Jerusalem fits a microcosm of the whole world into less than 50 square miles. Black-hatted Jews in long trench coats walk the streets of religious neighborhoods in hot desert weather; Israeli Arabs reverently approach the Dome of the Rock to offer prayers; devout Christians make pilgrimages to the places Jesus once inhabited; and immigrants from America, Ethiopia and the former Soviet republics form their own enclaves throughout the city's seven hills. Remnants of disparate historical eras are piled, one on top of the other, in an archaeologist's dream world -- ancient sites meet Roman ruins alongside reminders of modern Israel's tumultuous past. And, in the midst of these holy and historic areas, Israelis go to work, shop, eat out and hang out like citizens of any other city.
Most cruise travelers come to Jerusalem to see the religious sites of the Old City. Hectic, don't-waste-a-minute tours rush visitors to the Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and then on to Bethlehem or one of Israel's famous museums (the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial or Israel Museum, home to the Dead Sea Scrolls). And, of course, a stop at a market or souvenir shop is a must. Unless you book an overnight tour with a private guide (many ships call in Haifa the day before or after, allowing for overnight stays in Israel) and plan your own itinerary, you will likely feel overwhelmed -- it's simply impossible to see everything at a leisurely pace in one day.
Part of the problem is that Jerusalem is located inland, so cruise ships must call at the Port of Ashdod, more than an hour's drive from the city -- and that's without the inevitable traffic delays.
Despite the hassle, it's well worth the long day to see the holy places of three important religions, including the remains of the Jewish Second Temple, the site of Jesus' crucifixion and the spot where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Repeat visitors can opt for a more leisurely day, enjoying the shops and cafe culture at the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall, haggling in the souk or shuk or visiting a number of first-rate museums. From Ashdod, alternate destinations include the beachside playground and cultural capital that is Tel Aviv, the dramatic yet melancholy ruins at Masada and the resorts by the Dead Sea.
One final note -- even as cruise travelers eagerly book Eastern Mediterranean cruises to see the Holy Land, many continue to be concerned about safety. Yes, terrorist attacks and other violence occur in Israel but, because of this, security measures are extensive and effective. Armed guards are plentiful, your bags will be searched and you may be diverted from areas where tensions are high. Don't let fear prevent you from enjoying this incredible city, which truly can offer something for everyone. Just get a good night's sleep, put on your most comfortable walking shoes, charge the camera batteries and be prepared to be wowed by a city that has rightly claimed more than its fair share of space in the history books.
The main terminal offers a cafeteria, a currency exchange counter and two duty-free shops, but depending on where your ship docks, it might be difficult to get to the terminal building. The port is also far from the city of Ashdod. To get into town, take the shuttle to the main gate and a cab to Ashdod. The city is not a big tourist destination, but it does have several shopping centers as well as a nice marina and waterfront promenade for a stroll or dining with a view.
Old City: If you've never been to Jerusalem, you must visit this home to ancient holy sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The walled city is entered through various gates and is split into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Arab and Armenian. If you're not on a tour, prepare to get lost in the warren of stone streets -- the city is confusing, even with a map. Free guided tours are available from the Jaffa Gate. (For more information on these tours, visit www.newjerusalemtours.com.) If you're approached by someone wishing to serve as your guide, a firm "no, thank you" will suffice; if you do accept the offer, a tip will most likely be expected at the end of the tour.
The holiest sites include the Western Wall (also called the Kotel or Wailing Wall), which is the only remaining structure left from the Jewish Second Temple; the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, once the location of the Temple's Holy of Holies and believed by Muslims to be the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven; the Via Dolorosa, a street thought by many Christians to be the site of the Stations of the Cross; and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the sites where the cross was erected and where Jesus was buried and resurrected. (Some Christians think the Garden Tomb, located outside the Old City on Conrad Schick Street, is a possible site for the burial and resurrection of Jesus; the site is open for tours and worship services.) Note that tourists who are not Muslims cannot enter the Dome of the Rock and -- though rules tend to vary -- often cannot access the Temple Mount at all.
