Jerusalem – A Very Old City with Very Modern Ideas

Jerusalem’s mayor Nir Barkat, now in his second term, has made enhancing Jerusalem’s status as a tourism friendly destination one of his primary objectives. His efforts can be felt throughout the city, with the light rail and regeneration of Jaffa St; the First Station project; and events such as the recent Formula 1 “Peace race”, as well as the Jerusalem marathon that has become an annual fixture in March.

You might wonder why such investment of time and money is needed in the first place – after all, with such history and recognition how could Jerusalem not be a tourism hub? Indeed massive and growing numbers of visitors do come to the city, but the problem that Jerusalem had was one of length of stay: people see Jerusalem as a place to spend a night or two at most. A typical touring itinerary for our own clients will often have far more days in Tel Aviv than in Jerusalem. Generally, when visitors get to Jerusalem, they want to explore the Old City for an afternoon, visit the Western Wall and perhaps tour ‘Ir David Archeological Dig’ or take a Tunnel Tour under the Western Wall. Then, after a night’s sleep they will normally visit Yad Vashem holocaust education center, and the ‘Shuk’ – they might perhaps add the Israel museum, but that’s generally it. What Mayor Barkat has set out to do is give visitors many more reasons to stay longer or even make Jerusalem their primary base in Israel, rather than the coast, and in that aim, he is definitely succeeding!

There has been particular focus on the area south of King David Street with the growth of Emek Refaim Street (German Colony) as a hub for restaurants and cafes. Next to ‘Emek’ is the Old Train Station, closed and boarded up for many years. This has recently undergone a remarkable transformation in order to reopen as a pedestrian tourism area, with the platform and station house converted into cafes and a small indoor market of gourmet foods and delicacies. Where ?????????????????????????????????????????the rails still sit, wooden decking has created a large area for daily craft fairs, farmers markets etc. In the evening there’s a range of entertainments that changes each night. The old track that winds South through Talpiot has been turned into a few miles of landscaped cycle / jogging track and cleverly, bikes can be rented at the station. The Train Station is one of the few places fully open on Shabbat, providing a bustling vibrant hang out for non-religious and non-Jewish residents and tourists.

The Isrotel chain is building a new Jerusalem hotel right next to where Emek and the Old Station meet and it really is the perfect spot to be based in Jerusalem: You are at the start of a long street of eateries, next to a wonderful new pedestrian area, easy walking distance to the old City and well served by public transport to the city center, museum area and Machane Yehuda Market.

Other recent developments has been the opening of a massive new cinema multiplex, the newly announced expansion of the lite rail system, and a variety of festivals, conventions and conferences that expand the tourist year far beyond the old June – September season.  There are new 4 and 5 star hotel’s opening (including the much anticipated Waldorf Astoria which opens June 2014), a range of superb museums, the fantastic Jerusalem zoo, nightly light shows at the David’s Tower, Mamilla Mall and much more. Jerusalem really has a lot to offer today’s tourist and for both families and groups, there’s some very good reasons to add more time in Jerusalem into the itinerary.

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Our “Shuk” Experience in Jerusalem…

SA-28-130 Day 5- Photo by, © Perry Bindelglass 36

His Majesty, The King of Halva !

The first time we went to Machane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s bustling traditional market, was on our family trip to Israel several years ago. Getting there was a bit of a nightmare back then, even though our hotel was almost within walking distance. As the kids were young we decided to take the bus, which we thought would give a more authentic experience than a cab, and perhaps in a way it did. Nobody thought it worthy to mention to us that the lite railway project (which had apparently been going on since King Solomon’s day) turned what should have been short bus rides into epic journeys. When we eventually got off the bus, older, but not really much wiser, the market was indeed “as advertised” – a  colorful bustling traditional “shuk” with rows of vegetables, interspaced with occasional meat, fish, clothing and hardware stalls. Spices piled high in hessian bags delighted my kids who sniffed and sneezed over everything. A gentleman in a cardboard crown informed us he was the King of Halva as he gave us a taste of his wonderful product, which did confirm his royal status, in our minds at least. Jerusalemites shop at the shuk and it’s a great place to get a feel for the ethnic & cultural diversity of this ancient/modern city – old ladies pushed past us with their shopping bags on wheels which doubled as battering rams; Ultra-Orthodox men (trying hard not to notice my wife) mingled with  Israeli Arabs, school kids & young soldiers taking a short cut through the shuk – Machane Yehuda is a microcosm of Israeli society and like Israel in general, it’s a crazy wonderful place!

