The Judean Hills that encircle Jerusalem, together with the wilderness that slopes precipitously eastward to the Dead Sea, host an astonishing range of scenery: springs and oases, forests and fields, caves, hiking trails, and impressive archaeological sites such as Masada. West of the city, farmers are coaxing grapes from the valley where David once battled Goliath. The area is becoming more popular with a wide range of travelers, thanks to its wineries, breweries, and boutique cheese and olive oil producers.
The Judean Desert–Dead Sea area—little changed from when Abraham wandered here with his flocks—contrasts sharply with the lush greenery of the oases of Ein Gedi, Ain Fashkha, and the verdant fields of Jericho. Nomadic Bedouin still herd sheep and goats, though you notice some concessions to modernity: pickup trucks are parked beside camels.
The route along the Dead Sea shore is hemmed in by towering brown cliffs fractured by wadis, or dry riverbeds. Ein Gedi has two of the most spectacular of these wadis, Nahal David and Nahal Arugot. In Ein Bokek, near the southern end of the Dead Sea, you can settle into one of the numerous health and beauty spas that make use of the Dead Sea's saline waters and medicinal mud.
Just to the north is Masada, Herod the Great's mountaintop palace-fortress built over 2,000 years ago, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Overlooking the Dead Sea, the king's extravagant architectural feat still displays ingenious water systems, elaborate frescoes, mosaic floors, and bathhouses. Add the human drama of the last Jewish stand against Rome during the Great Revolt, and it’s easy to understand why this is one of the most visited sights in Israel.
Just south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is a major site of Christian pilgrimage. The Church of the Nativity, the oldest church in the country, erected in the 4th century, is built over the grotto where Christian tradition holds Jesus was born. The West Bank Palestinian city of almost 40,000 sits on the ancient highway through the rocky Judean Hills. Farmers tend century-old terraces of olives, figs, and grapes all around the ancient city.