By Joseph Francis
Ancient, and packed with totemic religious sites, Israel comes steeped in the histories of Levantine tribes, Judean kings, Assyrian emperors, medieval crusaders from the west and the post-War superpowers alike. What’s more, it’s a country that’s also indelibly beautiful in its offering of dust-blown deserts, shimmering Mediterranean beaches and grape vine-clad hills to name just a few of its natural wonders.
In this breakdown of what it means to travel here, here is an Israel cultural guide to the hotspots, activities and experiences that people heading to this Middle Eastern gem should have on the menu. Yes sir, we go from the wine fields of Galilee to the bucket-list churches and mosques of Jerusalem, to the sun-splashed fashionista strips of Tel Aviv and the historic reaches of old Jaffa and everywhere in between, all to showcase the finest touristic hotspots and things to do in Israel.
Start with Jerusalem
Held in holy esteem by no fewer than three of the world’s largest religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the metropolis is awash with religious sights; from revered churches to mythic relics to awe-inspiring pilgrimage spots. That means the town positively pulses with everything from the clack of prayer beads to the ringing sound of the Adhan (the muslim call to prayer).
However, Jerusalem isn’t all about faith. The city also boasts one of the most enthralling Old Town areas in the world, which belies a past going back more than seven millennia. And while there’s layer upon layer of history coalescing between the rocks here, modern Jerusalem continues to beat to a modern drum. Bars erupt in Talpiot and on Monobaz, international restaurants abound, and the stark reminders of the 20th and 21st century political and religious divides still mark the boundaries between East and West Jerusalem; between the Arab and Jewish neighbourhoods.
Don’t miss Jerusalem’s countless religious sites
Of course, Jerusalem’s real claim to fame remains its position as one of the most holy cities in the world. The highest concentration of must-see religious sites in the town is found in the Old City - a UNESCO-attested central district that houses most all of the iconic churches, mosques, synagogues and relics. At the centre of the Old City stands the great Temple Mount, surrounded by Herodian bulwarks and lines of ancient fortifications, hailed as the holiest spot in all of Judaism. This is where travellers will also discover the shimmering 7th-century Dome of the Rock (which has restricted access to non-Muslims), thought to be the very spot where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to the heavens. The holy Western Wall pilgrimage site juts out from the side of the Holy Mount too, while the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the spot thought to contain the biblical Golgotha Mount and the tomb of Jesus Christ himself – left empty after the Resurrection) rises nearby.
A culinary adventure in Jerusalem
Jerusalem’s multitude of Islamic, Christian and Jewish sites belies both the town’s tumultuous political and religious conflicts and also its multicultural heritage. In such a lived-in, lively metropolis, travelers can indulge in one seriously mouth-watering array of culinary treats, ranging from Greek-style mezze platters to Arabic pastries to Jewish bagel breads doused in sesame oil. For kosher folk, there are also options aplenty, while veggies are sure to love the meat-free staples of the Middle East that abound. In the heart of the Old Town, travelers seeking the tastiest hummus (a veritable must try in this section of the Levant) would do well to settle in Abu Shukri; a tight-knit eatery that serves up olive oil-doused platters of the famous chickpea paste that are famed across the country. In east Jerusalem, Arabic Pasha’s serves up seriously mouth-watering mansaf (Middle Eastern lamb stews), while Zalatimos, set between the stony streets of the Old City, always beckons crowds with its cheese pastries. For some of the top Jewish food, travelers would do well to hit The Eucalyptus, a legendary joint that touts biblically inspired tasting menus replete with lentil soups, couscous and more.
Be sure to hit Tel Aviv
Forever drawing the young and energetic away from the cultural draws of the capital, Tel Aviv has positioned itself as the cool, confident party hub of Israel as a whole. But while shimmering condominiums and swish promenades form the heart of Central Tel Aviv, strung out along the Mediterranean coast and its concomitant stretches of glowing yellow sands, Israel’s second largest city also encompasses Old Jaffa on its southern edge, one of the country’s most historically-rich towns that comes in high on the list of must-sees for any Tel Aviv tour guide!
Experience the energy of modern Tel Aviv
Modern day Tel Aviv sets an electric place. Its beating heart, anchored on the buzzing Kikar Hamedina square, is alive with chic fashion strips and nightlife joints, acclaimed fine-dining and uber-cool art galleries. Check out the sun-splashed stretches of Rothschild Boulevard, complete with its array of gorgeous Art Deco and Bauhaus builds, shimmering banker skyscrapers and the like. Then, head over to the beach and wallow between the groups of bikini-clad locals, crackling barbeques and ad hoc street artists and performers. At night, make a beeline for the sleepless partying dives of Namal (the Tel Aviv port), or hit the thumping open-air bars of the Tayellet boardwalk. Artsy types, meanwhile, should head for the boho bars of the Florentin area and King George-Tshernechovsky – a little more offbeat and alternative.
