Tel Aviv was how gay-friendly and tolerant the city is, especially considering this is the Middle East. Not a single country or city in the region is accepting or tolerating gay culture, but in Tel Aviv, it is celebrated openly and the city was recently voted best gay city in the world, ahead of New York even!

By the time I had to leave the city, I was ready to move to Tel Aviv. There was only one downside to this amazing city: it was expensive.tel aviv carmel market israel

Why is Tel Aviv so expensive?

One of the first things I noticed during my visit was how pricey everything in Tel Aviv was. I had just come from New York, where prices for most things are through the roof, but I hadn’t expected Tel Aviv to be on par with prices in New York. A small bottle of beer in a bar or restaurant for example was usually 30 or 32 Shekels – that’s 7.75 – 8.25 US Dollars! That’s even more expensive than New York, and this article revealed that Tel Aviv is in fact the third expensive city for beer in the world, only Hong Kong and Geneva charge more for beer.jaffa israelPrices for food span a wider range – similar to New York, I was able to find falafel sandwiches at little street stalls for about US$3, but I also paid ILS55 (US$14.19) for a simple Israeli breakfast and a coffee in a coffee shop in Tel Aviv. Which might be okay for someone coming from New York, but for someone from Berlin, a city filled with cheap breakfast places, this would be downright expensive. Even the famous Dr. Shakshuka, who started out as a small hole-in-the-wall shakshuka place, now charges upwards of ILS40 (US$10.30) for this simple egg dish. jaffa flea market israelBut it’s not only food and going out: living costs in Tel Aviv have increased dramatically over the past few years. The city jumped from #32 to #18 in the ranking of the world’s most expensive cities last year, indicating just how much pricier everyday life has become. So it’s not a surprise that young Israelis flock to Berlin in droves to take advantage of the 79 Cent beers in the supermarkets and cheap rents, but is it possible for someone from Berlin to visit Tel Aviv on a small budget – and still have a good time?tel aviv jetski

The challenge: Tel Aviv on $77 per day

So when I was challenged to find out if it was possible to visit Tel Aviv on a shoestring, I didn’t have to think twice: I’ll be returning to Tel Aviv with a tight budget this week and will find out what a daily budget of 69 Euros – or 77 US Dollars – gets a visitor in Tel Aviv these days. Of course it is possible to visit Tel Aviv with even less money than that if you only eat at home and couchsurf, but I want to know if I can visit Tel Aviv on a small budget without limiting myself to doing only free stuff. I still want a comfortable place to stay (which is already included in the daily budget), be able to go out and have a good time, eat out instead of cooking for myself.tel aviv twilight

I need your help!

Right now, I am researching cheap places to eat, drink and other free things to do, and could use your input. If you have been to Tel Aviv and have any tips for me – cheap eats, happy hour deals, etc -, please share them in the comments below! If you happen to track your spending like I do, I’d love to hear how much you spent on average per day during your stay in Tel Aviv. After my trip, I will put together a Tel Aviv On A Shoestring post for you, in which I’ll share my favorite inexpensive places to eat and go out and cool things to do on a budget. I will also try to keep my budget even lower – will it maybe even be possible to have a good time in Tel Aviv for 50 Dollars a day?jaffa from banana beach

For more information on Tel Aviv and Israel, check out GoIsrael.

To follow my trip to Tel Aviv in real time on Snapchat – add me with my username mariposa2711.

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My short love affair with Tel Aviv

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My love affair with Tel Aviv was short, yet passionate. It was like the perfect summer fling; an intense few days – intense because you know it will come to an end soon and you want to savor every precious moment to the max.tel aviv sunsetHowever, when I arrived in Tel Aviv, I didn’t think I would end up leaving this city with a heavy heart. I like pretty cities – when a city is obviously beautiful like Antigua, Paris or Buenos Aires, I tend to fall in love quickly. With cities that aren’t as pretty at first sight, like Berlin or Bangkok, it usually takes me a while. Tel Aviv belonged to the second category, visually not particularly appealing at first, even feeling a little gritty in some parts.jaffa doorsIt took me a few days of wandering the streets, but then, completely unexpected, the city put a spell on me and grabbed me hard, pulled me into its fascinating mix of old-fashioned markets and trendy coffee shops, coexisting cultures of trendy hipsters, Jewish families and Arab Muslims; a city with a delicious food scene, buzzing nightlife and gorgeous beaches right at your doorstep.
tel aviv buildingsTel Aviv took hold of me and hasn’t let me go since: while I travel to a lot of places that I’d like to return to, I don’t often travel to places I’d like to live in. Tel Aviv is one such place though – I would love to live there for a while, taking my time to truly explore the city, understand its culture, its people and as a foodie: have enough time to delve into the cafe and restaurant scene, of which I only scratched the surface.tel aviv mosaicI am not sure what exactly it was that made me fall for the city – it might have been the beach, which is without a doubt part of the draw of Tel Aviv, nearly nine miles (14km) of wide sandy beaches right in the city center. There are just not that many cities in the world that have such a prime oceanfront location. I would either start my days with a run along the Hatayelet, the promenade, or finish my day with a sunset run while the sun colored the sea and the sky with striking tones of orange, red and purple. A daily spectacle that draws hundreds of people to come out to the beach and watch it. I would never get tired of it.tel aviv sunset with planeThe local runners I passed on my runs usually looked as if they had fallen right out of a men’s magazine, wearing nothing but shorts and showing off their perfect abs, covered in a layer of sweat. I would run by the gay beach, where couples sat together all loved up, and of course I have to love a city that has its own gay beach (even though I loved other parts, such as Gordon, Frishman or Banana Beach, just as much) – in the Middle East no less!tel aviv yaffo beachI loved the active vibe along the beaches – no matter if it was running, cycling, inline skating, kite boarding or the popular matkot ball game, people were doing some kind of activity. In all honesty, my daily runs were needed to offset all the delicious food I stuffed myself with, but Tel Aviv just seems to be an active city – and with a gorgeous backdrop like these beaches you don’t need an excuse to go outside and exercise.

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Okay, maybe not everyone in Tel Aviv is active...