If you can, get tickets ahead of time (or ask your guide to do it) for the Western Wall Tunnels, which take you under the Muslim Quarter between the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. The Jewish Quarter houses the Cardo, the remains of a Roman thoroughfare, and the twin archeological museums of the Wohl Archaeological Museum and Burnt House, as well as kosher restaurants and Judaica shops. If you enjoy shopping and haggling over prices, the Christian Quarter is where you'll find markets that sell everything from religious items and souvenirs to food, T-shirts and rugs. At the Jaffa Gate, between the Christian and Armenian Quarters, the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem explores 4,000 years of Jerusalem's history. Just outside the Old City is Dormition Abbey occupying the sites where tradition says that Mary spent her last night and Jesus held the Last Supper.
Mount of Olives: Across from and above the Old City, this is also a religiously important site, mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. It's currently home to several churches. Jesus often gave teachings there, and Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, God will raise the dead from the hillside. (Hence, a very prominent Jewish cemetery is located on the slopes.) The Mount of Olives is also the site of the Garden of Gethsemane (where Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion), Church of Maria Magdalene and Dominus Flevit Church. At the base of the Mount of Olives, the Kidron Valley houses a series of tombs carved out of the hillside. A peaceful atmosphere surrounds the tombs of Zechariah, the Hezir sons and Absalom, among others. If you're not visiting as part of a tour, travel here and back to the Old City by cab.
Yad Vashem: This is Jerusalem's Holocaust memorial and museum. The sprawling complex on Har Hazikaron includes a history museum and art museum, as well as memorial and commemorative sites, such as the Children's Memorial and the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, which honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. If you're not on a tour or in a cab, take a public bus or light rail train to the Mount Herzl bus stop, where free shuttles will take you into the Yad Vashem campus. (Har Hazikaron, Jerusalem; 972-2-6443802; Sunday through Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed on Saturdays and all Jewish holidays.)
Israel Museum: Art and archaeology of the Holy Land are the hallmarks of the country's largest cultural institution. There, the Shrine of the Book contains the Dead Sea Scrolls -- the oldest biblical manuscripts ever found (2nd century B.C. to 1st century A.D.) -- as well as medieval manuscripts. The 20-acre campus also houses a Second Temple-era model of Jerusalem, an art and sculpture garden and a substantial amount of contemporary art, including pieces on hot political topics. (1 Ruppin Boulevard, Jerusalem; 972-2-6708811; Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Tuesday, 4 to 9 p.m.; Friday and holiday eves, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Saturday and holidays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall: Not far from the Old City is downtown's lively shopping and cafe culture. The midrachov (pedestrian mall) is formed by the triangular intersection of Ben Yehuda Street, King George Street and Jaffa Road. Cafes, touristy shops and fast food joints (everything from American chains to falafel sellers) attract locals and visitors alike. Have a wander, or enjoy the buskers. Don't worry -- everyone speaks English there, even though the street is named after the man who revived Hebrew as a spoken language.
Mahane Yehuda Marketplace: Affectionately known as "the Souk," this is one of the largest and busiest open-air markets in Israel. Vendors sell all kinds of foods, and the market is a melting pot of shoppers, representing a host of nationalities, religions and demographics. Come here to immerse yourself in the sights and smells, or grab a quick lunch of falafel with some rugelach (rolled-up cookies, typical of Eastern European Jews) for dessert. (120 Yaffo Street; Daily, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; on Friday, closes one hour before the start of the Sabbath)
Bethlehem: Christian tourists flock to this sizeable Palestinian city, which is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, as well as King David. Located in the central Manger Square and sharing space with a mosque is the Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest Christian churches built around the Grotto of the Nativity, the site of Jesus' birth. Other pilgrimage sites include the Milk Grotto, where the Holy Family sought refuge during the Slaughter of the Innocents, and a cave where St. Jerome translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin. Note that Bethlehem is part of the West Bank Palestinian Territories, and you must cross a checkpoint to go from Jerusalem to the West Bank where cabs are available for the short ride to Bethlehem. Take your passport. Note that Israeli buses and taxis cannot pass through the checkpoint; you'll need to get out and pick up Palestinian transportation on the other side.
