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Abstract:
Summary of the best ancient cities, beaches, dining, hotels, museums, nature, outdoor and travel experiences in Israel, plus the more evocative ancient sites, important Holy Places, and the Messages that can be taken from excavated mosaic floors.
Notes:

Frommer's Guide to Israel:
The Best of Israel

by Robert Ullian

1998
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
  • Visiting the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount (Jerusalem): Built by the early Islamic rulers of Jerusalem in A.D. 691 on the site of the Temple of Solomon, the Dome of the Rock is one of the most beautiful structures ever created. It is the crown that rests upon a 4,000-year tradition of Western monotheistic belief. One can spend hours on the Temple Mount soaking up the atmosphere and the dazzling views. You might first visit the Temple Mount on a tour, but come back and experience the power of this extraordinary place on your own.

  • Journeying into the Past at Mea Shearim: Mea Shearim is the Hassidic Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, little more than a century old, but in the dress and customs of its inhabitants, and in its tangle of courtyards and alleyways, it is a miraculously surviving fragment of the world of East European Jewry that disappeared forever into the Holocaust. A visitor to Mea Shearim must behave almost like an unobtrusive dreamer wandering the past; nothing in the neighborhood can be scrutinized too intensely (residents will not permit you to stare at them or photograph them, nor will they allow anything resembling a tour group to troop their streets). Many visitors will revere the discipline and religious devotion evident in Mea Shearim; others will be troubled by its many constraints. But a walk through these streets will give you insight into the powerful traditions that continue to make Israel unique.

  • An Evening Stroll Through Old Jaffa: The beautifully restored Casbah of Old Jaffa is probably the most romantic urban spot in the country, filled with galleries, shops, cafes, restaurants, and vistas of minarets and Crusader ruins against the sunset and the sea.

  • Exploring the Eastern Shore of the Sea of Galilee: The Sea of Galilee is Israel's greatest natural treasure, and its lyrical shores were the birthplace of Christianity. It is also almost miraculous in its loveliness -- a sapphire/turquoise freshwater lake surrounded by the mountains of the Galilee and the Golan. The eastern shore is less developed and gives you a better chance to feel the lake's poetry. There are eucalyptus-shaded beaches where you can have a late afternoon swim and picnic and watch the silver and lavender twilight descend behind the mountains on the western shore of the lake, which sparkles with the delicate lights of farm settlements and kibbutzim.

  • Freewheeling in the Galilee: This is the place to rent a car for a few days and explore Israel's most beautiful countryside -- forested mountains, rushing streams, waterfalls, and oceans of wildflowers in late winter and early spring. Among the region's treasures are ruined Roman-era synagogues, Crusader castles, ancient churches, and the walled Casbah of Akko beside the Mediterranean. There are also the warm, sparkling waters of the Sea of Galilee to swim in from April to early November.

  • Touching the Desert: These are not just endless sandy wastes; the deserts of Israel encompass the unworldly and ethereal Dead Sea, the mysterious, abandoned Nabatean cities of Avdat and Shivta, the haunting fortress of Masada, canyon oases, and vast erosion craters that are geological encyclopedias of cataclysms in past eons. These landscapes were the crucible in which monotheism was born. Don't let the desert be just a 45-minute ride on a tour bus from Jerusalem. If you can, spend the night at a guest house or hostel near Masada before you make the ascent at dawn. Or join an overnight llama trek in the Ramon Crater. Walk alone under the stars; listen to the desert wind in the dark; watch dawn levitate over the Dead Sea; and hear the awesome quiet of sun and rock and time.

  • Snorkeling in the Red Sea: The Red Sea, with its coral reefs, is an awe-inspiring natural aquarium, rich with tropical marine life and one of the best places on earth for fabulous scuba diving and snorkeling. At the Coral Beach Nature Reserve just south of Eilat, there's enough to fascinate experts, yet wonders are accessible to all levels of swimmers -- dazzling fish abound even in waist-deep water. Experienced divers can scuba dive at the Coral Island, a few miles down the coast from Eilat, or make an excursion into the Egyptian Sinai to the even more extraordinary reefs off Nuweiba, Dahab, and the legendary Ras Muhammad at Sharm-el-Sheik.

  • Sampling the Music Scene: Israel has an oversupply of magnificent musicians; even suburbs of Tel Aviv and small cities like Beersheva are home to orchestras that would be the envy of many world capitals. You may find the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performing at Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium, or the acclaimed Rishon-Le-Zion Symphony Orchestra (filled with new immigrants from the former Soviet Union) giving a visiting concert at the Haifa Auditorium, but you may also find an outdoor performance of Carmen in the Valley of the Sultan's Pool, just at the foot of the walls of Jerusalem; a night of Mozart at the 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater beside the sea at Caesaria; Yemenite wedding singers or Arabic oudists performing at free municipal concerts inside Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate Citadel; African-American blues and jazz musicians from the Hebrew Israelite community of Dimona in the Negev at clubs in Tel Aviv; or you might visit festivals like the Chamber Music Days at Kibbutz Kfar Blum, the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat or the Jacob's Ladder Folk Festival held each summer in the Galilee.
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.
  • City of David: Now the Arab village of Silwan (in the Bible, Siloam), this is the oldest part of Jerusalem, located on a ridge that slopes downhill just south of the present Old City. David, Solomon, and the prophets walked here. By late Roman times, warfare had advanced to the point where this area was too low to be easily defended and it was left outside the walls of Jerusalem. The ancient gardens of Siloam inspired the Song of Songs; now an overgrown orchard of fig and pomegranate trees, watered by the same Gihon Spring that was used by the prophets to anoint the kings of Judah, the gardens still stand at the foot of modern-day Silwan. The City of David is best visited on an organized tour or with a guide.

