Jerusalem's Old Town, One of the Most Interesting Places I've Been

A religious nexus for numerous people all over the world, the city has a certain energy as a result.  So many devout people all converging in one location, so much emotion in the air, you can feel it and get swept up within it – Jerusalem Syndrome, I mean how many cities are said to cause a mental condition in those that visit? It’s remarkable and fascinating, even for someone like me who is not particularly religious, or maybe it’s because of that…. I’m also naturally curious about people who think, believe, and behave differently than I do. As a result, I enjoyed and experienced the various religious sites equally.

While in the Middle East I also thought a lot about gender roles and it made me curious to know more about the women I saw there, in their various forms of dress. It was striking to see Jewish women praying so fervently in a cramped passageway during our touristy Western Wall Tunnel tour, one woman with an infant strapped to her chest and her prayer book pressed to her face. 

Our visit was, unintentionally, timed perfectly with President Trump’s visit and the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem Day. In a city where emotions always are running high, celebrations and protests took it up a notch. It’s a serious city, and depending on who you ask, an occupied territory. Soldiers are everywhere, armed and ready. It took a bit to get used to, flipping through my Lonely Planet while sidestepping packs of 20-somethings with machine guns. We visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Noble Sanctuary compound on Jerusalem Day. Waiting in line near the Western Wall to get into the Muslim site was an extremely tense experience. Many Israeli youth were also attempting to enter with their flags, aggressively pushing and cutting the lines. There was a heavy police presence, complete with riot gear. But once we walked past all of them and were allowed inside, I was stuck by the tranquility that existed within, birds chirping, leaves rustling... This was just two months before the shooting that caused Israel to shut down access to the mosque, resulting in large protests.

A quite moment inside the Chapel of Saint Helena at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built upon the site identified as the location of the crucifixion of Jesus. 

The city houses some of the holiest, if not the holiest, sites for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. When I think of religion and faith some opposing things come to mind: self-righteousness, oppression, war… but also acceptance, community, and love. A place of worship - whether a church, mosque, or temple – all lend a similar feeling of peace, serenity, and safety. You can find those places within Jerusalem, little sanctuaries where you can feel calm and comforted. Yet the city, as a whole, feels completely the opposite. It resulted in a sensation I hadn’t quite experienced yet in my worldly travels, an underlying feeling of unease, always a little on edge and anxious. For me, this emotional juxtaposition was intriguing and alluring. All of this and more, made Jerusalem one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited. 

In front of the Dome of the Rock at the Noble Sanctuary compound in Jerusalem. 

In front of the Dome of the Rock at the Noble Sanctuary compound in Jerusalem. 

24 hours in Tel Aviv

After settling into our hotel, we spent what remained of our afternoon walking along the seashore towards Old Jaffa. A bit too late in the day for a dip in the ocean, but I enjoyed the vibe and was reminded of southern California beaches and SoCal surfer culture. We arrived in Old Jaffa at magic hour, just as the sun was beginning to set. It’s a small little neighborhood, many of the shops were closing for the day, but things were still lively in Kedumim Square with evening dancing - many couples were participating and it was fun to watch. Prior to 1949, Jaffa and Tel Aviv were two different municipalities and it felt different than the other parts of the city we visited.  

From there we wandered back towards our hotel, stopping for dinner at Nanuchka, a Georgian-inspired vegan restaurant with some delicious food and cocktails. Awesome vibe as well, funky tables and chairs and lots of art on the walls. We sat inside near the bar. I had their French Lemonade cocktail, which I’d gladly have again – it had a hint of an anise flavor if I remember correctly and wasn’t too sweet or too sour.

After dinner, we headed over to the more touristy part of town and took a walk down Rothschild Boulevard to admire some of the Bauhaus architecture for which the city is known. Dubbed the White City, Tel Aviv’s collection of over 4,000 Bauhaus buildings is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The buildings were built in the 1930s by German Jewish architects fleeing Nazi Germany. The architectural style is geometric, spacious, devoid of ornamentation, and usually made of concrete. The Bauhaus movement had a huge and lasting impact on art and design. 

We ended the evening relaxing at Shpagat, one of Tel Aviv’s many café bars. We just happened to walk by and we were drawn in by the relaxed atmosphere and fun stadium seating– turns out (after a quick google) it’s one of Tel Aviv’s top gay bars – something you probably don’t find much of in the Middle East. 

The next day we tried to get an early start, and headed over to the Camel Market in the Yemenite Quarter to check it out and a take some photos. While it wasn’t the most exciting or interesting market I’ve been too, I was awed by the mountains of delicious looking red cherries for sale at the fruit stales. A trip regret: not eating any of them! 

Next up we wandered slowly back towards Rothschild Boulevard in search of some coffee. On the way, we passed what looked to us like a bomb shelter. I honestly thought we’d see a bit more of this sort of thing then we did.

It was at this point in the trip that I realized my bank had frozen my account. Despite an advanced warning of my travels and an acknowledgement on their part, they still froze my account – excellent fraud protection or complete incompetence? You be the judge. Forty-five minutes later and $15 dollars poorer due to the international calling fees, I thought it was sorted – but I was so wrong. More on that later.

Refueled from the coffee but frustrated by my bank, we set out for another walk, this time landing at Meshek Barzilay for lunch. It was a cute little place, we were surrounded by an eclectic mix of local families, international transplants, and presumably, other travelers. We got their chocolate mousse, and it was delicious – sometimes all you need to fix a bad mood is a little chocolate! 

From here we headed over to the Flea Market in Jaffa. It was probably one of my favorite things we did in Tel Aviv. I loved wandering around the neighborhood and in and out of bizarre, over stuffed, antique shops - so many little treasures for sale and interesting tableaus of life there. I could have easily spent another few hours – but with so little time we had to head back to our hotel, gather our bags, and head for the bus station. But, not before wedging in one more amazing meal at the Persian-inspired, Zakaim.

To sum it up, perhaps during our brief stay in Tel Aviv, we spent a lot of time eating and drinking… but in a city known for its food, cafés, and bar culture, it seems a fitting way to spend the time. It was a very comfortable city; one I could easily see my lifestyle fitting into. Hard to imagine a place so relaxing and full of art and culture and free love can be so close to so much turmoil. But that’s Tel Aviv.