My 9 year old son loved the shouting store holders who yelled prices at each other – apparently there was a strawberry price war the day we went  – They’d yell “Chamaish Shekel” (5 shekels) and he’d yell back “One Dollar” in as loud a voice as his squeaky soprano vocal chords could muster – I think the merchants were generally impressed by his squeals and he gathered quite a few samples to taste. Sadly at that time nothing went in his mouth that wasn’t on his very short approved list! We found that if we lingered to peer at a dried fruit display or rack of alien looking fruits, the vendor seemed to accept this as a firm guarantee of a sale. Eventually we exited the shuk with the addition of a bag of dried figs, a huge container of mixed candy, and a metal “Chamsa” key chain a merchant assured us would bring machane-yehudaluck. As this was lost somewhere in our hotel within a day, I’m not sure it lived up to the hype!

When we returned to Israel last summer, we knew we also had to return to Machane Yehuda – if only because my son’s voice has long since deepened into a satisfying bass and he was itching to yell at the merchants again. Things have certainly changed: for one thing the lite rail is finally finished thanks apparently to a new mayor since our last visit. We hopped on this efficient, clean transport system, which whipped us through the newly pedestrianized & revitalized Jerusalem center and onto the Shuk in minutes.

As we’d already sampled Machane Yehuda’s atmosphere on our original visit, we’d aimed for a deeper experience this time and we’d spoken to our tour company (Ultimate Israel) in advance about a personal tour of Machane Yehuda. It turned out to be a great idea, and one we’d recommend to all shuk tourists! Our guide seemed to be closely related to most of the stall holders, who greeted him with yelling and puffs of cigarette smoke which we took to be a bonding custom similar to Native American peace pipes. It did seem harder after being introduced by our guide  to refuse the many offers of fruit and vegetables, and we quickly learned that “no” means “probably yes” unless you are really firm. That said we still ended our shuk experience heavily laden with fruits and spices we had absolutely no need for, not to mention a new “Chamsa” key ring the hawker assured us would bring “parnasa” (livelihood), but as the shuk visit left us considerably poorer in money (although richer in produce), I’m not sure that this new charm worked any better than the original.

Having a guide opens up the history of the place and the many cultures that live, work and shop in Machane Yehuda – he took us to  a quiet corner inhabited by elderly Moroccan Jews intently playing backgammon games, which reminded me of the old Chinese men in San Francisco parks playing Chinese checkers. He pointed out unusual wares for sale, and told us which vendors offered the best deals, and even some tips on getting the best for less.

After our tour we went to a covered street in the market that has been gentrified oshuk57ver the last few years, and is today more tiny café’s, street food and Jewelers than vegetables. There you can feast on delicious and inexpensive pasta served in Chinese take away boxes, or perfect Fish & Chips that even an Englishman would respect. We found a Tapas bar, and burger stand as well as mini coffee shops and of course the ubiquitous falafel stands.

Don’t program less than two hours at Machane Yehuda and don’t forget your camera because the place is a photographer’s shmorgas board. I’d also recommend you go there a little hungry, because I can almost guarantee you won’t leave that way. Whatever else you do in Israel, the Shuk is a must.

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Israeli Food – Will It make you Smile or Scream ?

-Shawarma_pita_sandwichDon’t worry…snakes, spiders, cats, dogs and cat excrement coffee are not usually on Israeli menus! Israel is a country made up of diverse communities that arrived here over the past century from western and eastern Europe, Morocco, Yemen, India, Ethiopia, and just about everywhere Jews settled during our 2000 year wandering. Those traditions met local Arab influenced dishes in Israel and the result is diverse, wonderful food – you like it, you can find it! From Sushi to Pasta; Hummus to Pizza, we have it all – As well as familiar Europane / American style dishes, there’s a strong Mediterranean and North African flavor to a lot of Israeli food and you’ll find that reflected everywhere from street food vendors to high price restaurants.

One difference to American eateries you’ll probably notice, is that influenced by Kosher dietary laws, many places serve either meat or milk dishes, so getting pepperoni on your pizza may be a struggle, but that won’t affect the variety and quality of food on offer for Israelonthehouse participants to try: On every high street you’ll find pizza shops, as well as Shawarma (rotisserie roasted meat) and falafel (deep fried chick pea balls), both of which are sold in Pita bread, filled to overflowing with salads of your choice…delicious, filling and inexpensive! Another popular Israeli street food is “shipudim” better known as Kababs and of course burgers and fries are always there for the less adventurous.

