With an abundance of natural beauty, the Mediterranean coastline, and a bounty of cultural riches, Israel offers an exciting bucket list of things to explore in a country that lives and breathes history. Israel is a land of contrasts from meaningful holy sites and the bustling city of Tel Aviv to deep-rooted archaeological sites in the desert and skyscrapers reaching great heights. It is tradition and the past; it is the future.
I had an opportunity to visit Israel as a guest of the Israel Ministry of Tourism, but all opinions are my own.
1. Explore Jerusalem, The ‘City Of Gold’
The holy city of Jerusalem beckons with the Western Wall, beautiful churches, and historic mosques, meaningful to three world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This 3,000-year-old city seamlessly blends the ancient with the contemporary, creating an awe-inspiring travel experience.
The focal point of Jerusalem is the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Second Temple, which was destroyed in 70 A.D. and attracts worshippers from around the globe. They come to meditate at this sacred site and place notes with their deepest prayers into the cracks between the stones. When the notes fill the wall, they are collected and buried according to Jewish law.
The tunnels beneath the Western Wall continue to be excavated, peeling away layers and layers of history. If you’ve visited the tunnels before, go again because something new is always being discovered. Take a tour and listen to an archeologist share Jerusalem’s rich past. Then go further underground and be amazed by the cisterns, large stone arches, and artifacts that tell the story of ancient times.
Beyond imagination is a new synagogue built under the Temple Mount, within the Western Wall tunnels complex, that took 12 years and $50 million to build. Replete with a stunning metal ark that holds the Torah Scrolls, the synagogue is a joy to behold. Recently reopened, the synagogue is available for sunrise prayer at 6 a.m. and other services.
Another fascinating venue is the new virtual reality tour of the Second Temple at the Western Wall Plaza. I donned special goggles and all of a sudden, I was taken back 2,000 years with a 360-degree perspective of the temple as it stood, filled with worshippers. “Wow” is right.
Near the Old City stands the Tower of David, also called the Jerusalem Citadel. This ancient fortress is also a museum, currently being renovated with new ramps and elevators for greater accessibility. They are also adding impactful new exhibits about the city’s multi-faceted history. We took the Ramparts Walk around the walls and were rewarded with breathtaking views of the Old City. Interesting to me were the narrow openings which allowed arrows to be shot.
At night, the Tower of David screens a spectacular sound and light show against the backdrop of the ancient structure. Powerful images, original music, and video take viewers on a remarkable journey through Jewish history.
Dine At Andalusia
Kikar Hamusica (Music Square) is a lively place to see and be seen. We dined at Andalusia, a kosher tapas restaurant in a delightful setting. The menu combines traditional Spanish cuisine with modern Israeli tastes. I devoured the potato crisps, artichoke salad, and vegetarian paella.
Pro Tip: Dress modestly with your shoulders covered while in Israel out of respect to the religious sites you will visit.
2. Visit Tel Aviv, A Vibrant, Bustling City With Exquisite Beaches
Tel Aviv is new in comparison to Jerusalem. Established in 1909, it’s called the “White City” for its substantial number of beautiful Bauhaus/International-style buildings. Constructed in the 1930s by a group of German architects fleeing persecution, these buildings remain classic hotels and apartments. Admire them as you stroll through the tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard, along with coffee kiosks and chess tables. With 8 miles of gorgeous beach along the Mediterranean, look for new luxury hotels springing up like The David Kempinski and Oriental Mandarin.
Plan to visit ANU, the newly remodeled Museum of the Jewish People and now the largest Jewish museum in the world. Discover exhibits of Jewish identity and pop culture, and learn about Jewish communities throughout history. My favorite exhibits were their collection of 21 synagogue models from around the world, highlighting Jewish life; and Heroes – Trailblazers of the Jewish People. Stand in awe of the menorah from the destroyed Great Synagogue in Warsaw, returned to Israel after the Holocaust by a non-Jew who hid it for safekeeping.
The nearby Old Port of Jaffa boasts a much longer history dating back to ancient times. Today, you’ll see small fishing vessels going out to sea and reeling in fresh fish for the local restaurants. Take a walk around the port to get a real sense of history. Visit the lively Flea Market area for unique arts and crafts. I brought home really cool, lemon-smelling soaps in the shape of a hamsa.
With so much new construction going on, the joke in Israel is that the national bird is the crane. But the truth is, Tel Aviv and areas north are a bird-watching paradise with many tours available to watch the migration in spring and fall.
