Taking a tour in Israel, whether a day tour or a tour running over multiple days, is a great way to understand the rich history of Israel.
In this post I’ve written about all the different tours on offer: what you can expect, what you should avoid, and which companies are out there – from budget to luxury.
Tours in Jerusalem
Tours in Jerusalem are a must! Without a tour you’ll understand very little.
The basic one is of course the Old City tour: the main sites are the four quarters, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and some of the stations of the Via Dolorosa.
More in-depth tours go up to Temple Mount, where the Jewish temples once stood, and where today you’ll find the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Although this is an important site and a part of the Old City, not all tours go here, because as non-Muslims we are only allowed to enter from one gate and at limited times: for three hours in the morning and one hour in the afternoon, meaning there is always a queue, which makes the logistics harder.
Since there is so much to see in Jerusalem, most of the organized groups go on a tour in Jerusalem first and the day after they head up to Temple Mount. But you can easily go up and see the whole of the Old City in one day.
Another area that is often on the basic Old City tour is Mount Zion. Unlike the Mount of Olives, which is on a different ridge and lies beyond a valley, Mount Zion is outside the Old City walls but technically and historically still a part of the Old City.
Here you’ll find some very important sites close to one another: the Tomb of King David, the Room of the Last Supper and the Dormition Church. The grave of Oskar Schindler, by the way, is also close by.
Mount Zion. Two different groups. Christian pilgrims on their way to the Room of the Last Supper and the Church of the Dormition. And Israeli soldiers on their way to the Tomb of King David. On Sundays soldiers sometimes enjoy a “Culture Sunday” on their way back to the army base after the weekend.
There are tours to the Mount of Olives. These are quite short: 2-3 hours are enough to see the main sites. Usually you start the day at the top of the mountain, as you have the sun behind you and the Old City in front of you, and then you continue down to the Old City.
In my Jerusalem booklet I suggest a tour that starts at the Mount of Olives and continues down to the Old City, but you can do it in the afternoon when it’s not as crowded.
The most important sites you’ll see as you walk from the top of the mountain to the bottom are the Chapel of Ascension, Pater Noster, the Jewish cemetery, Dominus Flevit, Gethsemane and the Tomb of Mary.
The sites I’ve talked about up until now are the most popular ones, but there are interesting places to see in the New City as well. The best known are the Israel Museum, where you have the Shrine of the Book (the oldest bibles ever found) and Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Museum. In recent years a number of food tours have sprung up in Israel, and in Jerusalem many of them centre around the Machne Yehuda Market. The food tours are normally short and relaxed.
Tours to the Judaean Desert (Masada & Dead Sea)
Tours to the Judaean Desert start from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The three main sites there are the Dead Sea, Masada and Ein Gedi. Another two sites that are sometimes included are Qumran, where the Dead sea scrolls were found, and Qaser El Yahud, where the baptism of Jesus is commemorated.
I alway recommend sleeping in the Judaean Desert as I love the the scenery. But if you’re short on time or you don’t like the hot desert sun, you can do it as a day tour from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. You can also rent a car from Jerusalem and do the tour by yourself: if you’re in a group of three or more, it would be a more affordable option. Once you leave Jerusalem the roads are very easy to follow.
I don’t really recommend taking this tour from Tel Aviv because you have to spend so many hours on the road. If you’re staying in Tel Aviv and want to take a tour to Masada, than take the Sunrise Tour.
The Sunrise Tour is a tour that starts very early in the morning, at around 3-4am, and you climb the Snake Path to see the sun rise from the top of Masada.
This tour is doable from Tel Aviv because the roads are empty at that time. Another advantage of this tour is that you get to Masada when it’s not that hot. And you could also do this tour by yourself.
Tours in Tel Aviv
Tours in Tel Aviv are also popular. The historical sites are mostly in Jaffa, the ancient port city that today is a part of Tel Aviv. There are other tours like market and bicycle tours: I have made a video about tours in Tel Aviv, so be sure to check it out.
