So you want to visit Israel. Are you taking a birthright trip and looking to extend for a week? Looking for a week away from Europe? Or are you planning a religious pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher?
Israel hosts a diverse array of attractions for the explorative tourist. In the west, you’ll fly into Tel Aviv, a thriving metropolis that reminds you of Miami. Jerusalem, the historic city where Judaism, Islam, and Christianity intersect is a 45-minute drive east. Heading south the climate transitions to an arid desert spotted with mountains, craters, and an oasis of palm trees. Israel’s north area boasts lush forests and vineyards.
We are going to focus on the popular outdoor activities of Israel: where to go when to visit, and how to get to them.
Where to Go in Israel
Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee is not a sea at all, it’s a lake! Located in the Northeast of Israel, there’s a ton to do here. Post up on the beach in Tiberias or Ginosar, rent Sea-Doos and stand-up paddle boards, or bike around the lake! A short drive or bus ride from the sea are the famous Golan Heights. The Golan was probably my favorite landscape in Israel, teeming with flowers, rock formations, and waterfalls. There is so much to explore! You’ll also want to check out the Gamla Nature Reserve, a park that holds Israel’s tallest waterfall and the ancient city of Gamla. You can visit both sites in half a day.
You should stay at the Selina Hostel near Ginosar, one of the nicest places to stay in all of Israel. The Selina Hostel is an international chain of hostels grown out of Israel. This location opened in April 2022. Come in and be welcomed with a drink at the bar, and relax with live local music with bands from Tel Aviv playing overlooking the sea.
The south end of Israel packs just as much variety! About a 3.5-hour drive south of Tel Aviv, Eilat Beach lies on the Gulf of Aqaba. Connecting to the Red Sea, this southern Gulf connection provides an important port for Israel. There are two things to highlight in Eilat, besides outstanding views and lounging on the beach.
Just a few kilometers south of Eilat there is famous free diving and coral. This is one thing to do while in Israel, and if you can’t make a special pilgrimage to Eilat just to see the coral. Check out the Eilat Coral Beach Nature Reserve and the Underwater Observatory Park.
The second attraction to check out near Eilat is Timna Park. Timna hosts otherworldly rock features, from crazy spirals to mushroom shapes to arches. To top it off, the land was inhabited by Egyptians thousands of years ago and their copper mines have been preserved. Timna is a 30-minute drive north of Eilat so I’d recommend visiting on your drive in or out of Eilat. You can visit most of the sites in a few hours, or you could easily make a day trip out of the park.
Masada and the Dead Sea
Perhaps the most popular outdoor attractions in Israel, Mt. Masada and the Dead Sea are located centrally along the Jordan River. Planning is important to get the most out of Masada. It’s become a common tradition to hike up Mt. Masada for sunrise. There are two options for climbing Masada, the longer ‘snake route’ on the east side (it’s impossible to miss the sunrise on this side), or the 15-minute hike up the ‘ramp route’ on the west side.
Numerous books and movies have been written about the history of Masada, so you know that this is a must-go-to destination. Suffice it to say, it overlooks the Dead Sea and was inhabited by many groups throughout history. While you can hike Masada later in the day, there is very little shade and the sun can be punishing on the summit. Water, bathrooms, and small covered areas are available on top of the mountain. There is also a cable car that can take you to and from the summit that leaves from the east side.
The easiest way to guarantee a successful sunrise hike is to stay at a beach resort on the Dead Sea. Using a tour group such as Abraham Tours may be worthwhile in this situation, as they will handle the logistics of getting you to and from Masada from Tel Aviv. To make it easier you can stay at the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv, also the home base of their tour group, for many days. It is well organized and clean, and you can meet a lot of other fellow travelers there!
The Dead Sea is famous for its high salt and mineral content as well as the Dead Sea mud. Dead Sea mud is sold worldwide in skincare products. The salt content makes the water very dense. As a result, you easily float in the Dead Sea! You have to actively try to keep your legs underwater. It’s a great attraction for an hour or so, and the beach resorts here are beautiful. After a while though, the salt usually starts to burn. Luckily showers are common along the beach and you can quickly wash the salt off.
