***I wandered into Budapest in June of 2019. This blog post, minus the currency information and the updated COVID information, reflects that adventure. Please check with your embassy regarding the current travel situation.
Budapest, Hungary is a city where the beer is cold, the tourist sites are amazing, and the people are friendly. Two cities, melded into one, with layers of history, make for a rewarding travel experience. I greatly enjoyed my time in Budapest.
General Notes.Weather. I visited Hungary in June, and the weather was fantastic! Hot sunny days, and warm mild nights. It is my understanding that Hungary follows the same basic weather patterns as the center of the European continent. I definitely didn’t need a jacket, and it was beautiful weather for my whole stay. Depending on your time of year, you’ll want to check the local weather to make sure.
The Danube. The Danube River cuts the city nicely to into two distinct halves. Originally, it separated two different cities. Initially the city of Buda sat on one side of the river, and the city of Pest sat on the other. Trade went back and forth via barge and boat. With construction of the Chain Bridge in 1849, the two cities merged in Budapest. The Danube River still holds command over the city, being the transit for river cruises and local sightseeing tours.
Money. Everybody wants to know about money. Though a member of the E.U., Hungary does not utilize the Euro for its currency. The national currency of Hungary is the Hungarian Forint. The exchange rate with the U.S. dollar (as of 9-17-2020) was 305.977 Forints per 1 dollar.
Don’t worry too much about the currency exchange. Use ATMs to get cash, as they provide recognized exchange rates. Credit card purchases do as well. Just understand that Budapest is a tourist city, and is priced accordingly, and you’ll be fine. I found the prices not out of line with other countries.
Hotels, taxis and such are starting to post prices in Euros, as Hungary is going to go that way, sooner or later. If you work better in Euros (I’m personally fine dealing in Euros) this May be helpful for your budgeting.
Passports. You’ll need a passport with at least 6 months of remaining validity, and three month’s validity from your departure date out of the Schengen zone. Travels from the United States do not require a visa to visit Hungary for stays under 90 days, but the Schengen zone total travel of 90 days in the zone also does apply. So, you’ll need to consider any other destinations when making your plans.
There are no required immunizations to get before traveling. My only stop in the country was Budapest, and I found it to be quite safe and welcoming of tourists who don’t speak the language. That being said, one should always use sound judgement when out in public.
Language. I found not speaking any Hungarian to not be a problem. Most all people I encountered spoke enough English to have passable conversation. They all also seemed genuinely unbothered speaking English, as opposed to other countries I’ve visited who tend to get putout. I wouldn’t worry if you don’t speak the local.
COVID-19. The situation with the pandemic (as of 9-17-2020) is Hungary is a stage 3 country. The US State Department advises to reconsider travel at this time.
That being said, airports, cultural institutions, hotel, cafes, and bars are all open. Social distancing of 0.5 meters and wearing of a mask or face covering is expected in public settings.
***Foreigners without a residence permit will be banned from entering Hungary, effective September 1. Travel for business purposes and military convoys are possible, and there will be a humanitarian corridor. (US Embassy in Hungary website.)
Getting in and out.There are numerous ways to get in and out of the Hungarian capital. All the major airlines have a route that goes through the city, so flying is an easy option. There is a good rail system in the country which makes traveling by train a definite option. And with its prominent location on the Danube River, there are also river cruise ideas to explore. I traveled into and out of Budapest by train. I found the rail system easy to navigate with a EURail pass, and most of the train choices I picked didn’t require a seat reservation. I also didn’t have any hassles at either of the railway border crossing.
Navigating the City.The city of Budapest is mostly navigable on foot. I found meandering in one direction an then returning by metro or tram to be quite effective as well.
Generally speaking, the citadel hill, Fisherman’s Bastion, and great church are on the Buda side. The walking shopping areas, majority of outdoor cafes, churches and galleries are all on the Pest side. The major parks, the famous baths, and a large number of museums and monuments are also on the Pest side of the river. Hotels seemed to be scattered about on both sides.
I suggest walking around to get the lay of the land. Though the city is good sized, the main tourist sections are collected together nicely.
Some City Highlights.A city that is as historical as Budapest should have loads of major attractions to draw in tourists, and it does. Here I picked some of the one I particularly enjoyed.
Buda Castle is a site that you can’t miss. I literally mean you can’t miss it, as it takes up a good chunk of prominent ground on the Buda side of the city. All you need do is make your way across the chain bridge and ascend the hill. If you’re not a hiker, there are several options for getting up the hill, from a funicular to motorized tour couches. Personally, I didn’t find the walk terribly taxing.
The castle hill and ramparts offer great views of both the Danube and the Pest section of the city. Check in advance about open sections and times of day. Most all of the castle was closed when I was there.
The Great Market Hall is the oldest indoor market in Budapest. Holding a prominent location at major metro and tram stops, the market anchors one end of a large walking/shopping area on the eastern side of the Danube.
The lower floor of the market is mostly vegetable and meat stalls. The upper floor is general tourist stuff stalls and a host of food stalls. The food stalls get heavy traffic during the main hours, so go early to eat at one or just wander through. Either way, it’s a definite must-stop.
The chain Bridge, a little walk along from the indoor market, is the first bridge to span the river between Buda and Pest. A walk across the bridge is easy and provides great views of some major attractions.
The chain bridge is a definite tourist item. It does draw crowds to it, and generates a lot of walking traffic. Most people are crossing either to or from the citadel on the Buda side of the Danube.
The Matthias Church sits directly in front of the world-famous Fisherman’s Bastion, on the citadel hill section of Buda. They even use the same ticket sales location.
The church is a beautiful piece of Romanesque architecture, and is very well preserved. In a section of the upper floor, there is a small museum with pieces important to the church and surrounding city.
In a small private chapel to the rear of the church you will find one of its prize jewels, the Black Madonna. The statue is credited with helping Christian forces recaptured the city of Buda from the Turks in the 17th century. It is a nice piece, and the small chapel gives it a full and inviting presence.
