A dream destination for travellers with a thirst for culture, history and good ol’ fashioned relaxation, Israel is without doubt one of the most fascinating countries on Earth.
From the storied religious sites of Jerusalem to the crystalline waters of the Red Sea, a journey through Israel is sure to delight, thrill and surprise in equal measure.
Here are a few experiences you can expect to enjoy during your time in the Land of Creation.
Often referred to simply as ‘The Shuk’, the Mahane Yehuda Market is the perfect place ease yourself into local Jerusalem life. Arrive as early as possible to see the stalls spring to life and feast your eyes on the colourful displays and smells of seasonal fruit and veg, herbs, spices and tempting tahini. Treat yourself to freshly-baked breads and baklava or plonk yourself on a stool at one of the little restaurant stalls for a hearty Israeli breakfast.
Thought to be three or even four-thousand years old and occupying less than one square kilometre, Jerusalem’s walled Old City is of immense religious importance to those who practise Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
It is made up of four quarters: the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian (which is also Christian) Quarters, each with a slightly different look and feel. Generally speaking, however, it’s the sense that you are travelling back in time that is most invigorating as you wander from quarter to quarter, as you weave your way through warrenous alleyways lined with trinket stores and food stalls.
Don’t miss David Street and Via Dolorosa, which is thought to be the very path that Jesus took to his crucifixion.
The best way to discover the Jerusalem Old City is simply to allow yourself to get lost, but a few places you’ll want to tick off include:
The Wailing Wall
The Western Wall, or ‘Wailing Wall’ as it’s also known, is the only remnant of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, which was the most holy of Jewish temples. Today the Temple Mount stands in its place and is the holiest site for Judaism. However, because the Western Wall is the closest Jewish people are allowed to pray to the Temple Mount, the wall itself is considered sacred.
Today the wall is divided in two: one area where men are allowed to pray and another for women. Jewish people from all over the world make annual visits to the wall, often slipping small pieces of paper into the cracks of the wall with their prayers.
Church of the Sepulchre
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is celebrated as the site of Jesus’ crucifiction, burial and resurrection. His empty tomb still remains in impressively pristine condition, as does the Stone of Anointing, which is said to be the very spot where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial.
Tower of David
Located just beyond Jaffa Gate, one of the 8 entry points into the Old City, the Tower of David is a sprawling medieval citadel. Join one of the tours or audiovisual shows to learn about Jerusalem’s unparalleled history or take to the rooftop to gain spectacular 360-degree views over the city.
While Jerusalem reverberates with stories of its ancient past, Tel Aviv looks and feels very much like a modern-day metropolis. Perched on the Mediterranean Sea, it boasts beaches galore and is home to a tech-forward startup scene. There are also more than enough old-world relics to remind you where you are.
Take a stroll along the palm-fringed waterfront to see the local fishermen at work, and rummage your way through the Jaffa Flea Market. Stop by at the bustling Sarona Food Market to hang with the cool crowd or treat yourself to a traditional shakshuka feast at Dr. Shakshuka.
The areas surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City are surprisingly modern and trendy. Explore the narrow streets splintering off Jaffa Road, such as Yosef Rivlin Street, Ben Sira Street and Zion Square, and you’ll find countless bars, shisha lounges and restaurants.
For a complete night out, head straight to the legendary Nocturno Complex. Offering an exciting vegan menu, local craft beers and nightly live music shows, this is the place to be for an authentic taste of Jerusalem’s thriving nightlife scene.
Israel's Dead Sea is in fact a lake sitting more than 400m below sea level, making it the lowest point on Earth. The lake’s ultra-high levels of salt and mineral-rich black mud are naturally therapeutic and many people with joint issues and skin conditions return to here every year to soak themselves in the mud and float their aches and pains away.
Built some 2,000 years ago by King Herod, the awe-inspiring Masada fortress strides atop a rock plateau and offers dizzying views of the Judaean Desert and Dead Sea.
The ruins tell the story of ancient royal life with luxurious bathhouses, swimming pools and colourful mosaics that still shine bright today. But this UNESCO World Heritage Site also harbours a story of great sadness. Later in life, the fortress became home to a rebel stronghold known as the Sicarii, a group of Jewish extremists who revolted against the Romans.
As a result of the siege of Masada, some 1,000 jews chose to commit suicide rather than live under Roman rule. Today the fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited sites in Israel.
Tip: If you’re feeling fit then you can hike up to the Masada fortress via the sinuous ‘Snake Path’, which takes around 45 minutes. The ‘Roman Ramp’ is easier and quick, taking just 15 minutes, while most visitors choose to hop on the cable car.
The sprawling Negev Desert covers more than half of Israel and is a serene landscape of chalky skies and tawny tones. Wild ibex teeter-totter on rocky outcrops and families scuffle through canyons in search of the perfect picnic spot.
The desert is famous for being home to the Makhtesh Ramon, the world's largest ‘erosion cirque’. It looks something like a giant meteor crater but was in fact created 220 million years ago when oceans covered and eroded the area.
The best way to explore the desert and learn about its unique geology is to take a four-wheel-drive tour. Adam Sela is his team are immensely passionate and knowledgeable about the desert’s unique landscapes and offer thrilling experiences, ranging from off-road jeep tours and hiking to mountain biking and rappelling.
With its idyllic Red Sea beaches and year-round sunshine, the palm-filled town of Eilat is a popular destination for families and couples looking for a double dose of R&R. Head to the Dolphin Reef to see the Red Sea’s wild dolphins at play or visit the Underwater Marine Observatory to get up-close with tropical fish as they shimmer among the coral.
Bordered by the copper-hued Eilat Mountains, the Red Sea’s palm-fringed beaches are ideal for lazy days in the sun, while the crystalline waters offer some of the world’s best diving. Eilat is also a tax-free zone, making this an enticing destination for those who love bargain hunting.
Tip: If you can pull yourself away from your sunlounger, you can even take a day trip to nearby Jordan and experience the otherworldly beauty of Petra, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
The Ibis City Center is an ultra-bright and modern hotel located in an ideal situation for exploring Jerusalem’s Old City and various nightlife options. Perfect for couples and families alike.
The Ramon Inn is a large and comfortable hotel that’s well situated for exploring the Negev Desert, Masada fortress and Dead Sea. There’s a large indoor swimming pool and the spacious rooms feature separate living areas, making this an obvious choice for families.
The Isrotel Agamim is a superior four-star property in Eilat with modern rooms featuring private balconies that overlook an impressive swimming pool. Fantastic dining options and a stylish cocktail bar add to the overall sense of romance and quality.
Ben Holbrook travelled as a guest of Visit Israel and flew to Tel Aviv with Ryanair
Flights to Tel Aviv
- Ben Holbrook