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Israel made it’s way on and off our RTW itinerary multiple times. At one point we planned on spending a few weeks exploring as much of the country as we could cram in. Over time though (and copious amounts of planning and reading), other destinations crept up on the list and soon Israel didn’t make the cut. However, when we realized we were planning to be in Jordan, right next door to Israel, over Easter AND Passover we knew we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It would be such a shame to be so close and not spend Easter in Jerusalem!
I made some hasty plans, didn’t research nearly enough, and we spent a few whirlwind days doing as much touring as we could possibly fit in. I wish I would’ve had Melissa’s incredible guide to Israel with kids, or even her family there to join us…but their RTW plans ebbed and flowed like ours and ultimately our paths didn’t cross. We were on our own!
Crossing The Border from Jordan to Israel
Our arrival into Jerusalem was not as smooth as I had anticipated, but we made it none-the-less. I dislike spending money when I don’t have to, however I’ve come to accept that sometimes, when traveling, it’s necessary. Getting from Amman to Jerusalem was one of these times.
For the border journey we pre-booked a private van that was supposed to take us door-to-door from Amman to Jerusalem. We woke up early and were ready for the van … but it never came. We ended up taking 2 separate Ubers. I went with the girls and Randy rode with our friends. One driver cancelled when he discovered where we were going, so Randy’s car was about 20 minutes behind mine. Once we were all re-united at the Jordanian border, we attempted to figure out how to go about getting across. I normally research everything like crazy, but assuming we’d be taking a private van for the entire journey, I hadn’t looked into this crossing at all!
As with many borders, you’re not allowed to walk. So, we took one of the special taxis to the Jordanian side of the border. Megan & I grabbed a coffee and I learned that we needed to purchase a ticket for the bus to take us across to the Israeli side. The whole time I was crossing my fingers, hoping we’ be able to find a way to Jerusalem on the other side.
The actual border process was quite smooth. Rather than receiving a stamp in our passports, we got a small entry card. Considering we’d been stamped out at the Jordan/Israel border, I don’t think any Arabic countries would let us in anyways. Never-the-less, we got a tourist card to keep track of. Once firmly through the border process I found a bank machine and withdrew some Shekels.
There were taxis waiting on the other side, and a sign posted listing various destinations and their corresponding prices. It was comforting to have a fixed price, however since we needed 2 taxis I wanted to be able to negotiate! I always find negotiating so exhausting, but I was so used to it at this point that I felt almost cheated because I wasn’t able to haggle for a fair price.
We split up again, however this time Randy didn’t have to worry about me driving off the edge of the cliff. The taxis followed each other the entire way into Jerusalem and swiftly deposited us at the edge of the Old City. I could feel the energy in the air as soon as I stepped out of the taxi.
We Made It To Jerusalem
This was it! Jerusalem. One of the most important cities in the world. An ancient city, and one of the most significant centers for all of the world’s major religions. A city for which battles have been fought throughout the millennia. A city for which battles are still fought today. To me, Jerusalem felt special. It felt like a city worth fighting for.
As we walked over the cobblestone streets and wound through the narrow alleyways of the Christian Quarter, the hassle (and money!) it took to get here was quickly forgotten. It was instantly worth it. We were in Jerusalem, for Easter!
Jerusalem was the only time, in the whole year, I had an accommodation cancel on us. Sure, I didn’t book many accommodations ahead of time, but when I did it was for a reason. In Jerusalem we were traveling with 7 people, and we were going to be in the City during one of the busiest times of the year. I was incredibly annoyed when our cute little apartment canceled 6 weeks before our visit, but I managed to find 2 private rooms (with shared bathroom) in a hostel right by Jaffa Gate.
The location was ideal, and the price was the best that could be expected during peak season in an already expensive city. I’ve stayed in quite a few hostels in my life, but this was the strangest hostel I’ve ever been in. Not only were there rooms available to rent, but they also rented out floor space! By early evening, every bench had someone staking claim to it. When we woke in the morning, there was barely a pathway through the hallways and common areas as people laid themselves and their things on any available piece of floor they could find. I was grateful we were able to be in a private room, even if the “fourth” bed was just the window sill!
We really only had 2 full days in Jerusalem and planned to make the most of it.
Visiting The Church Of The Holy Sepulchre
The girls and I visited The Church on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The church was relatively quiet, all things considered. With my Lonely Planet guide in hand, we made our way around the Church, taking in as many sights as we could. I don’t think the girls were able to fully comprehend what they were seeing, although in the moment they were fully caught up in it.
