By Cordelia Solomon
As humans we’re easily influenced by things we hear, be it from a friend or a news outlet. As a result we establish strong bias’ that shape our perception of peoples and places, often leading us to unfairly write off many exceptional countries as “too dangerous” or “not for me.” We’re here to dispel misjudgments that have long cast a shadow over some of our favorite places in the world.
Because of the tension and conflict that has long surrounded Israel, most people overlook it as a legitimate place to spend their vacation. Sure, the West Bank and Gaza should be avoided, but the country is much more than those places. It’s home to Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world, Tel Aviv, the second largest tech-hub in the world, Eilat, a beach oasis situated on the shores of the Red Sea, and Tzfat, the mystical old city atop a hill with breathtaking views of Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Mediteranean.
Wander through the quiet alleys and forgotten pathways of Jerusalem and you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported back in time. This beautiful city is home to many ancient sites that hold deep significance in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam respectively. Spend time at the Western (Wailing) Wall, visit The Dome of the Rock, and walk down the Via Dolorosa--among many others--and you’ll begin to understand the rich history and religious complexities that are so deeply rooted in Jerusalem.
In contrast, Tel Aviv, Israel’s cultural capital, is situated on the Mediteranean and has an edgy, modern, and laid back vibe. The bustling city offers beautiful beaches, quirky street art, and plenty of museums. Just south is the ancient port town of Jaffa--which deserves its own day of exploration.
Beyond its cities, Israel is full of natural wonders that can’t be missed. Climb Masada, an ancient fortress--and symbol of Jewish freedom--built atop a mountain plateau in the Judean Desert, float in the Dead Sea and exfoliate yourself with its salt and magnesium rich mud, and visit the Jordan River whose historical significance runs so deep, that people from all three monotheistic faiths travel to its banks from near and far.
Traveling in Turkey is like being in a fantastical dream. It’s a country in a league of its own, with no comparison to anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, between the conflicts in Syria and its own recent political unrest, tourists have avoided this magical country.
From the old town of Istanbul to the underground cave cities in Cappadocia and the ruins of Ephesus, history surges throughout. Its landscape alone tells an enchanting story. The unique rock formations in Cappadocia were shaped naturally by wind over thousands of years and Pamukkale’s famous limestone terraces were created by carbonate mineral deposits from the flowing water.
The ancient port city of Ephesus is known historically for its trading routes between Asia and Europe. Wandering through its ruins today, you’ll find yourself imagining the scenes that once took place in its now abandoned streets, buildings and markets. In Cappadocia, you’ll be in awe of the intricate underground cities--a series of caves and tunnels hand carved over 3000 years--and mesmerized by the hot air balloons drifting in its pastel painted sky at sunrise.
Separated by the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two Europe and Asia--each side with it own unique culture and atmosphere. This dichotomy exists too in Istanbul’s skyline where elaborate, dome-shape Ottoman mosques tower alongside Medieval, Baroque, and Neoclassical style buildings. The intersection of architecture, culture and trade from all over the world is what creates the subtle magic that penetrates through every cobblestone street and charming neighborhood of Istanbul.
From the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque to the Galata Tower and the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul offers more than enough sites to keep you stimulated over several days. However, beyond its sites, there’s Balat, one of the city’s oldest districts and best kept-secret. The neighborhood is filled with historical buildings and colorful, wooden houses with kids playing in its sloping, narrow streets. Balat is also unique for its cultural diversity with residents of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths.
It’ll take less than an hour of wandering through its streets for you fall in love with Budapest. Known for its rich history and stunning architecture, this picturesque city offers much more than what meets the eye. Divided by the Danuabe, Buda and Pest developed separately as two distinct cities with unique personalities that you can still feel today.
Built on a series of hills, Buda sits on the western shore of the Danube and is home to some of the city's most significant historical buildings including Fisherman’s Bastion and the Buda Castle. On the eastern side of the river, countering the reigning courts on Castle Hill, is Pest--the breeding ground of Hungarian pride and home to the dazzling Parliament building. Take a sunset stroll along the east bank of the Danube and you’ll come across the poignant Shoes on the Danube memorial.
Beyond its history, Budapest has a diverse social culture rooted in hedonism. Birthed as part of an underground pub scene, Ruin Bars--dilapidated buildings from WWII resurrected into quirky watering holes with eclectic decor--have become the pulse of the city’s bustling nightlife. Street art has also become a defining characteristic of Budapest culture. Using rundown buildings as canvasses, artists have transformed the city’s streets into a public gallery full of vibrant, contemporary murals each telling poignant stories of the country’s history, culture, and lifestyle.
In Budapest, the scars left by a fascist regime and communist oppression are balanced by the modern-day cultural revival, making it among one of the most interesting cities in the world.
With its old world European charm and abundant medieval architecture Krakow is the quintessential city to get lost in. It’s subtle, yet enchanting, with an air of melancholy about it. You can feel its infamous history pulsating through every cobblestone street you walk down and building you pass by.
Krakow’s Old Town feels like something out of a fairytale. Its colorful buildings and energetic crowds are balanced by historical monuments like the Saint Florentine Gate and the gothic-style Basilica of the Virgin Mary. Spend some time across the river at Schindler’s Factory and you’ll be deeply transported into life in Krakow during the notorious wartime years through a meticulous showcase of both the individual and collective dimensions of inhumanity.
The Vistula River runs through Krakow and provides a much appreciated feeling of tranquility as you immerse yourself in the city and its emotional past. Walk along its banks and admire the Wawel Castle and Cathedral that sit atop a hill over Old Town as you process the thoughts and emotions that this city can’t help but trigger within you. On the river’s industrial south side, you’ll find Forum Przestrzeniesouth and al fresco bar with live music. Nestle into one of it’s beach chairs at sunset and enjoy a local beer with a view of the city from Old Town to the Jewish Quarter.
Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, once the lively center of Jewish life and culture was destroyed by the Nazi’s during WWII and left abandoned througout the communist era. Wander its perfectly imperfect streets today, and you’ll quickly fall in love with this historic district that has once again regained its status as the city’s cultural epicenter. With its eye catching street art and bustling cafes situated amongst some of the city’s most significant buildings--Remuh Synagogue and the Jewish Museum--the Jewish Quarter is the perfect dichotomy of the lingering scars from Krakrow’s past and the triumphant efforts of its residents to move forward and restore a joyous feeling that was lost for so long.
Beyond the city limits lies Auschwitz, the most infamous camps of the Holocaust. Walking around the eerie compound you can feel ghosts all around you. Arriving in the place where it all happened and stepping through that infamous gate you quickly realize that knowing facts about this time in history does not equate to knowing the stories. Everything you learned in school or from books takes on a different meaning when you’re standing in the spot where it took place.
With its ominous past seeping through every corner, a trip to Krakow is certainly a sobering experience. But, its resilience is evident in the resurgence of its vibrant culture. Explore Krakow with your eyes open, and you’ll find beauty, fun and adventure shining through the shadows of its harrowing past.
As you think about your 2020 travels, consider the underdogs. These wonderful countries that have been branded with a scarlet letter, so to speak, are some of the worlds greatest treasures. From their warm, welcoming people and unique cultures to their historical significance and breathtaking sites, these countries deserve a spot on your bucket list!