Israel, one of the world’s most kid-friendly countries, offers plenty for families to do, from adventures in birdwatching and cave spelunking to racing down water park slides and lazy days at the beach. Children are highly valued in Israeli culture, and locals will dote on little ones, even welcoming children into upscale restaurants and weddings (and sometimes lecturing parents on best childcare practices!).
Travelling with children in any region in Israel is as easy as ABC. Here are our top picks across the country.
A major stopover for birds migrating between Africa, Europe and Asia, Israel is a serious destination for birdwatchers of all ages. In the centre of this migration route is the Hula Valley, where each autumn and spring, more than 500 million birds pass over the area. One of the most prominent destinations for bird spotting is Agamon HaHula, a park that offers day and night guided bird tours by bicycle, golf cart and even safari wagon. While summer is a quieter (and hotter) time for birdwatching, Agamon HaHula encourages sunrise, sunset and night tours to boost the chances of critter spotting. On a night tour this past summer, several kids easily cooperated with the guide’s request for silence so as not to disturb the wildlife – the sightings of a night heron, spur-winged lapwing, barn owl and bats easily captured their attention.
Drive a half hour southwest to spend time in the city of Tsfat, one of Israel’s traditional four holy cities, and historical centre of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). A great way for kids to understand the storied past of Tsfat, especially its Old City of cobblestone streets, ancient synagogues and artists’ colony, is joining an Israel Scaventure. With a tour guide’s help, families embark on a scavenger hunt armed with pictures, clues and stories, visiting a cave where Shem and Ever (the son and grandson of the biblical Noah) allegedly studied, climbing to the top of the Ottoman-era Saraya clocktower and learning how the Davidka, a primitive but noisy cannon, helped lead Jews to victory in the 1948 Battle of Tsfat. There’s also the story of a rabbi who is said to have saved his congregants from a major earthquake in 1837. Participants are encouraged to document their hunt through taking selfies and using social media hashtags, roping even the most reluctant teens and preteens into the fun.
A fun stop just south of Tiberias along the Sea of Galilee is Aqua Kef, an inflatable, floating waterpark at Ganim Beach best visited during the spring, summer and autumn months. The Family Park (best for children over six) has trampolines, slides and climbing walls, which are guaranteed to put your fitness skills to the test while cooling you off during scorching summer months. Within the Family Park is a smaller-scale Kids’ Park for ages three to six. Caution: the shallowest part of the sea is full of rocks and is difficult to navigate barefoot. Both kids and adults should wear protective water shoes (rather than flip flops, regular sneakers or sandals).
Kids can become junior archaeologists and cave explorers at Dig for a Day, a Unesco World Heritage Site in Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park. Run by the Archaeological Seminars Institute, Dig for a Day is a one-of-a-kind experience that gives families the chance to go underground to dig, sift and examine pottery shards, ancient jewellery or even bones at the ancestral home of King Herod. The three-hour expedition includes a cave crawl (watch out for the ‘toilet bowl’ drop) and is appropriate for grade-school kids and up.
Laden with sunny beaches and boardwalks, the Mediterranean port city of Tel Aviv offers something for all ages. Walk, cycle or stroll the 14,000-sq-m promenade of the Old Port, which is full of cafes, shops, restaurants and a carousel. One of the most fun parks for little ones is HaYarkon, a large green space on the Yarkon River that has a waterpark, paddle boats, a bird sanctuary and a petting zoo. When you're ready to head indoors, the Island at Azrieli Towers inside the Azrieli Centre is a treat that will delight kids from ages four to 12 with a train ride, water slides, a haunted tunnel and a rope course.
Parents can practice their haggling skills while kids munch on Middle Eastern delicacies at Carmel Market, an outdoor food and produce market, and at nearby Nahalat Binyamin, a pedestrian outdoor mall with arts and crafts for sale, as well as street performers to entertain the younger set.
No trip to Israel is complete without a visit to Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea, all within short driving distance of one another. Masada, the mountaintop fortress in the Judean Desert where hundreds of Jews resisted a Roman siege about 2000 years ago, is suitable for school-aged children. Hiring a personal tour guide will help illuminate the area and bring its history to life.
Ein Gedi Nature Reserve and the Dead Sea are absolute must-dos. Ein Gedi, Israel’s largest oasis where the biblical King David was said to take refuge from King Saul, offers hiking and walking trails open year-round with refreshing natural springs and waterfalls, stunning lookout points with Dead Sea views and encounters with ibexes and rock hyraxes. Relax afterwards at the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth so infused with saline that swimmers will naturally float on the water, and then decide whether to spend an afternoon sunbathing or strolling the newly opened 4 km boardwalk. While beachside hotel spas offer custom massages and mineral treatments, families with kids need only venture to the water’s edge to play and have a blast smearing each other with Dead Sea mud.
Intensely vibrant Jerusalem is a feast for the senses, a world centre of religion and culture, and a great destination when travelling with children. Jerusalemites love kids, and if your family is up for some adventurous travel, the city has a lot to offer for all ages. For a full look into travelling to the holy city with children, read our article about Jerusalem with kids.
From five-star hotels to kibbutz guesthouses and bed and breakfasts, Israel offers a range of accommodation for families. A popular choice in the Galilee and Negev are tzimmerim, bed and breakfasts that are more relaxed (and often cheaper) than traditional hotels. Each tzimmer caters to a different clientele, so be sure to check if kids are welcome before booking. Large hotel chains found throughout the country are famed for their bountiful Israeli buffet breakfasts, often included with the reservation, and also offer services (for a fee) such as babysitters. Cots for babies are usually available at any style of lodging if requested in advance.
How to get around
Public transportation is widely available, especially in the major cities. A robust intercity train and bus system also exists, with a high-speed train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem set to open in 2019. Having a car is helpful for more remote locations like the Hula Valley or Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park, but even then, they are accessible with a combination of buses and private taxis.
On the road, drivers are notoriously aggressive, and hiring a car does not include the high cost of petrol and car insurance. On foot, families will have little problem using pushchairs in cities like Tel Aviv and on beach boardwalks, but expect it to be a challenge on mountainous nature hikes and through cobblestone streets. Car seats are required for infants and toddlers, but you might not need to ‘schlep’ your own; rental companies such as Eldan offer car seat options for a nominal fee.