We ate, we walked, we drank, we ate some more … my long-awaited journey to Israel spanned ancient history and modern marvels. Each day showcased the passion shared here, both by local residents and visitors from afar. In every walk of life, from the otherworldly experience of wading into the Dead Sea, to walking the underground of the Western Wall, there is a pride, a devotion, an excitement and a somberness to life in one of the world’s most complex historic, religious and political climates.
While it’s always difficult to distill a journey down into a few choice favorites, I offer you here my top five recommendations for travelers to Israel, those particular memories that I will carry forever in my heart.
1. Walking the Tunnels of the Western Wall
Ten years ago, the city of Jerusalem opened the Western Wall tunnels, allowing visitors to access segments of the wall that are hidden from outside view. While everyone outside is focused on one very small part of the wall, you are inside, seeing stones and structures that date back 2,000 years to the original city. Throughout these subterranean tunnels, one views archaeological treasures, large stone arches, an ancient aqueduct and more. In my opinion, it’s simply the only way to fully experience The Western Wall of the Temple Mount.
2. Dip in the Dead Sea
While the tourist section of the Dead Sea is quite busy and not my first choice for an overnight, a day trip from Jerusalem, to the sea and the mountaintop fortress of Masada, is perfect. We indulged in spa treatments, and of course, covered our bodies in the sea’s healing, mineral-rich muds and immersed ourselves in the salt-rich waters, feeling a lightness only possible here.
We ascended the desert mesa of Masada by cable car and explored in-depth its ancient fortress, including palaces built by King Herod. From atop the mountain, outlines of Roman encampments are still visible below.
(A little side note: In the drive through the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea, we stopped at a local gas station and picked up a snack of local Medjool dates. The tagline on the container read, “Out of the salty came forth sweetness,” and I can attest to the fact that these were quite simply the best dates I have ever eaten, so moist and delicious, and to think, I was able to bring home a snack and gift for friends from the very lowest point on earth.)
3. Safed & Golan Heights
One of the four holiest cities to the Jews, Safed is a pleasing combination of all things Greek and Israeli. There’s a magical, intimate feeling here in this well-kept city where kabala originated. Known as the “city of mystics,” the old part of town reveals synagogues to tour, narrow cobblestone alleys and lanes to wander and remarkable art galleries to visit. Spiritual souls will find much to love here, where East meets West.
Golan Heights and the Mount Bental volcano boast outstanding views of the Sea of Galilee and the Hula Valley, which, in summer, are strikingly verdant and dotted with ranches, orchards and vineyards.
4. Visiting a Kibbutz
When in Israel … an experience singular to the destination, a kibbutz visit is a must. We were fortunate enough to enjoy a private kibbutz tour by one of its members, visiting some of the local businesses, including a winery and dairy. We ate at the communal dining room, an interesting insight into the social and practical atmosphere of the kibbutz. It should be noted that, while here I was, in a kibbutz with local residents, on the border of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, that I felt completely safe and secure, fully engaged with the living history happening around me.
5. Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum
As one would expect, Jerusalem’s Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem (which means “A Memorial and a Name”) is one of the most sympathetic, emotional and masterfully designed tributes to the six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis. The audio tour is an insightful way to take it in every inch of the vast facility, which includes nine underground galleries with explanations in both English and Hebrew, artifacts, photos, videos, art installations and more. The building itself is architecturally astounding, comprised of a massive ark sunk into the earth where the main galleries are housed, an eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance, the Cattle Car Memorial and the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations.
And while I did try to keep myself to my five top memories, my “bonus” tip for travelers to Tel Aviv is The Drisco Hotel – an exquisite historic landmark and a new Rebecca Recommends partner. Beautifully restored and set in one of the city’s most sought-after neighborhoods, the hotel boasts on-point Israeli dining, a top-shelf lobby bar frequented by trendy locals and gorgeous sea views from the upper-level rooms.
From the art to the clothing to the food, one can feel the pride of this small, yet mighty country. Here, life is being lived to the fullest, making every moment beautiful. I cannot wait to return, this time to include the Ramon Crater and a trip into Petra.