Visiting Israel for the first time is an exhilarating experience; you'd be hard pushed to find a more fascinating destination that will surprise you; impact you emotionally and earn a place in your heart forever. Israel is unmatched as a tourist destination for its culture, history, natural wonders and religious significance. Let alone the charismatic locals and dynamic modern cities. When planning your first trip to Israel you need to cover the highlights while still giving yourself enough time to soak up the atmosphere, enjoy the legendary beaches; the bucolic countryside of the Galilee; Middle Eastern cuisine; shopping and nightlife.
Have a Spiritual Experience in Jerusalem
On the top of your to-do list should be Jerusalem. Head straight for the Old City and spend a morning getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow cobbled lanes flanked by ancient stone houses. Visit landmarks like the Western Wall; follow the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and see the site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial. Wander through the bazaar; be mesmerized by the Dome of the Rock and meet locals going about their business on the streets where Jesus walked. If you have time to see Jerusalem beyond the Old City, then the Mount of Olives should be your next stop as well as the Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum.
Take a Bite of the Big Orange – Tel Aviv
The countless attractions in Tel Aviv include world-class museums; the gentrified port area and the historic neighborhood of Neve Tzedek. Experience the intoxicating atmosphere of Carmel Market and follow the beachfront promenade all the way to Jaffa, an old port city built on a clifftop. Tel Aviv is famed for its Bauhaus architecture; wide sandy beaches and vibrant sidewalk cafes. This is truly a city that never sleeps. Nightclubs only really get started around midnight and the parties continue until dawn.
Explore the Rural North - Galilee
Take a trip north to the Galilee and drive or tour the sites along the shores of the Sea of Galilee stopping at the Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum, the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fish plus the capital of the Galilee, Tiberias. You can take a boat ride out onto the water, enjoy the Sea of Galilee beaches or relax at the Tiberias hot springs. Christian travelers can be baptized in the Jordan River at Yardenit and visit the churches of Nazareth. Travel to Safed, a hill-top city where the mystical Jewish Kabbalah was born and narrow lanes are home to a thriving artists' colony.
The Lowest Point on Earth
Travel south through the Judean Hills and descend below sea level into the desert. From the hills you can look down on the jaw-dropping Dead Sea framed by shores of crusty white salt. Experience the surprising feeling of not being able to sink in the salty water; breath in the oxygen-rich air and lie back on a Dead Sea beach soaking up the low-UV sun rays. The Dead Sea environment will leave you feeling rejuvenated in body and soul. While in the south visit Masada, a massive rock-outcrop with a flat plateau summit where Herod built a palace-fortress more than 2,000 years ago. Reach the top of Masada by cable car and explore the well-preserved Roman baths, palaces and chambers.
See the Cities of Israel's Mediterranean Coast
The port city of Haifa has a striking location along the shore of a large natural harbor. Mount Carmel looms over the city where thick forests and city streets cling to the side of the mount. Haifa's main attraction, the Baha'i Garden cascades down Mount Carmel on 19 terraces planted with colorful foliage. This tranquil oasis is crowned by the small domed shrine of the Prophet-Herald of the Baha'i faith. Continuing north stop at the Old City of Acre, one of my personal favorites with its narrow cobbled streets and bustling market leading down to a quaint harbor. Beneath the Old City are cavernous halls with vaulted ceilings and massive columns built by the Crusaders. Visit Acre's Ottoman-era Turkish baths and the citadel used as a British prison during the mandate period (1920 - 1948). If you'd rather not rent a car there are group tours in Israel that will cover the coastal cities.
And If You Have Time…
Travel to the northernmost extreme of Israel's Mediterranean coast and tour the magnificent limestone caves of Rosh HaNikra where cobalt-blue waves crash against the smooth white rock. Discover the Golan Heights, a mountain range that forms the border between Israel and Syria. The Golan is home to vineyards, lush forests, ancient ruins, hot springs and abandoned Syrian fortifications. At the southernmost point of Israel is the magical beach resort city of Eilat, that hugs the shore of the Red Sea. In Eilat you can dive among coral reefs, swim with dolphins and try every kind of water sport under the sun. With a longer stay in Israel, you could even join a tour to Petra just across the border in Jordan.
Take the Stress Out of Planning with a Few Guided Tours
Exploring independently is usually the best way to see a country but sometimes it's best to release control and put yourself in the hands of a local guide. There are several places I would recommend visiting with tours in Israel. You will find it much easier to visit Bethlehem in the West Bank if you're traveling with a group tour. If you haven't rented a car and you want to visit the Golan this is another destination where you should leave the logistics and transportation up to the experts. In a country so steeped in history a knowledgeable English-speaking guide can enrich your experience and make your first trip to Israel even more meaningful.
So Welcome to Israel!
Pack your bags and make your way to the departure gate! Israel is calling you; It will either be a once-in-a-lifetime trip or a destination you return to throughout your life.
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