It doesn’t take much time to get from one region of Israel to another (at some points, it’s only 16km/10 miles wide), but you’ll find the country is enormously varied. A quick review of the landscape will help you to decide where to spend your time.
Jerusalem-The jewel in the crown. The city is many worlds: modern and timeless; Jewish and Arab; religious and nonreligious. The walled, labyrinthine Old City has been named a World Heritage Site; in addition to being a perfectly preserved town with more than 4,000 years of history, it contains the great holy places of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, the Western Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Highlights of the New City include the remarkable Israel Museum, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Yad VaShem, the haunting Holocaust Memorial and Museum.
The Dead Sea-Easy to visit for a day by using Jerusalem as your base, the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the earth, is also a good place to visit for a few days as part of a jaunt into the Negev Desert. The almost impregnable Herodian Fortress of Masada, the most dramatic ancient site in the country, is perched on a plateau above the Dead Sea. It was here that the last Jewish resisters against Rome committed suicide rather than surrender. The beautiful canyon oasis of Ein Gedi is another attraction, as is the unique experience of trying to sink in the mineral-heavy Dead Sea. The southern Israeli shore of the sea is now lined with world-famous spas and hotels offering an array of therapeutic and beauty-treatment packages.
The Negev-The southern part of Israel (nearly two-thirds of the country) is desert and semidesert; it contains beautiful nature reserves and is great for hiking and nature tours. This part of the country, least visited by tourists, is perhaps the most mysterious. Long famous for its coral reef and laid-back snorkeling and diving opportunities, Eilat, at the southern tip of the Negev, is a world unto itself—a mirage rising out of the sand, with dozens of new high-rise megahotels and fancy restaurants grouped on the city’s few miles of Red Sea shoreline. The Sinai Coast of Egypt, a bit farther south and easily accessible from Eilat, offers reefs that are more spectacular, a landscape that is more dramatic and less developed, and hotels that are considerably less expensive.
Tel Aviv-Full of energy and verve (many wonder how it can be in the same country as Jerusalem), Tel Aviv has great restaurants, good beaches, and three inventive museums: the Diaspora Museum, the Eretz Israel Museum, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. From April to October, Tel Aviv is a good first stop in Israel—you can spend a day or two at the beach to recover from jet lag before plunging into the rest of the country.
The Mediterranean Coast-If you want to relax on the beach, get to know this area, also known as the Golden Coast. The ruined Roman- and Crusader-era city of Caesarea is the most dramatic archaeological site along the coast; farther north, the Old City of Akko, with its bazaars, cafes, and minarets beside the Mediterranean, is the most exotic site. Kibbutzim and moshav holiday villages, from Nahsholim, south of Haifa, right up to the northernmost coast, are good spots for a pleasant beach break from touring.
Haifa-Israel’s third major city offers a spirit and face quite different from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It is a business and industrial city, but it’s also beautifully laid out on a stepped mountain overlooking the harbor. It’s really dazzling from the heights of Mount Carmel. The magnificent Baha’i Center is also memorable, and Haifa makes a good urban base for exploring the northwestern part of the country.
The Galilee-Israel’s northern region is filled with a lovely countryside of forested mountains and olive groves dotted with Israeli-Arab cities and towns, kibbutzim, and the remains of ancient ruined cities, synagogues, and churches. At the heart of the Galilee is the freshwater Sea of Galilee, a lyrically beautiful body of water made all the more special by its association with both New and Old Testament sites. The Galilee offers great hiking and nature trails, but it’s also a good place to rent a car for a few days and freewheel.
The West Bank/Palestinian Authority Areas-This was a countryside of classic biblical landscapes and ancient sites, but 20 years of political turmoil and war have made the West Bank difficult to visit at the best of times and outright dangerous at the worst of times. As of press time, the governments of most Western countries advise against visiting this area until the political situation improves, so it’s best to consider this area off limits when planning your itinerary, although visits with organized Christian tour groups to Bethlehem are popular when the political situation allows.
Petra, Jordan-Israel’s neighbor offers dramatic, totally unspoiled landscapes and magnificent sites from ancient times, such as the legendary rock-hewn city of Petra in the southern part of the country. Luxury and moderate hotels here are a bargain compared to those in Israel. The less-developed Jordanian side of the Dead Sea is dotted with hot springs and now contains a number of relaxing spas and hotels that offer a variety of unique therapeutic and beauty treatments. Wadi Rum, south of Petra, offers opportunities for camping and hiking with Bedouin guides in one of the most dramatic desertscapes in the world.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.