Israel may be small, but it’s steeped in more culture, religion, and history than just about anywhere else in the world. From mystic mountains, endless deserts and dead seas to holy walls, ancient temples, and modern street art, Israel was built for literally every type of traveler.
Visiting Israel for the first time can be tricky (too much to do! too little time!), but we’re here to help you cover the basics with the 19 best things to do:
Climb to the top of Masada
Masada: an ancient stone fortress in the Judaean Desert, sitting 1300 breathtaking feet above the Dead Sea. Built as a palace complex by Herod the Great, King of Judaea, in 73 A.D, the plateau holds both historic and symbolic weight, representing heroism and determination to this day. Masada is now an Israeli national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 840 acres of winding paths and well-preserved ruins.
Pro tip: The Snake Path on Masada is one of the most iconic hikes in Israel, and if you can, you’ll definitely want to hike up (instead of cable car or shortened hike, aka, the Roman Ramp). Hit the trail around 5:00am to catch the sunrise from the tippy top.
Try to sink in the Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is really just a lake, but we’ll let that slide because this incredible body of water lives up to its name: the Dead Sea is the lowest point on the surface of the earth, it’s filled with so much salt that fish can’t survive, it’s perfect for non-swimmers (you literally cannot sink), and it is known for it’s unique and magic health and healing properties.
Pro tip: There are a handful of public beaches along the Dead Sea’s shores, but Ein Gedi is the most popular. And before you take a dip, make sure to find a local shop or hotel and ask for Dead Sea mud. Buy a small jar, lather it all over your body, hop in the water, and float the day away.
Take a dip in the desert oasis at Ein Gedi
Maybe one of the most beautiful spots in all of Israel, Ein Gedi is one of the country’s best hiking spots, featuring oasis-like landscapes, botanic gardens, and the Dead Sea. While it’s just a skip and a jump outside of Jerusalem, this park feels miles away and has quickly become one of the most popular spots for Israelis who want to escape the city.
Pro tip: Hide away from the desert heat and take a dip at Nakhal David, a series of waterfalls that cascade out of the surrounding hills. There are multiple hikes that will lead you to the falls, ranging from 1.5 hours to 5 hours in length (and varying in intensity).
Explore hidden passageways in The Old City
If you’re going to put one place on your absolutely-must-visit list, this is it. This walled, sacred, one-kilometer city is entered through one of seven gates that lead to four separate quarters: The Jewish Quarter, The Armenian Quarter, The Christian Quarter, and The Muslim Quarter. Inside, you’ll find winding stone streets, alleys and markets overstuffed with trinkets, houses, tourist traps, and incredible historic and religious treasures like the Tower of David, the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the St. James Cathedral.
Pro tip: The best view of the city from the Mount of Olives, where you’ll get a stunning view of the old city set against the backdrop of the West Jerusalem skyline.
Put a prayer in the Western Wall
Located in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall,” is one of the most religious site in the world. It was originally built by King Herod in 20 BCE as an expansion of the Second Temple, but when the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 CE, this small piece of support wall was all that survived. Today, thousands of people visit the wall every year to pray (prayers are either spoken or written down and placed in the cracks of the wall). Above the Western Wall lies the Dome of the Rock, an important site for Muslims, as it’s the spot where the prophet Muhammad is said to have risen to heaven.
Pro tip: The Western Wall is free and is every day, year-round. Women and men should be “dressed modestly.” To pray at the wall, women should have their legs and shoulders covered, and men should cover their head.
Sleep in an actual Bedouin camp in the Negev
Have you ever dreamed of camping out in the Israeli desert under the stars? Well, this is your chance. Hop down to Southern Israel for a traditional overnight Bedouin hospitality experiences. These villages and communities provide fascinating insight into the history and lifestyles of Bedouins in Israel, and most overnights include a safe and warm tent, home cooked meals, storytelling, bonfires, and more.
Pro tip: Camels have been used by the Bedouin tribes and their predecessors for thousands of years as a mode of transport across the desert, and today, most of the Bedouin villages in Israel offer camel riding as an activity. While you can honor the tradition and history, we suggest that you admire the camels from the ground and avoid using them for entertainment.
