Israel is alive. There’s no better way to put it. When you’re there, you get the sense that people can’t bear to be inside. The vitality is evidenced in the ancient walkways of the Old City of Jerusalem; in the huge, live-for-today food portions; in the thriving markets; on the up-all-night beaches; and in the assertive, affectionately intrusive conversations with sabras (native Israelis).
Our slideshow shows off the diversity of this country, which is tiny in size but looms in immersive experiences. And to help you plan, be sure to see our advice on where to stay and how to get around.
Climbing the Masada mesa is one of those touchstone experiences. Its history is dramatic: When Romans invaded the Jewish stronghold in 73 or 74 A.D., they found that the inhabitants had committed mass suicide rather than be taken alive.
The Snake Path up Masada is a moderate (though steep) five-mile route that active people won’t find too arduous. The sunrise hike to the 1,200-foot summit is popular and lets you avoid the most punishing hours of sun (Masada is located in the Judean Desert). Note that there’s an aerial tram if you only want to hike one way. Columns from Herod’s Palace and other ruins await at the top. You can cool off in the nearby Dead Sea after your exertions.
Graze Mahane Yehuda Market
Eating on the go has rarely been more entertaining than at Jerusalem’s vast, happily chaotic and pedestrian-only food market. The main market on Eitz Chaim Street is covered, but streets lined with shops and restaurants radiate out from it and are aptly named for fruits — Afarsek (Peach) Street — and nuts — Egoz (Walnut) Street. The best strategy is to arrive hungry and buy small containers of olives and cheeses, pastries, and, of course, varied fruits and nuts. You’ll spot juice stands and casual sit-down restaurants as well.
The market, which encompasses more than 250 vendors, is open every day except Saturday, and it’s fun to be there as the market winds down in the frantic late afternoons when shopkeepers — and their avid children — call out into the streets about sale prices in a ritualized and disarming way. If you want to take a photo of a vendor in action, it’s good policy to purchase something and ask permission before you shoot.
Bike Along Tel Aviv’s Beach
Day or night, hopping on a bike is a great way to feel like a local in Tel Aviv. In other coastal cities (such as Miami or Los Angeles), the beach probably closes down at sunset. No so in Tel Aviv, which remains well lit and popular till midnight.
The best way to cover a lot of ground is to swipe your credit card at one of the many rental bike kiosks; the terrain is flat, easy and scenic. The wide promenade can accommodate strollers, runners and cyclists, and you may see a few acrobats and dancers as well. Tel Aviv is an extremely sports-minded city, and you might want to pull over for a quick workout at one of the outdoor gyms on the sand or some night volleyball. If you make it all the way to Tel Aviv port (around 20 – 30 minutes), your reward is the fabulous gelato at Aldo.
Explore the Safed Artist Community
Holy site, resort town, artist community — Safed is a special sort of amalgam. Located in the Galillee, Safed is the highest city in Israel, occupying a commanding position over the region with fine mountain and valley views. Safed is deeply spiritual — the Sephardic HaAri Synagogue is noted for its beauty — and is also a center for Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism); the town is a great place to learn about the practice through the art of its practitioners.
The artistic flavor of Safed is accessible to visitors of all stripes. In the old Arab quarter, a thriving community of artists displays its paintings and crafts. Top gallery picks include Yom Tov, Sheva Chaya and Olive Tree Fine Art Gallery.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
4 Continents in 30 Days by mem Australia
“We spent a week traveling from Haifa to the Galilee, on the most beautiful and efficient road system, right up to the ancient cities of Rosh Pina and Safed in the Galilee Hills. There are some beautiful artists’ colonies, ancient cities and Jewish holy sites, too numerous to mention, alongside new developments and modern shopping malls.” Read more!
Take a Dip
A top draw in the Golan Heights region of Israel is the Hexagon Pool, so named for the hexagonal basalt pillars that compose its walls — a result of age-old lava floes and contraction during cooling. It’s a scenic and refreshing spot for a swim.
This natural site is located in the Yehudiya Forest Nature Reserve. To get there, drive 1.6 miles north of the city of Had Nes; from there, it’s an easy 30-minute hike down to the bottom of the canyon.
