While the pandemic is very much throwing a spanner in the works, thwarting travel plans all over the world, Israel has taken the first steps to ease restrictions by giving the green light for foreign tour groups to visit.
Hoping to kick-start the tourism industry, its pilot program (starting September 19th) will allow fully vaccinated groups of up to 30 people from countries on its green, yellow and orange lists to enter the country. As such, we thought we’d focus on the must-dos, sees and eats when experiencing this small but diverse country as part of a tour.
- Head to the beach
Spanning the Mediterranean coast, Israel is full of some of the world’s most gorgeous beaches, and this is a great all-inclusive part of any group itinerary. Don’t love sunbathing or swimming? You’ll be spoilt for choice with a multitude of other related activities, such as surfing, scuba diving, volleyball or ping-pong (known here as ‘Matkot’). Some of our fave spots include:
- Tel Aviv. Choose between Banana Beach, Gordon Beach or Hilton Beach - to name but a few (there are 13 in total!).
- Caesarea. The Aqueduct Beach offers a quiet, tranquil experience, surrounded by Roman ruins.
- Eilat. If you like your temperatures hot, hot, hot, you’ll definitely want to head down south to the mountain-backed beaches on the Red Sea.
- Dead Sea. A unique experience that allows you to float on the impossibly green, salty water - full of healing properties which is the lowest point on earth. You may also want to spend some time in one of the region’s many spas, all using salt, mud and mineral-based products from the water.
2. Fall in love with Tel Aviv
You didn’t think that was all we were going to say about Tel Aviv … did you?
This four-million-people-strong beach city offers so much more than just beaches (although these are, obviously, incredible.). The vibrant, cosmopolitan hub of Israel’s most modern ‘White City’ is filled with delicious eateries with tastes from around the world (a food tour is a must!), quirky markets, impressive Bauhaus architecture and a nightlife to rival London or New York. Add to the mix a wide range of theatres, museums and the ever-popular ancient port of Jaffa (home to a flea market, art galleries, hidden alleyways, delicious restaurants and sensational views of the beach), and you and your group just might want to stay here forever.
3. Discover a history like no other
Wherever - and whenever - you are in Israel, you will always see countless tour groups around. That’s because for such a tiny country, Israel is full of significant sites for Jews, Christians, Muslims and Armenians. No matter what your background, therefore, you’ll love getting lost in this real-life time-traveling machine that promises to transport you to the past. Here are some particular highlights:
- Old City, Jerusalem. One of the oldest cities in the world, you may not know where to start (which is why coming with a tour group is actually a great idea!). From the Western Wall (the exterior wall of the long-destroyed Jewish Temple) to the Via Dolorosa (where Jesus would have walked towards his crucifixion); the al-Aqsa Mosque to the Dome of the Rock (essential to the three monotheistic religions); the endlessly winding streets of the Old City are filled with thousands of years of history. Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry - there’s a limitless number of tour guides ready to take your group back to the past!
- Masada. This famous fortress (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), overlooking the Dead Sea, was built by King Herod and served as the place of refuge for Jews against the Roman Empire for a long seven years, before committing mass suicide. It’s a terrible story but one that today symbolizes Israeli bravery and determination, reflected by the must-do climb (or cable car, we won’t judge!) to the top for the most spectacular sunrise. Book your Masada sunrise tour
- Important Christian sites. Head to Nazareth to see the largest church in the Middle East and the Jesus Trail, Bethlehem, to see where Jesus was born and Qasr el Yahud (near Jericho) where Jesus was baptized - to name but a few.
- Roman ruins. Again, you can spot these all over Israel, but the Caesarea National Park - one of the country’s largest archaeological treasures, was home to Roman, Byzantine and Crusader cities, and today still houses a Roman aqueduct, hippodrome, temple and amphitheater.
4. Be wowed by the North
Spending time in the North of Israel is a personal highlight of ours. It’s a wholly welcome relaxing antidote to the bustle of central Israel - centered around the Sea of Galilee. Here you can take a hike up one of the mountains for the most breathtaking views of Israel’s main reservoir (and the site where Jesus is said to have walked on water!), followed by a lazy float down the lake in a kayak, surrounded by picturesque beaches and mountains.
