Where should you go: Jordan or Israel?
Israel and Jordan – both big hitters in the Middle-East offering plenty to shout about. With ancient ruins, natural wonders, vibrant markets and gorgeous beaches, choosing between these neighbours is a tough task. We challenged two of our travel specialists, Lynne Cook and Sarah Gush, to sing each destination’s praises.
The Middle East as a region will always be special to me. There is a feeling of otherworldliness, of the unknown around every corner, that the adventurer in me finds very appealing. But Jordan sits closest to my heart.
Let’s start with the ancient world. The city of Petra is an absolute must-see. It is no exaggeration to call it magnificent – in its architecture, history, and location. UNESCO deems it a World Heritage Site – to my mind, it’s one of the best.
Jordan also boasts a world record – the lowest point on the Earth, where the water is so salty that a swim here is unreal. I prefer the Jordanian banks of the Dead Sea to the Israeli because the hotels are of a high standard and the water itself is more accessible.
The country has a rich tapestry of history and a visit should include seeing a Crusader castle (they are almost impossible to miss). An established stop on the trade routes between Syria and Iraq, Jordan sits on a geographical crossroads within the Middle East. From here, the links to many regions can be identified and appreciated. In Madaba, I love viewing the 6th-century mosaic map of the Holy Land, then visiting Mount Nebo to see this landscape in panoramic 3D.
But Jordan is not only a country steeped in history; its cuisine and extreme sports make it a destination for both adventure and gastronomy. The food is fresh and a smorgasbord of tastes with many influences vying for attention. Cooking or eating with locals will showcase dishes such as mansaf – the national rice dish, prepared with pride. Café culture abounds too and one of my favourite memories is enjoying a rich short coffee – qahwa sada – flavoured with cardamom with my driver, who regaled me with stories of life in the country. For more active folk, there are four-wheel drive Wadi Rum trips with camel rides and treks over and around sand dunes.
Jordanians make a trip here so much more than a holiday. They are friendly and hospitable – and I learn something new every time I visit. Jordan has so much to discover and experience. I find every moment I spend there exquisite.
Israel gives me a little frisson. It captivates me in a way that is soulful, eye-opening and fascinating.
Religion here is intertwined with the complex and colourful history of the area. Jerusalem’s storied streets have inspired so much of how people live around the world today. When you walk the Via Dolorosa, the Gardens of Gethsemane, visit the Western Wall, and see the Dome of the Rock, you’re humbled by history.
Fascinating items and locations are still being found, such as the relatively recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But Israel is more than its past – momentous change faces its residents, giving rise to impressive art and culture, a subject close to my heart. Don’t miss Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem – it’s remarkable, thought-provoking, and well worth a visit.
I adore the contrasts struck so vividly in one small area. Jerusalem is so different from the more Westernised and laid-back Tel Aviv. In the larger towns, there are different ethnic groups living side by side – a rarity wherever you are in the world. And against the backdrop of the vast desert lies the lush greenery of Jerusalem. For more cosmopolite contrasts, the Mahane Yehuda Market is a must-see. By day, it is home to traditional vendors selling local produce, then later it transforms into a buzzing nightlife hub for the city.
Israeli food is rightly blossoming onto the international scene. Whether you choose street food or fine dining, traditional fare or delicious seafood, you won’t be disappointed. My recent guide said that there are “no bad restaurants in Jerusalem”. Your taste buds will agree.
Israel is also ideal for shopping. Start with the flea markets in Jaffa and find a souvenir or two. Or if you want to relax, the coast is stunning. The long stretch of city beach in Tel Aviv is a wonderful place to dine along the shore, then walk around Jaffa, with the setting sun behind you.
Israel delivers so much on a single visit – it’s a patchwork of anomalies and historical fact. If you want to better understand the world, touch down in Israel and let its spirit into your soul.