  • Northwest Shore of the Sea of Galilee: This enchantingly lovely corner of the lake, in many ways the birthplace of one of the world's great religions, was the landscape of Jesus' ministry. Centering on the ruins of Capernaum (once a fishing town, and the site of St. Peter's house), and Tagba, where the multitudes were fed with the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, the shoreline is dominated by the Mount of Beatitudes. Churches and archeological excavations mark the locations of New Testament events.

  • Bar Am Synagogue: In the northern Galilee, near the Lebanese border, this is the best preserved and perhaps most beautiful of the many ruined synagogues of antiquity. Built in the 4th century A.D., it was once the centerpiece of a small town in the breathtaking wooded mountains of this northern region.

  • Masada: On an almost inaccessible mountaintop high above the shores of the Dead Sea, Herod built this legendary palace fortress; in A.D. 73, over 75 years after his death, it became the last stronghold of the First Revolt against Rome. Here the last Jews to live under their own rule (until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948) committed suicide on the eve of their conquest by Roman armies. The meaning of the mass suicide of Masada's defenders is fiercely debated by Israelis today. Even without the drama of Masada's last stand, the site is one of haunting, audacious magnificence.
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.
  • The Western Wall: Part of a vast retaining wall built by Herod around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, this is the most visible structure remaining from the Second Temple complex. Judaism's great legacy to the world is spiritual, but the massive stones of the Wall, each with its perfectly carved border are testimony to the physical grandeur of the ancient Jewish world. Over the centuries, this enduring fragment of the Temple complex has come to symbolize the indestructible attachment of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. For more than 1,000 years, the Wall was the closest point that Jews were permitted to approach to the place where the ancient Temple of Jerusalem once stood. Because of the sanctity of the Temple Mount itself, very observant Jews do not go farther than the Wall to this day.

  • Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem): A gloriously beautiful Islamic shrine, built in A.D. 691, covers the rock believed to have been the altar or foundation stone of the First and Second Temples. According to Jewish tradition, the rock was the altar upon which Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac; Islamic tradition holds that it was Abraham's first son, Ishmael, the father of the Arabic people, whom Abraham was called upon to sacrifice, either at this rock, or at Mecca. The rock is also believed to have been the point from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to glimpse heaven during the miraculous night journey described in the 17th Sura of the Koran. Most religious Jews today do not enter the Temple Mount, upon which the Dome of the Rock is located, because of the sacredness of the place.

  • El Aksa Mosque (Jerusalem): On the southernmost side of the Temple Mount, built in A.D. 720, this is the third most important Muslim place of prayer after Mecca and Medina.

  • Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Jerusalem): Christianity's holiest place, this church covers the traditional sites of the crucifixion, entombment, and resurrection of Jesus. Built about A.D. 330, the complex is carefully divided among the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian churches.

  • Mount of Olives: Overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem from the east, the mount offers a sweeping vista of the entire city. Here, Jesus wept at a prophetic vision of Jerusalem lying in ruins; in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the lower slope of the mount, Jesus was arrested; the ridge of the Mount of Olives is the place from which, according to tradition, Jesus ascended to heaven. An encampment site for Jewish pilgrims in ancient times, the Mount of Olives contains Judaism's most important graveyard. 5.

  • Church of the Nativity (Bethlehem): This church marks the site of the birthplace of Jesus. It is the oldest surviving church in the Holy Land; the Persians spared it during their invasion in A.D. 614 because, according to legend, they were impressed by a representation of the Magi (fellow Persians) that decorated the building.

  • Tomb of the Patriarchs (Hebron, on the West Bank): This is the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as their wives, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah (Rachel, the second wife of Jacob, is buried in Bethlehem). Surrounded by massive walls built by King Herod, and venerated by both Jews and Muslims, rights to this place are a point of bitter contention between the Islamic and Jewish worlds.

  • Bahá'í Gardens (Akko): At the northern edge of Akko, this site marks the tomb of the founder and prophet of the Bahá'í faith, Bahá'u'lláh. As such, it is the holiest place for members of the Bahá'í faith.

  • Bahá'í Shrine and Gardens (Haifa): The shrine was built to memorialize the remains of one of the Bahá'í faith's martyrs, Bab Mirza Ali Muhammad, who was executed by Persian authorities in 1850.

  • Mount Sinai (Sinai Peninsula, Egypt): Controversy still rages over which of the Sinai's mountains is the true site where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, but the traditional identification of Mount Sinai is very ancient. An isolated Byzantine monastery at the foot of the mountain adds to the mysterious aura. The view from the top of Mount Sinai at dawn is among the most awe-inspiring sights you will ever see.
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.
  • Zippori (Sepphoris, near Nazareth): A cosmopolitan Jewish-Hellenistic city, it was the capital of the Galilee in Roman and Talmudic times. Especially interesting because it may have been familiar to Jesus, Zippori's highlights include a colonnaded street; a mosaic synagogue floor depicting the zodiac; and the beautiful mosaic portrait of a woman dubbed "the Mona Lisa of the Galilee," recently discovered in a late Roman-era villa.

