By Rick Steves
If you just read the headlines, a visit to Israel can be scary. For 1500 years Christians, Jews and Muslims have struggled over the Holy Land. The presence of barbed wire and armed soldiers is really nothing new.
Invasions and political turmoil have been the norm now for 4000 years. In our generation, terrorists have left their ugly mark. But tourists or popular tourist centers have never been targeted. While there are still problems to be worked out, no angry group is angry at tourists.
Israel is worth your time. Its sights, ranging from Biblical ruins to Crusader fortresses to WWII memorials to cosmopolitan cities, are breathtaking. Israel is also easy to tour — its excellent bus system puts any city within reach.
Tel Aviv is the cosmopolitan heart of Israel. My best tip for enjoying Tel Aviv...see it as a fun-loving resort. A secular cafe culture rules. Originally a suburb of the much older city of Jaffa, Tel Aviv has outgrown its suburb status. About 100 years ago a group of Jewish families banded together to create a more comfortable Jewish alternative to Arab Jaffa. They established an English-style planned garden city which has blossomed to 382,000 residents.
For a commanding view, elevate yourself to the rooftop observatory of the 40-story-tall Midgal Shalom building. Except for a military communications tower, this is the tallest building in the Middle East.
Tel Aviv's waterfront promenade is the place to rock to the rhythm of modern Israel. Strolling couples, creative street vendors, foamy cafes, and strumming folk musicians all conspire to wipe out any memory of Israel's struggles.
An hour's drive up the coast from Tel Aviv is the fortress city of Akko. After the Holy Land had been ruled 500 years by the Arabs, Europe sent in Crusader armies to "liberate" it. The Crusader forces of Richard the Lionhearted and King Philip of Spain took Akko in the 12th century. When Muslims retook the town in the 13th century they didn't tear down the Crusader city, but simply built over it. As you wander the subterranean halls of the Crusader city, you can almost hear the clashing swords of faiths at war.
The Sea of Galilee is the gateway to the Golan Heights. While hotel signs remind visitors, "If shelling starts, pull shades and extinguish lights," the recent stability and calm has been a boon to the area's tourism. The place is surprisingly lush. While an important fishing center since Biblical times, today's Israelis have found modern ways to walk on water...by water-skiing.
Stop by any open-air market throughout Israel, such as Jerusalem's lively, fun Machane Yehuda market. It's the perfect place to feel the vibrant pulse of Israeli life. If you're not into olives, you've got a lot to learn. And don't miss the delicious goat cheese. Try sabra, a popular prickly cactus fruit available in summer. Sabra is also a term for a native-born Israeli. They, like the fruit, are considered thorny on the outside but sweet on the inside.
Israelis embrace the present, yet can never forget the past. The Holy Land is sacred to many ancient religions, but if Israel has a civic religion, it is the remembrance of a tragedy of unthinkably great proportions — the nightmare of the 20th century. The modern Jewish state was born out of the Holocaust.
Tourists become pilgrims at Jerusalem's Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. All visiting heads of state are brought here. A museum tells the history of the slaughter of six million Jews by Nazi Germany. Seeing art inspired by the suffering of those persecuted and murdered in concentration camps — from adults to children — is a fine way to be sure that we heed the final wish of the victims of Nazism that we "never forget."