Southern Israel: Masada, Eilat, more

South of Israel (which I loosely define as anything with latitude below that of Jerusalem) is mainly desert, with several archaeological sights, interesting natural phenomena, and access to two different sea resort areas.
Dead Sea
Masada ♥♥ stands only behind Jerusalem in terms of touristic popularity. 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. The visitor center at the foot of the mountain has a large restaurant with a number of buffet and takeout options.

Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park ♥♥ is a separate 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 likeable.

Makhteshim are geologic phenomena unique to Israel – a kind of canyons that are not made by 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, called 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, I picked 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). I only took a short stroll 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.

Other notes for Israel