Many people travel to Israel to see sacred sites. Others make the trip to laze on a Mediterranean beach or hike to a desert spring. Whatever your pleasure, Israel’s compact size and varied landscape make packing a variety of experiences into one trip a cinch.
This is the Holy Land and there are probably more sacred places per square mile here than anywhere else on earth. For many visitors, though, the look and feel of Israel’s holy sites can be quite unexpected — even a shock — since sacred does not always mean a rarified, reverent atmosphere.
The hustle and bustle at the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the Galilee; or at Elijah’s Cave in Haifa may make it difficult to focus on matters of the spirit, but it does make it easy to appreciate the impact of places that have drawn believers, sometimes crossing the boundaries of faith, for millennia.
Those seeking quieter spiritual moments should not despair; these, too, can be found, even in Jerusalem: you can find a peaceful experience at the Ethiopian Monastery, tucked away behind the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, or visit the Western Wall at dawn, an entirely different scene than later in the day.
Elsewhere, you can climb to the top of a rock on the outskirts of Tzfat to contemplate the sweeping view of the Galilee Mountains, and in Akko it’s worth a visit to the quiet corner of the flowering courtyard of the El-Jazzar Mosque. Tranquility reigns, too, at the peaceful gardens at the St. Gabriel Hotel, in Nazareth, or at the open air altar at the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, beside the Sea of Galilee.
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One of Israel’s nicknames is “land of the four seas” — the Med, the Dead, the Red, and the Sea of Galilee. And where there’s sea, there are beaches.
On the Mediterranean, the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv‘s waterfront are right on the doorstep of its most popular hotels. Farther up the coast, at Caesarea, are a public and a private beach, the latter with a dive club where qualified scuba divers lead underwater tours of sunken antiquities. Even farther north is Achziv Beach, beautifully maintained and great for kids.
The Dead Sea public relations people call the area “Jerusalem’s beach” because it’s less than an hour’s drive from the capital — although the water is so salty you’ll float rather than swim. Most hotels have private beaches, but if you’re here for just an afternoon, there are a number of pay-beaches (about 25 to 60 NIS). The public beach has free access to the sea and basic changing facilities are NIS 8.
Eilat is Israel’s sun-and-fun playground on the Red Sea. There are water sports galore here, including scuba diving, snorkeling, and parasailing. North Beach, along the hotel strip, is well kept and pleasant.
As for the Sea of Galilee, the beaches are picturesque, but few outside hotel properties are suitable for more than a quick dip since most lack anything approaching basic amenities. Non-“official” beaches don’t have lifeguards and the swimming can be risky. You’re better of in Tiberias, at the Gai, Blue, and Sironit beaches — all conveniently right in town.
In antiquity, Israel’s deserts were the stomping grounds for everyone from ancient prophets and hermits to traders. Today, there are several ways you can experience the rocky, spring-studded hills and dales of Israel’s two deserts — the Judean and the Negev — and your excursion can be as short as a few hours or as long as a day, or several days. You can book tours through travel agents or through your hotel, but some tours don’t operate in the summer, when it’s very hot. Whatever you do, take plenty of water and a hat.
It’s not advised to go off into the desert by yourself, but for a convenient, short exploration on foot, you can visit springs like Ein Gedi and the adjacent Nahal Arugot on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert southeast of Jerusalem. In the Negev, the trek to Ein Avdat is easy and begins at the end of a short drive from Ben-Gurion’s tomb. Any of these is only a few minutes’ walk from the road. If you’re looking for something more intense, join an organized hike, like the ones led by guides from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
If you prefer to travel by other means than by foot, you can sign up to see the desert by jeep, with Jeep See in Eilat or Israel Adventure Tours in Jerusalem, or join a camel trip into the Negev mountains northwest of Eilat through the Camel Ranch. If horseback riding is your thing, Texas Ranch, also in Eilat, takes riders on trails through Wadi Shlomo (Solomon’s Valley) and into the desert.