Israel Tours and Travel Guide
Israel Attractions & Landmarks Guide
Israel is a tiny country – with just a bit more land than the U.S. state of Massachusetts – but is holy land to three major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. While much of it is desert, Biblical sites abound and its capital, Jerusalem, is one of the world’s great cities. Rich in history, culture, and religious tradition, Israel is often controversial -- but always memorable.
Israel – sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims – is a must-see destination for anyone interested in the religious history of those three faiths. Biblical names like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee come alive as you tour this fascinating and controversial nation.
No matter where you stand on the political issues here, there’s no denying the emotional impact of seeing sites you’ve heard about all your life in church, synagogue, mosque, or on the nightly news.
Since its founding in 1948 as a Jewish state in the heart of the Arabic Middle East, Israel’s borders have expanded and contracted several times over the decades, following a number of wars, skirmishes and negotiated agreements with their neighbors. It remains remarkably small for such an oversized battleground; at some points, the country is just a few miles wide.
As you travel through Israel, you’ll find that most of its citizens are fiercely proud of their country, and also fiercely defensive about its right to exist. Your guide may be an outspoken advocate for or, alternatively, a harsh critic of government policies. But no matter which, chances are he or she will be very open to discussion – and rigorous debate – about Israel and its future. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or state your viewpoints; it’s expected.
Israel is a more diverse country than many would imagine. Among the largely Jewish population, you’ll find secular Jews as well as the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox, many of whom are at odds with each other. Jews have emigrated to Israel from Eastern Europe, Russia, the U.S., and many other parts of the world. More than 1,600,000-- about a fifth of Israel’s population – are Arabs.
Here are some of the highlights you can expect to see as you travel in Israel:
Until 1967 and the Arab-Israeli six-day war, Jerusalem – considered the holiest city for Jews, Christians, and Muslims -- was a divided city. The modern west side was under Israeli control and the east side – including the historic old city -- under Jordanian control. East Jerusalem is still largely Palestinian, and tensions between the two sides remain high.
The old city makes up just one percent of present-day Jerusalem (population 800,000), but contains most of its must-see sights. You can enter the old walled city through seven different gates, and gain an overview of the old city by walking atop its ramparts if you wish. Walking through the old city itself is like a return to Biblical times: crowded, sometimes chaotic, with narrow streets winding past ancient monuments, both historic and revered.
The Jewish Quarter is home to the Western Wall (often mistakenly called the Wailing Wall), which dates from the era of King Herod and the Romans. The wall forms the western boundary of the Temple Mount, considered the holiest place in Judaism -- but is topped by the golden Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which are holy to Islam.
Beyond is the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said to be the site of Jesus’ tomb where Christ rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion. You can walk the Via Dolorosa in the traditional footsteps of Jesus, where signs mark the 14 stages of the cross that Jesus had to carry.
Across a valley lies the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus is said to have hidden after the Last Supper with his disciples. From here, beside 2,000-year-old olive trees, you can get the classic panoramic view of the old city.
Five miles south of Jerusalem lies the city of Bethlehem, the Biblical birthplace of Jesus. Now run by the Palestinian Authority, it’s home to the ancient Church of the Nativity, built by the Emperor Constantine on the traditional site of Jesus’ manger. You can descend into the church to join the pilgrims who come to worship from around the world.
Mostly modern Tel Aviv, previously the Israeli capital, has about half the population of Jerusalem and features a very pleasant setting along the Mediterranean Sea. You can walk along the promenade to visit ancient Jaffa, site of the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, passing through the millennia as waves lap the beaches.
The Sea of Galilee in northern Israel is actually a lake that divides the north and south portions of the River Jordan, which is long and surprisingly narrow (the river runs north to Syria and south to the Dead Sea).
Looking across the sea from the town of Tiberias, you can view the Golan Heights, once part of Syria, as well as war-torn Syria in the distance. You can also visit the spot on the River Jordan where Jesus is said to have been baptized by John the Baptist.
On the road from the Sea of Galilee to Nazareth, you’ll pass through Cana, where, according to the New Testament, Jesus performed his first miracle, turning water into wine. Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, is heavily Arabic but thrives on Christian tourism. You can view two contending locations said to be the site of the Annunciation, where angels reputedly told the Virgin Mary of her Immaculate Conception.
