I had been warned: “You go to Jerusalem to pray; you go to Tel Aviv to party.” That’s what my friends told me – those who had been to Israel on business or on holidays; and even the many Israeli friends I had made throughout my travels.
The general consensus among all – Israelis and foreigners – was that Jerusalem is a beautiful city, but that it sends a distant, almost cold vibe.
To be fair, I felt exactly the same way after my first visit to Jerusalem. The people seemed a bit unfriendly – or maybe I just wasn’t understanding them. I am sure that religious people can appreciate Jerusalem even at a first glance. The city exudes holiness – after all, it is one of the most sacred cities in the world, for the 3 biggest monotheistic religions.
Trouble is I am not religious at all (though I have always been interested in the history and culture that are connected to religions). During my first visit, I found Jerusalem to be a great city; I realized there were many things to do there, many beautiful sights. But I just did not get it, so much so that after 3 days there I just wanted to leave.
To read more about what Jerusalem has to offer, check my post “Traditional And Alternative Things To Do in Jerusalem.”
I was immensely relieved when I got to Tel Aviv. It was buzzing with life. Everyone was smiling, everyone seemed friendly, everyone was out and about, having a good time. And what it lacked in history and traditions, Tel Aviv made up for with a down to earth charme, an incredible range of fun things to do, and an altogether great vibe.
To find out what to do in Tel Aviv, check my post “Twenty Things To Do In Tel Aviv To Fall In Love With It.”
It looked like my friends were right after all – Jerusalem was a city for culture and prayers, and Tel Aviv was the go-to place for fun. I fell in love with Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem take two (and three)
It took me two more trips to Jerusalem to finally get it, and to fully appreciate it. I could find plenty of reasons to visit Israel, but I was reluctant to go back to Jerusalem, to be honest. I got such a cold vibe from it during my first time there that I really didn’t care to see more of it. But I had been invited to talk at a bloggers’ conference, and thought that I may as well give it a second chance.
It was when I finally gave Jerusalem a bit more time to go beyond the main tourist attractions and places of interest, when I started walking the narrow streets off the tourist tracks aimlessly, when I didn’t set myself a schedule but just went with the flow that I discovered a different side of it and I could finally connect with it.
On a Thursday night, finally done with the conference, I met Yoav, one of my many Israeli friends. He came all the way from Tel Aviv, where he lives. We had not met in over a year, and were on a quest to have a good time, though we weren’t too sure where to start from.
All the roads lead to Mahane Yehuda
After dinner at one of the trendiest fusion restaurants in Jerusalem, Yoav suggested we headed to Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s famous market. I had no idea what we’d do in a place that during the day sells bread, fruits and vegetables, but he promised we’d find a place to hang out.
He was right. Mahane Yehuda looked completely different from what I had seen. The blinds of the many shops were down, revealing interesting street art. Tables, chairs and stools were out to accommodate the multitude of trendy people waiting to have a drink or a quick bite. Cats waited patiently next to the tables, hoping someone would drop some food at them. Music blasted throughout the alleys. It was festive.
Pushing through the crowds, we went to the Beer Bazar and grabbed a sampler tray of beer. People around us were deep in conversation – some talked about politics, some talked about life. Yoav and I talked about traveling: after all that’s how we met. In the midst of it, it occurred to me that what I was doing that night in Jerusalem was no more, no less than what I’d do on a night out back home: have dinner, go for a drink, enjoy the buzz and talk to friends. Come to think of it, it was no different from the nights out I’d had in Tel Aviv and for which I loved Tel Aviv.
The following morning, I headed back to Mahane Yehuda Market to buy some food for dinner. It was crowded, but it was a different crowd from the night before. People were busy shopping for the Shabbat dinner. It felt like there was a competition for the louder vendor, each and every one calling on customers to try the freshest fruits, the crunchiest nuts, the most fragrant coffee.
The younger crowds were still sitting at the bars – the same one that I had seen on Thursday night, enjoying a beer to properly kick off Shabbat. Every now and then a street musician would blast his loud music and passers-by would gather around to listen. It was chaos, but it was a lot of fun to observe. How come I had not noticed that the other times I had been at Mahane Yehuda?
All it takes is hummus and coffee
Getting the vibes of the city, I continued my ramblings and went on to explore the narrow alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem. I found a multitude of trendy vintage shops, lovely eateries and coffee shops. A bunch of elderly men were playing backgammon. A group of young soldiers was passing around a bowl of hummus. That made me hungry, so I sat at a nearby table and ordered some hummus and pita myself.
Then I went on to have the coffee whose smell kept coming my way throughout lunch. It was a thick, hot and fragrant infusion of coffee and cardamom. As I sipped my coffee, I found myself thinking that the Jerusalem I had come to know in the last few days was so different from the city I had explored months before. It was warmer, friendlier and altogether more human.
As I kept on walking, I couldn’t help being attracted by the every day life of this city, that looked so different from what the one I had come to know. A group of women stood outside a bakery. They were making so much noise, laughing so loudly, that I could not help stare at them to try to understand what the fun was about. I smiled at them as I walked by. That’s when they stopped me and offered me a piece of the delicious, moist orange and almond cake they had just bought.
I never found out what they were laughing about, but it is just as well. They were happy, and seeing them so happy made me happy too.
In the following days, I continued exploring the city, walking around aimlessly. I came across modern art galleries – whatever had happened to all the prayers and traditions that defined Jerusalem? I ate at the trendiest restaurants in the city, amidst art shops and beautiful boutiques. I enjoyed live music and a drink with friends old and new.
The minute I relaxed and leaned back, Jerusalem reached out to get me. It grabbed me tight and won’t let go of me. This is the Jerusalem I want to go back to.