  • Caesaria (on the coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa): Built by Herod as the great harbor and seaport of his kingdom, this was the splendid administrative capital of Palestine after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. There are impressive, vast ruins of the Roman city (including two theaters), as well as of the Crusader-era city, made all the more romantic by the waves lapping at the ancient stones. Caesaria was an important Byzantine Christian city, but it is not a biblical site.

  • Megiddo (Armageddon, about 20 miles southeast of Haifa): This town stood in the path of invading armies from ancient until modern times. It is an encyclopedia of Near Eastern archeology with more than 20 levels of habitation from 4,000 B.C. to A.D. 400 having been discovered here. The water tunnel dug from inside the fortified town to the source of water outside the walls in the 9th century B.C. is a miracle of ancient engineering.

  • Korazim (Galilee): A Roman-Byzantine-era Jewish town in the hills just northeast of the Sea of Galilee, this is a beautiful place, with sweeping views of the lake. Portions of ruins still stand. A black basalt synagogue, with beautifully carved detailing, and some surrounding houses, also of local black basalt, give a good idea of what the more than 100 towns once in this area must have been like. Jesus visited Korazim, but developed little following there.

  • Gamla (Golan Heights): Once a small Roman-era Jewish city located on a ridge in the Golan Heights, the site has a story chillingly similar to that of Masada, but the number of dead was far greater. In A.D. 67, at the beginning of the First Jewish Rebellion against Rome, Gamla was overrun by Roman soldiers, and as many as 9,000 townspeople flung themselves from the cliff, choosing death over subjugation. This dramatic site is especially beautiful amid late winter wildflowers and waterfalls. A ruined synagogue, one of the few that can be dated to the Second Temple period, is here.

  • Bet Shean (Jordan Valley): This place has been continuously inhabited for the past 6,000 years. A vast, Roman-Byzantine city with colonnaded streets and a theater that could house 5,000 people once stood here, although by the 19th century, Bet Shean was a small village. Remnants of earlier civilizations can be seen on the ancient Phone (Hebrew for a mound composed of layers of cities) above the Roman ruins.

  • Petra (Jordan): The legendary 2,000-year-old Nabatean capital carved from the walls of a desert canyon is now the highlight of excursion tours into Jordan from Israel. The entire Petra experience, including the trek into the canyon, has the air of adventure and mystery -- especially if you plan 1 or 2 nights at Petra and give yourself time to get a feel for the place early in the morning and in the evening, before the hordes of visitors arrive.
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.
  • Digging for a Day: Joining an archeological dig as a volunteer requires a definite commitment of time, money, and backbreaking labor. However, you can often arrange to dig for a day and get a close-up look at the hard work and thrills involved in bringing so much of Israel's history to light. Contact the Municipal Tourist Information Office in Jerusalem for current options. The digging season is during the dry summer months.

  • Hiking Down Wadi Kelt: This hike, manageable for most walkers, takes you down one of the extraordinary canyons leading from the Judean mountains to the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. On the route, you pass the ancient and almost inaccessible Monastery of Saint George, built into the walls of the canyon above the stream of Wadi Kelt. This dramatic canyon may soon be under the control of the Palestinian Authority. At present, it should only be visited by organized group tour.

  • Hiking to Gamla: A beautiful trail throughout the year, in late winter, this 1- to 2-hour hike in the Golan takes you past wildflowers, streams, and waterfalls. The reward at the end of the trail is the dramatic ruined city of Gamla (see "The Best Ancient Cities" above). The countryside is also dotted with prehistoric dolmens and Stone Age tombs. This walk brings you into contact with nature, archeology, and a very moving piece of Israeli history. Plan additional time for the return walk, although a shorter trail is also available.

  • Llama Trekking in the Ramon Crater (Negev): In the Negev Highlands, near Mitzpe Ramon, this geological encyclopedia can be visited on a speedy, bone-dismantling Jeep tour, or on a rather arduous hike; or you can experience the mysterious quiet of the desert as you explore the crater accompanied by a guide, with a llama to carry your water and equipment. This novel approach can be arranged for a variety of itineraries as well as longer excursions with overnight camping and Bedouin-style cookouts. The Alpaca Farm and travel agencies in Mitzpe Ramon can set it up for you at reasonable prices.

  • Diving and Snorkeling the Reefs of Eilat: The Red Sea coral reefs are among the most interesting and easily accessible in the world; anyone who can swim even moderately well can snorkel and enjoy the underwater scene. If you want to scuba dive, you must bring your certification from abroad or obtain a license in Israel. Eilat is home to a number of diving schools with short- and longer-term programs for visitors, as well as programs in underwater photography. Once you've graduated from the coral reef just off the shores of southern Eilat, you can graduate to a dive cruise to the more extensive reefs of the Coral Island. You can snorkel in the Coral Beach Nature Preserve for less than $20, including rental of gear, or you can join diving cruises that begin at $40 for a dive. Diving instruction programs and major diving trips to the Sinai coast can run from $140 to thousands of dollars.