I was staying close to El Carmel market, the main market of Tel Aviv, and so I would make it a daily ritual to stroll through the market when I started my wanderings around the city, always unable to resist a piece of fresh bread or baklava, which I would devour with a cup of strong coffee in one of the many cafés that you stumble across on every corner. El Carmel was priceless for people watching: here, you see hipsters mingle with traditional Muslim women and Jewish families, all stopping for a chat with other shoppers and with the vendors they buy from regularly.tel aviv carmel market spices israelPrior to my visit, I had read that Tel Aviv’s 4,000 white Bauhaus buildings were UNESCO World Heritage, and that the part of the city with the highest concentration was called White City. Hence I expected a city filled with grand buildings and stunning architecture – but for the most part, I thought Tel Aviv’s buildings were crumbling and in need of renovation. Which in turn attracts lots of street artists to paint the walls, leave powerful political messages and colorful murals, especially in the Florentine neighborhood.tel aviv street artWhich isn’t something I mind, I usually find this kind of crumbling glory charming, but it was just not how I had pictured Tel Aviv, so it took me a few days to adjust my senses to my surroundings. (Side note: I also came to the conclusion that Bauhaus is just not for me, despite having grown up 15 miles from Weimar, the birthplace of Bauhaus).

tel aviv housesAnd there still are grand buildings in some parts of the city: the Neve Tzedek neighborhood is filled with beautifully restored houses and the villas along Rothschild Boulevard are signs of the prosperity of the city in the early 20th century, but the true showstopper when it comes to eye-catching architecture is Jaffa, the ancient port town that sits on a hill just south of Tel Aviv.tel aviv windowsYou can walk the beach promenade all the way down to Jaffa and one morning I strolled over there, in time to join the free Jaffa walking tour that starts at the clock tower, and to do some exploring on my own afterwards. Being a fan of old, quaint buildings, I was immediately enchanted by the restored ocher stone buildings of what was used to be one of the most significant seaports in the region. I walked up and down narrow alleyways and stairs and marveled at public art and art galleries, of which there are plenty.Tel Aviv Jaffa ArtThe tour was an excellent introduction to Jaffa, telling us all about the history of the 4,000-year old town that has been experiencing its fair share of ups and downs throughout the centuries, and a wonderful revival ever since its makeover in the past decade. When we finished, I continued to wander the streets, getting lost in the maze of alleys and peeking into some of the galleries, sitting by the fishing boats in Jaffa’s port for a while, standing in awe when locals passed me in horse-drawn carriages which made the ‘stepping back in time‘ feeling I had in Jaffa even more real.Tel Aviv JaffaThen it was finally time for lunch, for which I had big plans: I was finally going to have Dr Shakshuka’s famous shakshuka. Dr Shakshuka, who started out with a small hole-in-the-wall shakshuka place, has now the most famous shakshuka restaurant in the country, and if you read my article on how I ate my way through Israel, you know that I am pretty much addicted to this popular egg dish.dr shakshuka israelThe restaurant is located in the midst of the Jaffna flea market, which isn’t a flea market in the traditional sense but a collection of dozens of antiques shops which line the streets near the clock tower. I could have spent hours roaming these shops where you can buy anything from vintage luggage to furniture, books and other bits and pieces. Sadly, Dr Shakshuka didn’t liv up to the hype (at least in my opinion!) – the shakshuka was good, but I didn’t think it was better than any of the other shakshukas I had in Israel.Tel Aviv Jaffa Flea MarketBefore I made my way back into the city, I stopped at a viewpoint to take in the vistas over Tel Aviv and its long-stretched shore, and it might have been there and then that I decided I had to come back for longer – a week was simply not enough to get a full grasp of this diverse and forward-thinking city.tel aviv beach viewI am still stunned about how gay-friendly Tel Aviv is, especially considering that this is the Middle East and that Israel is a very religious country – there are only very few places in the world where you can live as ‘out and proud’ as in Tel Aviv, let alone have a Pride parade of epic proportions, attracting a crowd of over 100,000 people (I would love to visit Tel Aviv for Pride which takes place every June).tel aviv city at twilightBut not only gays and lesbians seem to be widely accepted here, I felt that also the different ethnic groups, in particular Arabs and Jews, were more successful in living peacefully side by side than in Jerusalem for example, known for the regular clashes between the various religious groups who call Jerusalem home.Tel Aviv IsraelNot only did Tel Aviv seem more liberal than Jerusalem, it also had a younger, more dynamic vibe to it. Jerusalem is home to the largest number of Orthodox Jews in the country which is why it is much stricter with rules regarding nightlife and which places can open during Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest), while Tel Aviv is more relaxed in that respect. tel aviv bookstoreThe areas of the city that are known for its buzzing cafe scenes, like Shenken Street or Rothschild Boulevard, were always teeming with people, and when I saw trendy 20-somethings in skinny jeans and hipster beards would wait in line for a table at a popular restaurant I felt as if I was in Brooklyn and not in Israel. tel aviv mosaicSpeaking of cafes – one thing I loved about Tel Aviv were the bread shops that usually double as a cafe / restaurant and serve some of the best bread I’ve ever had – and that includes bread in Germany! Even regular cafés take pride in their baked goods and I think it is impossible to get bad bread anywhere. tel aviv breakfastOverall, Tel Aviv doesn’t have a dense number of landmarks such as London or Berlin – in fact, other than a few museums and the Bauhaus UNESCO site I didn’t come across any not-to-be-missed sights – and yet I was still completely pulled in by the dynamic atmosphere of this livable city which is far from picture-perfect, but that’s exactly what I came to love about it: the gritty buildings, the street art, the laissez-faire attitude and the laid-back vibe on the beaches.banana beach with jaffa viewIf you come to Tel Aviv, don’t look for striking sights, but let the city pull you in with its strong charisma. Wander, get lost, eat and drink your way around the city, enjoy the nightlife, people watch, take in the local life and fall in love.Tel Aviv Jaffa

Tips for visiting Tel Aviv

  • The free walking tours are a great way to help you get a good overview of the city; there are several ones you can choose from. If you don’t have time to go on a free walking tour, check out the Before Tel Aviv was born self-guided walking tour, downloadable on your phone or tablet. This tour covers the historical neighborhoods of Jaffa, the American-German colony, Neve Tzedek and the old railway station and covers the main parts of Tel Aviv – perfect if you only have a day or two in the city.

