Why Israel is the Perfect Vacation Destination

December 19, 2019  

By Sara Nathan

Landing in Israel, with the wide expanse of desert set out in great big dusty trails beneath you, is intoxicating and at once an adventure beckons.

You may hear the siren cry of the call to prayer from a mosque, watch a family of Hasidic Jews stride to synagogue on Shabbat — or catch a glimpse of a dog surfing on the glistening waves of a Tel Aviv beach (yes, really).

You will certainly be greeted by the excitable shrieks and smells of this tiny country which is enjoying a rapid tourism boom.

Israel is a country of extremes: heat, religion and politics and people and during any visit you will certainly have to embrace the chaos.

Grabbing the opportunity to be part of the country’s growth with both hands, Virgin boss, British billionaire Richard Branson recently launched a route from London to Tel Aviv in September, saying: “With its thriving start-up scene, pristine beaches and vibrant nightlife, Tel Aviv was a key destination for Virgin Atlantic to establish a new route.”

The new route aims to capture a share of the some 2,700 passengers flying from Tel Aviv to the United States each day, with London positioned as an attractive mid-point stopover for both tourists and business travelers.

  While Tel Aviv may be set alongside the azure blue of the Meditteranean sea, it’s way more than just a beach resort.

But it does give you the chance to gently sink into Israeli culture.

Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson arriving in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Streets away from the beach lies Carmel market, where I started my trip, only to be hit immediately with the smell of ripe fruit and vegetables. Blood red pomegranates are piled high upon each other as lascivious yellow mangos call out to you while nestled alongside stalls of sharp and sour olives.

It can be overwhelming. You need to learn how to haggle — and have a price in your mind — before you commit to buying anything.

And certainly don’t go anywhere without trying a juice to cure whatever ails you from the renowned “Etrog Man” at the top of the market. Uzi- Eli is Israel’s ultimate health guru and you can sip a concoction of passionfruit and goat’s milk alongside cold-pressed etrog with grapefruit juice, or even Yemenite arak — an alcoholic drink favored in the Middle East nicknamed “the milk of lions” — made from raisins.

The past meets the present throughout the country. And so many hoteliers have used this to their advantage as they launch their new properties.

Arguably, the new jewel in Tel Aviv’s crown is The Jaffa, a former French hospital and one-time convent which features a cavernous cocktail bar set in a former chapel and a wall dating back to the 13th century which runs through the lobby.

Meanwhile, The Setai nearby is converted from an Ottoman-era prison, and The Normanhas become a trendy darling that has played host to Kanye West.

More newcomers are set to arrive on the scene. The Selina Hotel in Neve Tzedek — think Tel Aviv’s own Soho-style neighborhood, complete with fancy ice cream stores (make a beeline for Anita), will open this December followed by Soho House’s Tel Aviv outpost next year.

The beauty of the city is that you can walk it easily, saunter along on the seafront up to Jaffa to explore the old flea markets, thriving stores and cafes, and then turn inland towards Rothschild Boulevard and walk back down through the hot streets to the recently renovated port.

Juice in Israel

As the light fades, you’re faced with an almost different city altogether as the nightlife explodes around you.

Amid this “new Middle East”, Israel boasts medical advances, computer science and even cherry tomatoes among its many developments that are on show at the Peres Center for Peace, founded in 1996 by the former President of Israel Shimon Peres.

The building by Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksa is set on the Jaffa coast next to the Arab neighborhood of Ajami, and features an interactive exhibit with a host of both Israeli and Arab contributors and a virtual reality chamber.

The food — ah the food — is much more than Israeli salad, a national dish of finely diced tomatoes, cucumbers and onion. Israeli food has hit a zenith thanks to chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi and Michael Solomonov, whose Philly eatery Zahav was crowned the outstanding restaurant of 2019 by the James Beard Foundation — known colloquially as the Oscar of the culinary world.

The beauty of Israel is that nothing is too far away. It’s just a train ride — a high-speed route will open later this year — or just over an hour drive, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

You don’t have to be religious to let the sheer magnitude of the holy city wash over you.

At its core is the Old City, a maze of narrow alleyways and historic architecture that characterizes its four quarters — Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian. It is surrounded by a fortress-like stone wall and home to some of the holiest sites in the world, including the Western Wall, where you can join Jews at their daily prayer, and follow the last days of Jesus, from the Last Supper Room to the Via Dolorosa along which Jesus made his way to the crucifixion at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where you can view his tomb.


A busy street in Israel.

With the help of a tour guide (we explored with the brilliant Fanya Shtrul) you can see most of Jerusalem’s must-see sites in the span of one afternoon.

Visiting Temple Mount, however, requires additional planning, as it’s only open for limited times (note that modest clothing is also required).

As the city shut down for Shabbat and the sky turned the color of mulberry, we enjoyed Friday night dinner on the rooftop of the Mamilla hotel, with the city sprawled out in front of us, besieged by history.


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