Israel is one of the most fascinating countries I’ve visited — with perhaps the highest density of historically significant sites per square meter. From my brief period living in Israel (in the summer of 2008), I was consistently amazed by how diverse it was. Each region has its own character and charm; a short drive (or walk) will place you in a completely different environment. (Note: I will have a separate page for the Palestinian Territories).
Most people arrive at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, and from there it’s possible to take a taxi into the city center. It’s also possible to arrive overland to Eliat from the southern land borders of Taba, Egypt or Aqaba, Jordan. You can also cross from Jordan to via the Allenby crossing (closest to Jerusalem), or at the Jordan River crossing further north.
Note— if you’re taking the Allenby crossing, you’ll have to take a small bus over the border and the process can take a while. Also, make sure you know what time the border crossing closes, as it’s only open for very limited hours during the daytime. (I learned this the hard way!)
A note on arrivals: some Middle Eastern Countries won’t let you enter with an Israeli stamp in your passport, so if you plan to travel elsewhere in the region — do advance research to see if that restriction exists for any country you plan to visit. If so, you can ask the Israeli customs officer on arrival to give you a stamp on a separate sheet of paper (and explain why). But don’t lose that slip of paper! Alternatively, you might consider applying for a second (limited duration) passport that you can use in this instance.
A note on departures from Ben Gurion Airport: The security checks departing Ben Gurion airport are quite rigorous. For this reason, allow yourself plenty of extra time at the airport (at least 2.5 hours in advance to be safe).
Within Israel, the Egged bus system is cheap, convenient, and goes pretty much everywhere you’d want to go. I used this frequently when travelling around the country. In fact, I only rented a car when I went with a group of friends to the Golan Heights.
Note on Shabbat (ie “Sabbath”) – is Judaism’s seventh day of rest at the end of the week. This is practiced from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, with most shops and businesses closing down. While I found this to be more firmly respected in Jerusalem than elsewhere, it’s a good idea to keep this in mind if your travel plans fall on a Friday/Saturday.
Tel Aviv is a vibrant, dynamic city that blends a modern metropolitan vibe with a relaxed beach atmosphere. I spent most of my time here enjoying the long beach, where it’s common to see pairs of people playing Matkot — a popular paddle ball game. As the city comes right up to the sea, just a few steps will take you from the heart of the city to a beachside cafe.
Another favorite spot is the Old Port area, which has plenty of trendy restaurants, shops and a waterfront walkway. Meanwhile, the open air Carmel Market, in the city center, has a flea-market atmosphere with all sorts of odds and ends for sale.
Finally, no visit to Tel Aviv would be complete without a visit to the ancient port city of Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv proper. It’s mentioned in the Bible and in several other historical references — and it’s famous for its oranges! Given the city’s age, it has had multiple owners and influences over the years, which lends it an ancient, weathered feeling. I enjoyed exploring the ancient cobblestoned streets of Old Jaffa and noting the Ottoman influences: a Clock Tower, the Mahmoudiya Mosque and the stone-made Al Bahr Mosque, on the sea. Also noteworthy are St. Peter’s Church, and a Wishing bridge, where if you grasp your astrological sign and gaze at the sea, your wish will allegedly come true. There are also several small, pleasant gardens nearby. Finally, don’t miss the whale statue and the suspended orange tree!
Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and one of the oldest cities in the world. It’s one of those cities where you could spend a lifetime exploring and blogging about it; literally every square meter of the city has some historical importance. The city is central to the three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As ever, I’ll just attempt to flag a few highlights that I found particularly noteworthy from several visits here.
Old City: Jerusalem’s Old City is an ancient, cobblestone labyrinth of bustling streets lined with shops selling everything imaginable. While exploring the various markets, you’ll be intoxicated by the strong scents of perfumes, spices, soaps, and food. There are plenty of vendors serving up fresh-squeezed orange and pomegranate juice (and Arabic coffee) to maintain your fortitude!
Old City Walls: The old city walls that currently surround Jerusalem were built by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 1500s. There are eight gates to the city and each has its own character and history. If entering from the North, the Damascus Gate (with its small amphitheater-styled entrance) is a popular thoroughfare, and Herod’s Gate is another option. In the west is the New Gate and the Jaffa Gate. In the south is the Zion Gate, which bears the scars from intense fighting during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Finally, in the East is the Lion’s Gate, Golden Gate, and Dung Gate.
The Old City is divided into four quarters: the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian sectors, and each has plenty of sites of religious and historical significance. As it’s a massive area, it’s worth budgeting a fair amount of time to explore this area.
At the top of my list was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was commissioned in 326 by Constantine the Great and his Mother Helena, over the sites where Jesus Christ was believed to have been crucified, buried, and resurrected. It is a broad and sprawling church comprised of several chapels, which attests to several periods of damage and reconstruction over the centuries. It has a chapel on the Crucifixion site, as well as the Stone of Unction, where Christ’s body was laid after being taken from the cross.
