Israel's Hidden Gems
By Laura Gelder | June 2018 | 4 minute read
Compact Israel is best known for modern Mediterranean Tel Aviv, Jerusalem’s ancient sacred sites, the beaches of Eilat and the Dead Sea. But beyond this are a host of other destinations which with natural, cultural and historical appeal.
Seaside town Haifa is the Silicone Valley of Israel and is often dubbed the country’s best example of Arab-Jewish co-existence.
The city’s most famous tourist attraction is the Baha’i shrine and tropical gardens which cling to the slopes of Mount Carmel, looking over the Med. At the foot of this is the German Colony, founded in the 19th century as a Christian community and home to charming stone houses.
The beaches are a draw for sun worshippers and surfers and the port area is a bustling area of commerce. Nearby is the Carmel Hai-Bar Nature Reserve which aims to save endangered species like the griffon vulture and fire salamander.
This half-ruined port city is considered one of Israel’s greatest Roman sites. The area has been occupied since 586BC, by Phoenicians and Byzantines too, but at its height the megalomaniac King Herod transformed it into a thriving fortified city. Visitors can still see the remains of a bathhouse, aqueduct and an amphitheatre, where gladiators once fought to the death with ferocious beasts.
Today the amphitheatre also holds modern concerts and an onsite museum uses coins, jewellery and other relics of the past to explain its history. There’s also a golden beach and a scuba club offering divers the chance to explore the parts of the city lost to the sea.
This mighty clifftop fortress is a place of a legendary resistance. The 450-metre plateau rises sharply between the arid wastes of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea and offers panoramic views of both from its summit – reached by cable car or a walk up the Snake Path. Masada was Herod’s winter residence and, despite its remote location, hosted luxurious palaces, well-stocked store rooms and elaborate cisterns which fed the bathhouses so beloved by Romans. After the death of Herod, Masada was the site of the last stand by the Sicarii, an extreme Jewish sect who sacrificed themselves rather than be killed by the Roman troops.
This tranquil hilltop town is famed for its connection to Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah (famously followed by Madonna). Safed’s elevation guarantees a cool climate and clean pine-scented air while its narrow streets are filled with art galleries and cafes perfect for browsing and people watching. The crowd is eclectic – traditionally-dressed Hasidic Jews to bohemian spirituality seekers. In its old Arab Quarter is an artists’ colony while the old Jewish Quarter is lined with synagogues and craft stalls.
The Negev Desert’s dramatic rocky canyons stretch all the way to the Red Sea in Israel’s south. The Ramon Crater is the largest of its kind in the world, 40km long, between two and 10km wide, and shaped like an elongated heart. A jeep tour through this geological phenomenon offers a chance to understand its formation, from erosion rather than a meteor impact or volcanic eruption. There’s also the chance to spot the wildlife which manages to pick out an existence from the dry rubble, including gazelles and wild ibex with long, curved horns.
Said to be the home of Jesus, the site of the angel Gabriel’s night time visit to Mary and one of the most famous pilgrimage destinations in the world, Nazareth is also Israel’s largest Arab city. It’s a buzzing, traffic-jammed mini-metropolis famous for a great dining scene that ranges from rough and ready falafel houses to chic bistros. The Old City still has crumbling Ottoman mansions and many churches, including the Basilica of the Annunciation which marks the spot where Mary found out she was with child.
While Tel Aviv is often lauded for its trendy dining, Jerusalem is more often talked about for its religious monuments – but the city offers equally eclectic cuisine, with influences from the Middle and Far East, North Africa and South America. At its heart is Mahane Yehuda, a market home to piles of ruby red pomegranates, spices, meats and coffee stalls. It is also an open-air gallery, with spray-painted murals of contemporary and historical figures on its window shutters. It inspires many of the city’s top restaurants, like Jacko’s Street with its menu of international fusion food.
This many-layered port has a subterranean Crusader city, Roman remnants and an Ottoman quarter – it’s been continuously occupied since the Phoenician period (1500 BC). Underground are atmospheric souks selling everything from spices to trainers; above ground are stone ramparts looking out to sea. Visitors can wander the city walls, watch fishermen mend their nets or join the locals and nurse an obligatory coffee amongst the sweet scent of Shisha.
This area on the Mediterranean coast is blessed with the white sands Hof Dor Beach as well as Dor-Habonim Nature Reserve. Visitors can explore walking trails along sandstone ridges and past rocky inlets and clear water bays, visit the famous Blue Cave and snap the rusty shipwreck.
Where to book it
Riviera Travel has the Jerusalem, Galilee and the Dead Sea is an eight-day trip priced from £1,299 and includes guided tours of Acre, Masada, Caesarea and Nazareth as well as a boat cruise.