In a country synonymous with history and religion, you need to dig a little deeper to find a few hidden gems
Main attractions: ‘Jerusalem of gold, bronze and light’: the chorus of one of the most popular Israeli songs encapsulates the visual feast visitors experience when overlooking the city from the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus, exploring the meandering streets of the Old City or visiting its major religious sites. These include theWestern Wall, the only remnant of the Jewish Temple’s courtyard; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been crucified; the Via Dolorosa, which retraces the path of his martyrdom; and the imposing Dome of the Rock in the Muslim quarter. Two museums also feature on every itinerary: the moving Yad Vashem, which commemorates the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and the ‘righteous among the nations’, and the recently renovated Israel’s Museum, home to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Surrounding area: Jerusalem’s modern area is worth venturing to if only for the superb Chagall stained glass windows at the Hadassah Medical Centre’s synagogue. As visitors leave the Israeli capital on the road to the Judean desert, they drive from Santiago Calatrava’s striking harp-shaped footbridge towards another architectural marvel, the mountaintop Masada fortress. King Herod’s winter palace, which dates from the first century BC, became the scene a century later of the tragic siege of Jewish rebels by the Roman army and offers panoramas over the desert and Dead Sea.
Main attractions: Tel Aviv is full of minimalist Bauhaus architecture. Rothschild Boulevard is a good starting point, but it comprises only a fraction of the White City, a collection of around 4,000 original Bauhaus buildings declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dramatic turning points in the history of the young state of Israel took place behind the doors of some of these elegant houses. Cultural attractions abound, from the Suzanne Dellal Centre and the bohemian chic neighbourhood of Neve Tzedek to the renowned Israeli Opera at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Centre and the Museum of the History of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Fashionistas shop around Dizengoffand Shenkin streets, while each June the exuberant Tel Aviv Pride Week confirms the vibrant beach city as the Middle East’s gay capital.
Surrounding area: Before falling for the charm of old Jaffa, visitors should stop by the Manshia Train Station (HaTachana), built in 1892 and now a 16,000sq metre leisure complex with restaurants, galleries and boutiques. Jaffa’s narrow streets hide secondhand shops, lively cafes and unusual art galleries such as the Ilana Goor museum. Modern art lovers shouldn’t miss the Design Museum Holon, south of Tel Aviv, one of industrial designer Ron Arad’s finest creations. Beach bums have many seaside resorts to choose from north of Tel Aviv, but most favour sophisticated Herzliya and family-friendly Netanya.
A region of mountains and valleys, fertile plateaus and cliffs, the Galilee is the birthplace of Jewish mysticism — the charismatic city of Safed is closely linked to Kabbalah — and has important Christian sites such as Tiberias, the freshwater Lake Kinneret and the Mount of Beatitudes. Along the coast stand the port city of Haifa and its iconic gold-domed Bahai Temple; Caesarea, with its Roman amphitheatre where concerts take place against the backdrop of the Mediterranean; and Acre, its Old City a UNESCO World Heritage Site and famous for its fascinating Crusader fort. Some tours include a visit to the Roman-Byzantine complex of Beit Shean, south of Tiberias. Gesher Hayeshana (Old Gesher) in the Jordan Valley makes for an interesting historical outing, with its old fortress, former British police station and museum narrating the tale of the battles fought during the Israeli war of independence.
With a location on the cusp of the Red Sea, warm temperatures and guaranteed sunshine year-round, it’s easy to see why the Israeli tourist board is keen to promote Eilat beyond the domestic market. The crystal clear waters are ideal for watersports, such as diving, jet-skiing and snorkelling. Families love Dolphin Reef, where they can swim and snorkel with bottlenose dolphins, and the Underwater Observatory Marine Park. Only half an hour away from the resort is the Negev, which makes up more than half of Israel’s total land area. The rocky landscape of dusty mountains is interrupted by wadis and deep craters. Highlights include experiencing the Bedouin hospitality, camel treks, Jeep safaris and hikes around the craters of Mitzpe Ramon and Maktesh Ramon and the Shehoret Canyon.
Meanwhile the Timna Valley in the Arabah, less than 18 miles north of Eilat, is rich with history and has unique geological characteristics, such as the sandstone cliffs featuring King Solomon’s Pillars and the eroded rock formations of the Mushroom and Arches. Activities range from cycling to rappelling down the rocks.
Contact: Israel Government Tourist Office. www.thinkisrael.com
Words by: Sonia Soltani