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As the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Israel is a land heavy with history. This cultural complexity is reflected in the diversity of its natural landscape, which varies from the salty serenity of the Dead Sea, to verdant national parks and parched desert plateaus.
Most visits to the Holy Land begin with a trip to the capital city of Jerusalem. Its streets bustle with activity and busy markets lie against a skyline of sacred sites. By contrast, the modern commercial centre of Tel Aviv is dedicated to more hedonistic interests, such as sun-drenched beaches, good restaurants, designer-clothing stores and sophisticated nightclubs.
Sunbathing and scuba diving draw visitors to the Red Sea port of Eilat, while relaxation and spa resorts characterise the Dead Sea experience. The Galilee area, north of Jerusalem, appeals to pilgrims and nature-lovers alike. The region's concentration of holy sites is fascinating, particularly around the Sea of Galilee. Haifa provides a glorious, cosmopolitan base from which to explore the Galilee area, as well as the magnificent sea grottoes of Rosh Hanikra.
Israel is home to more than 200 museums, further underlining its status as one of the most culturally rich destinations on the planet. Its national parks are roundly celebrated for their beauty and accessibility. Of course, the country's chief attractions are religious, with sites of profound spiritual importance drawing pilgrims from three religions.
As the birthplace of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Israel is densely packed with enough religious and historical attractions and experiences to last a lifetime.
Lovers of sun, sand and sea should head to the renowned Red Sea and enjoy floating in its crystalline waters; or for a rejuvenating experience, visit one of the many Dead Sea spa resorts. Israel's popular tourist destination of Masada, located in the Judean Desert, is a must for anyone in the area.
Some of the country's most fascinating attractions include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Citadel of David. Bethlehem is worth a visit, as is Nazareth (two of the most important Christian holy sites), while Yad VaShem is a moving and interesting memorial to the Holocaust, providing a multifaceted tribute to the millions of Jews who died during World War II.
The best time of year to visit is during the spring (March/April) and autumn months (September/October), when the weather is cooler and more tolerable for tourists. Since travelling distances are not great in Israel, it's often better to drive to some places than to catch a plane. There are good public transport systems in place in the major cities. The best way to experience Israel is to hire a car and take a relaxed approach to seeing the country and exploring all the religious and historical sites it has to offer.
As the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the holiest Christian place in Jerusalem. Emperor Constantine constructed it in 326, and its structure has suffered frequent damage over the centuries. The Church contains the Chapel of Golgotha and the three Stations of the Cross where Jesus was crucified, and the Sepulchre itself marks the place of his burial and resurrection. This incredible church is filled with treasures and should be of great historical and architectural interest regardless of one's religious beliefs. It is an absolute must for Christians. The church is home to several Christian denominations.
Temple Mount is tremendously important to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Located within the Old City's walled section, its glinting, golden Dome of the Rock is easily Jerusalem's most distinguishable feature. From a Jewish and Christian perspective, the large rock is said to be where Abraham offered his son Isaac up for sacrifice. Many believe that the First Temple once housed the Ark of the Covenant. Visitors should also note that the Israeli government prohibits non-Muslim prayer on the site. Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven from the same rock so, for this reason, they built the Dome over this site in the 7th century.
The Western Wall (Wailing Wall to non-Jews) is the most sacred Jewish prayer-site in the world. Thousands of worshippers gather year-round to pray here, and to place folded written prayers into the wall's crevices. The wall is all that remains of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, built by King Herod in 20 BCE. It is made up of enormous stone blocks, and endures as a tribute to the scale of workmanship in past eras. Following Orthodox Jewish practice, the praying sections have been separated for men and women. Men are required to wear a skullcap (kippah) and women must be modestly dressed.
The Via Dolorosa (Road of Sorrow) is the route Jesus is said to have followed as he carried the cross to his crucifixion. There are 14 stations along the way commemorating different events, starting at Lion's Gate in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, where Jesus was convicted by Pontius Pilate, and ending at his tomb inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter. A steady stream of pilgrims remember and honour Jesus' sacrifice by walking the Way of the Cross every year.
The museum documents and commemorates the events of the Holocaust, and also furthers education through ongoing research into the period. In this way, it honours the millions of Jews who died during World War II. Visitors will find the largest and most comprehensive collection of Holocaust material in the world, which includes documents, photographs, films and videotaped testimonies of survivors. These can be read and viewed in the allocated rooms. Engaging with the information is a sobering, emotional experience.The Hall of Names recognises the Holocaust's six million victims, and is an inspiring tribute to them.