ST. Michael’s Church is located along the pedestrian Váci Utca. This church is kind of indicative of other lesser churches in the city. The real beauty of this church is that it hosts live music in the evenings (along with some other churches). You can just walk up to the church during the day and buy tickets for later that evening. The evenings are comprised of classic works by various composers, and the tickets were quite reasonably priced. A great setting for a live music opportunity like this should be investigated.
Thoughts.With Budapest offering me a completely different view of Eastern Europe from that of Bucharest, I embraced the city quickly. It’s easy to navigate, and the people are quite friendly to travelers. Where I didn’t cover it here, make sure you spend some time in the parks. Budapest’s parks are lovely and well maintained. Get an ice cream and sit on a shady park bench. You’ll find the experience well worth your time.
Now, wait till COVID is over and then get out there! You have exploring to do.
Bucharest, Romania is one of those cities that takes work. It’s not going to give up its secrets to you easily, or all at once. You have to wade into it’s streets and alleyways and search around for yourself.
Though a member of the European Union, Romania is not part of the so-called, Schengen Zone. This is good for travelers. If you’re spending a bunch of time traveling, you won’t be burning up your maximum Schengen days (90 days within six months for westerners, if you’re curious) by visiting Romania. It still carries its own currency, so make sure you prepare yourself in advance, both monetarily and with visas (if needed. US citizens don’t need a visa to enter Romania.)
Bucharest has a completely different feel to it than the other Eastern European cities I visited during my journey. It’s harsher and more rugged than others. Not less refined, but definitely less polished. The Romanian people know this, and are pulling the city into the current age as best as they can.
I enjoyed my stop in Bucharest. It gave me a real contrast to my other stops. But it did require more work to enjoy.
If you read an earlier post about my stop in CluJ, Romania, you get a completely different feel for the country. CluJ is young and hip, while still embracing its past. Bucharest is much older and more languishing, like CluJ’s doting grandmother. It’s the contrast of places that makes travel interesting.
Following, I’ll try to do three days in Bucharest justices, without being overly critical.
Getting There, and Escaping.
Considering I was coming out of Israel, the easiest way to get to Bucharest was to fly. It was pretty easy to find a flight, as there were multiple international carriers making the trek in one direction of the other.
I chose the most reasonably priced ticket I could get, which led me to getting into Bucharest late in the evening. Too late to figure out buses and taxis. This led me to set up an airport transfer to my hotel before I left Israel. The transfer turned out to be a good idea, as the section of town that I found my hotel in got super sketchy after dark! (Like the hotel was locked up after dark sketchy.) it was reported to me that they had large problems with crime from the Gypsy population.
It turned out that, as long as the sun was up, the place wasn’t so bad. This made it possible for me to walk from the hotel to the train station for an early morning exit. Getting train reservations handled at the station in Bucharest wasn’t even remotely straightforward, as nobody spoke anything but Romanian. (Stay calm and smile Aaron. Keep looking harmless and you’ll get what you want, eventually) Getting my rail pass stamped and a reservation for the trip over to CluJ took me four ladies, at for different windows (one lady twice), and about an hour, but I got it done. And, I got a crazy lost in translation story out of the deal.
It was in and out via public transportation on this trip. I find it the easiest way to get around places I’ve never been. Don’t know that I’m excited about driving in Romania just yet.
Coming to terms with Eastern Europe.
Most of Eastern Europe is definitely in a state of transition. Countries that are trying to pull themselves out of communist depression and insert themselves into the new E.U., represent every level of this transition. Romania, though not a member of the Schengen Zone yet, is still doing all it can to survive and thrive in this new economic landscape.
At first sight, It is a lot to take in. The social feel of Romania is quite different than anything you will find in the west. They are holding on to their stoic, rural past, attempting to adjust as a slower pace.
The second definite thing that can’t be overlooked is the effects of Communism on the country. I literally mean you cannot not see it. Communist depression had a larger effect on Bucharest that it did on other Eastern European stops I made in my continued travels. Bucharest will need to work harder to dig themselves out.
And, they are definitely trying. New infrastructure and building projects are evident in many parts of the city that I visited. Old buildings are being repurposed, and new areas are being created from urban renewal. Just down the street from the building above was a fantastic green space with a fountain that fronted a modern shopping mall, with major retailers.
I suggest you just take it slowly. Don’t expect too much from the city and it will no doubt reward you with more than you plan on. Keep an eye open for change, and you’ll find it.
I became quite comfortable in the city, once I understood its nature. You just have to take it at a slower pace than other cities.
Happiness in the Despair.
The state of Bucharest reminds me of something Mark Twain said. It has “the mold and decay that go with antiquity.”
As you make your way around the sections of the city that have not received any major rehabilitation (where I spent the majority of my time), you can feel it’s pre-communist charms. One of a handful of cities to wear the Moniker “Paris of the East”, the city’s architectural connection to the French capital is impossible to miss. Numerous examples of the French style exist around the city.
Sadly, with decades of communism came rot and ruin. The majority of the different structures I saw where in some state of advanced disrepair.
Happily, the city also seems to be becoming aware of the value of these old gems. Although it will be a slow and laborious process, I have faith the conservation efforts will begin to prevail as money is infused into their economy.
Definitely get out and walk around the side streets. I found numerous structures that made me believe in the previous splendor of the city. The architecture, even such as it is, is quite amazing.
Some Cultural Highlights.
I confess that I’ve been beating the place up. It does have a real depression about it in some areas. That being said, it also has some real gems. Here are just a few of those.
The Kretzulescu Basilica is a small but otherwise completely over-adorned church, just down the street from the Royal Palace of Bucharest. The church is free to enter (or it was when I visited) and is a good look at past religious representations.
Every inch of its interior surfaces are covered in paintings or reliefs. Even the inside of the exterior entryway is completely covered. The works are almost completely intact and well-maintained. It’s a lovely distraction while you’re out exploring, and I would suggest checking it out.
Directly next to the Royal Palace of Bucharest, and sitting inside the same courtyard, you’ll find the National Museum of Art of Romania.
I found a tour of the art collection to be a wholly satisfying experience. The collection, laid out over multiple floors in the museum, is a mixture of painting and sculpture. The exhibit is quite enjoyable, but not exhaustive. I toured it in an hour or so.