  • Diving at Dahab (Sinai Peninsula): Just across the border from Eilat is the Sinai Peninsula with its extraordinary reefs and clear, light-filled water. Reefs teeming with exotic marine life extend all the way down the coast; perhaps the most famous is the suicidal Blue Hole, off the town of Dahab (but not recommended by this book). At the southernmost tip of Sinai, just beyond the new resort center at Sharm el Sheik is the Egyptian National Park at Ras Muhammad, is a diver's super paradise (you'll need a visa for Egypt rather than a Sinai Only visa). Diving schools in Eilat and good Eilat travel agents and discounters can arrange diving-package excursions to Sinai where hotel prices are bargains compared to those for hotels inside Israel.
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.
  • Gordon Beach (Tel Aviv): Perhaps the most accessible place to sample the Mediterranean, this free municipal beach has showers, and a friendly mix of Israelis, new Russian immigrants, and tourists from luxury hotels; there are nearby places to take a break for a snack or meal; the sand is passably clean, and when the tide is clear, the beach is a pleasure.

  • Mikmoret Beach (between Netanya and Caesaria): If you have a car, this is a lifeguarded, slightly sheltered out-of-the-way beach with a restaurant, showers, and changing rooms. To the south, the beach goes on straight for miles, and is good for long walks. In-season entrance is $2.40 per person, deducted from your restaurant bill if you have a full meal.

  • Aqueduct Beach (just north of Caesaria): An ancient Roman aqueduct gives this beach its name and travel-poster ambience. There are no showers or amenities or crowds except on summer weekends, when vendors sell drinks and snacks. Not good for swimming if the water is rough, but on calm days, as you float in the Mediterranean and gaze at the romantic ruins, you know it's not the Jersey Shore. Currently the beach is free, with an impromptu parking area.

  • Kibbutz Ein Gev Holiday Village Beach (Sea of Galilee): The freshwater Sea of Galilee is warm and cleansing, spiritually as well as physically. You have to be a guest at the Ein Gev Holiday Village to be allowed to use the beach here, but it's the prettiest one on the lake, with a date palm grove and thick lawns stretching down to the water, which is relatively free of foot-stubbing rocks. Just to the south are several miles of eucalyptus-shaded beaches along the road (in summer there's a $3 parking fee); they're rockier underwater, but very pleasant when not crowded with weekenders. Late afternoon often brings real breakers to the eastern shore of the lake; twilight here is soft and magical.

  • Ein Gedi Beach (Dead Sea): Everyone should experience swimming in the Dead Sea, the strangest body of water and the lowest point on the face of the earth. The extremely high salt content of the Dead Sea makes you feel like a cork; if you float, it's impossible to keep much of yourself underwater. The salt and minerals in the water are believed to be therapeutic, but the water will sting any cuts on your skin, and if you stay in too long, you'll be pickled. There are freshwater showers as well as a restaurant. High daytime temperatures so far below sea level mean that even in winter a dip may be possible.

  • Coral Beach Nature Reserve (Eilat): The Nature Reserve has staked out a strip of beach alongside Eilat's best reefs. Here you can snorkel among dazzling fish and coral formations, and even take interesting scuba expeditions. Snorkeling gear is for rent, and there are showers, changing areas, and snack facilities. This beach is not good for recreational swimming -- unless you wear a face mask and foot protection, you can easily step on the quills of a sea urchin, or be cut and burned by stinging coral.

  • Dolphin Reef Beach (Eilat): A good choice for everyday swimming in the Red Sea, Dolphin Reef is the most picturesque beach in Eilat, with palapas, a shady garden cafeteria, and a thatched-roof, sand-floor pub/restaurant for when you want to be out of the sun. It also has a resident dolphin population in the water, separated from the human swimming area by a net fence. You can swim under supervision in the dolphin zone for $30 a half hour; or better yet, stay in the roomy people's zone (with a sandy, nearly sea-urchin-free bottom) and enjoy watching the dolphins' leaps and frolics.

  • Nuweiba Hilton Coral Resort Beach (Sinai Peninsula, Egypt): If you want to really beach out for a few days at a comfortable resort that has a low-rise desert architectural style, and a quiet, distant end-of-the-earth ambience, with the mountains of Arabia facing you across the water, this is the place. There are beaches for swimming and snorkeling, a pool, and you can take wonderful excursions from here to the haunting interior of the Sinai.
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.
  • Israel Museum (Jerusalem): Although it only opened in 1965, in 3 decades the Israel Museum has made its place on the world museum map. Its greatest treasures, beautifully exhibited, include a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls; a dazzling, all-encompassing collection of archeological finds from Israel; a vast treasury of world Judaica and costumes, including reconstructions of the interiors of synagogues brought to Israel from Italy, Germany, and Cochin, India; and excellent collections of primitive, pre-Colombian, European, and modern art, including the exciting Billy Rose Sculpture Garden. There's also an enticing Children's Wing.

  • L. A. Mayer Memorial Museum of Islamic Art (Jerusalem): Another undervisited treasure, with an excellent collection of Islamic and Middle Eastern art, and well-chosen special and visiting exhibitions.

  • Wolfson Collection of Judaica (Jerusalem): Right in the heart of Jerusalem, this little-known gem consists of a large but intimate private collection of Judaica from all over the world. It is exhibited on the fourth floor of Hechal Shlomo, the Great Synagogue complex on King George Street.

