Little wonder that Albert Einstein was once asked to become president of the young State of Israel. It is a country that defies the time-space continuum, and who could better explain the phenomenon than he? Elsewhere in the world, past, present and future are proper tenses; here, they can be indistinguishable from one another. And maybe Einstein could explain the rapid-fire shift from primordial desertscape to spiritual cradle of civilization to urban technoculture, but then again, Albert had a Nobel Prize and we don’t. What follows is a suggestion of places for you to visit on your whirlwind trip to Israel; a mere hint of the highlights of this diverse land.
But before you go, know that the sites of Israel are only half the story; the other half is told by its people: a friendly extended family that is nearly always interested in embracing new charter members. Under the guise of asking for directions or just looking touristy, it is easy – and worthwhile – to meet the locals.
Where to go
If you’ve only got five days or less, choose no more than two overnight bases, or maybe only one. While Israel is one of the world’s smaller countries, it is long and narrow and not as navigable as you might think. Tel Aviv and Masada/Dead Sea are feasible day tours from Jerusalem; Haifa and much of the Galilee are doable from Tel Aviv. If your heart is set on visiting Eilat on the Red Sea, consider the 45-minute flight from Tel Aviv. Otherwise, the road trip south will eat up too much of your valuable time.
Perhaps a good way to divide your time is to spend two days in Jerusalem, two in Tel Aviv and one in either the north or the south.
This city sends visitors on a time-warp romp through the pages of several religions’ holy scriptures in the Old City and beyond.
Day 1 will be devoted to the Old City and all things ancient: Start with the Temple Mount to view the Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock (but first check opening times here and read the news headlines; the Temple Mount has been known to be a flashpoint for Jewish-Arab tensions. Jewish visitors should also note that there are some religious prohibitions from ascending the Mount, and all visitors should carefully note the strict rules for visiting the site, which can be read at the gate). Next on tap is the City of David, the ancient core of Jerusalem, much of which lies (and may be viewed) beneath the earth’s surface. Continue tunneling through history at the newly opened Givati excavations tunnel (read: Herod the Great’s sewer) and emerge at the Davidson Center directly onto the paving stones on which Passover pilgrims to the Temple walked 2,000 years ago. Stand at the Western Wall, venerated by the Jewish People as the last remnant of that Temple complex. By now it’s time for a late lunch. Who’s up for a bowl of world-class hummus? Consult our guide to food in the Old City of Jerusalem. For dessert, end your touring day on the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus took his final steps, leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally known as the site of crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
After a day like this, you deserve a shower and a nap, followed by a night out in Jerusalem. If it's summertime, you’ll be loving the cool air. Here are a few solid restaurant recommendations.
Relax, Day 2 is going to be a bit more staid. Start off with a coffee at any of these great cafes, then marvel at the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum, before taking a walk past the Knesset (parliament) and Supreme Court buildings (both offer free tours). Take in the hustle-bustle at Mahane Yehuda market and grab some street food for lunch. Board the light railway to Mount Herzl station, where it’s a short walk to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. (Along the way you’ll cross over Jerusalem’s spectacular new Santiago Calatrava bridge.) End the day back in the city center, where craftsmen’s shops and galleries are clustered along the narrow pedestrian streets off Zion Square.
Tel Aviv and its neighboring Jaffa to the south mean fascinating architecture, vibrant culture, and a great culinary scene. On Day 3, walk along, gaze at, and swim in the delicious Mediterranean Sea, grab a chaise lounge on a sandy beach and share a plate of watermelon and Bulgarian cheese. Have lunch on the water at the ancient Jaffa seaport, wander through the alleyways off Mazal Dagim Street in the old city of Jaffa, make your way through the boutique shops in the tony south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Tzedek, and eat dinner under the stars at the Jaffa flea market.
On Day 4, explore the hyper-laid-back “city that never sleeps.” Make your way up Rothschild Boulevard, stopping for a “cafe hafukh” (literally: “upside down coffee”) at one of the outdoor coffee shops before exploring the Bauhaus architecture of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Take yourself on a bike tour (consult our recommended route here) and end the day with dinner at one of the best restaurants in the city (as listed by our restaurant reviewer) and a Bat Sheva Dance Company performance. Or, if a stiff drink is what you’re after, hit up one of these bars.