If you are planning a visit to Israel, according to AAA, the 10 top things to see and do are:
- Visit the Holy Sites: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the Galilee.
- Visit the Israel Museum to see the exhibits and the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.
- Visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, honoring the 6 million dead in the Holocaust.
- Float down the River Jordan, a great way to see the countryside and get baptized accidently.
- Float in the Dead Sea and get yourself covered with the famous black mud.
- Ride on a camel.
- Visit a kibbutz. There are 130,000 people living on the 270 kibbutzim in Israel.
- Shop the Arab bazaars in Jerusalem’s Old City and/or Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market.
- Eat falafel in pita, an inexpensive traditional Arab meal.
- Visit Eilat and the Red Sea, especially enjoying the underwater experience.
We would add a visit to the Golan Heights to see the lovely green mountains and lovely Hulah Valley, a visit to the south through the famous Ramon Crater, a mountain turned inside out by time, and a desert Jeep tour, exploring the magical deserts of Israel. There is much to see and do in Israel and we recommend at least two weeks, three or four would be better. To avoid the incredible heat, visit from late September to April, but be prepared for the occasional drenching rain during that time period. After April, rain won’t visit the area until November.
In anticipation of a visit to Israel by Brent’s parents, we put together this itinerary based upon various recommendations by friends, and from looking at other similar plans. His parents are religious, so we focused on the religious sites, though there are many other exciting ruins and natural wonders worth exploring here in Israel. At the time of their scheduled trip, Bethlehem was closed due to recent violence. It is a fairly short visit from Jerusalem, which should be taken with a tour group, and is included on many tours of the Holy Sites near Jerusalem. Items in italic are quotes from the tour brochures.
We recommend the tours by The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, United Tours and Egged Tours and recommend purchasing the following books from either Amazon.com or Steimatsky Books:
- Culture Shock! Israel
- Fodor’s Israel
- Gems in Israel Tours and Information
- Tzofit Guide for Touring Israel
- Jerusalem EasyWalks by Aviva Bar-Am
- EasyWalks in Israel by Aviva Bar-Am
- Also check our Links and Resources about Israel
NOTE: We’ve included links to some of the sites we mention. We do not recommend or endorse these web sites. They are for information only. If you have any problem with the links, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy.
- Entry: Entry requires a valid passport from a country recognized by Israel. Tourists will be interviewed by security and given up to a three month visa dependent upon your nationality.
- Security: High security is normal in Israel. Be prepared to have your purse and bags checked at the entrance to any public access area. Do not resist, but hold bags open for inspection to get through faster.
- Language: The official language is Hebrew, but English and Arabic are on most signs. Expect to speak simple English with most shopkeepers. Russian is the next most popular language.
- Driving: You can rent a car and drive in Israel with an international driver’s permit, purchased at AAA offices and the internet. Roads are fairly good and the signs are usually clear. It is not for the timid. Israelis use turn signals but tend to drive like maniacs at high speeds. Scooters and motorcycles whiz in and out of traffic with little regard for their safety or yours. Use extreme caution and pay attention all the time.
- Tipping: As a rule, most tips are built into the service, unless otherwise mentioned. Tipping is customary for tour guides, bellboys and hotel staff. Taxi drivers do not expect to be tipped, but restaurant staff might. Service is often abrasive or non-existent, so we tend to tip only when we get good service. The normal amount of 10-15% is fine.
- Access: Within main cities, public transportation and taxi service is excellent. Most tourist sites are within walking distance of each other. Trains connect the largest cities, and buses connect everywhere else. All public transportation stops during the Sabbath.
- Money: The currency is the Sheqel (Shekel) which is currently valued at 4 to $1 USD. One-hundred agorot make one sheqel. The symbol for the money is the English abbreviation of NIS which means “New Israeli Sheqel.”
- Dress: Comfortable is the Israeli dress code. You will see shorts, tank tops, sandals, and T-shirts everywhere, even in businesses. Moderate attire is required for religious areas. Dress for the season you are visiting, wearing protective clothing and sun lotion for the hot months. Comfortable walking shoes are a must.