Unlike museums in the west, there was no line to queue in. I walked straight in to the ticket agent. She was warm and welcoming. The museum was also sparsely inhabited, which gave it a very intimate feeling. I enjoyed the stop very much.
The Romanian Athenaeum, up and across the street from the Palace is a lovely and magnificently well-maintained concert hall. It is also where you will get your lingering post-communist welcome. The man working as the ticket seller and security enforcer has no sense of humor that he knows of. Just kidding, I’m sure he’s a likable old dude, but he’s a little stiff.
The concert hall is amazing in its architecture and decoration. The quick tour is well worth your time.
Directly adjacent to the Athenaeum is a restaurant called Trattoria II (I think). Anyway, you can’t miss the signs. It’s worth stopping in the outside courtyard for a cool down beer, if nothing else.
Though I confess I was a little harsh on Bucharest, I am truly happy that I made the trip there. Travel, to be truly rewarding, shouldn’t always be easy. I think we forget that, at times.
You should make more time in your travels for places more remote, wether that be in location or economy. The lack of ease adds to the experience you take away.
I would recommend a stop in Bucharest. I would also recommend you follow it up with a stop in another Eastern European location. This way, you will get context. Without context, you can’t form an accurate opinion of a place. (Or, that’s my opinion on the matter.)
Now, go somewhere and do something. Have a new experience!
The vast majority of people who do not live in Jerusalem are primarily coming to the city to see, pray, or be in one of these three places. The literal focal point for the majority of the worlds faiths, these sites draw staggering crowds.
Even with sometimes crushing crowds, these major holy sites can be warm, welcoming, and inspiring. The people of Jerusalem who administer them will be found to also be warm and hospitable, if approached with humility. (They deals with ridiculous crowds of people)
Saving the big stuff for last, let’s take a look at the major holy sites located inside the walls of the old city.
The Western Wall
The Western Wall of the Temple Mount is a remaining section of retaining wall from the second temple period. It was used to encase the Temple Mount and provide extra space for construction of the temple. It is the holy site for people of Jewish faith in old Jerusalem.
Considering it’s a major holy site, it’s not particularly easy to get to if inside the city. From the outside, there is a gate that accesses it directly (The Zion Gate), making it easy for the bus loads of pilgrim tour groups that descend upon it. From inside the city, one must follow a winding maze-like route to its internal entrance.
As with the Dome of the Rock, situated above it, don’t plan on getting in without a thorough scanning. The Israeli defense force takes security around the area seriously. Also, picture taking isn’t really approved in the area of the Western Wall’s prayer section, as it’s deemed to be quite rude.
(If you want to take good pictures, there is an observation area behind and above the open area of the wall. You have to access it from outside the security area, but it’s easy enough to find.)
Independent of your beliefs, a stop by the Western Wall is a must. No other place is as quintessentially Jerusalem as here.
The Temple Mount
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is crowned by one of the most beautiful mosques I have seen, The Dome of the Rock. Believed to be the spot where Mohammed ascended into heaven, it is a major holy site for people of the Islamic faith.
The Temple Mount area where the Dome of the Rock stands is also believed by many to be the location of Solomon’s Temple, which makes it a holy site for Jewish people as well.
The courtyards and areas around the mosque are open and airy. The whole place has a calming effect that I cannot adequately put into words. You will leave your visit there feeling different than before you went. It’s true.
There are a couple different ways to approach the Temple Mount. I took the covered walkway connecting it to the Western Wall. There is also an entrance on its other side. Like the wall, be prepared to get checked and scanned before being allowed entrance. With all the tensions in the land, this security effort should be expected and appreciated.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
If you walk around lost in old Jerusalem for any amount of time, you’ll end up in the courtyard for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m not sure why all paths seem to lead there, but the do.
The otherwise unassuming old building, according to tradition, contains both the site of the crucification at Calvary and the site of the resurrection in Jesus’s empty tomb.
The church is considered one of, if not the, holiest site in the Christian faith. As such, it receives an overwhelming amount of tourists. The interior of the church is large and multi-stories, but somehow still feels like it will burst at the seems if any more people try to enter. Groups (think slow moving bus tour groups) come and go in waves.
When you are going to attempt the church, draw a deep breath, and calm yourself before you start. Remember, this is a holy place, act accordingly.
Otherwise, you’ll definitely enjoy a stop here. The inside of the church, and it’s many side-areas, are absolutely stuffed with paintings and iconography. The site, if approached in the appropriate manner, is quite moving.
Though I’m not particular religious in any fashion, I found visiting the holy sites to be quite a moving experience.
Standing on the Temple Mount, surrounded by the large vistas of the holy land, left me with a deep moving feeling that didn’t let go of me for many hours afterward. History and religion radiate from every rock and tree on the Mount. Being there, and absorbing that, was as close to a religious experience as I have ever had. I left the Mount with a profound sense of being.
The experience of visiting the big three holy places is greatly worth the trouble that it takes to do so. Most of the planet is trying to do what you are doing. Be the deliverer of peace in this setting, not the instigator of misery. Being calm and patient will increase your experiences here immeasurably. Trust me on this one!
As soon as COVID lets the world travel again, consider Israel and the Holy Land. An experience I wanted to have for decades was more than worthwhile on every level. Definitely visit Israel.
Go. Explore. Learn.
Jerusalem is a city that, I think, defies description. How you choose to try and describe it completely depends on the point of view you bring with you. Ancient, storied, troubled, and revered; the city is a gathering of cultures, treasure seekers, religious zealots and pilgrims of every type. That statement is true even today.
In this overview of a couple days in Jerusalem, I am intentionally not covering the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They will be touched on separately in the next post.
I think I’m like most people in the world when I say that I’ve always wanted to go to Jerusalem. I’m not religious in any particular way, so a draw toward the holy land isn’t what modern social media would call spiritual. If I’m honest, I think it’s the blood soaked sands. So much history has happened, and is still happening, in such a confined area that it has a draw on me to go there and see for myself.
