Visit the Holy Land, they say, and you'll never read the Bible the same way again; the landscapes and shrines that you'll see, and your encounters with local members of Christian communities at the landmarks of Jesus' life, will have a profound and lasting impact.
Spend your first day retracing the climax of the story of Jesus in Jerusalem, starting at the Mt. of Olives. This is where Jesus taught and wept over the city (Luke 19:41), and the tear-shaped Dominus Flevit church commemorates it. The walk down the Mt. of Olives road, also known as the Palm Sunday road, leads to the ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, where you can contemplate Jesus' “passion” and arrest.
Follow the Via Dolorosa, stopping at each Station of the Cross, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where most Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. The Garden Tomb—the site of Calvary for many Protestants—offers an island of tranquility. Take your time contemplating the sites; this won’t be a rushed day.
The next day, you can explore the Southern Wall excavations at the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, adjacent to the Old City's Dung Gate. Scholars believe Jesus could have walked the stones of the ancient street here, and climbed the Southern Steps to the Temple. Down the hill is the City of David, the Old Testament heart of Jerusalem, including the excavated Area G and Warren's Shaft, and King Hezekiah's water tunnel. The steps of the pool of Siloam, where a blind man had his sight restored (John 9:7–11), were discovered only a few years ago. Add a visit to the Room of the Last Supper on Mt. Zion, near Zion Gate, and then have lunch.
In the afternoon, you can visit Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, to see the Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world. Bethlehem is in the Palestinian Authority, so bring your passport. Most car-rental agencies don’t allow their cars into Palestinian areas. It's best to take a taxi to the border crossing east of Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood. The crossing for tourists is usually uncomplicated, and there are Palestinian taxis waiting on the other side to take you to the church. Or you can opt to spend the afternoon in Jerusalem.
Making an early start, head east through the barren Judean Desert to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Some scholars believe John the Baptist may have passed through here, and a visit to the site—you can spend an hour here—is an opportunity to learn about the desert in which Jesus sought solitude, purity, and inspiration.
Then head up the Jordan Valley (Route 90), passing through or near Jericho (depending on political conditions). Jesus also healed a blind man here (Mark 10:46), and had a meal with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–5). If the security situation isn't favorable, the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint at Jericho won't allow you in (again, read a newspaper and use common sense). If you skip Jericho, Route 90 swings past it to the east. In Jericho, though, a visit to Tel Jericho, the first conquest of the Israelites in the Holy Land (Joshua 6), is a must. You can have lunch at the restaurant next to the tell or at a truck stop on the way north from Jericho.
Then it's on to the ruins at Beit She'an, including the ancient main street, a bathhouse, and mosaics. Not only is this an important Old Testament site, it was also the capital of the Decapolis, a league of 10 Roman cities, among which Jesus taught and healed (Mark 7:31).
Farther north, pilgrims go to Yardenit to be baptized in the Jordan River and remember the baptism of Jesus in these waters. Spend the night in Tiberias.
Start the day heading north to the ancient wooden boat at Ginosar, which evokes Gospel descriptions of life on the lake—see, for example, Matthew 9:1. Then, after meditating on Jesus' famous sermon (Matthew 5) in the gardens of the Mt. of Beatitudes and its chapel (off Route 90 north of the Sea of Galilee), descend to Tabgha to see the mosaics of the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes. From a lakeshore perch at the nearby Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, where Jesus appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection (John 21), you can marvel at how Scripture and landscape blend before your eyes.
Farther east, the ruins of ancient Capernaum—the center of Jesus' local ministry—include a magnificent pillared synagogue (partially restored) and Peter's house.
An archaeological mound across the Jordan River, north of the Sea of Galilee, is ancient Bethsaida, where the Gospels say Jesus healed and taught (Luke 9:10, 10:13). To get there, continue east of Capernaum, cross the Jordan River north of the Sea of Galilee, turn left onto Route 888, and a short distance thereafter turn left to Bethsaida in the Jordan River Park. From there, head back down to the lake and continue around its eastern shore to Kursi National Park and the ruins of a Byzantine church where, it’s said, Jesus cast out demons into a herd of swine that stampeded into the water (Matthew 8:28–30).
A good idea for lunch is the fish restaurant at Kibbutz Ein Gev. Ask about a cruise on the lake after lunch (the kibbutz also has a boat company). Spend the night in Tiberias or at one of the kibbutz guesthouses or B&Bs in the Hula Valley.
The next day, drive through the Hula Valley; it's especially remarkable in the spring when the flowers bloom and bring alive Jesus' famous teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow" (Matthew 6:28). At the base of Mt. Hermon (which some scholars see as an alternative candidate for the site of the Transfiguration, as described in Mark 9:2–8), northeast of the Hula Valley, is Banias (Caesarea Philippi), where Jesus asked the disciples, "Who do people say I am?" (Matthew 16:13–20). The remains of a pagan Roman shrine are a powerful backdrop for contemplation of that message. Tel Dan, an important city in the biblical Kingdom of Israel, has a beautiful nature reserve. Stay overnight at your B&B or kibbutz hotel in the Hula Valley.
Head for the hills, connecting to Route 77 and turning south onto Route 754 to Cana to see the church that commemorates Jesus’ first miracle: changing water into wine (John 2:1–11). Continue to Nazareth, Jesus' childhood town. The massive modern Church of the Annunciation is built over a rock dwelling where (Catholics believe) the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary (Luke 1:26–38). The Greek Orthodox tradition is that the event took place at the village well, and their church is built over that site, some distance away. Nazareth's restaurants make tasty lunch stops.
A drive through the lush Jezreel Valley, via Route 60 and then north on Route 65 (the New Testament Valley of Armageddon), brings you to Mt. Tabor, long identified as the Mount of Transfiguration. The valley is named Armageddon (Revelation 16:16), after the archaeological site of Megiddo, now a national park south of Afula on Route 65. The drive back to Jerusalem from Megiddo takes 1½ hours, using the Route 6 toll road, or you can spend the night in Haifa and return to Jerusalem the next day.