The landscape of southern Israel is raw genesis. With its unspoiled terrains and uninterrupted vistas, this part of the country gives you an opportunity to step out of your skin. A five-minute walk from the car or hotel room and you may experience true silence for the first time.
There’s no shortage of appeal in the South – with the Negev Desert’s extraordinary geological chasms, the Dead Sea’s insane floatability, the Judean Desert’s unspoiled gorges, and Eilat’s tropical coral reefs and warm winter sun. And yet, none of these attractions come close to the desert fortress Masada.
Before You Go
Before you pack, check the altitudes of where you are going. If it is to the 1,000-meter-high Negev highlands, you might be pelted by freezing winds and even snow during the winter months, or by a pleasant, humidity-free heat in the summer. At the other end of the spectrum are Eilat and the Dead Sea, which are at or below sea level. The winter weather ranges from moderate to warm; in the summer, limit yourself to short bouts of exposure to the blistering sun and stay hydrated!
Even after countless visits, the story of Masada never gets old. A thousand Jewish rebels enter the final battle of the Great Revolt against Rome, but decide that the only way they can win is not to fight. Instead, they collectively commit suicide, leaving behind a tale of heroism.
In terms of paid-admission sites, the ancient fortress of Masada is Israel’s biggest tourist draw, and rightly so: nowhere else in the world do you find such a delectable layer cake of geography, historical hyper-drama, magnificent visual effects, and still-evolving public attitudes toward a site best known for a fleeting violent episode that occurred two millennia ago.
Down below the mountain to the east is the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, where visitors enjoy the weightless sensation of floating in the bizarre water (10 times saltier than the ocean!).
Eilat is at the southernmost tip of the country. A Las Vegas wannabe without the casinos, its biggest selling point is the ability to bask in the year-round lambent sun and snorkel or dive in the Red Sea coral reef. Plus, if you’re overdosing from Israel and its unremitting past and present, Eilat offers an escape from reality.
From Eilat, head back north via the Negev highlands, which are studded with primordial landscapes like Machtesh Ramon, a crater etched deep into the earth’s crust by an exclusive-to-Israel geomorphology. At Sde Boker, you can take in the impressive gravesite of Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and salute the man who conceived the dream of making this desert bloom.
Visit the desert fortress Masada. There are two popular ways to the top: either by cable car or by sweating the 45-minute-climb up the Snake Path. The trail starts at the guard booth opposite the parking lot. Catching the sunrise from up top has in some quarters taken on mythic rite-of-passage proportions; if you’re into it, then start climbing before dawn.
In the hot summer months, this is practically the only time of day to climb; once the sun rises, Masada starts to cook. Prepare not only for the ascent, but also for spending time up top to learn about where and how the story of the Great Revolt unfolds. Hiring a good guide for this day may make the difference between checking Masada off your to-do list and making it the phenomenal highlight of your trip.
Float in the super-saline Dead Sea (don’t shave the night before, or it’ll hurt!) and cover yourself in mud (which you can buy on site); it supposedly does wonders for the skin by leeching out the toxins.
Take a light hike at Ein Gedi, a fresh-water tropical oasis in the Judean Desert. If you are a fan of the scriptures, consider visiting Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were written (1st century) and discovered (20th century).
On the southernmost end of Israel is the beach city of Eilat. Many visitors enjoy pigging out at the enormous hotel breakfasts and spending the rest of the day at the pool.
If relaxing by the Red Sea is what you’re after, look no further. But if that’s not your bag, go snorkeling with Nemo and his multi-colored friends at the Coral Beach nature reserve, visit the exceptional Coral World aquarium, or dive into the Dolphin Reef.
Consult with the concierge and plan a hike on the well-marked trails in the granite and sandstone mountains perched above the city. One great trek is up Mount Shlomo; the summit at sunrise is spectacular. Be sure to pack plenty of water and a good trail map.