The Israel Museum has achieved world-class status. Its remarkable collections include displays of archaeology from the Holy Land, a comprehensive compilation of Judaica and the ethnology of Jewish people, plus a fine-art collection encompassing Old Masters and renowned contemporary works. Many temporary exhibitions, publications, lectures and educational activities form part of the museum's cultural programme. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which date from between the 3rd century BCE and the 1st century CE, are perhaps the museum's most exciting artefacts. A young Bedouin shepherd famously discovered them in a cave in 1947.
Called the Tower of David, Jerusalem's Citadel is a medieval fortress with architectural elements from later periods. Its tallest tower, the Phasael, is the best place to appreciate its magnificent view of the city. The Citadel contains the excellent Museum of the History of Jerusalem, which displays 4,000 years' worth of the city's past in its rooms and courtyards. Free tours of The Citadel and museum are conducted in Hebrew on Tuesdays at 10:30am, and in English every day except Friday and Saturday at 11am. The 'light and sound' show held almost nightly is also a delightful way to learn about the history of Jerusalem.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art has hosted the country's leading exhibition of modern art since its inception in 1932. It also has one of the best collections of Israeli art in the world. Art lovers will enjoy the museum's permanent collection of European and American art, which features prominent Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings by Chagall, Dali, Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, and Monet, among others. Regarding the scope of its inventory, the museum showcases many mediums, including paint, sculpture, print, photography, film, design and architecture.
The Eretz Israel Museum's unique layout and character make it more like a park than a standalone establishment. It is clustered around the ancient mound of the Tel Kasile, where ongoing archaeological excavations are in progress. The museum consists of various pavilions, each displaying different cultural artefacts and collections. Visitors can purchase a map to help them navigate through this fascinating campus, which covers 3,000 years of history, culture and art relating to Israel. The permanent exhibits include displays on ethnography and folklore, ceramics, copper, coins, crafts, agriculture, domestic life, and many aspects of social and political history.
The museum conveys the Jewish people's story, beginning with their expulsion from Israel at Roman hands, and leading to their return. Multi-storey displays and exhibitions show a diverse range of Jewish communities, and the common cultural and religious links that have bound them. Visitors can engage with murals, reconstructions, dioramas, audio-visual displays, documentary films and interactive multimedia, and the Jewish Music Centre has thousands of recordings of Jewish music. Visitors will find traditional fare, music of communities that didn't survive the Holocaust, as well as works by Jewish composers.
The 17 springs of Hamat Tiberias have been used since antiquity to cure various ailments. In fact, the springs were so renowned for their healing properties and the relief they provided for various maladies that people were permitted to bath in them without censure on the Sabbath. The pools and various spa facilities and treatments are still the greatest draw for visitors, but there are some cultural attractions as well. Built between 337 and 286 BC, the Hamat Tiberias synagogue contains the oldest surviving mosaic floor in Israel. The central mosaic is a beautifully preserved design representing a large zodiac. The Hammam Suleiman Museum is also located in the park and is situated right at the entrance.
Beit She'an was established in the 5th century BC. Its hilltop location made the settlement strategically valuable, meaning that many over the centuries sought to conquer it. It was the seat of Egyptian rule before falling to the King of Assyria, and was later resettled as a Hellenistic city during Alexander the Great's time. A period of conquests followed until the Romans returned the city to its former residents. Beit She'an's face changed markedly after Christianity was declared the Roman Empire's official religion in the 4th century AD. Today, this thriving city lies around the remains of an ancient centre. The Byzantine bathhouse, Roman theatre and the Roman amphitheatre used for gladiatorial battles are among its most notable ruins.
The Amal River's warm waters flow through the Gan Hashlosha National Park and can be enjoyed year round, with temperatures in the region averaging around 82ºF (28ºC). Park visitors can relax in its warm pools and rejuvenate in the natural Jacuzzi underneath an invigorating waterfall. This is a wonderful place to spend the day swimming and exploring walking trails with the family. Lifeguards are on duty, and visitors will find changing-room and shower facilities, a kid's playground and plenty of tables and shaded areas for picnics. There is also a restaurant for those who don't want to bring their own picnic.
Israel is one of the scuba-diving world's better-kept secrets and a fantastic destination for amateur and veteran divers, as well as snorkelers. Many consider the Red Sea to be among the premier underwater realms on the planet, with its gorgeous coral reefs, rich marine life and excellent visibility. Some of the area's best dive sites are located off Eilat, where popular options include the Satil Wreck (suitable for all levels of experience), the Yatush Wreck (for experienced divers), Eel Garden, the Caves, and the Coral Beach Reserve.
