ISRAEL, JANUARY 2015
A short trip limited to Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, with day trips to Akko and Bethlehem.
Getting to/from the airport
To Tel Aviv – by train (http://www.rail.co.il/EN/Pages/HomePage.aspx), running even at nighttime at least once every hour (except Shabbat). Price 16 shekels.
To Jerusalem – the cheapest option is by Egged bus (http://www.egged.co.il/HomePage.aspx) but it includes a change of buses at an interchange close to the airport, with possibly long waiting time. Alternatively, Nesher shuttle service (http://www.neshertours.co.il/taxis-from-ben-gurion) costs 64 shekels per person and should be booked a day in advance for trips from Jerusalem.
Because of strict security it is important to be at the airport at least 3 hours before departure.
There are many moneychangers offering very good rates for EUR and USD in central Tel Aviv (e.g. Ben Yehuda St) and along Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. Those in Jerusalem Old City are in general less trustworthy.
In smaller places cash can be always changed at the post office. Exchange rates are not so great – see here for current ones: http://www.israelpost.co.il/postcurrency.nsf/WebDisplay/$First?opendocument&l=EN
Accommodation in Israel starts from relatively expensive and gets to more expensive :). Anything under $100 for double room with bathroom is considered cheap. Prices are usually quoted in US dollars but then charged in Israeli shekels. It is recommended to ask the hotel for the exchange rate applied for currency conversion before taking the final decision, as sometimes the rate is inflated. In our case the places in Tel Aviv and Haifa where we stayed used a fair market exchange rate but the place in Jerusalem, which otherwise gets very good reviews, overcharged us by ca. 2,5% by applying an inflated exchange rate.
Tel Aviv – Hotel Lenis (https://www.lenishotel.com/, bookable also on booking.com), on Allenby St, near the corner with Ben Yehuda St, $79 for a clean and comfortable room with ensuite bathroom, even if a bit small. Very good location in an interesting part of the city, close to the beach and within a walking distance (quite long) even to Jaffa. Nice terrace on the roof. Recommended.
Haifa – Puah Street Studios on Puah St, $65 for a self-catering studio with a kitchenette and a bathroom. Bookable on booking.com. Close to Bahai Gardens, within walking distance (but uphill) from the German Colony and Wadi Nisnas. It is linked by direct bus line to both train and bus stations. With a bit of effort walkable from Haifa HaShmona train station but uphill! The friendly owner gives very detailed and helpful information for anything you may need while in Haifa. Recommended.
Jerusalem. In my opinion it makes best sense to stay in West Jerusalem somewhere along Jaffa Road, for example near the Machane Yehuda market. The area is very well-connected by the Jerusalem Light Rail and still within easy walking distance to the Old City. The Old City itself gets all but deserted after dark, so going out after evening may be not very pleasant experience.
For staying in East Jerusalem, the area immediately north of Damascus Gate (Nablus Road, Salah-ed-Din St) seems the best location. Easy walking distance to the Old City and to West Jerusalem and well connected by transport. I would not recommend hotels on the Mt of Olives, even if on the map it seems very close to the Old City. The area has some safety issues, especially after dark, and the walk from the Old City is steep uphill through a deserted area.
We stayed in Eliyahu Mani studio by Allenby2 B&B (http://allenby2.com/, bookable by booking.com), $85 (+2,5% on inflated exchange rate) for a self-catering studio with a kitchenette and a bathroom. Great location very close to the Machane Yehuda market and still within walking distance (ca. 20 minutes) to the Old City. Breakfast included, served in the main building at Allenby 2 (some 10 minutes walk).
Some links to alternative budget accommodation in Jerusalem (not checked personally):
– http://www.kaplan-hotel.com/, Jaffa Road, 60 euros for double room when I asked in autumn 2014.
– http://www.citadelyouthhostel.com/, a hostel in the Old City, short walk from the Jaffa Gate.
Israel has good public transport, reasonably priced compared to otherwise high price level, with information on schedules and prices easily available on the internet. Almost all public transport stops running on Shabbat (before sunset on Friday until after sunset on Saturday). An exception is city transport in Haifa, sheruts and Arab buses.
An aggregate transport website: http://www.bus.co.il/otobusimmvc/en
Railway (http://www.rail.co.il/EN/Pages/HomePage.aspx) is very useful for travel between Tel Aviv, Haifa, Akko (and further north to Nahariya) and Ben Gurion Airport. Free wi-fi is provided in trains and in stations. Almost useless to Jerusalem, as it uses an old track, the trip takes much longer than bus and the train station in Jerusalem is quite far from the centre. Exception: in rare case of snow, when roads between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are closed for traffic, railway may be the only transport connection between Jerusalem and the rest of the country. In such case additional trains are provided.
Buses – there are several companies, but Egged (http://www.egged.co.il/HomePage.aspx) has the biggest network and most connections. Free wi-fi is provided in buses and in stations.
