Few places on earth stir up passion the way that Israel does: the breathtaking beauty of its hills and valleys, the eerie stillness of the Dead Sea, the multi-coloured canyon of Makhtesh Ramon, and the ancient walls and pathways of Nazareth and Jerusalem. The call of the muezzin and the quiet prayers of Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall reflect how the religious devotion of the Muslims, Christians and Jews who live here runs through every facet of life.
As, of course, does the political – and visitors will rarely leave without encountering the country’s complex politics. But there are also plenty of ways to relax: the bars and beaches of Tel Aviv and Haifa, the wineries of the Galilee and tables loaded with mezze. For the curious visitor, Israel never fails to challenge and confound, excite and surprise, leaving an imprint that lingers long after the return flight home.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Israel.
These formal gardens flowing down 19 steep terraces to a resplendent domed shrine – the final resting place of the prophet-herald of the Baha’i faith – are Haifa’s crowning attraction. There are bird’s-eye views from the platform at the top, but we highly recommend the free, 45-minute Panorama Tour. Tours begin daily (except Wednesday) at 11.30am in Hebrew and noon in English. Arrive half an hour ahead as it's first come, first served. Men and women must be covered from shoulders to knees.
The plateau atop Masada, which measures about 550m by 270m, is some 60m above sea level – that is, about 490m above the surface of the Dead Sea. The easiest way up is by cable car, though you can also hoof it – up the Roman siege ramp from the western side or up the Snake Path from the eastern side. On the ruins, black painted lines divide reconstructed parts (above) from the original remains (below).
Dominating the Old City’s skyline is the lantern-topped cupola of this Franciscan-run Roman Catholic basilica, an audacious modernist structure that’s unlike any building you’ve ever seen. Constructed from 1960 to 1969, it’s believed by many Christians to stand on the site of Mary’s home, where many churches (but not the Greek Orthodox) believe the Annunciation took place.
Beit She’an’s extraordinary Roman ruins are the best place in Israel to get a sense of what it was like to live, work and shop in the Roman Empire. Colonnaded streets, a 7000-seat theatre that looks much as it did 1800 years ago (the original public bathrooms are nearby), two bathhouses and huge stone columns that lie right where they fell during the 749 earthquake evoke the grandeur, self-confidence and decadence of ancient Roman provincial life.
Since at least the 4th century, this landscaped hillside is believed to be where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), whose opening lines – the eight Beatitudes – begin with the phrase ‘Blessed are…’. The sermon also includes the Lord’s Prayer and oft-quoted phrases such as ‘salt of the earth’, ‘light of the world’ and ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’.
This reserve consists of two roughly parallel canyons, Wadi David and Wadi Arugot, each of which has its own entrance complex and ticket office. It is also home to an ancient synagogue. When you buy your ticket, you receive a colour-coded map-brochure that has invaluable details on the area’s trails (indicated using the same colours as the trail markings), how long each route takes, and the times by which you need to begin each circuit to finish by closing time.
An outstanding and remarkably vivid introduction to Masada’s archaeology and history, this museum combines 500 evocative artefacts unearthed by archaeologists (one coin and four papyri are replicas). There are presentations on key Masada personalities – Herod the Great, who built a palace here in the 1st century BCE, turncoat historian Josephus Flavius and Jewish commander Eliezer ben Yair – to make the dramatic events of 73 CE seem close enough to touch. Visitors receive an audio headset, available in eight languages.
Established in 1968 to reintroduce animals that had died out in Israel, this 32-sq-km reserve on the Yotvata salt flats is home to a wide variety of desert creatures. You can drive through, safari-style, but only if you have your own car; count on spending about two hours. Herbivores you're likely to see include the Dorcas gazelle, Nubian ibex, Somali wild ass, scimitar-horned oryx and addax (white antelope).
Sometimes described as Israel’s very own grand canyon, Makhtesh Ramon is the largest protected area in Israel and is home to a huge number of hiking, cycling and horse-riding trails, as well as cliffs offering rappelling opportunities. About 300m deep, 9km wide and 40km long, it features multicoloured sandstone, volcanic rock and fossils.