Just Back: Jerusalem

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Many people dread spending time with their in-laws, but not National Geographic Traveler researcher Christine Blau (on Twitter @Chris_Blau and Instagram @christineblau). For her, marrying a journalist from Jerusalem means inheriting a network of kindred local guides and a lifetime of visits through which to figure out their complex city.

A recent three-week stint at her husband’s familial homestead near Mount Herzl flew by in a happy flurry.

Here are some of the highlights from her trip, in her own words:

Craveable culinary experience: Move over, falafel and hummus; this city of immigrants cooks up an incredibly rich culinary scene. Expand your horizons, and whet your appetite, by grazing your way through stalls filled with rugelach, halva, and dried fruit at my favorite shuk in town, Machane Yehuda. When you’ve gotten your fill of the open-air market (and the intoxicating cloud of spices that hovers around it), snag a table at Azura restaurant, in the shuk’s Iraqi section, to enjoy a proper portion of moussaka with a side of people-watching.

Yitzhak Danziger's "Nimrod" statue at the Israel Museum (Photograph by Christine Blau, National Geographic Travel)
Yitzhak Danziger’s “Nimrod” statue at the Israel Museum (Photograph by Christine Blau, National Geographic Travel)

Standout museum: While the national Israel Museum—home to the Dead Sea Scrolls, a fascinating Judaica wing featuring reconstructed synagogues from around the world, and more—is high on my list, on this trip, my art-loving in-laws introduced me to two creative havens in unlikely settings: the Marc Chagall stained-glass windows glowing deep within the Hadassah Medical Center and the multimedia exhibitions that are breathing new life into the Hansen house, a former leper hospital.

Best place ever: The area surrounding the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. From taxi drivers shouting out destinations and kids manning overloaded vegetable carts to butchers slicing into lambs behind shop windows, the balagan (Hebrew for chaos) here never gets old.

I could easily spend a whole day in this gathering place, getting my morning going with strong Arabic coffee spiked with cardamom and bingeing on fresh pomegranate juice from Rami’s stand outside the Al-Amin bakery and handmade hummus (the city’s best, in my humble estimation) from hole-in-the-wall Ikermawi to keep me energized.

The Arab souq in the city of Hebron (Photograph by Christine Blau, National Geographic Travel)
The Arab souq in the Palestinian city of Hebron (Photograph by Christine Blau, National Geographic Travel)

Doable day trip: I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend taking the pleasant drive past palm-tree farms in the Judean Desert to hike or cable-car up to Masada, the dramatic fortress-city built by King Herod atop a massive rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. (Tip: Stop to picnic in the Ein Gedi kibbutz on your way back to Jerusalem.)

But I spent one of my most memorable days in the region walking through the segregated Palestinian city of Hebron on the West Bank. Starting at the Arab souq, head through Abraham’s reputed burial site, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and past Israel Defense Forces soldiers into the Jewish settlement. Then hop a minibus (#4, 9 NIS) for the two-hour ride to Bethlehem to walk along the mural-emblazoned barrier wall separating Israel and Palestine to broaden your perspective on the divergent views that continue to shape this ancient region.

Surprising discovery: Finding Zalatimo’s shop requires patience and humility, as you will likely need to ask for directions more than once. Hidden under a staircase near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, unmarked, and closed half the time, the Zalatimo family offered only one product for generations: mutabbak (Arabic for “folded”), a sweet that originated in Yemen.

Confirm the price first (solid general advice in this region), then watch as the dough is tossed and stretched until it’s paper thin, stuffed with walnuts or cheese, folded, baked, and slathered with syrup. From getting lost to chatting with locals while this crispy baklava-strudel hybrid bakes, the experience provides a welcome opportunity to slow down and enjoy the sweet side of Jerusalem.

Practical tip: A walk through Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood is a must-do, but visitors who don’t respect the orthodox Jewish community’s mores won’t be welcomed. Be sure to wear modest clothing and avoid traveling in packs (you will note signs warning against tour groups) to observe the daily rhythms in this Hasidic enclave without disrupting the flow.

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