I am happy to report that the city and its surroundings were everything and much more than I hoped to experience. The city is truly amazing. Even with all of the problems that swirl around it, and the heavy policing presence, the city has a calming factor that is hard to explain. I had an incredible experience exploring the narrow alleyways and congested streets, never once feeling (overly) uncomfortable or out of place.
Where I Stayed.
I found a hotel on booking.com outside the city walls that allowed me easy access to both the city gates and the local tram system. The Christmas Hotel was a nicer experience than what I had paid for online, and much less expensive than the over-priced hotels inside the city walls.
It was a lovely little hotel inside an old stone building, across from a church, on a quiet side street. I walked from the hotel down into the city and also across to the Mount of Olives, never feeling insecure in my travels. (I should say once again, I have a pretty good level of situational awareness when it comes to traveling, you should never work outside your comfort area just because someone else says it’s okay.)
The hotel was great. The staff was great, as was the breakfast! I liked staying there a lot. (I’m not affiliated with either the hotel or booking.com. I’m just passing along info.)
The Layout of the City.
The city is a warren of overstuffed small alleys and congested narrow streets broken infrequently by congested open areas. Most of the open areas holding a major historical item of interest (church, mosque, or the like).
Where the city is broken down into quarters, they are really only of use to the locals. For tourists, you are going to find countless orientation signs when you enter though any of the gates that lead you off toward whatever. You’re going to end up following the signs most of the time. It’s okay, that’s why their up there.
Most all the navigational signs lead you in toward a particular religious site or out toward a gate. All the gates are named. You definitely need to know what gate you enter, as walking around the outside of the walls when you exit the wrong gate isn’t a real option.
If you’re really in doubt, ask one of the Israeli security forces. They know the place better than anyone.
The city of Jerusalem is one of the most completely walled cities that I have been in while traveling. It gives a much more palpable experience than any of the half reconstructed European walled cities I’ve been in. When you walk around it, you can literally feel what it was like to be living here in earlier times.
Congestion Inside the Walls.
The Corona Virus travel hiatus aside, Jerusalem is a congested place. The old walled city of Jerusalem is even more congested than the rest.
Where the modern city of Jerusalem is much more than the what you see in pictures of city walls and old stone buildings, what almost everybody goes to see is inside and adjacent to the walls of the old city.
Since the area of the old city is fixed by the ramparts and gates of antiquity, it gives no room for the ever-increasing number of people to expand out in to. The small streets and alleyways are almost constantly congested with people (both local and tourist). The open areas and cafes are also nearly always full. There are definitely more people inside the city walls than the area will hold.
The big three holy sites are the same. Waves of people come and go, more coming than going. There are basically always multiple people around you. It’s life inside the walled city. But, if you take a deep breathe and pause, an opening will always appear to let you see what you want to see or to take a picture. Everyone is doing the same thing, so just pause and breath. It will help you immensely!
New Jerusalem City.
There is a large area of Jerusalem that isn’t the old walled city or the Mount of Olives area. The city is an expanding, modern place. It has all of the layers of government and infrastructure that any city has.
That being said, there isn’t much out there that a traveler is going to get excited about, especially if you’re on a religious journey of any kind. The one thing I would solidly recommend is a trip across town to The Holocaust History Museum.
The museum is an easy tram ride away from the old city area. The museum is deep, and moving. You will leave there will a profoundly different view of things. It is absolutely worth your time and effort to visit.
Getting Around Town.
Getting into Jerusalem is easy. Take the bus from about anywhere in Israel. You’ll need a Rav Cav card to utilize public transportation, which is easy to obtain.
Getting around Jerusalem is pretty much the same. There is a tram system that runs through the middle of the city. There is also a bus system to get you around. There are cabs and such, but everybody seems to go after public transport.
I used the bus to get to/from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I used the tram inside Jerusalem, or I walked. You can walk pretty comfortably around the old city area. The tram is timely and clean. I never used the local bus, as I couldn’t figure out the bus system routes and timetable.
Some of the Other Holy Sites.
You go in the Jaffa Gate, past the alley shops and on to the t-shirts sellers, and then on to an open square. In the triangular shaped square (I know, it’s a paradox) there is a huge church.
The church is a cathedral or Basilica or church of some variety (I’m honestly not sure what it is, or it’s name for that matter) which has a large tower with a spire. Seriously, you won’t be able to miss it. And where the church is nice in a spartan kind of way, the view from the tower is what you go in for.
From the observation ring at the top of the tower you get a 360-degree view of the old city. A good look-see allows you to get bearings and decide on landmarks before getting lost in the warren of congested alleyways.
The church also has a subterranean section which allows you to view ancient building foundations. It’s all a good starting point for what’s to come.
The Mount of Olives seems like a daunting walk when you look at it from the ramparts, but it’s really not. The religious sites start right at the bottom of the hill, and meander their way up the hillside. It’s an easy walk from one site to the next. As long as you rest a little bit at each site, you’re good to go.
That being said, the grade going up the Mount is steep. Wear good shoes and drink ample water. Otherwise, enjoy your time.
Some of the numerous things to see and experience are the many cemeteries, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Mary’s Tomb, along with a host of churches and shrines.
The Via Dolorosa is believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. It’s the path that hosts the stations of the cross, which are identified across the city by identifying numbers set into the walls at each location.
The route is extremely popular with tour groups who stop at each of the stations and generally cause chaos for everyone else trying to walk around the city.
Even though biblical scholars seem to have agreed upon the idea that this route isn’t the real route Jesus took, the tour guides don’t seem to care. Just give them a minute and they’ll move on. Once they’re gone you’ll have a minute or two to take each place in before another tour group comes along. Just smile, and accept that it is the way it is.
Jerusalem was everything that I wanted it to be. It was old. It was religious. It was chaotic. It was a simmering cauldron of cultures, not completely coexisting. It was exotic smells. It was exotic tastes. It was (almost) overwhelming in its complexity.
I have to say that I took way more away from the experience than I had initially planned on. That, for me, is the truest sense of what travel is all about. The city is simply magical.
Now, stop listening to me, and go explore for yourself. Get out there. See the world!
