Last November I made a spontaneous decision to visit Tel Aviv for a wedding of friends I made the prior Fall. A chance meeting while they were visiting Copenhagen led us to reconnect via social media and stay in touch. That’s one of the coolest things about traveling and being open to chatting with fellow travelers – even in your own city. That chance conversation about what to do in Copenhagen and how to get to the airport led to flying to Israel for a wedding the following year. Raise your kids to be curious, friendly and talkative – you never know where it will lead them. For me, it gave me this amazing experience to visit a part of the world that has always intrigued me. I already want to go back. While there I enjoyed some beach time, the wedding of course and an unbelievable Jerusalem tour from Tel Aviv. The full day trip to Jerusalem also included visits to holy sites in Bethlehem and concluded with a dip in the Dead Sea. It was truly incredible and I’m so happy that I said “yes” to adventure and booked the trip when invited. Here’s what I experienced on my epic Jerusalem tour from Tel Aviv and how you can book it yourself when you visit Israel.
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My day tour began EARLY, as day tours often do, with a 6:30 am departure time. Lucky for me I was somewhat well-rested after one day on the beach the previous day. I scheduled my Jerusalem Day for my second full day in Israel and after I had a chance to explore Tel Aviv. This gave me a chance to familiarize myself with the area and find locate the tour pick up location. The meeting place was a centrally located hotel. When I arrived, there was a crowd of tourists because the tour operator runs several day trips that share the same departure point. We were given wrist bands and divided into our private buses. The English speaking guided tour began with a drive to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv which took just under 90 minutes. We picked up a group from a hotel in Jerusalem and fully-assembled we numbered 16 people. Then it was off to our first stop – The Old City of Jerusalem.
Admiring the City Walls of Jerusalem
As the bus pulled up I was already mesmerized – the outer walls of the city were massive and impressed me. Once we assembled in front of Jaffa Gate, I realized my first impression was somewhat unwarranted. Our guide explained that the walls were destroyed and rebuilt numerous times over the centuries and their current state is the most fortified they have ever been. In 1535, when The Ottomans ruled Jerusalem, Sultan Suleiman I ordered the walls rebuilt. They were in ruins at the time and with advances in warfare, they would do little for the defense of the city. Still, Suleiman had them rebuilt to show off the might of his empire and his project took about 4 years. We also learned that walls are like a time capsule of Jerusalem with stones from every era. It’s constructed from the remnants of countless razed monuments, statues and houses of worship from Jerusalems past.
Entering Jaffa Gate and Viewing the Tower of David
We entered Jaffa Gate and paused for a quick bathroom break. It wasn’t how I pictured the start to my Jerusalem tour from Tel Aviv, but after the drive many of us needed the toilets. We then were given the option to tour Jerusalem on our own or continue with the guide. I opted to stick with the guide – at $99 per person, I wanted the full experience.
We began at the impressive Tower of David or Jerusalem Citadel. Fortification in this area of the city dates back over 2000 years and the current structure has been standing since the 1300s. Our time in Jerusalem was short. We only received highlights and I could have easily spent the whole day exploring this site alone. The layers upon layers of archaeological history are right before your eyes. A museum exists at the Tower of David where you can learn about every civilization that’s ruled the city and how they lived. I will be back with Mike to experience and we can history-nerd-out for a longer time.
Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
As we continued the tour, we made our way to The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Walking through the city I was surprised how lively and vibrant it was. I had an impression of Jerusalem as a solemn city where the entire experience would be like visiting a temple – it was not. People live very normal lives inside of the city walls. There are children walking to school in uniforms, shop owners selling cans of coke and a hot lunch. It was like any city around the world and for some reason, I expected something different.
We finally arrived at one of the holiest churches in Christianity, built over the site of the Crucifixion. It’s located deep in Jerusalem Old City and tucked away through a maze of food stands and shops in the Christian Quarter. Once inside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, things were more solemn and serious. We ascended to an alter atop a set of stairs. They climb the area of an ancient hill known as Golgatha, the final passage of the Passion of Jesus. As soon as we entered we experienced the last four stops on the Via Dolorosa or stations of the cross. Like the entire building, this section was divided and controlled by different sects of Christianity. They share the holy church and you notice right away how each section is adorned differently. From the Roman Catholic section to the Greek Orthodox section to the Armenian, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian areas, the contrast was significant. We finished the tour of this amazing church by walking to the tomb where Jesus is said to have been buried and resurrected. It had a long line of pilgrims so we did not enter, but we did stop at the rock where his body was laid before being covered with a shroud. I was in awe of the emotion that some of the pilgrims were expressing. It was touching to see their devotion.
