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Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and the Galilee, 9 Days

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 nine days; linger in Tel Aviv at its conclusion and the desert if you have another two to nine days.

Jerusalem, Days 1 and 2

You could spend a lifetime in Jerusalem, but two days is probably a good minimum to get a feel for the city. First, spend a day getting an overview of the holy sites of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the Old City. 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 don’t reopen until Sunday.) Explore the remarkable underworld of biblical (Old Testament) Jerusalem, at the City of David, or, if you have a car, pick up one or two of the panoramic views.

On your second day, venture farther afield in West Jerusalem. Many consider the Israel Museum and Yad Vashem, home to the Holocaust History Museum, essential if you're visiting Jerusalem. Mount 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 Mount Herzl are closed Saturday.) Add the Machaneh Yehuda produce market (closed Saturday) and the Knesset menorah.

Around the Dead Sea, Days 3 and 4

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 1½ hours, including a dip in a freshwater pool. End the day with a float in the Dead Sea, and spend the night in 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, site of Herod's winter palace. 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.

The Galilee, Days 5–7

From Jerusalem, where you've spent the night, make an early start for a busy day. 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. You must show your passport at the checkpoint.

Take the Jordan Valley route (Route 90) to the Galilee, stopping at 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 rounds out the day, and you can enjoy a lakeside fish dinner in Tiberias, where you 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. Stay overnight in Tiberias again, or better yet, farther north in a Hula Valley B&B.

On your third day, 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). Stay overnight in Tiberias or at your Hula Valley B&B.

The Mediterranean Coast, Days 8 and 9

From Tiberias or your Hula Valley B&B, head west to the coast. Your first stop can be the cable-car ride to the 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 Mount Carmel. Spend the night in Haifa.

The following 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 Aaronson 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 Neve Tzedek or Jaffa. From Tel Aviv you can head to the airport if it's time to go home.

Tel Aviv, Eilat, and Petra, 9 Days

Tel Aviv, Days 1 and 2

There’s a wealth of options for your time and attention in Tel Aviv, where you can wander through lively markets, explore the twisting streets of Jaffa, or enjoy a dip in the Mediterranean Sea. Learn a little more about military history at the Palmach Museum, stroll along more than 3 miles of oceanfront boardwalk, or explore the White City, the UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for the cream-colored walls of its Bauhaus architecture. Spend at least two days here to balance museum time with beach time.

The Negev, Days 3 and 4

From Tel Aviv, head south toward Beersheva and Route 40. Beersheva is less than a two-hour drive from Tel Aviv. Driving south, stop at Sde Boker, where you can have lunch and see David Ben-Gurion's house and grave site 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 and Petra, Days 5–9

Eilat is less than a three-hour 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 Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve, and then at Timna Park for a short walk and 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 add some serious beach or diving time and take a side trip to Petra, in Jordan, to see the magnificent remains of this ancient city of the Nabatean people, You probably want to pick one hotel in Eilat as a base.

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