Israel See And Do
With its long swath of Mediterranean coastline (plus the Red Sea), Israel is a beach-lover's paradise. Here are some of the country's best beach bets.
Eilat: The beaches of Eilat are all strung along a seafront promenade but attract distinct crowds and scenes. Migdalor Beach is a quiet slice of sand close to the Egyptian border with crystalline waters and a low-key, hippie crowd. Papaya Beach, in the city center, lures young adults and teenagers who flop on oversized daybeds and groove to techno music. Nikki Beach—inspired by, but not part of, the chain of beach clubs—in front of the Neptune Hotel, is a South Beach–styled affair, complete with a VIP club and bar filled with 20- and 30-somethings swilling cocktails.
Herziliya: Upscale Tel Aviv suburb Herziliya has two quality beaches. Arcadia Beach has a wide slice of sand and a relaxed mix of teenagers and young adults. About 200 yards away, on Nine Beach, surfers and surfer wannabes mix and mingle with the city's PYTs.
Netanya: Located about 35 minutes north of Tel Aviv, Netanya is best known for Sironit Beach, which is favored by surfers. But proceed with caution: Choppy waters and six-foot swells make this area unsuitable for swimmers.
Tel Aviv: Of Tel Aviv's eight major beaches, Gordon Beach is among the best-located (opposite the Sheraton Hotel) and busiest strips of sand. It's packed most summer weekends; go in the morning during the week instead. Conversely, the Hilton Beach just in front of the Hilton Hotel is favored by Tel Aviv's gay community, while farther south, on Aviv Beach, a young crowd forms a welcoming drumming circle each Friday afternoon.
Although it's only about five miles from Jerusalem, a trip to Bethlehem (technically located in the West Bank) requires some strategic planning, as Israeli-registered guides, cars, and Israelis themselves are prohibited. Travelers should take a taxi from Jerusalem to the Beit Jala checkpoint on the Israel–West Bank border (the trip will take about 30 minutes and cost about $17). From there, transfer to a West Bank–based taxi for another 30-minute ride. Ideally, you should order one in advance: Dar Tesha taxi service employs reliable, English-speaking drivers (972-2-276-0302). You can make the trip in a day, but if you're staying the night, check into the Jacir Palace InterContinental Bethlehem. Its 250 rooms are spread between two modern towers constructed of off-white Jerusalem stone and a gracious palace wing that also contains the lobby, lounge, restaurants, and bars. Ask at the reception desk to arrange a city tour and driver (Hebron-Jerusalem Road; 970-2-276-6777; email@example.com). Visit Christian holy sites such as the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square, the Shepherds Field central market, and the winery of the Salesian Cremisan Monastery in the suburb of Beit Jala, about a ten-minute drive from the city center.
Located on the coast 35 miles north of Tel Aviv, Caesarea is one of Israel's most important archaeological sites. Built by Roman-appointed King Herod the Great, the settlement of 100,000 people included a harbor, a stone amphitheater, an aqueduct, and a hippodrome. Remnants—including Herod's palace—now dot Caesarea's tourist zone, along with 12th-century forts built during the Sixth Crusade. While Caesarea's aboveground attractions are among Israel's most compelling (especially that chariot-ready hippodrome), in 2006 Caesarea opened an underwater archaeological park—the world's first—spread over 239,000 square yards of the sea floor. Aimed at both advanced and novice divers (the latter can opt to snorkel around the harbor), the underwater park offers four different routes (printed on waterproof maps) for viewing sunken anchors, statues, and Roman shipwrecks.
Though still all about the sun, the sea, and shopping, Israel's Red Sea resort has come a long way since its package-tourism roots. Israelis and families of tourists come to relax in high-end hotels, dine at haute hotel restaurants, and attend cultural events such as the Red Sea Jazz Festival.
Though Eilat is far from being a fashion capital, duty-free pricing makes an alluring case for hitting up the well-stocked malls. Try Le Boulevard at the Royal Garden Hotel for international brands (972-8-638-6666) and Sea Mall for local fashion from Castro, Fox, and Renuar (www.mallhayam.co.il). Both shopping centers are close to the airport and are a good way to kill time before a flight.
