Best things to do in Israel
Find out more about those top places in Israel
When visitors arrive in the hedonistic coastal city Tel Aviv many wonder whether they are still in Israel, a country well-known for its social conservatism. This is unsurprising as the country’s second city is unlike any other in Israel with its enchanting mixture of spectacular beaches, nightlife that would make the capital cities of Europe green with envy and artistic and architectural wonders. The city is best known for the White City, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. Far removed from Israel’s ancient history, the White City is one of the world’s largest concentrations of Bauhaus architecture and offers a dazzling array of streamline balconies, cubist forms and magnificent public spaces. Beyond Tel Aviv’s modernist buildings, the city has a superb beach and a buzzing contemporary art scene that is blooming into one of the world’s most groundbreaking.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003, Tel Aviv’s White City has one of the world’s densest concentrations of Bauhaus style buildings. Bauhaus, an enormously influential art and design school based in interwar Germany, was brought to the city by Jewish refugees and quickly flourished. While notable buildings include the Bialik Museum and Beit Ha’ir, the streets of the White City are simply lined with avant-garde buildings that would be a stand alone architectural highlight in most other cities. Guided tours of this extraordinary neighborhood are available.
Gordon Beach is a little piece of Los Angeles on the Israeli coast. Buzzing at weekends with roller-blades, sunbathers, surfers and matkot (paddle ball) players, it is one of Tel Aviv’s most charming locations. For the best experience, arrive in the late afternoon and watch the sun set across the Mediterranean Sea.
The core of historic Jaffa is its sprawling bazar-like flea market, which sells everything from antiques to vintage clothing and high-class fashion. Of course, there is plenty of junk to trawl through but that is just part of the fun. To get the best experience, visit the market with a local guide who can help you haggle with the traders and snag a bargain.
Located just east of the city center, Tel Aviv’s Museum of Art is one of the best in the Middle East. The collection is simply astonishing with special emphasis on Jewish masters through the ages, including a wide variety of 20th century Israeli art. However, the best exhibits are those on the Impressionist movement, which includes works by Renoir, Degas, Gauguin and Cézanne.
Tel Aviv’s busiest and best food market is located in the Yemenite Quarter and literally has something for everyone to savor. The narrow streets are an eclectic melting pot of food stuffs ranging from cured meats, freshly picked fruits, aromatic herbs and homemade cheeses. For the best experience, take a food tour of the market as knowledgeable local guides will take you to the area’s most beloved stalls.
Formerly known as the Diaspora Museum, the recently renamed Museum of the Jewish People is one of the most important in Israel. The museum tells in detail the story of the Jewish people from their arrival in Europe in late antiquity through to their persecution in pogroms and the Holocaust to the foundation of the state of Israel. The museum is located in Tel Aviv University campus, which is also well worth exploring.
Tel Aviv has risen to international prominence as the hipster capital of Israel. To best experience the city’s youthful creative energy head to the area surrounding Alma Beach where you can browse independent boutiques, sample international street food dishes and drink cocktails crafted by expert mixologists. The entire area would not be out of place in New York, London or Paris.
Few cities in the world have as much history as Nazareth. The biblical-era city’s main draw is the Basilica of the Annunciation, a vast modernist church that shelters the Grotto of the Annunciation, which some believe was the site of Mary’s house and where Angel Gabriel informed her she would give birth to the Son of God. What is more, the cavernous underground Synagogue-Church is believed to be where Jesus studied and revealed himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy. However, Nazareth is not all about history. It is Israel’s largest Arab city where Palestinian culture still thrives while the myriad of hillside cobbled lanes and Ottoman houses that comprise the old town are being reinvented as an upscale culinary destination.
Rising out of Nazareth’s crumbling Ottoman era old town is a building like no other – the modernist Basilica of the Annunciation. Constructed between 1960 and 1969, the church has a stark concrete façade and a soaring dome that could only have been built thanks to the revolutionary architectural techniques of the 20th century. The mammoth church is believed to stand on the site of the Virgin Mary’s former home, which is where the Catholic Church believes the Annunciation took place.
