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A Few Reasons to Travel to Israel

By Eric Hammer

Those wishing to travel to Israel should know that it is one of the most unique countries on the planet, offering something for virtually everyone, regardless of the interests that you happen to have. It is one of the very few countries on the planet where you can spend the morning skiing (on the slopes of Mount Meron in the north) and then, with a 6 hour drive find yourself sunbathing in the exact same country (in the port city of Eilat at the other end of the country). About the size of New Jersey, Israel truly has it all. Here are a few of the highlights that you may want to see:

The Old

As a country steeped in history, Israel has always attracted religious tourists and those interested in history alike. The most famous of the "old" things to see are of course to be found in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Religious Things to See

Here, you can experience the Via Dolorosa and see where Jesus took his final steps and then pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where He is reputed to have risen from the dead to impart a message of hope to His disciples.

For Jews, the Western Wall, sometimes called the Wailing Wall is by far the most famous monument Israel has to offer, being the last remnant of the ancient Temple which stood in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago before the Romans destroyed it.

Muslims of course will find one of the oldest mosques in the world on the other side of the Western Wall. The Al Aqsa Mosque compound is open to all visitors regardless of religion, though you generally must be a Muslim to enter the mosque itself. Maintained by the Jordanian Wakf since the 1967 Six Day War, the mosque is considered to be one of the holiest places in Islam after Mecca and Medina.

Of course, there are other ancient religious shrines in Israel including the Bahai gardens in Haifa and a number of ancient monasteries built into the mountainside in the West Bank. Access to these places is generally available by car or by tour bus, though the Bahai gardens in Haifa can be visited using regular public transportation.

Historical Things to See

Those who are less interested in religion and more interested in history when they travel to Israel will find a visit to the Jerusalem excavations in the City of David to be a rewarding experience. Here, you can wade through a 3,000 year old tunnel which was used by the ancient Israelites to bring water into the city even when it was under siege. The tunnel is still flooded with water and as such, you should expect to wear boots and expect to get wet. Other highlights of the City of David include excavations showing how people in ancient Israel lived and worked around the area of the Temple, including a video recreation of life in the ancient city.

Those interested in Roman times should visit the Cardo, an excavated area located beneath the present day Old City of Jerusalem which shows what a typical street was like in Roman times. A walk along the Old City walls is also a breathtaking experience which will allow you to experience what life might have been like in ancient times.

The New

Of course, Israel isn't just about the old. It's also about the new. The city of Jerusalem sports a number of wonderful pedestrian markets, including the "midrehov" which is in the western part of the city. Here, hip cafes mix with numerous tourist shops and even a McDonalds, the very first in the city. The "midrehov" is located on Ben Yehuda Street, which is roughly parallel to Jaffa Street.

In Tel Aviv, one can visit the Israeli Opera House, drop by the beach or check out the promenade which was built along the reclaimed Tel Aviv pier. The city is also known for its nightlife, offering a world class array of clubs and bars catering to every taste under the sun. In fact, Tel Aviv has consistently ranked in the top 10 of destinations for those interested in all night parties and in gay friendly culture.

Of course, one cannot forget about Eilat where snorkeling and scuba diving mix with the adventure of the undersea observatory where you can see coral reefs and a wide variety of tropical fish. Those looking for a further adventure should consider taking a submarine ride to see deeper into the Red Sea.

The Shuk

Deserving its own section in our review about travel to Israel, the "shuk" or marketplace in Israel is an institution in almost every major city in the country. These open air marketplaces offer fresh fruit and vegetables which would put any farmer's market to shame for the variety and bounty they provide. Most Israeli shuks also offer stores with assorted house wares, meat and dairy products and even some souvenir shops, especially in the more popular shuks.
The two most famous of these shuks are both located in Jerusalem. One is the open air Mahane Yehuda Shuk, which offers all of the above and more. Come in the morning and sample some fresh baked pastries from the many bakeries in the area of the shuk and then pick up some fresh fruits from the many vendors in the area. Stop for a falafel (Israel's national dish) at one of the many stands in the area and shop for a few souvenirs at the handful of stalls catering to tourists. Brave souls will try going to the shuk on a Friday morning when the area becomes a sea of wall-to-wall humanity as tourists mix with locals preparing for the holy Sabbath by buying twisted bread loaves called challah along with other delicacies. Mahane Yehuda is located on Jaffa Street and can be reached using the Jerusalem Light Rail.