Herod the Great established the ancient port city of Caesarea 2,000 years ago as a tribute to the Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar. Before this, it was known as Straton's Tower after its founder Straton, who may have ruled Sidon in the 4th century BC. Caesarea is conveniently located between Haifa and Tel Aviv and is a popular excursion for visitors. Its rich archaeological heritage includes the remains of a Roman aqueduct and theatre, as well as houses and palaces. The Roman theatre is used as a concert venue for big Israeli and international stars and is a special place to catch a show.
Nazareth is one of the most important Christian holy sites, attracting pilgrims from all over the world. Jesus spent most of his life in the area and, today, the city has both Muslim and Christian residents. Visitors can expect a quaint mix of red roofs and white churches to greet them from the Galilean hillside, the summit of which offers a glorious view of the Jezreel Valley. The area is also home to some significant religious places. Visitors should stop at the Church of the Annunciation, where the upper sanctuary's walls depict scenes from the life of Mary. Catholic communities from around the world donated the work.
Galilee is renowned for its natural beauty and ancient biblical sites, and outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy the region's many fun activities, which include camping, cycling, hiking, horse-riding, kayaking, 4x4 tours and river-rafting. Seasoned rafters and kayakers will find the area's white-water scene tame. Amateurs, on the other hand, can look forward to some amazing river trips through the area's beautiful scenery. They can also try other adventure activities, such as archery, climbing walls and zip-lining. Jeep and 4x4 tours are another exciting way to explore the region. A few operators in eastern and upper Galilee, and the Golan Heights offer tours through the rugged and breath-taking landscapes. There are many different routes, covering various religious and historical sites as well as the region's natural features.
Hezekiah's Tunnel is an absolute must-see for those who like to combine their sightseeing with a real sense of discovery and adventure. The tunnel is about 2,700 years old and was built by King Hezekiah in preparation for an invasion by the Assyrians. His plan was to shut down springs based outside the city, and redirect water through a tunnel under the city walls. In this way, he looked to protect Jerusalem's precious water supply and outlast the invaders.
The Carmel Market (Shuk Ha'Carmel) will enthral all visitors to Tel Aviv with its bustling atmosphere and fine selection of goods and produce. It's located on the 'trendy side' of town (just off Allenby Street), and is essentially a long alley, jam-packed with shoppers and vendors loudly advertising their wares. Although shoppers can buy almost anything at the Carmel Market and usually at better prices than elsewhere in the city, the real attraction is its mouth-watering array of fresh produce. Visitors can shop for the freshest fruit and vegetables, cheeses and baked goods, while soaking up the typically Middle Eastern market atmosphere.
Tel Aviv is blessed with almost year-round sunny weather and warm sea temperatures. Its coastline is divided into about ten beaches, all of which have their own appeal. Hilton Beach is best for swimming, while Gordon Beach is popular with tourists and has some good bars and cafes. Backpackers and bohemian types tend to enjoy Drum Beach (where there are frequent evening drumming sessions), and gay travellers will feel especially at home at Atzmaut Beach. Hilton Beach South has some terrific waves for surfers; Givat Aliya Beach's calm waters, shallow ocean pool and children's playground make it a great stop for kids.
Temperatures and weather conditions in Israel vary widely. The northern and coastal regions have a Mediterranean climate, characterised by long, hot, dry summers and short, cool and wet winters. The southern and eastern regions are arid. January is the coldest month, with temperatures ranging from 40°F to 50°F (4°C to 10°C), and August is the hottest month with temperatures ranging from 64°F to 100°F (18°C to 38°C).
The rainy season runs from October to early May but most of the rain falls between December and February. Israel can experience severe storms and flooding is not unusual in the wet season. The summer months often experience no rainfall at all. Rainfall decreases in the south and is not evenly distributed in the country. Israel's higher elevations, including Jerusalem, do sometimes get snow in January and February.
Israel is a year-round travel destination because many of its attractions are not weather dependent, but many travellers prefer to visit in summer, particularly if visiting the beautiful coastline. Early March is also a lovely time to visit Israel, as the countryside comes briefly alive with greenery and flowers after the winter rain.
