Israel is a small but varied country. This itinerary lets you see the high points of Jerusalem and the northern half of the country in 11 days; add the desert if you have the time and inclination.
You could spend a lifetime in Jerusalem, but three days is probably a good minimum to get a feel for the city and environs. First, spend a day getting an overview of the holy sites of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Start with the Western Wall, then go up to the Temple Mount (morning hours) to view the Muslim shrines. Follow the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Stop for a Middle Eastern–style lunch in the Christian Quarter before walking down into the Jewish Quarter. (Note: The Temple Mount is closed Friday and Saturday, and some Jewish Quarter sites close early Friday and only reopen Sunday.) Explore the remarkable underworld of biblical (Old Testament) Jerusalem, or if you have a car, pick up one or two of the panoramic views.
On your second day, you can venture farther afield: many consider the Israel Museum and Yad Vashem, including the Holocaust History Museum, essential if you're visiting Jerusalem. Mt. Herzl National Memorial Park is also a meaningful excursion. A good plan is to avoid burnout by doing one of the big museums on Day 2, the other on Day 3. (Note: Yad Vashem and Mt. Herzl are closed Saturday.) Add the Machaneh Yehuda produce market (closed Saturday) and the Knesset menorah.
Your third day can be devoted to the second of the above museums, and sites within an hour of Jerusalem: perhaps a wine tour in the Judean Hills. Or join a dig at Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park with Archaeological Seminars—and on your way back, visit Mini Israel, with its hundreds of models of Israeli sites.
After getting an early start in your rental car, head east through the stark Judean Desert to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. You can spend an hour (max) touring the ruins and seeing the audiovisual presentation. About 45 minutes south of Qumran along the Dead Sea shore is Ein Gedi, where a leisurely hike to the waterfall and back should take about 1.5 hours, including a dip in a freshwater pool. End the day with a float in the Dead Sea, and spend the night at the Kibbutz Ein Gedi Guest House or one of the fine hotels at Ein Bokek, at the southern end of the lake. The spa treatments featuring the famously curative Dead Sea mud are a highlight for many.
In the morning, hike the Snake Path—or take the cable car—up Masada. The gate to the trail opens before dawn so you can catch the sunrise at the top. Later, head back to Jerusalem to spend the night.
Note: If you don't have a car, one-day bus tours from Jerusalem let you see Masada and the Dead Sea. Or you can also drive to Qumran, Ein Gedi, the Dead Sea, and Masada for the day and return to Jerusalem: that's a full day and you'd need to plan your time carefully.
From Jerusalem, where you've spent the night, make an early start to allow time for all the sites on today's schedule. Retrace your steps down Route 1 East, stopping just north of the Dead Sea–Jerusalem highway at the oasis town of Jericho, the world's oldest city. It's almost worth a trip through this lush town—with its date palms, orange groves, banana plantations, bougainvillea, and papaya trees—just to be able to say "I was there," but Tel Jericho is also a significant archaeological site. Sample the baklava and orange juice. Jericho is in the Palestinian Authority, so check ahead of time for any entry restrictions. (Most car-rental agencies don’t allow their cars into Palestinian areas.)
Take the Jordan Valley route (Route 90) to the Galilee, stopping en route for a swim at the springs of Gan Hashelosha (better known as Sachne); then visit the extensive Roman-Byzantine ruins at Beit She'an, where you can have lunch in town or take a sandwich to the site. The Crusader castle of Belvoir will round out the day, and you can enjoy a lakeside fish dinner in Tiberias, where you'll spend the night.
The next day, spend an hour or two in the far north at the Tel Dan Nature Reserve, with its rushing water and biblical archaeology. Nearby Banias has Roman shrines, a fine walk, and the Suspended Trail overlooking a cauldron of seething white water. Depending on how you spend your day, you can also visit one of the many fine wineries on the Golan Heights, or do some hiking or bird-watching at Gamla. Overnight in Tiberias again, or better yet, farther north in a Hula Valley B&B.
On your third day, you can explore the treasures of Tzfat, with its beautiful vistas, old synagogues, and art and Judaica galleries. Spend the afternoon hiking or horseback riding at Bat Ya'ar (reserve if you want to go trail riding) or kayaking at Hagoshrim or Kfar Blum (seasonal, but no need to reserve). Overnight in Tiberias or at your Hula Valley B&B.
From Tiberias or your Hula Valley B&B, head west to the coast. Your first stop can be the cable-car ride to the white sea grottoes of Rosh Hanikra. Then travel to Akko, with its Crusader halls and picturesque harbor. Akko is also an excellent place for a fish lunch. Then drive to Haifa for a view from the Dan Panorama hotel at the top of Mt. Carmel. Spend the night in Haifa.
The next day, visit Haifa's Baha'i Shrine and its magnificent gardens, then continue down the coast to visit the village of Zichron Ya'akov, home of the Carmel Winery and the Beit Aaronsohn Museum. Have lunch and then head to Tel Aviv, stopping at the Roman ruins of Caesarea on the way. In Tel Aviv, you can enjoy a night on the town, perhaps in Neveh Tzedek or Jaffa.
On your third day, take in Tel Aviv's museums, browse Old Jaffa and the flea market, and enjoy a dip in the Mediterranean. From here you can head to the airport if it's time to go home. If you're proceeding on to the desert, spend another night in Tel Aviv.
From Tel Aviv, head south toward Beersheva and Route 40. If you're doing this on a Thursday, leave early enough to get to the Beersheva Bedouin market, which is most colorful in the morning. (Beersheva is under two hours’ drive from Tel Aviv.) Driving south, stop at Sde Boker, where you can have lunch and see David Ben-Gurion's house and gravesite overlooking the biblical Wilderness of Zin. Near Sde Boker is Ein Avdat, a wilderness oasis that has a trail with stone steps and ladders leading up the magnificent white chalk canyon. This part of the trail is one-way up, so the driver needs to go back to the car and drive around to meet the others.) Drive on to Mitzpe Ramon, on the edge of the immense Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater). Spend the night here, then enjoy the natural wonders of the Ramon Crater the next day. Spend a second night here as well.
Eilat is under three-hour’s drive from Mitzpe Ramon. Drive south on Route 40 to where it joins Route 90 and continue south on the Arava Road, which runs parallel to the border with Jordan. Stop at Hai Bar Nature Reserve, and then at Timna Park for a short walk and a view of Solomon's Pillars, arriving in Eilat in the late afternoon. A minimum of two days here allows you to see all the highlights; in three to five days you can have some serious beach or diving time, and take a side trip to Petra, in Jordan. You'll probably want to pick one hotel in Eilat as a base.
The lunar-like red-rock canyons in the hills behind Eilat are great for hiking (but not alone), and there are also plenty of water-sports options: you can snorkel, parasail, or arrange a boat trip to prime dive spots. Day trips to Petra are available through your hotel concierge. Some like more time to explore that extraordinary site, but since you can’t take your rental car across into Jordan, a two-day trip (overnight in Petra) is only doable if you budget for your own guide and car on that side. The return drive from Eilat to Jerusalem via the Arava takes less than five hours, including rest stops.