11 of the coolest things about Israel


Before traveling to Israel, the only thing I knew was that I really enjoyed the company of the Israeli people I had encountered on my travels. Going by this, I assumed that Israel would make a great place to visit. Before even boarding the plane, an Israeli lady had started a conversation with me and welcomed me to visit her pizza joint on Ben Yehuda street (one of the main roads in Tel Aviv). Landing at midnight might seem a scary time to arrive in a dark and foreign land, but I instantly felt at ease. Not because of the army guy standing next to me, whose huge rifle nearly hit me in the face as he swung round, but because of the relaxed vibe, the abundance of hipsters on customized cycles and scooters hopping from bar to bar and the still busy restaurants with flocks of local night-owls eating al-fresco and chatting enthusiastically. There are many ways in which Israel both lived up to my expectations and exceeded them:

Tel Aviv Beach

When I visited in November, the weather was perfectly sunny without burning my skin, the beach was relatively tourist-free, no endless rows of sun loungers and no salesmen shouting for you to buy something. In fact, at the first jewellery stall I came across, the vendor gave me a free gift (a small, square, silver charm, which I’ve been wearing for luck ever since). The water is calm, clear and shallow. After a 5 minute swim out into the Mediterranean sea, my feet still touched the ground. But the best thing about this west-facing beach, is that the water is warm enough in the evening that you can bathe in the glorious, golden sunset with its dreamy pink hues shimmering gently on the surface of the water.

Old Jaffa (or Yafo)

This is the oldest part of Tel Aviv, much of which has been renovated and spruced up with lots of delightful attractions. Strolling around the cobbled streets, I noticed iridescent clouds in the sky, which I’ve never seen before. Apparently they are quite a common sight, but I felt it to be as magical as a rainbow. I was surprised to see such a strong interest in Astrology here. The wooden ‘wishing bridge’ has 12 shiny bronze plaques depicting each star sign. It is said that if you hold the plaque and look out to sea whilst making a wish, that wish will come true. Did I try it? Yes. Did my wish come true? Yes! Not far from the bridge is an Astrology-inspired fountain, which depicts the signs of the zodiac as large stone characters humorously spouting water.

Markets

Old Jaffa has an eclectic mix of goods on sale, from rare antique treasures at the flea market to boutique designer craft shops flaunting silk batik and quirky creations. Thankfully, bartering is still acceptable and I had fun bagging myself a bargain. In the industrial part of Tel Aviv, there is a wonderful art market (Nachlat Binyamin) where you can find pottery, glass blowing demonstrations, paintings and jewellery being made right in front of you by some slightly eccentric artists. I purchased a small but exquisitely made mini-kaleidoscope key-ring, so I could carry a piece of art around in my pocket. At the very end of the market a portly lady serenaded a crowd of locals with traditional Hebrew songs which they all seemed to know the words to and sang along enthusiastically, if not entirely in tune.

Food

For vegetarians, the options are plenty and the weather is just so favourable for eating outside! The easy option for re-fuelling is to grab some traditional Felafel and Hummus, but there is a popular dish here, which is just perfect for brunch, called Shakshuka. This plate of poached eggs sitting in a bubbling hot tomato and capsicum sauce, originated in North Africa, and is spiced with cumin and cayenne pepper, the sauce is perfect for pitta dipping. For those with a sweet tooth, try some crumbly squares of Halva, which is generally made with sesame paste (tahini) but sometimes from Semolina or nut butters. The sheer variety of flavours available at the market is daunting, but it’s a good excuse to try a few samples. As with many hot countries, there are cool ice-cream parlours on every street, most of which have a very fine selection of healthy frozen fruit lollies (not the sickly sweet type, but actual real blocks of blended frozen fruit), which are absolutely delicious alternatives to ice-cream.

Musicians

Israel is teaming with musicians and its possible to encounter every type of live performance at the varied drinking establishments around the city, from wild, leather-clad, death-metal bands to Bob Dylan cover bands. One night we listening to live electronic synths with haunting vocals sung by a young waif-like girl and her harp, while the next morning I was being hypnotized by an acoustic busking duo playing hang drum and violin (known as Rankin Abergel) at the market. The following night, at a Spanish themed event, I was entranced by the deep gravelly voice of a Spanish Flamenco guitarist, while his beautiful partner stomped her tiny feet and flapped her dress in passionate sweeps to his strumming songs.

Purim Celebration

The biggest street party of the year comes in the form of Purim, which is a national holiday in March celebrating the deliverance of the Jews to salvation. It’s the best time to get dressed up and go drinking and dancing and see the locals at their most creative. Israelis go to town with their fancy dress costumes, which in 2017 included locals dressed as fruit bowls, flower pots, famous monuments, Adam & Eve, and even Jesus himself. One celebration you may want to avoid (unless you are celebrating with locals), is Yom Kippur, as every single business closes for the 25 hour fast and the whole city grinds to a halt. This happens right at the end of September.

Sarona Market

We came to this glorious, gourmet food court for dinner one evening, it took quite a while to decide which of the culinary delights to choose from. The array of sizzling stalls provided such a feast for the eyes as well as the belly, even Ottolenghi himself would be impressed! In the square directly outside, we found a massive sound-system, blaring the sounds of Salsa and Kizomba, while a dance instructor led the way at the front, encouraging the crowd with some easy to follow moves. This weekly event goes on for hours and is a complete free for all, where every generation can be seen shaking their stuff. Not only is this fun, but it’s free and you can rock up without booking.

