Last week, as I gazed out at the jaw-dropping view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, my mind drifted to Oprah.
I know. Of all the things I could be thinking about…but hear me out. I was thinking about the title of her monthly magazine column, “What I Know for Sure” — because, in Jerusalem, what I thought I knew evaporated.
Depending on the day, my sympathies lie with Israel, then Palestine, then back again. But come what may, I try to understand where people are coming from, even if I don’t agree.
Growing up with four siblings, I had to shout for my voice to be heard. But I could also be easily swayed. “That sounds good,” I’d muse when one brother would argue a point, then I’d do an about-face when another offered a counterpoint. You could say I’m fickle, but I prefer to think of it as being open-minded.
As I explored places that took on very different meanings depending on which lens — Jewish, Christian, Muslim — you looked through, I felt the world weighing on me. My head and heart were filled with more drama than usual, my thoughts vacillating between the arrogant (“What fools!”) and the forlorn (“Why can’t I believe in something so passionately?”).
I had planned to write a review of the new hotels and restaurants on the horizon in Jerusalem — a story about the city’s present and future. But when I arrived, I was overwhelmed by the past, and by an intense desire to know something, anything, for sure.
There’s no way to do Jerusalem justice without a knowledgeable guide. My boyfriend and I booked Meir More for a day and counted it as the best money we spent on our entire trip. He took us to where the Jewish, Christian, Armenian, and Muslim quarters intersect and said, “Jerusalem is united by its rooftops and divided by its people below.”
If you want your guide to simply reinforce the stories and stereotypes you grew up with, there are plenty of options out there, but finding someone who can illuminate all sides is rare.
Here are a few other tips we learned from Meir and from our experience in one of the oldest and most complicated cities in the world:
- Manage expectations: Tell your guide what you want to get out of the day, so he or she can prioritize accordingly.
- Think about renting wheels: Having access to a car ensured we got the most out of our time with Meir.
- Get off to a good start: The Mount of Olives makes an ideal jumping-off place as it provides a sweeping overview of the city and solid points of entry into different periods of Jerusalem’s history from different perspectives.
- Don’t panic: It’s easy to get turned around in the Old City, but you’ll always find your way out.
- Indulge your appetites: Don’t miss the sensory feast at Mahane Yehuda Market (Note: It is insanely packed before and after Shabbat).
- Explore the present: Enjoy modern shopping and dining at the pedestrian-only Mamilla Mall near the Jaffa Gate.
- Tough it out: Trying to understand the different (and often competing) tales and traditions of the world’s greatest religions can be overwhelming. Just go with it, and let your head hurt at the end of the day. You have to use muscles to build them.
On a lighter note, I know for sure that staying in a hotel with a story of its own makes a destination even better. The circa 1930 King David Hotel is an icon because of its imposing exterior, and because of the important people who have spent time within its walls. (President Obama stayed in a suite there two weeks before I arrived.)
Check out the A-list signatures etched into the lobby floor (I spotted my favorite author, Paulo Coelho) for proof of the King David’s storied cachet.
Mornings call for indulgence at the hotel’s impressive breakfast buffet (something Israeli hotels are known for), with seemingly endless varieties of local cheese, salad, cereal, fruit, and bread.
But be aware of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, when most of the city shuts down (from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday) — including many of the amenities at hotels. For instance, the King David closes its fitness center and offers a very limited room service menu.
You may leave Jerusalem with more questions than answers, as I did. But just as I’ll always be glad to have more books than time to read them, it is always better to question than to keep your head in the sand.