Want to surf the Mediterranean? Hike an ancient fortress? Explore underground tunnels? From Eilat to Tzfat, Israel has it all.
By Gabriella Levin-Meer
We stand in a clump, hushed. All eyes point to a point on the horizon, where faint pinks and oranges have begun to spread like dye.
“There it is!” A tiny sliver of white light peeks above the sea. We cheer as the slice turns into a crescent. The sun has blessed us with another day and I am surrounded by my friends atop Masada, a high rock formation overlooking the Dead Sea in the Holy Land.
I have seen many sunrises—and many other extraordinary sights—in Israel. When I was eight, my family moved to Jerusalem for six months. We spent the summer sightseeing, and my brother and I attended Israeli school for the fall semester. Since then, I have visited regularly over the years for a few weeks at a time.
During summer 2020, I was able to spend a month in Israel on a service and educational program and traveled all over the country. Not only did our group hit the important spots, such as holy sites and historical landmarks, but we also saw incredible natural beauty and explored stunning hikes, a side of Israel I hadn’t seen on previous trips. And as always, the food was incredible! (Click here to read more about our favorite dishes.)
After visiting all of the most popular (and less well-known) destinations—many of them more than once—here are the activities in each region that will help your family create their own unforgettable Israel experience.
A great activity for a hot day, the underground Siloam tunnels date back to 700 BCE and are still open today. Walk through the tunnels that used to transport water into Jerusalem during times of siege. The walk is over a mile long and the ceiling gets low in some places, so claustrophobics, beware! Most of the tunnel is filled with water, which ranges from ankle- to over-knee-deep.
Although a visit to the Holocaust Museum requires some emotional preparation, I highly recommend this for all adults and most children. (Children must be 10 or over to enter.) I visited Yad Vashem twice, once when I was 14 and once at 17. Both experiences were vastly different but equally impactful. The facts may tell a strong story, but seeing real artifacts from the Holocaust is something totally different. I will never forget the glass case piled high with shoes of those who died. The guided tour is around two hours and packed full of information conveyed by highly trained tour guides.
Whether you are Christian or not, this beautiful church will take your breath away. Walk through various stations throughout the church that represent different stages of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Be aware, you will have to navigate some steep stairs.
The Western Wall, or the Kotel, represents the holiest place on earth for Jews. Many Jews bring handwritten notes and stick them between cracks in the stone as a way to speak to God. As your eyes travel up the wall, notice how the stones’ size, shape, and color change. These changes identify each era of the wall, as different nations destroyed and rebuilt the temple. When visiting the Kotel, you will need to get your bag checked at the gate and should wear modest clothing. Women and men are separated once you get close to the wall.
Plan a dig-for-a-day in Beit Guvrin National Park, about an hour ride from Jerusalem. The 2–3 hour experience includes a brief history, a crawl through a candlelit cave, and, of course, digging! You and your group will help excavate one of many underground caves, sifting through the soft dirt to find shards of pottery, coal, or maybe even a coin. Even better, you can take home an ancient pottery shard when you finish your work. This experience involves walking up and down stairs, and some cramped spaces. Also, be aware that there are no bathrooms at the site.
I’ll be honest, when my bus arrived at the Israel Innovation Center, I expected a boring museum. But I was so wrong. The center has incredibly engaging, high-tech exhibits. From stations about startups creating plant-based meat to giant screens of entrepreneurs sharing their best advice, to an incredible virtual reality room that takes participants into the future, the center is anything but boring. I think teenagers would enjoy this outing even more than younger kids.
If you plan to visit Israel during the warmer months, you will likely include many water-based activities in your itinerary, and for good reason. The heat gets intense! What better way to have fun and cool off than to learn to surf? Galim Surf School offers everything surfing: private lessons, group courses, board rental, and surf therapy for physical and mental wellness to name a few. The warm Mediterranean waters are absolutely amazing. But make sure to look out for jellyfish!
If your stay in Tel Aviv includes a Tuesday or Friday, make sure to explore the Nachalat Binyamin art fair. Art booths line the long, closed-off street, selling handmade jewelry, woodworking objects, children’s games, wall hangings, and, of course, Judaica. You can usually find some sort of live performance as well. This art fair is definitely one of my favorite parts of Tel Aviv, and it’s located right by the famous outdoor market Shuk HaCarmel.
