Israel's diverse topography in relation to its small size makes the country an excellent place for activities, from desert cycling to mountain hiking to water sports. Israelis are generally very outdoorsy, so infrastructure and facilities are top notch.

Archaeological Digs

For details on archaeological digs that welcome paying volunteers, check out these websites:

  • Biblical Archaeology Society (http://digs.bib-arch.org/digs)
  • Hebrew University of Jerusalem (http://archaeology.huji.ac.il/excavations/excavations.asp)
  • Israeli Foreign Ministry (www.mfa.gov.il) Search for 'archaeological excavations'.

Birdwatching

The Mediterranean coast, the Galilee's Hula Valley and the Eilat area are some of the world’s foremost venues for birding. Gatherings of twitchers (birdwatchers) include the Hula Valley Bird Festival and the Eilat Bird Festival (www.birds.org.il).

Cycling

Mountain biking has become hugely popular in Israel in recent years, especially among hi-tech yuppies with SUVs (a stereotype, but not an untrue one). Many cycling trails go through forests managed by the Jewish National Fund (www.kkl.org.il); for details, click ‘Cycling Routes’ on its website. Shvil Net (www.shvilnet.co.il) publishes Hebrew-language cycling guides that include detailed topographical maps.

Races are regularly held in locales such as the Dead Sea; many are sponsored by the Israel Cycling Federation (www.israelcycling.org.il). There is also a variety of annual long-distance rides, such as the Arava Institute & Hazon Israel Ride (https://israelride.org) and the ALYN Hospital International Charity Bike Ride (www.alynactive.org). Israel Spokes (www.israelspokes.com) is a cycling organisation that runs group rides. Popular Hebrew-only cycling forums, great for finding local clubs, group rides and equipment, include Shvoong (www.shvoong.co.il), Groopy (http://groopy.co.il) and Harim (www.harim.co.il).

Companies and cycling groups that organise rides and tours around Israel:

Cyclenix (www.cyclenix.com)

EcoBike Cycling Vacations (www.ecobikes.co.il)

Genesis Cycling (www.genesiscycling.com)

Israel Cycling Tours (www.israelcycling.com)

Israel Pedals (www.israelpedals.co.il)

SK Bike Tours (www.skbike.co.il)

Urban cycling is highly developed in Tel Aviv thanks to 130km of dedicated bike paths and lanes.

Hiking

With its unbelievably diverse terrain – ranging from the alpine slopes of Mt Hermon to the parched wadis of the Negev – and almost 10,000km of marked trails, Israel offers some truly superb hiking. The country gets little or no precipitation for at least half the year so Israelis can plan outings without having to worry about getting rained on – and, because water is so precious, they love nothing more than to spend a summer’s day sloshing through a spring-fed stream shaded by lush vegetation. Whenever you hit the trails, don’t forget to bring a hat and plenty of water, and plan your day so you can make it back before dark.

At many national parks and nature reserves (www.parks.org.il), basic walking maps with English text are handed out when you pay your admission fee. In other areas, the best maps to have – in part because they indicate the precise boundaries of minefields and live-fire zones used for army training – are the 1:50,000-scale topographical maps produced by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), sold at bookshops, SPNI field schools and some nature reserves.

The website www.tiuli.com, run by Lametayel, Israel’s largest camping equipment store, has details in English on the hiking options around the country (the Hebrew website is much more extensive). The SPNI’s Mokedteva (www.mokedteva.co.il) has up-to-date information in Hebrew on weather, hiking routes, trail difficulty, trail closures and special events.

Popular long-distance trails (from north to south):

Israel National Trail (Shvil Yisra’el; www.israelnationaltrail.com) Rambles for 940km through Israel’s least-populated and most-scenic areas, from Kibbutz Dan in the north to Taba on the Red Sea. Trail blazes are orange, blue and white.

Sea-to-Sea Hike (Masa MiYam l’Yam; www.touristisrael.com/yam-lyam-hike) A 70km route from the Mediterranean (Achziv Beach) to the Sea of Galilee (near Ginnosar) via Mt Meron and Amud Stream. Takes three to five days.

Jesus Trail (www.jesustrail.com) A 65km route from Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation to Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee. Passes through Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Bedouin and Druze communities.

Gospel Trail (www.goisrael.com) The Israeli Ministry of Tourism's 63km-long version of the Jesus Trail runs from Nazareth’s Mt Precipice to Capernaum, avoiding built-up areas.

Sea of Galilee Circuit (Shvil Sovev Kineret, Kinneret Trail) Circumnavigates the Sea of Galilee. Of the planned 60km, 45km have so far been marked with white-purple-white trail blazes.

Nativity Trail Stretches 160km from Nazareth to Bethlehem, mostly through the beautiful landscapes of the northern West Bank. Must be done with a guide – for details, contact Hijazi Travel (http://hijazih.wordpress.com), Walk Palestine (www.walkpalestine.com) or Green Olive Tours (www.toursinenglish.com).

Abraham Path (Masar Ibrahim Al Khalil; www.masaribrahim.ps, www.abrahampath.org) It may be many years before this planned trans–Middle Eastern walking trail is fully operational, but one section that's already open goes from Nabus via Jericho to Hebron.

Jerusalem Trail A 42km circuit that connects the Israel National Trail with Jerusalem, meandering through the Jerusalem Hills and around the Old City.

Scuba Diving

The Red Sea has some of the world’s most spectacular and species-rich coral reefs. Good-value scuba courses and dive packages are available in Eilat, but the underwater life is a lot more dazzling across the Egyptian border in Sinai – however, the US, the UK and Australia recommend avoiding all travel to Sinai, except by air to Sharm El Sheikh. The waters of the Mediterranean aren’t nearly as colourful, but at places like Caesarea you can explore Atlantis-like ancient ruins.

Windsurfing

Windsurfer Gal Fridman won Israel’s only ever Olympic gold medal at the 2004 Athens games, so it comes as no surprise that the country offers world-class sailing conditions. Popular venues include the Mediterranean coast, the Red Sea and even the Sea of Galilee.