  • Yad VaShem Memorial (Jerusalem): This large complex is a memorial to the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II. Part of the museum is a teaching experience, with films, photographs, and documents pertaining to the Holocaust; part is an archive in which information about each individual victim will be gathered and kept. A third part of the complex consists of memorial structures, gardens, and installations such as the Avenue of the Righteous, in memory of those who risked their lives to shelter Jews; the darkened, terrifying interior of the Children's Memorial; the tragic sculpture of the Valley of Destroyed Communities. No visitor can leave unaffected.

  • Bet Hatfutsot, The Diaspora Museum (Tel Aviv): Not a museum in terms of displaying actual genuine artifacts, Bet Hatfutsot is rather a state-of-the-art multimedia exhibit that illustrates the histories of Jewish communities throughout the world. It's fascinating, fun, and the special visiting exhibitions are always worthwhile.

  • Eretz Israel Museum (Tel Aviv): This museum covers many aspects of the land of Israel, including its natural history, flora and fauna, archeology, folklore, and traditional crafts. Highlights include a bazaar filled with craftspeople demonstrating such skills from antiquity as glass blowing, olive pressing, weaving, and pottery making; an extraordinary collection of ancient glass; and excavations of a tell located on the grounds of the museum.

  • Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Tel Aviv): Notable for strong collections of Israeli art, and contemporary European (including Russian) art, the museum has just begun to exhibit its newest gift: the Jaglom Collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art. There is a lively program of public events, performances, and special exhibitions.
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.
  • The Mosaic of Hisham's Palace (near Jericho): One of the most famous and often reproduced of Israel's ancient mosaics, this hypnotically compelling design of gazelles grazing beneath an orange tree, with a lion attacking one of the gazelles, graced a palace built in A.D. 724 by an early Islamic caliph. Later Islamic art rarely permitted such careful representation of living creatures. Again, a concern with patterns and rhythms of the universe is revealed. The massive orange tree, dominating this scene, represents the tree of life, beneath which the eternal drama of life and death is played.

  • Hammat Tiberias Synagogue Floor (just south of Tiberias): Slightly older than the Beit Alpha floor (see below), this floor may have inspired Beit Alpha's artists. It contains a sophisticated, skillfully executed central zodiac design, with the four seasons in good Hellenistic style, as befitted the worldly, affluent community in which it existed; it also depicts the familiar Temple tableau. For all its beauty and skill, it lacks the charm of the Beit Alpha floor.

  • Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes (Tabgha, Sea of Galilee): Perhaps the most beautiful and poetic of mosaic floors in Israel, this tapestry of shore birds, waterfowl, lily pads, and tiny creatures was created for a 5th-century Byzantine church. The artist may have visited Egypt, or been Egyptian himself, for the flora and fauna here look as if they might have come from the Nile delta, reflecting the international following of the new Christian religion. A depiction of the famous Egyptian Nilometer, which measured the Nile River's floods, symbolizes the rhythmic patterns of nature upon which the church has been built.

  • Beit Alpha Synagogue Mosaic (Jordan Valley, south of Beit Shean): This charming, late 5th-century A.D. nave floor discovered in the 1920s surprised scholars and archeologists with its central circle design of the signs of the pagan zodiac, surrounded by the four seasons being pulled through the heavens by the sun in a horse-drawn chariot. The mosaic also depicts Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, and presents a tableau containing a representation of the Temple at Jerusalem accompanied by Jewish ritual and symbolic objects. The subsequent discovery of other zodiac designs on synagogue floors has led many scholars to conclude the motif was meant to represent the majestic, slowly moving order of God's universe. The same artists laid the floor of a nearby Samaritan synagogue with a tableau that depicts the Temple (presumably the rival Samaritan Temple at Nablus) in virtually the same way.

  • Ein Gedi Synagogue Floor (near the Dead Sea): Here, instead of the central zodiac design, you'll find a central circle of peacock chicks enclosed by a geometric pattern of overlaid squares. Instead of the four seasons, adult peacocks adorn the four corners of the floor. This design is very spare, perhaps reflecting the austere environment of the desert community at Ein Gedi or perhaps reflecting a new era in which pictorial images were not so easily tolerated. The synagogue inscription indicates Ein Gedi was an entirely Jewish town, in contrast to the mixed Hellenistic-Jewish communities of the Jordan Valley and the Galilee. The chicks, enclosed in a complex geometric design that radiates out toward the adult birds, may again illustrate the rhythms of life and growth in which God's order is revealed, and upon which faith, as well as the synagogue, have been founded.
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.
  • The King David Hotel (Jerusalem, Phone 02/620-8888): Built in 1930 during the British Mandate, the King David has outlasted the British Empire and continues to sail on, immaculate, elegant, and up-to-date in every way. The Nubian, fez-adorned lobby attendants of the 1930s are no longer here, but the King David is thick with atmosphere and ambience, and VIPs from Henry Kissinger and Warren Christopher to Barbra Streisand and Bob Dylan seem to pop up here. The gardened swimming pool and views of the walls of the Old City are a real plus.

  • Hyatt Regency Jerusalem (Jerusalem, Phone 02/533-1234): At the moment, this stands as the best and most architecturally interesting of the newer megahotels in Jerusalem; it was designed by David Resnick, whose other creations include the Mormon Center on the Mount of Olives, and many of Hebrew University's more famous structures. Beautiful vistas of the city, excellent fitness and recreation facilities, a thoughtful, energetic staff, and good in-house restaurants are big advantages.

