A trip to Israel had been on our bucket list for years and it was definitely worth the wait. In our three week trip we saw one of the most historically significant cities in the world, floated in the iconic Dead Sea, hiked in some of the most spectacular canyons we’ve ever seen and found more than one little Nemo snorkelling straight off the beach!
It might not be a big country but it certainly has something for everyone. If it’s been on your bucket list for a while, book a flight and you won’t be disappointed.
Here’s our guide to the top places to visit in Israel & the Palestinian Territories for an unforgettable trip.
The best places to visit in Israel
Jerusalem, the city which has been causing disputes for thousands of years has to be the number one destination in the country. There’s just something about this city. It is steeped in history, has a very diverse culture and enough to keep you busy for months.
One of the wonderful things about Jerusalem is that it’s easy to explore on foot, and around every corner is something interesting to explore, tons of ruins that would be top sites to see in other cities aren’t even marked in Jerusalem. If you love history, bustling souks and a fantastic dining scene then Jerusalem should be top of your list.
Top 3 activities to do in Jerusalem
The Western Wall
The most holy place in Judaism is a place to behold as you witness hundreds of people praying at the Western Wall. Observing people praying at the wall with such feeling makes it mesmerising. It is a place that is full of noise, music and life as people come together. The men and women’s sections are separate but women are able to observe Bah Mitzvah’s going on at the men’s side by standing on a platform and looking over the partition.
The Dome of Rock
The Dome of Rock is on the other end of the spectrum: quiet, tranquil and solemn. Set on the Temple Mount, surrounded by cypress trees and wide streets, the Dome of Rock has a peaceful air to it that doesn’t inspire the fervour and celebration of the Western Wall.
This is the third most holy place in Islam, so sadly only Muslims can go inside the dome itself. If you aren’t Muslim it is still highly enjoyable to view from the outside and wander around the quiet gardens.
Wandering the Old City
Simply wandering the streets in the Old City of Jerusalem will be a highlight of your trip to Israel. You can walk the Via Delarosa where Jesus carried the cross before his crucifixion, explore the lively streets of the Muslim Quarter, get lost in the noise and crowds of the Christian Quarter or get some peace & quiet on the ramparts walk.
We always chose to skip a taxi or a car, just so that we could walk through the Old City again and again.
Tel Aviv feels very different to the rest of Israel. This modern city has a very European feel with hip coffee shops, patisseries and leafy streets which really don’t feel like the Middle East. If your aim is to relax and shop, then this is the place for you.
We also enjoyed exploring the old town of Jaffa - the Arab port which has a bit more of that Israeli character with historic buildings and sandstone streets. Whilst Tel Aviv isn’t top of our list, there’s enough here to keep you busy for a day or two.
Top things to do in Tel Aviv
Hit the beach
The beaches in Tel Aviv aren’t stereotypical white sand paradise, but they are pretty, lively and also great if you like surfing. The beaches are huge so you should be able to find a patch of sand all to yourself.
Wander Old Jaffa
The streets of Old Jaffa retain the Israeli character you’ll see in the rest of the country and it’s a beautiful place to wander. There are shops, parks and churches to check out as well as a few restaurants and great views of the city and beaches.
Whilst there are a few museums we were happy just to potter around the cobbled streets and check out the views and wishing bridge in the park. There is also a popular flea market and many restaurants with gorgeous decks on the water.
Read next: How to visit Bethlehem from Jerusalem
Places to visit in Israel - The North
We loved Nazareth. This small city had a distinct Arab character and charm that was unlike other parts of Israel we visited. It was also a lot quieter, making walking through the old souks really enjoyable. Whilst we didn’t do too much here, we loved slowing down the pace: eating local food on the street and visiting laid back coffee shops that looked out onto the old streets complete with atmospheric Arabian music. It turned out to be one of our favourite places in Israel.
Whilst Nazareth may not have the signature sights of many places in Israel, it is well worth a visit. Timing your visit with Shabbat will mean that restaurants and coffee shops which are shut in other parts of the country will be open here.
Top 3 activities in Nazareth
Church of Annunciation
Nazareth is well known for its churches and the Church of Annunciation is worth a visit. This is the biggest basilica in the Middle East. When we first walked in we weren’t blown away but if you head upstairs it is much more impressive.
Around the outside in the beautiful gardens are paintings and mosaics from all over the world, donated by churches showing the diversity of art in the Christian world. Right beside the Church of Annunciation and worth popping into is St Joseph’s Church which is thought to be the carpentry workshop of Joseph, father of Jesus.
The souks in Nazareth don’t rival Jerusalem in their scale, but they are charming and interesting to explore. You won’t be fighting crowds here, but in return you will see a place that feels more authentic as most shops have to cater to locals to make a living.
This means you’ll see homewares and all kinds of shops that don’t sell souvenirs. On the other hand, you may also see the local butcher hanging carcasses out - not the ideal place for veggies and vegans.
Eat, eat, eat
Nazareth is home to some of the best food in Israel and you don’t have to spend a lot to find it. From flat bread with zatar and cheese (try the old city pizza place) to shakshuka or a jam packed falafel pita. One of our favourites was Falafel Khazen.
This place was as humble as they come: a tiny opening as a shop front and your dining table and chairs in the narrow alley outside. The food they served was delicious and cooked fresh as you waited. They also gave us lots of little extra freebies such as coffee and homemade sweets which were a bit like turkish delight. Add to that a really friendly local family and we had a warm, fuzzy feeling which was rare to find in Israel.
Sea of Galilee
Unfortunately we didn’t get to spend much time in the Sea of Galilee but enough to tell you it’s a truly beautiful place with scenery which felt very different to the rest of Israel. It actually reminded me more of the English Lake District or parts of New Zealand. The Sea of Galilee, actually a lake, is famous for being the location of many of Jesus’ miracles including walking on water and feeding the 5000.
If you’re staying at the Sea of Galilee you’re probably going to be staying in the town of Tiberias, which has the most accommodation. It’s a shame because it isn’t the nicest town but we were unable to find any accommodation in the nicer areas such as Tabgha, still the setting is fabulous and well worth at least a day of your Israel itinerary.
Top 3 activities in Sea of Galilee
This is the most famous lookout in the whole country…. or so we were told, we hadn’t heard of it before arriving in Israel! It’s an absolutely stunning view point with expansive views of the Sea of Galilee. The main viewpoint is called Carob Lookout which is an easy flat walk from the car park through pretty green hillside to a magnificent view.
We’d hoped to visit at sunrise for a truly magnificent scene but unfortunately it is part of a national park which doesn’t open until 8am. If you have the time and the energy you can get round this by climbing the hiking trail from Tiberias town which will take around two hours, we couldn’t fit this in so if you do it please let us know how it is!
The Church of the Multiplication - Church of Loaves and Fishes
We have to be completely honest here we drove to this church and the car park was so full of tour buses that we couldn’t find a parking space. We then drove on to Nazareth planning to return the next day….. but then Nazareth got under our skin and we couldn’t leave, please don’t judge us! However we couldn’t talk about the Sea of Galilee and not mention one of its most famous attractions.
The church is said to have some beautiful mosaics including one in which a basket of loaves is next to two Galilee mullet representing the miracle of feeding the 5000.
Walk, cycle or take a boat on the lake
One of the most popular activities in the area is going out on a boat on the lake. If you want to get a bit more active you can walk part of the lake or cycle around the whole thing (35 miles). You can cycle around the whole lake in around two hours but you’ll probably want to allow most of the day so that you can stop at all the sights along the way. The lake besides Tiberias is busy but it quietens out as you get further away.
Read next: Driving in Israel - is it safe for tourists?
Places to visit in Israel - The South
Eilat is the sparkling tourist city of Israel and home to cruise ships, 5 star hotels and shopping malls. However, outside of this is an incredible natural world with beautiful coral reefs and epic canyons. Yes, we would normally avoid a city like Eilat, but it is the gateway to some unforgettable experiences.
Top 3 things to do in Eilat
Snorkel the Red Sea
We’ve snorkelled in a lot of places, and the Red Sea is up there with the best.
The clarity here is sensational and there are so many fish and coral to see. All you need to do is walk off the beach and within a minute you’ll be seeing colourful creatures on the pristine reef.
Read this post for more details on where to snorkel in Eilat.
The Red Canyon is one of Israel’s most beautiful and accessible slot canyon, and one of the best hikes in the country. This sandstone canyon gets pretty narrow and is a bit of an adventure where you need to scramble up and down sections using ladders to explore. Centuries of erosion has created incredible rock formations and it’s a truly remarkable place.
You can also extend the trail to make a big loop that takes you over some ridges for great views before heading back to the car park.
Black Canyon & Amram Pillars
Not quite as grand (and a lot harder to find), the Black Canyon is often overlooked for the much more popular Red Canyon. However the persistent will be rewarded with a trail that has virtually no one else on it and takes you deep into the desert, through a long and stunning canyon.
You can also check out the Amram Pillars nearby which look like grand columns made from pink rock.
