Shalom! I just got back from the most amazing 10 days in Israel and am so excited to share our detailed itinerary with you all today. If you’re new here, you may not know that I’m currently a MBA Candidate at the College of Charleston. The program runs an international trip every year, and our destination was Israel! We were based in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Some friends and I actually flew into Tel Aviv a few days early to have more time in the city before our trip began. I wrote a detailed food guide for Israel, so be sure to check out my last post! This post is going to cover a 10 day itinerary a vacation in Israel, based on what my program put together and what I think you should do during your time in the Middle East.
How To Get There
To get to Israel, assuming you’re coming from another country – you’ll want to fly into the Tel Aviv airport. This is the country’s largest airport and is less than 30 minutes from the downtown Tel Aviv beach area. Lots of airlines fly into Tel Aviv, including Turkish Airlines. Their economy experience was one of the best I’ve ever had, complete with two, surprisingly delicious meals, a hygiene kit, and wonderful service. Turkish flies more routes around the world than any other airline, so definitely check out their flights.
A group of us flew from NYC through Istanbul to reach Tel Aviv for less than $700 roundtrip. I know a few other groups flew through more popular European cities like Rome and Paris on Delta and United, but paid well over $1000.
PS. Any group photo included in this post was taken by the amazing photographer for the College of Charleston, Mike Ledford. Check out his page here!
A Quick Note On The Tel Aviv Airport…
A quick note about the airport here for your vacation in Israel – I’ve been raving about Turkish Airlines to everyone I’ve spoken to, but the airport experience was really bad. Tel Aviv has one of the worst airports in the world. Additionally, there are extremely strict security measures here, meaning we had to get our passports checked before we even got into a check-in line. This line alone took us almost an hour, then we still had to wait an hour to check-in / drop our bag. Security also took longer than normal and was super thorough. I would allow 4-5 hours at this airport instead of the typical 3-4 because it was just so chaotic.
Where To Stay During Your Vacation In Israel
As mentioned above, we spent the majority of our trip in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I recommend basing yourself in these two cities and booking tours from there to other parts of the country. In Tel Aviv you’ll want to stay along the beach. This is where the hub of the hotels are, restaurants, bars, and is just an enjoyable place to hangout. There are dozens of hotels stretching back along the blocks from the beach, including the Hotel Metropolitan, where we stayed. The location was nice, and it had luxury amenities, such as a pool and gym, so I recommend it!
As for Jerusalem, there’s a “new” part of the city and Old Jerusalem. Old Jerusalem has four quarters (more about this below) and was pretty loud / crowded, so I would stay just outside of the Old City. We stayed in New Jerusalem, about a 15-minute walk from the main attractions in the Old City. I would also recommend this hotel too – it was the Prima Kings Hotel in Jerusalem.
Hotels VS. Airbnb
If you’re more of an Airbnb type of traveler, I HIGHLY recommend the Airbnb that we stayed in for the weekend before our trip started. It holds 6, was also located about 2 blocks from the beach, was super charming, and rented by the nicest owner. Here’s a link to the space if you’re interested in booking an Airbnb for your vacation in Israel.
To Know Before Your Vacation In Israel
Before I dive into the day-by-day itinerary, I want to cover some helpful information that I wish I knew before traveling to Israel to help you better prepare for your upcoming vacation in Israel.
- The currency used in Israel is the Shekel.
- Israel isn’t nearly as affordable as I thought it would be. Tel Aviv is actually one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in.
- Israel is a primarily Jewish country, but lots of Muslims and Christians live here too. The dominant language spoken is Hebrew, followed by Arabic and English. Although English was widely spoken, we definitely ran into some circumstances where it wasn’t, so I’d practice some basic Hebrew before you go.
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Vacation In Israel: Detailed Itinerary
Day 1: Tel Aviv
After touching down at the Tel Aviv airport, grab a Gett (their ridesharing app) and head into town! As mentioned above, I recommend staying along the beach, so head to your hotel to drop your stuff.
We were extremely jetlagged, hungry, and sluggish, so after changing and freshening up quickly, we immediately hit the beach. I recommend taking it slow and grabbing some lunch on the beach! We went to Gazoz Beach and hung out for a while. This place had seats, tables, and umbrellas in the sand and a delicious menu complete with hummus, pita, fresh Greek salads with feta, and of course – cocktails. After we ate, we hung out on the beach for awhile before heading back to the Airbnb to shower and get ready for dinner.
