Akko, Israel

My sister-in-law Kim and I took a daytrip from Haifa to Akko (sometimes called Acre). It’s a wonderful old city with winding paths and streets that seem to lead you nowhere, but maybe that’s the point.
 
We took the train from Haifa which cost about 19NIS for a 25 minute ride. The Akko train station is about a 20 minute walk from the old town, but with the help of GPS, we made it.

We made two specific stops and other than that we just wandered around. First, we went looking for a hummus place called Said’s. We had heard that it was the “best hummus in the Middle East.” We were sorely disappointed by these claims. The waiter was very rude and the hummus wasn’t even in the top ten during our trip (and we ate hummus at least once a day for three weeks). Thankfully, after this disappointment, we found a little restaurant in the Turkish Souq called Kukushka. They had very inventive and interesting snack foods, delicious wine by the glass, and local beers. I ordered the veal sausages, fries, and a glass of wine. At about 70NIS, it wasn’t cheap but it was well worth it. 

Table and chairs at Kukushka

Our other destination was the tunnels under the city. It cost about 15NIS and included less than we expected. The brochure for Akko shows the tunnels as if they are part of the citadel. They are not; we were fooled. But we were having such a great time wandering around this amazing city, we easily gave up looking for the entrance to the citadel and just enjoyed Akko itself.

Also, there is a cheese shop in the Turisk Souq (which is really just a long hallway with shops inside). Once again, it was great to see a shop trying something different. I tried a few of their cheeses and each was better than the next.
 
Akko, Israel

Haifa, Israel

Haifa was a bigger city than I expected. I also was surprised by the mountain in the middle of town that makes it hard to get anywhere without walking straight up hill or taking buses everywhere. We rented an apartment on airbnb.com that was near the train station. The location was really helpful for taking day trips from Haifa but the area seemed to shut down at night. The German Colony was not too far away (a 10 minute walk) but it seemed very touristy with its chain restaurants. We took the bus around town to save our legs and at 7NIS per ride, it was well worth it. We also took the cable car up to the top of the hill for 28NIS round trip, but I would not recommend doing this unless you want to go to the Stella Maris Monastery.
View of  the Bahai Gardens in Haifa
 
Haifa, Israel

Jerusalem, Israel

My sister-in-law Kim and I stay in Jerusalem for three nights. We rented an apartment through Airbnb.com just off Jaffa Street (also spelled Yafo Street) about a 15 minute walk northwest of the Old City. We saw the sites of the old city which are mainly free. We also took a tour of the tunnels under the old city that cost about NIS22. It was a wonderful way to learn more about the history of the city.

We also visited the West Bank with Abraham Tours. The tour took all day visiting the River Jordan, Jericho, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the Taybeh Brewery. And at US$105 per person, it wasn’t a bad deal though we expected our guide to share more information than he did.

The West Bank Barrier covered in local art.

Many people who visit Jerusalem might be on a pilgrimage of one type or another. The pilgrimage experience can be sullied if you expect to have a personal, spiritual experience while visiting religious sites. There seem to be crowds everywhere and you should expect long wait times to see the most “holy” shrines like at the Sepulcher Tomb and the Temple Mount. I highly recommend visiting any sites inside the Old City in the early mornings for some peaceful time. Also, visit the West Bank. It’s well worth the journey.

View of the Old City from the Mount of Olives.

While in Jerusalem, we took the tram up to the Mahane Yehuda Market. It’s a great place to grab some fresh snacks or a cheap meal. There are a few little restaurants in the market. The one we loved is called Topolino. It’s an Italian place where the pasta is made on site and all dishes are made to order. At about NIS25 per dish, it’s a great deal. To get to the restaurants, enter the Market from Agripas Street. Most of the restaurants are in between the two main aisles.

Wifi is free and available on most major roads in Jerusalem. It is wonderful being able to check email and update social media from so many public places. But because the public wifi is available, the apartment we stayed in and some of the cafes we visited did not offer their own wifi. If the public wifi signal is not strong where you’re staying or eating, you might be out of luck.

