Jerusalem – Part I

After our little excursion to the Dead Sea and Masada, we headed out of the Negev desert and back to civilization.  Our next stop was Jerusalem which was what could be considered the main feature of the trip to Israel.

Driving into Jerusalem is tricky so be prepared for a high stress driving situation if you’re behind the wheel.  All the maps of the city that we had lacked the small side streets and the Garmin GPS struggled to find certain streets and pronounce the Hebrew accurately in understandable English (You don’t know on-edge driving until you’re in a different country and Garmin spits out “Turn left on Allafuweesa Hearzog” and the only sign you see is Kovshei Katamon Street.)

We eventually arrived at our hotel in one piece – the Eldan Hotel.  This place is located across from the famous King David Hotel, so you can use that as a landmark when trying to find it.  The hotel itself is very nice, with renovated rooms and it’s in a fantastic location (a quick walk to the Old City, which will be in the next post).  There is very limited and tight parking, so again, have a good driver behind the wheel.   You will pay a a bit to stay here – at least $200 US a night and there is NO internet (which was very bizarre for the price we were paying for the room), but its location in relation to the sites makes it worth it.  If you do want to use the internet, you have to go next door to the YMCA or the King David to get a free WiFi signal.

Here are a few of the highlights from our first day (apologies for the relatively scarce amount of pictures – most of these museums didn’t allow photography):

Israel Museum

Sun, Mon, Wed, Thurs 10 am – 5 pm
Tues 4pm – 9 pm (*Please note the Museum is closed on Tuesday mornings and during special holiday hours)
Fri and holiday eves 10 am – 2 pm
Sat and holidays 10 am – 5 pm

***Children under 18 free admission on Tuesdays and Saturdays

The Israel Museum is a solid starting point for your visit to the city.  There you can view the Dead Sea Scrolls and Aleppo Codex and get a nice, but admittedly typical, look at a range of Jewish artwork.  The Judaic portion of the museum is a good exhibit of the history of Jewish culture and worth walking through.  There is also free parking at the museum and some very good free tours that are offered throughout the day.

Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Museum

Sunday-Wednesday: 9:00 – 5:00
Thursday: 9:00-8:00
Friday: 9:00-2:00
Saturday: Closed

A trip to Israel wouldn’t be complete without a very necessary stop at Yad Vashem and The Holocaust Museum.  I’m going to say this right off the bat – this part of the trip will be extremely disturbing and emotionally draining, so be prepared for that.

At Yad Vashem, you’ll be able to look at the Hall of Remembrance – a dark, quiet hangar bay like structure that houses the eternal flame and the names of all the concentration camps carved onto the floor.  Down the way is the Children’s Memorial.  This memorial is a spooky, but beautiful tribute to the children victims of the holocaust.  The memorial is a completely dark walkthrough with only one candle in the center and mirrors all around that make the room look like it’s filled with starry candlelight.  The only sound that can be heard is the voice of one man reciting the names, birthplaces and ages of all the children victims.

Of the three big parts of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum is easily the most impressive.  Being from D.C., I made the mistake of thinking the D.C and Jerusalem holocaust museums would be similar.  The museum in Jerusalem is shockingly long, so give yourself at least two hours to go through it and I will admit is FAR better than the holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.  As you go through each room and listen to the hundreds of stories and read the thousands of displays, it’s indescribable to fathom just how unbelievably and incredibly horrible of a tragedy occurred.  Don’t be surprised if you see a lot of people with watery eyes or if you find yourself crying.  At the end of the museum, if you take a look around at all the faces of the other tourists, you’ll just see mass exhaustion and the look that everyone just got hit in the face.  Needless to say, this is not a “fun” thing to see or do, but it is an extremely interesting experience.

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Masada and the Dead Sea

Driving north from Eliat, we made our way to the kibbutz that we would be staying in for the next couple of days – the Khalia Kibbutz.  The kibbutz is located a few miles from the Dead Sea and going into it I didn’t know what to expect.  I really thought it would be like an amish-type village thing, but quickly realized that I was quite mistaken.  As we approached the gate, there were armed guards who had to check us through due to kibbutzes being a frequent target of terrorist attacks.  We made our way past security, and we saw that that the kibbutz was a modern, fully-functioning community.

More like a vacation resort complex than a farm, the room we stayed in was modest, clean, and affordable with a little kitchen and back patio.  The staff was friendly, but like all Israelis they had a curt, edgy directness.  The Khalia Kibbutz is good choice if you’re looking to do something very Israeli and need a place to stay when visiting the following:

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.  We went to Mineral Beach, which is one of the beaches you do actually have to pay for to enter.  They also offer towels and lockers to rent and spa services (which are very overpriced).  The beach itself isn’t really a “lay out the towel and lounge” type beach.  The ground is extremely rocky, but there are several beach chairs for you to have so that you’re not sitting on the rocks.

Dead sea
Look Mom! No hands!

Regardless of that, the reason why you’re there isn’t to enjoy the “sand” – its to experience the water.  And it certainly doesn’t disappoint.  All the stories you hear about being able to literally float with no effort are 100% true.  Once you get in, all you need to do is lift up your feet and it’s like you’re on an invisible floating mat.  A few things to note though – DO NOT DUNK.  I cannot stress this enough.  The water tastes absolutely horrible and will cause serious harm to your eyes if it gets in contact with them.  Also, DO NOT SHAVE before going in.  The water is SO salty that any small cut or scrape will burn like crazy.  I didn’t shave, but there were a few small scratches on my legs that I didn’t know about and the water quickly let me know they were there.

Natural mud treatment
Natural mud treatment

When you’re tired of floating in the sea itself, you can try giving yourself a mud treatment.  There are barrels of the mineral mud located on the beach and you’ll see everyone covering their skin up in this gunky mess.  When you wash it off, your skin feels absolutely smooth and fresh as the mud has sucked up all the oils and dead skin and washed them away.  Be warned, the mud also stings so if you’re going to put it on your face, just be prepared.

It’s also worth partaking in the sulfur pool.  This giant hot tub has the same water as the dead sea so you can float around in it with all the other people.  The water is very hot though and we couldn’t stay in there too long.

Hiking up the Masada

Another famous Israeli landmark is the Masada, a fortress that was built on top of a mountain in 37 B.C.  It’s famous for the great siege at Masada, where 960 Jewish settlers committed mass suicide to avoid capture from the Romans.  You can read more about the story here.  There are two ways up the mountain to see the ruins of the fortress – hike and the cable car.  The cable car will get you up to the top in a few minutes.  If you’re going to attempt the hike up to the top of the mountain, you’ll take the snake trail and that climb will take you 45 minutes to an hour or two depending on your pace.  You should also be in relatively good shape, the hike up is not an easy one if you choose the snake trail.  There is a significantly easier trail up as well called the Roman Ramp, but that requires you to drive 40 minutes around the mountain to the other side.  There’s a fee to hike and a fee for the cable car.  A popular option is to pay for the hike up and a pay for a one-way trip back down on the cable car.  Once you get to the top, you can easily spend a couple hours up there.  There are several pretty intact ruins left and the views of the Dead Sea are amazing.

Ein Gedi and Qumran

For more hiking, swing by Ein Gedi Nature Park.  There you can explore the park’s waterfalls, caves, natural springs and wildlife.  It’s pretty incredible seeing the lush flora and water of this oasis in the middle of the desert.  Qumran is also located close by.  If you have an hour, check out the site where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls and see how the ancient tribes that found them lived.  However, keep in mind that the actual scrolls aren’t kept at Qumran.  They’re housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem – our next destination.

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