Nightlife In Tel Aviv
Before dinner we headed to the Imperial Cocktail Bar for happy hour. I found this place on Google because reviews said they had the “best cocktails in the Middle East”. They weren’t wrong. It’s attached to the Imperial Hotel, just steps from the beach. Each cocktail here is extremely unique and made with love, so add it to your list for your vacation in Israel!
For dinner we walked to the Dizengoff Square part of Tel Aviv, which totally comes alive at night with different bars and restaurants. I did some research ahead of time and found a restaurant called La Shuk – it was right in the square and had outdoor dining perfect for people watching. The menu here was super local and the service was INCREDIBLE! Our server gave us a local, mint-flavored shot and even took it with us. There’s tons of nightlife right here so we hopped around a bit and ended up at Drama, a local club about 20 minutes away from the square.
Day 2: Tel Aviv
For day 2, we wanted to explore the city a bit more. After sleeping in until the early hours of the afternoon (hello jetlag), we got ready and walked to the Little Prince Café and Bookshop. My friend Kendyl found this spot and I couldn’t recommend it more! It was definitely a popular spot for locals working remotely and had a really nice back patio behind the bookstore. The cappuccino here was delicious and we loved our meals! From here, we strolled through some stores, markets, and parks, and winded up at the Dizengoff Center Mall to get sim cards.
We also walked most of the beach this day and ended up on the far east side where the Tel Aviv marina is. There’s a boho-inspired bar here that may be one of my favorite bars in the world. It’s an open-air tiki hut with the best local wine and views of the Mediterranean coast below.
We had dinner tonight at Kanki Sushi, one of the best sushi restaurants in Tel Aviv and went out again in the Dizengoff area. If you want more specific bar recommendations, read my food + drink guide, because I definitely have… a few…
Day 3: Tel Aviv
By now a lot more of my classmates were in Tel Aviv, so we checked out of our Airbnb and into the program hotel. We met up with a few more friends and went to brunch this morning at Café Cucu. This French-Israeli café had the best eggs benedict and iced coffee, so I recommend it! We poked in a few stores in this area before heading to Carmel Market. This is Tel Aviv’s most popular market and is rich with vendors selling local spices, shoes, sunglasses, candy… you name it.
We had another beach day later this afternoon / evening before heading back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner. After dinner at the hotel, we made our way to The Hive – a totally local rooftop bar and club. So local, in fact, the bouncer at the door asked me how I heard about it. I explained a local at told us about it and that we were visiting from the US, and he graciously led all 25+ of us through! This place also had really fun craft cocktails, so I recommend it if you’re looking for some Tel Aviv nightlife.
Day 4: Old Jaffa
The “study abroad” portion of this program officially kicked off today with an extensive tour of Old Jaffa. This is a MUST on your vacation in Israel. If you look at a map of Tel Aviv, you’ll see it listed as “Tel Aviv-Yafo”. “Yafo” is Jaffa and is the ancient port of Tel Aviv. It was once two separate cities but is now under the same municipality. Jaffa sits on top of a hill called a “tel”, or ancient ruins built on top over and over. Jaffa dates back to 7,000 years ago and is the reason Tel Aviv has it’s name! “Tel” means old in Hebrew and “Aviv” means springtime or new.
Getting To Old Jaffa
From Tel Aviv beach, Jaffa is a 2 mile walk. It took us about 35 minutes to get to, but the walk is right along the coast and is extremely scenic. Once we reached Jaffa, we first explored the port area. Here you’ll find lots of restaurants, cafes, and boats in the harbor. Apparently this area gets “popping” at night, according to one of our guides, so you may want to come back during your vacation in Israel.
One of the first places we saw here was Nalaga’at, which means “please touch”. It’s a restaurant operated 100% by blind employees. From the waitstaff to the chefs, every single person is blind. This provides for a very interesting dining experience, meaning there are no menus (the specials are shared verbally), the lights are off, and you’ll have to use your other senses, such as a heightened sense of taste to navigate the restaurant. Right around the corner from this restaurant is one of Israel’s best gelato spots – Golda.
What To See In Jaffa
Old Jaffa reminded me a lot of some of the ancient cities I’ve toured in Europe, such as Siena, Italy. The roads are covered in cobblestone and weave around ancient stone buildings. The main courtyard in Jaffa is where you’ll find St. Peter’s Church – a Francisican church in the historical part of Jaffa. During our tour we learned that churches face East to represent the rebirth of Christ.
Another must see in Jaffa is the Wishing Bridge. This bridge is very unique in that it’s covered in zodiac sign plaques. According to legend, you should walk across this wooden footdbridge to your zodiac, look at the sea, and make a wish! Similarly, there’s an arch right nearby called the Gate of Faith that’s worth seeing! As you walk through, you’re supposed to think of a personality flaw you’d like to improve upon and wish it away.