For any real traveler, Israel is a bucket list destination. A crossroads of history and religion, the area possesses countless opportunities for both tourism and exploration.
Granted, the country and surrounding area has a long been the home of political problems and violence. that situation has made many travelers reluctant to attempt the country. I confess, I put it off going for many years.
That being said, traveling to Israel is now one of the absolute highlights in my many years of traveling the globe. The land is inspiring, the beaches are fantastic, and the history is without equal. On top of that, the people are amazingly friendly and helpful. Your traveling experience will (or should) end up being exactly the opposite of what the international news would have you to believe.
(I have found that, almost without exception, the news media is only around to spread fear and distrust. All of the places I have traveled to have been much less problematic than I was led to believe.)
I had an excellent time in Israel, and found it adequately safe to travel in. That’s the upside. The downside: the country isn’t cheap and it isn’t necessarily easy. (I mentioned my banking dilemma in the last post.) I’m going to dedicate this quick post to the beginning and end exasperation; aka, getting in and out of the country!
Arriving in Tel Aviv.
I’m just gonna say it, straight up. Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv is the main entry point for the country, and an absolute shit-show! The airport experience was awful!
The entry area is this big open area at the bottom of a long ramp. There were two customs people on duty when we arrived, one for nationals and one for everybody else. Multiple planes of people ended up filling the area in makeshift, self-forming lines that the the immigrations did nothing to control or direct. It was an absolute fiasco!
Finally realizing the situation was out of control, one more immigration person appeared. They made no attempt to better the situation at all. They simply opened a booth and started randomly picking people out of the crowd to check. It took the better part of two hours to get a stamp in my passport. When I actually got to the counter, I was asked like two or three questions. (One of them being; you’re american? Which should have been obvious from my passport.)
The airport was shockingly disorganized!
Leaving Tel Aviv.
I would desperately love to tell you that the above episode was a one-off, and my departure was smooth and easy. Sadly, that would be untrue.
The whole departure extravaganza was as big a fiasco as the arrival had been, just on a grander scale. There were numerous ticket agents, collecting people out of numerous interwoven lines of people.
All the time you stood in line, you were looked at by wandering customs agents that walked around randomly inspecting passports. (I’m going to forgo the obvious similarity to the KGB of 80s movies, but yes. It was exactly like that.)
The airport experience as a whole is extremely unwelcoming.
Yes, the above was pretty harsh. It was also factual. Numerous internet lists have Kuwait International as the worst airport on the planet. Having flown in/out of Kuwait several times, I really think that Ben Gurion International airport gives them a run for their money. It’s really not good.
The airport is however, a contrast to the rest of your experience. Israel as country is Fantastic! Tel Aviv is an amazing city with excellent beaches. Jerusalem is almost unexplainable. (though I will attempt it in an upcoming post) The place is definitely worth your time. The travel experience there is literally bucket list, one of a kind.
That being said, it all starts with getting there and gone. That experience hopefully won’t taint the remainder. I hope your entry and exit was better than mine.
Now, get out there! See the world!
(After the Corona, that is.)
I was in Turkey back in the 80s but never really hit any of the major cities. Wandering around the deserts in the East made me want to return. And, after 30 some years, I finally managed to do so.
Obviously, Istanbul was an absolute must-stop destination. So many different travel segments have been done on the city that everybody I know who travels has either already been there or just sighs and says that they’ll get there one day. It’s that amazing o a place. And, it turns out that it’s actually all true!
Getting to Istanbul.Getting to Istanbul is pretty easy. Most all major airlines fly there. The international airport is pretty new, vast, and requires some walking to navigate. Rolling through customs isn’t tricky, and language skills aren’t required. Everyone speaks enough English for you to get by. Getting from the airport to the city is another matter altogether. The new international airport is like 40 miles west of the city. There is no train service to it, at this point. It does have a bus service of some variety that you can use, but I wasn’t tempting fate. There are several different hotel transfer services that do a brisk business. I utilized one that I found online while still in Crete. I’m pretty sure it was called Kiwi Taxi. They took all of the hassle out of the situation. Probably the most productive $40.00 I spent while I was there. I highly suggest the hotel transfer service. Also keep in mind that the old airport on the eastern side of the Bosporus is still open and active. It is closer, but in a different direction. Check and make sure you understand what direction you are entering the city from. I flew into the new airport and out of the old airport, which caused me some temporary logistical problems.
Stop! Know the details in advance.A word of caution: check your paperwork. The Near East isn’t Europe. Before i left the USA, I had made a whole spreadsheet with all of the information I needed about each country I thought I would visit. It had common currency, type of electric plugs used, transportation options (whether I was flying in/out or using the train), weather, and oh ya, entry requirements. I left the spreadsheet at the house, so it slipped my mind that I might need a visa to get into Turkey. Ugh! As I was laying on my hotel bed in Crete looking for hotel transfers, I happened to stumble on a website headline announcing visa requirements. Needless to say, that grabbed my attention. Fortunately for this story, it turns out you can get an almost instant eVisa, if you have a digital passport photo, a credit card, and a good internet connection. 2 or 3 hour crisis finally averted. That was, until I clicked on the US State Department website. The state department informed me that it was unwise to travel to Turkey at this time. It was highly suggested that I change my plans and don’t go. If I was to get in trouble in the eastern half of the country, they would not be coming to help me. Yes, you read that right.
Yup. The State department said don’t go. But I’ve already bought the plane tickets and reserved the room. I mean seriously, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
Turns out…You can have a fantastic time!
The Old City of Constantinople.
The Sultanahmet neighborhood on the western side of the Bosporus is the area holding most of the old city gems. From a hotel in this area you can explore the must-see tourist items on foot or with a short tram ride.
Things to See and Do.In a city the size of Istanbul, you are overwhelmed with things to do and see. You can spend every waking hour out in search of the once-in-a-lifetime must-dos, or you can just chill, and enjoy being in Constantinople. I chose the latter. It was definitely a good decision. The following is a list of things that I did while there, and very much enjoyed.
