Located along the Mediterranean Sea, between Lebanon and Egypt, sits one of the most dynamic countries in the world: Israel. For such a small nation, about the size of New Jersey in the U.S., this Middle Eastern land has diverse landscapes, encompassing coastal plains, central hills, vast swaths of desert, valleys, deep craters, and one of the Earth’s saltiest lakes located at the world’s lowest elevation.
Wayfarers and history buffs will love learning about all of the religious landmarks and revered sites and will have much to do, see, and eat in the modern beachside city of Tel Aviv.
While the three monolithic religions—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—have been pugnacious over the Holy Land for as long as time, tourists will feel quite safe here, even though the history is quite thorny. Keep reading for tips on places to explore as well as logistics to consider when planning for a trip to Israel.
· While most of the year, April through October, is sunny and warm, winter is quite cold, especially in the mountains, desert, and after sunset. Make sure you pack thick layers for warmth as well as rain gear. You’ll also want to bring conservative clothing and a head covering for visiting religious sites.
· While Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages in Israel, English is widely spoken in many touristy areas. Of course, speaking in Hebrew is always appreciated: shalom (hello), ken (yes), lo (no), toda (thank you), excuse me (slicha), and bevakasha (please).
· You’ll want to carry some local currency, the New Israel Shekel, for visiting markets, food stands, and small cafes.
· Many businesses (as well as public transportation) close early on Fridays before the onset of the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Fridays and continues until sundown on Saturdays. Muslims and Christians also observe holy days on Fridays and Sundays respectively.
· Tipping is expected in Israel.
· It’s always a good time to visit Israel, however, take into account religious holidays, like Passover and Rosh Hashanah, which tend to be busier and more expensive.
Explore Tel Aviv and Old Jaffa
Tel Aviv is unlike any other city you’ve likely ever visited. It’s modern and cool, full of street art in neighborhoods like Florentin, open-air markets, vintage antique shops in neighborhoods like Neve Zedek, inimitable bars and restaurants. Situated along golden sandy beaches, you’ll see surfers, beach volleyball players, runners, and sunbathers.
Bauhaus architecture edifices number in the thousands and are fundamental reminders of Tel Aviv’s history in the White City. Recognized by UNESCO, the structures (and boutique shops) along Rothschild Boulevard are well worth a look-see.
Stroll through Carmel Market, the largest shuk in the city, which has been operating since 1920. You’ll smell spices and baked goods, hear traders hawking their wares, sample fresh pomegranate juice, and taste several different types of sweet sesame halva. This multicultural city is well represented in the diverse cuisine.
Tour the Old City of Jaffa, or Yafo, an old port city with narrow alleyways and buildings resting on top of a hill. Visit the Jaffa Flea Market, the fisherman’s port, and the Artists’ Quarter.
Wear Comfortable Shoes in Jerusalem
You’ll likely feel something quite powerful as you tour this ancient city, which means a great deal to millions of people, including believers of the three monotheistic religions.
Start at the Mount of Olives, which overlooks the Old City, the Dome of the Rock (where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven), and the oldest Jewish cemetery.
You’ll want to pace yourself as there’s much to see, from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried, and then resurrected to the Western Wall, the holiest site for Jews, where prayers are written on paper and wedged into the cracks of the wall. Learn about the uneven four quarters: the Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian Quarters. Walk along the Via Dolorosa, or the Stations of the Cross. See the coenaculum of the Last Supper on Mount Zion.
You’ll want to see the City of David and the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. Eat your way through the Mahane Yehuda Market where you can taste a variety of Middle Eastern cuisine, including some of the best hummus you’ve ever had. See The Night Spectacular at the Tower of David, which brings biblical Jerusalem to life on the walls of the ancient fortress through digital imagery and sound. Visit the Israel Museum to see a large model of Jerusalem, Israeli art, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Float in the Dead Sea
Swimming the cerulean-hued Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth, is like floating on top of an inflatable due to the extreme salinity of the water, which is nearly ten times saltier than the ocean. Cover yourself in mud, soak in the sea of salt, and marvel at the glassy surface where no animals or plants can survive.
King Herod’s fortress-palace, Masada, is nearby and it’s definitely worth taking a cable car (or hiking) to the top of the plateau to see the excavations of the last stronghold in the Jewish freedom fighter’s insurgency against the Romans.
Also nearby is the salt region of Mount Sedom, located alongside the southwestern part of the Dead Sea, part of the Judean Desert Nature Reserve. You can travel by jeep to explore this near-mountain, which is 80% salt, topped with limestone and clay. The views of the Dead Sea, as well as Jordan, are incredible from the summit.
Rappel in a Crater in the Negev Desert
The Ramon Crater, or Makhtesh Ramon, is a heart-shaped erosion crater (unlike an impact or volcanic crater) that makes up Israel’s largest national park: Ramon Nature Reserve. You’ll likely see ibex relaxing near the Visitor’s Center in the city of Mitspe Ramon. If you travel down the crater’s challenging terrain of multicolored sandstone, volcanic stones, and fossils, either by rappelling, hiking, biking, or via a jeep tour, you might even see other desert critters like lizards, scorpions, snakes, and rodents.
What other experiences have you had in the Land of Creation, an immigrant nation full of distinct topography, cultures, and historic sites?