- Safety: In general, Israel is safer at all hours of the day and night than most US cities. Use your common sense.
- Noise: Israel is not a peaceful place except on Shabbat. Expect loud noises, honking horns, shouting and yelling, and little quiet in the large cities.
- Cats and Dogs: Expect to find thousands of dogs and cats everywhere in Israel, usually not on leash and leaving their fecal matter in large lumps on the streets. Take care where you step. Feral cats live out of the garbage and the kindness of others. They screech and fight, along with the loose dogs, at all hours, adding to the noise pollution.
VanFossens Golden Tour Schedule
As of July, 2001
- Day 1
- Arrive at Ben Gurion Airport. Maybe a quick stop at the store and then home to relax and have dinner at the Panorama Restaurant on Tel Aviv waterfront which overlooks the beach of Tel Aviv and the ancient city of Jaffa (Yafo) in the distance. It was from there that Jonah set sail to meet the whale. We’ll walk to the waterfront and maybe along the promenade as we wander back home through the new city of Tel Aviv.
- Day 2, Monday
- Day for unpacking and resting. If you are up for it, we can spent the morning at the Eretz Museum in Tel Aviv to begin examining the history and life of the country. Either way, we will definitely go grocery shopping at Azrieli/HaShalom Mall. There is nothing like the experience of shopping in Israel for a foreigner, especially an American. It is an “experience” as it can take hours and many of the labels do have English but most are in Hebrew and/or Russian. The large grocery store at the Azrieli Mall is huge for Israeli standards, but we are going for the most entertaining experience in the shortest amount of time. The checking out process is also entertaining as you have to bag it yourself. Ask for “mishlo-ackh” and you will get it delivered to your home for free or a small fee. This is AWESOME and the only good part about grocery shopping in Israel. Mainly this day provides time to restock your physical energy from the 12 to 24 hours of flight time. It is also a great time to catch up and tell old stories.
- Day 3, Tuesday
- Early morning walk to the waterfront for a swim in the Mediterranean.
Shopping and exploring the markets of Tel Aviv and Carmel Market including the famous Nachalat Binyamin Arts and Crafts Fair held every Tuesday and Friday in Tel Aviv. At these markets and fair you will find all the interesting magic that is the old feeling of Israel. The food and household goods hawkers that line the narrow alley of the Carmel Market shout and yell at the crowd as they squeeze through, waving their cigarettes in the air and begging for buyers. The Arts Fair features handicrafts and artwork done by locals, but representing the artistry of the many immigrants and the crafts of their lands. Here is the place to buy unusual mezuzahs and hanukiah and other traditional Israeli and Jewish symbols done with great style and artistry. This is the place to pick up the most interesting bits and pieces of Israel to take home for yourself or as gifts.
Lunch on the waterfront (picnic) eating Russian, Arab, and Yemenite food.
Walk along some of Tel Aviv’s more interesting streets like King George, Shenkin, and up to Dizengoff Street on the way home to enjoy the interesting shops and stores. These are the more popular “modern” shopping areas of Tel Aviv. You will see people dressed in every fashion statement style for the past 500 years as we walk.
Home to rest and have a wonderful dinner from the goodies purchased at the market.
- Day 4, Wednesday
- Sea of Galilee, footsteps of Jesus tour with United/Egged Tours
This rapid paced bus tour gives a quick overview of the Tiberias and Kinneret area with stops at the baptismal site of Jesus (according to Israel and many Christians), the site and church of the Multiplication of the Loaves, and possibly a quick stop in Nazareth. This all day trip with United/Egged Tours is a typical tourist adventure, but it does cover a lot of ground and you get a taste of the area.
Home after 7PM for a light dinner and early bed.
- Day 5, Thursday
- Be prepared for a full day, and for your head to burst with information and history. It is a day covering over 200,000 years of history. Getting up very early in the morning, the first stop is the furthest on the trip in Akko near the Lebanon border. You will explore the ancient underground remains of the Crusader town, learning about some of the history and magic of this fishing city as it was torn down, rebuilt, built over, and how it survives today. Lunch will be within the old wall of the city, eating some of the fish from the sea, then we will drive through the famous port city of Haifa to part of the famous Carmel Caves where over 200,000 years of continual human occupation has been uncovered. We will explore some of the caves and remains and watch an interesting video that takes us back to how life was lived so many thousands of years ago.
