The Negev is the only part of Israel that feels vast and boundless. Stretching from the Red Sea north for 250km, the region's rocky, treeless hills and dry gullies have been attracting travellers, traders and nomads since the time of Abraham (Genesis 12:9 and 20:1). These days, sun-seekers, scuba divers, birdwatchers and hikers flock to the resort city of Eilat, where the sun shines 360 days a year. North of there, the kibbutzim of the Arava – part of the Great Rift Valley – attract environmentalists and visitors interested in sustainable desert development. Other tourists follow in the footsteps of the Nabataeans, who established impressive cities not only at Petra (which can easily be visited from Eilat) but also at Avdat, Shivta and Mamshit, now Unesco World Heritage sites. Perched on the rim of Israel's multi-hued 'grand canyon', hip Mitzpe Ramon is a magnet for creative minds, quirky entrepreneurs and serenity seekers.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The Negev.
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.
The crystal-clear waters of this 1km-long reserve are the best place on the Israeli Red Sea coast for snorkelling. Access to the reef wall is by two wooden footbridges and one swim lane; snorkelling areas are marked off by buoys. Snorkelling kit can be rented for 23NIS (100NIS deposit). For picnic supplies, head to the supermarket across the street.
En (Ein) Avdat comes as a huge surprise in this otherwise bone-dry desert: a year-round, freshwater spring that miraculously flows over a waterfall and through a narrow, winding ravine with steep sides of soft white chalk. Caves along the trail were inhabited by monks during the Byzantine period. To protect habitat for fauna such as the ibex, swimming and wading are prohibited.
Dominating the surrounding desert, the beautifully preserved ancient Nabataean city of Avdat served as a caravan stop on the road from Petra to the Mediterranean. Highlights include a Roman bathhouse, catacombs, several 4th-century churches, a pottery workshop and a Byzantine wine press.
The site of some of the world's earliest copper mines (c 5000 BCE), the Timna Valley offers an awe-inspiring desert landscape of cliffs and rock formations in contrasting shades of burnt red, pink and tan. Its scenery and archaeological sites can be explored on over 20 hiking trails – many of them circuits – that take between one and 12 hours. Once you're inside the park, you can stay until sundown.
Hundreds of millions of migrating birds pass through Eilat twice a year as they fly between Europe and Africa. The best place to spot them is this lakeside centre, situated 6km northeast of town; from the Yitzhak Rabin–Wadi Araba Border Crossing, go south for 400m (follow the signs). The staff are friendly and very knowledgeable.
One of the most gloriously isolated spots in Israel, Shivta was founded during the early Roman period (1st century BCE). Its well-preserved ruins – including three churches, houses, tiled streets and an impressive irrigation system – date from the Byzantine period (5th to 7th centuries CE), when it was an important stop on the caravan route between Egypt and Anatolia. Shivta is 60km southwest of Be’er Sheva, 8km south off Rte 211.
The stand-out feature of this aquarium complex, hugely popular with families, is the observatory, which takes you 12m below the surface of the Red Sea into the living reef for a scuba diver's view of the fish and corals. Other highlights include Shark World, a 7m-deep tank that's home to sharks and stingrays, and the excellent Rare Fish Aquarium. Tickets are valid for three days, but to come back, you need to get a photo re-entry ticket (free).