Israel's currency is the Israeli Shekel (ILS), which is divided into 100 agorot (singular is agora). Money can be changed in the small exchange bureaux found on most main streets, or at banks and hotels. ATMs are prevalent throughout the country. Most banks are open Sunday through to Friday until noon, and are open again from 4pm till 6pm on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Major credit cards are widely accepted.
Hebrew is the official language of Israel. Arabic was an official language until 2018, when it was downgraded to having a 'special status in the state'. Most of the population also speaks English.
230 volts, 50Hz; European-style two-pin and round three-pin plugs are used
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Israel. No visa is required for stays of up to three months.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Israel. No visa is required for stays of up to three months for British passport holders, irrespective of the endorsement regarding their national status contained therein.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Israel. No visa is required for stays of up to three months.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Israel. No visa is required for stays of up to three months.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Israel. No visa is required for stays of up to three months.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Israel. No visa is required for stays of up to three months.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Israel. No visa is required for stays of up to three months.
All foreign passengers to Israel must hold proof of sufficient funds to cover their stay in the country. Additionally, visitors should hold return/onward tickets, and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination.
Passengers intending to proceed from Israel to Arab countries other than Egypt, Jordan or the United Arab Emirates should ensure that their passport does not contain an Israeli visa or stamps, since no passenger is allowed to enter other Arab countries with such passports.
Note that travellers may enter Jordan directly from occupied territory, but must hold a visa for Jordan (to be obtained from a representation of Jordan abroad), otherwise entry will be refused. The Jordanian authorities will NOT permit re-cross to occupied territory. Travellers may also enter occupied territory directly from Jordan. The Israeli authorities will permit a re-cross to Jordanian territory.
NOTE: It is highly recommended that travellers' passports have at least six months' validity remaining after the intended date of departure from their travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
There are no special health precautions required for travel to Israel, but insect protection from August to November is recommended due to the prevalence of the West Nile virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. A hepatitis A vaccine is sometimes recommended by doctors, as is a tetanus vaccine and an MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination for those who haven't already had it.
Medical facilities in Israel are excellent but treatment can be very expensive, so it is essential that travellers take out full travel health insurance. It should be possible to get all necessary medications in the cities but it is always advised that travellers who need certain medications take them on their travels, along with the prescription and a letter from their doctor.
Tipping is expected in Israel, according to the level of service (unless a service charge is added to the bill). About 10-15 percent is customary.
Travellers in Israel should maintain a high level of vigilance and keep up to date with developments. The risk of terrorist attacks remains high and travellers to the region, including Jerusalem, need to exercise caution, particularly around locations specifically targeted by attacks in the past such as bars, nightclubs, markets and buses. Suicide bombers and other militants have targeted crowded public areas, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries over the years. Although foreigners have not been specific targets, many have been caught up in the attacks because they visited famous landmarks and religious sites.
All travel to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the eastern border with Syria should be avoided. Foreign nationals face an ongoing threat of kidnapping in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The frequent outbreaks of violence in these areas makes them extremely dangerous, even if tourists are not directly targeted.
Street crime is rare in Israel though, and generally only a problem in 'bad' areas. The mugging of foreigners is unusual but pick-pocketing is not unheard of in busy market areas, so visitors should take normal precautions against this kind of crime.
Israel is a largely religious society and religious customs should be respected. Indecent behaviour is not tolerated and offenders will be arrested and fined heavily or imprisoned. Care should be taken not to photograph any military or police personnel or installations, and visitors should be discreet about taking photographs in Jewish Orthodox areas and of Jewish Orthodox people. It is advisable to carry official identification at all times, and to dress modestly.
The majority of business in Israel is centred in Tel Aviv. Dress tends to be less formal than in the US and Europe, but as business people tend to wear suits for important meetings or presentations, formal attire is recommended. Women should dress more conservatively, especially in strictly religious areas.
Business cards are usually exchanged, though with little formality involved. Meetings often do not begin promptly and much time can be given to socialising. Business hours are usually from 8:30am to 5pm, from Sunday to Thursday, and on Friday mornings. Sundays are regarded as a normal business day.
The international access code for Israel is +972. The outgoing code is 00 (not from public phones) followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). Hotels, cafes and restaurants offering free wifi are widely available. As international roaming costs can be high, purchasing a local prepaid SIM card can be a cheaper option.
Travellers to Israel do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes or 250g of other tobacco products; 2 litres wine and 1 litre of other types of alcoholic beverages; 250ml of eau de cologne or perfume; and gifts to the value of US$200. Prohibited items include fresh meat and fresh fruit (especially from Africa).