  • American Colony Hotel (Jerusalem, Phone 02/627-9777): This beautiful, atmospheric, gardened enclave began its existence as a pasha's villa in the 19th century. As an international meeting place between the worlds of East and West Jerusalem, it attracts journalists, writers, archeologists, and all sorts of VIPs, and is probably the most savvy, romantic spot in the Middle East with the possible exception of Rick's Cafe in Casablanca. Some of the suites, furnished with antiques and traditional crafts, are as splendid as anything you'll find in the region, yet prices are comparatively reasonable. The hotel's Saturday afternoon luncheon buffet is famous throughout the country.

  • Tel Aviv Sheraton Hotel & Towers (Phone 03/521-1111): The most fun of Tel Aviv's five-star hotels -- right on the beach, but steps away from the city's restaurant and gallery district, so you have the unusual feel of being in an urban resort. Restaurant services here are probably the best of any hotel in the country, topped off by the Twelve Tribes Restaurant with an elegant, luxurious menu that's both inventive and kosher. Mediterranean views from many of the guest rooms, complete with dazzling sunsets, are a plus, as is the very efficient business center and its services.

  • Tel Aviv Hilton (Phone 03/522-4111): With an unequaled staff, business center, and guest services, the Hilton is the doyenne of Tel Aviv's beachfront hotels. Suites and better-category rooms are beautifully furnished and decorated; the sheltered beach offers a resort atmosphere, but the kosher sushi bar hints at the Hilton's role as a center for business and tourism exchanges between Asia and the Middle East.

  • Dan Carmel Hotel (Haifa, Phone 04/830-6306): With sweeping views from its site at the top of the Carmel Range, as well as a careful staff and a relaxing, gardened pool enclave for guests to enjoy, this hotel, built in the 1960s, is regarded as Haifa's best. The better guest rooms, newly renovated and with views of the bay, are beautifully decorated and well worth the extra money. Lower-category rooms still have a style that recalls the Eisenhower era.

  • Radisson Moriah Plaza Eilat (Phone 07/659-1651): Although overtaken in terms of size and luxury by the humongous new Hyatt and the Holiday Inn Spa Hotels at nearby Ein Bokek, the Radisson Moriah's tranquil location right on the Dead Sea, with its own spacious private beach, is still special. The atmosphere is quiet and oriented toward desert activities and therapeutic health programs.

  • Isrotel Royal Beach Hotel (Eilat, Phone 800/636-8888 in the U.S.): Isrotel's masterpiece property, this hotel, built in 1993, is set on a palm tree-dotted bathing beach in Eilat itself, within strolling range of much of the city. Architecturally, the Royal Beach is a pleasure, with open public areas and glass corridors in its upper stories that are designed to access spectacular vistas of the city and the surrounding countryside you might not normally see. Guest rooms are beautiful, stylish, and each faces directly onto the Red Sea.

  • Eilat Princess Hotel (Eilat, Phone 07/636-5555): Opened in 1993, this hotel is officially the most expensive in the country (there are discounts available). Built into a hillside facing the Red Sea a few miles south of downtown Eilat, the Princess is a self-contained world of swimming pools, recreational facilities, restaurants, discos, and desert activities. It also established a new level of style in Israeli hotel design, with guest rooms furnished and decorated in French, tropical Philippine, Chinese, and other motifs that could be worthy of a page in Architectural Digest.
10 The Best Value Hotels

This selection of hotel choices runs from splurges to economy strategies; each establishment offers something special.
  • Saint Mark's Lutheran Guest House (Jerusalem, Phone 02/628- 2120): Beautiful, atmospheric, and immaculate, with gardens above the main Arab bazaar, this is the best possible place to stay in the Old City, and one of the most remarkable hotels in the country. Depending on the value of the German mark, a double could run from $70 to $75.

  • Jerusalem Tower Hotel (Jerusalem, Phone 02/620-9209): At this well-run moderate hotel located on the upper floors of a high-rise, you're right in the center of everything -- restaurants, cafes, shopping -- but you're high above the street noise, and with luck, you'll have a dazzling view. It's around $130 for a double, but on El Al's Sunsational Package the rate can be under $60.

  • Jerusalem Inn Hotel (Jerusalem, Phone 02/625-2757): Just a short walk from the Old City, and 1 1/2 blocks from Zion Square and the bustling Ben Yehuda and Yoel Salomon malls, this small hotel offers tidy, no-frills doubles with a touch of style and excellent beds for $50 to $68 depending on the time of year. Bathless doubles go for less, and you can arrange breakfast downstairs at Eucalyptus, one of Jerusalem's best restaurants.

  • YMCA Three Arches Hotel (Jerusalem, Phone 02/625-7111): This is in no way your average YMCA; instead, it's a respected hotel frequented by savvy travelers. For $110 you get a well-appointed double in a landmark building (designed by the same architect who created New York's Empire State Building), right across the street from the famed King David Hotel. Remember, you'd pay three or four times as much across the street!

  • St. Andrew's Hospice (Jerusalem, Phone 02/673-2401): One of the most dramatic and atmospheric sites in West Jerusalem, on a vista-sweeping hilltop overlooking the Old City, this Church of Scotland guest house offers simple rooms in an interesting 1930s-style building, and a hearty, welcoming staff.

