Imagine you are rolling through an alleyway filled with people singing religious hymns. They walk past you with tears streaming down their faces because they are so moved to be tracing the footsteps of their savior. To your left is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried. Up ahead is the Western Wall, which remained intact after the destruction of the Second Temple and is one of the most revered places in Judaism. And just beyond that, up a long wooden ramp, is the Dome of the Rock, a beautiful gold-topped Islamic shrine where Muslims believe Muhammad began his night journey to heaven.
This uncommon mixture of three major religions and their most notable sites all within half a mile of each other might sound like an alternate fantasy world, but it is very real. And it’s somewhere that you can visit no matter what your abilities are.
This is Israel.
Before I visited Israel for the first time, I was a bit nervous. If you watch the news, you’ve undoubtedly seen plenty of stories about violence and unrest in the Middle East. I remember sitting with my mom in the Atlanta airport as we waited for the first leg of our flight to take off. An hour before the flight we were still contemplating if we should go or not. The danger had been drilled into our minds by the media for years, but we decided to live by the quote, “If you never go, you’ll never know.”
I couldn’t have imagined that Israel would quickly rise to the top of the list of favorite places I have visited, and now have travelled there twice. My safety concerns proved unneeded and my worries that Israel’s ancient history would result in mediocre accessibility were delightfully wrong. With tour companies specifically focused on accessibility and a strong community of startups creating better technology for those with disabilities, Israel is an amazing tourism destination.
When you fly into Israel, you will surely arrive via the international airport in Tel Aviv, so it makes sense to start your trip in this bustling city. Tel Aviv is one of the more modern and progressive cities in the Middle East, and the city offers a lot for wheelchair users. Some of its absolute must-dos are visiting the beach, shopping in the markets, and rolling in the ancient port of Jaffa.
For some fun in the sun, head to the Hilton. You do not have to be staying at the hotel to use its accessible beach, but accessible rooms are available. The hotel’s main draw is its location and extremely wheelchair-friendly beach, which has multiple manual beach wheelchairs available on a first-come, first-served basis. These chairs can even be rolled into the water if you need a respite from the sun. If you would rather not get in a beach wheelchair, or if it’s taken by someone else, you can still get close to the water thanks to a paved ramp that goes within a couple feet of the water. Cabanas are also available, so you can seek some shade before you get a sunburn.
After lounging on the beach, head to the markets for some shopping and lunch. Tel Aviv has quite a few different markets to choose from, but two that are totally accessible and worth visiting are Carmel Market and Sarona Market.
Carmel Market is outdoors and always crowded, but if you are looking for a one-of-a-kind experience, this is it. As the largest market in Tel Aviv, you’ll have no problem finding great souvenirs or food, although you may have to run over a few toes to get to any of it. If you can, visit Carmel Market on a Tuesday or Friday. On these days, independent artists sell crafts, art, and jewelry along Nahalat Binyamin Street. The market is busier then, but if you don’t mind a crowd, it’s worth it.
On the other hand, Sarona Market is pretty much the complete opposite of Carmel. It is indoors, much calmer, and not as large, but still offers a lot and is nice to roll around.
The ports of Tel Aviv are another attraction that any traveler should seek out. I loved my first experience so much that I actually came back the next day — I simply couldn’t get enough of rolling along the spacious, seaside promenade and popping into various stores along the water.
The historically significant Port of Jaffa is another highlight of Tel Aviv. While it can be a bumpy ride on cobblestone roads, we followed the signs pointing toward the best view of coastal Tel Aviv and it didn’t disappoint. I had one of the most incredible dining experiences of my life at the Nalaga’at, a cultural center in Jaffa that aims to open a dialogue between deaf and blind culture and the general public. At the Blackout restaurant, guests are served by blind waiters and eat in complete darkness so that they can experience life from a different perspective and eat with their other senses heightened. It’s a remarkable adventure that I’d recommend to everyone.