We rode the buses and trams around the city and tried to avoid taking taxis, as they get expensive quickly. Keep in mind, all taxis have meters, so don’t ask how much a trip will cost. Taxi drivers will quote you a flat rate which will always be higher than what the meter would run you. 
Jerusalem, Israel

Crossing the border from Jordan into Israel

As I left Jordan, I had to say goodbye to my travel buddy, Katie, as she had to return to the States, but I gained another travel companion in my sister-in-law, Kim, who had joined us late on our Jordanian adventure. Together, we made our way to Israel. Crossing the border from Jordan to Israel was more time consuming but not nearly as frustrating or unnerving as we expected. We took a pre-arranged taxi from our apartment to the Jordanian side of the Allenby Bridge (which is not really a bridge). This cost JD20. We got dropped off at what looks like a bus depot. We went in the gates and around the corner into the office to fill out paperwork to exit the country. We handed over our passports and were asked to pay JD10 each for the exit tax. Once we paid, we waited for enough people to amass so that a full bus could drive us over to the Israeli side of the border. The bus ride cost a total of JD8 per person which included a fee for our luggage. On the Israeli side, we were given two stickers, one for our bag and one for the back of our passports. Our luggage (not our personal bags) were sent through security while we went through security in the adjoining building. After security, you will show your passport to a border control agent. This is where you can ask that your passport not be stamped. They will ask for a reason and you must provide them one, but the officer I spoke with didn’t seem to take issue with my reason (a future visit to Kuwait). After this, we went through another checkpoint in which someone looks at our passport again. Note that this is the point that if they want to hand check your luggage, you will be asked to take a seat and wait until your name is called. They will already have your passport if they are going to hand check your luggage. We were not subjected to the luggage check, so we went on to grab our bags off the carousel. We’re almost there, I swear. We walked outside to buy tickets for shuttles that will take you to either Jerusalem or to Jericho in the West Bank. There are two ticket stands, one for each. We were heading to Jerusalem so we paid a total of NIS42 per person which covered our luggage and our ticket. The ticket takers will accept any type of currency you have (technically you cannot bring Israeli shekels into Jordan therefore we had no shekels. We paid in US dollars) and they will give you appropriate change in Israeli shekels. We waited around for the shuttle to fill up and started off on the 45-minute trip to Jerusalem. In total, the border crossing journey took seven hours.

Here are two other sites that I found helpful in my own research for this border crossing and trip.

Crossing the border from Jordan into Israel

Amman, Jordan

We spent four nights in Amman in an apartment rental via Airbnb. The manager of our apartment, Sama’n, also manages many other apartments in the city which are listed on Airbnb and on Gweet which is the Middle East’s answer to Airbnb and VRBO.com. Sama’n was a wonderful host and a very helpful man to know while in Amman. It’s a sprawling city that seems to have no end.
 

While I enjoyed the city and all of its diverse options of things to do, see, and eat, it was a test in patience every time we left the apartment. When we arrived in Amman, the first thing Katie and I did was return the rental car as I had heard nerve-racking stories of driving in this capital city. The tales proved to be true as we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on our ride into the city. No car meant that we either had to take the public buses (which we were told were safe, but that as ladies, we would be expected to wear headscarves if we wanted to ride without incident) or we could rely on taxis. We took the taxi option which seemed like the lesser of two frustrations (waiting for buses or trying to communicate with taxis drivers). Every time we got into a taxi, we had issues communicating where we wanted to go and how to get there. Although most buildings in Amman had addresses, they’re not used and the taxi drivers we dealt with didn’t seem to know where major sights or streets were. 

Every set of directions starts with which traffic circle is nearest your destination (there are seven) and you have to direct the driver onward from the circle. Giving directions from the circle was difficult as our Arabic was limited and the taxi drivers had equally limited English. Even when we would show them a map of the city with our destination clearly marked, more times than not, they would tell us that this wasn’t a map of Amman and that they couldn’t get us to our destination. Once we were out and about, getting home became the next issue. Looking back, I wonder if the buses would have been less of a hassle even with the wardrobe change before we left the apartment, the waiting around, and the adventure of finding out how to pay the fare. There is a third option for getting around town and out of town—hiring a driver for the day or for a set amount of time. We chose this option when we visited Jerash, but compared to the taxi fare (about JD1-2 per ride across town), hiring a driver was very expensive (about JD30 for a four-hour time period). Keep in mind that most of these drivers speak more English than your average taxi driver and once you find one you like (and one who knows where you live), it’s understandable why you would keep calling them time and again. We found our driver through another driver we met outside a tourist sight, but you can also try your luck at hailing a yellow cab on the street. 

Once we made it to our destination and shook off the frustration of the taxi ride, we really enjoyed ourselves. We visited the Citadel (JD2) and the Roman Amphitheater (JD1). We ate amazing food that, in more Western-style restaurants, cost about JD10-15 per person without alcohol. We made the obligatory and delicious visit to Hashem and our lunch only cost only JD2 per person. If you read anything about Amman, you will read about Hashem. It’s a small falafel place that is super cheap, super fast, and super tasty. They bring each table a plate of falafel, a plate of tomatoes, onions, and mint, pita bread, and tea immediately after being seated. Hummus, ful, and falafel are available by order. There’s no printed menu, but there may be other foods available as well. Ask any local where it is and they’ll tell you. Hell, this is probably the only place taxi drivers will know when you mention it.