  • Jerusalem Hotel (East Jerusalem, Phone 02/628-3282): A small place run by a well-informed, attentive family, the Jerusalem Hotel offers a pleasant garden restaurant with live music a number of times a week, and a general atmosphere that makes it seem like a very affordable version of the renowned American Colony Hotel.

  • Radisson Moriah Plaza (Tel Aviv, Phone 03/521-6666): Although this is a five-star hotel right on the beach, if you buy the Radisson Moriah Hotel's 9-Night Package, you can book a double at a considerable discount. A luxury hotel on the beach can turn Tel Aviv into a truly wonderful city, and the package, which lets you plan an itinerary around Radisson Moriah Hotels in Jerusalem, Tiberias, Tel Aviv, Eilat, and the Dead Sea, is the cheapest possible way to have luxury accommodations in Israel.

  • Church of Scotland Center Guest House (Tiberias, Phone 06/672-3769): With its 19th-century buildings, beautiful terraces, and overgrown gardens looking out on the Sea of Galilee, this well-run guest house seems almost like a villa on the Italian coast, and welcomes visitors of all faiths. Rooms have recently been redone; doubles rent for $70.

  • Ein Gev Holiday Village (Sea of Galilee, Phone 06/675- 8027): At the Ein Gev Kibbutz, with bungalows, caravans, and basic doubles set in eucalyptus and date palm groves right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, this is a paradisical place to unwind and swim the warm waters of the lake. The kibbutz runs an excellent fish restaurant a mile down the road.

  • Vered Ha Galil Guest Farm (Galilee, Phone 06/693-4964): Set in the hills a few miles north of the Sea of Galilee, this intimate, family run place began as a simple horseback riding lodge and over 4 decades has slowly been turned into a small garden of Eden. It offers a variety of rustic, charming accommodations and well-informed, personal attention; you don't have to come here for riding, but if you do, the programs are probably the best in the country.

  • Bed-and-Breakfast in a Galilee Arab Village (Phone 04/990- 1555): This program introduces both foreign visitors and Jewish Israelis to the many Arab Israeli communities of the Galilee countryside. You can make a special request to stay with a family in residence, or you can choose a guest flat where breakfast will be brought in by the owner from his or her own house. In either event, your room will be immaculate, and filled with amenities and personal touches that convey a real sense of hospitality.

  • Rimon Inn (Safed, Phone 06/699-4666: In a country with few really romantic, atmospheric hotels, this upper-moderate-range inn, synthesized from an ensemble of beautiful buildings from Ottoman times, is a real winner and an example of what might be done elsewhere in the country. A stay here helps make the often elusive magic of Safed more tangible.

  • Isaac H. Taylor Youth Hostel (Phone 07/658-4349): Right at the base of Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea, this large, modern Israel Youth Hostel Association establishment allows you to overnight in the desert and make the ascent to Masada in the cool dawn hours. Midweek during off-season, you can often arrange a private double with bath for around $45.

  • Isrotel Riviera Apartment Hotel (Eilat, Phone 800/552-0141 in the U.S.): A block from the beach, built around a pool, units here can accommodate two to four people, and are equipped with kitchenettes, TVs, and other useful amenities. Although not a kibbutz guest house, a double here can be booked as part of the Kibbutz Guest House 7-Night Package Plan, the most affordable way to have non-scruffy accommodations in costly Eilat.
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.
  • Ocean (Jerusalem): Although Jerusalem is a mountain city, this is Israel's masterpiece restaurant for fish and seafood. Service is formal, but the menu takes light, natural preparation to levels of perfection that are sublime.

  • Darna (Jerusalem): Craftsmen and interior designers from Morocco were brought to Jerusalem to create this authentic, atmospheric restaurant that celebrates the traditions of Israel's large Moroccan Jewish population. There's nothing hokey here, and the fine Moroccan cuisine matches the graceful service and ambience.

  • Cow On The Roof (Jerusalem): Gourmet magazine has dubbed Shalom Kadosh "the high priest of glatt kosher," and this decorous restaurant in the Jerusalem Sheraton Plaza Hotel is his sanctuary, with an unequaled standard of French cuisine prepared within the bounds of kashruth.

  • American Colony Hotel (Jerusalem): At $29 plus value-added tax (VAT), the Saturday luncheon buffet in the Arabesque Room is a Jerusalem tradition, with real atmosphere as well as a vast, all-you-can-eat buffet of excellent Middle Eastern and continental choices. Sadly, this treat is only for lunch, and only a once-a-week affair.

  • Twelve Tribes (Tel Aviv): Long admired for its inventive menu of nouvelle cuisine, prepared within the rules of kashruth under executive chef Hans Lelie, the restaurant has moved toward a slightly rustic, earthy style that doesn't try to disguise the basic elements of the foods being presented. Probably the most interesting hotel restaurant in the country.

  • Capot Tmarim (Tel Aviv): A carefully re-created enclave of 1930s Tel Aviv architecture and decor is the setting for Ofer Gal's menu of brilliant Mediterranean Rim creations presented with such attention to detail that even the slices of watermelon sorbet are flecked with chocolate seeds. At the very top of Tel Aviv's luxury restaurants.