Retracing the Via Dolorosa
After leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we retraced the stations of the Via Dolorosa. It means “Sorrowful Way” in Latin and in Hebrew, it’s translated it to “Way of Suffering”. There were many tourists and pilgrims reenacting the procession by carrying the cross with priests and others with tour guides. Our guide stopped at sixth station – the veil of Veronica. He explained the story that at that spot, a woman named Veronica wiped the blood from the face of Jesus. Her name, Veronica means “true icon” in Latin. We also paused at the fifth station where Simon of Cyrene carries the cross for Jesus while he rests his hand on the wall. There is a deep indent in the wall where pilgrims place their hands. The retracing of these stations led us to the Jewish Quarter where we approached security. We cleared the checkpoint and entered the grounds in front of the Temple Wall.
Praying at The Western Wall
I was in slight disbelief to be standing before such a famous and important place in history and religion. The massive limestone blocks comprising the wall were built around 19 BCE by King Herod. He constructed the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and it’s one of the holiest sites in Judaism and the most holy site where Jews are allowed to pray. We had a quick chat with our guide about the importance of the site and how to insert prayers into the wall. The men were given a yamaka and separated from the women to approach the wall. As we split, a woman approached one of the females in our group and asked her to cover her chest. She was wearing a sundress and it wasn’t very low cut, but since it is such a holy site, she obliged and put on her sweatshirt.
At the wall, I sat and reflected. I thought about how lucky I was to be there and to be touring the Holy Land. For most of my life, I never would have expected to be at The Western Wall! I said a quick prayer in my head and thought about my family and loved ones. Then I sat and wrote down my prayer note and rolled it up to place it in the wall. If you ever wondered where the prayers go, our guide explained it to us. Several times a year, men remove the prayer notes and they are buried in the Jewish Cemetary on the Mount of Olives. These prayers are buried because in Judaism it’s forbidden to destroy anything on which the name of God is written.
Leaving Jerusalem and Heading to Bethlehem
We did not have time to enter the Muslim Quarter or visit the Temple Mount, but we got a great view on the way out of the city. We walked through the remainder of the Jewish Quarter, then the Armenian Quarter before leaving the city. The next stop was Bethlehem.
We boarded the bus and said goodbye to our first tour guide. He was Jewish and not permitted to enter Bethlehem. Because it’s located in the West Bank, in the Palestinian territories, we were met by a new guide who continued from our tours Jerusalem point. We crossed the walled border between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. I read the graffiti on the wall – political messages depictions of war and calls for peace.
We parked the mini-bus and walked up the hill into Bethlehem. Our guide said that the meadow below is where the shepherds from the Bible were grazing (I don’t know if he was serious or not). We stopped at a shop owned by a Palestinian Christian family. They sell wood carvings from olive branches, souvenirs, and jewelry. We spent some time in the store and then moved on to the Church of The Nativity.
Visiting the Church of the Nativity
We entered the Church of the Nativity through a tiny door. Inside the church was larger than I expected with beautiful mosaic-tiled floors. They were covered over the centuries and the floor was pulled up to expose them in spots. There was a crowd, so with our timing restraints, we did not have hours to wait in line to enter the grotto where Jesus is said to have been born. Just visiting the site was exciting, but I would have loved to enter the site where the manger is said to have been.
The church is the oldest major church in the Holy Land. It was commissioned by Byzantine Emperor Constantine. He sent his mother, Helena, to Jerusalem and she had the church built along with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Floating in the Dead Sea
Our final stop was the Dead Sea. We took a break for lunch in a square in Bethlehem where they were assembling a platform to put up the town’s Christmas tree. Then we boarded the bus and drove through the Judean Desert. As we descended to the lowest region on Earth, we were given some tips on the Dead Sea. Namely, we were told not to submerge or get any water in our eyes or mouth. We pulled into a parking lot and walked up to a ticketing area where we were waved through – the entrance was paid with the cost of the tour. We spent about an hour at the Dead Sea and soaked in the mud, the waters and floated on the Sea. It was a surreal feeling to experience the Dead Sea. I’ve floated in pools, lakes, and oceans before, but it’s effortless to stay afloat in the Dead Sea. After about 25 minutes, the novelty wore off and we left the waters to shower and change back into normal clothing. After a day worth of touring, I was ready to head back to Tel Aviv.
Why I Recommend this Tour and How to Book it Yourself
While I had a tremendous day, there’s a lot left undone and I want to return soon. I could have spent several days in Jerusalem and want to see the Temple Mount, Yehuda Market, The Museum of The Tower of David and so many other sights.
Despite not having time to see the grotto of the nativity, this tour was stellar. It was highlights of everything in one full day – just as advertised! I highly recommend booking it and you can reserve a spot for your visit below. The tour is operated by Tourist Israel and guaranteed through GetYourGuide.
I always book through GYG because they offer a refund if you change your plans or cancel within 24 hours of the start time. It makes it simple to plan and reconsider your itinerary when you arrive at your destination.