I have to begin by saying that I don’t like these kinds of ‘Must See’ lists.
Because there is no must-see.
It’s your vacation; you can do whatever you want.
You can come in winter and stay a whole week under the warm desert sun or just stick to Jerusalem and dive into the never-ending history of the city.
But for those of you who are starting to plan your trip to Israel and want to know what Israel’s main sites are, this post will let you get a quick idea of what Israel has to offer. Let’s begin.
Without a doubt, this is the most important site in Israel. If you were to write a list of the ten most important places on earth, the Old City of Jerusalem would be on that list. The Old City of Jerusalem is tiny – just one square kilometer.
In this square kilometer you will find the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the place where Jesus was crucified and buried, the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. On top of that, there are at least fifty churches, chapels, and monasteries within these walls. There is no other place in the world that contains so many holy sites. But beyond the city’s sacred sites, there are also a lot of historical and cultural things to see.
Masada is located in the Judaean Desert. It’s one of my favorite places in Israel. And not only mine. Masada is Israel’s most visited pay-to-enter site, and with good reason. The views are beautiful, the Dead Sea is nearby, and the story of the people who lived in Masada is connected to one of the most turbulent periods in the history of the Land of Israel – the Roman era 2,000 years ago. During that time the Jews slowly lost their independence, Christianity was born, the Jews rebelled, the Temple was destroyed and then came the battle of Masada, which was the last chapter of this drama.
You can read about Jerusalem or Masada on the internet, but floating in the Dead Sea is an experience that you won’t find anywhere else. I just love it. I think I’m the only tour guide who goes in to the Dead Sea every time he’s there.
One major advantage of the Dead Sea is that, being the lowest place in the world, it has an extra 400 meters’ worth of air to filter radiation, making it the least dangerous place you can sunbathe.
The first thing you notice about Tel Aviv is that it’s not Jerusalem. Nowhere else will you find two cities that are so geographically close – only 60 kilometers (37 miles) apart – yet so different from one another.
But Tel Aviv isn’t just the antithesis of Jerusalem. Tel Aviv represents the modern, liberal, western-world-oriented side of Israel. And there is a lot to do and see – the beaches, old Jaffa, Neve Tzedek, Sharona, and much more.
The two main attractions in Haifa are of course the beautiful Bahia Gardens and the German colony, which are definitely worth seeing, but I added Haifa because many independent travelers say that they want to see real local life beyond the more touristy places.
I think that Haifa is a good place to experience that. Jerusalem is very religious, Tel Aviv is full of hipsters, and Haifa is just a normal Israeli city, but normal in the good, slightly boring way.
Most of the tourists who visit Nazareth do so because it has Christian significance, and they visit the Church of the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would be the mother of Jesus. But I recommend staying a night there.
Nazareth is the biggest Arab city in Israel and a good place to experience a side of Israel that you won’t see in the big cities where Jews form the majority.
Israel is much more than just holy sites and lots of history. The people make Israel what it is. The thing is, if you go to all the historical and religious sites, you won’t come across any locals. In general, Israelis don’t spend their free time in Masada or in the churches… the place to find Israelis, and enjoy good food, is the markets.
Something good has been happening to the markets in the last couple of years. Markets like Machne Yehuda in Jerusalem or Suck HaCarmel in Tel Aviv used to be nothing more than places where Israelis bought fruit and vegetables, but now they also have good places to eat and at night there are bars and a really good atmosphere.
the desert. The Negev covers half of Israel. There are a lot of amazing places to see – Sde boker, mitzpe Ramon – right on the cliff of the creator, Timna, the Eilat mointains, and many other places that I’ll write about on my site in the months to come.
Another reason I like to recommend the desert is that travelers tend to only think about the sight they want to visit and not the place they’re coming from. If you’re coming to Israel from Europe or the U.S and you are coming in winter – between October and March, you are probably coming from countries with very low temperatures. The desert is nice and warm. Around 20-25°C, or 70°F. And so if you are coming in winter, be sure to stay in the desert for a while.
Because we have to have one museum on the list and this is by far the most important museum in Israel.
There is so much to see – the shrine of the Books, which holds the oldest Bible books and scrolls in the world, a great archeological part, a lot of Israeli and Jewish art, masterpieces from all over the world and a section that is dedicated to youth. I highly recommend joining the free tours that the museum offers, because it’s very easy to get lost in all there is to see.
The last place on my list is a place you’ll visit without even intending to, a place that you will go through whether you like it or not. You will even visit it not once, but twice, and I’m talking about Ben Gurion Airport.
It is on my list for two reasons – the first is that you can learn and experience a lot not only from visiting museums and holy sites, but also from the most trivial things, and you can certainly learn a lot about the Israelis from visiting the airport (if you want to find out more about it, click here). And the second thing is that the most extraordinary experiences, the ones travelers tend to remember, are not the sites themselves.
As a tour guide who talks to thousands of travelers, I can honestly say that I almost never hear travelers saying that the Wailing Wall or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the highlight of their tour. It is almost always stories that involve other people, or experiences travelers had on the road, or something that happened in a restaurant or a hotel or just on the street, and not the sights they visited. And so here we come full circle.
There is no must-see. It is important to plan your trip, and my videos and website are all about helping you do that, but you shouldn’t just follow a checklist. So my number 10 is the airport, where you will start your Israeli experience.