Around 70 AD, 960 Jewish zealots held out atop Masada, a 1,300-foot-high mountain fortress, to battle a three-year-long Roman siege. When the Romans finally neared victory, the Jews committed mass suicide. It was the last stand of the Jewish people in the Holy Land before beginning their nearly 2,000-year-long exile.
You can ride a cable car to the top of the mountain, which is now the single most visited site in Israel. From there, you have an overview of the Dead Sea, the world’s lowest point and saltiest body of water, where it’s virtually impossible to sink.
The Negev Desert and Eilat
The triangular southern third of Israel, which borders Egypt’s Sinai Desert, is filled by the Negev Desert. While it’s mostly a hot, dry, dusty patch of land with few residents, you can visit the ruins of old caravan towns as well as the huge Ramon crater. At Israel’s southern tip is the resort town of Eilat on the northern end of the Red Sea, where there are beaches and other amenities. From Eilat, many tours lead to one- or two-day visits to Petra, Jordan’s ancient red-rock city, and Wadi Rum, a spectacular area of desert gorges, cliffs, and caverns.
Things to Know Before You Go
Types of Israel Guided Tours
Tours of the Holy Land
Holy Land Tours combine the historical, archaeological, religious and cultural elements of the region. Most tours that emphasize the Holy Land concentrate on its religious and historical sites. And many of Israel’s attractions and cities are significant religious sites for more than one religion. Nazareth, Calvary, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and its Old City are the key places that reside within Israel.
Significant points of interest within Israel includes the Western Wall, Bethlehem, Mount of Olives, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mount Zion, Dolorosa, Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, and Qumran Caves. Israel is one of the key regions that encompasses the Holy Land and captures its religious, cultural and historical significance.
Israel Group Guided Tours
Group guided tours usually range from 12-18 people. Most tours to Israel include lodging, main meals, and transportation between sites. The type of tours range from two stars (Basic) to five stars (Luxury) which is mainly reflect lodging style. Most tours through Israel emphasize its cultural, religious, and historical significance.
Group guided tours to Israel include visits to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv and Galilee. When taking a tour to Israel, you should look at the different type of activities available on each tour. Some guided tours offer unique activities homestays, cultural immersions, and hiking.
Israel Private Guided Tours
Private tours of Israel essentially have the same amenities as other tours, but the group consists of just your party. This allows a more personal experience with the country and its historic sites. It should also be noted that most private tours are more luxurious than just a regular group tour. This entails upscale hotels, private guides at each attraction, and personal transportation. Private tours are on average more expensive, but they are great for people who want a more personalized trip.
Israel Pilgrim Tours
There are also multiple ways to experience Israel in a religious way, especially in a small group tour. Whether you are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, there is a religion-focused guided tour aimed toward the significant sites important in your religion. For example, if you want to go on a Christian trip in Israel, you may focus on the places Jesus visited. There will also be time for prayer and reflection worked into the itinerary on pilgrimage tours.
Other Tours in Israel
For those looking for a more secular tour in Israel, or a balanced mix between holy sites and other activities, there are still plenty of options for you.
The Great Outdoors
To begin with, Israel has dozens of great outdoor experiences. Many tours of Israel offers plenty of great hiking opportunities, for example. If you love desert landscapes, you will have your pick on a tour of Israel. There are multiple ways to hike around the Sea of Galilee, Negev, Makhtesh Ramon, and Mount Carmel National Park. If you still want to see these natural sights, and don’t want to walk, why not try riding a camel? Or if things get a lot hot on the surface, try going caving.
Israel is a particularly LGBTQ-friendly country, especially in the Middle East, and often ranks as one of the best LGTBQ travel destinations. Tel Aviv, in particular, is known for its pride parades. The Israeli Army is LGTBQ friendly, and all of the main cities are very accepting.
Israel is renowned for its wide variety of drool-inducing cuisines, and the good news is that, no matter your dietary restrictions, there is going to be plenty you can eat. Falafel, shawarma, and hummus are some obvious things to taste, but don’t be afraid to try some lesser known foods. In Israel’s markets, trying “shopping the shuks” for some tasty street food, and make sure to sample the country’s amazing fresh produce and vegetables. Of course, the best way to make sure you don’t miss any delicious staples is to embark on a culinary tour of Israel.
Solo Tours in Israel
Israel is a popular destination to travel solo, especially on a group tour that is single traveler friendly. One reason it’s such a popular spot is because there are many ways to get group tours at a budget or value rate, this is because of the variety of housing. From hostels to homestays, there are many ways to travel Israel cheaply and also connect with local people and their cultures.
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