Pay your respects at Yad Vashem
Yad Vashem, Israel’s largest Holocaust memorial, is set on the hill of Mount of Remembrance on the edge of Jerusalem. The museum’s nine galleries of interactive displays tell the story of the Holocaust using a range of multimedia, including photos, films, documents, letters, works of art, and personal items found in the camps. Entry is free, and guided tours are available in english are available all day long.
Pro tip: Yad Vashem isn’t a fun place to visit, but it’s an important one. If you’re feeling heavy, step out onto the museum’s balcony for a breath of fresh air and sunshine.
Eat your weight in Halva at the Carmel Market
The Carmel Market (or Shut Hacarmel) is the largest outdoor market in Tel Aviv. Here, you’ll find everything from clothing to spices, fruit to electronics. If you ignore the organic vegan juice stands and tables filled with plastic tchotchkes, the vibrant colors, sounds, and energy will make you feel like you’ve been transported straight into ancient middle east.
Pro tip: Don’t eat before you arrive. We repeat: do. not. eat. Wandering through the endless stalls, you’ll find fresh vegetables, cheeses, meats, spices, and desserts (hello, the best halva you’ll ever taste!). Looking to sit down? Grab a table at one of the many small local restaurants and cafes.
Party at 2am in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv tops just about every “best party city in the world” list, and we can’t help but agree. Between endless stretches of crowded beach, rooftop bars, and a nightclub scene that attracts top DJs from around the world, the city is young, vibrant, and incredibly inclusive.
Pro tip: After a day exploring the city, take a nap. In Tel Aviv, the party doesn’t typically start until 10pm. Bars generally get busy around midnight, with some clubs just starting to fill up around 2am.
Party like it’s Pride week
Known as the gay capital of the Middle East, Tel Aviv celebrates Israel’s LGBTQ community with Tel Aviv Pride, a week-long series of totally fun events. Tel Aviv is a diverse city with multicultural influences, tourists from all over the world, and super open-minded locals. Every summer, folks of every gender, religion and color flood the streets and gather for a celebration of acceptance, love and joy.
Pro tip: In town for Pride and want to see more of the country? Hop on a Gay Bus and make stops in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Masada and the Dead Sea and Galilee.
Join a Shabbat Dinner with “Betzavta”
Betzavta means “together” in Hebrew, and Betzavta‘s mission is to bring travelers and locals together, creating friendships through a unique, in-home dining experience. Local hosts open their homes and invite visitors for a casual Israeli dinner, which allows for a great opportunity to connect, engage and learn more about Israel in an authentic and welcoming setting.
Pro tip: If possible, book your dinner for a Friday. Not only are most families home and available to host, but you’ll get to experience an Shabbat Friday night dinner.
Explore the seaside port in Old Jaffa
Jaffa (or, Yafo) is the old port city from which Tel Aviv has grown. The Jaffa flea market is a must-visit, with vendors selling a diverse range of unique and local products. Meanwhile, enjoy winding through the narrow passageways and ancient buildings in the Old City of Jaffa (which are worlds away from modern Tel Aviv).
Pro tip: Hit the Jaffa Port and Jaffa Port Market for stunning views, a slice of history (it’s still used today by fishermen), and a bite to eat.
Explore hidden caves at Beit Guvrin
Biet Kurven National Park is located about 60km south of Jerusalem and encompasses the remains of the ancient city, Tel Maresha. While the area’s history is a little rocky (pun absolutely intended), the park’s incredible network of caves and underground cities attracts almost a million visitors each year.
Pro tip: All of the park’s caves are worth exploring, but the Bell Caves are the main reason visitors come here. There are over 800 of them, and most are linked by secret underground tunnels.
Get your zen on at Bahá’í Gardens
Located on Mount Carmel and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Haifa’s Bahá’í Gardens is the most sacred site of the Bahai faith (a religion that teaches the essential worth of all religions, and the unity and equality of all people). Each year, nearly a million people enjoy the beautiful terraces of the Gardens and it’s flower gardens, rock formations, and peaceful waterfalls.
