Read: Frommer's Guide to Israel


A journey to Israel is a journey to a place where the past and present call out to travelers in astonishing ways. You will find messages and meaning everywhere you turn in this intense land, and why not? For this land and its history lie at the very center of the consciousness of Western civilization.

Israel is amazingly dramatic and diverse, the more so when you realize the entire country is the size of New Jersey. When you find yourself in the silent, haunting desertscape near the Dead Sea, spotting ibexes on the rims of desolate, sheer cliffs that are dotted with caves like those in which the Dead Sea Scrolls lay hidden for more than 18 centuries, it can be hard to believe that less than 60 minutes away is the 19th-century East European ghetto world of Jerusalem's orthodox Mea Shearim quarter. A few blocks east of Mea Shearim you'll find the labyrinthine medieval Arab bazaars of the Old City, with ancient church bells and calls to prayer from the city's minarets punctuating your wanderings. Hop into a sherut (shared taxi) to Tel Aviv on downtown Jerusalem's Jaffa Road, and in less than an hour you're in a world of white skyscrapers, surfboards, and bikinis on the beach with the Mediterranean lapping at your feet; 2 hours to the north, and you can be exploring ruined Crusader castles in the green forests of the Galilee mountains.

My experiences in Israel as a visitor and long-term resident have given me the opportunity to see the country from a number of vantage points. Twenty-five years ago, the country was an austere, no-frills society -- Israelis lived with few luxuries. Today, the country's economy is booming, the standard of living has skyrocketed, and many surveys rank Israel's per capita income among the top 20 national per capita incomes in the world. Israel is becoming a nation with a lively sense of style and a taste for the good life. Luxury and better-quality hotel accommodations and resorts are going up all over the country, and visitors will find an interesting array of fine restaurants and shopping opportunities that are geared to Israeli society at large rather than to visitors. With the Israeli-Jordanian and Israeli-Egyptian peace treaties, the best of a journey to Israel can also easily include an excursion to the fabulous ancient Nabatean city of Petra in Jordan; a diving or snorkeling odyssey of the coral reefs off the Sinai Peninsula; or a jaunt over to Egypt to see the pyramids and explore Khan-el-Khalili -- the legendary bazaar of Cairo.

This book will help direct you, as an independent traveler, to some of the best and most authentic experiences Israel has to offer. Israel is an easy country to explore and get close to if you know the ropes. We hope to lead you to experiences that will be both personal and rewarding.

1 The Best Travel Experiences

2 The Most Evocative Ancient Sites

People come to Israel to touch the past. The events that occurred here in ancient times and the stories and legends that arose in Israel are firmly planted in the minds of more than a billion people throughout the world.
3 The Most Important Holy Places

The great sacred sites all possess extraordinary power, mystery, and beauty, at least partly conveyed upon them by centuries, if not millennia, of reverence. The ownership and histories of Israel's holy places are often a matter of contention and debate, not only among the three great monotheistic religions, but also among sects within these religions. The listings are in the order in which they appear in the book.
4 The Best Ancient Cities

Israel and neighboring Jordan are filled with ruins of lost, ancient cities from every part of their long histories. In Herodian-Roman times, the population of Judea and the Galilee may have been around 3 million. Almost 2 millennia of wars, religious rivalries, persecutions, and misgovernment drove the population down to less than half a million by the start of the 19th century. Even knowledge of the location of many ancient sites was forgotten. Now pieces of the past are being recovered at a rapid pace, dazzling physical monuments to the past.
5 The Best Nature & Outdoor Experiences

Israel's diverse landscapes and unusual natural phenomena provide opportunities for unusual outdoor pursuits, many of which you might never have thought of in connection with a trip here.
6 The Best Beaches

Israel has four seas (the Mediterranean, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, and the Red Sea), connections to two oceans (the Atlantic and the Indian), and offers an amazing variety of swimming experiences. The beaches of Israel look beautiful, but be careful about going in the water. Unusually strong riptides, whirlpools, and undertows along the Mediterranean coast can claim the strongest swimmer. Never swim in unguarded areas. Along much of the coast, especially north of Tel Aviv, the beaches seem sandy, but a few steps into the surf, and you're standing on a rocky shelf -- not a good place to be when waves come crashing down. Pollution is also a serious problem, as it is throughout the Mediterranean. Israel's beach standards are much higher than those of most Mediterranean countries, but on many days, garbage from other countries swirls along the coast. At Nahariya, Akko, and the Poleg Nature Reserve (8km or 4.8 miles south of Netanya), which have no sewage treatment plants, I would hesitate to put my head in the water. Israelis play compulsive paddleball on any stretch of beach they're on, regardless of sleeping sunbathers in the line of fire. Expect beaches to be lively, watch out for sea urchins and stinging coral in the Red Sea, and the burning medusas (jellyfish) that attack the Mediterranean beaches in July.
7 The Best Museums

Israel's museums are relatively new, innovative, and interactive with the discoveries of the past, of the self, and of nationhood that are happening so intensively every day in Israeli society. The most interesting museums are those that could only be found in Israel.
8 The Messages of the Mosaics

The ancient mosaic floors of Israel, mostly discovered in the past 80 years, are not only beautiful but filled with information about the cultures, religions, and relationships among the different religious groups that existed in Israel during the great era of mosaic art, from the 1st to 8th centuries A.D. The first discovery of the these beautiful floors was a great surprise -- most scholars did not expect to find ancient representational art in Israel. Now, almost every archeological season brings news of new and sometimes sensational discoveries. For Israelis, archeology is the national sport, and the finding of a great new mosaic is like winning a World Cup.

The themes of many Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mosaics are concerned with the orderly patterns and rhythms of the universe. Here are some of the most important message-laden mosaics, easy to visit on your travels.
9 The Best Luxury Hotels

The hotel scene in Israel is presently in the process of a truly massive change. International chains have been building new hotels throughout Israel as well as in Sinai and Jordan, and upgrading many older properties.
10 The Best Value Hotels

This selection of hotel choices runs from splurges to economy strategies; each establishment offers something special.
11 The Best Luxury Dining

Until the 1980s, it was almost considered anti-Zionist to spend money and effort on gourmet cuisine. Israel was a practical, egalitarian society, and good, healthy fresh food was all that was necessary to create a sturdy population. Man does not live by falafel alone, however, and Israel has developed a group of truly fine, personal restaurants, many rooted in French tradition, but also exploring the traditions of the Mediterranean Rim.
12 The Best Moderate Dining

Israel is filled with interesting, affordable restaurants ranging from authentic ethnic to natural Mediterranean Rim, and from kosher Indian or kosher Mexican to gracefully inventive French. In order to be accessible to kosher diners who cannot eat at restaurants that serve both milk and meat products, many Israeli restaurants offer only vegetarian menus that are imaginative and affordable. The following is a selection of unusual choices for atmosphere, good food, and good value, but you'll find many other fabulous restaurants throughout this book.

Robert Ullian, The Best of Israel, Frommer's Israel, 01-01-1998.

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