Tel Aviv Jaffa Israel

  • If you love street art as much as I do, you should check out Guy Sharett’s Urban Culture tours. Guy also hosts the awesome Streetwise Hebrew Podcast, which is a great introduction to Hebrew and Israeli culture. I missed the tour because there weren’t any on the days I was in town, but will definitely check it out on my next visit to Tel Aviv.
  • There is no subway system in the city, but I used Google Maps’ Public Transport feature and it always showed me the correct buses to take (you need wi-fi for it but most cafés have wifi). Here is is a good free offline map app with GPS function for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Israel Tel Aviv

Lesbian Tel Aviv

  • I’ve only scratched the surface of the lesbian scene in Tel Aviv, and the popular girls’ bar Gilda sadly closed down in 2015, but here are a few recommendations: the SevenEleven party on Monday nights, the Shabbat dance party at Ismi Salma on Saturdays, Barvaz in the Florentine neighborhood. On Wednesdays it is girls night at Tel Aviv’s iconic gay bar Shpagat. Tel Aviv’s longest standing LGBT bar Evita is also worth a visit.
  • In addition, there’s a number of lesbian parties at changing venues – Facebook is the best way to find out what’s going on while you’re in town. These pages are worth checking for lesbian parties in Tel Aviv: All Stars GirlsDana Ve Anat, and Pinkhouse TLV for a weekly overview of all gay & lesbian parties.

Israel Tel Aviv

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Eating my way through Israel

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Israel has ruined me for life. Not a single day goes by that I’m NOT thinking about the glorious food I had there. No matter if it’s the juicy olives, the soft warm pita bread, the bread shops in general, the most excellent shakhuka, eggplants cooked to absolute perfection, scrumptious couscous, and I don’t even want to mention the hummus, the wonderful hummus, which just hasn’t tasted as good anymore since I left Israel. I am telling you: The food in Israel ruins you for life. I was perfectly fine with the mediocre hummus I had been eating before I went to Israel, but after I tried Said’s hummus in Acre, I realized that as a matter of fact, I’d never even had good hummus before!israel hummus saidBut I am getting ahead of myself – let’s start at the beginning.

What is Israeli food?*

Israel is a culinary melting pot of the cuisines of all the different cultures that passed through the region that marks today’s State of Israel over the centuries. The spices, scents and flavors of Northern Africa, mixed together with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine and traditional Jewish dishes make Israel’s cuisine truly unique, and most of all: extremely diverse and flavorful. Dishes like shawarma and baklava are just as common as schnitzel, borsht and chopped liver. Other dishes that you’ll come across over and over again – served in eateries ranging from cheap street food stalls to fancy restaurants – are falafel, olives, fresh fish, kebab and hummus.Market IsraelOne thing I loved about Israel was how fresh everything was – fruits and vegetables are bought in big open markets rather than sterile supermarkets, fresh fruit juices are made to order at little food stalls, and mobile bakery carts are selling fresh breads and baked goods as the vendors are wheeling their carts around town. Flavorsome spices are prevalent in all the markets, as are dried fruits and nuts.jerusalem market pomegranate

Israeli breakfast

Breakfast is my absolute favorite meal of day in Israel. There are two dishes that stand out for me:

Shakshuka

My all-time favorite Israeli dish! Funnily enough, I was introduced to Shakshuka in an Israeli restaurant in Guatemala (side note: if you find yourself in a country where meat is prevalent in all dishes, look for an Israeli restaurant. There are always plenty of veggie options there.) and even though I’ve had it in many places all around the world, I was excited to try it in Israel. So what exactly is shakshuka? It is an egg dish for which eggs are baked in a tasty tomato sauce made of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, chili and other spices. In some places, you’ll find it with additional ingredients such as eggplant, feta cheese or even shrimps. When you order it in a restaurant, it is served in the cast-iron pan that it is made in. I was even more delighted when one of my Israeli friends told me that it was perfectly acceptable to eat shakshuka for lunch and dinner, too. I could eat it three times a day, it’s seriously that good.shakshuka israelThe most popular shakshuka place in Israel is without a doubt Dr Shakshuka in Jaffa south of central Tel Aviv, which started out at as a small food shack and has now evolved into a spacious restaurant with several shakshukas on the menu. I have to admit though that I wasn’t too fussed about the shakshuka I had there (or maybe my expectations were just too high, after hearing so many people rave about this place?) and had better shakshukas around Israel, for example at Cafe Nadi in Jerusalem.shakshuka breakfastMezze

The other breakfast that I couldn’t get enough of is the mezze breakfast. Here, a variety of dips and cheeses, olives and fried vegetables like roasted cauliflower, baba ghanoush (an eggplant paste), tahini (sesame paste), zhough (chili paste with garlic, coriander and cumin) and of course hummus are served with several breads – and let’s talk about the bread for a minute: As a German, I am very picky with my bread, and don’t approve of bread products in most countries. In Israel, however, I couldn’t get enough of the fresh bread and fell in love with all the bread shops. Many cafes have their own bakery on site and bake all sorts of breads (rye, wholegrain, etc) there. That’s why the bread is always super fresh and extremely scrumptious. Bread is by the way a part of almost any meal in Israel, be it the typical Arab pita bread, Jewish Rosh Hashanah, Sabbat and Challah bread or the scrumptious Israeli bread, so for people who try to avoid bread – good luck doing that in Israel (but where’s the fun in eating hummus without scooping it up with pita bread anyway?)israel breadWith the mezze breakfast spread you usually get to order eggs any style, and what’s never missing: a side salad. Eating salad for breakfast might sound weird to some people, but I loved it. The salad is usually made of cucumbers (Israel has a distinctive type of tiny cucumber – much smaller than the ones we know, and much less watery), tomatoes, peppers and onions.israeli mezze breakfast