At one point I couldn’t find Kacela, she’d disappeared. After a few minutes of frantic searching I found her in front of a group of people, quietly watching a group of priests chanting in the nave. She’d slithered her way through the crowd and was completely enthralled with what was going on around her.
My second visit was just myself and Randy, late in the afternoon on Easter Sunday. We wandered past the same things I’d seen with the girls. It was jam-packed with people, but without the worry of the girls we were able to take our time and fully appreciate where we were.
The centerpiece of the church is a small chapel atop the location of Jesus’ tomb. We didn’t go inside, because the line-up was insanely long, but just standing beside it gave me goosebumps. I’m sure Jerusalem is incredible to visit any time of the year. However, being in the exact spot of Jesus’ resurrection, on the day in which we celebrate it, made it even more special.
Visiting Bethlehem With Kids
It was impossible for us, as Christians, to visit Jerusalem and not go to Bethlehem. There are a number of tours that go from the Old City, but a tour was our absolute last resort. I figured we should be able to do it on our own, and we did!
We caught Arab Bus 21 from the large bus terminal just outside Damascus gate. As we approached the West Bank, the giant wall loomed over us. It’s imposing presence immediately making me nervous. Just the sight of it made me wonder if we were doing the right thing. Should we really be crossing over? Should we be taking the kids into Bethlehem?
The crossing from Jerusalem into the West Bank was relatively straight forward. There was no one manning the border crossing, I guess the Israeli government isn’t really concerned about people entering Palestine. We walked through a series of passageways and a turn-style, and we popped out, back into the sunshine, in Palestine. We were immediately assaulted with a number of taxi drivers offering to take us around. This was comforting, and made me realize that we weren’t crazy, nor were we the only ones to do this!
Before going anywhere, I wanted to walk along the wall. The interior surfaces are covered with artwork, graffiti, quotes and stories from West Bank residents. The girls asked about the wall, and I didn’t really know how to explain it to them. I don’t know enough myself, especially to portray an unbiased account. As an outsider, it’s impossible to fully comprehend the events that have led to this. We have friends that are Palestinian, and friends that are Jewish. I couldn’t help but think about them all as I walked along the wall.
Centuries of fighting over the same sacred ground have brought us to this point. Decades of arguing over our differences rather than celebrating our similarities. It’s found not just here, but all over the world. We’ve seen it this year throughout Myanmar, in Kashgar, China and Amritsar, India. It just seems to be amplified in Jerusalem. Because here, at the center of the holiest of sites, is where it matters the most.
After a sombre walk along the wall, lightened up by Ethan’s heroic rescue of Calais’ elastic from a storm drain, it was time to haggle for a taxi. We found a mini-van taxi and negotiated 200ILS to take us to the Church of the Nativity and the Shepherd’s Field. Rachel’s Tomb is the other commonly visited site in Bethlehem, however we felt like the kids could only handle so much!
The Church Of The Nativity
The first stop was the Church of the Nativity. We found a guide out front for 100ILS, and Kacela rolled her eyes once we agreed to a price. Little did she know that in this situation I’m 100% sure the guide SAVED us time! He talked a bit about the interior structure of the church, and we admired the mosaic tiles of the floor. Then it was time to make our way down to the place where Jesus was born.
Our guide managed to side-step half the line and got us through the throngs of people in a fraction of the time it would’ve taken us on our own. The place of the Nativity is in a small room at the back of the church, underneath the pulpit. There’s a sizeable staircase leading to a tiny door, with people pushing from all directions. Once inside it was significantly warmer, but a bit calmer. Calm enough that we were able to appreciate the significance of the moment. The girls prayed and kissed the star on the floor, feeling the presence and the power of this sacred place.
It was Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday and the first day of Passover. Most of the shops and restaurants in Bethlehem were closed because of missile fire that had occurred earlier that morning at the Gaza strip. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but from what I gathered the businesses were closed in some kind of revolt. We did manage to find somewhere to eat lunch, just in front of the Church. The food at Casa Nova Pilgrim House was good, and there was plenty of shade.
The Shepherd’s Field
We kind of did things backwards. If we were going in order it would’ve made the most sense to visit the Shepherd’s Field BEFORE the Church of the Nativity. However, we did it in order of importance, because if we only made it to one stop, we all wanted that to be the Church! The kids had a second wind after lunch so we made our way to the Shephard’s Field.
To be honest, it wasn’t all that interesting! I was picturing a big open field, with a few olive trees scattered here and there, and a view of the countryside all around. It’s perched on the top of a hill, with a view of the countryside, but it’s not a big open field! It’s quite built up with a waterless fountain, church and excavation area for an old Byzantine Church. Of course I should’ve expected it to be built up, but it definitely didn’t meet my expectations!