The Hagia Sophia Museum
I confess, the reason I fly to Istanbul was to visit this church/mosque/museum. A defining piece of architecture, the Hagia Sophia is the model upon which every other great church is constructed. It is in remarkably good shape for its age, and actually looks better in real life than it’s depictions in some movies.
Now a museum, most of the masses seem to treat it that way. The go-to destination for day trippers and cruise shippers, the Lines you stand in to enter are exasperatingly long and unfriendly. But, once inside, you’ll be overjoyed that you suffered through the wait. The Hagia Sophia is magnificent! That is not an overstatement. Well maintained over the years and retaining the Islamic influences from its time as a mosque, the building is larger than life. You seem to get swallowed up in it as you look around. In the upper levels, preserved and rediscovered Christian mosaics let you feel its original spectacle. It’s hard to put its age and beauty into words that do it justice.
You won’t regret going to see it.
The Blue Mosque
Where the Hagia Sophia has long been a museum, and is treated as such, the Blue Mosque is a living and working religious structure. It should be approached with some reverence.
It’s located almost directly across the open green space fro Hagia Sophia. You seriously have trouble missing it. However, it is surrounded by a low wall, so finding an entrance can take a minute.
Catching the mosque in-between the calls to prayer is your best and most-favored option. There is an entry fee into the building and the line doesn’t really seem to disappear. Externally, the building and courtyard are fantastic. Internally most mosques are pretty austere, so I skipped the line and surcharges. The courtyard was extravagant, so if you want to enter and check out the rest, don’t let that steer you clear.
The Basilica Cistern
Yup, Dan Brown made another spot into a must-see travel destination. I walked in the footsteps of Robert Langdon yet again!
The cistern’s located just up the street from the Hagia Sophia. It has pretty standard hours and an entry fee that says they know you’re going to pay it to go in.
As a tourist attraction it doesn’t disappoint. The walk through the cistern is quite enjoyable. It’s a little hard to get good pictures in the low-light conditions, but you’ll take a bunch anyway, just as I did. If you track it down, Medusa’s head is right where it’s supposed to be.
Keep in mind, the Basilica Cistern get piles of traffic. Most of the entrants are guided tour day-trippers. The line can get huge! Try to go first-thing when they open. It helps to see it in a more peaceful manner.
The Grand Bazar
The grand bazaar is another one of those must-do Istanbul locations. It’s definitely worth your time, but leave your street bazaar ideas from Middle Eastern countries at home. This isn’t that kind of place. Obviously built up over time, the bazaar is much more a covered shopping area these days. It’s still kitschy-cool. I bought some t-shirts. Go, take the walk, have a good time. You’ll have a shopping story when you return home.
The Topkapi Palace is a staple on every top-ten list and a major chunk of The Sultanahmet neighborhood. Just like the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Palace draws large crowds of tourists. Get there as early as possible.
Note number one, the audio guides will run out. They did the day I was there, literally the guy behind me got the last one they had. If you don’t want to have to wait around for somebody to return one, get there early.
Note number two, the entry price is NOT all-inclusive. You will pay extra for the harem access. Also the tower, which is a major visual draw inside the palace courtyard, is accessed through the extra charge harem area. Also, it was closed while I was there. Ugh!!
Other than those notes, GO THERE! This place is awesome. It’s no wonder that the Ottomans were an empire after seeing this place. The gardens are excellent. The inner courtyard is spectacular! The outer walls and the inner buildings are in immaculate shape, and are surprisingly airy considering their design and location. I’m not sure I can say enough good things about it. Seriously. Go there!
Bosporus River Cruise
Everyone should spend a couple quality hours sailing on the Bosporus. There are numerous options at numerous prices, but the majority of people leave from the ferry terminals on the north side of the Golden Horn, directly next to the bridge. There are several operators, all of which are about the same price wise, offering pretty much the same route. The boats are open-top ferry boats, holding a hundred or two each.
Some major sites are announced on the boats loudspeakers as you pass. The remainder of the trip is yours to look and wonder.
General note: since everyone on the boat wants to take pictures of the various sights, there is always congestion at the rails. Camera wielding tourists switch from one side to another as the boat goes up and down the predetermined route. If you not snapping pictures, there are plenty of seats in the middle to enjoy. The man selling tea will find you there.
Taking in the Joys.I remember sitting in this rooftop hotel bar drinking a beer and looking out over the Blue Mosque. All the time this was happening I was pondering the idea that I was actually in Constantinople! A place so deep with history that you actually have to decide what you want to explore before hand or you’ll get lost in it all. You have to enjoy the experiences you have. If you don’t, why are you traveling? I intentionally don’t overbook my exploring, just so I know I have time to soak up some of the joy that comes my way. Sometimes, even from a rooftop bar.
Thoughts.I am sooooooooooooooo happy that I went to Constantinople! Okay fine, Istanbul. It turned out to be a great experience, with amazing sites that I’ve been wanting to see for decades. If you use a little common sense and preplanning, you can have an excellent time. Just make sure you look at the logistics in advance. And, don’t forget about the visa! Now, get out there! Explore someplace new! Have a new experience … after the airports open back up post-corona virus.
Okay, to start with this post probably should have been called the wonders of Heraklion, but Heraklion is in Crete so, there you go! Considering I had a singular vision of what Crete would be before I left, I’m super happy that I went. Crete (or the Heraklion area) is worth your travel time.
Getting my butt to Crete!
When I was planning my trip around the islands I wanted to use the ferry to go everywhere. That turned out to be way to time consuming for the time I had blocked out. I ended up flying into Santorini, but I caught the ferry from there south to Crete. Negotiating the ferry ticketing and dock area was super easy. Like hang out and drink some beers before you leave easy. The ferry from Santorini to Crete was a straight shot and lasted a couple hours.
The ferry system has well maintained vessels with plenty of amenities to occupy your time while you travel.
Understanding what time you’re actually getting into town!
Picking the one time available for the high-speed ferry on the day I wanted to leave for Crete, I didn’t really stop to ponder what time the ferry would get into the port of Heraklion. In retrospect, it might have been wise to do so beforehand.
