Israel is a democratic bastion of art, technology, and creativity in the Middle East. With a history that goes back thousands of years, the country is a place of major importance to three major world religions, which is reflected in epic archaeological and historic landmarks. Plus, Israel’s natural beauty and varied terrain means plenty of outdoor attractions and activities, while the culture offers tons of experiences, from food markets to architecture tours to art museums and more.
Here are the top things to do on a visit to Israel.
Israel is blessed with dozens of stunning beaches, especially along its Mediterranean coast. From Tel Aviv’s lively city beaches to pristine spots off the beaten path like Palmachim and Dror Habonim, pretty much any part of Israel’s slice of the Mediterranean makes for incredible swimming and sunbathing. Most beaches have lifeguards and facilities, but be sure to check before you go.
Meander Through Jerusalem’s Old City
Jerusalem’s Old City is less than half of a square mile, but it holds thousands of years of history, going back to Biblical times. Today it is divided into four quarters: Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish. It is home to some of what are considered by several religions to be the holiest places in the world, including the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But it’s also a place where people live and work, and the small area is filled with marketplaces, restaurants, stores, museums, synagogues, mosques, churches, and more. It’s a fascinating place to wander through, and it’s also possible to walk along the top of the walls on the ramparts.
See the White City
Tel Aviv has the largest collection of Bauhaus-style buildings in the world, with about 4,000 of those buildings found in one area. Built around the 1930s by architects and designers who came to Israel from Germany (where the style originated), these buildings have been preserved and protected. The White City was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2003, and today there are various tours around the White City (check out Eager Tourist) as well as several museums that explore the architecture movement in Tel Aviv, like Bauhaus Museum at 21 Bialik Street, the Bauhaus Foundation, and the Bauhaus Center.
If it’s your first time in Israel, a face-up float in the salty Dead Sea is a must-do. Located 85 miles south of Jerusalem, just above the Negev desert, the briny water appears like a beautiful mirage. The lowest point on Earth, the water is so salt-filled that everything automatically floats to the top—including humans—and it’s a fascinating phenomenon to experience. While you’ll probably only want to stay in the water for a few minutes (especially if you have any cuts or sores), you can also smear the mineral-rich mud on your skin for an impromptu mud mask treatment. There are various hotels and resorts surrounding the sea.
The vibrant city of Tel Aviv is known for its nightlife, and there are plenty of bars and clubs to choose from. If you like to dance, you’ll find no shortage of dance floors to hit, like The Block, Pasaz, Radio EPGB, Lima Lima, Buxa Bar, and Beit Maariv.
Sample Food in Jerusalem’s Machne Yehuda Market
Israel’s outdoor markets, or shuks, are epic, and one of the best is Jerusalem’s massive Machane Yehuda. Try to visit on a Friday morning, when seemingly the entire city is out shopping before Shabbat starts at sundown. Be ready to stock up on the freshest produce, nuts, and spices you’ve ever seen. Come hungry so you can get your fill of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, crispy falafel, flaky bourekas, tender lamb shawarma, and chocolaty rugelach.
Also known as the Wailing Wall (or in Hebrew, the Kotel), this ancient limestone wall dates back to 19 BC. It is a small segment of a larger retaining wall that was built by King Herod around the Temple Mount, during the time of the Second Jewish Temple. Currently, the Wall is considered the holiest place where Jews can visit, and it is a pilgrimage site for many. When visiting, dress modestly and be prepared for men and women to approach the wall on different sides of a divider. One custom is to put folded up notes with prayers on them into the crevices of the wall. On Shabbat and Jewish holidays, the Wall is filled with people praying.
Climb to the Top of Masada
Getting up before sunrise to scale the top of Masada in the middle of the Negev desert is practically a rite of passage for every visitor to Israel. The climb itself is steep but not too long, or you can take a cable car. At the top you’ll discover the history of the storied rebellion against the Romans in 74 CE and witness one of the most beautiful sunrises in the world.
Snorkel or Dive in the Red Sea
Eilat, at the southern tip of the country by the Red Sea, has Israel’s only coral reef. One of the best dive sites is the Eilat Coral Beach Nature Reserve, while Dolphin Reef is a great place to snorkel or dive with dolphins. The Red Sea is also home to colorful coral, scorpionfish, lionfish, clownfish, and more than 1,200 other fish species, as well as several shipwrecks like the Satil. There are various dive centers around Eilat—including Tzlilut Dive Center, Red Sea Lucky Divers, and Israel Dive—that can help with gear, PADI certification, and guides.
This desert nature reserve right near the Dead Sea is Israel’s largest oasis and also one of its most popular hiking spots. The area is a lush sanctuary of greenery with beautiful springs, streams, pools, and waterfalls to cool off in. In the summer, expect throngs of tourists crowding the waterfalls, but come spring or fall, you might have one all to yourself.
