For a country the size of New Jersey, Israel is startlingly diverse. When you find yourself in the silent, haunting desertscape near the Dead Sea, spotting ibexes on cliffs that are dotted with inaccessible caves—like those in which the Dead Sea Scrolls lay hidden for more than 18 centuries—it can be hard to believe that less than 60 minutes away is the 19th-century East European time-warp world of Jerusalem’s Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter. And a few blocks from Mea Shearim, you’ll find the labyrinthine medieval Arab bazaars of the Old City, with calls to prayer from the city’s minarets punctuating your wanderings. Hop into a sherut (shared taxi) to Tel Aviv, and in an hour you’re in a world of glass skyscrapers, surfboards, and bikinis on the beach. Travel 2 1/2 hours to the north, and you can explore ruined Crusader castles in the green forests of the Galilee Mountains.

The Holy Land surprises visitors in other ways as well. Fifty years ago, the country was still an austere, no-frills society—Israelis lived with few luxuries, and this spartan life was part of the national ideology. Today, Israeli society is frenetically inventive, the country’s economy is booming, the standard of living has skyrocketed, and many surveys rank Israel’s per-capita income among the top 20 in the world. Israel is becoming a nation with a lively sense of style and a taste for the good life. Luxury hotel accommodations have popped up all over the country, and visitors find an interesting array of restaurants, shopping opportunities, and sophisticated boutique wineries and microbreweries.

With the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, a journey to Israel can also easily include an excursion to the fabulous ancient Nabatean city of Petra in Jordan, camping with Bedouin in Jordan’s wild Wadi Rum, or a stay at one of the excellent luxury spas on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. Relations with other neighbors in the region, with the notable exception of Egypt, still tend to be more fraught, so as with any destination in the Middle East you’ll want to stay informed both before and during your trip. 

Amid Israel’s busy swirl of exoticism, ancient sites, markets, and crowded highways, you can still find young, idealistic kibbutzim and communities in the Negev, where new immigrants and old-timers are reclaiming the land from the desert as they learn how to live on it, appreciate its wonders, and make it truly their own.

Many travelers are attracted to Israel for reasons of faith, or to reconnect with their Jewish roots in the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people. Others are drawn by the history, pure and simple (although the history here is often anything but simple), and others find their bliss under the Mediterranean sun. Beneath it all is the feisty spirit of the Israelis themselves, who through a formidable work ethic and sometimes startling creativity make this little place a fascinating one with which to get acquainted. Roman ruins, biblical sites, beaches and delicious food are all enticements, too. So it’s no exaggeration at all to say that unlike most destinations for its size, Israel will amaze you.