I walked off the ferry ramp onto a poorly light and empty landing area. We were the last ferry of the day and everyone who worked there had basically gone home for the night. And, I do mean almost everybody. The guy that raised and lowered the ramp was still there, and a guy with a traffic wand directing the cars out of the area. That was about it. There was nobody at the taxi stand. There was no one at the bus stop. Everyone walking off the ferry, like I was, just disappeared out into the city darkness.
At first, a walk across a foreign city in the dark didn’t seem appealing. But with no taxis kicking around, it was a necessity. To my happiness, the walk was quiet and uneventful. I made my way from the port across town to my hotel in about 20 minutes, unbothered by the city’s nighttime traffic. Even the sketchy side streets were quiet, the people I encountered off on their own affairs.
Things to do in Heraklion.
The city is a primary entryway onto Crete, and a modern city. Even considering the city’s ancient roots, it feels much more a modern entity. But, getting out and walking around will put you in touch with it’s many pleasant wonders. Following are the things that I found interesting during my 3 days of wanderings.
The Palace of Knossos.
The majority of day tripping cruise ship people know Crete for one thing. To be honest, the Palace of Knossos was the primary reason that I ventured to the island.
The Palace complex lies outside the city of Heraklion. It’s easy to get to, heavily trafficked, and impressive. Since I plan to cover it in the next post, I’ll give you a picture and move on for now.
Enjoying the street scenes in the old town.
The area of the city sweeping uphill from the old port is the old part of Heraklion. As with many “old towns” the area is a congestion of small streets and shops. The whole area is interspersed with statues, churches, and historical buildings. Wandering the side streets you’ll find quiet cafes and bars separated by street art and other interesting sights. Walking the many small side streets is definitely time well spent.
The old port.
One of the gems of Heraklion is the area around the old port and harbor. A collection of structures in various states of disrepair that ages from the Greeks all the way up to the Middle Ages. Old Roman dry docks on land show the old waterline of the harbor. The outer edge and breakwater give a sense for its size in antiquity.
The defensive fortress sitting about halfway out along the breakwater harkens back to the days when things weren’t as calm as they are today. The fortress’s canons have an unobstructed line of fire out into the waters of the Aegean.
The fortress is well worth both the walk out to it, and the price of admission (which is cheap enough). There are nice exhibits and a documentary film to go along with commanding views.
The Archeological Museum.
As expected of anywhere in Greece, Heraklion has a well appointed archeological museum. The institution hosts a large and varied collection of objects from both Crete and surrounding islands.
Being located north of the old town area, the museum is a quick bus ride up the hill. Make your way there early, as those that don’t go to Knossos go to the museum. It can fill up quickly after mid-morning. On the way out of the museum take a little time and hang out in the museum atrium. The light breeze from the hilltop and the shade of the trees is refreshing.
The Historical Museum of Crete.
A block or so from the waterfront you’ll find a small unassuming building that looks more like someone’s house than a museum. With a boutique gift shop area and ticket counter inside the front door, the museum turns into a multilevel story of Heraklion’s past years. A series of close hallways and tight stairways guide you up three stories. The collection is small, but also eclectic, and worth the time it will take to navigate the building.
A consideration on how to spend your time.
As with any touristy adventure, how you spend your time was probably considered in advance. Time can be a limited commodity for a great many people, and sites need to be seen.
I always find it better to not do this! Being an itinerary-driving traveler does an injustice to most of the places you go. I like to plan little, and wander a great deal. All of Greece is excellent for my type of tourism. There is so much to see and experience that isn’t included in any of the guidebooks. Wandering side streets and lingering in street side bars adds as much to a satisfying experience as staring at statues in museums does. That’s strictly my opinion (obviously), but I find most stories that people have about travel after returning home, don’t involve standing in crowds at a museum. Just slow down and chill a little bit. You’ll like the experience it provides.
Great weather, great people, and a deep historical culture to explore, Heraklion is definitely worth the time and effort it takes to get there.
I had an excellent time just hanging out, without an agenda. Drinking a little beer and eating gyros. Hahahahaha
It really is a good island, and it lived up to all the pre-travel hype. I suggest you go!
Now get out there, after the Corona virus leaves us alone, go explore an island or two!
I suppose most people think of Santorini as a Greek Island covered by whitewashed houses. That’s what most all the travel pictures show. That’s pretty much what I thought of it before I ventured there.
It turns out that the island of Santorini, potential home of the lost city of Atlantis, ancient volcanic caldera responsible for the demise of the Minoan civilization, historic holder of volcanic covered cities, or fancy blue-capped whitewashed buildings is something else; it’s a major cruise ship stop! I mean an Aegean primary cruise ship stop. Multiple cruise ships at a time tie up inside the calm waters of the caldera, and unleash thousands of day-tripping t-shirt shopper on the island one tender boat at a time.
If this last bit is all you know of the island, that’s actually really sad. The island, apart from the irritating throng of cruisers, is a lazy, sleepy place. Small towns cling precariously to volcanic slopes, each having its own vibe. The people are quite enjoyable and welcoming. And the entertainments are easy enough to find. After the tenders take all the cruise people away, the island turns into a quiet and fantastical Greek Island, exactly as one would expect it to.
Getting to the island.
Getting to the island is easy! You can chose either water or air options. The island is serviced by the cruise ship industry, and by a host of ferry lines. The ferries and cruise ships have different ports, at different parts of the island, but are easy enough to get to by taxi.
Santorini also has an airport. It’s a short flight from several points around the Aegean. I flew in from Athens on a short flight, first thing in the morning. The airport is a sparse affair, and is serviced by taxis and a local bus service. (Don’t depend on the island’s bus service, especially if you have a bunch of luggage.)
The Cruise Ship Business.
Okay, I beat up the cruise ship people at the beginning. If you are not part of the environment they can seem like a plague of locusts. The reality is probably something different.
The cruise ships tie up inside the caldera, below the steep cliffs of Fira, it’s the center of the populated part of the island. An expedient gondola service lifts people from the cruise ship dock up to the edge of Fira town. The gondola also provides a great view of the island’s inside edge. Just go when it’s quiet.
