If you’ve been planning a trip to Israel but you’re not sure where to start or if you’ve always dreamed of visiting Israel, I’ll help you navigate where to go and what to do in Israel. While Israel is a small country, there’s a lot to see, and I’ve narrowed it down to three places you’re going to want to visit and how to make the most of your time in each place. Along the way, I’ll share some of my experiences and where I plan to go next time.
1. First stop: Tel Aviv
This cosmopolitan port city on the sparkling Mediterranean Sea will take your breath away. Modern, vibrant, and worldly, Tel Aviv is a feast for the senses. From bustling markets to trendy nightlife, and from lazy days on the beach to gallery hopping in Jaffa, Tel Aviv has it all—and tops my list among the best cities around the world. Warm weather without humidity, a boardwalk that runs the length of the city, endless places to eat Israeli food and so much more, make Tel Aviv super livable and one of the best places to stay in Israel.
On our recent trip to Tel Aviv we stayed in a high rise apartment in Neve Tzedek, a hip neighborhood slightly south of city center, a few blocks from Carmel Market and a few more from Banana Beach. We absolutely loved this neighborhood for its location near shopping on Shabazi, dining along Rothschild Boulevard, and all of the walkable streets and alleys in between.
If you go, make sure to spend several days on the beach, the golden sand and turquoise waters are exactly what you might imagine the Mediterranean to be, but arguably less crowded than most beaches in the Mediterranean.
If you ever tire of the sun and the sand, rent a bicycle along the boardwalk and ride south to Jaffa. We loved the Ilana Goor museum with it’s many levels and styles of art.
Wander the galleries of Old Jaffa, dine in the port, and if you’re feeling adventurous head down to Jaffa’s souk, the Arab market, and hunt for treasures to take home. If you’ve worked up an appetite again, find your way to Hummus Abu Hassan, which the late great Anthony Bourdain named the best hummus in the world.
2. Next stop: Jerusalem
No matter your beliefs and even if you believe in nothing at all, Jerusalem’s spirituality will take hold of you. Inside the Old City’s limestone walls, cultures and religions converge amongst holy sites, daily prayer, and reverence for the ancient history laid out before them.
During our time in the Old City, I had the chance to visit the wailing wall and said a silent prayer for the health of my family, friends, and at the time, my 5-month old bun in the oven, Baby Reuben.
Just beyond the walls of the spiritual Old City, you’ll quickly find yourself in modern day Jerusalem but one that moves at a different pace than Tel Aviv. Maybe it’s slower, more deliberate, or maybe it harkens back to the ancient history of Jerusalem and the mix of old and new, the secular and the sacred. Here you’ll find museums aplenty, shopping galore, and my personal favorite—sprawling Mahine Yehuda—one of the best markets in Israel. Getting from the Old City to Mahine Yehuda is actually quite easy with a good map and an idea of the train schedule.
Mahine Yehuda market is loaded with fresh produce, nuts, spices, food vendors, and locals doing their daily shopping. Some of these locals are my cousins, who live in an apartment just across the street from the bustling market.
It had been over a decade since my last trip to Israel so my dad helped me arrange a meet up with my cousins. Since wifi was spotty and international calls were expensive, he gave me specific instructions to go sit at Hummus Rahmo at Machine Yehuda. He said to eat something, then go outside and look up across the street at the balcony. He told my cousins to come out on their balcony at 3:00pm and look down at the street to find me. Guess what? His plan worked, and after over a decade away from my Israeli family, it was like no time had passed at all.
3. The trifecta: Masada, Ein Gedi & The Dead Sea
If you take one day trip in Israel, this packs a three-in-one punch. Visit Masada, Ein Gedi and The Dead Sea for an experience that will take you back in time and paradoxically leave you feeling more present than ever. If you’re ambitious and ready for adventure, wake up well before sunrise and make the two hour trip from Tel Aviv or the one and a half hour trip from Jerusalem to Masada. Although I speak Hebrew, even I don’t recommend renting a car. The highways can be busy, wrong turns can be costly, and its just better to sit back and enjoy the scenery. The truth is there isn’t much to see when you leave Tel Aviv at 2:00am, but that’s just one more reason to hire a driver or a tour guide: get a couple more hours of sleep before you begin the adventure of a lifetime, packed neatly into a single day.
When you arrive at Masada, you won’t know what you’re in for just yet. Your eyes have adjusted and it doesn’t feel quite as dark, but you’ve still got an hour or more before sunrise. Begin your climb up The Snake Path, up, up, up the switch backs and the stairs. Keep climbing. As you ascend higher, the sky begins to lighten and you catch your first glimpse of the view: the expansive desert below and the marvel that is the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. But don’t just stand there and gasp, you’ve got more climbing to do. In total, you will have climbed 349.9 meters or 1,148 feet, and walked about two kilometers. The hike up takes most people between one and two hours to complete. Going down is of course much faster.