The kids had fun exploring the excavation site, climbing on whatever large stones they could find. There was enough shade to be comfortable, and I did try for a moment to imagine the Shepherds standing in the field, watching over their flocks, while the Angel told them of Jesus’ birth. It didn’t work though. The surroundings were all wrong and I just wasn’t feeling it. I guess things are bound to change over a couple thousand years!!
Crossing the wall from the West Bank into Jerusalem was a very different experience compared to going the other direction. There were military personnel, a passport check and a bag scan. They didn’t really ask us any questions, just took a look our Israeli entrance card and sent us on our way.
Holy Land Walking Tour
Walking is one of my favourite ways to explore a city, and the Old City in Jerusalem is perfectly set up to see by foot. Whenever we can, we’ll join a walking tour to get our bearings and learn a little bit about the city. In Jerusalem, we signed up for the Holy City Walking Tour with Sandeman’s NEW Europe Tours. It was busy!! There must have been a hundred people waiting at the designated waiting area outside Jaffa Gate. Thankfully there was a number of different tours and multiple guides. We were soon divided into smaller groups and quickly made our way back through the City Walls.
Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and seemed genuinely interested in sharing his city with us. We spent the first part of the morning wandering the streets of the Old City, visiting the different quarters and learning a bit about their history. My favourite was the Tower of David, which we learned had been claimed by the Jewish faith, Christianity and Islam at various points throughout history. The similarities between these religions, and the sharing of many important religious sites, further enhances my belief that we’re all the same.
The Western Wall
After visiting the Tower of David, we made our way to the Western Wall and waited for it to open. Once inside, we enjoyed some time wandering on our own. The first thing we did was visit the bathroom, and in the process lost the boys!! Eventually, we spotted them up ahead and went running (well, walking quickly) towards them. It turns out we were following them to the men’s side of the Wall and we were quickly stopped by a few security guards. Whoops!! For all the travel we’ve done, I’m still taken aback with any kind of segregation. I just don’t expect it!
We sheepishly retreated and followed the crowd of women to the “other” side of the Wall. I was happy sitting back, observing the women putting little pieces of paper into cracks and crevices in the wall, and gently laying their heads against the wall in prayer. The girls, however, wanted to do what everyone else was doing, so we got in line to jostle our way up to the wall. They were happy to touch it, lay their foreheads against it and retreat, although Kacela asked me why we didn’t have any paper to put in the Wall.
The Dome Of The Rock
At the appointed time we met back at the gate to make our way up the stairs to the top of Temple Mount. The large golden Dome of the Rock commands a prominent place in the Jerusalem skyline, and we’d admired it from the rooftop terrace of our hostel the night before. It was fun to see it up close, even if we couldn’t go inside.
After descending from Temple Mount, we wove our way back through the streets, along part of the Via Dolorosa, the crucifixion path. Eventually we found our way to the restaurant where we stopped for an optional lunch, and the end of our tour. We chose to eat, and enjoyed a delicious spread while swapping stories with some of the other people from our tour.
The Road To Eilat
We’d made the decision to head south in Israel and cross the border from Eilat to Aqaba where we planned to spend a night by the Red Sea. I should’ve done a bit more pre-planning, because by the time I went to purchase bus tickets from Jerusalem to Eilat, there wasn’t enough space on a bus for all 7 of us! The decision was made for Randy & Ethan to take the bus, and us girls would rent a car and drive.
We made our way to the Sixt car rental just as it opened, and were soon on our way out of town. Driving in Israel is easy. The roads are well maintained, wide, and there was very little traffic once we’d left Jerusalem behind. We stopped for a quick lunch at McDonalds, and drove into Eilat just in time to meet up with Ethan and Randy.
Crossing The Border From Israel To Jordan in Eilat
By this point I was a pile of nerves. I was hopeful we’d be able to cross the border into Jordan, but wasn’t 100% sure it would be possible. We’d already used up the Jordanian Visa that came with our Jordan Pass, and I’d read on one of the Jordan government websites that it wasn’t possible to purchase a Visa at this border. As we handed over our passports, and paid the Israeli exit tax, I read a notice stating that the exit tax was non-refundable if our entry into Jordan was refused. Now I was really worried!!
It was a hot day, and the border was a bit chaotic. We stood in one line, just to get to the front and be told we needed to stand in a different line. After filling out some paperwork, and standing in the initial line (again), we were re-stamped into Jordan. I could finally breath a bit easier!
Next Up: Petra and Wadi Rum, Jordan
You can also watch it on YouTube!