A perfect day plan would be to hike up Masada for sunrise, head down by 10 am, and then spend a few hours at the Dead Sea before going back to your hotel. You will want to rest after these two!
Tel Aviv Beaches
Tel Aviv is a great place to start or end your journey in Israel, as it’s the location of Ben Gurion International Airport. Whether you want to walk along a promenade, join in a game of foot volley, or dive in the crystal clear water, there are numerous options for you! While many of the outdoor attractions in Israel can be limited by summer heat, summertime is the peak season for Tel Aviv beaches. In south Tel Aviv, grab some food at the popular Carmel Market and have a picnic along the beach promenade.
Looking to hang in the sand for the day, or play some paddle ball, with close access to food and hotels? Check out the Bugrashov, Frishman, and Gordon Beaches. They’re a short walk from Dizengoff Center and many of the city’s hotels. Coming from South Florida, I can tell you I have never seen beaches as lively and fun as Tel Aviv’s. Sorry, Miami! Once you are done at the beaches, explore the rest of Tel Aviv like the locals.
Backpack from Sea to Sea: the Yam El Yam
The Sea to Sea hike is an established route from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee. A younger sibling to the 750km Israel National Trail, the 70km Yam El Yam is an outstanding trail peaking at Mount Meron with vistas reaching Syria. Most choose to hike the trail in 3 days, starting at Achziv Beach and ending in Ginosar. Campgrounds along the route are free, which is important because it’s forbidden to wild camp. The campgrounds are well staged and you won’t have trouble making it to them.
Unlike the other outdoor activities on this list, this route takes planning and some backpacking know-how. Nevertheless, after personally hiking the Yam El Yam I can say it was the single best thing I did in Israel. The views were 9/10, but the people were 10/10. At each encounter, I was offered food and water from day hikers. Get to know the real Israel by hiking the Yam El Yam.
When to visit Israel
While Israel is navigable year-round and is never hindered by cold weather, some activities may become much more difficult in the summer heat. It’s worth researching the attractions you’re interested in before going to ensure it won’t be too hot. Masada can turn from a fun adventure to a dangerous trip in the summer afternoons. If you are making the drive through the desert to Eilat, make sure to bring plenty of water with you. That said, the locals won’t hesitate to help you if you run into any trouble. Israelis are very friendly!
If you’re interested in seeing the flowers of the Galilee region and Golan Heights, late February, March, and April will be your best bet. Check recent Instagram posts if you want to get a sneak peek of what the blooms are like before going!
Another consideration when planning your trip is religious holidays. If you’ll be spending 3 days in Jerusalem, your visit might be best scheduled around Shabbat. Shabbat can be a fun attraction at the Western Wall or a local’s home, but it can also be a hindrance if you’re not observing Shabbat. For example, all of the public transportation shuts down from Friday evening to Saturday evening in Jerusalem.
How to get to Israel
I was lucky enough to spend a month in Israel from mid-March to mid-April. For the first ten days, I took a free tour by Birthright, a Jewish organization that provides trips for Jewish young adults. We traveled exclusively by bus. This was of course the easiest method of travel but the least flexible. I was going where the bus took me.
The second ten days my parents flew in and we took another grand tour of Israel by car. I would recommend renting a car if you are traveling with more than two people, have lots of luggage, or want to have ultimate travel freedom. There are two drawbacks to touring Israel by car: gas prices are high and people drive erratically.
For the final ten days, I backpacked around on my own using trains and buses. Out of all the methods of travel, I must say the trains and buses were the best fit for me. You can get anywhere reliably and quite cheaply. Using the app Moovit, you can input your destination and it will give you multiple methods of transportation, telling you where to walk, when the bus will be there, and when you will arrive. It will also give you options to rent scooters, e-bikes, or hail the go-to taxi service Gett.
Tip: The phone service in Israel is great. You can buy a one-month sim card cheaply at the airport with 100 GB of data and throw it out when you leave.
No matter where you visit in Israel, you’ll find great attractions and even better people. After a month of near-constant travel, I didn’t get to see all of this New Jersey-sized country, and will be planning a trip back in the next year or two!