By Kat Hind
Palestine is the centre of one of the longest political conflicts to date – but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there. The diversity of the country lends itself to a varied, almost schizophrenic journey through the modern and the traditional, and as long as you’re sensitive to your surrounding environment you will open your eyes to incredible experiences, culture and people.
Situated to the West of the Mediterranean Sea and bordering Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, there are a range of safety precautions to take into account when travelling to and within the country. Don’t discuss religion or politics unless it is brought up to you (which is quite common as a conversation topic in Palestinian social circles) and be sure to carry your passport and entry visa at all times, as you will go through regular checkpoints when travelling within the West Bank.
The currency used is the shekel or ‘NIS’ (1 shekel is approximately £5) and I’d recommend getting this before you arrive as exchange rates aren’t always very good within the country.
If you’re visiting the surrounding area, for example Jordan, you can access the country via the land border. The King Hussein bridge is the most effective way to avoid getting an Israeli stamp, which can stop entry into other countries in the future such as Egypt, Lebanon and Malaysia. By air you can fly to Tel Aviv for a relatively low cost from London (£120-140 return) and then get a bus from here to Jerusalem for 16nis if you plan to use it as a base, which is recommend.
There are plenty of hostels in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv but I would recommend using Jerusalem as a home because of its access to both Palestinian and Israeli territories. The cost of a hostel in the Old City quarter of Jerusalem costs between £15-20. Jaffa Gate Hostel is a great location and perfect as a base camp. It provides guided tours, wifi, all the basics and has the added bonus of no curfew if you’re getting back late from your travels.
Definitely take advantage of the local specialities
- Maqluba: popular in Palestine and Jordan, this upside down dish is perfect for busy travel days. Rice, vegetables and chicken or lamb fills you up for an afternoon of sight-seeing
- Mansaf: another rice dish with lamb cooked in a lightly spiced yogurt sauce
- Korda Mahshi: courgettes stuffed with rice and minced meat, this is a personal favourite and some restaurants do a delicious vegetarian alternative stuffed with rice and vegetables or tofu if you’re lucky
- Kanafeh: this sweet dish is an acquired taste – it consists of cheese pastry soaked in a sugary syrup
You have the Western Wall which you can go and see quickly but only to say you went. A must see is Al-Aqsa mosque (pictured above) which non-Muslims may visit during specific hours (usually 7:30-1130am and 1:30-2:30pm), but be prepared to queue early or risk not seeing this stunning building. You can also walk the Via Dolorosa trail: Christ’s pilgrimage to His crucifixion finishing at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. You will pass shops with Hebron mosaics and cheap “gap year clothes”.
Journey out to Bethlehem to see the separation wall covered in graffiti art and featuring two original Banksy pieces. Also visit the Nativity Church for another dose of religious history. You can reach Bethlehem via a bus from Jerusalem – go to the Palestinian bus station to get there in about an hour depending on checkpoints (I repeat: CARRY YOUR PASSPORT AT ALL TIMES).
Finally if you want a slightly more European destination, Tel Aviv is an upcoming city which mixes the old and the new. You can visit the beach, go to the flea market downtown in Jaffa, which also has Jaffa Port, and the Old City of Jaffa for those history buffs. You can go cycling down the main boulevard in the centre of Tel Aviv and enjoy the sun and sea as a relaxing break.
Although I wouldn’t recommend going out and getting crazy, there is still a lot to do in the evening in and around Jerusalem. The Jewish quarter of the city has some great bars – alcoholic and sushi – and you can see the city by night, lit up in each of its different quarters.
You can also head to Ramallah if you know some local Palestinians and again find some great bars, street nightlife and food markets. Do be careful though and always respect local customs. If you’re staying in the Muslim quarter of the city don’t flaunt the alcohol, although most people you’ll meet are pretty free thinking, you should still be respectful in this holy city.
A week in Palestine won’t set you back too much. Flights cost around £130 return, accommodation for £15 a night and transport within the country is extremely cheap. Food is also cheap if you eat locally, about £10-15 a day for your three meals and a mosaic souvenir from Hebron is at most £8 for something unique and beautiful. For the total trip £350 will safely let you enjoy yourself with a good buffer zone for emergencies.
Illustration: Mariam Hayat. Photograph: Kat Hind