Given its historic stature, I was unsure how wheelchair friendly Jerusalem would be, but I was pleasantly surprised at its combination of accessibility and charm. “Jerusalem in general is very intense. There are so many sites and sounds and smells that it is almost overwhelming, but the energy is amazing,” says Sylvia Longmire, a wheelchair user with multiple sclerosis. Her accessible travel agency, Spin the Globe, offers both domestic and foreign destinations.
Outside of the famed Old City lies a modern metropolis with an almost overwhelming number of sites, sounds and smells. But the walled Old City itself is like an impeccably-preserved time capsule, with its four quarters representing a diverse intersection of Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian cultural influences. This mixture of worldviews can cause political strife at times, and during the first couple hours as I rolled through the alleyways, I constantly had my joystick at-the-ready in case I needed to speed away from some turmoil.
I remember the first time I saw a group of Israeli soldiers walking toward me in an orderly fashion, all of them carrying huge guns. I panicked inside initially, but just kept telling myself they were there to protect us, not hurt us. After a few hours, it became almost normal to see them and I didn’t worry too much anymore.
Any trip to the Old City wouldn’t be complete without paying a visit to the Western Wall. Also known as the Wailing Wall, it is one of the most sacred sites of Judaism, where you will encounter an incredible emotional scene. Visitors will be praying, crying and cheering, many basking in the fact that they’ve finally fulfilled their vow to journey to this holiest of sites.
In my experience, rolling up to the wall wasn’t bad, but if you don’t have an organized accessible tour, it can be challenging to find parking nearby. There are separate entrances for men and women, and men must put on a free kippah (traditional Jewish headwear) to enter. I particularly enjoyed this, as the kippah had the words “Western Wall Heritage Foundation” inscribed on it and made an excellent souvenir.
If you’d like to meander about the Old City and bask in its unique ambiance, there are accessible routes to roll from one site of significance to another. Longmire says she was surprised by the accessibility in the old city. “Of course, there were places I couldn’t enter, but vendors would come out to help me and there were ramps into some of the more historic older sites as well,” she says.
Thankful that our local guide from Israel4All knew such accessible routes [see below, “Getting Around Israel”], I took the opportunity to roll along from the Western Wall to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is a must-see site for many Christians, as it contains the Stone of the Anointing, where it’s said that Jesus was laid in preparation for his burial. Once you get there, the church is pretty accessible, though one of the entrance ramps would be steep for manual wheelchair users, and you may have to request that a portable ramp be laid down to get you up one small step in the entryway.
If you’re exploring the Old City on your own, look for the “Accessible Trail” signs. Finding such a path and rolling through the Old City is a great chance to look beyond the tourist attractions and interact with local residents and shopkeepers.
Of the four quarters, I think the Muslim Quarter was the smoothest to roll through and had some of the kindest people. At one point, as I was rolling by a shop, the shopkeeper came outside and gave me a free souvenir magnet. At another point in the Muslim Quarter, a man came up to me, hugged me, and put a Palestinian scarf known as a keffiyeh on my head.
While the Old City is the heart of Jerusalem’s tourism, there are plenty of other accessible places to see. In fact, I’d recommend that any trip to Jerusalem begins with a visit to one or both of its famous viewpoints. The Haas Promenade and Mount Scopus both offer breathtaking views of this holy city, and they allow you to get a bird’s eye panorama of the places you’ll see close up later on.
Not far from the bustle of the Old City lies the Tower of David citadel, and it’s here that I spent my favorite night in Jerusalem. A 45-minute sound and light show, projected on the walls of the citadel, tells the fascinating history of Jerusalem
Whether you’re particularly interested in history or not, the Israel Museum is a great place to see relics unlike anything else in the world. It’d be easy to get lost among the museum’s world-renowned art and archaeology for days — but if you have less time, seek out the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient biblical manuscripts discovered in the Qumran caves in the late 1940s. Trading historical wonder for historical sorrow, Yad Vashem is a sobering, yet essential place to see in Jerusalem. Israel’s touching memorial to the holocaust, the country’s second-most visited tourist destination, is as somber as it is educational.
