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Summer Travel: A week in the Holy Land

With the summer holidays rapidly approaching, it's safe to say that many of us are suffering from serious bouts of wanderlust. Fortunately we at Gadling have the cure, namely a heaping dose of pure, uncut travel advice. Side effects may include flight bookings, hotel reservations and the loss of a few clean passport pages.

Every year, travel experts (myself included...) seem to tout a *new* destination that somehow seemed to escape all prior notice. But today we're here to tell you that one of the hottest summer destinations has in fact been around for a long, long time. Rather than keeping you guessing, we'll just spill the fava beans and come right out and say it.

Geopolitics aside, Israel is an awe-inspiring place to visit.

In one tiny strip of land, you'll find ancient cities, a mélange of cultures, stunning natural environments, rich cuisine and decent value for your dollar. Israel's compact size also means that you can tick off a long-list of sights in a relatively short period of time. And, you'll find that English is widely spoken, which makes independent travel very feasible.

If you're arriving in Israel by flight, chances are you will touchdown in Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV), just 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv proper. In comparison to the historical hot bed that is Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is generally described as being modern, secular and progressive. It is also unapologetically bold and brash, and consequently serves as the country's hedonistic playground.

Dubbed by National Geographic as one of the world's ten best beach cities, Tel Aviv easily rivals any of its Mediterranean counterparts. The westward facing strip of sand ensures uninterrupted sunsets, though beach life is anything but a daytime activity. The warm, dry nights bring out droves of party people, who booze it up in chic canopy lounges and trend-setting mega-clubs.

For the more culturally-minded traveler, a visit to the adjacent city of Jaffa is an absolute must - just follow the beachside promenade south for around a mile. Home to archaeological ruins dating back to 7500 BCE, Jaffa is believed to be one of the oldest ports in the world. But the core architectural plan is largely Ottoman in design, with fortified sea walls, soaring minarets, rounded cupolas and serpentine alleyways.

You could easily spend a full-week indulging in Tel Aviv's signature brand of fun. But no trip to Israel is complete without stepping foot in Jerusalem, sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Truth be told, trying to capture the magnitude of Jerusalem - especially in a meager blog post - is something of an exercise in futility.

Indeed, Jerusalem hosted the court of the Israelite King David, oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and was visited during the Night Journey of the prophet Muhammad. Yet despite this monumental line of biblical succession, the old city of Jerusalem is easily accessible, surprisingly compact and conducive to exploration on foot.

On your first day in the city, start at the Western (Wailing) Wall, a remnant of the Jewish Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. If you continue up to the Temple Mount, you'll see the gold-plated Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine built in 691 CE that is now one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. Continue to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built around Calvary (Golgotha), the site of Jesus's crucifixion. Save time for sunset at the top of Mount of Olives, a historic Jewish cemetery that is referenced in both the Old and New Testaments.

On your second day in the city, grab a flashlight and head to the City of David archaeological park. The centerpiece here in the 1,700 foot-long Siloam Tunnel, a subterranean aqueduct that dates from 701 BCE. Walking through the dark while ankle-deep in water is a surreal yet memorable experience. In the afternoon, hop from cafe to cafe in the fashionable and cosmopolitan New City quarter. Also don't miss the Israel Museum, which houses several surviving copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Leaving Jerusalem behind is no easy task, but Israel also presents numerous opportunities for enjoying the great outdoors. Summer heat can be intense, but there is no better place for cooling down than in the southern resort city of Eilat. Located on the shores of the Red Sea, Eilat presents opportunities for swimming, boating, SCUBA diving, camel trekking or simply lounging around without a care in the world.

Equally refreshing - but more saline - is the Dead Sea, one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, and the lowest point on the Earth's surface. Floating on your back without expending any energy is amongst the quintessential Middle East tourist experiences. But trust us - don't enter if you have any open cuts. And unless you really want to feel the burn, best to hold off on shaving until after you've taken your dip.

The jumping off-point for the Dead Sea is the oasis town of Ein Gedi, which lies adjacent to one of Israel's most beautiful nature reserves. Nearby you'll also find Masada, a natural rock fort that was the site of a famous mass suicide during the First Jewish-Roman War (66–70 CE). A hot and sweaty hike to the top (bring water, and start early in the day!) brings you to the spot where almost a thousand Jews committed mass suicide in order to avoid being captured by the Romans.

We've just barely scratched the surface of everything that lies waiting for you to discover in the Holy Land. But even if you don't have much time to spare, a one-week jaunt really is enough time to explore a fairly decent swathe of Israel. So check your preconceived notions at the door, and get ready for some truly life-changing travel.

** All photos are the blogger's original work **

Filed under: Israel, Middle East

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