When people find out that we've visited Israel we are often asked “is it safe?” If we felt unsafe, we wouldn’t go.

Editor’s Note: With the holiday season upon us, we thought our readers might appreciate one local’s story on visiting the birthplace of Jesus.

When people find out that we’ve visited Israel we are often asked “is it safe?” In November took our fifth trip to the Middle East. It is a matter of changing the conversation from that of fear to understanding, breaking down barriers, and seeing a world we all share. If we felt unsafe, we wouldn’t go.

The Middle East is very important to visit for many reasons. It’s where the history of man, religion and global issues occurred. There is no better area to experience culture and history than a visit to Israel and Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is a small city in the West Bank that attracts millions of visitors every year for its historical and religious significance. With a population of approximately 30,000 within just under 12 square miles, it can hardly be called little.

The main tourist attraction located in Manger Square is the Ancient basilica built by Constantine the Great and his mother, Helena. It is traditionally considered the site of the Nativity. People wait in long lines to view the small area where they believe Jesus was born, referred to as the grotto. We have visited there each time we have traveled to Israel.  
The basilica is in a constant state of renovation. With the peeling away of plaster and debris, new archeological finds are being unearthed. Tapestries, paintings, mosaics, and lanterns hanging from the ceiling adorn the interior in an almost gaudy fashion.

Do you like to bargain? Shopping is a lot of fun in Bethlehem and all over Israel. A shop in the center of Bethlehem that most tour buses and taxis will take you to is Johnny’s Souvenir Shop. Johnny will even send a cab to come get you. However, the service and beverages served while you shop may cost you a little. You will find any souvenir you can imagine. There are times that bargain shopping happens right on the street almost anywhere.

Olivewood, of course, is plentiful. The Olive Tree is one of the most valuable trees to the Hebrews.Visit the Garden of Gethsemane with its ancient olive tree garden which is located at the base of the Mount of Olives. Some trees date to be around 900 years old. This will give you a perspective of the olive tree significance. A special remembrance is to have a Christmas ornament made from Olivewood.

The food is unusual, and no matter where you eat, is very affordable. You will love the kabobs and sauces both in the restaurants or from street vendors. They have unbelievable Baklava like nothing you have ever tasted. There is a restaurant in the Shepherds’ Valley Village called the Tent Restaurant. There is seating and carpet, which is a modern version of a Bedouin tent. A Bedouin is similar to what we would call a gypsy, but in Israel they are nomads or desert dwellers visible in the dessert as you travel. They are very friendly people welcoming strangers with their spiced teas and hospitality.  

My first experience with a falafel was from a street vendor. Highly recommended. The main ingredient is from fava beans or chickpeas, or both. When I reached the French fry I thought there had been an error. Nope, that was supposed to be there. I switched to the BBQ lamb kabobs which were outstanding minus the sauce. Even Bobby Flay has a recipe for falafel.

As we were walking through the local streets of Bethlehem we were excited to spot what we thought was an authentic Starbucks. It wasn’t. With a “look alike” logo, the coffee was nothing like Starbucks but the owner was extremely friendly and wanted us to visit with him and talk about America.

Lodging in Bethlehem is very expensive. We stayed in a Palestinian-run hotel in the center of Bethlehem. The food was always fresh, with lots of vegetables, and a soup called “Freekeh” was served. Freekeh, translated “grandma’s soup,” is a chicken broth with grain by adding fresh vegetables. The desserts were always fabulous along with fresh fruit. The staff was eager to please and to provide service.

As I say, don’t forget, you are a guest in their country. Smiles and thank yous go a long way.

You can’t go all the way to Israel and not visit Old Town Jerusalem. It’s less than a mile away and is a culturally-diverse city. Shopping begins upon entry. The Israel Museum exhibits are extraordinary — unlike anything you will see at another museum. Archaeology supports Biblical history, which is why a visit to this museum is a must. You are minutes from the Mediterranean coast for visiting Caesarea. Ancient Roman ruins mingle with a spectacular Mediterranean beach town.

When you travel, think about those layovers. We had a six-hour stopover in Mainz, Germany once. We took advantage of our time and visited the St. Stephan Cathedral to view the beautiful Marc Chagall Windows. We also had a flight with a day layover, so we stayed overnight in Madrid, Spain. It wasn’t long, but long enough to catch a dinner show with Flamenco dancers.

We’ve had an airline tell us they didn’t have a flight back from wherever we were (this can happen if you are using miles) so we flew to London and stayed a couple of days until we could book a flight back home. Since you’ve already made the 10-12 hour journey, Jordan is a few hours from Jerusalem where you can travel to Petra.

This is where they filmed “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” A site not to be missed. And you are short flight away from Egypt. You could visit the pyramids and the tombs of pharaohs.

Weather during our winter months is the perfect time to travel to the Middle East. Many of these arrangements can be made with minimal luggage to assist in making flexible decisions.