Tel Aviv: Located on the Mediterranean, about 20 miles north of Ashdod, this beach city is Israel's cultural center, full of galleries and art museums, distinct Bauhaus architecture and buzzing nightclubs. Come for a day at the beach, or stroll among the waterfront restaurants and shops at the revitalized Tel Aviv Port. You won't find any ancient history here -- for that, you'll need to go to Old Jaffa, once a separate city and now part of Tel Aviv. In its maze of winding streets, you'll find the 1906 Clock Tower and the popular Flea Market.
Masada and the Dead Sea: Although it's a long day-trip, a visit here is worth the time for repeat cruisers. At Masada, visit the fortress built by Herod in the first century B.C. During the Jewish revolt against the Romans in first century A.D., Jewish rebels and zealots took over the fortress and held out against the Romans for three years before committing suicide, rather than being captured. A cable car takes you to the top. (There are also stairs, but the ascent is not recommended for visitors arriving midday when the desert sun is quite hot.) The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth at 1,276 feet below sea level. The seawater is so salty that bathers can't help but float easily, and the mud near the sea has an array of therapeutic benefits. Part of the fun is slathering your travel companions with mud before taking a dip in the Dead Sea. Don't miss the nearby oasis of Ein Gedi with its nature reserves, botanical gardens and health spas.
Biblical Zoo: A good choice for families with young children, the 62-acre zoo is home to a wide range of animals with a special focus on creatures indigenous to Israel and species named in the Bible. Kids can pet animals in the Children's Zoo, climb on fantastical creations in the Noah's Ark Sculpture Garden and watch nature come to life in the 3D Theater. A zoo train ride circles the park. (Derech Aharon Shulov 1, Jerusalem; 972-2-6750111; Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday and holiday eves, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and Saturday and holidays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
By Ship Tour: The majority of cruise travelers take shore excursions or private tours that provide transportation from Ashdod to Jerusalem. We definitely recommend some type of guided tour because the Ashdod Port is far from most attractions (more than an hour's drive to Jerusalem), and the port itself is tricky to navigate and is not within walking distance of the city of Ashdod. It's not worth the increased transportation time and hassle to tour independently if you've never been to Israel before. Plus, a guide is invaluable for giving insight into the historic and religious importance of the sites you will be seeing in Jerusalem.
By Taxi: If you're set on touring on your own, take the ship's shuttle to the main port gate, where you can catch a cab directly to Jerusalem. As always, negotiate the price in advance and check whether payment is only in shekels or if dollars are accepted.
Israeli cuisine is a hodgepodge of many cultures, incorporating Arab, Eastern European, Yemenite, North African, Balkan and Iraqi dishes. Salads, including the aptly named Israeli Salad -- a dish of diced cucumbers and tomatoes -- are popular. You can't go wrong with falafel (chickpea fritters), hummus (chickpea paste) or shwarma (shaved-meat sandwiches). Plenty of cheap and quick falafel places can be found in the Ben Yehuda area -- Melech Hafalafel, Moshiko Falafel and Pinati get rave reviews -- or around Mahane Yehuda.
Kosher restaurants are prevalent in Jerusalem, and these establishments adhere to Jewish dietary laws. Kosher eateries are designated either as meat restaurants (where no dairy products are served) or dairy restaurants (where no meat is served, though fish is acceptable). Wherever you go, look for signs advertising "business lunches" -- they're a great deal because you get dinner-sized portions at lunchtime prices.
