Beyond Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

This article covers various sights in Israel beyond Greater Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-Yafo.

Haifa

Northern Israel

Even though I spent close to a week in Israel’s north in total, I continue to think that I only scratched the surface. This is an area that is incredibly heavy on history, archaeology, and the exploits of certain Jesus Christ. The list of places that I did not visit could easily fill an additional week of an itinerary (Golan Heights, Bet She’an, Nazareth, Tiberias, Capernaum, Tabgha, Isfiya, Rosh HaNikra, and others).

In Haifa, the main – and almost exclusive – interest is Baha’i Gardens ♥, the headline location of the serial UNESCO World Heritage site. There are three accessible parts at three different levels that do not require a guided tour. The “Inner Gardens” and the main shrine are open for visiting 9 am-12 pm, and there you get to experience a small portion of the gardens; the shrine is not at all special inside, but you have to take off your shoes and put away your cameras. The uppermost and lowermost landings are each opened 9 am-5 pm, but no walking up and down the garden terraces is allowed. Nonetheless, at every entrance, there is a metal detector checkpoint.

In addition, there are daily guided tours of the gardens in different languages (one per language). They are free of cost but require advance booking. While you ultimately get to walk the main staircase down to the lowermost part of the garden, it is on balance underwhelming and adds little to what you can experience by getting to the “inner garden” part on your own. The narration from the guides is ok, if heavily slanted towards the history and attributes of the Baha’i faith, which can be easily researched online. Please note: by the nature of the tour, it will end in a different place from where it starts, much lower in topography; some form of transport will be required to take you back to where you would likely park.

In Acre, Baha’ulla Shrine and Gardens ♥ offer a similar deal to the gardens in Haifa, with a little more friendly “guidance” for the shrine (which is also open only 9 am-12 pm). The gardens are less impressive and can be explored to a slightly larger degree. Note: in the news in 2023, there was a notion of closing the Shrine to visitors.

Old Town of Acre ♥ impressed me less than I expected. The city is a World Heritage site, but there are too many dilapidated houses and construction waste all around. You find a few visual highlights, some inner streets that recall the feeling of an Arab town mixed with Crusader heritage, a fairly extensive market, a marina, and a few minor points of interest. It feels as if the history of the place is quite an afterthought; visiting the Citadel, the Hall of Knights, or the Tunnels – all key “crusader” sights in town – could have improved my overall perception. Mosque Al Jazzar ♥ is open to visitors even during prayers.

Tzfat Old City ♥ is compact, somewhat picturesque with blue highlights on the yellow-stone buildings, but also not exactly visually outstanding. There are a few minor points of interest, some related to Tzfat’s religious significance and some not, and I may have walked by one or two without truly noticing. This is one place where having a guide should help to get a better appreciation of the place, as many people suggested to me.

Tel Megiddo National Park ♥ is among the relatively busier attractions in the north of Israel, with many tour groups making it a stop. The large archaeological park is basically piles of rocks; despite the general notion that as many as 30 settlements have been layered here on top of each other, the numbered locations at the exploration circuit refer to very specific buildings of very specific periods. There are two elevated valley lookouts. At the end of the circuit, there is a descent into the dried-up water management system, followed by an ascent after traversing the tunnel which used to carry water – of very little visual interest. The brochure has all the necessary information, and no guidance is needed. My visit lasted about an hour, but a true aficionado of archaeology could probably spend two-three hours here. Tel Megiddo is a World Heritage site.

Tzippori National Park ♥♥♥ is not a World Heritage site, but it is a gem famous for its Byzantine mosaics. Dionysius House, Nile House, and the Ancient Synagogue are full of them, while the Fortress offers fantastic 360-degree views over the surroundings. Several air-conditioned spaces provide respite from the heat. The brochure has all the necessary information, and no guidance is needed; plus there are a couple of video presentations in the aforementioned interior spaces. The visit here takes around two hours for good appreciation.

The landscapes around the Sea of Galilee ♥♥ are probably the prettiest in all of Israel.

