Africa, Asia, and Europe converge at Israel. Its unique geography has shaped its culture and its landscape, from the breathtaking Negev and Judean deserts, to the Red Sea resorts of Eilat, to the bucolic Golan mountains. A journey through the country is a lesson in history and civilization. Begin in Jerusalem, an ancient city that is sacred to three religions. With hallowed places such as Galilee, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the Jordan River to continue your explorations, you quickly realize that Israel packs huge historical and geopolitical importance into a surprisingly small size.
Vastly different Israels attract very different travelers. Spiritual sojourners can visit cities and shrines sacred to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Jerusalem’s Old City alone is significant to each of these religions: Follow Jesus’ steps down the Via Dolorosa; join Jewish pilgrims at the Western Wall; or gaze upon the sparkling Dome of the Rock, from where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into Heaven. Sun worshipers can turn their attention to Israel’s sparkling Mediterranean coast and beach lifestyle. The health-conscious will trek to the Dead Sea to soak in mud baths and spas, while art enthusiasts may feel more at home in cultural powerhouses like Tel Aviv.
In a country as sunny as Israel, there’s no excuse for sequestering yourself indoors. Do as the Israelis do and enjoy a life lived outside. Hikes through Ein Gedi National Park in the Negev desert reveal ancient ruins, cool springs, and splendid desert flora. Travel north to Mount Hermon in winter and you can visit the ski resort on the summit’s southern (Israeli) side. Those who prefer their adventure at sea level—or beneath it—can take to the Mediterranean for a sail along the coast, the Dead Sea for a salty swim, or the Red Sea to explore the coral reefs and spectacular dive sites that surround the happy, heady vacation city of Eilat.
Israel’s diversity is beautifully expressed at the table, and the dishes you eat will often represent a specific culture. Sephardic Jewish tradition, for example, takes the region’s finest produce and prepares it with a distinctly Middle Eastern flair. You’re sampling this cuisine when you dip pita bread in creamy hummus, drizzle tahini over falafel, or chop vegetables into Israeli salad. Meanwhile, gefilte fish, baked goods, and Eastern European flavors characterize Ashkenazi Jewish food. And great tastes do not discriminate: You’re just as likely to enjoy the best meal of your journey in an open-air market as a high-end restaurant.
Although Israel only officially became a state in 1948, the young country has confronted more than its share of struggles, not least of which is integrating millions of immigrants from dozens of nations. Like the United States, Israel is often described as a melting pot. Its culture and identity have deep Jewish roots, but immigrants from Europe, North Africa, Russia, and Ethiopia contribute to an unexpected and inspiring national character. The evidence is in the cuisine, the chatter of different languages in public squares, and the large number of festivals and holidays celebrated throughout the year—both religious and secular.
With year-round humidity, Israel experiences a hot summer, pleasant spring and fall, and a mild winter. Ben Gurion Airport is Israel’s main entry point. High security means travelers should be prepared to undergo searches and questioning. Carry a passport valid for six months past your entry date. Drivers can cross Israel in seven hours from north to south. Buses are the most common means of public transportation. Currency is the Israeli shekel; banks close from Friday afternoons until Sunday mornings. Tips are expected: between 12 and 15 percent on a restaurant bill, and most Israelis round up the cost of a taxi or bar tab and leave the change. Electricity is rated as 220V 50Hz with an "H" type plug, so bring an adapter.
Sivan Askayo Tel Aviv, Israel Local Expert
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