Common vegetarian dishes in Israel

What I also loved about Israel is that is so vegetarian-friendly. I love it when I’m in a country and I don’t feel like I am missing out on local delicacies because I don’t eat meat. In Israel, I never felt like I missed out, and here are some of my favorite vegetarian dishes:

Hummus

Hummus is one of the most popular Israeli dishes, and these days found all over the world. It is made out of chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, garlic, salt and lemon juice. Like I said in the beginning though: even though you can get hummus all over the world, you don’t know what a really good hummus tastes like until you try it in Israel. My absolute favorite hummus shop was Sa’id in the old town of Acre, an ancient fishing town in the far north of Israel. I would go back to Israel just to eat the still warm hummus with pita bread fresh out of the oven again.hummus israelFalafel

These fried little balls of heaven are, just like hummus, widely available in most parts of the world. It is debatable if they are truly of Israeli origin, but falafel is one of those Middle Eastern foods that have made their way into the Israeli diet and is now considered the national dish. They are deep-fried balls made of chickpeas (sometimes fava beans, or a mix of both), and usually served with tahini, the aforementioned sesame paste that is a main staple in Israel, hummus and / or pita bread. You can find falafel everywhere, from tiny roadside stalls to high-end restaurants. I’ve had both the cheap version and fancier ones – what they all had in common was that they were mouthwatering delicious.falafel israelEggplant

Eggplant is a classic ingredient in the Israeli cuisine, typically served in two different ways: as baba ghanoush (a pureed and seasoned eggplant dip) and baked in the oven. When baked in the oven, the eggplants are usually baked as a whole, including the skin, which is removed afterwards.israel eggplant dishBureka

Burekas are the Israeli version of Turkish pastry ‘Borek’, made from thin layers of filo dough that is filled with cheese, spinach or mushrooms, sometimes other ingredients. They are fried or baked and are a popular snack food which can be found in most bakeries or vendors who offer just bureka. They are eaten at any time of day. Tip: Get them when they are fresh out of the oven. Another tasty bread dish that has been brought to Israel by Georgian Jews is Khachapuri, a savory cheese filled pastry that is topped with a fried egg.jerusalem bakery standTabouleh

Tabouleh is a popular salad made of tomatoes, parsley, mint, onion, bulgur and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. It is not only eaten in Israel, but all over the Middle East.israel tabouleh

Learning how to make Israeli food

Since I am such a big fan of Israeli food, I was eager to learn how to make some of my favorite dishes at home. Luckily, Abraham Tours offered a Cooking Class and Market Tour in Jerusalem during which I did not only learn how to cook Israeli food, but also more about Israeli food culture in general. Our bubbly tour guide Samantha started our tour at Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem’s big main market which is well worth a visit, even if you’re not planning to pick up fresh produce, but I will tell you more about the market in my article on Jerusalem. As we walked through the maze of fruit and vegetable, cheese and fish, bakery and olive stalls, we learned that chick peas, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, coriander and sesame are the basis of many Israeli dishes. Rice is prevalent, and lentils are also a staple in the country, but also couscous and bulgur (both are grains) are very popular.tel aviv carmel market dried fruitsFresh food, and especially vegetables, are used in almost every meal: juicy tomatoes, purple eggplant, chilis, peppers in all colors. Jewish tradition brought Eastern European and Russian dishes such as borscht, schnitzel, chopped liver, cooked chicken and gefilte Fish to Israel. As a country with a long coastline along the Mediterranean, fish is ubiquitous in Israel. A popular fish dish that originates in Northern Africa is harimeh (a spicy fish dish with tomatoes, garlic, cayenne pepper and caraway).akko fishAfter our market tour, we returned to the hostel with enough ingredients to prepare a feast for at least 20 people, and start cooking. On the menu:

  • Smoked Eggplant with Feta Cheese and Tahini
  • Tahini paste
  • Tabouleh Salad
  • Grilled Cauliflower with Silan (date syrup)
  • Kohlrabi and Fennel Salad
  • Mediterranean Rice (with an amazing spice mix we bought in the market – I went back later to buy some more of those)
  • Hamshuka (Spiced Minced Meat Stew) – for the meat eaters

Israel Cooking classCooking up all these items was just as much fun as the visit to the market had been. Samantha divided us into smaller groups (1 – 2 people) and each pair was in charge of a specific dish. We were taught how to cut the vegetables for each dish, how to cook or broil them and how to serve them when they are done. I have already made some of the dishes I learned from Samantha at several Mediterranean-themed dinner parties (the eggplant, tahini, tabouleh, Mediterranean rice and grilled cauliflower) and they were always a huge success.califlowerThe market tour and cooking class at Abraham Hostel was one of my highlights in Jerusalem and if you are interested in learning more about Israeli food culture and how to cook some Israeli dishes, I highly recommend taking this private class (you don’t have to stay at the hostel to sign up for it, but if you stay at Abraham’s, you get a discount for the class).pita bread ramallahAbraham is now also offering a hummus workshop which I will definitely take the next time I am in Jerusalem. Like I said: Eating hummus in Israel will ruin you for life and turn you into a hummus snob. So what better place to learn how to make a proper hummus than in Israel? The workshop does include eating all the hummus you prepare, of course! Trust me, these are the best 50 Shekels (~$12.50) you can spend in Jerusalem.israel hummus

Israel = Dessert Heaven!

We can’t talk about Israeli food without mentioning some of the amazing desserts, or the reason I came back from Israel six pounds heavier, nearly not able to close my Dirndl.

Jewish pastries

Jewish pastries are actually very similar to German cakes, cookies and pastries and are widely available in the bakeries everywhere.jewish pastriesHalva

Halva is a pastry that is made of sesame and to which ingredients like honey, vanilla, pistachios, cacao, almonds or nuts are added. In the markets, halva is sold in huge cake-like chunks of which the amount you desire is cut off, almost like a slice of cake. Halva is one of the most quintessential Israeli sweets and you can’t leave Israel without trying it (in the markets they usually offer free samples).halva jerusalemBaklava

The most famous Middle Eastern sweet, a pastry made from nuts or pistachio, honey, syrup and filo. These are available in most bakeries in all kinds of shapes and tastes and are seriously addictive.israel baklavaKanafeh

Kanafeh is one of my favorite desserts I’ve had in Israel, even though the very best one I had was in Ramallah, and if you visit the West Bank (which you should!) make sure to have a Kanafeh while you’re there. It is made of super thin pastry shreds soaked in sweet syrup, with a soft white cheese center and topped with pistachios.israel national trail druze kunefeArabiv coffee

You are typically served Arabic coffee (also known as Turkish coffee) with your sweets, which is brewed in a special pot and spiced up with cardamom. You drink it strong, black and from a small cup.israel dessertHave you been to Israel? What’s your favorite Israeli food?