Citadel in Amman.
Everywhere we went in Amman proved to be fun and interesting, but none of our outings would have been possible without a smartphone helping us every step of the way. I hope with time Amman will become more tourist friendly.
Amman, Jordan

Wadi Rum National Park, Jordan

Wadi Rum is amazingly beautiful and definitely worth a visit. We researched a handful of tour operators and decided to go with Classic Wadi Rum Tours. They offer many tour options. We chose the four hour Jeep tour with an overnight stay in their tent camp. At JD45 a person, it was an awfully good deal. In addition to the guided tour, the price included a large boxed lunch, delicious hot dinner, breakfast, bottled water, and Bedouin tea. The park entrance fee of JD5 was not included.
The rock formations of Wadi Rum.
I was nervous that their “camp” would be the dumping ground for all of the tourists in Wadi Rum that day (think hundreds of tourists milling around in one place). Fortunately, this was not the case. It seemed as though each tour company had their own secluded, small camp set up in different areas around the desert that is Wadi Rum. The camp we stayed in has about 20 tents with 2-4 beds in each. There is also a tent for congregating/eating and the camp has running water, toilets, and showers. We felt lucky that when we were there in mid-March, there were only about 12 people staying in our camp. At capacity, there could be around 80 people in this specific camp.
 
We really enjoyed the day with our guide, Salman. He was very friendly and answered all of our random questions about Jordan, Wadi Rum, and, oddly enough, goats. 
Wadi Rum National Park, Jordan

Petra, Jordan

Petra is the number one sight to see in Jordan and once you’ve visited, you’ll understand why. At JD55 for a two-day pass, it was the most expensive entrance fee we encountered in Jordan. Included in the fee is a map and a guided tour that takes off every 30 minutes from the visitors’ center. The men with horses and horse carriages just past the visitors’ center will tell you that a ride is included in your ticket price. This is true, however, they expect a hefty tip at the end of the ride. Horse, donkey, and camel rides once inside the site are not included in the ticket price.
Camels at Petra.

The entire length of Petra is 4.3 miles (7 km) and all the major sights can be covered in one day if you are in good health and are fairly active in your daily life. The main thoroughfare is rocky but generally flat. There is a steep climb up to the High Place of Sacrifice and natural rock stairs to get to a few other sites. Getting up to the Monastery is about 45 minutes worth of well-worn stairs without railings. The sights are absolutely worth the workout. Note that there is a cafe near the Monastery, but there are no bathrooms other than the au naturale kind.

The main passage through Petra is in a valley with tombs carved into the hills above. There are stairways up to these tombs and pathways that run on higher ground parallel to the main drag. I highly recommend walking these paths instead of staying in the valley walkway. There are fewer tourists, the vendors are less aggressive, and the views are amazing.

Ruins at Petra.
If you’re on a budget, go when the site opens at 6 a.m. and you will definitely be able to see Petra in one day (assuming that you do not want to hike the long trails that lead away from the ancient city center). We chose to buy the two-day pass and arrived the first day (a Sunday) around noon. It was somewhat crowded, but not overwhelming once we got past the Treasury. The second day (a Monday), we arrived at 6 a.m. and there was no one there. We were surprised and amazed that even around 8 a.m. it was still mostly empty. The tour groups seem to get there around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m.

I highly recommend going at 6 a.m. It’s well worth getting up early to be there alone. Every blog I read about visiting Petra mentioned arriving early but it seemed as though no one took this advice the morning we went. Or, if you absolutely can’t arrive early, stay late. When we were still there around 5 p.m., all of the tour groups were gone and only the individual stragglers were left to wander back through the ruins and the Siq. Also, bring snacks and water. Though the prices of these items are not outrageous in the park, you can save yourself some time and money by bringing your own. Here are a few blogs that I referenced and were really helpful.

http://www.zigzagonearth.com/travel-tips-planning-your-trip-to-petra-jordan/
http://www.ottsworld.com/blogs/escaping-the-crowds-in-petra

We stayed at the Rocky Mountain Hotel for two nights at JD32 a night. The hotel was somewhat dated (as many of the hotels in Wadi Musa are), but the staff was very helpful and the top floor dining room and terrace were nice amenities. This hotel is located up the hill away from the entrance to the park (about a 20 minute walk) and therefore we were able to eat cheaper because we weren’t eating in the tourist area just outside of the entrance to Petra.

Petra, Jordan