  • Golden Apple (Tel Aviv): This French restaurant is the brainchild of Israel Aharoni, a vibrant perfectionist who set standards unheard of in Israel by ordering Limoges china for the Golden Apple's opening. Drawing on expertise in Asian cooking to make his repertoire innovative, Aharoni has developed a formal but always lively menu for Tel Aviv's most elegant dining.

  • Lilith (Tel Aviv): Lilith's decor has been chosen with an eye for natural shapes and textures. One of Lilith's co-owners is the author of a book on the art of grilling, and her gourmet menu is filled with light touches that almost magically bring out the best natural qualities of everything served.

  • Keren (Jaffa): Occupying a wooden house brought to Jaffa by ship from America over 100 years ago, Keren abounds in romantic charm; the elegant, always interesting French menu with touches of Mediterranean Rim is a constant joy.

  • Yoe'ezer Wine Bar (Jaffa): Set inside the cavernous arches of a building from Crusader times, this is a gourmand's paradise created by noted Israeli journalist and food writer Shaul Evron. Here, at your leisure, you can sample from an Elysian collection of European and Israeli wines, accompanied by wonderful breads and cheeses, or feast on a menu of exquisite, richly prepared dishes.

  • 1873 (Haifa): Named for the year in which the quaint cottage it occupies was built, this new French restaurant is the gastronomic jewel of Haifa, and a must for that special afternoon or night out. It's also surprisingly affordable.

  • Voila (Haifa): A small, intimate place that specializes in French/Swiss cuisine, the atmosphere here is romantic; the food is rich, rustic, and expertly prepared.

  • Au Bistro (Eilat): This gem in the French/Belgian tradition is presided over by chef Michel Torjiman, who turns out nightly miracles of expertise. Au Bistro is reasonably priced, and runs circles around its competition in Eilat's big hotels.
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.
  • Eucalyptus (Jerusalem): This is a must stop for sampling genuine Israeli food so beautifully prepared some critics call it the nucleus of an actual Israeli cuisine. Chef Moshe Basson blends traditional recipes, local herbs and spices, and seasonal vegetables and fruits into works of art, and also serves the best Arabic-style chicken Mahlouba and homemade Middle Eastern salads in the country.

  • Misadonet (Jerusalem): A Kurdish restaurant, and one of the best home-style kitchens in the country, the dish to die for here is Mama Nomi's giri-giri, a rich creation of lamb hearts stuffed with rice, meat, raisins, walnuts, and pine nuts, all served in a curried apricot sauce. Kubbeh soups, each with its own distinctive flavor, are also quite special.

  • Yemenite Step (Jerusalem): Here you can sample mellawach (flaky Yemenite phyllo crepes) filled with spiced meats, chicken, or vegetables. Yemenite garnishes, soups, and vegetables are especially worthwhile -- it's popular with both Jerusalemites and visitors.

  • Pepperoni's (Jerusalem): With its bountiful first-course buffet, ever-changing main-course selections, atmospheric building, and bargain fixed-price meals, this is always a great choice for an interesting meal in the relaxed, Mediterranean style.

  • Spaghettim (Jerusalem): This fabulous restaurant offers a vast array of spaghettis in fantastic sauces that are bountiful with fresh ingredients. The Jerusalem branch, set in an old Ottoman-era mansion with a delightful dining garden, is an especially romantic location, but there's also a branch in Tel Aviv.

  • Cacao at the Cin³math²que (Jerusalem): The view of the Old City walls from the terrace here is breathtaking, the crowd is intelligent and stylish, and the menu is very affordable. Salads, peasant sandwiches, and an excellent but reasonably priced fish menu is designed by the owners of Ocean, Jerusalem's most expensive restaurant. In cold weather, the indoor dining room can be smoky, but in good weather, a meal or dessert on the terrace, is a must.

  • Kohinoor (Jerusalem): This kosher Indian restaurant provides a rare opportunity for kosher visitors to sample Indian cuisine at a high level of perfection. The all-you-can-eat luncheon buffets are very affordable. The nonkosher Tandoori Restaurants (Tel Aviv, Eilat, and Herzlia) of the same chain are equally excellent, elegant, and a good value.

  • Margaret Tayar's (Jaffa): A small, authentic place a short walk from trendy Old Jaffa, with a covered terrace overlooking the sweeping Tel Aviv shoreline, and a master cook who loves to see people enjoying her creations. Jaffa's fishermen adore Margaret -- she gets first choice of the catch. This is a one-woman tour de force. Always call to confirm hours. Among the very best restaurants in the country at any price.

  • Abu Christo (Old Akko): Fresh fish and a covered dining terrace right beside the sea give this restaurant a delightful Greek Island harborside ambience. You can put together a feast here, complete with Middle Eastern appetizers, for $15 to $20.

  • Pagoda/The House (Tiberias): Perhaps the best Chinese restaurant in the country, with beautiful vistas of the Sea of Galilee from its lakeside terraces, the Pagoda's staff trained at one of the most famous hotels in Bangkok. The Pagoda is kosher, and when it closes for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), The House, its nonkosher affiliate across the road, opens and serves up almost the same excellent but nonkosher menu.

  • Eddie's Hideaway (Eilat): In a tourist town at the end of the earth, where most restaurants plan for customers they'll never see again, Eddie puts his heart into every meal and keeps coming up with menus that are delicious and inventive.

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