Israel Tourist Destinations

During my Israel trip, I tried to squeeze in as many tourist destinations as possible. To avoid getting myself into unsafe situations, I didn’t travel independently. Instead, I generally took organized tours (such as those organized by Egged/United Travel). I prefer to travel independently, so doing organized tours was a little frustrating–the group moves only at the pace of the slowest member, and we didn’t spend enough time at some sites. However, I think it’s impossible to fully enjoy many Israeli destinations without a knowledgeable tour guide to explain the significance of the site. A good guide makes a huge difference!

Here’s my recap of the destinations I hit during my stay, along with my grades as a tourist destination:

* Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth (where Mary and Joseph lived). Grade: B. It’s a relatively modern and undistinguished church (by Israel standards), but the grottoes are interesting.

* Capernaum (home of some of the apostles, and maybe Jesus). Grade: B. There are extensive and interesting ruins, as well as a very old synagogue. The Sea of Galilee setting is very pretty. But the ruins are not as interesting as other ruins, such as Masada.

* Tabgha (Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes). Grade: A. Another pretty setting on the Sea of Galilee, and interesting Byzantine mosaics. This is a brief stop, but it’s a good one.

* Yardenit (Jordan River baptismal site). Grade: D. Boring. Lots of dead fish floating in the water. Plus, the river is now lined by eucalyptus trees, so it hasn’t retained its historical look. It was fascinating, however, to see the infrastructure built to do mass baptisms in the yucky Jordan River water.

* Drive down Jordan River valley. Grade: A. Beautiful scenery of the land of milk and honey.

* Caesarea. Grade: A. Caesarea was a Roman resort town built to overlook the azure Mediterranean Sea, and it’s a spectacular display of Roman excess. This deserves at least a half-day of guided touring.

* Old Akko. Grade: A. A well-preserved and pretty Crusader fortress, with dungeons, tunnels, banquet halls, etc. The old city itself is interesting as well, but the Old City of Jerusalem is even nicer.

* Rosh Ha-Nikra. Grade: C. This reminded me some of Big Sur: high bluffs overlooking the coast (with a restaurant on top, just like Nepenthe) and sea caves. But the caves are unremarkable compared to the many sea caves on the California coast, and here they charge for access! Unless you’ll never make it to the CA coast, save your money. One big difference from Big Sur: the proximity to the Lebanon border, with military installations all along the hillside and Israeli warships patrolling the waters.

* Masada. Grade: A. Masada is famous as the last-stand stronghold of Jewish rebels, and deservedly so. The physical setting is beautiful–a 1,000 foot high mesa in the desert along the Dead Sea coast. The ruins are also terrific. In particular, the Roman siege fortifications are nearly intact, and the ruins are generally well-preserved throughout. I think Masada warrants a full-day guided tour (including the hike up and investigation of the Roman siege camps).

* Ein Gedi Spa. Grade: B. This was an access point to swim in the Dead Sea, plus take a mud bath and lounge in some hot springs. Bring your bathing suit and towel, but you might buy disposable sandals from them. (You will really want sandals to walk across the “beach,” which is rocky, and wade in the Dead Sea, which has a rough salty bottom, but wearing your own sandals into the Dead Sea will permanently skankify them). Personally, I didn’t find the Dead Sea swim all that interesting. The buoyancy was a little neat, but there were stern warnings not to get any water into our faces/mouths, so I was constantly worried that a little splash or carelessness would lead to some pain. Ultimately, this stop struck me as more of a checklist stop (i.e., go to lowest place on earth–check. Float in the Dead Sea–check) than a place that was actually fun to visit.

* Drive along the Dead Sea. Grade: A. The Dead Sea is lined by towering desert peaks. It reminded me a lot of Zion Canyon in Zion National Park.

* Yad Va’Shem (Holocaust Memorial). Grade: A. An intensely powerful and moving experience. It tells the story of the Holocaust, and how an entire nation became complicit in committing atrocities against the Jews, better than anything else I’ve ever seen. Note that this is not a “fun” destination. It literally made me physically sick to my stomach. I couldn’t eat the whole day after experiencing this.