Eat at Dr. Shakshuka
An institution in Tel Aviv, this is the place to sample shakshuka, Israel’s signature egg and tomato dish. The atmosphere is social, boisterous and festive. It’s great fun with a large group — or you can make new friends by joining a communal table. Whether you sit inside under hanging iron pans or outside in the shade, try to get a view of the virtuosic cooks who prepare your meal on a fire-breathing stove.
The dish itself — spicy, with chili peppers, onions and cumin — has a Tunisian or Arabic origin, and the word shakshuka is a loose translation of “to shake.” It’s served throughout the Middle East, but it occupies a beloved place in Israel’s fusion cuisine — in no small part because of Dr. Shakshuka.
Walk the Ramparts
Less than a square kilometer in area, Jerusalem’s Old City, which was built in the 16th century and is divided into four quarters (Jewish, Arab, Christian and Armenian) is one of the world’s most famous places. Most visitors to the Old City walk the ancient stones and look up at the formidable walls. But few know that you can actually walk these 10-foot-thick ramparts above the city, as in some other walled cities (such as Dubrovnik, Croatia).
The route from Jaffa Gate to Zion Gate affords breathtaking views of the Sultan’s Pool, Mount Zion and the Mount of of Olives — as well as the rooftops inside the walls. Take a look at Jerusalem-Insiders-Guide.com for basic info.
Make Spa Time in the Galilee
The 37-acre Mizpe Hayamim is perhaps the country’s best-known destination spa, and it’s a study in bucolic living. The Muscat restaurant serves up a bounty straight from the spa’s organic farm and herb gardens. Breakfasts are especially impressive, with their seemingly endless bowls of white cheeses and yogurts. Some names will be familiar (e.g., labne); others will be wholly unfamiliar, and that’s part of the charm.
We recommend booking a massage in which the therapist uses a smooth olive branch to relieve those knots. Work out in the gym, swim in the indoor pool, or take a yoga or Pilates class. Can’t afford the nightly rates? Just stop by for lunch and a treatment.
Live Like a Kibbitznik
Few words evoke Israel like “kibbutz.” These farm collectives — there are more than 200 in the country — are part of the reason that Israel was able to develop so rapidly and, not incidentally, to feed itself. The harsh landscape inspired settlers to develop agricultural advances — notably, innovations in irrigation — but the kibbutz is just as well known for its egalitarian and socialist philosophy.
Shalom Israel Tours offers a list of kibbutz hotels around the country, as well as a variety of tours and experiences (including day trips, multi-day itineraries and custom tours) that enable tourists to live like kibbutzniks at Ein Shemer. Ride a tractor, tour the dairy farm or just indulge in a homegrown meal and soak up the atmosphere.
Enjoy Cocktails at the Norman Hotel
Many travelers come to Israel to experience cities steeped in history, but they may not know that there are also plenty of modern, swanky nightclubs and sophisticated boutique hotels here. Our favorite example is the chic Norman Hotel in Tel Aviv.
This boutique hotel is located on a lovely street in the center of the White City, where Bauhaus architecture has been carefully preserved. The city’s beautiful people gather in the verdant garden, foodies flock to the third floor rooftop for Izakaya-style Japanese tapas at Dinings, and there’s even English tea — and by night, a DJ and live performances — at the chic 1940s colonial-style Library Bar.
Best Time to Go to Israel
Summer is the peak time for travel to Israel. The weather can be pretty hot, prices are high and crowds are at their worst. Spring and fall, which are shoulder seasons for travel to Israel, are arguably the best times to visit the country. In April, May, September and October, the summer crowds have yet to descend (or are already gone), but temperatures are, for the most part, quite pleasant. During winter, expect chilly temperatures and heavy rain. To beat the crowds, avoid traveling during major Jewish holidays.
Israel on a Budget
Israel isn’t always a budget-friendly destination, yet there are ways to save. The most expensive times to visit Israel are during the busy summer season and during Jewish holidays. To get the best possible bargain for your hotel room or package tour, travel during shoulder season or winter and avoid major religious holidays. Airfare from the U.S. to Israel can be costly, but young travelers can find discounts on plane tickets by booking flights through the Israel Student Travel Association. While in the country, save money by dining on street food (delicious falafel carts abound in most cities) or seeking out alternative accommodations like hostels, apartments or B&B’s.
–written by Drew Limsky