Shallower and calmer than Israel's Mediterranean shores, the water lapping Eilat's beaches is pleasantly warm year-round. Below the surface, Eilat's reefs teem with colorful, tropical fish and deep, coral-filled canyons. Join a Red Sea Sports Club underwater snorkel and scuba reef excursion (972-8-633-3666; www.redseasports.co.il; all levels welcome), or hop aboard the Shonit, a two-masted sailboat that cruises from Eilat to the Jordanian border and south to the Sinai Peninsula. The boat stops for coral dives and dolphin sightings along the way on day-trip and overnight cruises (972-52-380-1419; www.s100.co.il). Petra, the third-century B.C. Nabataean city carved in pink sandstone and hidden between towering sandstone cliffs, lies not far north from Eliat, over the border in Jordan (www.aqaba.jo). First thing in the morning, take a cab to the Yitzhak Rabin Border Terminal (the ten-minute ride from most hotels will cost about $11) and transfer to a Jordanian taxi for the 90-minute drive to Petra, which will cost about $100. Plan to spend about four hours on-site, then return to Eilat in time for dinner.
Like a little slice of Tuscany, Ein Kerem is a quiet village about seven miles west of downtown Jerusalem and an easy day trip from either there or Tel Aviv. Originally an Arab village, Ein Kerem is now the residential quarter of choice for the city's Jewish elite. More importantly, Ein Kerem is considered the birthplace of John the Baptist and a place where Mary stopped on her way to Bethlehem to drink from the Spring of the Virgin. Highlights include the Church of John the Baptist (972-2-632-3000), the Convent of Notre Dame de Sion (972-2-641-5738), and the Church of the Visitation (972-2-641-7291), all near the central Ein Kerem Square, as well as the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
Despite its bad rap among locals, Haifa—Israel's third-largest city (about 60 miles north of Tel Aviv) and one of the few with a mixed Arab–Jewish population—is well worth a visit. Spend a few hours here, beginning with the gardens at the Baha'i World Center, the city-center headquarters for this little-known religion. Book one of the free tours well in advance and explore the garden's manicured lawns, reflecting pools, sculptures, marble temples, and balustrades that span an entire face of Mount Carmel (972-4-835-8358; www.bahai.org). You'll find a pedestrian walkway lined with restaurants at the end of the gardens; stop for some modern Israeli or Mediterranean food before heading for a bit of downtime on Carmel Beach. On the way home to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, stop in Daliat HaCarmel, about 30 minutes southeast of Haifa. This village is the largest Druze settlement in Israel, home to some 13,000 of the non-Muslim Arab minority, and is a good place to shop for colorful pottery, scarves, clothes, and sweets, and have a traditional Levantine dinner of tabouleh salad and kebabs at Misedet Hakeves (Main Street; 972-4-839-3510).
One of the oldest cities in the world, Jaffa was reputed to be the port from which Jonah set sail for his fateful meeting with a whale. It has since been incorporated into Tel Aviv proper, and gives visitors a feel for the East-West mix that dominates modern Israeli culture. A walk through the antiquated alleys of Jaffa's historic district is better than a semester of Ancient Studies, thanks to the Ottoman-era architecture, hidden alleyways, and historic domed mosques. The Ilana Goor Museum, housed in a massive mansion built by wealthy Turks more than 100 years ago, is home to the world's best collection of work by the noted sculptor and furniture maker (4 Mazal Dagim St., 972-3-683-7676; www.ilanagoor.com). Visit the flea market, filled with colorful clothing, pottery, and bric-a-brac, and grab a lunch of tomato salad with tahini and couscous at Puah, a café and restaurant at the market's heart; it's attached to a charming store that sells custom-made crafts from Israel and Asia (8 Yochanan St., 972-3-682-3821). If you're visiting later in the day, reserve a table at Charcuterie, the first high-end restaurant located directly in the flea market itself (3 Rehov Rabbi Chadian; 011- 972-3-682-8843). Rustic and cozy, this split-level bistro specializes in all things meaty—from house-made sausages (pork!) to thick steaks and the European standards (including melt-in-your-mouth braised veal cheeks) that were the staples of Swiss chef Vince Mustar's youth.
Considering that it's more than 2,000 years old, Jerusalem has been ripe for a mini-makeover—at least in its modern, Western half. And at long last, it is getting one. The city's most striking newcomer, and now its tallest structure—the Chords Bridge, by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava—is at its entry point. Created in 2008 as part of Jerusalem's still-in-development light-rail system, the birdlike, cantilevered bridge soars nearly 400 feet above pine-covered hills and is evocative of the harp its name evokes, the favorite instrument of Jerusalem's Biblical-era founder King David. Fifteen minutes further on is the new Mamilla project, a mixed-use hotel, residential, and retail quarter just outside the Old City. Its centerpiece, the Mamilla Hotel, with interiors by Italian architect Piero Lissoni, opened in summer 2009. July 2010 will see the debut of the newly renovated Israel Museum, home of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls, which is undergoing a $100 million head-to-toe renovation. American architect James Carpenter is creating a series of terraced, glass-walled pavilions that both conform to the natural topography of the museum's site and reflect the building's original, abstract, ancient Greek aesthetic.