Fira is a tight-woven warren of shops attempting to separate day-tripper’s from their money. And, their good at it! Most people make their way through the streets of shops down to the central bus station. Once there, they either go north to the blue domed churches or south to the ruins and beaches. Many will rent scooters or all terrain vehicles from one of the countless rental shops. (Make sure you have an International Drivers License with you if you plan on renting.) the scooter people zip around recklessly for about half the day, and then return to their ship.
The cruise ship timing is well established on the island. If you work around the swell of people from the ships, you can move around basically unbothered.
Working on Island Time.
Where Athens and the continent have a hurried and somewhat structured feeling to them, the Greek islands do not. I found that Santorini had a feeling akin to the Bahamas or the islands of Thailand. Time is an entity unto itself.
Where the whole place can seem somewhat hurried when the cruise ship crowds are descending down upon the various towns on Thera, when the same big boats pull out the whole thing changes. The island slows down. It becomes quite lazy. People linger and meander. The restaurants tend to let you sit and converse longer, not needing to turn over their tables. Having a drink and watching the sun set is an actual activity to look forward to.
And, it’s fantastic! I mean absolutely fantastic! You can actually feel yourself decompress. And you feel it more, the longer you stay. The long casual walk uphill into town from my little hotel was enjoyable, the light evening breeze cascading down the hillside through the trees and carrying along the fragrance of the fruits. Waiting for the waiter to get done with their conversation before he/she ambles over to the table you chose out of the empty street side arrangement of the restaurant is quite acceptable. Having a second drink after dinner (or breakfast) is perfectly enjoyable.
It’s all good! Once you embrace it, you will enjoy it.
Another thing to consider about working on island time is getting around the island. Travel around the island for your basic traveler comes in two forms.
First, you can rent a scooter or ATV to whiz around the island on. Rental counters are literally everywhere! They may be in even more places than that. Outside of full time rental companies, most every hotel has rentals. A lot of regular shops have them as well. One thing to consider, you’ll need to have an international drivers license to rent something. They get pretty sticky about it too, so take one.
Second, you can take the bus. The bus runs everywhere. It runs pretty consistently. Now, you won’t find any timetables on any websites. The timetable is handwritten. It’s posted at the bus station wall in Fira with a thumbtack. No joke. I actually walked over and took pictures of it for later use. Also, they put everybody on the bus that will fit before it leaves. A gentleman makes his way through the bus and sell ride tickets while underway. You pay cash for the tickets, so keep some coins with you. When the bus is over-full it can take some time to get a ticket. The buses can be like serious third world country overfilled. But, they tend to show up on time, and their cheap.
The List of Things to Do.
Both Fira and Oia are literally build around the shopping experience. Both have a big section of town designated as shopping zones. You can get any of the standard tourist items. Oddly, for being such a magnet for Atlantis conspiracies, you can’t get an Atlantis tshirt (or I couldn’t find one!). That aside, you can find whatever you want. The streets are narrow and crowded, so have some patience and enjoy island time shopping.
There are a plethora of beaches on Santorini. I mean, it is an island after all. There are beaches for all occasions. However, there are three more famous beaches among them. They are somewhat uninspiringly referred to as the red beach, the white beach, and the black beach (which is actually named Perissa Beach but known as the black beach.)
All three of the famous beaches are located along the southern section of the Santorini caldera. Two of them, the red beach and the white beach, can be reached from the southern bus stop (the bus stop for the ruins). The black beach is a little more secluded, and requires a water taxi which is also available at the bus stop.
I took a walk over to the red beach. The trail is sketchy, at best, and winds it’s way across the rock ledges of the water’s edge. It’s not a difficult walk, just narrow and heavily trafficked. The water is refreshing, so it’s worth the walk over to the beach.
Note. Parking around that area is limited. So if you’re traveling by rental scooter or car, you may need to wait a minute or two to get a parking space. People come and go constantly, so it’s not a big deal.
At the southern end of Santorini are the buried ruins of the city of Akrotiri. The ruins date back to when Thera blew its top in the volcanic eruption. Though not buried anymore, they are a nice window into what the place looked like, back in the day.
The ruins are quite easy to get to. The bus that runs to the south end of the island (number 2, I think) has a bus stop right next to the entrance to the archeological complex. From Fira it’s an easy ride.
Today the Akrotiri site is covered by a large roof enclosure. It moderates the heat of the day and gives you an escape from the sun. Inside the exhibition the route around the ruins are laid out in a series of numbered stops. Each stop has large signs in a couple languages explaining individual items of note. It’s easy to traverse just by walking and reading.
Not overly pricey, and easy to reach. I enjoyed the ruins quite well.
The Blue-Domed Buildings
If you’re looking for a scavenger hunt, this is it. You would think a view as internationally known as this would be easy to find. It’s actually not. I’m not going into the turn by turn directions, as many blog sites already have done that. I suggest you look up the path before you go.
Also, the area where you can get a quality picture has limited space. It will inevitably also be swelled with throngs of cruise ship people. Be patient and polite. It’s really that simple.
Now getting to Oia is pretty easy. There is a bus that runs from Fira to Oia fairly regularly. The bus drops off just outside the market area. From there you just head uphill toward the congestion. The Blue Domes are Oia’s big draw. They’re worth the bus ride and scouting trip necessary to find them. After that, and two dozen pictures, Oia is worth an exploration for lunch and souvenirs. Then, you’re back on the bus.
There’s supposedly a famous place on the north side of the island where people go to watch the sun set. I don’t know where it is, because I never went. By that point in the day, I was already drinking. Sorry!
When I arrived on Santorini, I had three whole days to kick around and explore. I literally thought I was going to go insane doing nothing. Once I downshifted to Island time I didn’t want to leave. It was soooooo excellent to not need to be any particular place, at any particular time. Even sitting by the hotel pool drinking ouzo was the best use of my time, if I chose it.
It is such a chill place. The people are very gracious and accommodating. The weather is spectacular. The water was even warm and accepting. It was everything you want an island to be. It was excellent. I highly recommend it. The Greek island of Santorini is absolutely worth a stop.
Now, get out there and find an island experience to enjoy!