It would be difficult, perhaps even impossible in this short entry, to give anyone a sense of what it is like to visit Israel. Of course, for the Christian or Jewish pilgrim, the trip is likely to hold significance beyond the beauty and history of the land, but I will leave such theological dimensions out of this review for the most part.
The land surely holds much in the way of significance for anyone interested in the history of Western Civilization, and for those of no religious conviction at all. After all, walking where Jesus walked, regardless of whether or not you believe he was more than a mere man, sets you on the same path as the single most influential person in the history of the world. That, as they say, is worth the price of admission all by itself.
As to how one should visit the country, I recommend you prepare yourself right up front for the preponderance of security apparatus that begins the moment you start your journey. Whatever flight you plan to take to Europe (usually through Amsterdam from the West), you will likely be subjected to questioning by Israeli security. But don’t worry, they’re trying to catch terrorists. Just don’t be one and you’ll be fine.
From there, you’re likely to land in Tel Aviv, which is a surprisingly cosmopolitan city with amazing beaches and attractions. In fact, the area around Tel Aviv is sometimes called “the Silicon Valley of the Middle East”, with all the attendant tech and culture. Of all the places in Israel you will visit, this one will feel the most “modern” and comfortable to most Western travelers. Hopefully, this won’t be your favorite spot — you can find such things elsewhere.
After Tel Aviv, and depending on whether or not you are with a tour company or on your own, you will likely find your way to one or all of the following spots, about which I will simply add a thought or two for the sake of time, along with my own opinion about how great of a spot it is:
Jerusalem: Amazing. History upon history, with the 3 major world religions all basically looking to this one area for foundational significance. There is enough to do and see you’d likely want 3 days or so here. Just keep in mind that you’re not “walking where Jesus walked”. That’s about 30 feet down on streets that have long since been covered. Also, depending on who you ask, stuff happened in a bunch of different places. Don’t worry about that, just take it all in. A must visit.
Bethlehem: Still shows signs of the last intifada in some places, and, since it’s in the West Bank, will be more tightly wound than you might expect. It’s a neat city with some obvious attractions (Church of the Nativity), but less exciting than you might imagine. If you’re not simply needing to “see where Jesus was born” (which won’t really look anything like it did, being all commercialized and all), I would almost say “skip it”. Almost. Probably worth doing if you’ve got the time, but adjust your expectations.
The Dead Sea: Woot and woot. Just don’t drink the water. You. Will. Die. Seriously, the saline content of the sea will kill you if you drink very much of the water. But on the other hand, there are some amazing oases right around the area, and the Sea itself is great for a swim. Any sores you have, along with most orifices, will burn like crazy, but it’s still worth it. Go.
Masada: Super cool! The story of the Roman siege that finally toppled the place, where they used Jewish slaves to build a giant earthen ramp so that the Jews above wouldn’t kill their own countrymen, even though it spelled their doom? Yeah, awesome. But don’t take the gondola. Challenge yourself with the strenuous hike up the side. Everything about this place rocks.
The Southern Desert: If you can swing it, or if the tour company offers a package that includes a meal in the Bedouin tents of the Southern Desert, take it.
Hebron: Again, you’re in the West Bank here, and while it’s an interesting city, the security issues and the lack of accessible sights makes this a place to skip.
Tiberias/Capernaum/Korazin/Sea of Galilee: This whole area deserves much more than I’ll be able to say about it, but just plan on staying a few days around the Sea of Galilee. Tiberius will likely be your home base, with plenty of amenities, but you’ll spend your time all around the lake taking in some of the coolest spots in the country. In fact, if you want to experience “walking where Jesus walked”, this is your area, since the grass on the hillside is still the grass on the hillside. Not everything people will say happened on that spot likely happened on that exact spot, but it’s all close enough, and super cool.
Nazareth: You want to see where Jesus grew up, right? Good luck with that, it’s all buried under civilization, but the church there is really beautiful, and there’s a chance that the cave they build over might really have been lived in by Jesus. The chance isn’t necessarily great, but it’s worth the trip, and if you can swing it, take an evening boat ride out on the lake. You’ll dig it.
Caeserea Philippi/Dan: Two different places, but close by each other relatively speaking, and both really worth the visit. If you’re interested in the Biblical history, these are fantastic stops for filling out and fleshing out the Biblical accounts of both Old and New Testament stories, and has some of the oldest things you’ll see in the land.
Megiddo: Another place with a great story, and great history. You could skip it and I wouldn’t blame you, but it’s a neat spot if you’ve got the time.
Mt. Carmel: What a view! Also, another fantastic spot story-wise. Now, if you’re not a Christian or Jew, you probably don’t care about Elijah’s confrontation with the Priests of Baal so much, but you may just love seeing Israel stretch out around you. If you’ve only got time for this or Caeserea on the coast, choose the latter. If you’ve got time for both, they’re pretty close.
Caeserea: Hippodrome anyone? Roman amphitheater? The Pilate Stone? An aqueduct that highlights the amazing skills of ancient engineers? Seafood? Yup, yep, and yes please. A must visit.
I almost forgot Jericho and the Qumran community! Those are places you’ll likely see if you’re in the Dead Sea area, though if you’re going to prioritize, do Qumran. Those walls that came tumbling down aren’t anywhere to be seen, and at most you’ll just get to say you visited Jericho. In Qumran, you’ll stand next to the baths where the community ritually purified themselves, and you’ll stand across the chasm from the cave where the little shepherd boy threw a rock and found the Scrolls that bolstered Biblical history and scholarship beyond all dispute. Bring a water bottle.
I’ve been a few other places in Israel, and there could be sub-points under each little entry, but I’ve written enough. I recommend going with a tour group and then leaving yourself some days on the end to stick around Jerusalem. A hookah at the little tea shop in the Old City sets off a visit to the Holy Land like you wouldn’t believe!