Machneyuda: This place combines the talents of a trio of Israel's top chefs to create a menu of modern fusion dishes that have been pleasing crowds since its opening in 2009. Located in the bustling marketplace after which it's named, the two-story restaurant serves seasonal dishes often with a Mediterranean accent. Try the signature humus and chopped meat, silky polenta and robust osso bucco or opt for the tasting menu. Restaurant can be loud and crowded. Reservations are a must. (10 Beit Yaakov Street; 972-2-5333442; Sunday through Thursday, 12:30 to 4 p.m. and 6:30 to last customer; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 90 minutes before Shabbat; and Saturday, 90 minutes after Shabbat to last customer)
Caffit: Mingle with Jerusalem's Who's Who in the yuppified German Colony neighborhood. The kosher dairy cuisine tends toward the Italian, but you'll also find Continental and local dishes and flavors. Get your fill of greens, eating enormous salads in the restaurant's garden terrace. Or try soup in a bread bowl, pasta, crepes, vegetable pies or the Jewish staple of bagels topped with lox. (A branch restaurant in the Jerusalem Botanical Garden serves the same menu.) Aid your digestion with a walk around the tree-lined neighborhood, filled with beautiful homes, boutiques and fabulous people-watching opportunities. (35 Emek Refaim Street; 972-2-5635284; Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.; and Friday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
Tmol Shilshom: Set in an alley near Ben Yehuda, this hangout for artists and the literary set is perfect for those looking for delectable kosher dairy cuisine at this bookstore cafe. Appropriately, it's named after the novel by Israeli Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon. Order up a salad, savory filo pastry, fish dish, cheesecake or a hot drink (like sachlav, a sweet Middle Eastern drink made with warm milk and orchids), and settle down with a book or two to peruse. The cafe hosts readings, discussions and musical events. (5 Yoel Moshe Salomon Street; 972-2-6232758; Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.; and Friday, 9 a.m. to start of Shabbat)El Gaucho: Meat-lovers can get a taste of Argentina in a kosher setting at this steakhouse. Dig into your choice of grilled meats (veal, chicken or several types of steak), skewers or burgers -- sorry, no cheese here. For lunch, go big with a three-course meal (appetizer, salad and main), or get a sandwich or schnitzel with fries. (22 Rivlin Street; 1-800-422-000; Sunday through Thursday, noon to midnight; and Friday, 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.)
Cruise ships dock at the Ashdod Port, Israel's busiest cargo port. While weekly cruises depart regularly from the port dock by the main cruise terminal, most visiting cruise ships dock in the middle of the industrial port, far from anything. Most lines will run shuttles to the main port gate or downtown Ashdod, since pedestrian traffic inside the port is prohibited.
Many first-time visitors to Israel are concerned about safety issues, due to terrorist attacks that have taken place in Jerusalem and throughout the country. However, it's actually quite safe to travel in Jerusalem. The crime rate is low, though it's always smart to take precautions, such as keeping your valuables close in crowded areas and not walking through deserted areas alone at night. Security is quite tight, and security guards are often stationed outside restaurants and stores, and they patrol buses and public transportation terminals. Don't be surprised by the number of guns you will see while walking through the city's streets. Metal detectors are quite prevalent, and men may be patted down and asked if they're carrying a weapon. Emotions can run high in the Old City, if someone wants to engage you in a conversation on politics, it's best to say nothing and politely walk away. Consult the U.S. State Department's website (travel.state.gov) for up-to-date information on safe travel in Jerusalem and all of Israel.
Many businesses in Israel close for the Jewish Sabbath, observed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. If you're in town on a Friday, get to must-see sites early since many places begin to shut down as early as 2 p.m.
The currency is the New Israeli Shekel (NIS) or shekels. (See www.xe.com for current exchange rates.) Most ships will not change euros or dollars into shekels, but credit and debit cards are widely accepted. In Jerusalem, ATMs can be found at Zion Square and the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall; not all ATMs accept foreign cards, so look for machines marked with signs for Cirrus, Plus or other international brands. ATMs are difficult to find in the Old City; if you need cash, go to currency exchange offices near the Damascus and Jaffa Gates. The port's main terminal also has a currency exchange office.
Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel, but English is widely spoken -- especially in tourist areas. Signs are printed in Hebrew and English, if not in all three languages. English-language menus are often available. It's polite to learn a few words of Hebrew, if only for greeting people (shalom) and saying thank you (todah).
Judaica, from chintzy souvenirs to fine art, can be found in the Jewish Quarter and the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall. You'll find everything from Hanukkah menorahs (nine-branched candelabras) and seder plates for Passover to educational children's toys, jewelry, kipot (skull caps) and Jewish-themed art. Colorful Jerusalem candles, skin products (featuring mud from the Dead Sea) and colorful Armenian tiles and ceramics make great keepsakes for the non-religious folks on your gift list. In Bethlehem, look for olive wood carvings and mother-of-pearl handicrafts, many with Christian religious designs.