Israel is a land of contrasts both geographically and historically. Whether visiting for religious reasons or purely as a globetrotting visitor, this colourful land will keep you enthralled on an Israel vacation.
If you look at a map of Israel, you will see it isn’t that extensive in area but it is bursting with so many places of outstanding interest that it takes time to get to know Israel properly. The following suggestions for travel to Israel will show just how varied and fascinating this destination is.
On your trip to Israel, you will more than likely start your visit off in the modern and cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv. I don’t recommend too much time here. You can certainly start by strolling along the Mediterranean seafront, with its myriad of upscale hotels after which, you might want to head south of the city to Jaffa, a neighbourhood unto itself. It is an ancient port with a lively vibe. The range of attractions in Old Jaffa is varied. The mixture of activities and sights is amazing, from mosques and churches to ancient clock towers, sculptures, museums, art galleries, and trendy restaurants. The ancient harbour is home to various merchants and their stalls.
Another neighbourhood is Neve Tzedek, primarily an upscale shopping district. It is one of Tel Aviv’s prettiest neighbourhoods with a village-like atmosphere. You can enjoy a stroll around it, taking in the attractive narrow streets with their beautiful restored houses, visiting the boutiques, galleries and craft shops, and stopping at one of the local cafes and restaurants. One other venue of note is the Tel Aviv Museum of Art with its outstanding collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.
Jerusalem does need time to do justice to it. Inevitably, you will be drawn to the Old City, the heart of Jerusalem, as well as the centre of Judaism and the holy city to Islam and Christianity. Totally surrounded by a thick wall which is 4 kilometres/2.5 miles around its perimeter, it is divided into 4 quarters, each pertaining to 4 distinct religious beliefs. They are the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, The Muslim Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. The walls and current structures within the Old City date back to the 16th century. Enter through one of the 8 gates to find a place inhabited by people who live and work there. It is not just a historical site to visit on an Israel vacation. You will also find many cafes and restaurants in some of the sectors.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre here is the holiest Christian site in Jerusalem, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The Church contains the Chapel of Golgotha and three Stations of the Cross, where Jesus was crucified. Another important landmark is the Via Dolorosa, said to be the path along which Jesus walked from the time of his arrest to the site of his crucifixion. It is marked by the 14 Stations of the Cross, of which 5 are within the Christian Quarter.
The Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock is a site of tremendous religious importance to Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. It is one of Jerusalem’s most famous landmarks and can be found within the walled section of the Old City. The glinting golden dome of the Dome of the Rock rises impressively from Jerusalem’s skyline and has become the city’s most distinguishable feature.
The Western Wall, known to non-Jews as the Wailing Wall, is the most sacred Jewish site of prayer in the world, the place where thousands of worshippers gather year-round to pray and even leave prayers folded into its crevices. The 584 metre/1916 foot wall is all that remains of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, built in 30 BC by King Herod. Following Orthodox Jewish practice, the praying sections have been separated for men and women. The wall is also sacred to Muslims who believe that it is where the prophet Mohammed tied up his winged horse, Al Burak, before ascending into heaven.
Yad Vashem is Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and dedicated to preserving the memory of the dead. The memorial consists of a complex which includes the Holocaust History Museum, memorial sites such as the Children’s Memorial dedicated to the 1.5 million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust, the Hall of Remembrance where an eternal flame burns near a crypt containing the ashes of victims brought from the death camps, and the Museum of Holocaust Art, a collection of works created in ghettos and camps, plus much more. Nine underground galleries give details of the events leading up to the Holocaust as well as the disturbing, deep-rooted history of anti-Semitism in Europe. It is an important place to visit on an Israel vacation.
The Israel Museum contains a variety of totally unique treasures such as the Venus of Berekhat Ram, which is a pebble found on the Golan Heights and thought to be over 200,000 years old, the interior of a 1736 synagogue from Surinam, necklaces worn by Jewish brides in Yemen, and a mosaic Islamic prayer from 17th-century Persia. These give you an idea of the museum’s diverse artefacts. There is also a Fine Arts wing which contains European, modern, and Israeli art. Above all, the museum’s most famous item is the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical manuscripts in the world discovered in caves near the Dead Sea.
The Garden of Gethsemane is a garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives and known as the place where Jesus went with his disciples to pray the night before he was crucified. Beside this garden is the Church of All Nations, built over the rock and where Jesus is believed to have prayed before he was betrayed by Judas Iscariot and arrested. Close by is the Grotto of Gethsemane, where Jesus and his disciples met and prayed.
Bethlehem is just 10 kilometres/6 miles south of Jerusalem and a major tourist attraction for pilgrims and visitors alike on a trip to Israel. The birthplace of Jesus, this is a charming town despite its tourist-centred commercialism. The Church of the Nativity is the focal point for a visit to the town, erected over the site of Jesus’ birthplace. Christmas is celebrated on three separate dates in accordance with various different religions’ calendars.
