What do you do when a global pandemic means borders have to close to tourism? In Israel’s case, you use the enforced break to push ahead with a string of exciting developments — the renovation of Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum was completed in half the expected time with no need to manage awkward closures. And that’s not the only site looking rather different.
But happily there are also a string of new tours to help visitors discover the latest highlights.
Pre-pandemic, Levinsky Market may have been filled with food stores but it wasn’t a destination for most. But after being pedestrianised, the market — previously best known to local chefs — is now unmissable for all foodies.
Tel Aviv guide Roey Dado led me around the gourmet grocers, spice seller and other delicious delis that have moved in among the original shops, making this the chicest shuk in town.
Packed with food stores, hipster cafes and restaurants on Levinsky itself and neighbouring streets HaAliyah and Herzl, the biggest crowds come on Friday mornings to fill their totes with Shabbat provisions and their tummies with coffee, borekas, wine, olives and other delicacies.
Three hours flew by as Dado revealed some of its secrets, telling us of Café Atlas, which sells a Golda blend of coffee created especially for former prime minister and regular Golda Meir, and which imported the first coffee machine into the country, still bearing its issue number #1.
Elsewhere we learned of generations of fish smokers who located their business here to benefit from an (essential) ice-making factory.
With a tasting in every store, Dado weaved in history and politics alongside useful foodie tips, like how to spot a boreka filling without even cutting into it. Cheese is apparently always encased in a triangle of filo to avoid milky/meaty disasters.
Private tours cost from around £225 for two hours. Contact Roey on email@example.com
Jerusalem Tunnel Tour
Think you’ve seen the Western Wall? Well, think again. There’s a whole world under the Kotel that really puts the size of the Second Temple into perspective, with a new tour helping to open visitors’ eyes.
The section we poke notes into while whispering prayers and pleas is only a tiny fraction of the whole; the 70 metres we see today is just part of a structure that stretched for a further half kilometre and was once significantly higher.
The Great Stone Tour gave visitors a taste pre-pandemic, but lockdown enabled archaeologists to dig deeper still. Now, the Great Bridge Route tour has opened up more of the original wall, along with newly excavated rooms.
Books in the Western Wall tunnels (Photo: Noam Chen/IMOT)
Our guide, Eliezer Finer of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, explained that while the first tour allowed you to walk the length of the Western Wall, the newer Great Bridge Route takes you down another level to see the Great Bridge that led to the Temple Mount.
You can stand 100ft from the foundation stone of the Dome of the Rock, where it’s believed Abraham readied himself to sacrifice Isaac. Innovative models bring to life what the Temple may have looked like and its impressive scale, along with a VR tour whisking you back 2,000 years.
Most memorable of all, I found the on- site synagogue with ornate freestanding ark where anyone is free to pray — in separate male and female sections — uniquely special.
Tunnel tours cost from around £8.50 for adults.
Jerusalem Old City
Behind the ancient stones of Jerusalem lie countless fascinating stories, all now more accessible to those who wish to discover them. Quite literally so, in the case of the renovated Tower of David and the Old City’s streets, with moves to open up many more of the narrow, cobbled streets to everyone.
Four miles of streets now have ramps and handrails — installed so discreetly that you are hardly aware of them unless looking or in need — while a smartphone app also helps the visually impaired explore the city.
Or learn more about the city’s less well-known treasures from local guide Dana Haftsadi — whose own tour took off via her blog and Instagram during the pandemic, as she shared her city with the world. Accompanied by Avi Bernstein, the duo talked us through a mixture of history, food and cultural sights.
The Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City (Photo: Noam Chen_IMOT)
Along the way, we met George Kahvedjian, the grandson of a survivor of the Armenian holocaust. He shared the history of his grandfather Elia, from tales of his traumatic life to the founding of his photography shop, including how the huge collection of beautiful photos survived.
Near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we ducked inside a little-known Ethiopian monastery, before encountering Itay, who makes artisan eight-string harps known as sheminit, in the Jewish Quarter.
We also discovered Patisserie Jack — the only European bakery in the Jewish quarter, something rather different among the filo and falafel — as our guides doled out equally tempting snippets of information and tales of the city’s tumultuous history.
Private tours cost from around £470. Contact Dana on misstravel.co.il