Still, modern developments can steal little of the tourist thunder from Jerusalem's Old City. Whether religious pilgrim, history buff, or just plain sightseer, any visitor to Jerusalem experiences the stirring sense that the past is alive here—and watches with fascination as the future is determined. Not only did three of the world's great religions—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity—originate here, but they are still redefining themselves within Jerusalem's walls. To take in almost 3,000 years of history, start at the Tower of David, built in the second century B.C. and used in turn by Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Ottomans. Walk past Roman ruins in the Jewish Quarter, then head out to the Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall or, in Hebrew, Kotel), the only remnant of Solomon's Second Temple and Judaism's most holy place. Bring a note to place in its crevices, and consider visiting on Saturday night to bid farewell to the Sabbath with thousands of worshippers. Nearby, the Wohl Archaeological Museum displays excavations that date from the time of Jesus (1 Hakaraim St.; 972-2-628-3448). As long as you're neither claustrophobic nor afraid of the dark, you can feel like Indiana Jones on a tour through excavated Hezekiah's Tunnel (972-2-626-2341; www.cityofdavid.org.il; reservations essential). Visit the jam-packed stalls of the Muslim Quarter to shop for sweets and souvenirs. The quarter is also home to the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus took to his crucifixion, and the gold-capped Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem's most iconic site, built in the seventh century on the site where Muhammed ascended to heaven. Here—and at all religious sites—avoid wearing shorts or short skirts.
Even for the most jaded traveler, a day in the Judean desert is not easy to forget. There are two ways to see Masada: For the fit, wake up early and climb to the Roman fort overlooking the shores of the Dead Sea below; there are two hiking paths, and of the pair, the Snake Path is toughest. For a less stressful ascent, take the cable car up the mountain (972-8-658-4207; www.parks.org.il). Either way, the reward is a stroll through its reasonably well-preserved living quarters, storage rooms, and cisterns followed by a dip in the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the planet. The waters are so rich in salt and minerals that people come from all over the globe to cure skin ailments and to float, as if weightless, on the surface. The main beaches also offer mineral-rich muds and sulfuric baths and are easy to find off the waterside Highway 90 in the Ein Boqeq region.
Tel: 972 8 922 2444
It may be touristy, but Mini Israel makes an ideal kid-friendly pit stop en route from Tel Aviv to either Jerusalem or the Dead Sea. Like a biblical Legoland, Mini Israel includes 350 exact replicas of the country's most important historic, religious, archaeological, and contemporary sites—from Jerusalem's Old City to downtown Tel Aviv (and even the runway at Ben Gurion Airport).
Founded in 1882 by Romanian immigrants, the Galilee village of Rosh Pina predates the establishment of Israel by 66 years. Recently, it has quietly emerged as a weekend escape for wealthy Israeliseven Madonna considered purchasing a home here in 2006. While the town's greatest appeal lies in its small-scale B&Bs; thick forests for hiking; an old town filled with galleries, restaurants, and craft shops; and its accessibility (just a 20-minute flight from Tel Aviv), it's also a good home base for exploring the city of Tiberias, the mystical town of Tsfat, and the Sea of Galilee itself. People who prefer hotels to B&Bs will feel right at home at either the Mitzpeh HaYamim spa, about 20 minutes outside of town, or the Domain Galil, a 26-suite resort in the Biria Forest that's home to one of northern Israel's top kitchens and a tiny, six-room spa (972-4-680-8200; www.domain-galil.co.il).
Like Israel itself, Tel Aviv is compact and easy to navigate. Most of its main hotels are spread along its central seafront stripclose to Dizengoff Street's prime shoppingwhile historic districts such as Neve Tzedek and the Bauhaus-filled "White City" are a half-hour walk south. Farther on are the market-filled quarters of Florentine and Jaffa, while in the city's far north are the New Port area, Tel Aviv's famed university, and parks along the slow-flowing Yarkon River.
The rapidly gentrifying city-center Gan HaHashmal district takes its name (Electric Park) from the city's first power station, opened here in the early 1920s. For decades, the area was Tel Aviv's de facto "Red Light" district, with its once-grand Ottoman-era homes falling into disrepair. But since the turn of the millennium, the Gan has developed into a warren of stylish shops, hip nightspots, and tasty cafésall with an independent spirit reminiscent of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Try the LovEAT café for fair-trade espressos (1 Barzilay St.; 972-3-566-6699), Kisim for high-quality leather goods (8 HaHashmal St.; 972-3-560-4890), and Levontine for live musicfrom jazz to hard rockand cocktails (7 Levontine St.; 972-3-560-5084).