Dancing Jews

Walking in Jerusalem one evening, we came across a large group of about 30 Jewish men of all ages dancing on the pedestrianized streets to the bolshy sounds of Hasidic Techno music, creating an atmosphere of celebration and infecting passers-by with a dose of joy. Apparently, this dancing takes place on most Saturday evenings, to welcome the Shabbat (or Sabbath) day of rest.

Street art

As with any cool place, artists rule. One artist in particular, Mr. Soloman Souza, has single-handedly turned the whole of Mahane Yehuda Market in the heart of Jerusalem into his personal gallery of portraits. He is a London-based artist, but has Israeli roots. By day the market hosts food tours and cooking workshops, but by night, the shutters come down to reveal hundreds of works of art, featuring famous and historical faces, including the likes of Amy Winehouse and Einstein. I caught Soloman spraying a fresh portrait of the late Leonard Cohen just after his death last year. It’s worth noting that this market also becomes a great place to drink at night, with hip bars and restaurants staying open late on a Thursday.

The Dead Sea

This is by far one of the strangest sensations I have experienced in my life. We hired a car and drove to the lowest point on earth. Here, the Dead Sea (which is actually a lake) holds so much salt that one can float freely without any effort whatsoever. The shoreline was eerily abandoned, not a hotel or restaurant in sight. We parked up at a place called Kedem (at least that’s what the map said) and walked down to the coast where we found a couple of hot springs flowing into the sea. On entering the thick, viscous, water, my feet hit a sludge of soft mud, and I slowly slid in… The water was warm and oily, but pleasantly weird. I gathered the soft mud from the floor and spread it across my skin, creating a mud-pack. Little did I know that we would struggle to find a shower, but as luck has it a small camping ground was being constructed closeby and we managed to rinse away the salt, leaving a smooth silky refreshed layer of skin.

Jerusalem

The Jewish sense of humour was nowhere more evident to me than in Jerusalem. The market stalls are full of t-shirts and kippahs (Jewish caps) printed with joke slogans such as “Jesus Saves, but Jews Invest Wisely!”, “Talk to the Hamsa” and “Don’t Worry, Be Jewish”. Not only this, but within the cramped space of the old city walls, can be found deeply religious Jews, Muslims and Christians living peacefully side by side. At our hotel, I unwittingly received a blessing from a Chinese Christian woman, who spontaneously recited a long speech in Mandarin, holding her Bible in one hand while the other hand gently gripped my shoulder. A tear genuinely dropped from her eye as she performed the blessing. Jerusalem is a truly an eye opening experience!



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An insider’s guide to the Dead Sea



 



You’ll find the Dead Sea running in-between Israel and Jordan at the lowest point on earth. It is a hypersaline lake, with a salt content of over thirty percent, meaning that no aquatic life can survive in it, hence its name. The Dead Sea has a rich history, so floating in its waters is a great way to connect with the past.

reading paper

When to visit

The Dead Sea is worth visiting regardless of the time of year; however if you are not accustomed to spending time in the heat, then it may be best to visit during Spring or Autumn when it is cooler. You can either visit as part of a tour, or you can explore the area on your own. There are a few different beaches you can visit around the lake, and most of them have parking, changing rooms, showers and sun loungers. The Neve Midbar Beach has an air-conditioned restaurant, which is perfect if you are planning on spending some time here.

Neve Midbar Restaurant

The area is incredibly scenic, and you’ll be able to get some amazing photos here, however, if you are planning on venturing into the Dead Sea, then you’ll have an unforgettable experience. You can cover yourself with the cool mud, and let it harden in the sun before washing it off in the sea. The minerals and healing properties in the mud and the sea are incredibly good for your skin and your general health, and you’ll find yourself feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. There are also plenty of activities you can get involved with, for example, at Kalia Beach you can go horseriding.

dead-sea

How to enjoy your visit safely

There are a few important things to take into consideration before you tick floating in the Dead Sea off your bucket list.

Due to the high salinity of the water, if you get any in your eyes, or in any cuts you have it will sting and be very uncomfortable, so it would be wise to avoid shaving prior to your visit, and if you do have any wounds, ensure they are well covered. You could also wear goggles to protect your eyes. It is also advisable to wear water shoes to avoid stepping on any salt crystals or slipping on wet stones and injuring yourself. You may also want to take into consideration that the salt water and mud could damage your jewellery, and could also fade and stain your swimwear, so don’t wear your favourite swimming costume or trunks!

Mud

Alternative ways to enjoy the Dead Sea

If you are thinking that this sounds a little less glamorous than you would prefer, then you could spend the day at one of the resorts on the Dead Sea and have the best of both worlds. Some of the surrounding hotels have indoor salt water pools, where you can enjoy the same experience as being in the Dead Sea, you can also indulge yourself in a Dead Sea mud treatment in the hotel spa. Some of the hotels have access to private sections of the beach, meaning that you can enjoy the waters, but then quickly return to your room to wash instead of using communal showers. The Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea is particularly luxurious if you really want to treat yourself.

Pool

Floating in the Dead Sea is a truly unique and special experience, and could end up being the highlight of your vacation. If you are intrigued by this, and think you might like to visit, then follow the tips in this guide to ensure you make the most from your time here.

Christos Hajipapas is Head of Business Development & Strategy at Cyplon Holidays.

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