Explore the Negev Desert
The Negev Desert is the home of adventure in Israel and the place to go if you like hiking or seeing desert wildlife. Here you can walk through deserted canyons with just a few ibex and the local vultures for company! We’ve always loved the desert, but the Negev has more unexplored places than we’ve seen in any other desert we’ve visited. It might not be rolling sand dunes but it’s definitely a beauty in its own right.
Top 3 things to do in The Negev Desert
Wadi Baraq is just pure fun. A short, exciting hike in the middle of the desert, Wadi Baraq starts by taking you up to the top of a huge sandstone cliff. This alone would make a pretty cool hike, but then the trail shoots down into the canyon where the real adventure begins.
From here you’ll need to test your swimming skills (if there’s been rain) as there are many pools to cross at the bottom of several ladders. Some are deeper than others and you’ll have to use ropes in one to get across. It is a really fun way to spend a couple of hours and visit a wadi that few others explore.
Ein Avdat is a beautiful oasis in the middle of the desert and a place that the whole family will enjoy. We saw several ibex here on the cliffs tops as well as a few vultures keeping an eye out for their next meal.
The main attraction here is the hiking trails. The most popular of which takes you to some pretty pools and up to the top of the canyon for some fantastic views. Sadly you can no longer swim in the pools but this didn’t detract from our visit.
Mitzpe Ramon is the largest crater of its kind in the world and there are many things to do here from long hiking trails to various viewpoints you can get to straight from the car parks.
If you just want a quick stop you can hop out at the Visitor Centre for some stunning views or head to Camel Lookout for sunset. You can also view the pretty coloured sand by the Carpentry Lookout, remember to scan the ground for blue headed lizards which we were lucky enough to spot in this area.
The Dead Sea: Ein Bokek & Ein Gedi
Most people visit the lowest place on earth to float and experience the unique health benefits from the Dead Sea mud. However, there are several of Israel’s best things to do in this area which have nothing to do with floating!
Top 3 things to do in the Dead Sea
Dead Sea Tree
The Dead Sea gets its name due to its salinity being prohibitive to any life. That is apart from the Dead Sea Tree in Ein Bokek. This lonely tree on the middle of a salt island has been lovingly tended to and continues to fight the odds.
You can swim to it, but it isn’t easy! After 15-20 minutes of hard work, you can check out this beautiful spot in the middle of the turquoise waters of the Dead Sea. To find out exactly how to find it, read our guide to the Dead Sea Tree.
Masada Fortress is a remarkable place, built on top of a huge cliff that would have been a formidable place for any enemy to consider. Nowadays you can walk the Snake Path to the top (around 45 minutes to one hour) and there is no time more magical to do it than sunrise.
At this time of day the temperatures are relatively cool and the reward is seeing the sun rise above the Jordanian mountains in the distance and bathe the Dead Sea in a beautiful golden light.
Afterwards you can check out what remains of Herod’s huge fortress. If you don’t want to hike you can take the cable car, but it doesn’t open in time for sunrise.
If you are only interested in one hike in the whole of Israel, make it this one. In the heart of Ein Gedi Nature Reserve lies Wadi Arugot, a river through a canyon that has created an oasis in this part of the desert. The trail goes through the river (yes in, not beside!) and there are two waterfalls to explore along the way.
The highlight of the hike is the Upper Pools, one of the best swimming spots we’ve ever seen. It is pure paradise and most people choose to head back before reaching this point (their loss, your gain)!
Is it safe?
We had a few people ask about safety when we mentioned we were going to Israel. Of course it’s is a difficult one to answer as nowhere is completely safe or unsafe. We checked the Foreign Office advice before booking our flights and were surprised to see it actually gets a much better write up than other countries we’ve been to, such as Morocco. This definitely made me feel 100% sure about the trip because governments tend to err on the side of caution.
From our personal experience, Israel & the Palestinian territories (although we only visited Bethlehem in Palestine) felt very safe. The biggest danger we faced was from the manic driving on the roads (seriously, Israel has some of the worst drivers we’ve ever seen).
The major cities felt very safe and we noticed a security presence on most days, especially in Jerusalem. Whilst seeing people with machine guns will never feel good, it did make you feel better that safety concerns here were never being ignored. You will see scanners at the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and on the way to Bethlehem. The reality of the situtation in Israel & Palestine is that the majority of people just want to get on with their lives.
However, we recommend keeping an eye out on The Foreign Office website and any news for changes in security. Check for any areas which should be avoided. A few weeks after we left, missiles were fired from Gaza into Israel. We didn’t go anywhere near the affected area and nor would most tourists, but it was a reminder that you can never say that any region is completely safe.
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Are you planning a trip to Israel & the Palestinian Territories? Which areas are on your list? Let us know in the comments below!