*This is NOT a comprehensive guide to Israeli cuisine but rather a brief introduction with an emphasis on vegetarian dishes and foods I’ve developed an addiction for enjoyed while I was traveling around Israel.
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Eilat: Israel’s underwater paradise on the Red Sea

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After trekking through the Negev Desert, doing a whirlwind tour of Jerusalem, wandering across the Lower Gallilee in northern Israel, road tripping to the Dead Sea and the Ein Gedi oasis hike plus my sunrise climb to Masada and a day of desert fun in Timna Park, I was ready for a vacation.dani red seaAnd in Eilat, I would finally get a break to recharge my batteries before heading back north to explore more of Israel and visit the West Bank.

jordan view from israel
Aqaba, Jordan, seen from Eilat, Israel

Eilat is basically a resort town, and I was shocked surprised at first about how touristy it was when we arrived there just in time for sunset and went for a stroll along the promenade, which was filled with people who were doing the same thing. It reminded me of a lot of European beach resorts with its long beach promenade which was lined with massive hotel complexes, restaurants and shops that sold everything tourists could possibly need.eilat hotelBut I had found a lovely hotel which had only recently opened (I would definitely recommend it in my Hotel Tip category, but I was on vacation after all, and so I refrained from taking my camera out while I gorged on the glorious breakfast buffet every morning. I am not exaggerating when I say that it’s one of the best breakfast buffets I’ve ever had. You can book Hotel Soleil via Booking.com, which is where I had found it) and Eilat might be touristy, I was here to relax for a couple of days and go for my first ever dip in the Red Sea.eilat beach cat israelWedged between Jordan and Egypt, Israel only gets to call a tiny part of the Red Sea to call their own, but they’re using it well. Eilat is not only a popular vacation spot with foreigners but also with Israelis, even though it is quite far from everywhere, separated from the heavily populated north of the country by the massive Negev Desert. When we drove down to Coral Beach the next day I understood why it was such a popular vacation spot.eilat red sea fish israelUpon arrival, we paid the entrance fee for the nature reserve and rented snorkeling equipment, and while I was a bit disappointed at first by the rocky beach, I quickly understood what this was about: the underwater life, and not the beach!coral reef eilat israelI’ve never been to a place where the reef is as close to the shore as it is in Eilat, and at this part of the beach you can’t even just walk into the water because it is part of a protected nature reserve. Instead, a couple of long piers have been built over the coral, and you step into the water via a set of stairs at the end of them – right next to the reef.eilat red sea fishMy first thought when I stepped into the water was how cold it was! The Mediterranean and the Dead Sea had both felt like a bath tub in comparison, and especially after a long hot summer and the proximity to Egypt, combined with the sweltering heat, I would have expected the Red Sea to be much warmer.coral reef in eilatWhen I turned towards the reef though, the shock about the cold water was forgotten in an instant – I was wowed by the coral and the beautiful fish instead. I couldn’t believe how much marine life was happening here, so close to the shore! I also couldn’t believe that I didn’t have an underwater camera to document it.coral eilat israelI tried to take some photos from the pier, but just imagine what these would look like had I had an underwater camera. I even saw tropical fish like parrot fish and clown fish here!Underwater life eilat

There were more colorful and bigger fish than I’d seen on any other snorkeling trip, and entire families of fish were swimming past me as if I wasn’t even there. While I had been a bit skeptic at first if the money for the beach and the snorkeling equipment was worth it (NIS35 /US$9 admission, NIS30 /US$7.72 gear rental), I was now ecstatic about the reef life I got to see without having to dive. In my head, I was already planning to bring my nephew here to introduce him to this mesmerizing, colorful underwater world, and didn’t want to leave water anymore.eilat coral reefThis experience alone made driving down to the most southern tip of Israel worth it, and combined with some beach time and surprisingly good food, I left Eilat just the way I wanted: completely recharged and ready to see more of Israel.Eilat Israel

Practical information

How to get there

The cheapest way to get to Eilat from Tel Aviv is taking the Flo Shuttle, a daily door-to-door shuttle service for only $17.

Where to stay

Eilat has accommodation ranging from basic backpackers hostels to 5* resorts (the Dan Hotel). I stayed at Soleil Boutique Hotel which I’d recommend. Double rooms start at US$99 in the low season, including the amazing breakfast buffet (it will fill you up for the entire day, trust me). Arava Hostel is a popular budget choice.

Where to eat

I highly recommend Pedro’s and Olla, both places where I had excellent vegetarian food (but both places aren’t vegetarian restaurants – in fact, Pedro’s is a steakhouse). CafeCafe also has lots of vegetarian food and good coffee.Israel Eilat food

Where to go

From Eilat, you can visit the spectacular rock formations in Timna Park (30 mins north of town) or hike in the Harei Eilat (Eilat Mountains) Nature Reserve for superb views over both Eilat and Aqaba in Jordan. For both places I recommend visiting in the early morning or it will get too hot.

