Alluring and inimitable, Israel is one of those destinations that stirs up a myriad of contemplations when visiting. Located on the Mediterranean Sea and bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, this Middle Eastern country is known as the biblical Holy Land by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. For such a small country, there is much to see and do here, even if you’re more of a history buff than a religious devotee. From the incredibly diverse topography to the chronicles embedded in the streets of Jerusalem, to the modern seaside city of Tel Aviv, and to the ethereal tranquility of the Dead Sea, Israel has a way of engaging wanderers who seek depth in their travels. Keep reading to learn about the top things to experience while visiting this country.
Tel Aviv and Jaffa Port
Dining, shopping, and nightlife opportunities abound in the coastal beach city of Tel Aviv, which in many ways can feel like the American city of Miami. You’ll see vibrant graffiti art, modern architecture as well as the largest collection of Bauhaus buildings in the world, and plenty of boutiques selling everything from textiles to home goods to clothing to furniture. Walk along the beach promenade or take a tour of the area via bicycle or Segway. Be sure to visit Carmel Market to sample different types of Israeli foods and drinks, influenced by a multitude of cultures.
Explore the winding and narrow streets of Jaffa’s Old City, also known as Yafo, and its port. The contrast of the oldest port in the world, home to multiethnic communities, next to the modern city of Tel Aviv is stark. See the Jaffa Clock Tower, Saint Nicholas Monastery, the Great Mahmoudiya Mosque, the Old Jaffa Museum of Antiquities, and several gardens, squares, and courtyards.
Mount of Olives
Located in east Jerusalem, near the Old City, Mount of Olives is a worthwhile place to visit to gain perspective of the land—you can see far and wide over the Kidron Valley to Jerusalem and Temple Mount when standing on this mountain. Olive groves once covered this Jewish burial ground, which has been the resting place for notable Jewish biblical figures for thousands of years. Dome of the Ascension, where Jesus is said to have made his last footprint on Earth, is located in these hills as is the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before crucifixion.
Jerusalem’s Old City
The walled and historic Old City of Jerusalem has been at the epicenter for religious faith, sacred to millions of people for thousands of years. Tourists, entering through one of seven entrances (the New Gate, Damascus Gate, Herod’s Gate, Lions’ Gate, Dung Gate, Zion Gate, and Jaffa Gate), explore the four uneven quarters—Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Armenian—within the stone walls. Visit religious sites, look for goods throughout the many stalls in the quarters, and dine out in any of the various eateries. The top must-see sites to experience here are the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and Temple Mount. Explore Jerusalem through one of our recommended tour companies.
The Western Wall
Also called the Wailing Wall or Kotel, Jerusalem’s Western Wall is a moving sight for people of any faith but particularly those of the Jewish religion. Millions of pilgrims make their way here each year to pray, read scripture, and write prayers and wishes on pieces of paper that then get wedged into the cracks of the limestone wall, the only remainder of the wall surrounding the Temple Mount and the site of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem, which were destroyed first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. The wall is divided for men and women in Prayer Plaza, and conservative dress is required to visit the free site.
Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock
The grounds of the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque—known as Al Haram Ash Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary) to Muslims and Har Ha Bayit (Temple Mount) to Jews—is one of the holiest sites for Jews and Muslims. According to the Muslim faith, the Prophet Muhammad made the ascent to heaven at Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock sits, and Jews believe this is the site where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son. Visitors are allowed to view the area, however; only Muslims are allowed to go inside the temple. Modest dress is required.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
You’ll see people in awe, crying, praying, and placing purchased objects on the Stone of Anointing, where Jesus’s body was prepared for burial, inside the Holy Sepulchre, a church built on the site of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Located in the Christian quarter of the Old City, you’ll see two chapels—one Greek Orthodox and one Catholic—and the Aedicule, a smaller chapel housing the Holy Sepulchre. Be prepared for long lines as tourists make their way through the sections.
Mahne Yehuda Market
Don’t be shy when you wander through this market full of delicious bites. Try the various types of halva, breads, nuts, dates, olives, hummus, pastas, and freshly squeezed juices. Take photographs of the tables with mounds of multi-hued spices. Watch locals haggle over prices on cuts of meat and fish. Take your time, sit at an outdoor café, and enjoy the great people-watching. This market is where everyone comes together to shop, eat, and relish each other’s company.
Christian pilgrims make their way to Jerusalem’s Old City to walk the route Jesus walked from condemnation to crucifixion. Visitors walk and pray at 14 different Stations of the Cross including spots where Jesus was condemned, falls, meets his mother, is stripped of his garments, is nailed to the cross, and is put in the tomb. The Via Dolorosa, or Sorrowful Way, is an important historical and religious route not only for pilgrims and tourists, but also, for a Roman Catholic procession held each week.
City of David
Archaeological digs still happen in the City of David, a settlement from the Canaanite period, and ancient relics from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age are constantly being discovered. See the Gihon Spring and the Pools of Siloam, and walk through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, which are part of an archaeological park. Splash through the Siloam Tunnel where water from the early spring still flows. It’s worth noting that the site, occupied by Israel, is controversial in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Tower of David Museum
Near the Jaffa Gate entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City, lies the Tower of David, where inside the citadel a museum sits. The museum hosts changing exhibits, cultural events and the well-loved nighttime showing of The Night Spectacular Sound and Light Show, which tells the story of Jerusalem’s history through the use of a laser projection system on the tower’s walls.
The Israel Museum
To learn about Israel’s art and archaeology, visit the Israel Museum. You’ll see the Shrine of the Book, which is where the Dead Sea Scrolls are located. Wander through the Archaeology and Fine Arts wings and explore the European, Modern, and Israeli art collections. Outside, walk around the large replica of the Second Temple Period.
An ancient port city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, built by Herod the Great, Caesarea is an archeological park which includes a large Roman amphitheater and remnants of a hippodrome where prisoners once fought wild animals, and horse-pulled chariots raced around a track. You’ll see ancient mosaics, created in intricate patterns, as well as a Roman aqueduct and palace remains.
The vast Negev desert, which encompasses more than half of Israel’s land area, is home to the Makhtesh Ramon, a large erosion crater. Bedouins make their home throughout the desert, and some tours will allow you to meet a family in person. Jeep, camel, and hiking tours are popular in this area as is rappelling off of the edge into the Ramon crater.
Ten times saltier than the ocean and the lowest point on land, the Dead Sea is a well-visited destination in Israel and Jordan. People come for a spa vacation, to treat skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, and to float on top of the water in an otherworldly landscape. Cover yourself in mineral-rich mud and soak in the water—just be sure that you don’t get the water in your eyes or in a cut, because it will sting.
Masada National Park, located about an hour south of Jerusalem on the edge of the Dead Sea, is one of the most visited destinations in Israel. King Herod the Great built this ancient fortress on a plateau, which was later occupied by Jewish rebels who were fighting against the Roman Empire. After seven years, the Jewish people committed mass suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Romans, which today is seen as a strong example of resolve. Hike up the path to the top or opt for the cable car and give yourself a couple of hours to roam the grounds.