The rolling, green hills of the Upper Galilee (the area north of Rte 85) and the wild plateaus and peaks of the Golan Heights offer an incredible variety of activities to challenge the body and the soul and to nourish the stomach and the mind. Domestic tourists flock to the area – some are looking for luxurious tzimmerim (B&Bs), boutique wineries and gourmet country restaurants, while others come in search of superb hiking, cycling, white-water rafting, horse riding and even skiing. The region has even more attractions: dazzling carpets of spring wildflowers, some of the world’s best birdwatching and the spiritual charms of Tsfat, the most important centre of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) for more than five centuries. The entire region, its summits mercifully temperate in summer, is just a short drive from the Christian sites and refreshing beaches of the Sea of Galilee.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Upper Galilee & Golan.
Israel is home to some of the world's most important prehistoric sites, several of them in the Hula Valley. This gem of a museum, which draws prehistorians from around the globe, displays objects made by human beings between 780,000 and 6000 years ago, including an unsurpassed collection of Palaeolithic hand axes and, incredibly, the skeleton of a woman buried alongside a dog 12,000 years ago. The entry fee includes a tour, usually available in English.
These restored wetlands are one of the best places in Israel to see cranes, pelicans, storks and an incredible 400 other bird species. To cover the 8.5km path around the site, you can either walk or rent a mountain bike (50NIS), a four-wheeled pedal cart (185NIS for up to five people) or a golf cart (149/199/259NIS for two/four/six people). The entire site is wheelchair accessible.
This half-square-kilometre reserve, 1.6km north of Rte 99, boasts two major attractions. The first, an area of lush forest, is fed by year-round springs that in normal years gush 8 cu metres of water per second into the Dan River (the most important tributary of the Jordan). The second is the remains of a grand ancient city inhabited by the Canaanites in the 18th century BCE and the Israelites during the First Temple period (from the 12th century BCE).
Both casual strollers and experienced hikers – especially those who aren’t averse to getting wet – will find plenty to engage and challenge them in this 66-sq-km nature reserve. Mammals you might encounter include gazelles and wild boar, while the cliffs are home to birds of prey as well as songbirds. Swimming is permitted in the reserve's natural pools – hugely refreshing on a hot day.
From high atop Mt Avital, top-secret Israel Defence Forces' electronics peer deep into Syria, but the Quneitra Viewpoint, on the volcano’s lower flanks, also affords fine views into Israel’s troubled northern neighbour. The site – at which an 'audio explanation station' describes the battles fought here in 1973 – overlooks the ruined town of Quneitra, one-time Syrian 'capital of the Golan', just 2km away.
The gushing springs, waterfalls and lushly shaded streams of Banias Nature Reserve form one of the most beautiful – and popular – nature spots in the country. The park has two entrances on Rte 99 that are about 3.5km (1½ hours on foot) apart. The name ‘Banias’ derives from Pan, Greek god of the countryside, to whom a temple here was dedicated back in Roman times.
Rosh Pina was settled in the 1870s by Jews from Tsfat and, after 1882, by immigrants from Romania. The old town consists of just three short cobblestone streets, one of them, with Parisian pretension, called HaBoulevard. Visitors can explore the quiet lanes, lined with pretty, restored (and unrestored) stone houses; visit the old synagogue (1887), which still has its original wood furnishings; and pop into a dozen galleries (www.art.roshpina.co.il) where artists – some well known – sell jewellery, ceramics, sculpture and paintings.
Built by Muslims in the 13th century to protect the road from Tyre to Damascus, Nimrod Fortress rises fairy-tale-like on a long, narrow ridge (altitude 815m) on the southwestern slopes of Mt Hermon. The work that went into building such a massive fortification – 420m long and up to 150m wide – on the top of a remote mountain ridge boggles the mind. If you’re going to visit just one Crusader-era fortress during your trip, this should be it.
Migrating birds flock to the wetlands of Israel’s first nature reserve, founded in 1964. More than 200 species of waterfowl mingle happily with cormorants, herons, pelicans, storks and cranes, while water buffalo (jamoose) roam certain areas of the reserve, their grazing important to the preservation of open meadows. The circular, 1.5km-long Swamp Trail, which passes birdwatching hides and an observation tower, is wheelchair accessible.