The last major thing in Jaffa that I HIGHLY recommend is the Jaffa Flea Market! This market is huge and had so many goods in it. This is actually where we all took a break for lunch and had plenty of time to browse the shops. For lunch, I’d head to Pita Pita for homemade chicken or beef pita. Our tour guide said it’s “better than his mother’s cooking”, so I knew it had to be good. It was!
Day 5: SodaStream Visit & Jerusalem
Today is probably a little irrelevant for all of you who are reading this to prepare for your vacation in Israel, but I want to recap it anyways. Our program coordinated not only a few tours during our time in Israel, but also the opportunity to connect with international businesses. On my 5th day in Israel, I was able to tour the SodaStream headquarters near Be’Er Sheva. SodaStream is an Israel-based manufacturing company, best known for their home water carbonation product.
Additionally, I was so impressed by the workplace culture here. Israel is one of the most religious countries in the world, and is the homebase for Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. This company employs people of all races, ethnicities, and religions, and even has areas on site for all forms of prayer. SodaStream also welcomes Palestinian employees, many of which commute in everyday from the West Bank.
During our tour we learned that the checkpoint process can take up to 2-3 hours each way, meaning the employees are leaving their homes at 4 am and not returning until 9 pm. The company began leasing apartment buildings near the facility to offer to employees who just return home for the weekends. Every SodaStream package is complete with a sticker stating “This product is produced by Jews and Arabs working side-by-side in peace and harmony”. I really enjoyed touring the manufacturing and packaging facilities with my cohort.
From SodaStream, we drove 1.5 hours into Jerusalem! If you were hoping to visit Jerusalem directly from Tel Aviv, it would only take 1-1.5 hours in the car depending on traffic. Our first stop in Jerusalem this afternoon was the old city’s most famous market – the Machaneh Yehudah Market. This marketplace in Old Jerusalem is popular among locals and tourists alike and has over 250 vendors, selling everything from fresh vegetables to wine, clothes, shoes, textiles, and souveniors. During the night, this market totally transforms into one of Jerusalem’s nightlife centers, with lively bars, restaurants, and live music.
Day 6: Consulting Projects & Bethlehem
Today was another business heavy day. This was a school trip after all! But keep reading for some tips for Bethlehem, because that is a MUST for your vacation in Israel.
This morning my team and I presented the consulting project we’ve been working on all semester! Our cohort was broken up into small groups earlier this year and assigned to Israeli companies to work on a consulting project and present during the trip. My team, which ended up being all female (my MBA program is actually more than 50% women!), was assigned to DouxMatok and their Incredo Sugar product. They work with other businesses to replace the cane sugar ingredient in an effort to make treats such as cookies, biscuits, and cakes healthier.
We created a go-to-market expansion strategy as they hope to expand more globally. We were able to bus back into Tel Aviv to present our work in-person in the corporate office, and even had the opportunity to meet the entire team and tour the labs. I’ve always been interested in international business, so to work on such a “real-world” project on such a global scale was an invaluable experience for me.
Later this afternoon we met up with the rest of the cohort and made our way to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus Christ and is an important site for all religious people. Bethlehem sits within Palestinian territory in the West Bank, so we had to cross a border from Israel to get here.
Disclaimer: If you’re an avid reader of my blog or follow me on Instagram, you know that I keep my content light-hearted. I’ve always been good at recording the facts of where I visit, educating you all on culture, history, and the basic information needed to stay and get around. I purposely avoid politics in an effort to avoid offending anyone. For this reason, I don’t want to get into the Israeli-Palestine history too much here, but if you’re interested in reading more, I felt this UN article was quite informative.
I will, however, share my personal experience in Palestine as an American tourist. First, Israelis are not allowed to enter Palestine without a local guide. We had to cross a border to enter the West Bank, but since we were a tour bus, this process was quick and easy. I understand how privileged this is, especially after learning about how this process can take up to 3 hours. Since this area is separate from Israel, I also immediately noticed some cultural differences – such as a sudden change to fully Arabic signs. Also, it’s very common to see Hasidic Jews in Israel, dressed in modest garb, but most people in Palestine were of Arabic descent.
Once we pulled into Bethlehem, we noticed a lot more tourists. During 2019, our guide told us that most of the hotels in Jerusalem were always booked, so a lot of people stayed here! We just visited for a few hours, but it’s nice to know that’s an option for your vacation in Israel. I would also like to share that Bethlehem’s main source of revenue is tourism, and the local guides were extremely welcoming and grateful for our visit. Our local guide expressed her gratitude to us and after sharing how Bethlehem has always been her home, she said “Bethlehem is the salt of the Earth. Salt is a tiny thing, but it seasons the bread”.