Beaches: Don’t miss Coral Beach, and I also liked Dekel Beach where you can hang out on a floating beach bar in the Red Sea. You can take bus 15 from the city center to both these beaches if you don’t have a car.goldstar

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Road trippin’ in Southern Israel: Masada and Timna Valley

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dead sea view before sunriseThe 4am wake-up call was painful. What had I done? Was it really worth getting up in the middle of the night to watch the sunrise from a mountaintop? Not only did I have to crawl out of a bed at this ungodly hour, but I also had to climb up a steep mountain in the dark until I’d get to reap the benefits of this arduous undertaking. I was tempted to turn around under my warm, soft blanket and turn off the snooze function on my alarm.dead sea just before sunrise israelBut what was awaiting me on top of the mountain was enticing enough for me to shed off my comfy blankets and get out of bed: Seeing the sun rise over the Dead Sea.
dead sea sunrise from the mesadaI arrived at the bottom of Masada, the plateau I was about to hike up via the infamous Snake Path (not named for snakes, but for the many curves), in the pitch black darkness. Only the moon and the stars were illuminating the desolate landscape around me. I was late. The sun was due to rise at 6.30am, the climb was supposed to take an hour and it was already 5.40am when I finally got out of the car and started the hike.snake trail before sunrise masada israelThe rock on which Masada sits is 1,300 feet (400 meters) high, and since the beginning of time it has been difficult to reach the top on foot, and even more difficult to capture.masada plateau at sunriseMasada means fortress in Hebrew, and that’s exactly what Judean king Herod the Great built up on the plateau between 37 and 31 BC. The fortified complex of palaces, storehouses, bathing houses and armories was supposed to be his winter residence.masada just after sunriseThanks to its extraordinary setting and great condition of the palace ruins, Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.masada israel palaceToday, the rock is one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions (rightly so), especially during sunrise, but when I climbed the steep slopes of the dirt path at dawn, nobody else was there. Because I was late, I walked much faster than I usually do (especially uphill!) and finally passed a couple of other hikers on my way to the top. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one here, I was just the last one who had started the hike.snake trail before sunriseThe path is only about 1.3 miles (2km) long, but has more than 700 stairs and covers an altitude difference of 1,150 feet (350 meters). It might not seem like a long walk, but the winding path is quite challenging.snake trail after sunriseWhen I reached the top, I was soaked in sweat and breathing heavily, but the sun was just starting to show itself, starting to paint the sky bright red behind the Jordanian Moab Mountains on the other side of the Dead Sea – I had made it in time.dani watching the sunrise over the dead seaI walked around the deserted plateau, looking for a good spot to watch the sunrise and settled for a part where the ancient stone walls were still pretty much intact. I sat down and began to wonder what this place must have been like thousands of years ago when Herod used Masada as his winter getaway.masada and judean desertThe story Masada is most famous for is more gruesome than glorious, however: the Siege of Masada at the of the First Jewish-Roman war which ended in the mass suicide of over 900 Jewish rebels and their families. Herod the Great had been dead for 75 years when the revolt of the Jews against the Romans began. After the fall of Jerusalem, a group of Jewish rebels fled to Masada and held out on top of the mountain for three years. Eventually, thousands of Roman troops marched against Masada with the Tenth Legion and constructed a rampart against the fortress, moved a battering ram up the ramp and breached the fortress’ wall. When the Jewish defenders realized that there was no way they could besiege the Romans, their leaders decided that they all should commit suicide rather than being killed by the Roman attackers.masada israel and judean desertBecause of its isolated and safe location, Masada stayed in a fairly good condition over the centuries, pretty much untouched by humans for about two millennia!masada israel2It was only excavated between 1963 and 1965 – fairly recently. I was amazed to find so many mosaics, bathhouses and frescoes in good condition. Masada is the most complete and biggest Roman siege camp that still remains today.masada israel mosaicI took a couple of hours to properly explore the buildings and the palace, marveling at the mosaics and the well-restored buildings, trying to imagine life up here 2,000 years ago.masada and desertWhile rain water was collected in big cisterns which are also still intact, it is still a hard place to live with the harsh, lifeless desert surrounding the rock.masada ruin at sunriseI could see why Herold chose this place as his winter residency though: These magnificent views! The breathtaking vista towards the Dead Sea in the east, and overlooking the Judean Desert towards the West.judean desert in israelThe scenery around the Masada is just spectacular.masada cable car with sunriseWalking around the plateau I got to take in the views in all directions, and I was almost tempted to do another hike in the Judean Desert, but I had other hiking plans already: Exploring Timna Park.judean desert after sunriseThe best thing about a 4am start is that you can fit in a lot in your day – and climbing Masada was only the beginning of a day filled with incredible landscapes and hikes.Road trip israelAfter a proper coffee in the coffee shop at the bottom of the Masada, we hopped into the car and followed Route 90 further south. Our final destination was Eilat for some beach time and snorkeling in the Red Sea, but on the way, we’d planned to stop in Timna Valley, a desert area known for its spectacular limestone and rock formations.timna park mushroomWe had 136 miles (220 kilometers) of a scenic drive along the Dead Sea and through the desert ahead of us. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the desert, and I was happy to sit in the passenger seat, being able to stop anytime and snap some photos along the way.timna park israelWe arrived in Timna Park about two hours later, and even though it wasn’t noon yet, we were met by an extreme heat when we left the car to buy our tickets for the National Park. When we opened the doors of the air-conditioned car, it felt like we were inside an oven!timna park hikeTemperatures easily exceed 105 °F (42 °C) in the summer months, and we were about to set out on a hike in the hottest hours of the day, with no shade to protect us.timna park rock formationsThe lady who sold us the tickets to the National Park made sure that we had enough water, advising us that there was no water anywhere in the park. Just sand, rocks, and limestone pillars.timna park rocksArmed with a map of the park we drove down the narrow road that led straight towards the rocks ahead of us.timna park road israelThe valley, rich in copper, is famous for its ancient copper mines, which date back to the 5th millennium BC, and remnants of these mines can still be seen in various locations throughout the park, but what I found even more sensational was the natural beauty of the place.timna park israel hikersThe massive, multi-colored rocks, ranging from orange to red to black, reminded me of the canyons and arches in my beloved Southwest of the U.S., and also of the desolate desert of Bolivia’s southwest, even though that one is located at 13,000 feet and much cooler than this place. The erosion there managed to create some strikingly similar rock formations, however.timna park israelI didn’t care that it was unbearably hot, I had to explore all the formations that Timna Park is famous for.timna park israel rockThere is the mushroom, a giant red sandstone monolith that has been formed into the shape of a mushroom by sand and wind, rising high into the desert sky.timna park mushroomAfter a few stops at other formations, we reached the Arches, another famous rock formation in Timna Park, and you can hike up and even through the arches, from where you have a fantastic view over the valley.arches timna park israelI loved how moon-like this area felt; if you had put me down there and told me I was on Mars, I would’ve believed it. There was barely any life here – the bushes were dry and brown, there was no green at all.timna park desertscapeWe also stopped to see the Chariots, impressive rock drawings by the Egyptians, left many thousands of years ago when the Egyptians passed through this region.timna park israel cave drawingsThe Solomon’s Pillars were the perfect way to end our 4-hour tour of the park: three massive sandstone pillars that are towering 50 meters tall above me, definitely a highlight.timna park solomons pillarsThe night before, an Israeli singer had held a concert there, and while I was watching the crew pack up the stage, I could only imagine how staggeringly beautiful it must have been to listen to the music in this awe-inspiring setting.timna park solomons pillars israelI wish I would’ve had the chance to take some of the longer hikes, but it was just too hot. For my next visit to Eilat (and there’s no doubt that there’ll be a next time!), I know that I’ll be visiting Timna Park in the early morning when it is less hot.timna park mushroomSo far, this was one of the most memorable days in Israel: breathtaking views, a rewarding hike, thousands of years of history and stunning landscapes.timna park rock formation

