Even if you are not on the ‘Jesus Trail’, a visit to the ‘Holy Land’ can be a hectic one. For such a small country, we know the rather high amount of mind space it has occupied globally. Just about everyone is aware of its religio-historic significance. Less known is the diversity of landscapes and destinations it possesses, which can make a short trip leave you yearning for more. As I learned the hard way, do your research thoroughly before boarding the flight. Here’s my list of top ten things to do.
1. Jerusalem Old City Tour
It’s a city as old as human civilisation, and has the scars to show for it. Many historic figures have changed human history from their lives spent here, but you are here just for a day, right? Well, I was, and had to rush through more than two millennia of history in a few hours. Today the old town is divided into various quarters—Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish. While exploring each is like unlocking treasure chests, rushing through the city results merely in whetting your appetite. Most tourists do the bare minimum, entering via the impressive Zion Gate and traversing through each quarter. Once, much of the Jewish order of life was codified and set in stone here, traces of which are visible in the rather orthodox Jewish quarter, where you might come across children being instructed in the Torah. The Armenian quarter is rather more artsy, and could tempt you with souvenirs. The Christian quarter is noted for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which many Christians, cutting across sects, regard as their holiest place. The largest, though, is the Muslim quarter, full of colourful markets and little lanes, often steeply stepped. If you choose, you could follow the route Jesus is said to have taken on way to his cruxifiction, though of course the city has changed unrecognisably from the 1 st century CE. History, especially of religion and war, is intermingled in every nook and cranny, and if you’re interested, a one-day visit will be deeply unsatisfying. Plan accordingly.
2. Float in the Dead Sea
This is a highlight of your trip to Israel. Let’s be clear, if you really want to, you can sink, and drown in the Dead Sea. So yes, do not rush in just because you’ve seen PYTs and acquaintances floating. There’s a skill to it, so get the nearest lifeguard to explain it. And it involves applying a lot of really wet mud liberally to your face and just about everywhere. The floating itself is more exciting for the pictures you have got the guard nearby to take rather than the act itself. Remember, the Dead Sea water is extremely salty and stings quite sharply. Add to that the flinty stones on the sea-bed, to be avoided even as you wade deeper into the waters. For a leisurely float, the hotel pool was a better option. Of course the photo you get back has to be genuine!
3. Camping in the Negev Desert
Just so you need a reminder that the desert is just a stone’s throw away, and if you want to witness traditions that are thousands of years old, are the desert camps in Negev, the largest region of the country. Driving through the majestic landscape where the desert is interspersed by the occasional hill can be an exhilarating experience. Staying in the desert, like the Bedouins of yore, can elevate it to another level. Today the desert is strewn with camps, where Bedouins offer tents, jeep tours, camel rides and dinners cooked over earthen or clay ovens, complete with breads as soft as butter. Of course, nothing matches a dinner under the crystal-clear thousand-starred sky. Unless you fancy a spot of dune bashing of course!
4. Party in Tel Aviv
Literally, for Tel Aviv is party central. Just about the most cosmopolitan and youthful city in Israel, this also seemed to a place where people just party. Unlike Jerusalem, where the weight of history is considerable, young Tel Aviv’s life seems to be oriented towards having a good time. Most of Israel’s largest city is also a testimony to the architectural experiments of the 20th century, and they fortuitously lend themselves to picturesque cafés and bars. Tel Aviv’s many beaches are also a nightly location to gyrating crowds, while new addresses such as the Port of Tel Aviv add to the variety. Party-hopping till the break of dawn, that’s just de rigueur here!
5. Vineyards tour
Wine plays a prominent role in the Bible, and it should come as no surprise that modern Israel is full of vineyards that welcome guests. This rather tiny country has about 300 wineries, spread all over the country, though viticulture has been revived in the past two decades. The best-known ones are in the north, especially in Golan Heights. A lot of reds dominate, and Israel even instituted awards for its chardonnays. Do not get taken in by the ‘kosher wine’ label. It just means that the wine is made by those who are kosher in their daily life and it makes no difference in the quality of the wine. Visit the Golan Heights Winery, one of the oldest and best known, for a wine and cheese tour.
6. Climb Masada
Look, it’s right there. Well, even though our guide gesticulated rapidly, spotting anything in these barren desert mountains seemed impossible. When I finally did, I gasped for a while. Masada, a fortress built into a cliff side more than two thousand years ago, was meant to be an impregnable fortress. Until a ropeway was built just about twenty years ago, the only way up was on foot, which could take a few hours, depending of course on your ability to defy gravity. Mine isn’t great, so I blessed the fast ropeway, though many visitors continue to do the arduous trek. Starting at dawn is better, for the sun can be merciless later in the day. Once up there, the ruins of the fortress reveal the Herod’s grand design of a self-contained fortress, with ample provisions for water, food and all other necessities. The Romans did conquer the fort after an extensive siege, resulting in many fatalities, an imagery that the modern Israeli state uses extensively to construct a feeling of nationhood.
7. The Roman Ruins of Ceasarea
If you want to see the posh-est part of Israel, visit Ceasarea. Palatial homes, vast golf courses, tony retail, politicians and industrialists as neighbours; this is the address to flaunt. But Ceasarea is also the site of a vast, ancient city. A less-known destination, Ceasarea was once a prosperous Roman port built by Herod and today its antiquities park is one of the country’s most magnificent historical sites. Visit the vast port, the complex fortifications, gape at the massive walls or just imagine yourself as one of the historical figures at the impressive interactive museum alongside. The ruins are vast, and will take a good part of the day to see. And admire.
8. Go Blue at Red Sea
Israel’s stretch of the Red Sea is just about the narrowest possible. From neighbouring Jordan’s Aqaba, whose Red Sea face is only a wee bit longer, almost the entire shore of the Israeli town of Eliat can be seen. But small can be better and the stunning Red Sea offers ample scope for all kinds of water sports—scuba diving, snorkeling, or just admiring the colourful reefs in the shallow sea bed. Admire the abundant sea life through glass-bottom boats in the sea’s impossibly clear waters.
9. Visit the Sea of Galilee
One look at the Sea of Galilee and the area around it, and I was suddenly quite jealous of Jesus Christ. For a significant part of his life, this lake and the verdant region around it was where he wandered, preaching. Known in the New Testament as a lush and bountiful giver of life, the region is home to Biblical sites such as Capernaum, Genossar and Magdala, besides being the site for many of the Christ’s miracles as well as the Sermon on the Mount. Unlike the better-known Dead Sea, this is a lake of shimmering freshwater that changes colour according to the hour of day. A favourite holiday destination for Israelis, ‘pretty as a picture’ only does this place justice when the picture approximates what ‘a land of milk and honey’ could look like. Stay at a luxury hotel at the historic town of Tiberias, immerse yourself in innovative spa treatments or just drive around.
10. Visit the Baha’i Gardens at Haifa
The Baha’i has been one of the most persecuted religious groups, but it has also created some of the most remarkable shrines. Witness the one in Delhi. Built as a memorial to the founders of the Baha’i faith, and inaugurated in 2001, the temple at Haifa has quickly become one of Israel’s most visited places. Also known as the Hanging Gardens of Haifa, these terraced gardens around the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel are perched over Israel’s third largest city and look towards the Mediterranean. No photos will ever do this place justice, so you’ll just have to visit it to marvel at the scale and ingenuity of human imagination.