Then we will head on to explore the famous ruins of Caesarea, another famous Crusader fortress and city, one that kept the Crusades going for a very long time. Dinner will be on the way home at the popular Yotvota Restaurant, a modern Dennys.The CrusadesThere are some interesting sites on the Internet with detailed information on the Crusades. The BBC-TV also did a lighthearted but thorough documentary about the Crusades recently.
- Day 6, Friday
- Up early again to explore the Yafo Flea Market (which is under construction until 2003, so it could be an interesting exploration) and wander the old city of Yafo. We will visit the underground remains found not long ago in the main square outside the church of St. Peter’s Monastery. If the church is open, we can visit it and then go on to explore the “new” old city. I was told that there was so much crime and violence in the old city of Yafo that the Israel government decided to bulldoze much of it down and turned it into a park. What remains of the ancient port city has been turned into artists’ quarters with many of the most famous artists in Israel displaying their works in galleries and shops throughout the twisting streets.
Society for the Protection of Nature in IsraelLiving in Israel for some time now, we’ve experienced a lot of what the tourist experiences here, and I have to say that while much of it is very good, a lot of it is just tourist drivel, racing around at high speed packed into buses or vans like sardines, and seeing Israel at 60 mph or 110 kph. “This is – oops! You missed it.” Not that these are any different than the bus tours you get in every city and country in the world, it is just done with the arrogant Israeli flair that seems to make them more tiresome and uncomfortable than they need to be.
But there is a diamond in the rough. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) offers fantastic tours all over the country with a focus on the nature and natural side of the country. You learn intensely and intimately about the history and life of the people in these places. You learn how they interacted with their environment and how they made nothing into something in order to survive. You get your hands and knees dirty climbing through underground caves. You get to pretend to make wine. You stand on the rooftops of Jerusalem and hear the bells ringing and the minarets singing, caught up for a moment in history. The leaders are totally passionate about what they are doing and love every moment of it, sharing their excitement with you. You really feel like you are a part of it not just looking at it.
You can get information on their daily tours and tour packages from their web site at http://www.teva.org.il/, though most recently the lack of tourism in Israel has led the site to go all Hebrew. You can call them directly from the US at 011-072-3-638-8688 or within Israel at 03-638-8688. The tours are offered in English and Hebrew, with a few other languages thrown in by special request. Skip the commercial stuff and get right into the heart and spirit of Israel.
By noon we have to be to the Dizengoff Center to test our tastebuds for Shabbat meal at home. Every Friday is a food festival in the Dizengoff Center Mall. We will choose from hundreds of home-made foods representing Arab, Yemenite, and Jewish traditions as well as German, Chinese, Japanese (yes – sushi!), Argentinean, Spanish, Polish, Russian, and many other countries. We carry this home and eat ourselves into a stupor and enjoy the traditional afternoon Shabbat nap. It’s a lazy evening with maybe a little TV or a movie, but very lazy, as is traditional.
- Day 7, Saturday
- Up early again to drive with Brent and Lorelle north to the Hulah Valley, the main water table for Israel and now a restored nature park with bird viewing towers and blinds. We will pass through the Carmel and Gilboa Mountains with stops to enjoy the incredible view. From the viewpoints we will be able to see much of the north of Israel, and the surrounding countries of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. If time allows we will stop to shop at one of the ancient Druze villages along the mountain ridge. We will pass through the Jezreel Valley where many famous battles were fought. If there is time we will stop and explore the ancient ruins of Meggido (Armageddon). We will pass by Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret) to the northern reaches of Israel near the Golan Heights. Lunch will be either a picnic lunch or possibly lunch at the Russian immigrant farming community, Bet Dubrovin, a historical museum and restaurant.
The drive home is long and a test of the nerves as we encounter the famous Shabbat Rush traffic Saturday night.