Sheruts – shared minibuses, running on fixed routes but not according to fixed schedules. Sometimes the only option during the Shabbat.
Car rental – we did not use it but Eldan (http://www.eldan.co.il/en/index.aspx) gets good reviews and seems reasonable priced.
City transport costs 6.90 shekels per ride in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Tickets can be bought on the bus, exact change is not required. For Jerusalem light rail there are ticket machines at each stop.
Map of Tel Aviv bus routes: http://telaviv.busmappa.com/p/bus-map.html and schedule: http://dan.co.il/english/schedule/default.asp?adsCatId=-9. Strangely, the only printable version of the map is available in Russian: http://www.dan.co.il/russian/Download/ru.pdf
[added in Jan 2017] Rav Kav card: some time after our visit it became possible to pay fares for most sorts of public transport in Israel (trains, Egged buses, city buses, Jerusalem light rail) by a contactless Rav Kav card functioning as an ‘electronic purse’, using single balance held on the card for all transport providers. The card costs 5 shekels but there is a 20% bonus for any money loaded into it, meaning that for every 100 shekels loaded to the card you get 120 shekels to spend on fares. No personal experience by myself (I have read about it on the Tripadvisor forum) but it seems a very attractive option especially for budget travellers, so it is definitely worth checking out.
Food and drinks
Israel is an expensive country, so expect Western European prices, more like in the UK and France than in Germany. The cheapest fast food is usually falafel, for 15-20 shekels. Some more elaborate fast food will set you back ca. 30 shekels. Anyway, even simple street food is usually delicious and something definitely different from the usual globalized fare. For carnivores: try meorav yerulashmi (Jerusalem mixed grill). A meal in a sit down restaurant with a drink will be at least 120-150 shekels for two persons.
Beer costs 10-15 shekels per 0,5 l in a shop. In a bar or restaurant it costs anything from 15 shekels (often for 0,3 l) up, quite often in the 30 shekels range for 0,5 l. The most common Goldstar is very pleasant and the Palestinian Taybeh beer (available in East Jerusalem and the West Bank) is also decent.
On the other hand, very decent wines can be bought for 25-35 shekels per bottle in a shop. Our favourite reds in this price range were Shell Segal and Derech Eretz.
I found Tripadvisor Israel forum (http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowForum-g293977-i1733-Israel.html) very useful for planning the trip. A few forum regulars, mostly locals or frequent visitors, do a great job giving detailed and accurate answers to any questions regarding planning a trip to Israel.
Some visiting tips
Haifa – consider walking some parts of the Haifa trail (http://www.haifatrail.com/haifa-trail-main-eng.htm). Most of it is not yet signposted in the terrain but good maps are available free of charge in the main tourist information office in the German Colony district.
Akko – a nice day trip from Haifa. We had a choice between Friday and Saturday, opted for Friday and it was a good choice. The bazaar was mostly open and it was also possible to visit the main mosque (entry 10 shekels) after the prayers ended.
See here for hours and price of most sights in Akko: http://www.akko.org.il/en/Old-Acre-Visiting-Hours
In addition to the usual sights in the old city, we also visited the Or Torah Tunisian Synagogue and would definitely recommend seeing its mosaics. Apparently it is not open all the time but there was a group of visitors there, so we luckily managed to visit without any appointment. It is located a very short walk from the entrance to the old town, in a side street named Kaplan Street.
Transport – Friday morning by train, 16 shekels. On our way back on Friday evening trains did not run because of Shabbat, so we took a sherut that departed almost at once with only 4 passengers, cost 14 shekels. The sherut dropped us in Hadar district of Haifa.
Jerusalem – a decent city map can be obtained free of charge from the tourist office at the Jaffa Gate. They also have a very useful flyer listing opening hours of most religious sites in Jerusalem – definitely recommended, as the hours can vary wildly and are sometimes quite erratic.
Bethlehem – a day trip from Jerusalem into Palestinian Autonomy. We got to Bethlehem by taking bus 21 from the Damascus Gate bus station in Jerusalem. Price 8 shekels, the bus passed a highway checkpoint without any control and dropped us in Beit Jalla, some 20 minutes walk to the center of Bethlehem.
As we wanted to see the “separation wall”, we chose to go back by another checkpoint. Walked some 40 minutes to the end of the Manger Street. The street reaches a gap in the wall with Israeli soldiers visible on the other side but this is NOT the actual pedestrian checkpoint which is located up a side street to the left. We were directed to the correct entrance by friendly locals. There were a lot of heavily armed Palestinian policemen near the checkpoint, much less Israeli soldiers on the other side – in fact it looked almost deserted in the afternoon.
From the Israeli side of the checkpoint, bus 24 took us back to central Jerusalem for 5,50 shekels.
Both buses 21 and 24 are very frequent – we simply hopped on the waiting bus and it started right afterwards.