When planning your visit to Israel, just like any other place, you need to take into account how much time you have, the season you’re traveling in, your budget, and, most importantly, your interests. The days of visiting Israel with a congregational leader for a seven-day tour are over. There are tourists who come to enjoy Tel Aviv for a weekend or to attend a jazz festival in Eilat. Tourists visit for the archaeological or agricultural seminars, vineyard tours, and to take desert hikes in the winter, enjoying the January and February sunshine. The itinerary that I present here enables you to gain a good understanding of what Israel has to offer in one very full (and maybe even too full) itinerary.
Day 1 – Jerusalem: The Old City
If I had up to 72 hours to spend in Israel, I would stay in Jerusalem. Although the distances between places in Israel are short, moving from one hotel to the other always takes up considerable time and is more of a hassle than one expects. It’s always better to be relaxed than to rush things, and this is even more true while on vacation. The sites on the Mount of Olives and in the Old City are the most important to see, and include the Mosque of Ascension, the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Day 2 – Jerusalem: The “New City”
The Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim is interesting to walk through. Here one can observe how Jews lived in Eastern Europe and have kept their traditions. The Mahane Yehuda Market (often referred to as “The Shuk”) is a good place to grab something to eat. If you plan on visiting just one museum in Israel, make sure it is the Israel Museum. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and Memorial is one of the most important places to learn about the Holocaust and how Israeli society has dealt and is dealing with the loss of one-third of the Jewish people.
Day 3 – Tel Aviv
The beach will probably be your first stop after you settle in your hotel. Old Jaffa sights are a good place to start your tour – the visitor’s center, St. Peter’s Church, the galleries in the alleyways, and the flea market. In central Tel Aviv along Dizengoff Street and Rothschild Boulevard, you will see Israel as Israelis see Tel Aviv. Continue on to the hip neighborhood of Neve Tzedek and then cycle along the promenade to the Tel Aviv Port – a new shopping, eating, and party zone.
Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are in the center of Israel. From here, you can head north to the Galilee or south to the Negev Desert. During the summer, I would suggest spending more time in the north, and in the winter, more time in the south. If you have limited time, travel from Jerusalem to the Judean Desert – Masada and the Dead Sea (see Day 8).
Day 4 – The Northern Coast
Rent a car in Tel Aviv and drive to the Caesarea National Park, the site of the port city King Herod built. From there, continue north to Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. From the top of Mount Carmel, you have a view of the Baha’i Gardens and the German Colony. There are also many tasty places to eat in downtown Haifa. The Old City of Akko (Acre) has the best Crusader sights in Israel – one of the most interesting periods in the long history of the Land of Israel.
Days 5 & 6 – The Galilee and the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret)
There are many different kinds of sights in the Galilee. I suggest a mix of it all. Nazareth is where Christianity began, and around the Sea of Galilee there are many sites connected to the ministry of Jesus – Tabgha, Capernaum, and the Mount of Beatitudes, where the Sermon on the Mount was delivered. Megiddo and Zippori (Sepphoris) are two worthy archaeological sites. Safed has been the center of the Kabbala – Jewish mysticism – since the 16th century. Some of the first Zionist settlements are in the Galilee – Kinneret, Rosh Pina, and Tel Hai. For hikers, there are the Mount Meron and Amud Wadi National Parks. And if you are looking for a challenge, there is a three-day walking route from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee – the Jesus Trail.
Day 7 – The Golan Heights
Take in beautiful views of the Galilee on one side and Syria on the other. Gamla, Yehudiya, and the Nimrod Fortress are popular national parks. Mount Hermon, at the northern-most part of the Golan, is the highest mountain in Israel. In winter, it acts as Israel’s only ski resort.
Day 8 – The Judean Desert
Drive down Road 90 to the Judean Desert. Masada and the Dead Sea are sights not to be missed. Two more interesting sights are Ein Gedi, the biggest oasis, and Qumran, the place inhabited by a small but very interesting sect 2,000 years ago, and where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
Day 9 – Eilat
I wouldn’t visit Eilat on Jewish holidays and during summer vacation (July and August), but during the winter (on weekdays – Sunday to Thursday) it’s great. If you prefer nature over a touristic city, there are some kibbutzim north of Eilat that offer accommodations. Eilat is a good place to snorkel and to enjoy water activities. It can also act as a base to go for a day or two to Petra in Jordan or to Sinai in Egypt. In Eilat, you can lie on the beach in January and enjoy the warm sun.
Day 10 – Mitzpe Ramon
Timna National Park, 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) north of Eilat, is an ancient copper mine and a beautiful desert park. The amazing desert landscape will accompany you all the way to Mitzpe Ramon and the Ramon Crater.
Day 11 – Return to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem