Israel: holiday highlights

by Chris Howard

It may be only a small country, but Israel's not short of fascinating attractions. Here's my guide on what to see, where to go and how to get the most out of a week there

The classic way to see Israel is to base yourself in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and do day trips from there. As with a lot of things, it's the classic way for a reason and while they are both touristy places, it only takes a bit of effort to get off the tourist trail in either.


Tel Aviv is all about nightlife, beaches and, somewhat less romantically, being the centre of the Israeli transport network. While there, we stayed at the Hayarkon 48 hotel. It's right in the centre of all the action yet the rooms are quiet, the showers clean and the communal areas relaxed, as are the staff. A double room is US$85 and dorms are US$25 per person, all with air con.

If you're spending any time in the daytime in Tel Aviv there are three main options. One, visit the rather specialist museums if you happen to have that specialist interest. Two, lounge on the beach. Three, visit the quarter of Jaffa. Whether the museums are worth doing will be very much a personal thing. The beach is just a beach like any other but it is the quintessential Tel Aviv experience, and sitting with a cold Goldstar beer in the warm sun, watching the beautiful people play volleyball, is a very pleasant way to spend your holiday.

Jaffa is OK, but if you have limited time, I'd recommend skipping a visit there and replacing it with a day trip to Akko in the north. You can get there on Israel's efficient rail network in 90 minutes, for US$16 return. The centre of Akko is a fascinatingly atmospheric mix of Crusader ruins and Ottoman-era souks populated by Israeli Arabs. The main sights are the Crusader citadel, with some fascinating underground passages, and the beautiful old harbour. All can be accessed with a combined ticket, which comes with a very informative audio guide (US$10).

When we visited Akko we got there early enough to add on a visit to Haifa afterwards. Haifa has one main site, the Baha'i Gardens, which are beautiful but accessible by appointment only. Even if you don’t visit the gardens, though, Haifa is a pleasant enough place to wander round, with some nice cafes and good views.

The very dedicated could try to combine a visit to Akko with a visit to Caesarea, which is one of Israel’s finest archaeological sites and a rather plush beach resort in one. Train tickets cost about US$10 return for the 45-minute journey; a combined ticket for the sites is another US$10. The sites are interesting and worth a visit but aren’t as interesting as Akko, so if you only have time for one of these two, go to Akko.

Another good trip from Tel Aviv is a visit to Latrun for the Museum of the Israeli Armoured Forces (US$8), which really brings to life the many wars of Israel's short history. To compensate for all the sombre gloom of the museum, right next door is Mini-Israel (US$12), a very silly series of miniature models of famous Israeli buildings. Latrun makes a good half-day trip if you have a car but is tricky to get to with public transport.

Nightlife in Tel Aviv moves on very quickly so instead of recommending individual places, I'll recommend three areas. For street-side bars and cafes, the area around the junction of Dizengoff and King George Street can't be beaten. Just follow the locals. For more formal bars and restaurants, the newly-developed boardwalk in the old port area to the north of the city is very civilised. For beach-front cocktails, go to Frishman Beach and Gordon Beach - but don't expect a cheap evening.


Jerusalem also has a surprisingly good bar and restaurant scene but you have to get out of the old town and head along Jaffa Road for about one kilometre. You'll know when you've got there.

Jerusalem is teeming with places to stay. We very much enjoyed the Citadel Youth Hostel in an old atmospheric building in the old town. The staff were very friendly and the downstairs rooms beautifully cool but the plumbing was a bit too characterful! Prices range between around US$7 and US$50 per person, depending on the level of privacy you want.

Everyone visits the Western Wall, the Dome on the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Personally, I was a bit underwhelmed but we met several people who kept going on about the 'amazing spiritual energy' so each to their own, I guess. What else to do in Jerusalem is very much down to your interests. You could spend a day going from church to church, comparing the different styles of worship and architecture. Despite the number of tourists, there are still atmospheric parts of the old town, particularly in the northwestern part, near Herod's gate. The museum in the Citadel gives a fairly balanced history of the city, much as the larger Israeli Museum does for the tribes of Israel.

We did two day trips from Jerusalem. The first was to the Palestinian-administered area in the West Bank. We felt welcome and safe throughout but before doing anything like this do get up-to-date advice from locals and your government. We took a bus to Ramallah, which was an interesting journey through the security wall. Ramallah was surprisingly busy, surprisingly wealthy and, frankly, surprisingly normal. And we visited Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum, which was surprisingly tasteful.

From Ramallah, a bus to Nablus takes you through the heart of the West Bank, past Israeli army checkpoints, Jewish settlements and Arab villages - an interesting journey. Nablus was wonderfully lively and a very friendly place. The souk is one of the best I've ever visited and we found a great coffee shop overlooking the main square. A day like this is a good chance to see for yourself what conditions are like in the West Bank, what going through checkpoints is like, what the security wall is like. Clearly, it's just a snapshot but I believe it gave me a greater understanding of the issues involved and, if conditions allow, I'd really recommend it.

Our other day trip was the rather more typical visit to the Dead Sea and the ruined fortress at Masada. The journey to Masada passed some starkly beautiful desert scenery but the site itself was, in my opinion, overpriced and fairly uninspiring. The Dead Sea is quite an experience. I wouldn't say I greatly enjoyed it or didn't enjoy it, but I'm glad to have tried it - it is a strange feeling.

We didn't have time to visit the countryside in the north, but heard great things about it, and saw a lot of good photographs of the region. If you have any extra time, you may want to look into that for hiking, canoeing, etc.

Generally I’d really recommend a visit to Israel. Go with an open mind, plenty of energy and a budget of at least US$40 per person per day, and I’m sure you’ll have a great time.