There are countless sites worth visiting in the Negev Desert. The untamed nature of Machtesh Ramon has spawned a cottage ecotourism industry, and the nearby town, Mitzpe Ramon, offers cool activities that include sunset jeep rides, rappelling, biking and hiking.
After a sun-drenched day in Eilat, you may feel like going no further than your hotel’s room-service menu, but venture into town and you’ll find a range of cuisines.
One option, on the northern lagoon, is Leviathan, a chef restaurant that is fast gaining a reputation for its seafood. Another pricey possibility is the chic Mediterranean menu of Colonia, on the beach at the far south end of town, near the Taba border crossing.
For simpler fare, check out Bar Beach on the water at Coral Beach or chill at Mosh Beach slightly to its north, known for its laid-back atmosphere. Although not exactly the Eilat beach vibe, you can try the Iraqi food at Kubbe Shel Lilach, found in the distinctly un-seaside Shahamon shopping center.
Other good options: meat and vegetarian sandwiches at Omer’s; fish at Shuk Dagim, and hamburgers at Barbis diner. For a comprehensive listing, see the official Eilat tourism site here.
Eilat has plenty of restaurants and bars, not to mention all-night tattoo parlors. The best live music in town is at The Three Monkeys, a sprawling pub on the boardwalk below the Royal Beach Hotel.
Or gape at array of whiskeys (60) and beers on tap (18) at Paddy’s Irish Bar, located at the New Tourist Center opposite the Mall Hayam shopping mall. If cocktails are what you’re after, head to Fifth Avenue, where you’ll also find a menu that features dishes and influences from all different directions – Asian, Italian, Mexican and American.
The nightlife around the Dead Sea hotel zone is comparatively uninspired. So if you are far enough from sources of “light pollution,” peer up at the cloudless sky lit by galaxies of stars and within minutes you are likely to see a shooting star.
If you make it to Machtesh Ramon, you’ll have an even better chance to find a lightless spot for to take in this celestial spectacle.
When planning your trip down to any of the sites in Israel’s south, forget about trains and taxis; they’re either non-existent or impractical. Buses are fine, as long as you aren’t thinking of multiple stops, like a Masada/Ein Gedi/Dead Sea day.
So it may come down to hiring a guide or renting a car, which allow much greater freedom of movement. Be wary of kilometer limits imposed by the car rental companies – you can easily exceed them (Tel Aviv to Masada and back is nearly 400 kilometers; Tel Aviv to Eilat and back is 700 kilometers). Eldan has been known to offer higher daily mileage limits when requested in advance.
Steep discounts are available for round-trip bus fares to Eilat if you reserve online, but not on Egged’s English-language website, so find an Israeli friend or concierge to help out.
And if you want to save time and get the gratis aerial tour of southern Israel, you can book a window seat on the 45-minute flight to Eilat from Ben-Gurion International Airport or Sde Dov, the little airport just north of Tel Aviv.
Once you’re in Eilat, buses and taxis abound for traveling within the city.
Eilat’s hotels run the full gamut, and are mostly clustered along the northern beach. If you’re on the cheap, double-check that you’re walking distance from the beach and/or that the hotel has a pool. Families with little kids can opt for “all-inclusive” hotels, which obviate the need to pull out the wallet for every single Coca Cola and ice cream and meal and…
The Dead Sea hotels are at the southern tip, a 15-minute drive past Masada. They are filled with guests who appreciate the health benefits (the water is particularly beneficial for people suffering from psoriasis or eczema). Staying here means you can take advantage of the Dead Sea in the early morning or late afternoon, which, during the hot months, are optimal.
The hotel choices in Mitzpe Ramon range from rudimentary “eco-tents” along the rim of Machtesh Ramon (Desert Shade) to a five-star spa with private villas and pools and spectacular views (Beresheet Hotel).
Marty Friedlander is a licensed tour guide who loves the desert and what it does to people.
Roni Kashmin, Haaretz’s restaurant and drinks reviewer, contributed to the food and nightlife section of this guide.