The Galilee, encompassing much of Northern Israel, is an inviting network of forested hills, olive groves, kibbutzim, and Israeli Arab towns and villages. At this region’s eastern edge is Israel’s greatest natural treasure: the Sea of Galilee, a 2 1/2-hour drive north of Jerusalem. This magical, turquoise body of water is a jewel-like, freshwater lake, set amidst a circle of mountains, and surrounded by dramatic Old and New Testament sites.

Organized bus tours can take you through the highlights of this region, but, if possible, the Galilee is the place to bring a rental car so you can free-wheel and explore, visit some boutique wineries, and stay for a few days at a Kibbutz Guesthouse or country lodge. Beyond the circuit around the Sea of Galilee, some of the area’s highlights include:

Safad (Tsfat): A mountain city 33km (20 miles) drive northeast of the Sea of Galilee, this has been a center for Jewish scholarship and mysticism since the 15th century; the old city is filled with quaint lanes and artists’ homes.

Nazareth: The village of Jesus’s youth, Nazareth is now a modern city and important center for Israel’s Arab community. It’s the site of the Basilica that marks the Annunciation. The recreated Nazareth Biblical Village is a worthwhile attraction. Nearby are Zippori, the vast ruins of a Roman Jewish city, traditionally the home of Mary’s family, and Mt. Tabor, a place of mystery since prehistoric times (with views across Israel to Mt. Carmel) and site of the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Bar’am National Park: A beautiful drive 40 km (25 miles) northwest of Safad, where well-preserved ruins of the Bar’am synagogue from the a.d. 3rd and 4th century stand amid the remnants of a Maronite Christian village ordered evacuated by Israeli forces during the 1948 War of Independence.