The Amateur Traveler is the first podcast I ever listened to on a consistent basis, and it is my favorite podcast. I enjoy listening because it allows me to travel to many many places in my head that I would never actually visit. In February 2009, I listened to Amateur Traveler episode #167- Travel to Israel, and the seeds of a journey were sown for my first trip to Israel. Here is some travel advice I learned that helped with my trip.
Chris’s guest Douglas, a labor attorney from Cincinnati, talked passionately about his many visits to Israel. Having been raised as a Lutheran, I had long thought of visiting the Holy Land. Douglas talked about bursting into tears the first time he saw the Western Wall, and while less seasoned travelers might have seen this as an overreaction, it gave me goosebumps. I had done a fair amount of international traveling, but very little since 2003, when I began a quest to visit the National Park of the 48 Contiguous United States. Through the course of the next six months, I re-listened to the Israel podcast at least 10 more times. In June, I went out and bought Lonely Planet Israel, and started to look a the practicalities of a trip to Israel.
Is Israel Safe?
Obviously, security was a major concern of mine, since I would be traveling solo. In the podcast, the guest had gone through lengths to explain how safe he felt in Israel. As much as I trusted his opinion, I needed to be convinced a little more. The more I read and the more people I talked to that had previously visited Israel, the better I felt. By the time I took the actual trip, I was pretty confident about the security situation. Still, one of my biggest surprises on the trip was how safe I felt the whole time.
Is Israel Affordable?
With the dollar being so low, I was surprised at how affordable Israel was. I had expected it to be on par price-wise with Europe. It was considerably less than Europe, especially in Northern Europe. I didn’t really want to stay in hostels, those days are past me, and I was able to find affordable single rooms at every stop.
Road Trip in Israel
My best travel trip for Israel was a tip I took from the podcast. I never considered traveling around Israel by rental car. I like public transportation and walking, but there were so many areas of Israel I wouldn’t be able to visit via public transport, and that left my options for these areas to guided tours (which can be expensive) or driving (which can be intimidating). Douglas talked about how easy it was to drive in Israel and he was right.
He brought up the point that a rental car in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem would be a hindrance, not an asset, and on that he was right. I didn’t drive in Jerusalem (except for picking up the car and immediately heading north toward Galilee), and I spent two frustrating hours navigating the one-way streets in Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv. Other than that, driving was easy. I used the company, Eldan, recommended by Douglas, which I found to be very affordable.
Thanks to having the rental car, I was able to explore the Golan Heights, the beautiful and disputed tract of land that Israel took from Syria during the Seven Day War of 1967. Nimrod Fortress, one of the highlights during the whole month-long trip was located in the Golan, a few miles from both Syria and Lebanon.
Jerusalem was another highlight, especially staying in the Old City. I had looked at many, many options for lodging in Jerusalem. When traveling internationally, I believe getting a comfortable hotel during the first few days of getting used to a new country is important. I settled on the Hotel Hashimi, located right in the middle of the Muslim Quarter, along one of the many pedestrian streets that make up the Muslim Souk (Market).
Upon arrival, my sherut (share-taxi) dropped me at the Damascus Gate. Had I not traveled overseas before, the chaos that greeted me inside the gate might have proved crippling due to culture shock. I had to carry all of my bags through the bustling marketplace, but the hotel was worth it. I was greeted by the hotel’s proprietor, Saleh, who became a friend and a fountain of useful information about the city. The rooms were sparse, clean, and comfortable. The lobby is an ornate common room I spent quite a bit of leisure time in using the free wifi.
I had read about the view from the hotel’s third-floor breakfast room. After checking in and dropping my bags in my room, I headed up to it to check out the legendary view. I was not disappointed, as it is spectacular, with sweeping views of the Mount of Olives and the Dome of the Rock.
Staying in the Old city may not be for everyone. It is noisy, and the Call to Prayer echos of the walls of the Muslim Quarter a few times a day, including in the middle of the night.
The walk from the Damascus Gate I previously mentioned may prove prohibitive for some. There are so many positives, however.
I enjoyed strolling the market, especially in the evening after the massive tourist crowds and bus tours have left the city. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a short walk from my hotel, and I explored it early in the morning and later at night (it opens at 5 am and closes at 9 pm) when the crowds of pilgrims were manageable.
Another recommendation I got from the podcast (this one from episode 192- Travel to Jerusalem– with the same guest) was for a guide named Sam, who could be hired for personalized tours. I contacted him to ask about a tour of the West Bank, as I was nervous about trying to visit the Palestinian Territories myself. I knew Bethlehem would be easy enough to do on my own, but the other two sights I really wanted to visit – The Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean Desert and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the contested town of Hebron- would be tougher to do on my own. The tour turned out to be another of the trip’s highlights.
My favorite picture from the trip is one from in front of the Seven Arches Hotel on the Mount of Olives. The view is one of the most remarkable in the work, with the whole Old City of Jerusalem spread out before you. You also get a look at the thousands of graves on the hillside, people buried there believing that they will be amongst the first resurrected and taken to heaven at the end of times.
The trip was a remarkable experience, one I might never have undertaken had it not been for my love of The Amateur Traveler Podcast.