Israel is a nation of coffee shops. In the past these were Italian style patisseries, where customers would sit outside with a newspaper, or perhaps a backgammon set (known locally as shesh-besh) while the world walked past. Today these still exist, but most have gone a bit more modern. Although there’s no Starbucks in Israel, there are large local chains everywhere serving latte’s and mocha cappuccino’s with croissants. Breakfast in Israel involves salads, cheeses, yogurts, eggs, bagels, croissants and awesome Israeli bread which for some unknown reason is of an exceptionally high standard!

There’s no doubt that Shabbat and Jewish holidays bring out the best in Israeli home cooking. Every community has its traditional dishes from Polish cholent to Yemenite Chamim – its all good! My advice is don’t be shy – try it all!

So if you’re looking to try snake pie, Israel may disappoint, but for everyone else, even the pickiest of eaters, Israel will offer food you’ll love! B’tayavon (Bon Appetite)

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Coming to Israel can be Good For Your Health! The Growing Medical Tourism Industry

This past September Ha’aretz newspaper reported that the government was looking at funding a major expansion of private facilities in Israel for medical tourism, which could see hospitals reserving up to 15% of their capacity for overseas patients. Already around 30,000 people come to Israel annually for medical treatment.

Israeli medicine is considered to be at a very high level, with its  facilities recognized throughout the world, and regular contacts maintained on a reciprocal basis with major medical and scientific research centers abroad. Patients come to Israel for procedures such as bone marrow transplants, heart surgery and catheterization, oncological and neurological treatments, car accident rehabilitation and more.

Low costs are a factor in the growth of medical tourism to Israel: A patient with no health insurance who needs bypass surgery in the United States would spend approximately $120,000, while the same procedure performed in Israel would cost approximately $30,000. In-vitro fertilization (IVF) in Israel has a reputation for a high success rate and considerably lower costs. IVF costs $3,000-$3,500 in Israel, compared to $16,000-$20,000 in the U.S.

Aside from Israeli hospitals providing surgical procedures, infertility and cancer treatment,  tens of thousands of people flock to the Dead Sea for its world renowned therapeutic treatments for a variety of conditions. The mineral content of the water, the very low level of pollen and other allergens in the atmosphere, the reduced ultraviolet component of solar radiation, and the higher atmospheric pressure at this great depth each have specific health effects. For example, persons suffering reduced respiratory function from diseases such as cystic fibrosis seem to benefit from the increased atmospheric pressure. The growth of this medical tourism industry has created a medical tourism brokers, who  facilitate the process of receiving medical care in Israel by assisting in everything from the purchase of plane tickets to the referral to specialists and the selection of medical procedures. They also organize fun day trips and tours all over Israel. Usually, these brokers earn their pay by receiving a brokerage fee from the doctors and do not charge a fee to the patient.

A person seeking medical treatment abroad needs to go through the process of obtaining medical reports, medical history and diagnosis in order to receive recommendation letters for a medical visa. Certified medical doctors or consultants then advise on the treatment. In Israel, the patient will be assigned a case executive to take care of the patient’s accommodation, treatment and any other form of care.

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A Fine Taste of Israel – Israel’s Wineries

Israeli Wine FestivalThis may seem like an odd subject for only the second blog in this series about group travel to Israel: I could indeed have written about flights, accommodation, and other practical matters and don’t worry – this blog will cover these and much more, but as I said in the first blog, Israel is a passion for all of us at Ultimate Israel, and I want this blog to share not only practical advice, but also ideas  of places in this wonderful country we believe you’ll want to make part of your itinerary, and at least one winery should be high on your list!

Wine was always part of life in ancient Israel, mentioned many times in the bible. Indeed wine is part of Judaism itself: it is used to begin and end Shabbat (Sabbath) and is an integral part of the Passover meal and Purim celebrations. There is a widely held belief that the Crusaders brought Chardonnay grapes back to France from the Holy Land (Chardonnay possibly derived from the Hebrew Shah Ad-onay, or gates of G-d) .

In modern times, the wine industry was started in the late 1800s by Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, owner of the Bordeaux estate Château Lafite-Rothschild. Today, Israeli wine-making takes place in several areas of Israel, where the cool, semi arid conditions in winter are ideal for growing grapes. The range of wines produced in Israel increases annually  and the quality is unarguable, as more and more Israeli wines win international awards.