Last but not least, Jerusalem’s markets are just as vibrant as those in Tel Aviv. Head to the open-air Mamilla Mall for a more modern and glamorous shopping experience, or if you’re looking for something more akin to the authentic Middle Eastern markets, wander around the classic Machane Yehuda Market, where it’s easy to work up an appetite with all the scrumptious offerings. Machane Yehuda is not quite as accessible as Mamilla or the markets in Tel Aviv, but it is possible to see most of it in a wheelchair.
The Northern Cities
Though not frequented as much as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the cities of Northern Israel are every bit as charismatic. Stunning locales like Haifa, Tiberias and the Galilee region rounded out my first Israel trip better than I had even imagined, and are a great option if you have time to tour a bit more of the country.
Most people who head north do so to see the picturesque Sea of Galilee. It’s obvious why. The Sea of Galilee, where the Gospels say Jesus walked on water, is a large freshwater lake with a regal and mystical aura. While there, I stayed in the town of Tiberias, named for a Roman emperor, and took day trips to nearby attractions like the quaint fishing village of Capernaum, where Jesus began his public ministry. I was surprised at the wheelchair-friendliness of the place and how easily I could roll around some of it’s still-standing ancient ruins.
If you’re in Capernaum, another astounding sight to see is the Ancient Galilee Boat. When researchers discovered it in the Sea of Galilee in 1986, they were astonished to find out that it dates back to the first century, or the time of Jesus himself. The boat and the associated museum are incredible to behold.
Whether you’re Christian, or just have an appreciation for great historical figures, you’ll be fascinated with how prevalent Jesus was in this region’s history. At the Mount of Beatitudes, some of the words from his famous Sermon on the Mount are on display. It’s inspiring to witness, regardless of personal piety.
Finally, make time for the famed Church of the Multiplication. No, this doesn’t have anything to do with math. Rather, its name refers to the miracle that is said to have taken place here, when Jesus fed thousands of people with two fish and five loaves of bread. The church is a beautiful and calming place that wheelchair users can get around in with no problem.
The other gem of Northern Israel is Haifa, Israel’s third largest city and an impressively beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site. Near the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and just two hours from Tel Aviv by car, it’s a convenient stop on any Israel itinerary.
Part of the reason I loved my hotel there was because it was a short stroll away from the world-famous Baha’i Gardens. Also known as the Hanging Gardens, this UNESCO World Heritage Site houses the headquarters of the Bahá’í faith and is where Siyyid Ali Muhammad, the spiritual predecessor to the Bahá’í religion’s prophet, Bahá’ulláh, is buried. While the gardens themselves are unfortunately not accessible, a wheelchair-friendly path leads from the Dan Carmel hotel to the Louis Promenade, an accessible area that gives you an incredible birds-eye view of the gardens that lie below, terraced on the slopes of Mount Carmel. Although I was slightly disappointed to not be able to roll around in the actual gardens, it was still worth visiting to see them from above.
After admiring the Hanging Gardens, head down the mountain to the Haifa German Colony, which gives you another perspective of the gardens from the foot of the mountain looking up. It’s worth it just for the view, but you’ll probably want to explore this area anyway, as it has some of the best and most bustling shops and restaurants in all of Haifa. Some shops are not wheelchair accessible, but if you are visiting in the warmer months, many eateries have accessible outdoor dining.
As my Israel trip came to a close, I found myself thinking about those hours in the Atlanta airport when my mom and I contemplated the potential risks of our trip. The thought of not going had even crossed my mind, but as I was waiting in Tel Aviv to head back home, I thought about how wrong I had been. Israel captured me from the moment my wheels hit ground, and I don’t think anywhere can ever top the Holy Land for me.
I couldn’t believe that I had the opportunity to visit so many sacred and historic sites, as well as cities that had been around for centuries, without running into any major accessibility issues. The experience of exploring a holy city for so many major religions will expose you to a culture unlike any other place in the world, and it will captivate you.