The best way to really experience the North is by staying in a hotel or ‘zimmer’ for a couple of days (at least!), giving your group enough time to sample the many activities and delicious restaurants on offer in this simply beautiful part of the country.
5. Don’t forget Jerusalem!
Of course, there was no way we could have got to point 5 of this article and not mentioned Jerusalem already. However, there’s so much more to the Capital of Israel than just its history and sites of significance.
If you’re a foodie, you’ll absolutely love this culinary tour of the Machane Yehuda market, tantalizing your taste buds with hummus, cheeses, unique spices, freshly-squeezed juices and laffa bread - just some of the best local delicacies you will enjoy.
There are also world-famous museums, the upmarket outdoors Mamilla Mall and the trendy evening scene of Ben Yehuda.
6. Be at one with nature
You can’t come to Israel as part of a tour group and not be swept up by the endless hikes on offer throughout this beautiful country - all offering something different. Ein Gedi is our fave - the largest oasis in Israel and an absolute gem. Boasting a 10-hectare botanic garden filled with about 900 species of plant, you’ll hike past waterfalls, caves and canyons before reaching the rivers and springs which no one - but no one - cannot resist jumping into. Your group photos from here will look seriously epic.
7. Indulge your cultural side
Israel is home to some of the world’s most impressive museums, from history to art, immersive experiences to science. Here are some must-dos:
- Yad Vashem. This Holocaust Museum is a sobering yet remarkable feat of what people can achieve when they overcome adversity. Not only is it the largest cultural institution in Israel, but it is also one of the world’s top museums, housing more than 27,000 items that have been donated over the years by Holocaust survivors or their families. One of the country’s most visited tourist attractions, its impressive architectural design leads you out onto a veranda overlooking the whole of Jerusalem. This journey is one that, ultimately, ends in survival. Don’t miss it. Buy your audio guide ticket here
- Israel Museum. Home to some 500,000 (!) items, get lost in a world filled with the Dead Sea Scrolls, a nail from the practice of crucifixion and a mosaic Islamic prayer - among many other treasures of the past. Get your entrance ticket here
- Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Displaying a wide range of exhibits, this belongs on any art lover’s bucket list. Book now
- Steinhardt Museum of Natural History. Also in Tel Aviv, this showcases the natural wonders and living organisms of Israel through interactive exhibits. Book here
8. Experience the desert
Covering the southern half of Israel, the Negev takes up over half of the country, and - true to form - there are many different ways to experience it.
- Timna Park. Boasting incredible geological formations, such as multi-colored sand and massive sandstone pillars, we love seeing this from the back of a jeep! If you’re here in the autumn, look out for the annual hot air balloon festival, too!
- Thrill-seeking adventures. The desert is the perfect place to get your adrenaline pumping. From sandboarding to abseiling, quad biking to camel riding, there’s something for everyone.
- Bedouins. Probably one of the most memorable things to do in the desert is stay in a Bedouin Camp. Uber hospitable, they’ll welcome you into their homes with open arms, offering you sweet tea, a delicious dinner and incredible stories. This is a particularly special thing to do as part of a tour group.
9. Hang out in Haifa
The third-largest city in Israel and home to a mix of Jews, Christians and Muslims who coexist peacefully, Haifa maintains a diverse and cosmopolitan vibe. The main highlight here is the UNESCO World Heritage Baha’i Gardens, which you can view in all its beauty from the top of Mount Carmel.
10. Visit a Kibbutz
The Israel of today owes everything to the dedication of the early Kibbutzim - collective communities who literally built the land up from nothing. Today, there are still almost 300 across the country - many of which are open to visits from groups of tourists.
11. End up in Eilat
The most southern city in Israel (with temperatures to match), Eilat is a top-rated tourist destination. Situated on the Red Sea - and with near-perfect coral reefs - it offers a whole range of water activities such as scuba diving, kayaking, snorkeling and swimming with dolphins. The resorts are breathtaking - each one better than the one before - with more buffets than you’ll know what to do with.
The nightlife is also great here - the perfect way to let loose with your group after a fun-packed day!
All that’s left to do is find yourself a tour group and visit this tiny yet powerful gem in the Middle East!