When you’ve made it to the top, you’ll turn the corner and the first light of day will hit you hard. As the sun peaks over the horizon line you’ll gasp out loud. Here’s another place that will surely take your breath away regardless of your beliefs. It’s hard to ignore the many structures that sit on top of Mount Masada, either. Between 37 and 31 BCE, Herod the Great built two palaces on top of the mountain. Take it all in, take your time, and when you’re ready, head back down the way you came.
Psst…if you’re not into hiking but you’re interested in the history and the view, a cable car will take you up to the top for $21 USD. There is a $5.50 USD fee for hikers to enter the park.
From here, if you’re not entirely hiked out, head to Ein Gedi, Israel’s hidden gem, where in the middle of the desert, you find yourself suddenly surrounded by tropical trees, streams, and even waterfalls. Wade under a waterfall, snap some photos, and look close and you may spy a crab or mountain goats on your way out of the park. This is a relatively easy hike compared to Masada, just be sure to pack plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat.
Next stop on your Israel day trip is the Dead Sea. Isn’t this what you came here for, after all? You’ve heard about it, but is it really true? Does the mud have healing powers? And is the sea really so salty that you float on the water? Here’s some do’s and don’ts:
Do pack some reading material because yes, you really can read a book while floating on the water (no unicorn floaty required).
Do cover yourself in mineral-rich mud.
Do not shave your legs, or any other part of your body, for 24 hours before entering the Dead Sea. If you do, the water will sting (yes, it’s really that salty).
Do not attempt to jump in head first. The water will burn your eyes. You’re better of stepping into the water and sitting back like you’re going to sit in a chair. You’ll find your groove.
The Dead Sea sits nearly 1,400 ft below sea level, making it the lowest place on earth. Salt crystals along the edges are a good indicator of the 30-35% salt content of the water — about 8 or 9 times what we’re used to — making it one of the saltiest places on earth.
In addition to the surreal experience of floating on water, the mud at the Dead Sea is also renowned for its healing benefits thanks to its mineral content. While Dead Sea mud products have made their way around the world, experiencing it at the source is second to none. Between float sessions, cover yourself in mud and bake in the sun before showering off to reveal soft, supple skin. Float, mud, rinse and repeat.
By now, you’ve climbed the highest peaks, discovered hidden waterfalls, and floated at the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea. Guess what? It’s barely the afternoon. Head back to your accommodations feeling accomplished, more worldly, and ready for a very, very long nap.
If you’ve been to Israel before, maybe you’ve already been to all three of these places on my list. If that’s the case, and you’re looking for more, here’s a few more noteworthy places to the north and to the south.
If you choose to continue your adventure from the Dead Sea south, make your way to a Bedouin camp in the Negev Desert where you’ll sleep in tents under the stars, nosh on traditional foods, and learn about Bedouin traditions. The Bedouins live a nomadic lifestyle, raising livestock as they have for hundreds of years dating back to the Spice Route from what is now Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean Sea.
Maybe you’ll choose to continue your adventure further south from there and if so, hire a driver and make your way Eilat, Israel’s tourism hot spot. Swim with dolphins, snorkel though breathtaking red coral formations in the aptly named Red Sea, and lounge or play paddle ball on the beach. I’ve actually never been this far south, and I promise a full blog post on Eilat when I finally make it there.
Head For The North
Cesarea is a gorgeous place to explore more of the ancient Roman Empire. Walk through the collosuem where commoners wrestled with animals for entertainment, admire King Herod’s port-side fortress, and admire the craftsmanship of the ancient aqueduct system, still standing against the backdrop of the dazzling Mediterranean Sea several thousand years later.
Further north, you’ll visit Haifa, Israel’s northernmost city sitting on Mt. Carmel overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Don’t miss the Bahai Gardens (plan ahead in order to be permitted access to enter the gardens) with 19 distinctive levels climbing up Mt. Carmel. After exploring the gardens, sit down and enjoy some Mediterranean food on an outdoor terrace in the port of Haifa.
If you’d like to continue further, you’re in the agricultural heart of Israel. Why not stay on a kibbutz for a few days where in exchange for lodging, meals, and amenities, you’ll spend a few hours harvesting a crop or helping out with production? The last time I stayed on a kibbutz was more than a decade ago, but I look forward to going back and giving back.
Have you made it over to Israel yet or are you planning a trip? I’d love to hear from you. Comment below.
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