Practical Information

Masada

  • You can visit Masada independently if you have a car or as part of a tour if you don’t have a car.
  • If you decide to hike up, start early. It gets incredibly hot in this region of Israel, especially in the summer months (up to 109°F /43°C!). The Snake Trail takes about an hour to hike, firm shoes are recommended since the path is rocky and steep, and there are many stairs. Make sure to bring enough water. If you hike up for sunrise, the cafeteria at the bottom of the rock will be open upon your return (it opens around 8am).
  • You can also take a cable car up to the top, if you feel less active. Admission with cable car (two ways) is NIS76 (US$19)
  • If you climb, and don’t take the cable car, admission via the Snake Path is NIS29 (US$7.32), but you can also hike up and take the cable car back down. Admission with one way cable car is NIS57 (US$14.42)
  • The cable car is open from 8am till 4pm (check the website for reduced hours on Holidays before your visit).
  • It is possible to visit Masada via public bus from Jerusalem, but the bus lets you off at the Masada Junction on Route 90 and you’ll have to walk to the entrance. The bus is #486, and it runs five times a day. The ticket from Jerusalem is NIS42 (US$ .
  • Abraham Tours runs a Sunrise Masada Tour from Jerusalem which also includes stops at Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. If you can’t be bothered to get up early to see the sunrise, Abraham Tours also offers a tour with a later start (7am) to Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. Both tours are offered three times a week and cost NIS275 (US$70).

masada ruins israelTimna Park

  • It is not possible to visit Timna Park without a car. If you don’t have your own car, you can book a tour from Eilat. The tours are pricey though (nearly US$100), and if you are a group of three or four people, it’s cheaper to rent a car for the day. That way you’ll also be more flexible.
  • It is easiest to visit Timna Park from Eilat, as it is only 17 miles (25km) north of the seaside resort. It will take you about 30 mins by car to get there.
  • Allow at least four hours for your visit; the park is spacious and the main attractions are spread out. If you’re planning to go on hikes, plan in at least six hours.
  • Make sure you bring enough water, sun screen and snacks. Nothing is available for purchase inside the park.
  • Be prepared for extreme heat, especially between May and September. 110°F /45°C around noon are not uncommon.
  • Admission to Timna Park is NIS49 (US$12.40)
  • The park is open from Sunday to Thursday and on Saturdays 8am to 4pm, on Fridays from 8am to 3pm; and in July and August as well as on Holidays from 8am to 1pm.

timna park arch

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Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem: A home away from home

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When I arrived at the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem, it took me about ten minutes to know I’d be feeling completely at home here during my stay. ‘Would you like to participate in our Shabbat dinner tonight?’, I was asked during the quick and smooth check-in, to which I excitedly said ‘Of course, yes!’. I had been invited to my first ever family Shabbat dinner the Friday before, and eight days after my first introduction to this wonderful Jewish tradition of an extensive and festive family dinner, I still found myself daydreaming about all the good food I had gotten to try at my friend’s mom’s house, so taking part in the one at the hostel was a no-brainer for me. I put my stuff down in my room and headed straight to the communal lounge to do some writing before the Shabbat dinner. Happy Hour had just started and I ordered myself a glass of the excellent local Israeli wine and took in the atmosphere around me.abraham hostel jerusalem signPeople were sitting around lounge tables in small groups, laughing and talking, the bar was just starting to get busy, the hostel staff were mingling with the guests, and the volunteer staff were chopping away in the kitchen to get dinner ready in time. The music playing in the background was wonderfully relaxing, not the noisy dance music you get in some other hostels that have a bar. I knew that I’d be feeling right at home here for the next six nights.Jerusalem Abraham HostelAnother indication that this wasn’t your typical party hostel: the guests were of all ages, ranging from couples in their 50s, solo travelers in their 30s to girlfriends in their 20s. There was a TV room just off the lounge, so if you were not in the mood to mingle, you could retire to the TV room, but if you were looking to meet people, there were plenty of opportunities to do so. The rooftop terrace with its comfy lounge sofas was another great spot to meet other travelers, or just sitting at the bar was an easy way to get chatting fellow travelers.abraham hostel jerusalem roof terraceWhen I, prior to my arrival, had read that the hostel had 250 beds, I was a bit apprehensive, because I usually find those big hostel too impersonal, too loud, or too chaotic. My concerns were unfounded though – at Abraham’s, I never felt that there were that many people (and I later learned that there were even 260 beds), even though the hostel is near full capacity almost all the time.abraham hostel jerusalem private roomInstead I found a hostel where I could have my privacy in my spacious en-suite single room on the third floor whenever I wanted, but I could also go mingle in the lounge or, after 6pm, at the bar, preferably during the great-value happy hour of course, or take the social aspect one step further by joining one of the nightly activities where you can get to know other travelers – perfect for solo travelers like me. There is the weekly Pub Crawl, a Mexican Taco night, movie nights, a weekly open-mic night or the already mentioned Shabbat dinner on Fridays.abraham hostel jerusalem chillout areaThe dinner the volunteers at the hostel put together was almost as good as the home-cooked food I had had the Friday before. The options for vegetarians were plentiful and everything I tried was delicious – and seeing how many people went for second helpings, I was not the only one who felt that way. The price tag for the Shabbat dinner, ILS30 (US$7.70), is also extremely affordable, especially considering the amount of food you get and compared to the pricey restaurants of Jerusalem. While the lounge was fairly busy during the dinner with around 50 people in attendance it still had an intimate feel to it, thanks to the guests being grouped around smaller tables, which also had the advantage that you could get to know one another.Shabbat Dinner Abraham HostelEven though I preferred the seclusion and quietness in my private room which came with a desk (perfect for the writing I needed to catch up on) and a small kitchenette with a full-size fridge, I was impressed with the four-bed female dorms when I peeked inside one of them one day. Not only was the room spacious and each bed had its own reading lamp and socket, but a make-up table had been added just so that the girls could get ready in front of a full size mirror and spread out their make-up and toiletries. There was even a hair dryer! Abraham HostelThe dorm also has a kitchenette, which is basically just a cupboard with a fridge; the shared main kitchen is where you really find anything you need to make yourself a meal is downstairs right by the communal lounge, but it is nice to be able to store something in the room. With two stoves and ovens in the main hostel kitchen I never saw anybody having to wait to cook, and found the kitchen to be very clean. Plus: there is free tea and coffee in the kitchen all day long.abraham hostel jerusalem shabbat dinnerThe mornings were the best part though – that’s when a fancy espresso machine magically appeared and allowed guests to wake up with a proper espresso or cappuccino instead of a simple Turkish coffee. I might have gone over-the-top with my morning espresso intake a couple of times during my stay at Abraham’s..

