The great jam of buses and pilgrims may come as a shock when visiting sacred sites in this holiest of Holy Land cities, so be prepared for huge crowds whenever you come. That said, no visit would be complete without touring the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, controlled by famously feuding Orthodox and Roman Catholic clergy. Close by is the Western (or “Wailing”) Wall where Jews mourn the destruction of the great temple which once stood on the site now occupied by the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque (now open only to Muslims). Close by are the Western Wall Tunnels and the Ramparts Walk where you can get a look at the city’s many gardens and courtyards. In the town’s newer part, visit the Knesset (parliament) and the Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum, the world’s largest and most comprehensive memorial to the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. TIP: Don’t miss the Mount of Olives Observation Point for a classic panoramic view of the Old City.
2. KING DAVID HOTEL
This historic but somewhat faded property remains the top hotel in Jerusalem. (After all, most postwar U.S. presidents have stayed there.) A central location permits easy walks to the old city’s religious sites as well as restaurants and modern shopping areas. The rooms are nicely decorated in beige and cream but are not on a grand scale like the over-the-top, “ancient Mesopotamian”-style lobby. Garden and pool areas are a stunningly beautiful oasis of calm in the middle of a busy capital. Rates: $245-$645 per person, 23 King David St., Jerusalem 94101, Israel; 1-800-223-7773; Reservations: T.KingDavid@danhotels.com; Website: www.danhotels.com.
No visit to Israel would be complete without a trek to the famed desert escape palace of King Herod the Great and the last stand of 960 Jewish rebels who committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Roman Army in AD 73. The astonishing flattop rock fortification rises 1,300 feet above sea level and is reached by a three-minute cable car ride, although heartier souls might like to climb the steep Snake Path (about 45 minutes). The 20-acre Masada (pronounced Metzada) site is well worth a lengthy tour of what remains of the palaces, bathhouses, and the ingenious cistern where rainwater was collected and stored. TIP: Go early. There is no shade whatsoever and the heat can be unbearable much of the year.
4. THE DEAD SEA
After a morning at Masada, there will be plenty of time to visit the famed Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. A salinity level ten times higher than the ocean’s gives its waters extreme buoyancy and tourists love to take a dip (no more than 15 minutes is recommended) along with a de rigueur “100 percent natural mud” bath that may be more memorable for funny photos than promised “rejuvenation” effects. Try the relatively inexpensive Ein Gedi Spa (www.ein-gedi.co.il) where you can also enjoy a freshwater pool, massage, and lunch. TIP: Don’t leave the area without buying some of the amazing Ahava Dead Sea bath and beauty products.
5. EIN GEDI KIBBUTZ AND ?BOTANICAL GARDEN
This Eden-like oasis in a valley near the Dead Sea is a perfect place to learn about the kibbutz movement, which was inspired by the early Zionist concept of living by a work ethic that closely associated manual labor with spirituality. Visit the schools, meeting halls, and other communal buildings and tour the wonderful gardens containing nearly 1,000 desert and tropical plant species from five continents. TIP: Guest lodging is available for those wishing a longer stay ($160-$240 per night with full or half board). www.ngedi.com.
6. OLD JAFFA
Jaffa’s picturesque parks and maze of alleys with galleries and shops provide a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown Tel Aviv. The old town has become the “in” place to hang out in recent years, especially for people watching at the many top quality cafés and bars. If you’re staying at one of the big Tel Aviv hotels, consider walking at least one way down the lengthy beach (filled with frolicking bathers in the warmer months). TIP: Try Noa Bistro located near the famous flea market (which is also worth a look).
7. DINING IN TEL AVIV
In a nation not generally known for fine cuisine, the capital’s many excellent restaurants are well worth sampling. My top three choices: Manta Ray, an open-air pavilion on the Almah Beach, specializes in simple, flavorful seafood and an ever-changing platter of small appetizers. ($40 per person, 1-972-3-517-4774); Messa’s nouvelle French food is served in stylish rooms with white-on-white décor, long white communal tables, and dramatic drapery throughout. Top-ranking chef Aviv Moshe’s specialties include coquilles Saint-Jacques, ravioli stuffed with shrimp, and smoked goose in cauliflower cream. ($60 per person, 19 Ha’arba’a St., reserve three days in advance, 1-972-3-685-6859): Mul Yam, a cutting-edge gourmet seafood spot in Tel Aviv port is famed for fresh oysters, crab soup velouté, and a visit by Madonna. ($60-$100 per person; 1-972-3-546-9920)
8. BAHA’I SHRINE AND HANGING GARDENS, HAIFA
Definitely worth a detour to this otherwise not-so-interesting port city, the Shrine of the Bab is the world center of the Baha’i faith and visitors are welcome in selected areas, including the golden domed mausoleum of founding father Mirza Husayn Ali, upper and lower terraces, and the 18 utterly amazing circular gardens extending for a half mile down the steep hillside. (Reserve guided tours three days in advance by phone 1-927-4-835-8358, www.bahai.org.)
9. AKKO (ACRE)
This ancient walled city inside of a modern town is a rare mix of East and West, with temples, mosques, markets, churches, and castles requiring the better part of a day to properly visit. In the wonderful 12th-century underground city, you’ll want to see the Crusader Vaults and Halls filled with giant marble columns and archaeological exhibits. TIP: Explore the Arab bazaar, then have lunch in one of the restaurants lining the old port.
10. MIZPE HAYAMIM (VIEWPOINT OF THE SEAS) RESORT
A perfect spot to wind down after battling the tourist hordes in Jerusalem, Israel’s only Relais & Château resort is nestled amid the hills of eastern Galilee and offers wonderful views of the Mediterranean and snow-capped Mount Hermon from all of its spacious rooms and suites. The excellent vegetarian restaurant features wonderful salads, fruits, and vegetables grown on site and fresh fish from nearby waters. Carnivores may dine on organic local meats in the adjacent Muscat restaurant. Activities apart from hiking the hills or wandering through the fragrant gardens are limited, so be sure to enjoy the pool and excellent spa treatments. TIP: Make sure to take a tour of the working farm. Rates: $365-525. P.O. Box 27, Rosh Pina 12000, Israel, 1-972-4-699-4555. firstname.lastname@example.org.