Everybody says that Israel is a land of contrasts, but it doesn’t really hit you until you’ve been there a few days and begin to absorb the truly amazing variety of landscapes, cultures, and experiences packed into this tiny country. Many visitors concentrate on one city on their first trip, but I found that it was possible to take in a lot of sites on a weeklong vacation.
My first suggestion is to start in Tel Aviv. While it’s not as glamorous as other Mediterranean hot spots, it has an alluring charm all its own and a very friendly population that knows how to have a good time in the sun. The city doesn’t have a big selection of luxury hotels, but I was delighted with my room at the Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel and Towers, which is conveniently located right across the street from the beach (from $278/night). The temperature is pleasant year-round, but the beaches in Tel Aviv really come alive in the summer. (Don’t forget a high-SPF sunscreen and a hat–sunstroke is common.) I began the day with a visit to the shore and spent the afternoon walking around the compact city. Start at Carmel Market, taking an hour or two to check out the boutiques along Sheinkin Street, which feels a bit like New York’s Greenwich Village.
For a lunch that tastes homemade, try the unimposing Orna & Ella (33 Sheinkin St.; 03/620-4753), where the sweet potato pancakes are a must. Afterward, stroll along Rothschild Boulevard, a wide, tree-lined street known for its busy outdoor cafés and Bauhausstyle architecture. Continue toward the renovated North Port—the trendy shops there are the few in the area that stay open on the Sabbath (Saturday). Finally, don’t miss Jaffa, the town’s ancient Arab quarter.
Nightlife in Tel Aviv reminded me of a number of European cities. For dinner, I particularly enjoyed two restaurants: Orca (57 Nahalat Binyamin St.; 03/566-5505) and Herbert Samuel (6 Koifman St.; 03/516-6516). Neither one is formal, yet each offers a great contemporary take on traditional Mediterranean cuisine and fantastic wine lists.
It’s actually possible to drive around Israel in a day, but it’s much more enjoyable if you break the trip up with an overnight or two. I rented a car at a Hertz near the Sheraton and drove one and a half hours north to Haifa to see the beautiful museum, gardens, and shrines of the Baha’i faith. Next, I stopped at Nazareth, a largely Arab town, to visit the Church of the Annunciation and later continued on to Tiberias, which is on the Sea of Galilee. The ideal times to visit this area are spring and summer, when the weather is perfect for swimming or hiking along the mountain trails. Stay over one or more nights at the very comfortable and first-class Scots Hotel (from $328/night). Tiberias itself feels a little touristy, but it’s centrally located and an excellent launching point for an early-morning trip to the Golan Heights, a mountainous region that shares a border with Syria and Lebanon in the north, and Jordan in the south. The border with Syria is tense, evident by the road signs warning of minefi elds, but you can still admire the beautiful mountain landscapes and cooperative kibbutzim from the designated paths. On the way back, stop at Yarden Winery to sample some excellent Israeli wines.
Next, I drove south through the Jordan Valley on the two-lane Israeli highway that cuts through the Palestinian West Bank, connecting the north of Israel to Jerusalem in the south. Gas up before you get on the highway—there are no off-ramps on this closely watched road.
Arriving in Jerusalem, you immediately feel a very different vibe than in any other part of Israel. I recommend the King David Hotel as a smart splurge (from $440/night; danhotelsisrael.com), conveniently located next to a Hertz offi ce, where I dropped off my car.
There’s so much to do in the Old City that it’s worth hiring a guide for a full day to show you around the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock, and Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked to his crucifi xion. Later on, sample the best nightlife at the bars and restaurants on Ben Yehuda Street in West Jerusalem.
Near the end of my visit, I took a side trip to Bethlehem in the West Bank. Ask your hotel to arrange a guide to meet you at the border checkpoint. Here you can see the Israeli security wall up close—and the effects of the continuing conflict.
Throughout the week, I was fortunate to meet a variety of fascinating people, including Jewish Israelis, Arab Muslim Israelis, Christian Arab Israelis, and Palestinians. The trip would not have been complete without hearing each of their perspectives on the political situation. As one said, “We all want lasting peace. We all know what compromises need to be taken. But we talk past each other.”
Israel leaves a lasting impression. It is a must-see country for travelers who want to explore and learn on their vacations.
From the Summer 2008 issue of Sherman's Travel magazine.