Things To See and Do in Israel
As I devoured my fourth falafel-filled pita in three days, I thought about everything I had done in the past 24 hours. I had hiked up a mountain at sunrise, gone on two nature walks, swam in the saltiest body of water I had ever come in contact with, slept in a tent in the desert, and ridden on a camel. Yes, you read that correctly – ridden on a camel.
These are just a few of the things you can do while on a trip to Israel, and I’m here to tell you about a few more.
1. The Dead Sea
Sharing borders with both Israel and Jordan, and holding the record of being the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea is technically a lake (but “The Dead Lake” sounds like something from an Edgar Allen Poe poem and not somewhere anybody would want to visit).
Instead of sand, like most oceans and lakes, the floor of the Dead Sea is comprised of rocks of salt so sharp that Dead Sea swimmers have to wear water shoes as to not cut up the bottoms of their feet. In fact, the Dead Sea itself is so salty that it is impossible to swim in – the best way to enjoy it is to just let yourself float on your back.
One of the times during my trip that I was the most relaxed was when I was floating in the Dead Sea, just letting the warm, salty water gently push me around while the warm sun soaked into my skin.
2. Ein Gedi
Overlooking the Dead Sea and filled with breathtakingly beautiful waterfalls, Ein Gedi is a great place for a day-long hike or just a short nature walk.
It is considered one of the most important nature reserves in the entire country of Israel because of all the hundreds of native plant and animal species that live there – Ein Gedi is home to over 900 species of plants and 200 species of birds alone, not to mention the multiple mammals that reside there, including but not limited to the fuzzy, chinchilla-like hyrax.
3. The City of Jerusalem
The famous city of Jerusalem, the oldest city in the world, is considered to be a holy city by three different religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Regardless of your religious beliefs, if you are in Israel, I highly recommend paying a visit to Jerusalem. The “Old City” of Jerusalem is separated into four sections, known respectively as the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian quadrants.
The Old City itself is actually quite small, so three of its most important sites – The Wailing Wall, Dome of the Rock, and Via de la Rosa – are in close proximity to each other, but are each important to a different religion – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity (respectively). Jerusalem is the only city in the world that is so profoundly important to such different groups of people, which is part of why it’s so world-renowned.
The Western Wall (also known as the “Wailing Wall”) is one of the most well-known sites in the Old City. The Wall is what remains of the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem, making it a sacred place of worship. Thousands of people come from all over the world to visit the wall and pray, and cry, which is where the nickname “Wailing Wall” comes from. Visitors are encouraged to write prayers on pieces of paper and leave them between cracks in the wall. A couple times a year, rabbis remove the messages to make room for new ones, and bury the old notes in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
Surrounded by forests and filled with artists and musicians, Zefat (also spelled Tzfat, Safed, Tsfat and a million other ways), is the center of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Yes; the same Kabbalah that Madonna suddenly decided she subscribes to several years ago. In addition to the Queen of Pop, however, many other people subscribe to this belief, and flock to Zefat in order to soak up the culture.
I think my visit to Zefat was the first time during my trip to Israel that I had something other than falafel for lunch – I stopped at a Yemenite food stand where a man was making delicious fried cheesy tomato wraps, which was probably one of the best meals I had during my stay.
There’s plenty to do in Zefat, from local artists selling their paintings, jewelry, and statues, to musicians playing free concerts in the middle of the day. When I was there, there was a Hasidic reggae band playing in honor of their rabbi’s birthday. I sat and listened while eating my delicious fried cheesy tomato wrap thing from the Yemenite food stand. Because of all the art being sold everywhere, Zefat is also a great place to buy souvenirs for yourself and gifts for friends and family.
5. Tel Aviv
Located on the Israeli coast right next to the Mediterranean Sea, Tel Aviv is a constant hub of activity from museums to concert to bustling markets. It’s covered in beautiful beaches, making it one of the main tourist destinations in Israel. Tel Aviv is also known for its nightlife – night clubs don’t start filling up until one or two AM, and are filled with dancing tourists and locals alike all night long.
One of my top three favorite moments from my trip was swimming in the Mediterranean Sea at sunset the night before I went back home. Unlike California (where I’m from), the water is actually warm, and as I paddled around with a bottle of wine in my hand watching the red sun sink into the sea, I remember feeling a sense of pure joy. If you’re a person who likes swimming, or sunsets, I definitely recommend stopping by the Mediterranean Sea during the evening.
Because of the ongoing political conflict between Israel and Palestine, regardless of where you travel in Israel, you’re going to see metal detectors and guards with guns in most doorways, and bomb shelters in the basement of most buildings.
I was pretty taken aback the first time I saw a bomb shelter – I was wandering around the hotel, opening a bunch of doors in an attempt to find the pool, and came face to face with a bomb shelter instead, just like in the movies, except suddenly I was inside of one instead of just seeing one through a screen. Bomb shelters, and, consequently, the very real possibility of a bomb being dropped at any minute, had always seemed like a distant reality, far removed from anything relevant to me or my life. But suddenly it wasn’t anymore, and I realized that for millions of people all over the world, it never had been. But for those millions of people, metal detectors and guards with guns are just part of normal, every-day life, and after being in Israel for a few days, they began to seem normal to me too.
Before you travel anywhere, it’s a good idea to look up travel warnings for your destination and its surrounding areas, just to make sure you stay safe. But don’t let political tensions in one area of a country scare you out of visiting that country at all – yes; you could get into a scary situation when going to a country with political or social tensions, but you’re just as likely to get hit by a car on your way to work tomorrow.
As with anything, explore and have fun, but keep safety precautions in mind – stay away from particularly affected areas in your destination, look both ways before crossing the street, and you’ll be fine. I returned from Israel in one piece and a little more tan, with shoes filled with Tel Aviv sand and the ability to say that I’ve ridden on a camel.
About the Author: Jessica Nemire
Jessica is a creative writing major at San Francisco State. She spent her gap year in Antigua, Guatemala, and has also been to various parts of Mexico and all over Israel. Next on her list of travel destinations are Costa Rica and Italy. In the meantime, Jessica lives in San Francisco, California, where she studies at the university and people watches on the train. She is (mostly) fluent in Spanish, and wants to learn Italian and Portuguese. She’s a bit of a volunteering buff and has writter a number of volunteering pieces for gapyear.com.