• Curb Free with Cory Lee, www.curbfreewithcorylee.com
• Eldan Car Rental, rent.eldan.co.il/en
• Israel4All Tour Company, www.israel4all.com
• Spin The Globe Travel Agency, spintheglobetravel.net
Getting Around Israel
From the moment I exited Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, I toured the country with Israel4All. “Israel4All is the only company dedicated to doing tours for people with disabilities here in Israel,” says its owner, Eli Meiri. Before starting the business in 1998 and leading tours, Meiri was a social worker. “I had some people in my family working in the tourism industry, and I love my country very much. I saw the need for accessible tours and decided this will be a good way to combine my desire and my knowledge.” His passion was readily evident. If a restaurant or attraction wasn’t fully accessible, Meiri would talk with them and suggest ways to improve it.
As the only accessible tour company in the country, Israel4All has a van with a lift and wheelchair tie-downs, and can help you book wheelchair friendly hotels, recommend attractions, and more. It also hosts group tours a couple times per year if you would rather travel with others.
I never had to worry about finding accessible public transportation, which was convenient, but if you’d rather explore the country on your own, you can do it. “We navigated on our own as we almost always do, mostly due to cost,” says Ruud Klaassen, who visited Israel in March 2016 with his wife, Shireen. Shireen has multiple sclerosis and while she can walk unaided for short distances, she depended on a manual wheelchair during their time in Israel. “Tel Aviv was no problem — the train from the airport to the city was accessible with lifts at both stations. All buses we took were also accessible, although we ended up walking all over the place for most of the trip,” says Klaassen.
In Israel’s major cities, public transportation is mostly accessible, but you may want to study the train and bus routes online before going to make sure that you know your way around. In cities like Jerusalem, where the streets are hilly and cobblestone, it can’t hurt to be prepared.
If relying on public transportation or a tour company doesn’t give you the freedom that you prefer, you could also rent a vehicle. Eldan Car Rental has locations all over Israel, and they offer cars with left or right hand controls.
Day Trip To Palestine
On my second trip to Israel, I didn’t want to leave without venturing into Palestine for a day. It’s a place that’s all over the news, but I wanted to see what life is really like in the famous town of Bethlehem, and I now highly recommend that any other curious, Israel-bound travelers do the same. A mere 20 minutes by car from Jerusalem’s Old City, it’s convenient to head here for a day or even an afternoon while you’re in Jerusalem. Despite what I had read online, I had no issues crossing the border from Israel into Palestine.
Rolling around timeworn Bethlehem is an experience in itself. While some places can be quite steep (better for motorized wheelchairs) and occasionally the lack of curb cuts might mean that you have to roll along in the road, it is every bit worthwhile. You’ll encounter a number of excellent shops while rolling around the streets, which you might miss if you’re getting around by car.
I visited one souvenir shop that had an extremely steep ramp to get in, but the shop owner came outside and helped me get in. Once I was inside, he said, “You are not obligated to buy anything, but you are obligated to have a drink.” He served me a wonderful mint tea. I asked for a straw, but there wasn’t one available, so he just lifted the tea to my lips and every couple minutes he would ask, “Do you want another drink?” He was one of the nicest people that I have encountered in all of my travels, and of course I bought way too many souvenirs in his shop.
After rolling around a bit, find your way to Bethlehem’s most popular attraction, the famous Church of the Nativity. While there is no accessible alternative to the stairs leading to the church’s grotto, where tradition says is the exact spot of Jesus’ birth, it is inspiring enough to be in one of the world’s oldest Christian churches. The Church of the Nativity has been around since the 500s A.D. and aside from visiting the altar, one of my favorite parts of the church was the life-sized nativity set in the courtyard.
I was only in Bethlehem for about four hours, but if you have more time, you could visit other notable attractions such as the Milk Grotto, where it’s said Mary nursed Jesus after he was born, or you might just enjoy a simple afternoon of people-watching in Manger Square.
Thanks to renovations within the past decade, more and more attractions in Bethlehem are becoming wheelchair friendly. While they may not all be 100 percent accessible yet, there is plenty for wheelchair users to experience.