- Bethlehem has been under Palestinian authority since 1995
- Christians and Muslims live here, but no Jews
- Known as the “Little Town of Bethlehem” in the Bible
- Birthplace of Jesus
- Arabic and English are spoken here
- Jews were the first people to settle in this area at the time of Jesus, but most converted to Christianity later
- This area is known for its olive wood carvings
What To See In Bethlehem
Bethlehem’s main attraction is the Church of the Nativity, which is the basilica located in the West Bank. This is one of the most important sites for all Christians and is the oldest site continuously used as a place of worship in Christianity. This basilica is also the oldest major church in the Holy Land. There was a small stairwell in the back of the church that led down to the site where Jesus was born. Seeing this site with my own eyes was extremely overwhelming. I grew up Catholic and after 10+ years of Catholic school, I had read so much about this site – never in a million years imaging I’d actually visit.
One of the last things we did in the West Bank was visit the Israeli-Palestine separation wall. This concrete wall was at least 30 feet high and was covered in primarily political, deeply emotional graffiti art. It’s clear that the ongoing conflict here has really affected the community.
Day 7: Masada & The Dead Sea
Today was the longest day we had throughout the trip, but it’s also the day I’d recommend copying the most for your vacation in Israel! This morning we boarded our coach bus bright and early and drove 1.5 hours from Jerusalem to Masada, an ancient fortification located in Israel. This historic site is actually a national park situated on top of an isolated rock plateau in the Judaean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea.
The fortresses on top of Masada were built by Herod the Great around 30 BCE. There was a siege here during the Jewish-Roman war that ended in a mass suicide, as the inhabitants of this area preferred to keep their honor and kill their families and themselves instead of becoming slaves to the Roman Empire. Today, Masada has an information center with a small store and restrooms, a cable car, and a snake trail, for those who’d prefer a little (actually A LOT) of exercise and is one of Israel’s most visited tourist attractions, so you can’t miss it on your vacation in Israel.
Visiting The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is actually right next to Masada, but certain areas are better equipped for tourists and swimmers than others. Because of this we had to drive 40 minutes away from Masada to the Dead Sea Resort area to swim. This area was very touristy, complete with an overpriced buffet, camel rides (pls don’t!), and a roped-off swimming area. However, it was nice to have changing stations and bathrooms, a shower to rinse the salt off in, and some food. Oh, and a bar! So overall, I would recommend spending a few hours here.
You can’t leave Israel without floating in the Dead Sea! This was a MAJOR bucket list check for me, and if you’re wondering why, let me tell you a little about it…
About The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is infamously named after the high salt content that prevents life from thriving here. Since this sea (fun fact: It’s actually a lake), is in the desert, water evaporates here at an incredibly fast rate, leaving excess salt behind. The coastline is also receding here pretty dramatically because of this. The Dead Sea is 30-40% salt, while normal salty bodies of water are 3%. Because of this, no marine life can survive here and boats can’t operate.
Furthermore, while the salt and mud here is incredibly nourishing for skin, it can be super damaging to your eyes. NEVER dunk your head here! I got the tinest splash of water in my mouth and eye while swimming and was in pain for 15 minutes. It is highly encouraged, however, to rub the mud all over your body until it dries. Once you rinse you’ll feel like a new person! Also, since the water is so salty, it’s impossible to sink here. Your body naturally floats right up to the surface in the Dead Sea, making it the most unique swimming experience you’ll probably ever have.
Day 8: Old City Jerusalem
My cohort and I spent our last full day touring the Old City of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. When you tour these sights, be sure to stay well hydrated and wear comfortable walking shoes. We began at the Mount of Olives. This site got its name from the abundance of olive trees located here and is often mentioned in the New Testament. Jesus is believed to have ascended into Heaven at the basilica here. There’s actually a rock that has the outline of a footprint that a lot of people touch and pray over.
From here we worked our way down through the Jewish Cemetery to the Basilica of the Agony and the Garden of Gethsemane, which houses some of the oldest olive trees in the world. This is a MUST for your vacation in Israel.
About The Sabbath
The bus picked us up and brought us outside one of the Old City’s many gates. There’s been some recent unrest at the Jaffa Gate, so we avoided this entrance and began our walking tour in the Jewish Quarter. When we were visiting the Old City it was actually a Saturday which is the Jewish day of rest. The Sabbath, or Shabat, is a weekly tradition that begins on Fridays at sundown as lasts until sundown on Saturday. During this time of rest, Jews aren’t allowed to work or operate any electricity. Additionally, most businesses are closed.
