Israel is one of those places that you instantly feel the energy and history of the land, hit you. It’s chalk full of spiritual hubs and not just of the Judaic ilk. In fact, the Israeli-Palestine conflict is rooted in the fight over some of the most sacred spots in the country holds (read: Dome of the Rock).
From Kabbalah and Orthodox Judaism to the Muslim faith and Coptic Christians, Religion reigns in Israel. While visiting some of the world’s most sacred religious sites can be an amazing experience, there are plenty of things to see and do that don’t involve faith-based tourism. Whether or not you are religious, visiting Israel can also be a fascinating anthropological trip and being mindful of the different cultures and faiths is a must.
Israel is about the same size as New Jersey and is very easy to get around. They have one major highway system that runs North to South and many public transit options. We LOVE slow travel and taking our time really engaging with a place. Israel is a perfect place to do that because of its size and accessibility. A good length of time to spend in the country would be anywhere from 1-3 weeks depending on your style and interests.
Our preferred route is to start either in the South or North and work your way in the other direction, spending a few days in each major area.
Israel Hot Spots:
Jerusalem- An epic historical and religious city
Tel Aviv- For a more secular experience and traditional city life
Bethlehem- To get a taste of Palestine (consult with a local or travel expert before visiting)
Safed – For a groovy, spiritual experience. Birthplace of Kabbalah.
Haifa -The melting pot of Israel
Kyriat Tivon- A sweet northern township in the mountains
Nazareth- Jesus yo!
Green Suitcase Stays at:
During our trip to Israel we were fortunate enough to stay with friends who lived in Tivon. If you want a full, local experienc, it’s highly recommended to stay with people you know. If that’s not your jam, not to worry! Airbnb is always a good option (see some of our favorite Jerusalem spots) AND we’ve uncovered some amazing options for you.
The Walled Off Hotel– Not for the faint of heart. If you are someone who enjoy lodgings with a political edge, or are simply a Banksy lover, may we suggest the “Worst view in the world”. The wall dividing Israel and Palestine is heavy and unsightly. It’s a very clear reminder of the conflict at play. On the Palestine side of the wall, some of Banksy’s most famous works of art reside there. According to the Guardian, the hotel is a “The lodging in Bethlehem is a hotel, museum, protest and gallery all in one, packed with the artworks and angry brilliance of its owner, British street artist Banksy.”. He created the hotel as a way to spark a dialogue and in hopes of bringing Israeli tourists.
The Cramim Spa and Hotel – Let’s take a dive on the opposite end of the spectrum for a minute. The Cramim is part of the Isrotel series. If luxury and sustainability are more your style, then Isrotel provides. The Cramim is perfectly situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, for those looking to spend most of their time in the two largest cities. The hotel boasts mountain views, an in-house Synagogue and a kosher wine boutique (uh…hello!). The hotel was designed with natural light and integrating natural building materials in mind.
Green Suitcase Plays at:
DO go to all of the tourist spots like the Kotel, the Holy Church of the Sepulchre, Mt. Masada and the Dome of the Rock. Those are all amazing experiences to have and can be very eye-opening. Guess what?! You can do those AND enjoy our alternative, not so frequented options!
Yonatan Levy and Noam Inbar – Israel has a very cool art scene. Beyond Banksy, there are many galleries and street murals to enjoy. Check out the NY Post’s guide on the topic! Rising stars in the performance art realm are Yonatan Levy and Noam Inbar. This duo has paired up to create some provocative and compelling storytelling. We witnessed Noam’s choir singing (with some instrumentals) songs of ancient kings and of Bar Rafaeli. The songs, written by Levy, were a healthy mixture of humor and social commentary. Levy is an Israeli dramatist who’s work is experimental and captivating: think what St. Anne’s warehouse is to Brooklyn. If either of the two artists are performing in some capacity when you visit….you must witness what they create!
The Dead Sea Hidden Hot Springs and Sweet Water Springs– Yes, you can go to the Dead Sea and do the typical spa day thing, or you can go to the Ein Sedek. Just at the north entrance of the Dead Sea (RT #90, KM# 250) lies a natural hot spring that is virtually untapped. The hot spring is not accessible by car, but you only have to walk about 1 kilometer. Once there, take a dip in the hot spring and then let the refreshing Dead Sea cool you off. Even closer to the north gate entrance are a group of sweet water springs. They are a bit further down from the main road and people often camp on the beach for periods of time. Because of this, be mindful of the community living there. Not all of the springs are for public bathing. Some of them are solely for washing clothes and dishes. Pro tip: be respectful of the natural sediment and don’t take any of the dead sea mud back with you. The surface level is dropping at more than a meter a year. This is causing sinkholes to crop up more. Follow directions and don’t stay on the beach after sunset.
