After two long years of the pandemic and strict limitations regarding who can enter the country, international tourists have finally begun to return to Israel. In the country’s museums, hotels, historic sites and national parks, foreign languages are finally mingling with the Hebrew of vacationing Israelis.
During the Passover and Easter spring months, and into the summer vacation, the trickle is expected to turn into a flood. Returning visitors are asking: “What did I miss?” And “What’s new since I was last here?” Here, then, is a list of some of the country’s newest attractions – and significant upgrades to old favorites that make them worth a return visit.
Officially, the ANU – Museum of the Jewish People is a renovated version of Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People. However, the decade-long, $100-million head-to-toe revamp it received before making its debut in March 2021 has transformed it so completely, it should be considered a totally new museum.
The museum contains extensive exhibitions – all interactive and state-of-the-art – on Jewish history and communities around the world, including a popular special section on Jewish humor. The location remains the same: on the Tel Aviv University campus in Ramat Aviv, across from the street from the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, which opened its doors in 2018.
On a smaller scale, but also worth noting: Central Israel’s fast-growing metropolitan hub, Modi’in, now has a museum – the Hasmonean Heritage Museum, which pays tribute to its past and was unveiled in November 2021.
The museum displays ancient artifacts uncovered in archaeological digs in the region, famous for the Hasmoneans (known to many as the Maccabees who star in the Hanukkah story). The new museum includes a 3D “time tunnel” and other interactive features for children.
New additions to popular attractions
The Western Wall Tunnels in Jerusalem’s Old City have long been a staple of visits to Israel. But the site’s New Bridge Tunnel route, inaugurated in November 2021, takes visitors an extra level underground. This enables visitors to see the Great Bridge that led to the Second Temple and new exposure of the Western Wall.
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Other parts of the Old City are now, for the first time, accessible to tourists with physical disabilities. Beginning in 2019, the multimillion dollar Old City accessibility project has added ramps to stairs across all four old quarters, plus handrails and other additions that make the narrow and steep alleys easier to navigate.
One of the country’s most-visited tourist attractions, Caesarea Harbor – less than an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv – inaugurated a new visitor’s center in June 2019, following five years of excavation, conservation and development by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The center’s exhibits are located inside restored arched-roofed harbor vaults built by King Herod in the first century B.C.E., as part of the harbor’s storage system.
The center includes a film about Herod and the construction of the port, computer animation on its history and a dynamic map of the ancient shipping routes the port served.
Herod’s other significant architectural achievement – his palace-fortress Herodium, located in the West Bank, near Jericho – also received an important upgrade during the pandemic. For the first time, important parts of the site are now open for the public to enjoy, including the impressive arched stairway, foyer and private theater – a part of the palace that took 13 years to excavate.
The massive Crusader fortress near Rosh Ha’ayin, about 25 minutes from Tel Aviv, is a familiar sight. For a decade, though, most of the area around it was closed for renovation. In March 2021, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority reopened Migdal Tzedek National Park, which includes the ancient fortress with its dramatic views – and a huge green area around it with hiking and cycling trails and picnic areas.
Much anticipated by the tourism industry is the reopening at some point of the City of David’s Jerusalem pilgrim road. Known in academic circles as the “stepped street,” this Roman-era street connected the Temple Mount to what was once Jerusalem’s southern gate. It was used by ritual processions heading to the Temple.
Elisa Moed, director of marketing at Eshet Incoming, has visited the site in advance of its opening and said it will have great resonance for both Jewish and Christian groups, as “it provides a real insight as to how Jews walked to the Temple from the pool of Shiloah, a major gathering place, and the site of where Jesus healed a blind man.”
Luxurious new places to stay
Before COVID hit, the international tourism business in Israel was booming on all levels – including upscale tourism. Yet while the pandemic may have delayed the opening of some of the most high-end hotels the country has seen, it didn’t halt it.
One of the new additions is the desert-themed, luxury Kedma hotel in Sde Boker – a short stroll from David Ben-Gurion’s much more modest desert home. The hotel was in the global media spotlight this week when foreign ministers from across the Middle East gathered there for the Negev Summit.
The most-hyped hotel opening during COVID, though, was located even deeper in the desert: the Six Senses Shaharut, the local branch of an upscale international brand. It is billed as the most expensive, luxurious and most sustainability-minded resort in the country.
Its northern equivalent is the Pereh Mountain Resort at the entrance to the Golan Heights, on what was once the border between French Mandatory Syria and British Mandatory Palestine. The building there, once known as the Upper Customs House, has been transformed into a 27-room, upscale destination.
The latest chic hotel to open in Tel Aviv is the beachfront David Kempinski, which can house the wealthiest fleeing Russian oligarch in the style he is accustomed to: the 33rd floor three-story suite offers a private swimming pool in the sky, and comes with butler service and a chauffeured luxury vehicle.
New transport link
The traffic situation was never good in central Israel, and, unfortunately, an unusual amount of construction actually made it worse during the pandemic. A project revamping the entrance to Jerusalem has turned the process of getting in and out of the capital into a winding detour, and there is hardly a neighborhood in Tel Aviv that hasn’t been upended by the years-long construction of the city’s new light rail system.
The good news is that there is now a new way to move efficiently between Israel’s two biggest cities: the popular and fast Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train. It took 18 years to build, including more than a decade of delay, but is now able to zip commuters and tourists from coast to capital in just half an hour (although time should be factored in for the escalators to and from the trains, which are deep underground). The quick trip also serves those traveling between Jerusalem and the high-tech mecca of Herzliya.
New COVID-safe dining
The number of restaurants in Israel that closed during the pandemic, and those that took their place, is too long to list. However, the country’s favorable weather conditions have been a boon to outdoor dining: many restaurants that didn’t offer it previously created it where they could. Many places that didn’t previously offer take-out cuisine adapted as well. Others got creative, offering gourmet picnic baskets for romantic dinner dates.
The demand for outdoor food experiences sparked a food truck trend as well.
Israel had lagged well behind the United States when it came to food trucks: the trend only really made it to Israel in 2018, and it took time for them to catch on.
They exploded during the pandemic, though, along with the newer phenomena of “coffee carts” – trucks that specialize in serving hot drinks and pastries. The carts offer treats in scenic spots in the north and south, where Israelis flocked for COVID-safe outdoor fun, from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the desert in the south, and in the many kibbutzim and moshavim off of the country’s highways.
While the carts are scattered, food trucks are usually parked in groups in a designated area – like the one at Haifa’s Louis Promenade, where tourists can chow down while enjoying a panoramic view.
Kosher foodies celebrated when Mashav, the first kosher food truck compound, made its debut at the Shoresh Interchange in the Judean Hills last summer – and Jerusalem itself held its first food truck festival.
Because the trend originated in the United States, Israeli food trucks tend to favor U.S. foods like burgers, pizza and tacos. The range of cuisine is growing, however, and one – SalamTruck, located on a beach in Haifa – offers vegan Indian food.