Whoever said history was dead has clearly never traveled through Israel. The geographically small country is over-flowing with cultural and historic importance. While Jerusalem remains the main tourist attraction, lesser-known sites like Masada and Akko should not be skipped. In Israel, every element of nature exists in harmony. From ancient ports to secret cities, here are eight historical highlights of Israel for the curious traveler.
Most people planning a trip to Israel know not to leave Jerusalem off their itinerary. If you expect to see everything in a day, you may be disappointed. The city is divided between the Old City and New City. Experience café culture and high-end fashion boutiques in the New City but leave the bulk of your visit for the Old City, where all the main historic sites are located. Head to the Jewish Quarter to see the Western Wall or visit the Dome of the Rock in the Muslim Quarter near the lively souk. Walk the path of Christ along Via Dolorosa and sample local cuisine in the Armenian Quarter. Make sure to check the opening hours for the many churches, temples and mosques.
King Herod the Great may not have been the best ruler of all time but he definitely knew how to live a luxurious lifestyle. Before destruction, Masada was intended as a playground for Herod but it ultimately ended up being the last defense in the battle between the Jews and the Romans. In the climactic event taking place in 73 CE, the Masada men, realizing that their fortress no longer offered protection, chose death over a life of slavery. Today the mountain is open to the public and accessible by either walking via cable car. Be prepared for hot temperatures and bring plenty of water. Either book a group tour or travel independently year-round. Hours generally run from 8am – 4pm with earlier closing times on Fridays and holidays.
Combine a trip to Masada and the Dead Sea from Jerusalem for an action-packed day.
Recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient city of Akko, or Acre, is often overlooked by travelers visiting Israel. The continually inhabited city has existed through the Greek, Judean, Roman, Arab, Crusader and Ottoman periods. The Crusader town dates back to 1104 to 1291, located both above and below street level and surprisingly intact. Akko is considered the gateway to Western Galilee and very close to Haifa in northern Israel. Highlights include the Templar Tunnel, Jezzar Pasha Mosque, the Knights’ Halls and walking along the Sea Wall Promenade. Don’t leave without visiting the Hamam al-Basha public bathhouse and testing your haggling skills at the local bazaar.
Bahá‘í Shrine and Gardens
While you may not know much about Haifa, this picturesque city is a must-see for any traveler. The major highlight is the Bahá’í Shrine and Gardens, which serves as the most important religious site for people of the Bahá’í faith. Every year, thousands of Bahá’í pilgrims make their way to the shrine and gardens to pay tribute to their most beloved prophet, “The Bab.” From an architectural standpoint, the Bahá’í Shrine and accompanying gardens is masterpiece in geometric design. This site also offers perhaps the best view of the city from the top of the hill. Daily visiting hours are 9am – 5pm and entrance is free. It’s also recommended to dress conservatively and to bring a hat or sunglasses to minimize the heat.
The Dead Sea
No matter how crammed your schedule is, a visit to the Dead Sea is well worth the detour. Known primarily for historic and religious reasons, The Dead Sea is also a top priority for health & beauty consumers. Due to the extremely high salt concentration found in the water, several companies have developed skincare treatments for just about any ailment. For a budget approach, simply lather your body up in the natural mud left out for tourists and wash yourself off in the sea. Make sure to avoid contact with your eyes, as the salty water is sure to sting. There are several emergency showers strategically located throughout the public beach.
Take a Dead Sea Spa & Wellness Tour straight from Tel Aviv.
Divided into Western, Lower, Upper Galilee, this region has a huge amount of historical klout. Just last year, the “Jesus Trail” hiking path opened to pilgrims making a religious journey through the area. The forty-mile trail is a series of roads, bicycle lanes and walking paths that lead to several important Christian sites including Tabgha, the Mount of Beatitudes and Capernaum. Acre falls within this large region as does Nazareth, Tiberias among other smaller towns. Environmentalists will appreciate Galilee’s scenic mountains and extensive wildlife population.
A trip to Israel most likely includes Tel Aviv, a cosmopolitan city filled with thrilling nightlife, lazy beaches and outdoor cafes. The ancient Jaffa port is now part of Tel Aviv and at one point was considered to be the oldest city in the world. Jaffa is mentioned in the Bible quite a lot and its history dates back to the Tuthmosid, Amarna, Rabbinical, Medieval and Ottoman periods. To learn more about the city’s impressive history, head to the Jaffa Museum or seek art inspiration at the llana Goor Museum. If you are looking for vintage items, graffiti and delicious street food, Jaffa is the mastermind behind all three hobbies.
Similar to Akko, Caesarea National Park houses a remarkable amount of ancient ruins. The former Roman Capital and old Crusader city was another creation built by King Herod the Great. His flair for entertainment sparked regularly hosted gladiatorial games and other thrilling competitions. The ruins are pretty spread out so plan on spending at least a few solid hours roaming the grounds. Most tours take guests to see the Roman theatre remains, the bathhouse and the Herodian port. Located about midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, Caesarea makes for a perfect daytrip, especially when ending with a sunset walk along the promenade. Stop by year-round, April – September from 8am – 6 pm and October – March until 4 pm.
Read about more things to do in Israel
– Megan McDonough