Israeli Tourist Office: www.goisrael.com
Israeli Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 364 5500.
Israeli Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7957 9500.
Israeli Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613-567-6450.
Israeli Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 6215 4500.
Israeli Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 470 3500.
Israeli Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 230 9400.
Consulate of Israel, Wellington, New Zealand: + 64 4 439 9500.
United States Embassy, Tel Aviv: +972 3 519 7575.
British Embassy, Tel Aviv: +972 3 725 1222.
Canadian Embassy, Tel Aviv: +972 3 636 3300.
Australian Embassy, Tel Aviv: +972 3 693 5000.
South African Embassy, Tel Aviv: +972 3 525 2566.
Irish Embassy, Tel Aviv: +972 3 696 4166.
New Zealand Embassy, Ankara,Turkey (also responsible for Israel): +90 312 446 3333.
The mountaintop fortress of Masada (sometimes spelled Massada) is one of Israel's most popular and remarkable tourist attractions. Situated in the Judean Desert and overlooking the Dead Sea, this site is where 967 Jewish Zealots rose against Rome in 66 AD, taking their own lives when defeat seemed inevitable. King Herod built the ancient fortress they defended against Roman siege. Visitors can still explore the ruins of ancient structures and palaces, and see the remains of the most complete Roman siege system in the world. The Roman camps, siege wall and ramp are still clearly visible. Masada is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a place of profound interest for military-history buffs.
Bethlehem is just six miles (10km) south of Jerusalem, and is a major tourist attraction for pilgrims and visitors alike. Reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus, the town is charming despite its tourist-centred commercialism. The Church of the Nativity is the focal point for visitors, and is erected over the site of Jesus' birthplace. Bethlehem is also a wonderful place to see a variety of monasteries that represent different Christian denominations. Christmas is celebrated on three separate dates in accordance with the Catholic Church calendar, the Eastern calendar followed by the Armenians, and the Julian calendar followed by the Greek Orthodox and Eastern churches.
The Dead Sea and its immediate environment have many natural wonders. Wellness travellers are most interested in the high salt and mineral concentration found in its waters, which, besides enabling visitors to float effortlessly on the surface, give the region's black mud tremendous therapeutic properties. As the water is wonderfully warm, swimming is possible all year round. The Dead Sea region also boasts some fascinating archaeological sites, with traces of Persian, Greek, Roman and other civilisations remaining. Notable historical locations include the notorious biblical city of Sodom.
The historical port city of Jaffa is within walking distance of Tel Aviv. Its inhabitants have included notable biblical figures, and its name is said to come from Japhet, who was Noah's son. Archaeological finds show that Jaffa existed as a port city thousands of years ago, serving both Egyptian and Phoenician sailors on their sea voyages. The Ottoman Clock Tower is a prominent landmark and meeting point, and marks the Old Town's entrance, but the area's main draw is its ancient and magical atmosphere.
Eilat is a popular holiday resort located at the northern tip of the Red Sea, where temperatures seldom drop below a wonderfully warm 70°F (21°C). Many travellers visit Eilat to enjoy fantastic diving and snorkelling opportunities in the Red Sea: one of the world's most magnificent marine preserves. Brightly coloured coral fish, moray eels and even manta rays can be seen, while landlubbers will enjoy lazing on the beautiful beach and splashing in the shallows. Swimming with bottlenose dolphins in their natural environment is one of the resort's more popular activities.
The Underwater Observatory Marine Park lies just south of Eilat and is conveniently close to Tel Aviv. Visitors can view a fantastic range marine life in its gigantic, seawater aquarium. Animals such as eels, sharks, turtles and stingrays are part of the population, while the rare-fish aquarium is home to some exquisite (and poisonous) species. The Red Sea is renowned for its colourful reefs and rich marine life, and the Marine Park's unique Underwater Observatories allow visitors to really immerse themselves in this underwater world. Visitors can also look forward to daily feedings, with shark feedings typically drawing the most attention.
The Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater) is a fascinating geological site in Israel's Negev Desert. Located about 53 miles (85km) south of Be'er Sheva, it owes its form to millions of years of erosion and weathering following the ocean's withdrawal, rather than a meteor impact. These days, the vast crater is housed within Ramon National Park: one of Israel's most popular ecotourism destinations. Shaped like an elongated heart, the crater is a magnificent sight and a powerful reminder of the region's incredible age. A variety of indigenous plants and animals populate the area, including the Nubian ibex, striped hyena, Arabian leopard and Dorcas gazelle.
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