The Cistern in the Holy Church of the Sepulchre – While you are visiting the Holy Church of the Sepulchre, take a tiny detour and visit the Queen Helen Coptic Christian Church. Just to the right of the 8th station is the entrance to the church. Inside the church? A secret underground Cistern. Once inside the cave, sing! The church encourages it and you’ll have the perfect acoustics. It’s a lovely experience and one of our favorite parts of visiting Jerusalem.
Listen to our recording of singing in the cistern:
Let’s be honest, you could church or Synagogue hop for days in Israel. Our favorite was the Church of Annunciation in Nazareth. This church is dedicated to Mother Mary herself and is part place of worship, part archeological site, and part art gallery. The church is literally built and sitting on top of ancient Nazareth and they did an amazing job of preserving the ruins while also building anew on top of them. Inside the church is a 4th-century shrine and is also rumored to be where Mary lived. Because the church is dedicated to Mary, they commissioned portraits of Mary from all over the world. Here’s where the art gallery part comes in. Depictions of the Madonna from Japan to Turkey adorn the outside and inside walls. Some of these portraits are worth thousands of dollars and the one from Japan has real pearls on it. In the courtyard of the church is a labyrinth walk that leads straight to a statue of….you guessed it….Mary. It’s a stunning building and a very cool experience to visit.
Green Suitcase Eats at:
We can’t even with the food here. If you don’t like to eat well, don’t visit Israel. From mouthwatering Mashousha to Falafel for days, you won’t go hungry. There were too many amazing places to eat, so we’ve highlighted a few of our favorites.
Kadosh Cheese– This dairy factory in Safed has been run by the same family for over 100 years. Cheese + Olives + Grape Leaves = Enough said.
Tmol Shilshom – Amazing pasta joint in Jerusalem. Fun atmosphere and great for a night on the town or a place to work from during the day. Try the beet Gnocchi!
Hachapuria Machne Yehuda – We are salivating thinking about this right now. This Gregorian dish will have you dreaming about it for days. Visit the Machne Yehuda Shuk for this tasty treat. Perfect for breakfast.
Tony ve Esther Coffee House – This cafe couldn’t put chairs and tables on the street, so they converted a truck into a seating place. Parked right outside the cafe, you can enjoy the hip part of Tel-Aviv and drink some seriously good espresso.
Beer Bazaar – The Shuk in Jerusalem is starting to have cool little bars pop up throughout the market. The Beer Bazaar is where you can get locally brewed and sourced Israeli beer. While there, we met a Conservative, Jewish hipster from Denver, with the most amazing beard you’ve ever seen. I think that say’s it all.
Green Suitcase Shops at:
Last but not least, you know how much we like to shop. Especially when it’s for something you can’t get anywhere else.
Jaffa Flea Market – For authentic, handmade goods visit the Jaffa Flea Market. There are plenty of designer shops and the flea market to get antiques from. This is also a great place to grab a bite.
Zelinski and Rosen -This is the most amazing perfumery! The scents they make are unique and tantalizing.
Safed Art Galleries – Part of Safed’s charm are all the local artist and galleries. If you want to get Judaic artwork or jewelry, this is the place to do it. For a really cool experience visit Sheva Chaya to watch her glassblowing in action!
Green Suitcase Customs and Culture Tips:
- Keep in mind that most places observe the Sabbath on Friday and Saturday. Plan your week around those days if you are not observant yourself. Also, give yourself the treat of attending a Shabbat if possible.
- If you say you are “inviting someone” to dinner, it literally means you are footing the bill.
- Israeli’s are mindful about water conservation (it’s mostly a desert after all) and you should be too. Use water sparingly.
- Going through customs in Israel is no joke. They will ask a lot of questions and are serious about security. Don’t take it personally and answer truthfully.
- The military is everywhere. It’s part of the culture. Don’t be alarmed by their presence.
- Dress and act conservatively when visiting religious neighborhoods. Public display of affection in these areas is offensive as well.
- Be mindful of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, but don’t let it stop you from A. visiting or B. going into Palestine. Both groups of people are amazing, welcoming and want tourism. While the situation is complex, it’s not unsafe to travel in and out of the settlements unless you are an Israeli passport holder. We felt completely safe the entire time we were there.
Israel will enchant you. It’s a special place with a lot of heart, history, and lore. If you are interested in planning a trip to Israel and need help, visit our contact section to submit a request. We hope you enjoy this guide!