Although it gets a bad press and is often only associated with conflict, Israel is a great destination with a huge amount to offer visitors. People who do go, are often surprised by how safe, varied and developed the country is, with an underlying arty and hippy vibe that still exists from the kibbutz era. What really makes Israel special though is its significance for so many religions making it a place rich in history. For first time visitors, there are some sites that simply can’t be missed, here are the 10 must-see attractions in Israel.
1 – Old Jaffa (in Tel Aviv)
The Tel Aviv port, Old Jaffa, has so much warmth, within 10 minutes of my first visit I wished I could live there. The charm here is endless – hidden alleyways, inciting views of the beach and Tel Aviv, an interesting history, undiscovered galleries, street art and one of the few places in Israel where Arabs and Jews live together. Spend a morning getting lost and sipping coffee in Old Jaffa and don’t forget to fit in a visit to the Flea Market.
2 – Sea of Galilee (in the North)
To truly appreciate the Sea of Galilee, I recommend taking a hike up one of the nearby small mountains. My personal favourite is Mount Arbel which involves a steep but easy scramble. At the top you will be able to take in the scale of the Sea of Galilee in its entirety. Its quite magnificent.
3 – Dome on the Rock (in Jerusalem)
Entry into the Dome on the Rock is limited to members of the public for only a few hours a day. Even then, you are not allowed access to the inside of the mosque (check out google images for a sneak peek – its amazing!). This is an area of tension as both Jews and Muslims consider the spot to be of huge significance, so expect to see lots of guards around. Although of modest size, the blinding gold roof and colourful mosaics, makes this mosque one of the most beautiful buildings in Israel.
4 – The Western Wall Tunnels (in Jerusalem)
I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the dedicated orthodox Jews rocking back and forth as they prayed next to the Western Wall. Their intensity and dedication is like nothing I have witnessed before. Although it is interesting from outside, a visit to the tunnels below is a must. Not only to understand why this area is considered so holy for Jews, but also to marvel at the astonishing scale of the wall that lays hidden. It really does have to be seen to be believed.
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5 – Masada (in the South)
Masada is an ancient city that sits on an isolated rock plateau, made famous from a Jewish-Roman war that resulted in 960 Jews participating in a mass suicide. Although it might initially seem like a story of defeat, for Jewish people Masada is a symbol of unity and defiance. To get to the top you can either take a cable car or a steep but short walk. As well as taking in the ruins and learning of the story that took place here, the area also offers spectacular views of the Negev desert.
6 – Yad Vashem (in Jerusalem)
Not surprisingly, this holocaust museum is pretty sobering. Yet, despite the misery projected here, this museum is something quite remarkable. The impressive architecture of the building leads you on a journey that ends on a positive note as the sides of the buildings open up onto a view of jerusalem. It’s a simple yet powerful message of peace and quiet optimism that stuck with me much more than the horrors that I learnt in the museum. To truly understand Israel and its people, a nation that was built from the holocaust, this museum simply can’t be missed.
7 -Dead Sea (in the South)
The Dead Sea is a phenomenon. Although the sea has been noticeably ruined by factories, its beauty can still be admired from its impossible green colour to the surrounding Jordanian mountains. Spending a few hours floating in the salty sea is a unique and fun experience that solidly places it as one of the top things to do in Israel.
8 – Church of Holy Sepulchre (in Jerusalem)
From the outside, the church looks quite ordinary. But the candle lit alcoves, sound of sobbing and smell of incense instantly entices a spiritual atmosphere when you step inside. Many consider this to be the place where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. It’s a fascinating and beautiful site.
9 – The Gardens in Haifa (in the North)
The Baha’i are a quiet religion growing in popularity and the Shrine of the Bab, situated at the Haifa Gardens, is considered one of their most sacred places. Arrive before noon to join a tour, led by a Bahai, of the shrine. Take time after to wander the impeccably kept garden and to pause at the top to look at the view of Haifa.
10 – Jerusalem’s Old Market (in Jerusalem)
One of the top things to do in Israel is wandering the old city market in Jerusalem. The old city is made up of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armanian quarters, each one with its own character and charm. A day can easily be lost meandering in the maze of the cobbled streets taking in all the various trinkets and crafts in the market.