Pro tip: Each day at 12:00 noon, there is a tour in english that requires no prior reservation and is totally free of charge. Other tours are offered throughout the day in both Hebrew and Russian. The best way to explore the gardens is from within its grounds (aka, devote at least a few hours here).
Experience real, fresh, warm hummus
Call us basic, but we think that it might be a crime to visit Israel and not overdose on hummus. We’re not talking about that prepackaged stuff that you’ll find at the supermarket. We’re talkin’ about homemade, fresh, warm hummus, drowning in flavorful toppings and served as a meal.
Pro tip: If you’re going to eat like a local, no cutlery is allowed. That’s right, grab that pita and get in there. The ‘two pitas, one hummus’ ratio rule is prime: use one as a side and one as a spoon.
Row a boat through an ancient underground reservoir at the Pool of Arches
The Pool of Arches (also called the Pool of St. Helena and the Pool of Goats) was originally built as an underground reservoir in to supply water to the residents of Ramla. On the tour, you’ll spend about 20 minutes navigating between the 15 stone pillars. Don’t forget to look up and spot the square hatches carved into the stone where people would lower their buckets to collect water.
Pro tip: The reservoir is open for visitors six days a week (every day besides Saturday), and costs about $3 USD (12 NIS) for a tour.
Visit an ancient tree that grew from a 2,000 year old seed at Kibbutz Ketura
Okay okay, we’re telling you to visit a tree. But this isn’t just your ordinary maple tree. The Palm Methuselah was extinct for one thousand years before sprouting again from a 2,000-year-old seed. The seed was one of six discovered in 1963 in a jar in Herod the Great’s palace Masada. In 2005, the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies decided to try planting three of them. One miraculously grew, and today, 14 years later, it’s more than 10 feet tall. This tree is a testament to history, science and faith, and is an absolute must-see.
Pro tip: Come for the tree, stay for Arava. This environmental research and development center will give you a unique view of the current state of agriculture, conservation, sustainable development, and energy conservation in Israel. They even offer classes, internships, and short and long-term programs.
Retreat to hot springs near the Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee, or the Kinnereti, is tucked away in Northeast Israel, between the Golan Heights and the Galilee region in the Jordan Rift Valley. Famous for it’s role in New Testament writings (according to ancient religious text, this is the spot Jesus lived and walked on water), this body of water is a popular destination for religious gatherings, tourists and outdoor enthusiasts.
Pro tip: Check out the local hot springs (Tiberias Hot Springs and Hamat Gader Hot Springs spa are two of our favorites), or head to Korazim National Park to see the remains of the ancient Jewish town of Korazim, a Bedouin sheikh’s tomb, and explore a fourth-century synagogue.
Work on a farm at a Kibbutz
Perhaps one of the coolest community models in the world, Kibbutzim are community collectives that focus on agriculture, actively avoid economic motivation, and are built on the belief that residents should share absolutely everything — from food to clothes to jobs. Kibbutz members receive the same budget according to family size, regardless of their job or position. The result is a community dedicated to communal success, respect for the land, and a love for togetherness.
Pro tip: If at all possible, set aside a few weeks to a few months to volunteer. Volunteers from around the world can help by picking fruit, cooking, cleaning chicken coops, and assisting in research. In return, volunteers receive food, board, a little pocket money that can be spent in within the community.
Explore the mystic city of Safed
Safed is not only one of Israel’s holiest cities, it is also the country’s highest city. Set in the dense pine forests of the Upper Galilee, overlooking Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, Safed is a perfect blend of ancient architecture and modern-day beach resort. Safed’s artist quarter contains some of Israel’s most celebrated artists and their works, giving the entire city a cool, colorful, bohemian vibe.
Pro tip: Safed is also known as the City of Kabbalah. In Kabbalistic tradition, the Four Holy Cities of Judaism are each believed to embody an element of Nature: Jerusalem is earth, Tiberias is water, Hebron is fire, and Tzfat is air. When you visit this mystic etherial hilly city, you’ll know exactly why Safed represents air.