From the storied religious sites of Jerusalem to the aqua waters of the Red Sea, Israel is a must-visit destination for all travellers on a quest for culture, history and good old fashioned luxury living.
What’s more, this tiny country is explorable in just a week or so (though you could easily spend longer), so you can be sure to see and do the best of Israel on your first visit.
Trying to summarise Israel is impossible. There’s just too much history, too many stories, too many surprises.
One moment you’re standing in the very spot where Jesus was, apparently, crucified, the next you’re sipping local craft beer and eating vegan food at a hipster food market.
You’re off-roading in desert landscapes used to test out vehicles built for Mars, you’re swept away in the flurry of a good old fashioned shuk.
It has a sort of unfinished feel to it, an incompleteness, yet it also feels vibrant and prosperous.
The people have a toughness about them. I suppose they have to be. In fact, Jewish Israelis born in the land of Israel often refer to themselves as ‘sabras’ (prickly pears), which are strong and tough on the outside but sweet and soft at the core.
It’s clear that many people go to Israel to visit the Holy/Promised Land, to wale at the wall in Jerusalem, but even if, like me, you have no religious background whatsoever, this culturally rich and dynamic country is one of those places that you simply can’t help but be drawn to and fascinated by.
Go, experience, learn… and then float your troubles away in the Red Sea with an over-priced cocktail and some winter sunshine on your back.
Here’s what to see and do in Israel – all of which could easily be done in a week or so.
Immerse Yourself in Jerusalem
To begin at the beginning… But the beginning of what, exactly? The beginning of time? Of life itself?
Well, who knows. But to begin your tour of Israel in Jerusalem is, at very least, to begin at the beginning of recorded time, and the birthplace of religion as we now know it.
Said to be three or even four-thousand years old, Jerusalem’s walled Old City occupies less than a square kilometre and is the most important religious site on Earth for those who practise Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Here you can explore the labyrinthine streets as you traverse your way from the Wailing Wall and Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Tower of David and bustling Mahane Yehuda Market.
This extraordinarily fascinating city is mesmerising, regardless of your religious persuasion.
See my full guide on the best things to do in Jerusalem here.
Live the High-Life in Tel Aviv
While Jerusalem echos with the legacy of its turbulent past, Tel Aviv is a modern metropolis with its eyes on the future.
I’ve never been anywhere quite like it. It reminded me a lot of Barcelona, with its mix of old and new buildings and trendy food halls.
Also like Barcelona, it’s perched on the Mediterranean Sea, boasting beaches galore and a tech-forward startup scene.
And there are plenty of old-world relics to remind you where you are. Take a stroll along the palm-fringed waterfront to see the local fishermen at work, or rummage your way through the Jaffa Flea Market.
Rest and Revive at Israel’s Dead Sea
Despite its misleading name, Israel’s Dead Sea is actually a huge lake that sits more than 400m below sea level. This makes it the lowest point on Earth.
Apart from the high oxygen levels, the lake’s ultra-high levels of salt and mineral-rich black mud are naturally therapeutic and it has become a mecca in its own right among people with joint issues and skin conditions.
Cake on a few inches of this famously healing mud and float your aches and pains away with a cocktail or two in the sun.
Tip: I’d highly recommend taking an organised day-trip tour like this one that combines a visit to Dead Sea and Masada Fortress (more on this below).
Explore Castles & Dramatic Landscapes at Masada Fortress
Built some 2,000 years ago by King Herod, the awesome Masada fortress sits atop a plateau and offers sweeping views of Israel’s Judaean Desert and Dead Sea.
The ruins outline a story of ancient royal life, with luxurious bathhouses, swimming pools and intricate mosaics that still sparkle today.
But this UNESCO World Heritage Site also tells a more harrowing story. Later in life, the fortress became home to a rebel stronghold known as the Sicarii, a group of Jewish extremists who revolted against the Romans.
After the siege of Masada, some 1,000 jews opted to commit suicide rather than live under Roman rule.
Today the fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited sites in Israel.
Tip: I’d highly recommend taking an organised day-trip tour like this one that combines a visit to the Masada Fortress and the Dead Sea.
Go Off-Road in the Negev Desert (aka ‘Israel’s Grand Canyon’)
The Negev Desert is unfathomably huge and covers more than half of Israel’s landmass.
This serene landscape of chalky skies and tawny tones is home to wild ibex, unique rock formations and dusty canyons where local families scuffle in their search for the perfect picnic spot.
It’s also famous for being home to the Makhtesh Ramon, the world’s largest ‘erosion cirque’, which looks like a giant meteor crater. It was however created some 220 million years ago, when oceans repeatedly covered and eroded the area.
Tip: The best way to explore the Negev Desert and learn about its unique geology is to take a four-wheel-drive tour. Adam Sela is his team are immensely passionate and knowledgeable about the desert’s unique geography.
Hear and see more from my fascinating day out with Adam Sela in my post here.
Indulge in the Good Life in Eilat on the Red Sea
Home to the glorious Red Sea beaches and famed for its year-round sunshine, the palm-shaded resort town of Eilat is an immensely popular destination among families and couples in need of a little rest and recuperation.
Its crystal-clear waters also offer some of the world’s best diving and snorkelling – the perfect place for your first diving lesson if you’ve never tried before.
Head to the Dolphin Reef to see the Red Sea’s wild dolphins at play or visit the Underwater Marine Observatory to get up-close with tropical fish as they shimmer among the corral.
The drive into Eilat is every bit as exciting as actually arriving.
Stop at one of the many viewing points to soak in the epic views over Aqaba in Jordan, Israel’s Red Sea, Saudi Arabia on the horizon and, just across the barbed wire border, Egypt – all in one gluttonous eyeful!
Tip: You can literally see Jordan from Eilat and I think it would be a sin not to cross the border while you’re here. There are plenty of tours and day trips – like this one – that will take you directly to the Martian beauty of Petra, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Definitely check out my full guide to Jordan if you do make it happen!
Make it Happen
Where to Stay
In Jerusalem: The Ibis City Center is an ultra-bright and modern hotel located in an ideal situation for exploring Jerusalem’s Old City and various nightlife options. Perfect for couples and families alike.
In the Negev Desert: The Ramon Inn is a large and comfortable hotel that’s well situated for exploring the Negev Desert, Masada fortress and Dead Sea. There’s a large indoor swimming pool and the spacious rooms feature separate living areas, making this an obvious choice for families.
In Eilat: The Isrotel Agamim is a superior four-star property in Eilat with modern rooms featuring private balconies that overlook an impressive swimming pool. Fantastic dining options and a stylish cocktail bar add to the overall sense of romance and quality.
Get there: I use and recommend the Omio portal to find and book the quickest and cheapest flights, trains and buses.
Get around: I use and recommend using the Discover Cars portal to find the best deals on car rental.
Find local tours and experience: I use and recommend using the GetYourGuide app to quickly, cheaply and securely book travel tours and experiences wherever you are. From food tours and theatre tickets to skip-the-line entry to famous museums and landmarks, you can book it all with a few swipes of your phone.
Store your luggage: Wherever you’re travelling, free yourself up by storing your luggage with Eelway. Drop off your bags at their partner network shops and hotels, where your luggage is securely stored and insured. There’s no minimum or maximum storage time and most of their luggage storage drop-off points are open 24/7.
Note: I travelled as a guest of Visit Israel and flew to Tel Aviv with Ryanair (who I was working with for this particular trip). All opinions, words and photos in this post are however 100% my own.