Israel's Cultural Mosaic

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Israel's Cultural Mosaic
Left and right, religious and secular, Jewish and Arab: There is no one Israel, and its diverse cities prove it. Travelers who revel in complexity will enjoy discovering a surprise in every new town.
By Sivan Askayo, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Yadid Levy/age fotostock
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    An Introduction to Three Religions
    Sacred to three religions, Jerusalem is one of the world’s holiest cities. Join pilgrims as you tour the Old City’s four quarters: Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Walk the Via Dolorosa, the “Path of Suffering,” until you reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter. Duck in and out of the Muslim Quarter’s market, picking up souvenirs such as beads and herbs, then admire the Damascus Gate and glittering gold of the Dome of the Rock. In the Jewish Quarter walk an ancient Roman road past key archaeological sites before respectfully joining pilgrims at the Western Wall.
    Photo by Yadid Levy/age fotostock
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    Israel’s Capital of Culture
    Leafy boulevards, stylish residents, and cutting-edge art: Tel Aviv is Israel’s capital of style and culture, a playful contrast to the solemnity of Jerusalem. Locals start the day with a seaside stroll, followed by coffee in one of the city’s hip cafés. Leave afternoons open for some curated culture among the collections of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art or Beit Hatfutsot: The Museum of the Jewish People. Step back out into the sunlight to explore the White City—designated a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its Bauhaus architecture and modern urban planning. As night falls, enjoy further cultural expression at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra or the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    The Biblical Significance of Nazareth
    The northern city of Nazareth is where Jesus is said to have grown up. It’s also home to the country’s largest Arab-Israeli population, making it a fascinating town. Both pilgrims and tourists can appreciate the city’s many churches, including St. Joseph’s Church, which was reportedly built atop the site of the carpentry workshop of Jesus’ father, Joseph. Nearby, the Basilica of the Annunciation is the grandest church of all, said to be the site where the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary in Biblical tradition. Emerge from these holy sites to satisfy more earthly needs at one of the Arabic restaurants or sweet shops. Then, wander through Nazareth’s souk, stocked with embroidered clothing, crafts, homeware, and food.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    Gathering in Bethlehem
    Bethlehem, like Nazareth and Jerusalem, is a name with strong religious associations. The modern town overlooks the Judean Desert and is administered by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Its Church of the Nativity is the oldest extant church in the Holy Land, and supposedly marks the site of Jesus’ birth. The tomb of Rachel, a biblical Jewish matriarch, is located at the entrance of the city and holds significance within Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Visit Manger Square, adjacent to the Basilica, to watch city life unfurl in a public area unsullied by vehicles. Remember to bring your passport, as you'll need to present this at the checkpoint to enter the Palestinian territories.
    Photo by Megan Eileen McDonough
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    Capital of Kabbalah
    The city of Safed is spread over the hilltops of Galilee and overlooks Mount Meron, where the texts of the kabbalah, a mystical branch of Judaism, were written. Cool and quiet, with narrow, cobblestone streets, Safed is renowned as a center for artists, intellectuals, and worshippers. The artists’ quarter is home to galleries filled with ceramics, silver, and kabbalah-inspired art and jewelry. Orthodox Jews and kabbalah followers visit the Abuhav Synagogue, a 16th-century place of worship that contains scrolls from the Middle Ages, and the HaAri Synagogue, which can serve as an introduction to kabbalistic teachings. Sweeping vistas of the surrounding landscape leave all travelers—kabbalah followers or otherwise—spellbound by Safed.
    Photo by Noam Armonn/age fotostock
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    Beautiful Haifa
    Israel’s third-largest city has a distinct appeal thanks to its mixed population of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. No matter your religion, a pleasant day in Haifa begins at the beach. Take to the white-sand Dado Beach, just south of the city, for a stroll and a swim, then stop for lunch at a local seafood restaurant. Walk along the ocean promenade at Bat Galim, then ride a cable car to the top of Mount Carmel for magnificent views and a tour of the Carmelite Monastery. An entire afternoon is best spent within the grounds of the Baha’i Temple and Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The gardens comprise terraces that climb the slope of Mount Carmel, and their geometric designs inspire both Baha’i worshippers and secular visitors.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    Sun, Sea, and Sand in Eilat
    At Israel’s southern tip, the city of Eilat lures vacationers in search of hot weather, beaches, great diving, and vibrant nightlife. Swimmers can snorkel with dolphins at the aptly-named Dolphin Reef, or refresh with a post-swim cocktail on an overwater deck at Bar Beach. Accomplished divers and newcomers to the sport alike can sink beneath the Red Sea to explore its worlds of coral and nature preserves. Non-divers can still take to the ocean by cruising the Gulf of Eilat or descending into the Coral World Underwater Observatory Marine Park, which offers close-up views of lionfish, groupers, and rays without all the trouble of getting wet. End the day with four or five stars by dining in the restaurants of the city’s top luxury hotels.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    Modernist and Historical Museums
    With such extraordinary history, it’s natural that Israel would have a substantial number of museums. With a broad range of themes and collections, the museums are your source for important lessons about the country today. Galleries and modernist architecture define Tel Aviv’s museums; an essential example is the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Jerusalem’s museums have a heavy spiritual and historical focus: Visit the Israel Museum to view the astonishing Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Yad Vashem to reflect on the Holocaust. Israel’s latest and most innovative museum is the Design Museum in Holon, which pays tribute to modern, contemporary design and culture within a striking red building.
    Photo by Sivan Askayo
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    A Wealth of Archaeological Sites
    Israel is dense with archaeological sites, and national parks open these portals of antiquity to the public. In Beit She’an National Park there exist ruins of Late Neolithic settlements that were occupied through a succession of cultures, including Egyptian, Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine. Vestiges of a temple remain at Kfar Nakhum, and a palace, amphitheater, and port can be explored at Caesarea Harbor National Park. Archaeologists at Tzipori National Park uncovered a wealth of Roman mosaics, many of them honoring the god of wine. But to see one of the country’s most important archaeological discoveries, you’ll have to go to a museum: The famous Dead Sea Scrolls are displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Communal Living on a Kibbutz
    Many Israelis live on a kibbutz: a commune traditionally based on agriculture. Kibbutzim emphasize a collective spirit, with all members sharing the same living standards. Many kibbutzim become temporary homes for international volunteers, but short-term visitors are also welcome to observe farmers at work, take lunch in the collective dining room, or lend a hand with chores. Guests to Kibbutz Ein Gedi, on the shores of the Dead Sea, are invited to stay in its guesthouse and tour its renowned botanical garden. Others, like Kibbutz Alummot in northern Israel, have a dual function as health-focused retreats that offer cleanses, detoxification workshops, and vegan diets.
    Photo by Duby Tal/age fotostock