Jordan Star National Park ♥♥ is centered on the Crusader castle called Belvoir. The castle itself is the type of ruin that actually gives you a pretty good idea of how it used to be in its heyday. The views over Jordan Valley and towards the Sea of Galilee are what makes this not very busy point of interest well worth the effort to get to. The brochure has all the necessary information, and no guidance is needed. My visit lasted under an hour. The site is part of a tentative WH submission.

Beit She’arim National Park ♥ is an interesting burial complex consisting of a series of caves. Museum Cave and Coffins Cave – the two closest to the visitor center on the lower path – are the most interesting ones, the rest are mostly just an addition to the ambiance (although one or two others can also be entered). Many impressive carvings on sarcophagi in the Coffins Cave were the highlight for me. The place is moderately popular, but I was the first and practically only visitor for about half an hour on a November Monday morning. The brochure has all the necessary information, and no guidance is needed. My visit lasted under an hour, but could probably be stretched to an hour and a half. Beit She’arim is a World Heritage site.

Bet Alpha National Park ♥ is basically a single room of the ancient synagogue with primitive but evocative mosaic on the floor. The 15-minute interpretive video – which was started as soon as I entered the room since I was the only visitor at the time – is a lighthearted dramatization of the origin of the mosaic, followed by a quick overview of the synagogue’s architectural features, worth the time to see and listen to. The cost of entry is probably not commensurate with the offering, but I found it to be one of the more interesting ancient sites. No guidance was needed for the visit, which in my case lasted less than half an hour. The site is part of a tentative WH submission.

Nahalal, the original moshav failed to provide me with anything of interest. It may hold a place as a model of concentric village design, but driving along the circles yields no highlights.

Similar to Nahalal, Degania, the earliest established kibbutz, may be interesting to see for a few minutes. Pretty yet not exceptional grounds, little of obvious note.

Nahal Me’arot National Park may be more interesting if you have kids in tow and want to do some hiking, but for a solo WH-centric traveler it is hard to imagine a less impressive fee-based World Heritage site. The site consists of three caves. The first two are more overhangs than caves and can be viewed only from a distance behind the barrier; the first diagrams the geological ages of its layers, while the second illustrates a prehistoric settlement with a few unsophisticated models. The third cave can be entered; it is 70 meters deep, nothing of note, but at the end of it there is an AV presentation – a dramatization of the prehistoric life that looks like a failed costumed home video attempt; I watched for about 7 minutes and then left. (On the positive side, there are sensors in the cave, and the presentation starts right away when there is at least one visitor inside). The brochure has all the necessary information, and no guidance is needed. My entire visit lasted less than 20 minutes. I was the only visitor on November Monday morning.

Caesarea National Park ♥ is a pretty big archaeological site, with the theater and the amphitheater both among the major highlights. There are a few other visual points of attraction and a visible notion of a city plan. It is likely that having a guide here would be beneficial in terms of gaining proper appreciation. Seeing the archaeological site took me about an hour and a half. It is on the tentative World Heritage list.

Part of the overall Caesarea complex is Caesarea Harbor ♥ open-air mall, with shops and restaurants that remain accessible even after the archaeological site closes. Many people come here specifically for the mall experience.

We also made an attempt to visit a winery, which ended up abortive. Amphorae Winery looks pleasant enough, but was very crowded, with no apparent way to arrange a tasting aside from standing in line for the cashier. With better planning, it could be a good diversion.

Dead Sea

Southern Israel

I loosely define the south of Israel as comprising everything with a latitude below that of Jerusalem. It is in large part a desert, with several archaeological sights, interesting natural phenomena, and access to two different sea resort areas.

Masada ♥♥ stands only behind Jerusalem in terms of tourist billing in Israel. Its partially mythical history is considered one of the symbols of Jewish identity, which brings everyone who visits Israel to this World Heritage site at one point or another. You can reach the top by walking if you feel athletic enough, or by cable car (which costs by itself more than the entry ticket at many other national parks). Access to the cable car is through a video presentation, which happens to be a badly edited “Cliff’s Notes” version of the otherwise good Masada documentary freely found on YouTube. In busy times, your wait for the cable car can be as long as half an hour each way. Once on top, you will find a huge site, mostly shapeless ruins interspersed with empty spaces, but also a dozen defined structures. The views of the Dead Sea and the valleys below are fantastic; there are some mosaics (Northern Palace, Byzantine Church); you can also descend to the lower levels of the Northern Palace, which is one of the highlights. The visit could last easily 3-4 hours for an enthusiast; a more casual visitor will be done in about an hour and a half. The brochure has all of the information, no guidance is truly needed, but some people may find it welcome in such a big place.

Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park ♥♥ is a World Heritage site, inscribed as a “microcosm of caves”. There are several distinct areas inside the park that are connected by walking paths but are more efficiently reachable by navigating the main circular drive. Getting to Beit Guvrin with less than two hours to spare in the afternoon is definitely too late, as that main circular drive will be blocked at the entry point an hour before the closure, and its one-way nature on the starting stretch may mean that you cannot drive through to some areas even when you are inside the park. Among the attractions that are part of the site, Bell Caves are very impressive, Apollophanaes Sidonean Cave is amazing, and a number of Columbariums in other areas are worth visiting.

Tel Be’er Sheva ♥ is the smallest of the Biblical Tels inscribed together as a World Heritage site (the others are Tel Megiddo and Tel Hazor in the north). The site is compact and with well-defined lines of buildings and streets, which is a fair rarity at an archaeological site. The observation tower is a nice touch for seeing the city plan from above. At the end of the walking circuit, there is a descent into the water system, which is mildly interesting. The brochure has all of the information, no guidance is needed; about half-hour is enough for a visit. I had the site practically to myself on a mid-November morning.

Avdat National Park ♥♥ is part of the Nabatean Incense Route in the Negev desert, inscribed on the World Heritage list with three others. It is a really impressive archaeological site high above a desert valley. You can watch an intro movie at the visitor center (in one of 14 different languages – all versions are freely available on YouTube), and then drive up the mountain to park close to the site; you can also walk up if you so choose. The site is a mix of standing structures and shapeless ruins, but there is enough of an outline, and quite a few points are very impressive. To say nothing of the views down to the desert. I was practically alone at the site on a mid-November morning. The brochure and video are enough information-wise, no guidance is truly needed; the length of the visit would be an hour-plus for most people.

Mamshit National Park ♥ is another of the Nabatean Incense Route cities. It is full of piles of rocks, but also with a significant number of well-defined contours of structures, including two churches. A lot of spaces can be entered, among them the watchtower. There are also a couple of recent buildings on the site, affecting its ambiance somewhat. The brochure has all the necessary information, no guidance is needed; a casual visitor will spend under an hour, and an aficionado could spend two or three. I was practically alone at the site throughout my visit in mid-November.

For a Dead Sea experience, most visitors to Israel will go to Ein Bokek ♥, which boasts a large number of spas as well as public beaches. The beaches have all the necessary amenities, although a spa experience is frequently recommended if you prefer the conveniences of indoor changing rooms and showers for an extra fee. Note that in the summer months, the sea gets so warm so quickly that going in is akin to taking a hot bath, not necessarily an experience to savor when the air is also hot.

Makhteshim is a geologic phenomenon unique to Israel: canyons that are not made by either meteorites or earthquakes. If you are driving southward to Eilat – which in itself is a gorgeous road trip – or visiting Avdat, you should make a stop at Mitspe Ramon ♥♥ to look at the largest one, Makhtesh Ramon. You do not need to step inside the visitor center or pay for access since the main viewpoints and a walking path are free to enter. Half an hour should be enough; coming here with a guide who can explain this natural phenomenon might be useful if you don’t read up on that in advance.

For a dip in the Red Sea, go to Coral Beach ♥ outside of Eilat. The beach is paid-access, with full facilities on site. The coral reef is easily accessible if you have snorkeling equipment; a few colorful fish were swimming right in the beach area. Although the beach itself is sandy, the sea floor is rocky, so have swimming shoes with you; the water was crystal clear and unexpectedly warm (most people would tell you that the Red Sea is always cold).

Public beaches in the center of Eilat will not require a fee to access (although, of course, you will need to pay for the use of lounge chairs and umbrellas). Along the main seafront promenade, large resorts facing public beaches are interspersed with shops and snack places, plus a few other features to liven it all up.


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