Israel & the Palestinian Territories
At the intersection of Asia, Europe and Africa – both geographically and culturally – Israel and the Palestinian Territories have been a meeting place of cultures, empires and religions since history began.
Cradle of Judaism and Christianity and sacred to Muslims and Baha’is, the Holy Land invites visitors to immerse themselves in the richness and variety of the region's religious traditions. Ancient Jewish sites include Jerusalem’s Western Wall and Byzantine-era synagogues adorned with sumptuous mosaics. The Roman-era synagogues around the Sea of Galilee may have been used by Jews and Christians before they diverged into separate faiths. Both Christian pilgrims and tourists can explore sites associated with Jesus’s birth (in Bethlehem), ministry (in Nazareth and around the Sea of Galilee) and crucifixion (in Jerusalem). For Muslims, only Mecca and Medina are holier than Jerusalem’s Al Haram Ash Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount – perhaps the most contested site on earth.
Brash, forward-looking and unabashedly secular, Tel Aviv is a multicultural swirl of skyscrapers, bike paths, atmospheric cafes, stylish bistros and buff bods tanning on the sand. Tel Aviv may be a relatively new city by Israeli standards (it was first founded in 1909) but earned Unesco World Heritage status by virtue of its 1930s-style Bauhaus architecture. Israel's self-described 'start-up city', it is world-renowned as a tech hub and is home to some of the country's most happening firms – as well as myriad bars, pubs and clubs.
Thanks to the painstaking work of generations of archaeologists, modern-day visitors can explore the 10,000-year-old mud-brick relics of Jericho, enter into the world of David and Solomon in Jerusalem’s City of David, and twin a visit to Masada, with its dramatic tale of resistance to the mighty legions of Rome, with a tour of the thoroughfares and theatres of Beit She’an, still pulsing with Roman opulence. Many of the country’s most extraordinary finds are on display in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.
Adventures in Nature
Few countries have so much geographic variety packed into such a small space. Distances are short, so you can relax on a Mediterranean beach one day, spend the next floating in the mineral-rich waters of the Dead Sea, and the day after that scuba diving in the Red Sea. Hikers can trek the length of the country on the Israel National Trail, splash through seasonal streams as they tumble towards the Jordan, explore spring-fed oases tucked into the arid bluffs above the Dead Sea, and explore the multicoloured sandstone formations of Makhtesh Ramon. Many trails are ideal for mountain biking.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Israel & the Palestinian Territories.
Four magnificent arches, their lintels richly decorated with Crusader crosses, herald the entrance to one of Christianity's most sacred sites. The church is believed by many Christians to be built over the biblical Calvary, or Golgotha, where Jesus was nailed to the cross, died and rose from the dead. For the past 16 centuries, pilgrims have travelled far to worship here; expect crowds rather than quiet contemplation, unless you arrive early. The easiest access is via Christian Quarter Rd.
There are few patches of ground as holy – or as disputed – as this one. Known to Muslims as Al Haram Ash Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as Har HaBayit (Temple Mount), this elevated cypress-planted plaza in the southeastern corner of the Old City is home to two of Islam's most sacred buildings – the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque – and is revered by Jews as the location of the First and Second Temples. Queue early and dress appropriately.
The air is electric at Judaism's holiest prayer site, where worshippers recite scriptures, lay their hands on 2000-year-old stone and utter impassioned appeals. The Western Wall supports the outer portion of Temple Mount, upon which the Second Temple once stood. Its builders could never have fathomed that their creation would become a religious shrine of such magnitude. Rabbinical texts maintain that the Shechina (divine presence) never deserted the Wall. It's open to members of all faiths 365 days a year; dress modestly.
More than 5000 years of cultural treasures are assembled around the vast Israel Museum's indoor and outdoor galleries. Highlights are the titanic statues of the Archaeological Wing, while the Fine Arts Wing showcases 20th-century Israeli art from carpet weaving to sculpture. Newcomers to Jewish culture will appreciate the Rhythm of Life Room's lavish displays on birth, marriage and death ceremonies. The prize exhibit is the Dead Sea Scrolls: housed in a distinctive shrine, these are among the world's oldest biblical manuscripts.
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’.