Israel’s excellent wineries include larger businesses such as Golan, Tishbi, Barkan, Yarden, and Binyamina, as well as dozens of smaller boutique wineries. Most are Kosher although some, particularly those run by monasteries in the Judean hills, may not be.  Many of the wineries have visitor centers and offer site tours and tastings, some of them take this to  a very high level. Tishbi for example, which is a few minutes drive from the Roman city of Caesaria and the modern Israeli town of Zichron Yaakov, has a restaurant with an open-plan bakery producing sour dough breads where I’ve enjoyed several fine lunches. It offers comprehensive and enjoyable tours which end in wine tasting sessions (spitting optional!).

Whichever winery you visit, you’ll need to book your tour in advance and  confirm they have an English speaking guide availble at the times you wish to visit. (Of course, if you are working with group tour professionals, such as Ultimate Israel, they’ll take care of this for you.).

It is not rare for groups to spend a day or more touring just Israels wineries, and this can really be an interesting experience. Even if your group decides one winery is enough for them, this should definitely be on your itinerary. The range of options of wineries, from small to large;with or without restaurants and geographically locations ranging from near Jerusalem,  in the Negev, in the Galil or in the Golan, means that this should be something you can easily slot into your schedule.

Bear in mind that if you are working with an expert firm such as Ultimate Israel, they will probably have an ongoing relationship with certain wineries, and this should mean you can get deals on tours and discounts on wines.

For more information on Israel’s wineries there’s some excellent blogs such as and of course you can ask us any questions on this or other topics related to group travel in Israel .

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Lets get Started! First Steps to Planning a Group Trip to Israel

A recent Ultimate Israel Client on MasadaWhen the idea first comes up to bring a group to Israel, whether its a school trip, youth program, synagogue mission or JCC leadership program, it can be a daunting proposition! You can feel overwhelmed by thoughts of the myriad of things that have to be done, from booking flights, setting up an itinerary, getting the money in from participants; dealing with insurance, hotels, and so many other things. In my own 25 years in Jewish youth work I brought several groups of various ages to Israel, and I know how scary it can feel, but in truth it doesn’t have to be to difficult or stressful. The right steps at the start of the process can make the experience reasonably simple and even enjoyable. Looking back, Israel trips were among the most rewarding programs that I ran  as an informal educator and to this day, bringing people to Israel and showing off this wonderful little country is my passion, something I share with my colleagues at Ultimate Israel.

So what should your first step be? Once you’ve decided that you are coming, select a date (I’d recommend around six months ahead) and decide your goals as these will guide your itinerary. For example, if its a spiritual experience that you are aiming to give your participants, then you may spend more time in Jerusalem and Safed than Tel Aviv or Eilat. Obviously, you need to decide what your budget per head will be, as this will certainly affect the accommodation you select, and on this point again, don’t worry, Israel has superb hotels and hostels, from clean, cheerful, low budget locations, to superb 5 star hotels.

When you have these basic points decided: approximate dates, goals and budget, its time to  start talking to tour firms. I know it’s tempting to ‘go it alone’, but I really wouldn’t recommend it – that leads to stress and even disasters!  Obviously, we’d love you to consider Ultimate Israel (and our contact info can be found on the ‘About Us’ page of this blog), but  regardless of who you eventually choose to work with, make sure they are a group travel expert and don’t just rely on a Google search – word of mouth counts for much! Talk to other organizations that have worked with the company you are considering, make sure they have staff that speak great English (the last thing you need is ‘screw-ups’ on your trip that come from language issues!) and if you don’t feel like they’re really listening to you, go try someone else!

Obviously, once you have these basics decided and you’ve picked your travel company, the nitty gritty of planning gets started, although most of the burden should be handled by your expert travel firm.  At Ultimate Israel these early discussions with clients are vital in getting their eventual trip to be exactly what they want and making sure they have realistic expectations, and budget.  We make sure clients are aware of various questions and issues that may not have occurred to them, from disabled access to travel visas, but the bottom line is it’s our job as Israel travel experts to take make sure you can achieve your goals for the trip and have an in credible experience!

Over the next few months, this blog will feature articles by various members of the Ultimate Israel team, focusing on different aspects of Israel travel, which we hope people will find useful. Please ‘like’ our Facebook oage and feel free to share this blog with anyoen you think will find it useful.

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