If you are struggling to envision what Nazareth looked like in Jesus’ time, then head to the Nazareth Village – a fantastic recreation of day-to-day life around the turn of the 1st century AD. The outdoor museum consists of authentically ancient wine presses, quarries and vineyard terraces and replicas of carpenter’s workshops, burial caves and olive presses. Tours are available with the guides taking part in millennia old activities.
The impressively frescoed Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation is built atop Mary’s Well, which is where adherents of Orthodoxy believe the Annunciation took place. The church’s crypt dates from the 4th century AD and serves to shelter the spring where Mary drew water. Notably, the doorways in the church are etched with graffiti dating back hundreds of years with the odd piece going even further back.
By far the best day tour from Nazareth is to the majestic Sea of Galilee, where Jesus is said to have spent most of his ministry and performed his most remarkable miracles, including walking on water. Tours leave regularly and take you to the ancient synagogue of Capernaum and the city of Tiberias, where you can visit the location of the baptism on the River Jordan.
Constructed in the 18th century by Sheikh Abdullah Al Fahum (whose tomb is enclosed within), the White Mosque is Nazareth’s oldest extant Islamic place of worship. The mosque is popular with the local community for fostering inter-faith dialogue and is remarkable inside with its juxtaposition of old and modern elements.
Tucked away down an alleyway near the souq is the Synagogue-Church. While the structure itself is plain, its history is striking: the present day Crusader era church is built atop an ancient synagogue where Jesus is thought to have shown himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. For the best experience, head to this attraction as part of a walking tour, as the guide will be able to explain its rich and complex history.
When two Belgian residents of Nazareth began renovating their humble shop in the 1990s they uncovered one of the world’s most remarkable archaeological discoveries: the perfectly preserved remains of a Roman bathhouse. Short guided tours of this unexpected find reveal its rich history and the thrilling story of its rediscovery.
Haifa, Israel’s northernmost port city, is the country’s hidden gem with a unique religious history and a myriad of cultures making for an unforgettable experience. Haifa’s main attraction is undoubtedly the Baha’i Gardens, which forms the focal point of the global Baha’i faith that emphasizes the oneness of all religions. The Baha’i Gardens tumble down the lush slops of Mount Carmel while the shimmering dome of the shrine serves as the resting place of the religion’s founder. Influenced by Baha’i religious tolerance, Haifa is Israel’s least segregated city and had been touted as a model of Jewish-Arab coexistence, which can be seen in the vibrant city center and rapidly gentrifying Masada Street.
The 19-tiered gardens of the Baha’i Shrine that line the slopes of Mount Carmel are one of the most picturesque in the Mediterranean world. Tended to by the Baha’i World Center, which is the headquarters of the faith, the gardens are a joy to explore as part of a guided tour that takes you to its best viewpoints and past its most notable sights, including the Baha’i Archives and the Universal House of Justice.
The crowing jewel of the stunning Baha’i Gardens is the shrine to the religions founder, Baha’ullah. The shrine was designed as an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern and European styles to symbolically unify the religious traditions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Baha’ullah was executed in 19th century Persia for his radical religious beliefs and his embalmed body was finally laid to rest in this remarkable shrine during the 1950s.
The Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery is home to the Carmelite Order, which was founded in the 12th century when Crusader era pilgrims chose to live out their days in hermetic fashion on the slopes of Mount Carmel. The vast monastery is perched on the mountain’s northern tip and much of what you see today dates from the 19th century. Highlights include ceiling frescoes of the Chariot of Fire and a monument in memory of the French revolutionary soldiers who were slaughtered by the Ottomans in Haifa in 1799.
Housing one of Israel’s most remarkable collections of ancient artifacts, the Hecht Museum is a must visit for history buffs. The highlight of the museum is undoubtedly a 2400 year old shipwreck that was dredged from the depths of the Mediterranean in the 1980s. There are also exhibitions on Jewish artists who perished in the Holocaust and the modern history of Israel.
