Making a trip to the land of the Bible without a tour group? Here are some tips for maximizing your experience!
Israel is very small. You can see the entire country in two weeks or less, as long as you can get from place to place quickly.
Rental cars are amazingly affordable. Fuel for those cars is amazingly expensive. Still, for getting around on your own, this is the very best way to see Israel. Parking in Jerusalem’s Old City is non-existent. Leave your car at your hotel and catch a taxi or walk.
Public Transportation includes a vast array of buses and a new train. I have no experience with either option and cannot offer an opinion.
Contracting with a tour guide and his or her vehicle. This is the very best way to see the country. Unfortunately, it’s going to cost you the most money, too. But if you’ve got the cash, a guide will make the rocks come alive for you. All big groups in the tour busses have guides. Without a guide, you’ll miss much of the information that will explain why you’ve come to a particular site. If you want a personal recommendation for guides, contact me.
Even without a guide, you can still take advantage of this amazing place. Get a basic guidebook (available at any bookstore or on-line) and read it before you make your trip. It makes for great reading on the plane, too.
Though you’ll hear a lot of Hebrew and Aramaic, almost everyone in Israel also speaks English.
National Parks Pass
The best bargain in Israel, this pass will grant you access to dozens of sites. It’ll even give you ideas of where to visit.
Things to see in Jerusalem
- Praying at the Western Wall.
- Western Wall Tunnel Tour. Like most of the places on this list in Jerusalem, the National Parks pass doesn’t cover admission to this site. That’s OK. Spend the money for a guided tour!
- City of David experience, including Hezekiah’s Tunnel walk, a visit to the Pool of Siloam, and an underground walk back to the Temple Mount Area and The Davidson Center Park. If you want to do the tunnels, you need to be sure to get all the tickets necessary and hold on to the receipts. You’ll need water shoes (knee-deep water) and a headlamp. You can also rent small pen-lights there for $1. Or use the light on your phone. This is AMAZING history.
- The Davidson Center archeological park. You’ll see a First-Century street and the southern steps leading up to the Temple Mount. No doubt, Jesus walked in these places many times. Pentecost probably happened here. Pay attention to the “micvahs.” Watch this video and/or read this to understand more.
- The Cardo/Jewish Quarter shopping district.
- Wandering through the Old City.
- Sisters of Zion Convent – go underground to see the actual stones of the Via Dolorosa Jesus knew.
- Walking the “Via Dolorosa” and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
- Visiting the Garden Tomb. Try to join a group that’s going to have communion. Be sure to hear what the guide says. For many, this is the highlight of an entire trip to Jerusalem. Save it for last if you can.
- Explore the Mt. of Olives. Visit the Church of All Nations, traditional site of Gethsemane.
- Walk down into the Kidron Valley. Check out this video for the reasons why.
- Visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. This is a three-hour experience. Quite disturbing. Very important.
- Israel Museum. This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept. Many other exhibits, too.
- Visit the “Burnt” House and the Wohl Museum.
- Shopping for antiquities? Visit The Ancient Coin in the Jewish Quarter. Tell Joseph Zambil that I sent you!
Things to see in the Dead Sea Area
- The most visited place in Israel. Hang near a tour group and you’ll learn more.
- The Dead Sea. Plan on floating in En Bokek, on the southern end of the Dead Sea. By far the nicest area to do this.
- Ein Gedi. One of your National Parks jewels. Hike up to see the waterfalls of Nahal David. Watch this video to get a glimpse of what’s there.
- Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. Nice gift shop and restaurant here. It’ll be hot, no matter what time of the year. You can also take a short hike up into the mouth of the wadi.
- You can spend the night in En Bokek or one of the other places along the shore, or you can make this entire journey a day trip loop from Jerusalem.
Things to see around the Sea of Galilee
- Start with a view from the top of Mt. Arbel. You’re looking at 80 percent of the recorded ministry of Jesus! It’s a nice, short hike from the parking lot. It’s a tough, energizing hike from the bottom! You can also hike down, if you’ve got someone who’ll pick you up.
- Magdala, home of Mary (of Magdala) Magdalene.
- Capernaum, adopted home town of Jesus.
- Skip the overcrowded churches that “remember” Peter’s primacy or the feeding of the 5,000. Worthless stops … neither are in the actual location of the events and you’ll be fighting hundreds and hundreds of tourists who never seem to notice this.
- Ride all the way around the lake. Just take it in.
- Yardenit, the baptismal site. You’re welcome to watch others being baptized in the Jordan River, or be baptized yourself. They sell thin robes and access to the changing area for $10.
- Tiberias has little to offer.
- My favorite places to stay are Nof Ginosar and En Gev. Both have beach access. If you plan on swimming, have water shoes handy. The lake bottom is covered with sharp rocks.
- The “Alamo” of Jewish history. People fought to the end against the Romans, many of them taking their own lives in freedom rather than surrendering to their hated enemies. Be warned: It’s a strenuous hike just to get there.
- Bet She’an, a city of the original Decapolis. If you never get to Italy or Greece, this city is a carbon copy of what you’d find in those countries’ ancient sites. This is a stunning place to visit.
Things to see in the Golan and far north area
- Banias, or Caesarea Philippi. Watch this to learn more.
- Tel Dan, one of the most beautiful places you’ll visit. A magnificent, comfortable hike that will show you a pagan altar from the worst days of the Old Testament history, and the “Abraham Gate,” the oldest city gate in the world.
- Omrit, if you can find it. It’s a challenging hike. Contact me for instructions if you can’t find them on-line.
- One of the most important cities from the ancient world. You’ll see burned stones here from the time of Joshua. It’s in the Hula Valley.
What to see along the coast of Israel
- Caesarea Maritima. Give at least half a day to this experience. You’ll want to explore the aqueduct, the harbor and the heart of the ruins, where you’ll find an amazing theater and hippodrome. Eat lunch while you take in the beautiful Mediterranean. Get there early … and try to leave before the afternoon traffic jams begin.
- Tel Aviv. We don’t visit Tel Aviv on our tours, so I’m clueless on what this major city has to offer. Jaffa is ancient Tel Aviv, but even there, you’ll find little more than expensive shops and beautiful scenery.
The Shephelah and Negev
- Explore the Valley of Elah, where David defeated Goliath. There’s also Shaaraim, the new find on top of the hill overlooking the valley. It’s a hiking experience.
- Tel Gezer.
- Bet Shemesh.
- Tel Gath, hometown of Goliath.
- Beersheba, where Abraham secured a well.
- Mitzpe Ramon, one of the world’s largest erosion craters.
- Eilat and Timna Valley – at the southern-most tip of Israel. Unless you’ve got the time, I’d advise skipping this. Far too much time for what you’d see in the north.
Hiking in Israel
Israel had great trails throughout the country. Here’s a helpful link. Be sure to carry plenty of water and everything else you’d need in a backpack. And never walk in a wadi (canyon) in the winter. Running into a flash flood while hiking has been a life-ending experience for several people in recent years.