Traveling to Israel? Do yourself a favor: Skip the guided bus tours and break free from the cloistered holy sites. Instead, hit the highway and join us for a road trip as we explore Israel to discover the modern-day Middle East. Food and fun, beaches and backcountry—it’s the Holy Land plus a whole lot more.
As Jerusalem is to the devout, Tel Aviv is to the young and uninhibited. Anything goes in the White City, which feels a world apart from the pious pretentions of its neighbor just 45 miles inland. My first impression of Tel Aviv feels like it’s a perpetual work in progress, some mad inventor’s backyard where half-finished contraptions lean haphazardly among antique furniture and rusty motorcycles.
But seeping from the cracks of all this chaos, a particularly vibrant and intoxicating kind of life hums along, lending an irresistible charm to an atmosphere that could otherwise feel confused and impenetrable. Juice carts and chic boutiques fill the empty spaces. Moto scooters zip wildly in and out of traffic. Street-art installations 100 feet tall grace the walls of reclaimed warehouses. And crowds of chiseled, bronze-bodied twenty somethings mingle against a backdrop of laissez-faire beaches and claustrophobic spice markets.
“Are you hungry?” Is the first thing my mother-in-law says as we crowd into her Florentin walkup from the airport at 3 a.m. It’s more statement than question. And she immediately unloads the refrigerator, piling the tiny kitchen table with homemade cakes, boxes of bite-sized borekas, and a staggering stockpile of cheeses, yogurts, milks and spreads alongside a fat stack of fresh pita.
One thing that cannot be overstated about Israel is the quality of the food. Paris pales in comparison, and Tel Aviv is fast becoming a foodie Mecca as world-class chefs revitalize the city, like family friends Asaf Doktor and Joe Guttman, whose restaurant Ha’achim has taken locals by storm thanks to a seamless pairing of modern flair with traditional Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors.
Food is the unifying force here, the shared language and the social lubricant that underlies literally every aspect of life. It flows like rivers from Israeli and Arab kitchens alike. Dozens of small plates pile up at casual dinners that linger long past midnight. And a cacophony of aromas exudes from street carts, pop-up restaurants and open-air markets at all hours of the day and night.
Modern buzzwords like farm-to-table and slow food are not trends in Israel, but rather standard operating procedure, a direct descendent of self-sufficiency established by the kibbutzim in the scrappy, early days of the country. In fact, some of the more popular brand names come from kibbutzim, like Yotvata Dairy, whose roadside shop in the Negev desert is a national landmark on the road to the Dead Sea and a much-anticipated stop on the southern leg of our cross-country road trip.
The first order of business, however, is hummus. And this seemingly modest dish is a serious business indeed, with the top hummus restaurants offering little else to quell the hungry mobs lining the streets. Ask 100 people in Tel Aviv who makes it best, and you’ll likely get 100 answers. Though the favorites tend to be the Arab-run shops, like renowned Abu Hassan, situated within walking distance of the port in Old Jaffa (aka Yafo).
With its long tables, and bowls of hummus, ful and msabbcha slung rapid fire around communal stacks of warm pita, a morning meal at Abu Hassan is reason enough to visit Jaffa (go early—there’s always a wait, and it always sells out). But it’s well worth making a day of it to explore the historic port city. Tel Aviv proper is a newborn in comparison, a vast 20th-century addition built around a truly ancient enclave.
Considered one of the oldest working port towns on the planet, Jaffa’s picturesque network of narrow stone streets and terraced buildings has overlooked the Mediterranean Sea from its sunbaked hillsides for some 4,000 years. Guided tours abound, but it’s the atmosphere I’m after, and I find it ripe for the picking as we stroll the streets and waterfront unencumbered by plans or directions.
The days start to tick by in Tel Aviv, and it becomes clear I need to build some momentum for the road trip, lest we get lured irreparably into the city’s easy living. A quick search finds a last-minute rental car. Barely an hour later, we’re knocking at the bullet-riddled walls of the Zion Gate, making our way among black-cloaked Hasidic men into the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, baking under the midday sun.
Even for a secular person like myself, Jerusalem can overwhelm. True believers—whether Christian, Jew or Muslim—save their whole lives for a pilgrimage here. It’s hard not to feel connected to that kind of collective unconscious, regardless of beliefs, and one could spend a lifetime exploring within, on and under these walls.
Not only can visitors connect to religious sites like the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but they can also wander through thousands of years of human history among working archeological digs, while simultaneously getting a feel for the modern life that continues unabated within the labyrinth of streets and tunnels.
I find children playing soccer along the Little Western Wall, a rarely visited section of the famed religious site tucked into a back alley in the Arab Quarter. I stroll past elderly men drinking tea around a backgammon board that teeters atop stacked fruit crates. And I chat with bright-faced IDF conscripts as they smoke, flirt and gossip along the ramparts, automatic weapons slung over their shoulders like school book bags.
Northern Israel and the Sea of Galilee
Pointing the car north toward Haifa, it doesn’t take long for the urban backdrop of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to fade away, replaced by arid coastal mountains laced with orchards, dairy farms, and olive groves. So too does the hot, stifled air swirl into a cool, fresh and fragrant breeze. As we turn onto the winding backroads around Mount Carmel, I notice a subtle change in the people as well—Druze country.
The Druze people are a distinct religious and ethnic group in Israel—also a significant minority in neighboring Lebanon and Syria—that has long fascinated me, not least because of their relative secrecy. (The first rule of being Druze: You don’t talk about being Druze.) At any rate, as we pass through a small mountain village I spot a not-so-secret scene, a woman selling Druze-style pita from a propane cooktop outside her house. It’s a taste I can’t pass up.
