After flying from Bucharest to Tel Aviv with Aegean Airlines, I arrived in Israel around 2 a.m. The most convenient and affordable way of getting to Jerusalem from the airport was to take a sherut, or shared taxi. I shared a van with nine passengers, and the hour-long ride cost around 16 USD.
I can’t rave enough about my stay at Abraham Hostel. Aside from typical services, like free WiFi, clean water, hot showers, and a 24-hour reception, this hostel offers a free buffet breakfast, plus discounted tours, which sometimes include a free night stay.
They also have hostels in the three major cities of Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Nazareth, and they offer a free shuttle between their hostels, which is super convenient! The hostel is not just for young backpackers either. A large portion of the guests are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, some traveling with small children. This made for a family friendly atmosphere, which I really enjoyed. The cost is about 20 USD for a 12-bunk dorm, which is a pretty good deal, considering Israel is an incredibly expensive country.
The hostel also organized daily events, like an election party, hosted by their staff, who dressed as Clinton, Obama, and even a Russian, playing the part of Trump.Of course, festive jello shots were a given. 😉Now on my first day in Jerusalem, I took a day trip to the city of Bethlehem in Palestine.
A Biblical Walk in Bethlehem
Bus 231 leaves Jerusalem regularly from the bus station by Damascus Gate. The cost is 6 shekel (1.5 USD) and takes 45 minutes.Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory, and although there are no border checks when leaving Israel, there are when re-entering, so bringing your passport is recommended.
I arranged a walking tour in Bethlehem with Abood Tours. The tour is “free,” but the only way he makes any money is from tips. After reading a few reviews, I found the average tip to be around 15 USD, which is a steal, considering the incredibly thorough 3-hour tour given by Abood.We began our tour at Bethlehem University, the first university established in the West Bank.Abood majored in tourism and Palestinian history at this university, so he was the perfect person to take us around the campus. The place was incredibly green and peaceful. The students were socializing in the courtyard and relaxing on the lawn. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and I couldn’t have felt more at ease in this place.From the rooftop of the university building, you also have stunning views over both Israel and Palestine.From there, we walked along the Israeli West Bank barrier, which was constructed by Israeli government to reduce terrorist attacks; however, Palestinians see it as a wall of apartheid. The wall has caused a loss of freedom, an economic downfall, and reduced access to proper medicine and education. For this reason, there have been many demonstrations at the wall, which has left it covered in controversial street art.A lot of the works were done by Banksy, a famous graffiti artist based in England.Near the wall you can see a few refugee camps for Palestinians who fled Jerusalem during the war.I just want to keep reaffirming the fact that I felt so at peace during my time here in Bethlehem. I know a lot of people see news about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this place starts to scare the bejesus out of them. The reality though, is that day-to-day life here appears quite normal. The streets are clean and calm. People were enjoying themselves in the cafes, and shopping in the markets. Everyone was greeting me with a smile, and saying, “Welcome.” Abood also kept shaking hands with so many people in town. He seemed to be well-liked, and had good connections with the locals.
After looking at a more modern-day Bethlehem, we started to head towards a few historic biblical sites.
Church of the Nativity
Inside this church is the birthplace of Jesus Christ, including the Grotto of Nativity, which is the actual spot where Christ was born.It is marked by a silver star, which some visitors place their hands on for luck.The original church floor is made of mosaic tile, but is now protected by these wooden floorboards.
St. Catherine’s Church
Catherine of Alexandria was a Christian saint and virgin, who was killed by a pagan emperor during the 4th century. This church is the place where Jesus came to her in a dream, to tell her that she would die a martyr.This church also has a chapel, which pays tribute to the biblical event known as, “The Massacre of the Innocents.” Beneath the church are underground caves, which house the Tomb of St. Jerome, the saint known for translating the old and new testament into Latin.
Olive Wood FactoryOlive trees grow readily in this region, and some trees can last for thousands of years. These same trees may have been around during the time of Christ, so they are biblically significant as well. When the trees die, the wood is carved into beautiful handicrafts, like this manger scene.From the rooftop of the factory, we had great views of Manger Square, which overlooks the Nativity Church, the Mosque of Omar, and a bustling hub of shops and restaurants.After three hours of walking, Abood treated me to my first falafel, which is mashed chickpeas that have been seasoned, breaded, and deep-fried.I know that it when sightseeing in such a historic city, it would be absolutely impossible for me to see everything in one day. I did feel though that the tour gave me a great taste of the city of Bethlehem, and I felt in good hands with Abood. 😀