Dine At PUAA In Jaffa
This fabulous restaurant in the Flea Market offers an eclectic array of Mediterranean cuisine in a homey, retro atmosphere. We dined outside, starting with fried cauliflower, which was outstanding, followed by pumpkin dumplings, rich and savory.
3. Shop In Unique Open-Air Fruit And Crafts Markets
Israel is known for its colorful open-air markets, most notably the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv and Machne Yehuda in Jerusalem. Here, you can shop for Israeli foods, candies, spices, art, jewelry, and more. The Carmel Market opened in 1920 and is one of the most popular places to visit in Tel Aviv. Machne Yehuda is considered the heart of Jerusalem for its authentic flavors and aromas. Sample a variety of fresh fruits and candy. Warning: One taste will have you wanting more. Be on the lookout for halva. It’s made from sesame seeds and mixed with sugar or honey to create a delectable treat. You will see slabs of halva stacked up high with added toppings of pistachios, cranberries, poppy seeds, and other nuts. There is nothing quite like it. Other delicacies include olives, hummus, and dried fruits.
4. Float In The Dead Sea
Located in the Judean desert of southern Israel lies the Dead Sea — the lowest place on earth and the saltiest body of water in the world. You can’t actually swim in it. But just lay back, relax, and voila, you’re floating! For others, part of the fun is packing the mineral-rich mud from the Dead Sea all over their bodies. Don’t worry, there are showers on the beach to rinse it all off. When the substance comes clean, your skin will feel soft and supple. You’ll also find plenty of luxury hotels and spas dotting the Dead Sea, where you can make relaxation and rejuvenation your top priority.
5. Take A Jeep Tour Of A Crater At Mitzpe Ramon
Mitzpe Ramon is located in the heart of the Negev, offering a range of unique desert experiences. Stargazing, sleeping in a Bedouin camp, and paying respects to the graves of Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and his wife, Paula, are just a few. Considered the largest erosion crater in the world, Mitzpe Ramon is not just one crater, it’s hundreds of moon-like craters lining the dry, desert terrain. I had the chance to tour Mitzpe Ramon in a Jeep, spotting rare wildlife, beautiful rock formations, and a colorful landscape. As we ascended and descended the bumps, we saw Ibex — graceful, goat-like animals running through the craters. At night, we watched the stars come out in the desert, recognized as the first International Dark Sky park in the Middle East. We sat quietly around a fire as Alen, our guide, pointed out the constellations and zodiac signs. The highlight was looking through his high-powered telescope and seeing Saturn, rings and all. In the quiet of the night, I felt a sense of peace and tranquility, at one with the desert.
Consider spending a few days at a Bedouin camp like Kfar Hanokdim, a desert resort near Masada. Here, you can enjoy a taste of Bedouin life as you sleep in authentic tents or “sukkahs” and hear stories about their nomadic lifestyle. Sit around a bonfire, ride a camel, feast on Middle East delicacies, and savor Turkish coffee. You’ll really get a chance to recharge as you disconnect from modern-day life.
Note: Israeli Astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident, changed his name from Wolferman to Ramon during his military service to sound more like an Israeli.
6. Taste The Fruits Of The Wine At Boutique Wineries
Israel has been making wine since biblical times. You can taste the fruits of the vines at over 300 smaller boutique wineries as well as larger, commercial ones. I stopped by Jerusalem Vintage Winery, the only winery in Jerusalem. Grown in three different areas of Israel, the winery is known for producing award-winning rosé, The Windmill Project’s petit Verdot, and chardonnay. You can’t miss the iconic Montefiore Windmill where the tasting room is located. Enjoy several wine-tasting packages with an optional charcuterie plate of grapes, cheeses, and crackers. I spent a delightful afternoon sipping wine and munching on cheeses, all with exquisite views overlooking the city.
7. Climb Masada
This ancient fortress in the Judean desert served as a refuge for the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple. Holding the Romans off for almost 3 years, the remaining zealots chose to kill each other rather than submit to capture and slavery. Before or after, stop at the Masada Museum, where you can watch a video and get a better understanding of its history. Climbing Masada, one of Israel’s top attractions, is best done at sunrise before the heat gets too intense. The most popular trail is the Snake Path, about 1.2 miles long, but there’s an easier route via cable car. Once you’re at the top, you can explore remnants of the Northern Palace built by King Herod and the largest building on Masada, as well as ritual baths, an ancient synagogue, and a cistern. Take the cable car back down and enjoy the exquisite views of the Dead Sea and Moab Mountains.
Pro Tip: Make sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat. The area is completely open and there are no shady areas.
Put Israel on your bucket list this year and come away with the experience of a lifetime.