The tours I have mentioned up until now – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Judaean Desert – are by far the most popular ones, and if you choose to do them by yourself you can use my booklets. I’ve basically written down in them everything I say on my tours.
If you want to get out into nature between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (and have a car), I can recommend Nekudat Motsa, a company that offers bike tours in the Judaean Hills.
Tours to the Galilee
There is the coast tour which will take you to Cesaria, which was the Roman capital, to a lookout in Haifa, to the German colony Akko, and Rosh HaNikra, right on the border with Lebanon, where you go through the grottos. These are all interesting places but you spend a lot of time on the road and less time at each site.
Tours that start in the north: from Haifa, Akko and Nazareth, will go to these three cities. Next to Nazareth is Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine. Another site is Mount Tabor where the Transfiguration of Jesus is commemorated. Other sites include the churches on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee: the Mount of Batiatus, Capernaum, the Primacy of St Peter, and Tabga.
To the south, there are no regular tours of the Negev, or at least not any that I know of. You will need to explore by yourself.
Here I’m going to divide the tours into three: the cheap options, which I really like, the mid-range, which are very common but which I don’t like, and the high end, meaning private guides, which is the best option if you can afford it.
The cheapest options are the 2-3-hour city tours in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Sandemans offers a couple of tours: the main tour is called the free tour. You might already know this concept from tours you’ve taken in other cities around the world. The tour is great (I’ve also previously worked for this company) and most of the guides are really good. The thing I don’t like about it is that it’s not actually free; it’s a tip-based tour, and the guide has to pay the company for each tourist that joins. So be generous! They also run tours in the City of David and the Mount of Olives and the prices are very fair, around $30 per person.
In Tel Aviv there is a company called Be Tel Aviv, which I mentioned in the video about tours in Tel Aviv.
Another company that I can recommend is Abraham Tours: they offer tours from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Nazareth to the Judaean Desert, the Golan Heights and the Galilee. They offer tours without a guide; instead they provide you with an app on which you can read about the places you’re visiting. It’s a really good app: I wrote some of the texts myself. And it’s free (download here).
Tours I don’t recommend
And now we come to the mid-range tours, which I can’t really recommend. There are 3 to 4 companies offering tours that run on a regular basis. Tours cost around $100-150 per person depending on the tour. Almost all hotels work with these companies, as do most websites selling day tours.
There are a couple of reasons why I don’t like these companies:
- They pick up each tourist from their hotel, which sounds good, but let’s say you’re taking the Jerusalem day tour from Tel Aviv. You start the tour with pick-ups from 3 to 5 hotels in Tel Aviv. This can take half an hour or more, then you have to drive up to Jerusalem, which takes an hour, and then pick up tourists from 2 or 3 hotels in Jerusalem, which takes another half hour. So you spend two hours each way on the road. If from Jerusalem you’re going to Masada, it’s another hour and a half in each direction.
- Sometimes the tours are run in two languages at once, so the guide needs to say everything twice. I’ve done a few tours in English and German together: it’s not fun. Not for the guide and not for the tourists.
- You get shopping time factored in, which in my opinion is mostly wasted time. If I’m doing a private tour and the tourists want to buy something specific, then I will take them to the best places. I mentioned some of them in my post about unknown places in Jerusalem. But to give compulsory time to shopping is a waste of sightseeing opportunities.
I’ve asked other tour guide friends what they think about these companies and all of them pretty much agreed with me. While the tours are not bad in themselves (in fact many of the guides do a good job) and they would definitely be improved if the pick-ups didn’t last so long, none of the tour guides would actually recommend them as a first option.
Luxury tours in Israel
And this brings me to the best option, which is to hire a private guide or pay for a tailor-made tour. If you’re looking for a luxury visit to Israel, I’d say that it is not a problem to find a five-star hotel or an expensive restaurant: in fact it’s very easy to spend a lot of money in Israel.
If you’d like more information about personalized, all-inclusive, tailor-made luxury experiences, then email my partner Asaf and let us take your Israel trip to the next level. Make memories, create ties and build cherished family moments. Let’s get your trip of a lifetime in motion.