While Israel is a country best known for making TV news headlines, it is at the same time a thriving tourist destination, welcoming around two million visitors last year. The negative press coverage also disguises the fact that, in some respects, Israel is a normal Western country, although its amazing historical, religious and cultural riches make it sufficiently different from a typical Western country for it to be an unusual and worthwhile place to visit.
Israel is exceptionally diverse for a country that’s roughly the size of Wales. The Galilee has hilly woodland; the coastal plains are grass or sand dunes; in the south, there’s the mountainous Negev desert, whilst at the northern tip there’s lush vegetation near the source of the river Jordan.
Although mostly Jewish, Israel does boast a wide range of cultures. Its Jewish population is extremely diverse, as most are immigrants from all over the world, and it has an Arab population of 16%, as well as many smaller ethnic groups and religions. The Bedouin is one of these peoples, a fascinating people who used to live a nomadic desert life. Another minority group in Israel is the Druze, a secretive religious community with a thousand-year old history, beginning as an offshoot of Islam but adding some of their own prophets and leaders.
One of the most curious sects in Israel would be the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, who are a group originating from the US of families who claim spiritual and/or literal descent from the ancient Israelites. They are vegan, wear only natural fibres, and celebrate biblical festivals among others.
If there is one honeypot destination in Israel, it is Jerusalem. Jerusalem owes its renown to being a holy site for the three Abrahamic faiths, and is a fascinating place to visit regardless of whether you are a practising Jew, Christian or Muslim. Admittedly, the places of worship are not as architecturally imposing as, say, the cathedrals of Italy or the mosques of Istanbul, but they are nonetheless worth seeing – and the experiencing so many holy sites from different religions and eras in the same city is unique.
Aside from the touristic holy sites, Jerusalem has a special atmosphere that is very hard to describe and must be experienced. The Old City, for example, has Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian quarters – you can walk through all of them in a couple of hours and get a flavour of the different foods, dress, architecture and lifestyles customary to each quarter.
Further afield are the two popular destinations of Tel Aviv and Eilat. Tel Aviv is Israel’s big city, situated on the coast and much livelier than Jerusalem. It has a huge clubbing scene (much of it on the beach), and generally feels like the most cosmopolitan place in Israel. Eilat is the most popular Israeli holiday destination among Israelis. It’s known for its beaches, coral reef, diving, bars and clubs. The road to Eliat is interesting in itself, as the 4-hour journey winds through the beautiful, sparsely-populated desert.
Two of Israel’s most interesting destinations are, of course, the biblical Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Situated an hour east of Northern Israel’s largest city, Haifa, the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) is home to many Christian sites connected to Jesus’ early ministry and miracles. The Dead Sea, the saltiest sea and the lowest point on Earth, rests in a rift valley, creating a slightly apocalyptic landscape. As advertised, you can float on the water and try out various muds that, allegedly, have magical properties on your skin.
Israel is in many ways a Western country, albeit with more unusual attractions than most. However it is also clear that Israeli attitudes are fairly different to, for example, those common to Britain. There’s not much show of British reserve – it’s acceptable in Israel to be loud and say exactly what you think. This also comes across in the friendliness and openness towards strangers. It’s not unusual to start talking to someone on a bus and end up with them inviting you to shabbat – Jewish Friday night dinner.
While Israel is a small country, one that can be covered completely in the space of two weeks, it offers a fantastic range of experiences. Anything could be round the next corner – an archaeological dig next to a shopping centre, or a ski slope an hour away from a sunny beach. This, the sheer unexpectedness of what turns up, is what makes Israel such a fascinating and unique destination.