On some of the interior stones are crosses carved by the crusaders. Just outside the church is an Information Center that provides more information about the church, as well as details on other significant sights in the area.
While in the old city, it’s possible to walk on the Via Dolorosa and follow the (well-marked) Stations of the Cross, which includes Church of the Condemnation and other key spots along the way. The last several stations are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Note that if you’d like to join a tour, local priests lead groups through the stations at various points throughout the week (inquire at the information center outside the Church for more details). Further Down the road is the Room where the Last Supper is believed to have taken place.
Proceeding further into the Old City, the next major site is the Western Wall — an important site in Judaism, which was originally built as part of an expansion of the Second Jewish Temple by Herod the Great. (The first temple was built here by King Solomon in 957 BC). It is common to see the faithful praying there and submitting small slips of paper (with their petitions) in cracks in the massive stone blocks.
From here, you can pass through a security check and go up to the top of the Temple Mount, which is significant for all three Abrahamic faiths. This is the site where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son Isaac. In Islam, it is the location from which Prophet Mohammed ascended to paradise. Here the Ummayad Caliphate built the Al Aqsa Mosque and the the Dome of the Rock, which was completed in 692. (Note: non-Muslims are not permitted to enter.)
Near the Western Wall is the City of David, where it’s possible to tour the archeological ruins of the origins of Jerusalem. There are deep tunnels and other impressive ruins on offer. Within this area new excavations and discoveries are always being made!
On the western side of the Old City (just inside the Jaffa Gate) is the Tower of David — a massive tower (dating to the 5th Century) surrounded by the well-preserved ruins of a citadel from the Mamluk/Ottoman era. I really enjoyed climbing on the castle walls and exploring the various ancient dwellings!
To the east of the Old City, several churches and ruins are on the Mount of Olives, which is just a short uphill walk, and offers great views of the Old City of Jerusalem. Don’t miss the Tomb of the Prophets and a Holocaust Memorial.
Meanwhile, the north of the Old City is the Garden Tomb, which is a location where some believe Jesus Christ was buried.
In the northwestern part of central Jerusalem is the Shuk Machane Yehuda — a bustling street market with produce, sweets, foods, and spices. While living in Jerusalem, I would frequently visit here both to do my shopping and take in the lively atmosphere.
The King David Hotel is an institution within Jerusalem, with a long history of hosting heads of state, royalty, and dignitaries. Even if you don’t stay here, I recommend stopping in for a coffee.
Ben Yehuda Street is a bustling pedestrian walkway with plenty of restaurants and shops. My favorite ever falafal shop was Falafel Ben Yehuda… I see there’s a Moshiko Falafel there nowadays, so I suspect it might be the same concept (and quality). Further up the street is Zion Square, which marks the central area of new city. It is a large shopping center and hosts several high-quality restaurants and cafes. For nightlife, there are numerous bars and nightclubs in the neighborhood on and south of Jaffa Street.
Another noteworty spot is Mishkenot Sha’ananim — the first Jewish neighborhood built outside of the Old City. I should also note that Mea Shearim is one of the city’s oldest and most conservative Orthodox neighborhoods. (You may notice signs asking tourist groups to stay away or dress modestly out of respect).
To the west of the city center is the Knesset (parliament), surrounded by parks and gardens. Further west is the Israel Museum, with ancient collections including the Dead Sea Scrolls. To the south is a Museum of Islamic Art.
To the northeast is the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with botanical gardens and sprawling views over the city. (The café makes great coffee as well!)
Nazareth is a small town in northern Israel famous for being the birthplace of Jesus Christ. It’s easy to explore on foot. The Old City has a cobblestone market, which I found to be similar (but smaller) to the one in Jerusalem.
Naturally, several churches and cathedrals exist in Nazareth, including the Basilica of the Annunciation, which was built on the spot where the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would have a child. (The other place where this is believed to have occurred is at Mary’s Well, just up the street from the Basilica).
Tiberias is a pleasant town on the Sea of Galilee, famous for being where Jesus walked on water. It has a small crusader castle in the center of town, a walkable old city with churches and mosques, as well as a tiny-but-pleasant beach. South of the city are Roman ruins, and the Hamat Tiberias National Park is famous for its hot springs. (Note: I didn’t make it to the hot springs, so I can’t vouch for them, but they sound great!)
Megiddo is a small town in northern Israel which happens to be designated as the site of Armageddon (it’s Greek name translates to “Armageddon”). There are well-preserved nearby ruins at the Megiddo National Park, with dwellings from ancient Canaanites and Israelites. Due to its strategic location, it it thought to have been inhabited as early as the year 7,000 BC (!) Excavations have unearthed 26 layers of ruins from the various inhabitants over the years, with more sites being uncovered every day. The ruins are fairly extensive (it’s a UNESCO heritage site) and it’s worth visiting — for a truly apocoplyctic experience!
