Israel is a small country that is characterised by variety. Its landscape, people, cultures, religions and history are a big mixture, making for some hugely interesting and rewarding travelling. Despite its small size, there is a lot to see and do in Israel – from its beautiful old cities to its nature and impressive landscape.
Below are ten of my top must-sees in the Holy Land:
Jerusalem is one of the World's most historic and devout cities. For centuries it has been the centre of religious battles and political tensions. For visitors however, Jerusalem is simply fascinating. The Old City is a living museum of cobbled alleys, ancient ecclesiastical buildings, bustling souks (markets) and elaborately-robed clerics. Within the Old City the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jewish Western Wall and Muslim Temple Mount are the holiest sites, and must-sees on a visit. Outside of the walls of the Old City, Jerusalem's newer neighbourhoods are varied and charming, from the Mahane Yehuda with its lively market, to the orthodox neighbourhood of Mea Shearim. Be sure to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum and Israel Museum too – both are integral in understanding the history and make-up of this complex country.
2. The Dead Sea and Masada National Park
At over 400m below sea level the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth. It is also a unique geological phenomena being the World's saltiest body of water. Floating in the Dead Sea is a bucket list activity – although swimming here isn't easy as keeping your legs below the surface is a challenge. Simply take a good book and float your worries, aches and pains away. For minerals from the Dead Sea have become a Worldwide beauty and health trend, and are exported in huge quantities. Its therapeutic properties can be tapped at several spas and clinics dotted along the rugged shoreline. It was perhaps for this reason that King Herod decided that it was here he wanted to build his palace over 2000 years ago. Perched high on a clifftop over-looking the Dead Sea, Judean Desert and over into Jordan, Masada is certainly a breath-taking piece of real estate. The ruins are impressive, but it's the poignant history of the site as a place of Jewish resistance against the Roman rule that has made Masada the number one visited attraction in Israel.
3. Tel Aviv
Israel's most cosmpolitan city is young, vibrant and fun-loving. In total contrast to Jerusalem Tel Aviv revs up for Shabbat (weekend), and bars, clubs and restaurants are open until the small hours. It is fronted by a big sandy beach, has chic neighbourhoods, World class museums and art galleries, and the old city of Jaffa is just on its doorstep. Tel Aviv is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site for its abundance of Bauhaus architecture. Top all this off with an excellent array of restaurants, from gourmet fusion to street stalls selling hummus and falafel, and you can see why all who visit fall in love with the city.
4. The Negev Desert
The Negev Desert is a dramatic landscape of craggy rocks, deep valleys and sharp ridges. It's lunar-like terrain makes for some fantastic hiking and cycling opportunities, and it is every outdoor enthusiasts' dream come true. Dotted across the landscape are oases, teeming with greenery, natural springs and wild desert animals, tiny kibbutz such as Sde Boker - the home and final resting place of Israel's first prime minister Ben Gurion - and archaeological sites such as those on the Nabatean Spice Route. In the middle of the desert is the vast Ramon Crater, undoubtedly one of the country's most impressive sights. Perched on the edge of the crater is Mitzpe Ramon, a small town that acts as a gateway to the desert, and the best place from which to view the crater.
Nazareth, famed as the birthplace of Jesus, is a quaint, bustling city in the Galilee with a colourful souk, and cobbled old city. Churches and mosques are hidden amongst the alleys, the grandest of all – the Basilica of the Annunciation - taking pride of place in the centre of the city. Nazareth is located on a hill overlooking the Jezreel Valley, the fertile heartland of the country, which is dotted with kibbutz and grand archaeological sites such as Bet She'an, Megiddo (Armageddon) and Zippori. It is also the start of the Jesus Trail, a marked path that winds over the rolling green hills all the way to the Sea of Galilee.
6. Sea of Galilee
Sitting amidst the greenery of the Lower Galilee is the Sea of Galilee, steeped in Biblical history. Commemorated by pretty little churches are many of Jesus' miracles, said to have taken place on these shores. On its western shore is Tiberias, one of Judaism's holy cities, and today a popular holiday destination with local families.
7. Eilat and the Red Sea
At the far southern end of Israel is the seaside city of Eilat. Perched on the country's small strecth of Red Sea coast and tucked in between Taba, Egypt and Aqaba, Jordan, it is Israel's raucous, holiday destination. Come summer and the city is packed with Israeli families enjoying the big hotels, warm Red Sea waters and plethora of activities. Whilst foreign visitors can find Eilat a bit on the tacky side, it is a great base for exploring the rugged Arava Desert that is right on its doorstep. Camel treks, Bedouin hospitality, jeep tours of the desert landscape, scuba diving in the Red Sea, the geological park of Timna, the Hai Bar Nature Reserve and easy access for day trips to Petra, Jordan are just but a few of the activities on offer.
8. Akko Old City
Throughout history scores of people have conquered – or attempted to conquer – Akko. The Old City jutts out of the coast on a small peninsula surrounded by stout sea walls, and was a hugely important strategic location for battles in the Holy Land. Akko has been home to Canaanites, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Mamluks, Turks, Napoleon and the British, all having left their mark. Mosques, Crusader castles, prisons, churches, khans (merchant inns) and bathouses form an enormous museum, interspersed by busy souks, famed hummus restaurants and a noisy fishing port.
Known in Judaism as the 'Mystical City' Tzfat is the home of Kabbalah. The city, located in the heart of the Upper Galilee, is one of the four Jewish Holy cities, and many of the religion's top scholars and Rabbis are buried in the picturesque cemetery here. The Old City has dozens of synagogues hidden amidst its lanes, and traditionally-clad orthodox Jews outnumber the secular. A burgeoning artists' quarter has appeared within the Old City, and rustic, homely cafes can be discovered in between the artisans workshops.
Israel's third largest city tumbles down the northern slope of Mount Carmel on the Mediterranean coast. It's character and appeal are very different from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and it is a very pleasant place to spend a few days. In the centre of the city is the golden Baha'I Shrine and immaculate Persian Gardens – the centre of the international Baha'I Faith. At its foot is the charming German Colony with quaint cafes and boutique hotels, while the seafront is home to some of the country's best museums. Religious and historic sites, a wide sandy beach, a pumping nightlife and tumbling neighbourhoods all make it a worthwhile destination.
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Author: Samantha Wilson
Website: VisiTour Pass Israel