* Israel Museum. Grade: B. The big draw is the Dead Sea Scrolls, although they were a little unremarkable to see. I spent a lot of my time looking at the old Judaica and the recreations of synagogues from around the world. It’s amazing how many Jewish traditions have remained constant across the centuries and across the entire globe. The museum also had a modestly interesting temporary display of old coins. However, I was very disappointed that the archaeology wing is shut down until 2009-10. I’m most interested in the antiquities, so the wing’s closure eliminated one of the main draws. Also, I went at night (on the day I went, the museum was only open 4-9), so I couldn’t enjoy the outdoor setting or the sculpture gardens. If you go, go in the day.

* Jerusalem’s Old City. Grade: A. The Old City is a fascinating and complicated place. It reminded me a little of the discussion in Shrek about layers. (Shrek: “Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.” To which the Donkey ultimately points out that parfaits have layers too.) The Old City has layers, both physically and meta-physically. I could spend years exploring the Old City and still not appreciate all of its layers. It’s a fascinating destination. For me, the experience was enhanced staying in the Old City, which gave me great proximity to everything (but be careful about safety). Some subdestinations within or near the Old City:

– The Western Wall. Grade: A. The wall of Jerusalem stone is physically beautiful, and spiritually it’s iconic for Jews. Go on Friday after sundown and see the orthodox Jews come to pray and party. But at any time, you can see devout Jews in various states of rapturous worship around the wall. It’s very moving.

– Temple Mount. Grade: A. The Dome of the Rock is a stunning building from the outside (no idea about the inside…). The entire plaza is a serene yet spiritual setting.

– Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the putative site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection). Grade: A. In a city filled with boundaries and turf wars, I think no building better illustrates the challenges of harmonization than this one. Collectively owned by six church organizations, the building hardly reflects a cooperative spirit. Instead, because of disputes between the churches about their property rights, repairs and upgrades are regularly stymied, leading to a building that’s both impressive and dilapidated. The building is filled with interesting but subtle details; to fully appreciate this building absolutely requires a knowledgeable guide. (I ended up going twice with 2 different guides and got completely different perspectives from them).

– City of David. Grade: B. The site of King David’s old Jerusalem (outside of the current Old City’s walls), this is undergoing active excavation. The most interesting aspect today is the ability to explore the ancient water system, including the hidden tunnels that helped Jerusalem survive sieges. However, this site is still a work-in-progress and will be more interesting when some of the excavations are complete.

– Tower of David (the Citadel). Grade: B. An impressive and attractive fortress at the Jaffa Gate, the Citadel reflects the layers of Jerusalem–it’s an aggregation of Jewish, Herodian, Crusader and Ottoman construction (and a few others as well). There are exhibits that focus on the history of Jerusalem, which makes this a good first stop. (I went as my last stop, so the educational content was a little redundant by that point). Currently, they run English-language tours about Jerusalem’s history at 11 am each day. Unfortunately, they do not run a tour that talks about the fortress itself, which seems worthy of a standalone tour. There are great views in every direction from the top of the Citadel.

– Mount of Olives sites (including Pater Noster Church, Dominus Flevit Church and the Garden of Gethsemane). Grade: B. The Mount of Olives has beautiful views of the Old City, some neat churches and lots of cemeteries.

Overall assessment: Israel is an interesting and complicated place. From a tourist standpoint, the religious and historical sites are truly unique. Anyone interested in Jewish/Christian/Muslim history, Roman history or Medieval history will find terrific stuff here. However, I was also struck by the geographic similarity between Israel and California, and how well California fares as a tourist destination with top attractions like the Channel Islands, Santa Barbara, Death Valley, and (my favorite) Mendocino (not to mention more famous stops like Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Wine Country, etc.). So while I was glad to go to Israel, it also reminded me that I am blessed to have a world-class tourist destination in my (figurative) backyard.