This fascinating museum details the immigration of Jews to Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s before the creation of Israel. Focusing on the role Britain played in blockading Palestinian territory from Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism, the museum is one of Israel’s most harrowing. It is operated by the Ministry of Defense so make sure to bring your passport, as otherwise you will be refused entry.
Holy for Jews, Christians and Muslims, Elijah’s Cave sits at the foot of Mount Carmel and is where the eponymous prophet Elijah prayed before confronting the priests on the mountain above. Men and women enter separately and can peer into the depths of the cave.
The best day tour from Haifa is to the historic port city of Caesarea, which once competed with the ancient metropolises of Alexandria and Carthage for trade. Today, the town is one of Israel’s glitziest with an array of luxury villas, international golf courses and fine dining restaurants. Most of the historic sites are located in Caesarea National Park, which contains a Roman amphitheater and a 9th century city built by the crusading knights.
As one of the world’s most contested cities, Jerusalem polarizes opinion across the globe. However, delve beneath the city’s tumultuous politics and visitors will find a hidden gem of interlinked Muslim, Jewish and Christian histories. Towering over the city is one of the world’s most disputed pieces of land, known to Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount. Today, the hilltop site is home to two of Islam’s most revered buildings – the dazzlingly blue Dome of the Rock and the more austere Al Aqsa Mosque. For Jews, the site is sacred, as it is believed to have been the site of the First and Second Temples. The only legacy of these temples extant is the Western Wall, which has been transformed into Judaism’s most revered religious shrine. Jerusalem is not all about religion though with the Mahane Yehude Market selling the best Middle Eastern produce and East Jerusalem fast becoming a hot spot for challenging art galleries.
Sitting astride the area known by Muslims as Al Haram Ash Sharif and by Jews as Temple Mount is the dazzling Dome of the Rock, which is likely the world’s most iconic Islamic place of worship. Bedecked in turquoise tiles and capped with a golden dome that can be seen across Jerusalem, the mosque shelters a slab of rock that Jews believe was where Abraham sacrificed his son and Islamic tradition suggests that Prophet Muhammad ascended to the heavens. While non-Muslim visitors are not allowed inside the Dome, guided tours of its exterior reveal its complex history.
Jerusalem’s holiest Jewish site is the Western Wall, which is the last remaining part of what once was the vast Second Temple. The wall has been a site of pilgrimage since the Ottoman era and today the atmosphere is usually electric with Jews from across the world traveling there to pray. For the best experience, take a guided tour of the remarkable complex and guides will be able to inform you of the various Jewish traditions associated with it.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is the most important Christian place of worship in Jerusalem, is believed to be built atop the site where Jesus was nailed to the cross and rose from the dead. While Emperor Constantine erected the original structure some three centuries after the crucifixion, what you see today was largely built during the era of the Crusades. Visitors of all faiths are welcome but respectful dress is a must.
Israel’s most poignant memorial and museum to the Holocaust is Yad Vashem. Spread over a vast site, the complex houses the Holocaust Museum that details the events that led up to what Jews call the Shoah and the Nazi atrocities that were committed thereafter. Other highlights include the Hall of Names, which lists the names of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, the Hall of Remembrance, which contains the eternal flame, and the haunting Cattle Car Memorial – an original train car utilized by the Nazis to transport Jews to extermination camps.
In a city full of contested archaeological sites, the City of David is clearly the most controversial. Dating to the Canaanite period of the 2nd millennia BC, the area is believed to be the oldest in all of Jerusalem with highlights including the Royal Quarter, which was once an aristocratic home, and the partially flooded Hezekiah’s Tunnel that ends at the iconic Pool of Sioloam. The reason for the site’s divisiveness is that it stretches into area’s that are internationally recognized as Palestinian.