- Day 8, Sunday
- Sunday is the beginning of another work week in Israel. Time to send out laundry, catch up and make plans for the rest of the week. Could be a day to head in to Jerusalem to explore Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum), the Israel Museum/Dead Sea Scrolls and the Biblelands Museum. A lot of walking, so comfy shoes is a must along with a lot of water.
- Day 9, Monday
- Either drive or take a bus tour to Masada and Ein Gedi. If possible, take the SPNI tour of Masada, which would be much better. Masada is an ancient fortress built upon a mountain plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. Built by King Herod, it became a major symbol to the Zionist movement in Israel representing the last refuge of almost 1000 Jews against the Romans in AD 70. They committed suicide rather than giving up to the Romans. Considered zealots for many years by the Jews, this symbol of dying rather than surrendering became the war cry for the Jews returning to Israel: “Remember Masada!” A cable car takes us up to the top and the view is incredible. The archeological ruins are very interesting and it takes about 2 hours to fully explore.
If there is time and we can make arrangements in advance, we will head south to spend the night in Arad so we can enjoy the nightly “sound and light” show on the west side of Masada.
- Day 10, Tuesday
- Another day in Jerusalem or spent returning back from Masada and Arad, driving through the northern parts of the Negev, with possible side trips to the Beduin Cultural Museum near Lahav and to Makhtesh Hagadol, the smaller but more vivid of the unusual natural craters in Israel.
- Day 11, Wednesday
- Judean Hills and caves tours. The tour begins in Jerusalem hosted by SPNI. We will travel to Neot Kedumim, the world’s only biblical landscape reserve, to learn about how life was back during biblical times. How did they survive and live? We will learn a little about wine making, too. Then off to the Absalom Stalactite Caves (also known as Soreq Caves ) which are similar in content to the Carlsbad Caverns, but uniquely different. Discovered in 1967, it is said to contain every form of stalactite ever found. Photography is restricted inside the cave, but we may be able to get permission. We will then head off south of Jerusalem to explore the ancient world of the underground life of Jews during the Roman occupation at Beit Guvrin, which lasted through the first and second temple periods. We will crawl around on our hands and knees through these caves made in the chalk-like mountain, crawling back through time and a way of life foreign to so many of us. Lead by SPNI (Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel).
- Day 12, Thursday
- Full day walking tour of the old city of Jerusalem from the archaeological and biblical perspectives. The first mention of Jerusalem comes from ancient Egyptian texts from the 20th century BC. Today will be exploring the highlights of all those centuries. The tour begins with the Russian Compound and the “green line”, the border between Israel and Jordan before Israel won all of Jerusalem and pushed Jordan back to its current border along the Jordan River in 1967. We will visit the Cardo, the ancient Roman entrance and main road into the old city built in the 6th century BC; the Museum of the First Temple which goes down below the old city with museum displays and archeological remains from the First Temple period 1000 BC; the famous Wailing Wall, which is part of the remaining wall of the Second Temple destroyed in 70 AD; and walk the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Suffering” or “Way of the Cross” which is the final walk Jesus made through Jerusalem carrying the cross on the way to his crucifixion, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We will visit the birthplace and childhood home of Mary and the burial caves of her parents along the way, as well as shop and explore the different quarters of Old Jerusalem.
If there is time and energy, we will have dinner along the pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda Street, a glimpse at the newer parts of Jerusalem.
- Day 13, Friday
- Another Shabbat Rush day to get food and any last minute things until 1PM or 3PM and then it is eat and rest and relax, and recover from a busy week.
- Day 14, Saturday
- Day of choices. We can drive back up north to visit the Golan Heights, Meggido, Bet She’an (a very famous and incredible archeological ruin from Roman/Byzantine times), or explore the wonderful Eretz Museum in northern Tel Aviv. Or we can just relax and you can pack for going home. Haval! (So sad, pity) You will leave totally exhausted, making your trip home easy as you will sleep all the way.
NOTE: All tours are subject to change based upon weather and political conditions. Only two places on the schedule might be influenced by political unrest.
Tel Aviv, Israel