Know Before You Go:
Where We Stayed – Citadel Youth Hostel Jerusalem
This hostel was cheap, but definitely a last resort. I’ve never been in a stranger accommodation in my life! It’s in an ancient building, so is quite disjointed, with random staircases, tight hallways, and mattresses set in windowsills masquerading as beds. All of these things I could handle. The strange bit was that every conceivable surface turned into a bed space at night. There were people sleeping in the hallways and on benches, and random backpacks were piled up in any space deemed not suitable for sleeping (which wasn’t many!). We did okay here, but it won’t be my choice next time!
Cost: 366 ILS ($119.50 CAD)/ night for a quad room with shared bathroom.
Where We Ate
Bethlehem – Casa Nova Pilgrim House
Located in square in front of the Church of the Nativity, this tourist restaurant has a lot of shade and clean bathrooms. The food was good, albeit a bit expensive, but I guess that’s what you get in a peak tourist location. There was some fighting across the Gaza Strip border the day we visited (the first day of Passover) so many of the restaurants and shops in Bethlehem were closed. We heard that this was in protest, or because they were forced to close. I still am not sure which one it actually was!
Cost: 156ILS ($50.86 CAD) for lunch for 4 (including a coffee for mom)
After one of the most incredible Shakshuka in Abu Dhabi, I was determined to find some in Jerusalem. Of course, being Friday, there wasn’t a whole lot open. We managed to find some reasonable Shakshuka at Abu Kamel in the Mulsim district.
Cost: 80 ILS ($26.08 CAD) for 3 meals split between the 4 of us.
This was the restaurant we ended our tour at, and the food was great. It was very reasonably priced (they barely charged us for the kids), and we had piles of falafel, pita and salads (dips).
Randy was on a mission to find a proper shawarma, and this restaurant came up high on our Trip Advisor search. The shawarma was good, but it wasn’t true, shaved off a spit shawarma, so it ended up being a bit of a disappointment. We really didn’t find any great shawarma while we were in Jerusalem…a good reason to return!
Cost: 162 ILS ($52.81 CAD) for enough food for 3 adults and 4 kids.
On The Street
Some of our favourite meals were pastries and fresh pita from little stalls along the streets in the Old Quarter.
What We Did
Taxi around Bethlehem
The distances between sites in Bethlehem aren’t large, but it’s well worth getting a taxi. There’s usually a number of them waiting just beyond the entrance gates, so it’s easy to negotiate. We chose to walk down the street a little ways and were able to grab a van that fit all of us for a reasonable price.
Cost: 200 ILS ($65.20 CAD) for the day
Guide at Church of Nativity
If you’re on your own a guide likely isn’t necessary, but the speed at which he got us down the stairs and to the star marking Jesus’ birthplace was well worth the money! It was also nice to learn about the church rather than just rushing in to see the place of the nativity and then rushing out again.
Cost: 100 ILS ($32.60 CAD)
Holy City Walking Tour
I love a good walking tour, and with limited time it was our best option to see as much of the city as possible in a reasonably organized manner. Our guide was knowledgeable and visibly loved his job. We saw a lot, and learned a lot, during the 4 hour tour. I highly recommend it, and I’d do it again the next time I visit.
Cost: $100.16 CAD (purchased online)
How We Got Around
The center of Jerusalem is easily walkable, in fact there’s really no other way to get around the Old City. The streets are a cobbled maze, and there are multiple stairs leading through various alleyways. One of the best things to do is to just start walking and get comfortably lost!
We took the local Arab bus from Damascus Gate to the West Bank and back again. It was easy to find the bus station, and the colours and numbers on the buses were well marked so we knew exactly what we were looking for. The buses were clean and felt safe.
Cost: 4.70ILS ($1.54 CAD) per adult, kids were free.
Randy and Ethan took the Egged bus from Jerusalem to Eilat. It was on time, clean, comfortable, and had excellent wifi!! I’d definitely use these to get around Israel in the future if we weren’t renting a car.
Cost: 70 ILS ($22.88 CAD) each
We took a taxi from the Jordan Valley Crossing to Jerusalem for 600ILS ($196.08 CAD). This was the listed price and there was no negotiation. It was a crazy amount of money in my opinion!!
Taxi in Eilat to Wadi Araba border: 50 ILS ($16.34 CAD)
We rented a car from Sixt to get from Jerusalem to Eilat. It was a relatively easy process, and driving in Israel was straightforward and not overly stressful. The roads are in great shape and well signed. If you’re looking for more info though, check out Melissa’s post with everything you need to know about renting a car in Israel.
Cost: $245 CAD (including gas & steep 1-way rental fee)
What Did It Cost?
Jerusalem was one of the most expensive places we visited on our year-long RTW trip.
The average cost was $245 CAD/day.