A recent report published by Ernst & Young concluded that the nation of Israel provides “a very high density of experience” for its tourists. Many agree. In 2012, 3,499,998 visited this V-shaped country in the Middle East, flanked by Egypt to the west and Jordan to the east. We decided to join that group to make it an even 3.5 million.
Why visit “the Holy Land”? For one, this country houses Jerusalem—one of the oldest and most eclectic cities in the world. In addition, Israel offers historical and religious sites, beach resorts, archaeology, ecotourism, and the highest number of museums per capita in the world. Israel is unique because it is the spiritual center for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. However, even if you’re not religious, Israel is a place that should on every bucket list. Since we’re Christian, we will emphasize that perspective in this piece, but we will point out items of interest for the other groups previously mentioned.
We landed in Tel Aviv (Israel’s second largest city and the nation’s economic hub) at Ben Gurion International—one of the most secure airports in the world. Most nations recognize Tel Aviv as the capital of Israel and have their embassies there, but most Jews claim Jerusalem is the capital. We didn’t have much time to tool around in Tel Aviv, but many tourists enjoy their time in the self-proclaimed “party capital” of Israel.
Instead, we went north to the Gallilee region. This is the location where Jesus is presumed to have spent much of his life. In 2011, Israel unveiled the “Jesus Trail”—a 40-mile hiking route which links many sites from his life, including Nazareth, Tzippori, Cana, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Tabgha, and the Mount of Beatitudes. An alternate return route features the Jordan River, Mount Tabor, and Mount Precipice. Non-Christians might enjoy some of these sites as well as the Horns of Hattin, the Mount Arbel cliffs, and the Golan Heights. We particularly enjoyed the relaxing moments on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and as we took a boat ride on the waters. Also memorable was a fish dinner at one of many restaurants on the waterfront. In the Galilee area we were introduced to two popular local menu items—schnitzel (a breaded chicken) and falafel (a pita filled with hummus). However, we ate them so frequently we began referring to the latter as “feel awful.”
We next travelled south to Masada–Israel’s most popular paid tourist attraction. This impressive ancient fortification on top of a rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea is the location where Herod the Great built palaces and fortifications from 37-31 B.C. Tourists have two options to get from the base to the top: walk or tram ride.
The Dead Sea, the lowest elevation in the world, has attracted visitors for thousands of years. This location has become a major center for health research and treatment (including climatotherapy, heliotherapy, and thalassotherapy) due to its climate, location, and 33.7% salinity. We aren’t quite that sophisticated and instead just enjoyed floating in the dense seawater.
The next stop on our tour was the Jerusalem—a UNESCO World Heritage site. Jerusalem means “City of Peace” which is ironic because it has been besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, and destroyed twice. The oldest part of Jerusalem, which is walled, is only .35 square miles is often called “the Old City.” Today, it is divided into four quarters: Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Each of these quarters has a distinctive flavor and all offer shops and restaurants to tourists. Must-see sites in the Old City include the Temple Mount and Western Wall (significant to the Jews), the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque (important to the Muslims), and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (sacred to the Christians).
Just west of the Old City is the Mount of Olives. There you can visit the Garden of Gethsemane and the Chapel of Ascension—priority points of interest for the Christian. And you won’t want to miss a 45-60 minute tour of the impressive Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center—a beautiful building on Mount Scopus which provides one of the most stunning views of the Mount of Olives, the Kidron Valley, and the Old City. Particularly impressive is the special events auditorium which houses one of Israel’s finest organs.
Surrounding the Old City is modern Jerusalem. Here you will want to visit the sobering Yad Veshem—a memorial to the victims of the Jewish Holocaust. Other intriguing tourist attractions are the Bible Lands Museum, the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, and the Israel Museum (which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls).
Less than 10 miles southeast of Jerusalem is the city of Bethlehem. The “House of Bread” is believed to be the location where Jesus was born and is home to one of the largest Christian communities, although this population has diminished. In fact, the city is governed today by the Palestinian National Authority and has a Muslim majority. While there, be sure to spend some time at the Shepherds’ Fields, the Church of the Nativity, and Rachel’s Tomb.
One website touts “3506 things to do in Israel.” Unfortunately, our trip wasn’t lengthy enough to encompass that, but the hundred or so things we did see were inspiring, educating, and amazing. And we look forward to returning again to work on the 3400 things we missed.
Note: We are grateful to our guides—Larry & Jynene Johnson of Johnson Family Tours—for their professionalism and care while we visited Israel.