Those looking for souvenirs would do well to visit the Arab Shuk inside the Old City of Jerusalem. This shuk, which is also designed to serve the locals with their daily needs caters more heavily to tourists and includes shops selling both Christian and Jewish memorabilia as well as general souvenirs and knickknacks designed to appeal to any budget. Be sure to bargain heavily with the vendors as this is expected and don't be afraid to sit down with some of the proprietors for a cup of Turkish coffee, often served free of charge to visitors in various shops around the Arab shuk. The Arab shuk can be accessed by entering the Old City through either Damascus Gate or Jaffa Gate.

Two other "shuks" worth mentioning are the Jaffa shuk in the Old City of Jaffa (Next to Tel Aviv) and the artist's shuk in the Old City of Safed (in Northern Israel). The Jaffa shuk is rather small but quite unique as it is an artisan's shuk where one can find unique creations produced by local artists. Another "shuk" of sorts, though quite different from the others is the Artist's quarter in the old city of Safed. Here, dozens of artists have gathered to sell paintings and other artwork to the general public. Most of the work is original and the variety of products range from oil paintings to silk screens.

Fun

Israel's Mediterranean coast line is dotted with beaches and each major city offers its own form of nightlife, with clubs and cafes in the German Colony in Jerusalem, dancing and bars in Tel Aviv and even a handful of clubs and bars in Haifa (though Haifa does tend to cater to an older clientele who likes things to be more laid back).

Those with children may wish to visit any of the numerous water parks which dot the country, offering water slides and other family fun for all ages. Of course, no visit to Israel would be complete without a dip in the Dead Sea. Experience the feeling of floating on the salty water and you'll understand what everyone has been raving about. Then, visit one of the many spas along the shore of the Dead Sea for a day of pampering including mud wraps, facials and more.

If you're looking for a fun boating adventure, peddle boats can be rented in Tel Aviv to traverse the Yarkon river and motor boats are available to travel throughout the Sea of Galilee (known as the Kinneret in Hebrew)

Museums

As a country which is rich in history, Israel has one of the highest concentrations of museums in the world. World famous museums include the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Science Museum in Haifa.

The Israel Museum includes such must see objects as the Shrine of the Book, the oldest known copy of the Bible, preserved perfectly for 2,000 years by the mysterious Essen sect of Jews who survived the Roman occupation by hiding in the Judean Hills and the David tablet, the only archeological evidence ever found to prove that David from the bible was a real person. These things alone would be worth your time to travel to Israel to see.

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art is known for its displays of modernist artwork and for having a world class collection of both Israeli and international art.

Those with children should definitely make the trip to the Science Museum in Haifa where the please touch display is considered to be one of the finest examples of a children's science museum in the world.

Of course, there are hundreds of lesser known museums which are also worth visiting, many of which are free or low cost. In Haifa, the Tikoten Museum of Japanese Art is the only museum in the Middle East dedicated to artistry from Japan. They feature an ever changing display of Japanese artifacts which are always interesting to see. Be sure to ask for the combination ticket which gets you into the Haifa Museum of Art as well as two other museums in the city for the price of 1½ tickets.

In Tel Aviv, a visit to the Palmach Museum is a must see as it tells the story of Israel's founding in a moving exhibition (the exhibition literally moves and is interactive, though it is also moving emotionally) and in Jerusalem one simply must visit the Yad Vashem museum and memorial, where a massive display of artifacts detailing the Nazi genocide puts the entire holocaust and World War II in perspective.

See How the Locals Live

Of course all these things are just the tip of the iceberg. In each and every city in Israel there are things to see and do, even in such sleepy towns as Petach Tikvah, a suburb of Tel Aviv, there are a number of small museums and a zoo. Out in the West Bank Settlement of Ariel, a visit to the meandering central park, which features a world class garden and runs throughout the center of the city is also a special site to see when you travel to Israel. The bottom line is that no matter how many times you visit the country, you'll always find something new to see and do when you travel to Israel.

Travel Advisories

Those concerned about personal safety should avoid certain areas of the Palestinian Authority, though the big cities, including Bethlehem, Jericho and Ramallah are generally safe for tourists.

In Israel itself, some cities have a reputation for being somewhat dangerous. Most notably Lod (not the airport, which is a separate area completely from the city of Lod) and Ramle, which are located in the center of the country, have a reputation for gang violence.
Those who know they'd like to visit some Arab nations should ask at passport control that their entry visa be stamped on a separate form rather than inside the passport.

Beyond these, Israel is generally a very safe and friendly country where most of the locals speak at least some English, especially in the more tourist oriented areas. So why not join the 3 million tourists Israel welcomes each and every year and have an adventure in of the most unique countries on the planet? Travel to Israel and you'll have stories to tell for a lifetime.


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