Druze pita is a fermented flat bread, stretched thin like a flour tortilla, and expertly tossed onto a taboon (domed pan) where it cooks in seconds. She dollops a generous spread of labaneh (tangy yogurt cheese) and a thick dusting of ubiquitous and addictive za’atar spice, then the whole thing is folded together like a savory crepe over a self-serve bucket of homegrown olives.
From the Mediterranean mountains outside Haifa, it’s a mere 45 miles to Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, even though they literally sit on the opposite side of the country, just minutes from the Jordanian border.
In the Bible, the Sea of Galilee—a mountain lake along the Jordan River—is where Jesus walked on water, the site of the loaves and fishes story, and Mary of Magdala hailed from her eponymous town on the sea’s northwest coast. Today Tiberias is the capital of the region, and the city’s waterfront boasts a mix of Bible-story tours operating out of a kitschy boardwalk scene, complete with beachside techno music and cotton-candy stands.
Having come up after the holiday of Sukkot, we find Tiberias itself fairly quiet. So, a lazy lunch on the boardwalk and we drive south until a mass congregation of tour buses piques our curiosity.
In the bus-filled parking lot of a place called Yardenit, I notice something I haven’t heard for a week and a half: Americans! Intrigued, we sneak around the crowd that’s queuing to show their group badges, pass through a gift shop and out the back door where a vast patio has stairs and railings leading straight into the Jordan River.
It’s a baptismal site, filled with Christian pilgrims from all around the world. I pick out conversations in Russian, Portuguese, Spanish and English, but most everyone is dressed in the same white, see-through rental robes. Many pack empty two-liter bottles under their arms. Some push against each other, jockeying for space in and around the water.
Out of nowhere, a Russian woman makes a mad dash, throwing elbows, so she can fill her bottles—presumably a take-home supply of holy water, straight from the source. Others wade out alone or in priest-led groups, mouthing prayers, clutching rosary beads, and plunging themselves headfirst into the murky river alongside paddling river otters, occasionally erupting in paroxysms of religiosity.
The Golan Heights
The Sea of Galilee also marks the foothills to one of most beautiful—and one of the more contested—regions of the country. The Golan Heights is a rocky plateau in the far northeast corner of Israel. Being the proverbial high ground important to any military strategist, this rugged, rural terrain was captured by the Israeli army from neighboring Syria in the Six-Day War, a move that, while militarily sound, divided people who lived here, especially Druze families split in half by a new, unfriendly border.
The proximity to Syria and Lebanon is not forgotten by the people who live here. Something I see first-hand as the lovely couple that owns our brand new guesthouse Bein Kineret Lehermon in Qatzrin gives us a tour of their own home, pointing out the blast-proof bomb shelter cleverly disguised as their young daughter’s bedroom.
That said, the pace of life in the Golan is sublime, the people are more friendly and less combative than in the cities. The atmosphere is akin to the American West, complete with cowboys and arid rolling hills fringed with low scrub, pockmarked by stone outcroppings, and crisscrossed by lush river corridors. This is where Israelis come when they want to get back to nature, to go hiking and camping alongside cool mountain streams or wine tasting in the local vineyards.
I’m all about the hiking. Hardcore backpackers can hit the Golan Trail, an 80-mile track that traverses the eastern edge of the region from Mt. Hermon to the Sea of Galilee. But I opt for day hiking instead. Pulling into a trailhead along the Zavitan River, we quickly meet up with some easygoing locals who let us tag along to a nearby swimming hole where we spot foxes scurrying along the riverbanks.
Further into the mountains, the Brechat Ha’Meshushim (Hexagonal Pool) is the highlight of a steep, dusty hike into the Lower Zavitan river valley. A series of waterfalls cascades down the narrow river gorge, spilling into a deep pool with steep walls of hexagonal-shaped, vertical rock strata.
The Dead Sea and Eilat
If the Golan Heights is a peaceful, back-to-nature escape, then heading south to the Dead Sea and Israel’s Red Sea port of Eilat is the perfect spot for a shameless, all-inclusive beach vacation. The long drive south passes through the inhospitable Negev desert, where I spot camel trains of nomadic Bedouins winding their way across towering sand dunes.
As we crest the southern mountains, however, signs of civilization sprout flamboyantly from the desert like an oasis. Sprawling resorts and mud-covered tourists flank the Dead Sea, it’s electric-blue water fringed by glittering, crystalline salt fields. And as we approach the coast, the high-rise hotels of Eilat tower in the distance over umbrella-covered beaches.
For all its hype, the Dead Sea delivers. It’s an otherworldly experience when I wade into the dense, salt-saturated water. I can feel the weight of it pushing against me as I walk, and the salt coats my skin with a slick film. No description of the sea’s incredible buoyancy had prepared me for the sensation of floating in this natural wonder, bobbing as would a cork on a crystal-clear pool of motor oil. Nor did I heed the posted warnings about getting the water in my eyes—how bad could it be? The answer: Bad. Instantaneous stinging blindness relieved only after staggering to a nearby shower for a freshwater rinse.
Eilat—a tiny strip of coast wedged between Egypt and Jordan—is home to a lively collection of beachfront bars and cafes, souvenir markets, and idyllically calm, shallow beaches, The prime daytime pursuits include swimming, scuba diving and snorkeling in the Red Sea, while nights are dominated by shopping and over-the-top attractions like Ice Space, an ice-cave bar that provides thermal jumpsuits at the door.
For me Eilat is the end of the line, literally. It’s a place for peaceful respite after an exciting trip to the furthest corners of this country. Though, I admit I was tempted. Jordan’s coastal city of Aqaba glitters not so distantly and the incredible mountainside ruins of Petra lie just beyond the border.