Even though Tel Aviv's population is barely 500,000, its arts scene is (almost) as sophisticated as anything America or Europe can offer. The city's pride and joy is the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, under the leadership of venerable conductor Zubin Mehta. It celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2006, and performs in the iconic, modernist Mann Auditorium (972-3-621-1766; www.ipo.co.il). Nearby, the Israeli Opera puts on some half-dozen productions annually from the likes of Mozart, Verdi, and Strauss, almost always with English subtitles (972-3-692-7777; www.israel-opera.co.il). For visual art, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art houses an impressive array of European, American, and Israeli works from the 16th century onwardincluding paintings by Liechtenstein, Rubens, Kandinsky, and Israel's own Reuven Rubin (27 Shaul HaMelech Blvd.; 972-3-607-7020). The city's architecture is celebrated at the Bauhaus Foundation Museum, a private home which cosmetics heir Ronald Lauer renovated in 2008 to display furniture, photography, and crafts from seminal Bauhaus designers including Mies van der Rohe, Erich Mendelsohn, and Marcel Breuer (21 Bialik Street; 972 3 620 4664). The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv presents plays and theatrical events, both large and small, such as the sold-out musical-theater piece Badenheim 1939 by Israeli composer Gil Shohat and a Hebrew-language version of Hamlet that traveled to the U.S. in 2007. Performances on Tuesday evenings have English translation (30 Leonardo da Vinci St.; 972-3-606-0960; www.cameri.co.il). The Batsheva Dance Company presents its thoroughly contemporary take on dance at its elegant, Arabic-styled home at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Neve Tzedek (www.batsheva.co.il). Tel Aviv also plays host to many of Israel's important cultural festivals: the winter Jazz Festival (www.jazzfest.co.il); Israel Chamber Orchestra classical music festivals (www.ico.co.il); and film and documentary festivals at the Israel Cinematheque (www.cinema.co.il).
About 500 years before Madonna started wearing a red string on her wrist and answering to the name Esther, Kabbalah was widely practiced in the Holy Land. The ancient form of Jewish mysticism can be traced back to the 16th century in the historic northern city of Tsfat. Here you can visit numerous synagogues (Sephardic Ari Synagogue is the city's oldest, built in 1522), the Jewish Quarter, where you'll find micro-calligraphy scrolls filled with colorful bible scenes at Michael Gallery (972-4-639-7544), and artistic centers dedicated to the Kabbalistic movement.
Grapes have been grown in Israel since before Biblical times, but only in the past 20 years has the country emerged as a serious player on the international wine circuit. Some vintners cultivate vines in the desertbut it's in Israel's misty, cool north that the wine industry is thriving. European-style Château Golan, in the Golan Heights, was established in 1999 but has already become a premium producer of sauvignon blanc and syrah varietals. It's a scenic 30-minute drive from Tiberias; calling ahead for a tour appointment is recommended (972-4-660-0026; www.chateaugolan.com). Nearby, the larger Golan Heights Winery exports its wide range of vintagesfrom sparkling and dessert wines to dry reds and whitesto 25 nations (972-4-696-8409; www.golanwines.co.il; book ahead for tours in English). Near the village of Rosh Pina, Dalton Winery is one of Israel's most prestigious kosher wineries and produces some 600,000 bottles each year. English-language tours are available and a kosher (dairy) meal can be arranged if you call ahead (972-4-698-7683, ext. 3; www.dalton-winery.com). At the base of the Carmel Mountains, near Haifa, you'll find Tishbi Winery, a family enterprise run by the convivial, fourth-generation owner, Jonathan Tishbi. The modern visitors' center contains a kosher dairy restaurant that pairs the wines with local cheeses and fresh bread baked on the premises (972-4-638-0434; www.tishbi.com).—Updated by Lynn Suhrie
Tel: 972 2 644 3400
After ten years and $100 million, Jerusalem's Yad Vashem holocaust memorial (created in 1953) was reborn in March 2005. Designed by IsraeliCanadian architect Moshe Safdie, the new Holocaust History Museum has architecture as compelling as the story told inside. Safdie's 45,000-square-foot design is more than 500 feet long and thrusts dramatically upward through the compound's Mount of Remembrance before ending in a pair of curved, fluted wings. Inside is the Hall of Namesa conical structure filled with some three million names of those who perished under the Nazis.