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As a Jewish man in my mid-30s, it goes without saying that I have heard a lot about Israel in my time on this earth. From my childhood in Hebrew school working toward my Bar Mitzvah, followed by years where every other Jewish person I knew was going on a Birthright trip (a free excursion to Israel offered to any young person of Jewish faith), it’s always been something that seemed kind of forced on me—and that’s exactly why it never had much appeal.
For years, I viewed Israel as a lifelong homework assignment…and, well, a vacation should never feel like school work. Though I did try to sign up for an LGBTQ-focused Birthright trip that piqued my interest, it ended up being canceled (ironically enough) due to a lack of interest. So when I was recently given the opportunity to explore Israel with a group of journalists, rather than a Jewish pilgrim, it sounded more like fun, less like homework.
I must admit that I had some preconceived notions about Jerusalem, the first stop on our week-long tour. It’s a city with such rich religious and historical significance for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, it’s easy to forget that it’s still a fully functional metropolis. Based on all of my years of hearing about the Western Wall and other major attractions, I was mentally prepared to spend time in a city where praying is the main hobby and the architecture has remained largely untouched for centuries. While this was certainly part of the experience in the Old City, the surrounding areas were bustling with tourists doing everything from segway tours through the city’s various sculpture gardens to eating and shopping at the Mahane Yehuda Market.
The art scene was perhaps the most unexpected delight during this leg of our Israel trip. Stumbling upon Lions Fountain in the middle of a park in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood and exploring the Billy Rose Art Garden at the Israel Museum (located in the Givat Ram neighborhood), my eyes were opened to an entirely different side of Jerusalem that I was unfamiliar with. Somehow, when learning about the place where Jesus was entombed after his crucifixion, nobody mentioned there was a really cool mall nearby that used to be a train station. That’s the thing about Jerusalem—it faces the impossible task of being considered one of the holiest places on earth while trying to remain culturally relevant in the age of Instagram-focused tourism.
If visiting the same sites popular biblical figures once did isn’t exactly your idea of a dream vacation, you could spend a relaxing day exploring the landscape of Teddy Park—an area close to the Old City, where locals bring their kids to frolic in water features. If you’re more of a foodie, there are walking tours that will introduce you to the city’s best hummus, baked goods, and juiciest pomegranates. However you decide to spend your day, I can recommend firsthand that one of your evenings should definitely include the Night Spectacular light show at the Tower of David. It brings the history of the area to life using astounding projections on the walls of the ancient structure in a way that rivals a ride at a Disney theme park.
Before finishing out the week in Tel Aviv, we enjoyed an overnight visit to the Dead Sea area. If your idea of the perfect getaway is just sunshine and spa days, you should probably head directly there. Because of the high salt content, there’s no marine life in the sea (hence the name), which is also what makes it the ultimate relaxation experience. Floating in the sea can work wonders for your skin, so much so that there are several beauty brands that use its salt as a key ingredient in their products. Much to our dismay, the group couldn’t linger in this heavenly bliss for too long. There were places to go and mountains to climb…literally.
Our last detour before Israeli Sin City was a trip to Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where visitors venture to the ruins of a mountaintop fortress built by King Herod in 30 BCE. It’s one of the top destinations in all of Israel, so you’d be remiss to skip it, but having done the opposite, I’d suggest enjoying all that Dead Sea goodness after you do the climb.
We hit the road again to spend the second half of our trip in the beachy town of Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast. Our guide joked that it was once considered the “Sin City” of Israel, mostly by the more pious people who call Jerusalem home. I chose not to equate that to the fact that I had also heard Tel Aviv has a thriving gay scene with an annual pride celebration that draws over 250,000 people from all over the world. Surely it must have been a reference to the sin of eating shellfish…or something like that.
Finally, our gang of merry journalists reached the Tel Aviv on Halloween. My first impression was that, surprisingly, the city gave off major Miami vibes. Several shots of Arak (a popular Israeli spirit) later at the city’s trendy bars, and it became clear that this was far from the Israel that was drilled into me during my Hebrew school days. That thought stayed with me as I left the group to check out the closest gay bar and later to dropped into a McDonald’s for some late night french fries.
We spent the remainder of our time in Tel Aviv making our way through the various neighborhoods and enjoying the views of the Mediterranean from the beachside Shlomo Lahat Promenade. Walking through the southern and oldest part of town known as Jaffa (an ancient port city that became part of Tel Aviv in 1950), our guide informed us that the city makes completely unsubstantiated claims to being the birthplace of the zodiac. Though some light internet research couldn’t confirm this to be true, their commitment to the idea was admirable. They have Zodiac alleys where local artists set up shop to display and sell their work, plus Zodiac Fountain, and Wishing Bridge—a site where visitors find the post with their zodiac sign and make a wish while touching their hand to it.
© Adam Schubak
A perfect Tel Aviv sunset.
Of course, you can’t visit Tel Aviv without doing the whole beach thing. Tourists flock to Gordon Beach to stroll the boardwalk, watch some volleyball, or dine at one of the seaside cafes. Thrill-seekers can try Aviv Beach, home to the Israel Surf Club, where you can rent a board and take a lesson. The golden sand stretches on for miles, making it nearly impossible not to find a spot that suits your fancy.
That’s the thing I learned about Israel: No matter what kind of vacation you’re looking to have, it’s nearly impossible not to find a spot that suits your fancy. And that’s exactly why, after years of avoiding a visit, I can’t wait to go back.
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