In addition to the perfect coffee, breakfast consisting of bread, Nutella, cheese, hard boiled eggs and cereal – and of course the for Israeli breakfasts essential cucumber and tomatoes, both of which were served in a big bowls. (Side note: salad for breakfast might just be the best Israeli invention.) All of this is offered self-service style and is included in the room rates.abraham hostel jerusalem dining room1A great addition to the hostel itself is the tour company, Abraham Tours, in the reception area. Hostel guests get a discount on the tours offered, and if you can get several people to join a tour, there is an additional group discount. The list of tours is so long that I had difficulties deciding which ones I wanted to join. Abraham Tours basically offers tours to all of Israel’s main sights such as the Dead Sea, Haifa, Nazareth, and Masada, but you can even venture as far as Jordan, on a 3-day trip to Jerash, Petra and Wadi Rum, or Egypt on a 2-day tour from Eilat.

What impressed me the most though were the various tours to the West Bank that were thrown in the mix of classic Israel highlights. In my opinion, people who visit Israel should also visit the West Bank to get a better understanding of the ongoing Israel – Palestine conflict, but not everyone is comfortable to explore the Palestinian territories by themselves, so these tours are a great way to experience the West Bank with a qualified guide, also guaranteeing that you learn about the West Bank firsthand rather than just going there. I ended up going on three West Bank tours with Abraham (which I will write about separately) and these three days were among the most eye-opening in educating myself on the entire situation and to learn more about life in Palestine.West Bank Tour Abraham HostelI also took a cooking class with Abraham which I loved and can’t stop raving about. I didn’t have a single bad meal during my month in Israel, and the dinner we prepared during this class was among the most memorable ones.Cooking Class Abraham HostelOverall, I felt right at home at Abraham and am already looking forward to returning to Jerusalem were I know I have a home away from home.

Standout feature: Friendly staff

The staff can make or break a hostel, and Abraham is doing it just right when selecting their staff: every single person who was working at the hostel during my stay was always approachable, friendly and making sure that the guests were having everything they needed. There are even staff insider tips for Jerusalem on the Abraham website, but you can walk up to anyone at any time and get an answer to any question you might have.abraham hostel jerusalem lobby

Standout feature: The social activities and the tour desk

As I’ve already said: the tour desk offers a fantastic range of activities all over Israel, and what could be better than sightseeing with new friends from the hostel while having a knowledgeable guide with you? On every single one of the tours I took I felt well looked after and that the guides knew what they were talking about. Plus: If you stay at the hostel, you get a discount on any tour!

abraham hostel jerusalem message board
There is even a message board to connect travelers.

The social activities like the pub crawl or the Shabbat dinner were nights when I felt like I could really get to know my fellow travelers at the hostel without having to try hard. I recommend taking part in at least one social activity, but if you hang out at the hostel bar, you also won’t have any problems meeting new people.

Room for improvement

I have to admit that I found it really hard to find a flaw in this seemingly perfect hostel. I was trying hard to find something that was missing, but with the cozy lounge, the power outlets and reading lamps at every bed, free lockers, the bar with its great Happy Hour, the generous breakfast spread, the tours, a computer room with PCs to use for those who don’t travel with a laptop, a laundry room, the wonderful rooftop terrace, and the clean, spacious rooms, I didn’t miss anything during my stay.

Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem
I loved the signs and decoration throughout the hostel

The only thing I could pick on was that if you joined breakfast later in the morning, the tables were usually sticky and a bit dirty. While the staff was always on top of refilling the buffet, I thought that they could be more on top of cleaning the messy spots on the tables.

Details

Location: 67 Hanevi’im Street, Davidka Square, Jerusalem, 94702
Price: Dorms start at ILS85 (US$22), private singles start at ILS270 (US$69), private doubles start at ILS360 (US$92), triples start at ILS420 (US$107)
LGBT Friendly: Yes
Digital Nomad Friendly:
Yes (high speed internet, desks in the rooms)
Amenities: Complimentary breakfast, free WiFi, free lockers, communal lounge, communal kitchen, laundry room, TV room, roof terrace, tour desk,
Website: http://abrahamhostels.com
Facebook: AbrahamHostelsabraham hostel jerusalem bedroom

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