Our time in Israel was really wonderful, worthwhile, and not at all worrying.
But it can't be denied that Israel is in a particularly rough patch right now, with frequent attacks happening in cities all over the country. We count ourselves as fortunate—being tourists, we were unlikely to be the targets of any attack, and we weren't bound to stay in Israel if things really turned south. While it's a tragic thing, these political, religious, and cultural differences turned violent, we will acknowledge it and move on. It was not something we had to confront firsthand in Israel, and a travel blog isn't going to fix anything in this complicated and tense situation.
The bottom line is this: Israel is an incredible amalgam of very old and very new, unlike any place we've ever been. And it is so worth a visit.
Eating our way through Tel Aviv
We touched down in Tel Aviv, a bit disoriented but thrilled to be starting our time in Israel. Our cab fought its way up the freeway, passing a jungle of shiny new skyscrapers as we neared our Airbnb by the beach.
When we arrived at the apartment, the sun was already on its way down, and we didn't have much of a chance to get a feel for our neighborhood in the light of day. We nervously ventured out to get dinner at a cheap local place that was ranked highly on TripAdvisor.
Once we got in line for our first taste of sabich, a jumble of fried eggplant, eggs, shredded cabbage, hummus, and pickled vegetables of all kinds packed into a pillowy soft pita, our fears seemed completely unfounded. We could easily have been back home in San Francisco, with the helpful people in line explaining the ordering process to us and the gruff but friendly sabich chefs assembling our food at a mile a minute pace. We had planned to retreat back to the apartment with our sabich, but with our newfound confidence in our friendly neighbors we happily scarfed them down at the standing tables nearby, taking in the evening scene.
The next morning, we sat down to big late breakfast of shakshuka and french toast, hoping to tide ourselves over until after our walking tour that afternoon. The shakshuka, a baked egg dish of Tunisian origin and oh-so-delicious, is a staple around Israel, and it also reminded us that we'd only eaten vegetarian for the past day without even trying or feeling at all hungry for meat. While Israel definitely does some fantastic meat dishes (as you'll soon see) we were totally impressed by the range of delicious, satisfying, yet healthy vegetarian options to be had.
We started off our tour of Jaffa, an old Arab city just north of Tel Aviv's center. Jaffa used to have strategic importance as the port for Jerusalem, but as ships grew in size during the industrial era its rocky bay eventually became obsolete. Its beautiful streets still carry an ancient charm, a dramatic shift from the buzzing metropolis just down the coast.
After walking around for a few hours and strolling back to the city center along the beach, we'd worked up a serious appetite for shawarma. We headed straight for Hakosem (or "magician" in English), one of the city's top shawarma spots.
We can't say enough good things about the amazing wraps, which we totally demolished in spite of their gargantuan size. After all, Magician is a pretty bold name choice if you're not serving the best.
Next stop, Nazareth
We picked our rental car up the next morning in the driving rain, eager to get our first look at the Israeli countryside. As we headed north toward the Sea of Galilee, the clouds parted and we could see the beautiful rolling hills around Nazareth, where we'd be making our first stop.
If you remember from the Bible, Nazareth is the town where Jesus and his family spent the first 30ish years of his life before he started preaching. There are a ton of gorgeous churches in town, some built to commemorate real-life locations which were important in Jesus' life, such as Joseph's carpenter shop. Amazingly, a lot of these places have begun archeological excavations underneath their foundation and actually found some of the churches' namesakes below.
We strolled around the Basilica of the Annunciation, a massive cathedral built at the place where Mary received God's plan for her to be the mother of Christ. It was fantastically beautiful, decorated with artwork commissioned from dozens of countries to depict the Annunciation in their own signature style.
And, of course, we ate. We'd read amazing things about a Palestinian restaurant up one of the little alleys in Nazareth, but we were wholly unprepared for the experience of eating at Dewan al-Saraya Old City Abu Ashraf. We snaked our way up through tiny streets, past cagey little kitty cats and souks with smiling ladies taking a break from the heat of the day, to arrive at Abu Ashraf's curio-packed wonder of a restaurant.
After hummus, pita, a simple salad of mint, cucumber, and tomatoes, and some life-changingly good shawarma heavily scented with allspice, we were on to the main event: Qatayef. They're little dumplings filled with unsalted goat cheese or nuts and spices, fried carefully in a special grill with wells reminiscent of a shallow ebelskiver pan, and smothered in geranium syrup. Pure heaven.
Not long after we sat down, we noticed a writeup about our chef in an english-speaking paper affixed proudly to his wall, where he was quoted as saying, "If God is good, he will let me die making Qatayef. That's how much I love this work."
North to Galilee
Full of sights and shawarma, we continued on to Safed, an artist colony and summer getaway close to the Sea of Galilee. We used the town as our base, venturing down to the shore to visit Capernaum, the Mount of Beatitudes, and the site of the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish, all critical places in early Christian tradition.
Whether you're a believer or not, there's something really special and inspiring about visiting a place that carries such importance for millions and millions of people. And on a more secular note, the Sea itself is also amazing in that it is a beautiful, life-sustaining freshwater lake in the middle of the desert.
On our way out of town, we decided we should probably be getting a little workout in along with all that pita, so we climbed the hills above the Sea of Galilee in Arbel National Park. Even on what was a slightly hazy day, the views of the Sea and Golan Heights beyond were incredible.
When we'd finally had enough of this exercise business, we hustled our way back into the car, eager to get started on the journey to Jerusalem.
We're off to visit the Old City, with all its charm and complexity, then heading to the real deserts of Israel.