Sacred to five religions, bridging three continents and two oceans, the scene of battles, crusades and spiritual revolutions for five millennia, Israel packs a staggering amount of meaning into every moment of a visit and every step of a hike. Ever since God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the mountain that became Jerusalem, believers (and non-believers) have been making the pilgrimage to this little strip of land by the Mediterranean.
But Israel is not only for the religious pilgrim or the student of history and archaeology. It is also the home of Tel Aviv, the cosmopolitan center of arts and theater built on sand dunes only 100 years ago. It is a hi-tech Mecca, with more companies on the NASDAQ than any other save the U.S. and China. It is the birthplace of the kibbutz movement, the legendary socialist experiment. The landscapes of Israel, from the hills of the Galilee to the Negev Desert have inspired prophets from Elijah to John the Baptist to Bob Dylan.
No visit to Israel is complete without time in Jerusalem, an intense experience. Right off the plane the visitor is confronted with the magical piggy-backing of sanctity that places the 1,300-year-old Moslem shrine called the Dome of the Rock on the precise spot where the Temple stood a thousand years earlier. Remembering that same Temple, Jews have prayed for centuries at the Western Wall down below; and from the plaza above, one can easily spot nearby the twin domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.
Jerusalem is also the New City, a bustling capital with pedestrian open-air shopping, the world class Israel Museum, (the “Smithsonian of the Holy Land”), and Yad Vashem, the massive campus that is Israel’s memorial to the holocaust.
The Dead Sea offers the unique experience of floating like a cork in the reputedly therapeutic waters, and by the shores of that same Dead Sea looms Masada, the majestic mountain that witnessed the final stand of the Jews against the Romans. Only ten minutes north of Masada is Ein Gedi National Park, with waterfalls flowing through the desert and wildlife scampering amidst the greenery.
Due to its unique location at the crossroads of the Western Hemisphere, little Israel has a biodiversity that rivals entire continents: It is a bird watcher’s paradise, hosting the largest Old World migration every Fall and Spring, and its ecosystems and climates vary from stop to stop. Where else can one ski on the slopes of Mount Hermon in the morning, and go snorkeling in Eilat’s tropical coral reef in the afternoon.
Monumental building projects have dotted this landscape since King Solomon first set out to build a House of God on the Temple Mount. The Bahai’i Gardens at the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa are a show-stopper, but equally amazing are the ancient ruins of King Herod the Great’s Rome-away-from-Rome in Caesarea and the colossal Knight’s Halls of the Crusaders in the old port city of Akko.
This is one of the first concerns raised on a visit to Israel, and geopolitically, Israel is a fascinating country, with conflicts, controversies and headlines that reward the visitor with a good harangue from every cab driver (Jewish and Arab). It’s complementary with the ride. It is worth noting however, that statistically, Israel is a surprisingly safe country to visit.
If the headlines or the politics put you off, that’s a valid consideration. But if you’re interested in a place that offers depth, variety and inspiration in a country the size of New Jersey, then Israel is worth a visit. For starters, take a look at our Three Days in Jerusalem itinerary. Jerusalem, the cradle of monotheism, sacred to three religions, should be on every traveler’s list of must-sees. You will be moved, enlightened and learn a great deal, and you may not be changed spiritually, but then again, you might.