Hike the steep hill to King Herod’s fortress! Built to sustain any siege, the ruins of Masada stand atop a desert mountain in what seems to be the middle of nowhere. As you explore the ancient buildings, learn about how the Jewish Zealots committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. Masada has two hike options, one short and one long. For your descent, you can hike down or opt for the high-end gondola. I highly recommend getting your family up and out early to see the sunrise from the top of Masada like I did. You beat the heat and get to enjoy a beautiful view over the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea is a must-have on your itinerary. One of the first health resorts in the world, the extremely salty water and mud are said to help clean pores, prevent acne, and relieve chronic pain, among many other benefits. The water is so salty that you will float without even trying! Make sure to find the buckets of mud on the shore and spread it all over your body for a nice photo op. I recommend wearing water shoes to protect yourself from the salt-encrusted sea floor, but don’t wear flip flops—they might float away. Also, be ready for any small cut from your travels to sting viciously.
Kayak or raft down the Jordan River and enjoy the greenest vegetation you will likely see in Israel. (Israel generally has a climate reminiscent of Southern California.) The drooping tree branches may be pretty to look at, but try not to get stuck while rafting! You may pass people in plastic chairs set up in the water, and if you’re as lucky as my group was, maybe one of them will give you some Yemenite meatballs. This rafting journey is easily suited for younger members.
Take a break from traveling stresses and spend a night or two at Kfar Hanokdim, a Bedouin community in the middle of the desert. Although some parts of your visit may feel a little staged, the community’s deep roots shine through. Take a camel ride in the desert, learn about Bedouin history, and enjoy amazing traditional food. Sleeping arrangements typically consist of mattresses placed in a large tent, but if your family would rather have a room these are available with a double bed and bunk beds. During your stay, make sure to try the coffee or sweet tea, it is so good! The sky stays perfectly clear out in the desert; I highly recommend taking a quick walk to stargaze.
This giant wipeout course on Lake Kineret makes the perfect activity for one of Israel’s hotter days, especially for families. The fresh water is a refreshing change if you’ve been spending most of your time in the Mediterranean, and no matter your age, mastering the course provides a fun challenge!
Set aside a few hours to explore this beautiful city. One of the four holiest cities in Israel, Tzfat sports narrow, steep streets comparable to Italy or Spain, and a rich artist’s quarter. During your visit, make sure to explore the famous artisan candle shop, Safed Candles, the wide array of art goods, from olive wood mezuzahs to hand-painted canvases, and the small but stunning synagogues, decorated with mosaics and detailed paintings. For lunch, stop by Lahuhe Original, a renowned, traditional Yemenite malawach (Jewish pancake) restaurant.
If your trip falls during spring or summer, make sure to visit Hula Valley. You can go in other seasons, but birds famously migrate through this specific spot during the spring and summer. Because Israel falls on such a narrow border between Africa and Asia, birds from all over choose Hula Valley as a resting point. You can tour the valley yourself, or take a safari wagon to see the birds up close.
The heat felt brutal when my group went on this hike in Eilat, but even then, the waterfall made everything worth it. You can choose to trek to the farther waterfall for a true hike, or if you opt for the easier version this outing will feel more like a short walk. Trees along the path provide some shade and you can cool down in the water when you arrive. The rest stop at the entrance provides snacks and bathrooms for changing.
One of Israel’s most compelling ideals, kibbutzim have dotted the country for hundreds of years. Although their popularity has declined, the communal values and shared goods of a kibbutz provide an interesting contrast to capitalist America. Take Kibbutz Keturah. This kibbutz grows dates and algae, and sports a gigantic solar panel field. The community has volunteer and educational programs for visitors, and since it was founded by Americans, you can find many English speakers. My favorite activity at this kibbutz involves another early morning (sorry!). Wake up before dawn and take a bike ride with a kibbutz member out to the Jordanian border to watch the sunrise and see the stunning mountains of Jordan.
A friend of mine participated in a weeklong certification course at the Manta Isrotel Diving Center and her experience sounds amazing. Manta offers snorkel and scuba diving trips for any level, with introductory dives every day, guided dives for the more experienced, and longer-term diving courses. For the beginner dive, participants cannot be less than 8-years-old. Kids need to be at least 12 to get certified.
Gabriella Levin-Meer – November 2021
Gabriella grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and loves to travel. She enjoys playing field hockey, baking vegan treats, writing poetry, and making jewelry.
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