Eat a Falafel
Israel has come a long way from roadside falafel stands; with a food scene as excellent as Tel Aviv's, it's a legitimate foodie capital of the world. That said, you should still eat a falafel or three during your trip. While you can find them almost anywhere, the best ones are usually from small, hole-in-the-wall spots, and yes, roadside stands. The shuk, or outdoor market, is usually a good bet for a tasty one. And don’t forget to load on the toppings—salads, tehina, hummus, fried eggplant, and French fries!
Explore Tel Aviv's Old City and Its Port
While Jerusalem’s Old City is on most people’s Israel bucket lists, Tel Aviv’s walled Old City, called Jaffa, doesn’t always make the cut—but it should. Jaffa is one of the few multicultural places in Israel, with Jews, Muslims, and Christians living side by side. Meandering through Jaffa’s narrow streets, you’ll find galleries, top-notch restaurants, and lively bars interspersed between ancient stone walls and gates. Jaffa is also home to what is considered the world’s oldest port at about 4,000 years old. In recent years, it has become home to seaside restaurants, a food hall, and artists studios. It’s one of the best places to watch the sunset, too.
Located in Jerusalem, the Israel Museum is the country’s premier museum. It features hundreds of incredible archeological finds from the region, including the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as ancient and modern art from Israel and around the world. There is also a lovely outdoor sculpture garden and excellent children’s programming. At another location is the enchanting Ticho House, a historic home that was once the home of artist Anna Ticho. Today, it is home to various galleries and one of the best restaurants in Jerusalem.
Also known as the Hanging Gardens of Haifa, these incredible terraced gardens surround the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel in the northern city of Haifa. The Baha'i Gardens are one of the holiest places for the Baha’i faith and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Designed by Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba, they feature nine concentric circles and 18 terraces leading up to the shrine. Marvel at the gardens from the top near the shrine before walking down the terraces to the bottom for another gorgeous view.
Hike in the Negev and Aravah Valley
Bordered by the lush Aravah Valley on its eastern side, the 4,700-square-mile Negev desert covers more than half of the entire country of Israel. While the region may seem inhospitable at first, it’s actually home to varied flora and fauna. Incredible geological formations can be found here, including three different craters and multiple canyons, the most famous being Machtesh Ramon. There are endless hikes in this region worth trekking along, but before you embark on one, make sure you are well versed in the area and are properly equipped. A guide might be a good bet as the conditions (hot and dry with a possibility of flash floods in winter) can be harsh if you’re unprepared. Some top hikes in the Negev and Aravah include the Red Canyon, Timna Park, Ein Avdat National Park, Ein Saharonim (inside Machtesh Ramon), and Pura Nature Reserve.
Bike Around the Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee, known in Hebrew as Yam Kinneret, is the lowest freshwater lake in the world. It’s located in the northeast part of Israel, between the Galilee and the Golan Heights in the Jordan Valley. It’s also believed to be the Biblical site in the New Testament where Jesus walked on water and performed other miracles. The lake is about 33 miles in circumference, making it an ideal distance for an extended bike ride. The Kinneret Trail, which is about 75 percent complete as of now, makes it easy to bike or walk around the lake.
Eat Fresh Fish in Acre
An ancient port city dating back to the Bronze Age, Acre (also known as Akko), is considered one of the holiest cities in the Baha’I faith. The walled Old City is a UNESCO Heritage Site and filled with fascinating surprises like ancient tunnels, gates, citadels, and more. There are many stunning vantage points overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, which means one thing: fresh fish! One of Israel’s best restaurants, Uri Buri, located in the gorgeous Efendi Hotel, is renowned for its incredible fish and seafood dishes. Look out for chef owner Uri Jeremias—he’s the one with the long, white beard.
Visit Wineries in the Golan
Israel’s far north, known as the Golan Heights, is home to stunning scenery, wonderful nature reserves, and several excellent wineries. The Golan Heights Winery, which opened in 1983, is often credited with Israel’s wine revolution, bringing modern techniques to Israel for the first time and putting the country on the world’s radar as a winemaking destination. Visitors can tour the winery, vineyards, and cellars and have a tasting. Other Golan wineries worth visiting include Pelter Winery, Assaf Winery, Ortal Winery, and Galileo Winery.
Walk Through the City of David and the Tower of David Museum
If you’re an archaeology buff, the City of David, just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, is a must-see. It is considered to be a city that was once captured by King David, the king of the Israelites in the Biblical narrative. Today it is one of the most extensively excavated sites in the country, and there are findings dating back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. Some of the remains worth seeing include Hezekiah’s water tunnels (which you can splash through) and the Siloam Pool. Be aware that the area, in the West Bank, is disputed politically by some and is also home to the Palestinian Arab neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh just outside the ruins. On an opposite corner of the Old City stands the Tower of David museum, located inside an ancient citadel. The museum tells the story of David’s time and also has an impressive sound and light show on the stone walls at night.