Centered on Mahane Yuda Street and Etz Chayim Street, this vast food market is Jerusalem’s beating heart. Stalls selling a remarkable array of spices, meats, herbs and sweet treats, including halva, are no less than a mouth-watering sensory overload that are best explored as part of a guided food tour. For the ultimate experience tour the area’s atmospheric alleyways and bustling food halls on Thursday and Friday during the pre-Shabbat rush.
One of the holiest sites in Christianity is Jerusalem’s Tomb of the Virgin Mary. The cavernous tomb is one of the city’s most atmospheric spots with candle-blackened walls, a plethora of religious art and the numerous lanterns strung from the ceiling. The present tomb dates from the Crusader era but the site’s history goes back to at least the 5th century.
For those hoping to gain a better understanding of Jerusalem’s complex cultural and historical situation a visit to the Palestinian Heritage Museum is a must. Providing a detailed look at the history of the Palestinian nation from the medieval Islamic caliphates to the creation of Israel and its present position within a Jewish state, the museum is a harrowing but ultimately rewarding experience.
Akko, historically known as Acre, is one of the Eastern Mediterranean’s most historic cities. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, Akko is entombed in vast Crusader-era city walls while the colonnaded Knight’s Hall offers a glimpse into the history of the Hospitallers and their crusades in the Holy Land. Akko has changed little since the Middle Ages and in many ways its warren of ramshackle streets, bazaars and coffee houses appear just as they would have done when Marco Polo passed through the city on his way to China some 800 years ago. The city is undoubtedly one of the Levant’s hidden gems, which is all too often bypassed by travelers touring Israel’s main attractions further to the south.
Akko’s gigantic city walls are only rivaled by that of Dubrovnik in the Mediterranean world and are rightly listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Built by Muslims, refortified by crusaders and strengthened by the Ottoman Empire, they have a storied history that is best explored on walking tours of their circumference.
Besides the city’s imposing city walls, Akko’s premier attraction is the Knight’s Halls, which were built nearly 1000 years ago as the living quarters for the Hospitallers, a monastic military order. The cavernous chambers give you an unrivaled insight into the day-to-day lives of the men who traveled all the way from Europe to conquer the Holy Land and also include 13th century tombs that are a popular point for pilgrimages.
Constructed in the classical Ottoman style in the 18th century, the Al Jazzar Mosque is one of Israel’s most important Muslim places of worship. Its striking minaret towers over Akko’s old town while the interior is bedecked in ornate Islamic calligraphy and has been impeccably restored in recent years with the minbar and mihrab of particular note. Make sure to dress modestly to gain entry.
Best explored as part of a guided walking tour, the Souq Al Abiad is Akko’s original Ottoman era marketplace. Teeming with stalls selling fragrant spices and traditional street food, such as kanafeh (a syrupy cake made of noodles or semolina), the souq is an unforgettable experience.
Discovered accidentally in the 1990s, the Templar Tunnel is today one of Akko’s biggest draws. Running from what once would have been the Knights Templar’s imposing fortress to the harbor, the tunnel was built during the era of the Crusades. Today, you can explore it as part of a guided tour that will reveal the area’s turbulent history and the tunnel’s crucial role.
For visitors interested in Akko’s rich Ottoman era history look no further than the Hammam Al Pasha, a former Turkish bathhouse that has been transformed into an excellently curated museum. Detailing the day-to-day goings-on of the bathhouse, which played an important social function in the Ottoman Empire, the museum is one of Akko’s most rewarding experiences.
Akko’s harrowing Underground Prisoners Museum details the Jewish resistance fighters who fought against British rule during the early 20th century. Housed in an imposing Ottoman era prison that was subsequently utilized by the British, the museum tells the life stories of individual fighters. Beyond this, the museum is also home to a cell once occupied by Baha’ullah, the founder of the Baha’i religion.
Dating from the 1600s, Sinan Pasha Mosque is thought to be the oldest in Akko. While it is closed to casual visitors, it is worth admiring from the outside, as its turquoise dome and picture-perfect seaside location are one of the most iconic images of the city.