Moving to the north of the country, Nazareth is one of the most important Christian holy sites attracting pilgrims from all over the world. It was here that Jesus spent most of his life and is home to both Christians and Muslims. Breathtaking views can be enjoyed, on an Israel vacation, from the summit which looks out onto the Jezreel Valley. The Church of the Annunciation here is one of the most important sites in the Christian world.
Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights
The Sea of Galilee is the largest freshwater lake in Israel. According to the New Testament, many of Jesus’ miracles occurred here, including his walk on the water. Tiberias is the largest city on the Sea of Galilee. You can visit the Tiberias Hot Springs, ancient pools filled with water from 17 natural springs. From Tiberias, it is possible to rent a bike and cycle around the Sea of Galilee. The region also has lots of hiking trails including the Sea of Galilee Trail, which encircles the lake, and the Jesus Trail which runs from Nazareth to the ancient and Biblically-important site of Capernaum on the northern shores.
To the north of the lake are the Golan Heights, a mountainous region with breathtaking landscapes, wonderful nature reserves, and historical attractions. For hikers, the Golan region offers a variety of different paths with varying levels of difficulty.
Haifa is Israel’s third largest city, beautifully situated on the slopes of Mount Carmel and facing the Mediterranean Sea. It has been compared to San Francisco. Although traditionally a working city, there are a number of great things to do in Haifa, on an Israel vacation, including the Baha’i Gardens, German Colony, as well as a number of top museums. It is also known for its mixed population of Jews and Arabs who peacefully coexist. From the top of Mount Carmel, the views are spectacular across the Port of Haifa to the Western Galilee. Haifa’s crown jewel is the Baha’i Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage site. These beautiful gardens are a place of pilgrimage for members of the Baha’i faith and are set across terraces sloping down Mount Carmel, towards the Mediterranean Sea. At the bottom of the gardens is the German Colony, with its pretty streets of restored Templar-era buildings. The main street of the German Colony runs directly from the bottom of the gardens towards the coast and is lined with restaurants and cafes.
Acre, also known as Akko, is a town on the north coast of Israel, featuring a rich history involving Israelites, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, and Arabs. There is so much to see here on Israel tours. Check out the Old City, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some of the highlights include Khan al-Umdan, the “Inn of the Columns,” the largest of several Ottoman inns still standing in Acre, the old city walls, the Crusader sea wall, the Al-Jazzar Mosque, built in 1781 where a single hair from Muhammad’s beard is kept and shown on special ceremonial occasions, the Citadel of Acre, an Ottoman fortification, built on the foundation of the Citadel of the Knights and, most important, the Hospitaller Fortress which has a history dating back to 1099 AD and where King Richard the Lionheart established a base in the 12th century.
The ancient port city of Caesarea was established 2000 years ago by Herod the Great as a tribute to the Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar. Its rich archaeological heritage includes the remains of Roman architecture, notably an aqueduct, theatre, houses, and palaces. Modern-day Caesarea has become well-known for its fine homes, 18-hole golf course, luxury hotels, galleries, and boutiques. Miles of sandy beach stretch along the Mediterranean coastline, and visitors on an Israel vacation can enjoy the sun-soaked atmosphere.
The Dead Sea
Now we move to the south of the country. The Dead Sea and the immediate area are full of natural wonders. Most notable of these is the high salt and mineral concentration found in the waters of the sea which allow visitors to float effortlessly on its salty surface. The therapeutic properties of the black mud found in the region are formed by a mixture of sea minerals and organic elements. Dead Sea spa resorts offer a range of health and beauty treatments and the opportunity, on trips to Israel, to float in the saltiest body of water in the world and the lowest place on earth.
Close by is the mountaintop fortress, Masada, situated in the Judean Desert and overlooking the Dead Sea. It is one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions. This symbol of Jewish history is the site of the heroic defiance by 967 Jewish Zealots who rose against the Roman Empire in 66 AD and took their own lives when defeat seemed inevitable. A cable car ride or hike up the Snake Path takes you to the top, where breathtaking views can be enjoyed over the Dead Sea and the surrounding desert.
Ein Gedi, close to the Dead Sea in the Judean Desert, is one of Israel’s premier hiking spots featuring spectacular beauty, varied landscapes, and botanical gardens. The Ein Gedi Nature Reserve is one of the most attractive places in Israel. It offers over nine different hiking trails, suitable for everyone from family groups to experienced hikers and lasting from just half-an-hour in length to a full day.
Now we come to the last place to be mentioned. Added, as possibly by now, you need some rest and recuperation. Eilat, on the Red Sea in the far south of Israel, is the perfect destination in which to relax. It offers a great variety of hotels and resorts. Visitors on Israel tours can go snorkelling or take diving lessons among the coral reefs and enjoy the stunning underwater world of the Red Sea. Other activities include swimming with dolphins or relaxing at the pool or on the beach.
All of the above can be incorporated into a two-week Israel vacation, offering a balanced and memorable experience in this historically-rich and fascinating country.