Road Trip Through Israel

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.

Watching the sun set in Akko. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

Watching the sun set in Akko. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

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.

Ronen is known by locals as "the Yemenite Pizza Man." (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

Ronen is known by locals as “the Yemenite Pizza Man.” (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

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.

Ruins at Capernaum on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

Ruins at Capernaum on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

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!

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her on Twitter @anniefitz.

Comments

  1. Anthea Gerrie
    UK
    May 14, 2013, 2:03 pm

    You really nailed the Galilee well done – and next time leave enough time for the amazing Goats with the Wind, in the middle of nowhere, a goat farm which does sublime lunches cooked in an outdoor kitchen, by appointment. Also check out Helena,
    a superb restaurant in Caesarea, and Machaneyuda in Jerusalem, the super-buzzy restaurant by the food market which has turned the city, in the view of one restaurateur,
    “from a 10-restaurant town into a one-restaurant town”!

  2. Annalie
    South Africa
    May 15, 2013, 10:16 am

    Well said, Annie. I have just returned from a three day trip to the opposite end of Israel and read your essay with a touch of melancholy. South from Jerusalem lies an arid area with well-marked self-drive roads all along the the Dead Sea, past Masada, heading straight to Eilat. The main route 90, I was warmly warned by the car renting agency, is littered with ‘ruddur’ (turned out to be the local traffic control and their feared radar).
    My stay in En Gedi – a previously hydroponic kibbutz – gave me a small taste of a great experience. The Dead Sea is an equalizer in many aspects. Apart from all its known attributes (i.e. heavenly floating and healing mud) the casual interaction and acceptance of all ages, shapes, sizes, diseases, and disorders under a camouflaging layer of mud that I observed, proved to be a highlight of my trip. Have fun when you venture to the south one day.
    Annalie

  3. Ray Chepesiuk
    Canada
    May 16, 2013, 10:42 am

    Thank you. This is a trip down memory lane for me. I was on UN Peacekeeping duty in 1977-78 based in Ismailia Egypt and I was responsible for all the medical supplies for the UNDOF troops in Al Qunaitra in the Golan Heights. So I have seen most of Israel from one end to the other. I have been to all your listed places. I would add Nahariya, the northernmost coast city in Israel and a car trip into the Golan Heights for amazing views of the Sea of Galilee. At the time the Israelis had bulldozed all the former Syrian towns , which was shocking and sad to see. I don’t know if it still remains like that.

  4. Wendy
    Canada
    June 12, 2013, 4:32 pm

    Ray, I visited the Golan Heights in July of 2006. As we made our way up the winding roads it was eerie as it was deserted at the time due to the katushas from Lebanon. The areas on the side with all the landmines are surrounded by wire fences to protect people and animals. We were amazed with the arid land on the top, it was green everywhere, lush and beautiful. Strange for a Canadian though to hear the sound of the cannon from the border with Lebanon. Truly a once in a lifetime experience. Unfortunatley the winery we hoped to have lunch at was closed but we lunched at the only open restaurant in Tiberias. Two men who we found out were the bomb squad were there and we were later joined by local police. That was it, there were no one else in that area.

  5. Rosa
    Haifa
    July 16, 2013, 5:47 am

    Responding to your question, did you miss anything in the North, as a resident of Haifa, in the North, I can suggest some extremely wonderful spots in and around the area.
    On route 4, parallel to the coastal highway starting just North of Caesaria, which you visited, depending on the season, one of the best birdwatching sites you’ll find is at Kibbutz Maagan Michael. Israel is on the migration path between Europe and Africa, and giant herons stop at the commercial fish ponds for meals – (taking a big chunk out the kibbutz’s profits.) There is a field school at the entrance of the kibbutz for organized sight seeing in the area.
    Just North of the Kibbutz is the picturesque town of Zichron Yaakov, originally founded in the 19th century by the Baron Edmond de Rothschild and encouraging Jewish labor, the countries first winery, Carmel Wines was established and still running. The town has maintained its charm, and the gardens in the memory of the Baron are breathtaking, as is the view.
    Just north of Zichron Yaakov is the Caves Stream Carmel Mountain nature reserve (Nahal Me’arot), the site of a prehistoric settlement. There are guided tours of the caves and the surrounding archaeology.
    North of Nahal Mearot is Atlit, the site of a British Mandate prison, and the site where Adolf Eichman was hanged for crimes against humanity, the only death sentence allowed in Israel.
    Just north of Atlit is the artist village Ein Hod, a fabulous village in which artists have congregated to live and create.
    North of Ein Hod is the road which leads to Beit Oren. The snake path road is known as Little Switzerland. The greenery has thinned out since the tragic fire that struck the Carmel Mountains a few years ago and took days to extinguish. This is also a picturesque way to get to Haifa or Daliat Al Carmel, the largest Druze Village in Israel with a lively market place.

    And all of this – and more – in a 30 km stretch. Not to mention the beautiful Meditteranean sea.
    Enjoy.
    Rosa
    Carmel Gifts, “Things you wish you brought home from Israel”
    http://www.carmelgiftshop.com

  6. Lollo
    USA
    August 10, 2013, 1:31 am

    ALERT: I have recently toured with Artium Dostman of Exclusive Tours and he has been caught for fraud. His tour agency has been suspended by Hostelworld as of July 2013. Please refer to TripAdvisor forums on his tour company to verify this notification. He scams tourists and overcharges them, leaving them at the Jordanian border and then harasses them online. Please be aware of this agent. Thank you.

  7. Stefan
    United Kingdom
    August 22, 2013, 8:00 am

    Despite its small size, three days is not NEARLY enough time to get an appreciation of what’s on offer in Israel! The cliche that there’s something for everyone is true – from nature reserves to tourist beaches, ear-punishing nightclubs to spiritual retreats and pilgrimage spots, ancient and modern attractions that bring history to life…
    And, by the way, Kabbalah is NOT a religion! (It’s an esoteric, mystical tradition within Judaism.)

  8. Albert
    August 28, 2013, 5:45 am

    The above Blog is very nicely written. Israel is an amazing place to visit. If you want to know about Israel Tours, then you should log on to http://www.yourway.co.il.

  9. Alyssa Ast
    January 15, 5:33 pm

    I’m so glad I found your site. I never really thought about traveling to Israel before until I ran across http://www.isram.com. But, it’s such a beautiful place and can’t wait to go. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Makes me want to go even more!

  10. Efrat
    Israel
    May 18, 4:41 am

    During your next visit, stay with a local family and be fully immersed in Israeli culture! Book a homestay through http://www.shirasisrael.com and get to know Israel the way Israelis do!

  11. Laura
    Italy
    June 30, 2:40 am

    Great article! I have been in Israel many times and every time I have discovered new things. I suggest you to rent a car in Israel so it will be easier for you to get every place you want. Last time I rent a car from here:http://en.shlomo.co.il/. when you visit Jerusalem make sure to spend the night in Dan Hotel http://www.danhotels.com/JerusalemHotels/KingDavidJerusalemHotel/ because it’s beautiful there