Explore the winding maze that is Old Jaffa
A great way to balance the old and the new in Tel Aviv is to make for the historic streets of Old Jaffa port that lurk just to the south of the sprawling metropolis proper. This enchanting area of winding streets and alluring arabesque builds juts its way out into the Mediterranean Sea; its sun-splashed promenades coming peppered with swaying palm trees and the spice-scented stalls of an ancient bazaar. Once the largest seaport in the country and a stepping stone for western Crusaders entering the Middle East, this historic area boasts everything from the Zodiac alleys (famed for their arrays of art galleries and quirky workshops) to the Ali Karavan Abu Hasan hummus joint (hailed by many to have the best chickpea dips and pita platters in the Levant, and a veritable staple of many an Israel food guide)
Hit the hills and religious sites around the Sea of Galilee
Famed for its hospitable climes since the Romans and Greeks first paved their trade routes around its banks in the centuries BC, the Sea of Galilee forms the heartland of what has to be one of Israel’s most verdant and fertile regions. That makes for some prime outdoorsy pursuits, with hiking in the Kinneret landscapes, through the fir groves of the so-called Switzerland Forest (where some great campsites offer panoramas of the lake itself), up to the rugged top of Mount Arbel, and even further afield routes to the soaring ridges of the Golan Heights. What’s more, the water banks here are also home to some seriously totemic religious spots, like the town of Tiberias, where oodles of Roman dig sites meet Turkish hammams on the shore and monuments to Jesus’ walking on the water coalesce with the iconic Tomb of Meir Ba'al Hanes of Judaism.
Float your way to relaxation in the Dead Sea
Famed for its high salt content, the Dead Sea makes its home between the desert rocks and dusty escarpments that line the border with Jordan to the east. The lowest point on earth, the spot is visited by thousands of tourists each year, many of whom come to wallow on the buoyant waters and sunbathe under the Levantine heat. Others come for the supposed healing properties of the mineral-rich water and curious thalassotherapy treatments, while history buffs and culture vultures would do well to include the soaring Masada Fortress – the legendary palace complex of Herod the Great and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot - on their Dead Sea itinerary.
Get intrepid in the Negev Desert
A sprawling mass of semi-arid land that dominates the southern half of the State of Israel, the Negev Desert can hardly be avoided on any itinerary looking to capture the essence of this section of the Middle East. Engage a Negev tour guide at regional towns like Be'er Sheva and head out to discover the old spice routes and camel caravan trails of the ancient Nabateans, or the various wadis and box canyons of Makhtesh Ramon and Nahal Paran, which bloom fleetingly in the spring with dashes of red wild flowers and acacia. The colossal canyon and UNESCO site of Ein Avdat is another major draw and comes complete with a sprawling Byzantine acropolis and church complex that rarely fails to draw a gasp!
Don the snorkels or scuba gear in Eilat
While Eilat often gets a bad press for its resident crowd of Russian holidaymakers and sprawling mass of cookie-cutter condo blocks and high-rise hotels, there’s no denying that the natural draws that lurk on the peripheries of Israel’s only Red Sea resort make it worth thinking about adding to the itinerary. Set against a phalanx of ochre-tinted desert mountains, the town marks the point where Israel and the Negev give way to the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Aqaba. Beaches come part and parcel, of course, and Eilat tour guides often recommend hitting the sands of Coral Beach, where windsurfing, scuba diving and swimming with dolphins are the major pulls. A little further out of town, the rugged canyons of the Timna Valley are worth the ride, offering biblical copper mines and curious desert hoodoos alike.
Discover other faiths and sun-kissed sands alike in Haifa
Crowned by the gorgeous lawns and green-burst palm trees of the Bahá'i Gardens (the spiritual home of the Bahá'I faith and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that cascades down the ridges of Mount Carmel), Haifa hails in as Israel’s third-largest city overall. Unquestionably one of the most handsome metropolises in the entire region, the downtown here is delineated by the curved sand stretches of the Med, complete with lively sections of bar-peppered boardwalks (check out the areas close to Hof Hacarmel for the top spots). Haifa also showcases its cutting-edge drive at institutions like the National Museum of Science, while the ruined remnants of the Atlit Fortress (left over from the medieval Crusades) and the Nahal Mea'rot caverns beckon from the outskirts of the city.
Travel back into Israel’s deeper past at Caesarea Maritima
Midway between the party strips of Tel Aviv and the cascading gardens of Haifa, arguably Israel’s finest archaeological site (and that’s a tall order!) can be found butting its way up to the Mediterranean Sea. With a history of more than 2,000 years, the settlement of Caesarea Maritima has everything from crumbling aqueducts to colossal amphitheatres, while the real enchantment lies in the ability of experts to reconstruct exactly what life was like here in ancient times, all from the works of the prolific Jewish-Roman writer, Josephus. Another gem found on-site is the Sebastos harbor, which was originally constructed by Herod the Great in honour of Augustus Caesar in the first century BC, raised largely from imported pozzolana that was brought across the Med all the way from Italy!
Joseph ‘Rich’ Francis is a freelance travel writer who has travelled extensively in Asia and Europe. He particularly enjoys the jazz bars of Poland, the ski slopes of Austria and the beaches and cities of India.
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