Haifa is a scenic city in northern Israel on the Mediterranean, on the base of Mount Carmel. As Haifa is the global headquarters of the Baha’i faith, it hosts a shrine to Bab (the founder), as well as its immaculately-manicured, terraced Baha’i Gardens.
The area around Paris Square on the port has plenty of restaurants, and the nearby Shuk provides a good local shopping experience. Also along the northern part of the waterfront is the Cave of Elijah, where Prophet Elijah was believed to have taken shelter.
Heading further south along the western coast, there are several active, inviting public beaches. (Note– jellyfish can sometimes sting bathers in this area– take care!)
Just north of Haifa on the Mediterranean Coast is Acre, a beautiful port city testifying to multiple eras of historical influences across the centuries.
It hosts a 150-meter Templar Tunnel, as well as a museum dating to the Knights Templar presence in Acre (starting in 1187). Nearby is an Ottoman Inn and a Turkish bazaar dating back to the city’s period of Ottoman rule. I especially enjoyed walking around the fortified old city walls adjacent to the ocean — and exploring the old city itself.
Eliat is a beautiful beach town on the Red Sea with plenty of resorts, restaurants, and beach cafes. The surrounding beach is long and idyllic and most of the touristic activities revolve around it. The water here is exceptionally clear and it has some of the world’s best snorkeling and diving opportunities. The Coral Reef Reserve and surrounding area are particularly impressive. I was able to rent all my gear and go explore the colorful coral on a whim. When not snorkeling or lying on the beach, we went to a few downtown markets and shopping malls, and in the evening we watched the city’s musical fountain.
Note: from here, it’s easy to cross into Taba, Egypt (appx 4 km to the south) or to Aqaba, Jordan (appx 2 km to the east), as the borders of all three countries converge in this small region. (Egypt and Jordan allow Israel stamps in your passport, so it won’t be an issue going to those countries if you have an Israeli stamp).
A must-see site in Israel is Masada National Park. The site hosts ancient ruins on top of a massive mesa in the middle of the desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. King Herod built two palaces here in approximately 20-30 BC. Roman troops laid siege to Sicarii rebels in 73-74 AD, leading to their mass suicide. The ruins are fairly well preserved due to the dry desert climate. From the Visitors Center, it’s possible to take a cable car to the top of the ruins or hike up a well-marked path. (Note: It’s a considerable hike up to the top– and it can be more strenuous if it’s a hot day (it was scortching during my mid-afternoon July visit!) Be sure to bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen. At the top entrance, don’t miss the ruins of the Byzantine Gate and the North Palace. There’s also a restaurant and campsite nearby for those who wish to stay overnight.
In northwest Israel is the Golan Heights region, bordering Lebanon and extending into Syria. It’s a green, mountainous area that feels completely different from the arid, desert climate of the east and south.
Note on Landmines: Much of this region was incorporated into Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967 and there are still landmines present along the border areas (or at least there were when I last visited.) This Isn’t really a problem for most visitors, as the mined areas are well demarcated with red triangular “landmine” signs, but it’s important to keep this in mind while in the area — and avoid going bushwhacking through unknown / overgrown areas.
One highlight of the region is the Nimrod Fortress National Park, which features a massive 13th Century castle built by the nephew of Saladin (of the Ayyubid dynasty). It changed hands multiple times over the years, and today the ruins are well-preserved and offer a commanding view of the Golan Heights.
Another gem of this region is the Hermon Stream Nature Reserve, with dense forests, walking trails, and impressive waterfalls. Adjacent to the park are the ruins of a Roman city, Caesarea Philippi. After hiking around all day, we ate at the nearby Banias Lebanese Restaurant, which had delicious food and pleasant tables along a nearby river.
While in Israel, it’s well worth taking a trip to the Dead Sea, which, at 1,412 feet below sea level, is earth’s lowest elevation on land. The water is intensely salty (almost 10 times saltier than the ocean), so the water almost feels like an oily brine solution. As a result, it has incredible buoyancy– you effortlessly float in the water, bobbing around with no risk of sinking. (This phenomenon lets you get a photo of yourself reading a book or newspaper while floating effortlessly on the sea). The dense, dark mud is supposed to be packed with healthy minerals, so you’ll see people covering themselves in it — and letting it soak in. (This also makes for a good photo op : )
It’s possible to take a bus or shared cab to the beach. When I went, it wasn’t massively crowded — and it had a small restaurant and a resort nearby. The Dead Sea can be accessed by Israeli and Jordanian sides (I did both and had a great experience each time).
Caution: The water is so salty that it really burns if you have any open cuts or if you recently shaved. Take that into consideration– and maybe hold off on shaving until after your visit to the sea!
Just west of the Dead Sea is the Qumran National Park, with 2,000 year old ruins, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.