For a first-time visitor such as I, discovering Israel’s countryside was equally as important as exploring its big cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The political and religious events that have occurred in this fabled land have reverberated around the world for thousands of years.
Deciding against the group-tour-bus approach allows you to map out a customized route based on what you really want to see. For me, it was a mix of ancient sites and pilgrimage spots (along with a good dose of delicious Israeli food along the way). Israel is easily manageable by car and parking at the major attractions is generally painless.
I only had three days, so I decided to concentrate on northern Israel. Based on my experience, I would recommend staying one night in Akko (Acre), and one or two nights in the Sea of Galilee area or in Rosh Pina. Check out my full itinerary — from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — below if you’d like to follow in my footsteps.
Here we go!
Day One: From Tel Aviv, drive to Caesarea National Park to see what remains of the town built by Herod the Great (there’s a nice exhibit mapping its history) and check out the great beaches. The restored Roman amphitheater is an impressive site that hosts concerts today. (If you’re a golfer, be sure to check out the Caesarea Golf Club, considered to be the best course in Israel.)
Drive north from Caesarea to Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, where you have to stop at the Baha’i Shrine and Gardens, a beautiful terraced landscaped built as a memorial to the founders of the Baha’i religion. From here, you can look across the bay to Akko, your stop for the night.
Day Two: Akko was a strategic city during the Crusades and boasts some of the best intact ruins from that era. But the real star was dinner at Uri Buri near the water. Keep an eye out for the legendary owner himself. But don’t let his long white beard intimidate you; he’s like an ebullient teddy bear who cooks dreamy seafood. As he presented my meal, he winked and said: “Salmon without wasabi is like a kiss without a mustache.” By the end of the night, I had tears rolling down my face from laughing so hard. While each dish is better than the next, the restaurant’s ambiance is homey and inviting. There is no “celebrity wall,” Uri Buri told me, though many have visited.
The best place to stay in Akko is the Efendi Hotel, of which Uri Buri is part owner. The boutique property opened after a meticulous 8-year restoration process under the watchful eye of the Israel Antiquities Authority. In addition to 12 gorgeous rooms on three levels, the Efendi’s rooftop offers the best sunset-viewing spot in town.
Day Three: After a restful night in Akko, spend the morning in Safed, the highest city in Israel. Safed is now known for its quaint art galleries and shops, but is the birthplace of Kabbalah, and remains a center for the religion (of course, Madonna has visited). If you get lost, just ask for where the “Art Gallery Street” (Alkabetz). Wander to number 18 and have Ronen make you lunch. The “pizzas” are essentially grilled pancakes served with herbs, vegetables, and cheese, but you’ll soon understand why tourists and locals alike love them.
From Safed, you can drive to a number of Christian religious sites. My favorite, for its authenticity, was Capernaum, a small town on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus taught in the local synagogue (it’s also the hometown of four apostles — Peter, James, Andrew, and John). Today, the sea provides half of Israel’s drinking water, but when you dip your feet into the water it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like thousands of years ago.
Nearby is Tabgha where, according to biblical tradition, Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The view from the Mount of Beatitudes, the site where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, is appropriately peaceful. And while the city of Nazareth is chaotic, it’s worth visiting if only to see the Basilica of Annunciation, built over the grotto where Mary was supposedly told she was carrying the son of God.
I’m not sure that the high cost justifies a stay at the famous Mizpe Hayamim in Rosh Pina, but I loved their organic farm (the property had the whole farm-to-table thing going on in the 1960s long before it was a global trend) and the stunning views. Instead, I would consider booking at one of the hundreds of zimmers (B&Bs) in the region. A friend recommended the invaluable This is Galilee as a resource.
So, what would I do differently next time?
I would carve out more time so I could explore the south, and the Israeli sides of the Dead Sea and the Red Sea (I’ve been to the Jordan side of both). I want to see places like Masada, the Qumran Caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and the Negev Desert. I’d also book a guide who could provide more context at the religious sites, as I did when I was in Jerusalem.
Let me know what I missed in the north, or what I should see in the rest of Israel when I plan my next visit!