The Jewish Quarter
Speaking of the Western Wall – this is definitely the most iconic site in the Jewish Quarter, and is the most important religious site in all of Judaism because it’s the closest Jews can get to the remnants of the Holy Temple. Anyone of any faith and background is welcome to pray at the wall, although men and women must worship in separate sections.
I’ll keep it brief because you’re probably reading this guide to help plan your vacation in Israel and aren’t super interested in my emotional rollercoaster of an experience here. BUT that’s exactly what this was – emotional. I’m religious so I prayed the traditional way, with both palms on the wall and my forehead rested against the cool stone. I closed my eyes and called to God, feeling grateful and slightly overwhelmed.
It wasn’t until two other women approached the wall on either side of me and began to pray that I felt so emotional. I’m not sure where they were from or what language they were speaking. What I did understand, however, was that about halfway through their prayers they broke down in tears and could barely continue speaking. This was the most intense reminder that everyone is going through something, even if it isn’t obvious at first. Treat others with grace, patience, and kindness.
The Muslim Quarter
From the Western Wall, we headed into the Muslim Quarter. The Old City is split into four distinct quarters – Jewish, Muslim, Arabic, and Armenian. The Muslim Quarter was definitely the most lively, with alleyways covered in markets every turn you made. The Muslim Quarter is also where you’ll find the Via Dolorosa, or the “Way of Suffering”. Before he was crucified, this is the exact route Jesus walked with his cross. Walking the exact route Jesus did was incredibly surreal as I realized how challenging it must’ve been. It was lengthy, mostly uphill, and just knowing he was on his way to this death… I can’t imagine.
The Christian Quarter
Today, this route has the stations of the cross marked on the surrounding walls. The end of the route will bring you to the most important religious site for Christians – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the site where Jesus was crucified, anointed by Mary, and buried. Today, it’s a beautiful, grand cathedral, but when you visit you’ll have to remember that this was once an open-air hill with a burial tomb.
Since Jerusalem is quite touristy, there were incredibly long lines to visit the actual crucification spot and burial tomb. It was quite easy to visit the anointment stone though. This is where Mary anointed Jesus before his burial. Use the oil to bless yourself! I put some on my shawl. I highly recommend you do this during your vacation in Israel as well.
Pro-tip: Most religious sites require modest dress, especially covered shoulders. I recommend purchasing a shawl ahead of time for your trip that you can quickly throw over your outfit. Some of my classmates were wearing long sleeves because that’s the only modest clothing they had, but Israel gets HOT!
Bonus Activities In The Old City
Our tour ended at the church (as most do), and our group had free time. There were two popular activites among the group that I’d like to recommend for your vacation in Israel…
- Get a tattoo! After learning about the Razzouk ancient tattoo shop during a prep meeting for our trip (and I mean ancient – the family running the shop has been practicing for 27 generations), a lot of my cohort expressed interest in getting inked! If you’re looking for the most special souvenior of them all, think about this!
- Grab a drink at the Austrian Hospice. This spot is located in the center of the Muslim Quarter, but is a true oasis from all the hustle and bustle. Plus, they have really great beer.
For dinner tonight, I ate at the hotel again, but I want to direct you to my Israel food + drink guide for more local recommendations for the last few nights of your vacation in Israel.
Day 9: Free Day
And on the 9th day in Israel, I was unwell. I’m not sure what did me in, but I had to take today off. Luckily it was my group’s free day and many healthy members of my cohort also spent their day catching up on sleep in bed, so I didn’t miss too much. I did miss a full-day tour I had signed up for that would’ve brought me up north. There are multiple tour companies in Israel that bring tourists up to Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, and the River Jordan. If this interests you, this is a great way to spend your last day of vacation in Israel! An alternative option is to explore the newer areas of Jerusalem, including visiting Israel’s Holocaust Museum.
Day 10: Travel Day
I felt like 10 days was the perfect amount of time for a vacation in Israel. Before I wrap up here, I want to reiterate what I mentioned at the top about arriving to the Tel Aviv airport early! Today was a total nightmare for most of us, but my group successfully flew out of Tel Aviv into Istanbul for 24 hours of exploring.
5,000 words later and I’d like to end this blog post with L’Chaim – my new favorite Hebrew phrase. It means “to life”. Life is short, the world is wide… go make some memories. That may or may not have been a Mamma Mia reference. And a hint as what’s to come this summer for The Abroad Blog…
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