I recently provided tips and advice to a first-time visitor to Israel and Palestine. I thought I could as well write a blog post about this exciting travel destination in the Middle East. Here are my top 6 places to visit:
1. Old City of Jerusalem
Jerusalem is the most diverse and multifaceted city that I have ever visited. In the Old City, you can cross fundamentally different worlds within a few minutes walk: the Arab-Muslim world, the Jewish-Orthodox world, various Christian worlds (Armenian, various Orthodox, Coptic, Catholic, Lutheran…) – but also the modern secular Israel. Add to that picture a wealth of top historic, cultural and religious sights: the Wailing Wall (see featured image at the top of the pages; be sure to also visit the Wailing Wall on a Friday night when hundreds of Jewish people gather to sing and celebrate the start of Shabbat), the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock an the Al Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the site where according to traditions Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, buried and resurrected), the Tower of David Citadel and History Museum and many more.
When walking through the narrow alleys of the Old City, don’t miss to have a drink in a café next to Damascus Gate to dive into the microcosmos of the Palestinian world, to do a rooftop promenade for some great views of the Old City but also of the backyards of resident buildings (access via stairs on the corner of Habad St and St Mark’s Rd or in the southwestern corner of the Khan as-Sultan), and to dop by at the Austrian Hospice – again for fantastic views but also for a piece of Vienna-style Sacher cake in the quiet garden. Jerusalem must-sees outside the walled Old City include The Mount of Olives, Machane Yehuda Market, Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center as well as the historic luxury hotels King David and American Colony. Jerusalem, the ‘City of God’, is like nowhere else, and no visit to Israel is complete without a visit here.
A visit to the West Bank (which together with the Gaza Strip constitutes the Palestinian Territories) will offer an inspiring change in perspective – not only to your Israel trip, but also on your view of the region and the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not only will you notice that the West Bank is much less developed than Israel, but you will also understand why. I can highly recommend Green Olive Tours led by Fred Schlomka. They offer day trips from Israel to Palestinian cities like Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus or Hebron. However, you get the best Palestine experience if you book a multi-day tour as I did in autumn 2011 together with my friend Marco. We stayed at the home of Samer Kokaly, his wife and four daughters in Beit Sahour next to Bethlehem for 3-4 days. They were very welcoming and good-hearted and let us experience the life, joys and sorrows of a Palestinian family under Israeli occupation. A trip to Palestine will broaden your horizon in all respects.
The 2100-year-old fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site an occupies a breathtaking location high on a flat plateau 400 meters above the Dead Sea. The dramatic ascent can be made by a Swiss-built;-) cable-car. The most magical time to visit Masada is as the sun rises (or sets) above the desert. Combine the trip with a cliché float in the Dead Sea.
4. Galilee and the Golan
The Galilee is characterized on one hand by beautiful landscapes: mountains, forests, farmlands, orchards, vineyards and the shimmering Sea of Galilee (Sea of Kinneret, Lake of Gennesaret). On the other hand, you can walk in the footsteps of Jesus who is said to have lived here, for example in Nazareth, in Tabgha, Capernaum and on the Mount of Beatitudes. The Golan Heights in the northeasternmost part of the Galilee are a highland captured in the Six Day War of 1967 from Syria. My favourite spots on the Israeli-occupied Golan are Mount Hermon (I was lucky enough to visit the United Nations position on the summit in 2006), Majdal Shams (a large Druze town known from the movie The Syrian Bride) and Mount Bental (a fantastic viewpoint from where you can see Israel, Lebanon and Syria with the ghost town of Quneitra).
5. Old City of Akko (Acre)
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, this pearl on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea is situated 20km north of Haifa and about as far south of the border to Lebanon. While 95% of the residents of the old city are Arabs, Akko in general is a mixed city, that includes Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Baha’is. The ancient crusader city of Acre “seduces visitors with narrow alleys, slender minarets, secret passageways, subterranean vaults and impressive ramparts. While other historic towns in Israel are busy packaging their heritage for the benefit of tourists, Akko has taken a more modest approach, leaving its homes for families, not artists, and its souq (market) for fishers, not souvenir hawkers,” as Loney Planet very aptly describes. When strolling through the alleys of the old city, don’t miss out on the subterranean crusader city, the Templar Crusader Tunnel, the ocean views from the city walls and on trying a delicious barbecue skewer at any street food stand;-)
6. The boisterous life of Tel Aviv
I can keep this last one very short: Tel Aviv is a pulsating metropolis at the beautiful coast of the Mediterranean Sea. And as you will have to travel through Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport anyway, there is no reason why you should not enjoy the city’s great beaches, great food and great nightlife at the beginning or at the end of your Israel trip. (Sightseeing-wise, I recommend the Arabic atmosphere of Jaffa (Yafo) and the free ‘White City’ walking tour to discover some of Tel Aviv’s 4,000 Bauhaus-style buildings for which the city was pronounced a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.)
Date of visit: I visited Israel several times during my stay in the Middle East in 2006-07, and later again in 2010 and 2011.
Featured image on top of this blog post: People praying at the Wailing Wall (Western Wall) in the Old City of Jerusalem (photo: Noam Chen, goisrael.com)