Israel: A World of Contrasts

Posted April 25, 2013 by Megan Eileen McDonough in Travel Guides


From ancient ruins and sacred spaces to innovative designs, Israel is where both tradition and modernity blend seamlessly.

Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Spring 2013

 

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or a young nation, Israel is wise beyond its years. Home to religious sites, historical artifacts and golden beaches, this multi-faceted country packs a punch despite its small size and tender age.

Due to the religious significance of its geographical location, Israel is constantly a source of political tension and global controversy. Yet, despite these setbacks, the nation continues to move forward one delicate step at a time.

While officially declared a country only in 1948, Israel has been a Holy Land for Jews, Christians and Muslims for centuries. Within these borders lie core religious monuments that draw thousands of pilgrims each year to pay homage to their faith. This unique factor is just one of many reasons why Israel remains a fascinating destination.

Perhaps serving as the prime example of varying faiths living under one roof, is Jerusalem. The old city is divided into four religious quarters; while the new town offers stylish cafes, shops and modern architecture. Walking from the new part to the old takes only a few minutes, yet the transition from modernity to tradition is obvious.

Home to religious sites, historical artifacts and golden beaches, the multi-faceted country of Israel packs a punch despite its small size and tender age. 

Beyond Jerusalem’s city walls, vast mountains, hills and desert landscape attract adventure seekers from far and wide regardless of religious affiliation. A bevy of natural parks and reserves serves as a playground for hikers and outdoor lovers.

Further contributing to Israel’s allure is the emerging artistic influence in Tel Aviv. With the city serving as a leading role in the design revolution, young artists are finding their voice and using their vision to improve daily lives in their community.

When it comes to the locals who add cultural flavor to their home, the classic “sabra personality” is often the term of choice. Used to describe a true Israeli’s character, the sabra’s thorny exterior makes a sharp contrast to its sweet interior. Just like the cactus, locals may at first come off as abrupt or closed off but after a bit of perseverance, you’ll find them soft and gentle by nature.

In many ways, Israel’s urban culture is quite similar to major European cities. Yet, there is still the Middle Eastern flair of colorful souks, and freshly served falafel and hummus, proving another way in which tradition and modernity can stand side by side.

 

Itineraries

Religious Refuge

Dive head first into the past by exploring the mysteries of the Bible

Duration: 1-2 weeks

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o discover the core of Israel’s history, Jerusalem is an ideal starting point. Housing a large percentage of the world’s religious sites, the city is easily explored by foot, thus allowing travelers to experience local life in an accessible way. The “Old City” is comprised of four quarters: Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian. Walk the path of Christ along the Via Dolorosa, ending at Church of the Holy Sepluchre or take in the bright color and ornate architecture at Dome of the Rock.

Capernaum is a small fishing village along the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is believed to have lived for several years while recruiting followers. Visitors can see both the modern Franciscan church and ruins of two different ancient synagogues. Many Christians also opt to visit the nearby Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

For an introduction to a lesser-known faith, head to Haifa, located in Northern Israel. Within Haifa’s borders is the most significant site for people of the Baha’i faith – the Baha’i Shrine and Gardens. Every year, thousands of pilgrims make their way to Haifa to gaze upon the burial ground of their most revered prophet, “The Bab”.

 

Archeological Adventures

Bask in the Israeli sun by exploring awe-inspiring mountains and ancient ruins

Duration: 1-2 weeks

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o explore the great outdoors, begin by visiting Makhtesh Ramon, a series of rock formations, hills, valleys and flowers. Identified as the Ramon Crater, this space is located in the middle of the Negev desert. Many visitors prefer to embark on a challenging hike while others simply view the area via jeep or camel. These rock and fossil formations are a result of an ancient ocean migrating in the northern direction.

Mount Masada is another impressive mountain with a fascinating story. Originally designed as a playground for King Herod the Great, Masada’s climactic destruction resulted in the male leaders choosing death over a life of slavery. The Romans eventually succeeded in penetrating and seizing the fortress in 73 CE. Today, travelers can either visit the mount by cable car or walk on foot.

For a crash course into world history, head to the Caesarea National Park, a former Roman capital. This old Crusader city was another project ordered by Kind Herod, whose taste for the luxurious lifestyle are seen in remains of mosaic tiling and sauna remains. The entire park covers an extensive amount of ancient ruins, making this one of Israel’s top archeological highlights.

 

Artistic Movement

Head straight to the heart of Israel’s artistic powerhouse

Duration: 1 week

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y far Israel’s most lively city, Tel Aviv is a cultural hub for art connoisseurs, nightlife trendsetters and beach bums.

Held every Tuesday and Friday along Nahalat Binyamin Street, the city’s art & craft fair showcases creative work by local artists. For more refined tastes, wander through the many art galleries located in the heart of the city or visit the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for a comprehensive look at art and design throughout Israel’s history.

When the sun sets, various examples of interior design can be admired through the city’s famous nightlife scene. Themed bars, clubs and elegant restaurants are often treated as blank canvases where emerging decorators bring life and color to the walls. Even chefs channel their inspirations into creating new spins on traditional dishes. Presentation is key, so prepare for your plate to rival perfection.

The Design Museum Holon is the first museum of design dedicated to the work of Israelis. Located just outside of Tel Aviv, the complex outdoor installation matches the intensity found within its doors. Rotating seasonally, exhibits aim to feature local art at its finest while paying tribute to Israel’s up-and-coming designers.

 

Trekker’s Paradise

Hike the Jesus Trail and soak in the rugged landscapes of the Galilee region

Duration: 1 week

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o explore the backcountry of Israel and learn more about Catholic history, follow the footsteps of Jesus on this 38-mile (65-km) hiking trail in the Galilee region of Israel. 

The Jesus Trail connects important sites from the life of Jesus while bringing you through national parks, caves, valleys and beautiful olive groves. For non-religious adventurers, the Jesus Trail offers an alternative for trekkers to experience the country in a way that is authentic and educational.

From Nazareth, the hiking route first weaves through Zippori National Park, where the ruins of a Talmudic city stand. Stop to admire the restored 4,500-seat Roman Theater and the famed Byzantine mosaics. The cavernous first-century water system is an adventure, and the visitors’ center hosts activities and tours.

The trail then continues to the town of Cana, the traditional site of the wedding feast where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine. The day’s walk will bring you to Ilaniya, a small Jewish community where you can simply kick back at Yarok Az, an organic goat farm and ecolodge.

On a clear day, the Horns of Hattin outside of Tiberias provide a glorious 360-degree view of the entire Jesus Trail, including the Arbel Cliffs and the snow-capped peak of Mt. Hermon to the northeast.

One of the highlights of the trek is reaching the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater lake in Israel.  In Hebrew it is known as Lake Kinneret, with its flat western shore and curving eastern shore resembling the shape of a harp.

The trek eventually ends at Capernaum, which served as Jesus’ home base during his ministry in the Galilee. More detailed information can be found in the guidebook Hiking the Jesus Trail  by Anna Dintaman and David Landis (Village to Village Press 2010).

 

This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Spring 2013


About the Author

Megan Eileen McDonough

Megan is a freelance writer and social media specialist based in New York City. She is also the founder of Bohemian Trails, which covers global art, culture and off the beaten path destinations.

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