Even for the staunchly secular, Israel’s ancient, biblical, and historic sites will take your breath away.
Whether you visit the sacred places of worship in Jerusalem’s white-stoned Old City or the centuries-old Crusader ruins in cities like Akko, you’ll feel just how intensely the ancient past hovers over Israel’s modern cities. Here are the millennia-old sites that should top your must-see list on a trip to Israel whether you’re religious or not.
Bahai Shrine and Gardens
WHERE: Haifa and the Northern Coast
The historic northern city of Haifa is the epicenter of the Baha’i religious group, and the community’s gorgeous shrines and terraced gardens, on the northern slope of the Carmel Mountain, are open to visitors of all faiths. After checking out the gardens, head down to the city of Haifa, one of the most vibrantly shared Jewish and Arab cities with a seriously laid-back vibe and some of the best eats in the region. The city is also a great base for exploring the Northern Region, with highlights that include the beautifully pristine Achziv Beach and the now world-renowned Carmel Winery.
Basilica of the Annunciation
The Basilica of the Annunciation is the church, which includes the grotto believed to be the childhood home of the Virgin Mary as well as the nearby spot in which the Angel Gabriel appeared to her and revealed that she would bear unto her the son of God (also known as the Annunciation). Consecrated in 1969 in this northern Israeli-Arab town, this Roman Catholic church is the largest in the Middle East.
To get to the “little town of Bethlehem,” the birthplace of Jesus, you’ll need to cross the towering 26-foot concrete barrier that separates Israel from the Palestinian Territories. On this side of the Green Line, you’ll find a modern, majority-Muslim city where the conflict is ever-present. Tourist hotspots highlighting the grim conflict can be found in places like the Aida Refugee Camp or the Banksy Hotel, which overlooks the anonymous artist’s graffiti on the wall. But it’s not all gloom and doom. The city also offers plenty of cultural and culinary treats. An under-the-radar gem is the stone-walled Hosh al-Syrian Guesthouse, which has a stunning rooftop and a gourmet restaurant.
Capernaum National Park
The national park and remains of an ancient fishing village, Capernaum is a northern pilgrimage site revered by both Christians and Jews. For Christians, it’s the place where Jesus established his Galilee ministry and the site of an ancient home where Jesus is believed to have actually stayed. For Jews, it is the site of a Byzantine-era synagogue, which testifies to the riches and glory of the ancient Jewish community. As a religious site, modest attire is required.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Built by the Crusaders in the 12th century, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the ornately-adorned edifice where Jesus was believed to have been crucified, buried, and risen from the dead. Especially during the Christmas season, pilgrims from around the world flock to the site by way of the Via Dolorosa, which winds through the alleyways of the Old City. Few people know this, but you can actually spend a night and oversee the nightly prayers in the church if you get permission from the groundskeepers (you’ll need to ask them in person).
Crusader Ruins of Akko
In the 12th century, the Crusaders made Akko their chief port city, valuing its strategic location as an entry point into the flourishing trade route of the greater Levant region. Today, some of the most fascinating Crusader ruins in this UNESCO World Heritage Site City are located underground, such as the 350-meter-long passageway built by the Knights Templar to connect their fortress with the port.
Dome of the Rock
The gold-plated, mosaic-laden Dome of the Rock located on the Temple Mount has been historically revered by all three monotheistic religions and, in recent decades, the center of violent clashes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This religiously and politically loaded shrine is believed to contain what’s known in Judaism as the “foundation stone,” the location from which God created the world. Judaism also says that it is here that Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac, and where God gathered the dust to create Adam. In Islam, it is the spot from which Muhammad ascended to heaven.
Garden of Gethsemane
According to the New Testament, Jesus and his disciples walked from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives. It is said that here he met his fate of betrayal. Today, the lush garden, dotted with 2,000-year-old olive trees that are believed to be some of the oldest in the world, is a central pilgrimage site.
Just by looking at it, you might not guess the 35-acre esplanade known by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as Haram al-Sharif has been, for decades, the most emotive flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The elevated platform is dotted with date palms, cypress trees, and holy icons. It is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam, after Mecca and Medina, and, while under Muslim control, is also open to non-Muslim visitors on certain days. Be sure to dress and act modestly at this stunning and sensitive sight that will be sure to give you new perspectives on the complexities of the ongoing conflict.
Tomb of King David
On Mount Zion outside of the Old City and with views of the nearby Temple Mount lies what is believed to be the burial site of the ancient Israeli King David. The ornately adorned tomb is located in the corner of a ground floor room of a supposed 5th-century CE synagogue where Jesus is also believed to have eaten his Last Supper. While many archaeologists argue that King David was actually buried closer to the City of David and not here, this gender-segregated space is sacred to both Jews and Christians.
The Via Dolorosa, or “Way of Sorrow,” is the 40-minute path that winds through Jerusalem’s Old City and which marks the journey that Jesus took, bearing his cross, from his place of trial and condemnation to his crucifixion and burial. It’s marked by 14 stations, some of which are accompanied by small churches and the last five of which are located inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Especially during the Christmas season, it can fill quickly with pilgrims arriving from all around the world.
Known just as “the Wall,” or Hakotel in Hebrew, the 2,000-year-old Western Wall is the holiest site of prayer in Judaism. Visitors from around the world flock to this controversial and politically-charged, white-stone structure and write hand-written wishes or prayers, which get collected several times a year and buried in a Jewish cemetery. For a more underground perspective, book the 75-minute tunnel tour, which takes you along the entire underground length of the wall.