By Marcia Raffel Levin
No matter your religion – whether you’re Christian, Jew or Moslem – most travelers find that a visit to Israel has a great emotional impact.
Perhaps it’s that emotional element that’s fueling the surge in tourism to Israel lately. According to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, tourism from the U.S. increased 8% in January 2016, compared to January 2015. Among Canadian tourists, the number was +9%. And that’s following a banner year in 2015.
Another factor may well be that Israel remains one of the safer places to visit in the Mideast.
Even though many of the flights to Israel land in Tel Aviv, after arrival most visitors instead head first to Jerusalem, which is not only a popular tourist destination but also a focal point for all religions.
A Wealth of Sites to See in Jerusalem
Jerusalem has outstanding hotels, a mix of dining and shopping options and mind-blowing opportunities to explore history. As Israel’s capital, the city is a fascinating combination of the Old and New Worlds, offering emotional religious and spiritual opportunities around just about every corner.
In Jerusalem be sure to visit the Old City and the Western Wall, a leftover of the First Temple. Only minutes away from this Jewish holy site, one finds the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock. It’s an area that offers a “something for everyone” intro to Israel.
You’ll also want to see the remnants of King Herod’s last palace, which lies outside the Old City. The site where the Virgin Mary is said to have died, Dormition Abbey, is also nearby. More popular sites, both Christian and Jewish, can also be found on the Mount of Olives. All bring to life history and biblical stories.
If you’re physically up to it, also explore the Western Wall Tunnels, which document Jewish history, as well as the archeology and topography of the region.
What to See in Jerusalem: the Don’t Misses
If Jerusalem sounds like a treasure trove of sightseeing offerings, it is.
For starters, don’t miss the Dead Sea Scrolls at the 50-year-old Israel Museum.
Then choose other must-sees from a mélange of museums including Bible Land Museum, the Rockefeller Museum, and the Museum of Underground Prisoners (detailing history leading to the establishment of the State of Israel), Islamic Art Museum, Bloomfield Science Museum, and the Old Yishuv Court Museum.
Four quarters comprise Israel’s Old City: Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. In the Christian quarter, pilgrims will need to pace themselves, as some 40 sites are particularly significant, to Christianity. Be sure to walk the Via Dolorosa, just one of many explorations of religion, archaeology, and topography.
Other Popular Sites to See
The world’s major Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, was founded in 1953 and is a global center for documentation of, and education about, the Holocaust, the most complete documentation of it in the world. It’s not for the queasy but is a necessary history lesson for one of any race, religion, or national origin. It’s a moving experience from which very few leave with dry eyes.
Another moving monument, the 9/11 Living Memorial Plaza, resembles a waving American flag and contains the names of all victims, including five Israeli citizens. It’s located on a hillside about 20 miles outside the city.
You’ll find more history lessons at the light show at the Tower of David’s Citadel in Jerusalem.
Shopping in Jerusalem
Jerusalem shopping, especially along delightful Ben Yehuda Street, ranges from religious items popular with each of the three faiths, as well as fine jewelry, interesting religious and secular artwork, clothing and those ubiquitous t-shirts. Glass is a popular purchase.
One of the top things to do, especially for foodies, is tour of Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market – a cultural mix of beautiful produce, fish, baked goods and the like, along with stalls of clothing and souvenirs.
Just as Jerusalem features five-star hotels as well as youth hostels, the variety of dining experiences is daunting. Coffee houses and falafel stands are everywhere. With all those Jewish mothers (and fathers and aunts and uncles) you will never go hungry here.
You’ll also find that cultural events – including concerts, dance performances, art shows, and street fairs – are common and are often conducted in both English and Hebrew.
Beyond the Capital
Although there is a lot to see in Jerusalem, it is not a city where nightlife is big and booming.
Las Vegas it isn’t, so many Jerusalem residents climb aboard a bus for the 37-mile ride to Tel Aviv where nightlife is more wide-ranging.
With its location on the Mediterranean Sea, it has wonderful beaches, good hotels, and restaurants that tempt just about every palate.
A list of top things to do in Tel Aviv could well be an afternoon at the Yitzhak Rabin Center (with an amazing array of interactive exhibits), the Port of Tel Aviv, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and the Palmach Museum, the latter focusing on the Haganah, the underground defense organization that predated the State of Israel.
There are also several full- and half-day trips from Jerusalem to such popular places as Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, Masada, Nazareth, Tiberias and the Galilee. Also popular is a tour to Petra, in neighboring Jordan.
From a personal perspective, here are my four Israeli favorite things to do:
- Rosh HaNikra, at the north end of the country near the Lebanese border, offers an incredible geologic formation where dramatic white cliffs stand guard over the amazing grottoes.
- Ben Yehuda Street shopping. Whether you’re looking for take-home souvenirs or high-end jewelry, there are plenty of choices for you here. If’s also fun to just window-shop.
- The beautiful beaches in Tel Aviv
(Photos courtesy of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism)
If you go:
Israel Ministry of Tourism