The Best of Israel

We start in Jerusalem, alive with religious tradition and passion — Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. We then visit cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, with its in-love-with-life beaches; ponder the sad fortress of Masada; and join pilgrims at biblical sights around the Sea of Galilee. We'll also pay our respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, drop into an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and savor the local cuisine.


Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more travels. This time we’re venturing beyond Europe. I’m wearing my yarmulke…and I’m ready to learn. This is the Best of Israel. Thanks for joining us.

For a third of humanity, Israel is, literally, holy land. And Jerusalem marks its sacred center. For Christians, this is where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. For Muslims, this is from where Muhammad journeyed to heaven. And for Jews, this is where the Temple of Solomon stood. The crossroads of three great religions, the Holy Land has been coveted and fought over for centuries.

Israel is filled with a fascinating range of sights. Jerusalem, with its dazzling dome, is alive with religious passion — Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. And cosmopolitan Tel Aviv enjoys its in-love-with-life Mediterranean beaches. Visitors ponder the fortress of Masada. Pilgrims are spiritually refreshed at the Biblical sights around the Sea of Galilee. And everybody can bob like corks in the super salty Dead Sea,  the lowest place on Earth. Haifa, with its thriving, multi-cultural café scene, shows promise as Israel grapples with ongoing challenges.

In the Middle East, Israel faces the Mediterranean Sea — a Jewish state surrounded by Muslim and Arab neighbors. Today, the Holy Land, the region west of the Jordan River, is split between Israel and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza. For our visit, we start in Jerusalem, then visit Masada, Tel Aviv, and the Sea of Galilee.

We’ll visit the West Bank — also filled with fascinating history and culture — in another episode. And the contentious issues Israelis and Palestinians are grappling with are beyond this scope of this travel show. Instead, we’ll simply enjoy and explore Israel.

This country is smallthe size of New Jerseywith 8 million people. While the state of Israel was founded just after World War II, the Jewish people have a history here going back 4,000 years. Within a two-hour drive of Jerusalem you can take a sweeping tour of sites illustrating its tumultuous back-and-forth past.

Two thousand years ago, the ancient city of Caesarea was one of the mightiest seaports on the Mediterranean. It was built by King Herod (of Biblical fame) and named after its patron, the emperor (or “caesar”). Imagine this place back then, vessels loaded with spices and exotic goods setting sail for Rome.

Farther up the coast is the 12th-century Crusader town of Akko. Its walls seem to have been weathered as much by history as much as by the sea.

The Crusades were rampaging armies of European Christians who wrought havoc here. Their goal: to defeat the Muslims and put the Holy Land back in Christian hands.

But Muslim dominance returned, and in the 16th century the Ottoman Turks surrounded Jerusalem with this mighty wall.

And the 20th century has left reminders of the determined Zionist spirit that built today’s Jewish state. Pill boxes on the Golan Heights recall Israel’s commitment to holding the high ground. Lush valleys farmed by co-operative communities called “kibbutzes” recall generations of patriotic Israelis who turned the desert into orchards.

In 1947, after the Holocaust and the end of World War II, the United Nations helped found the modern state of Israel. And Jews, long dispersed across the world, returned to their ancient homeland. In the process, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced. And, to this day, both peoples struggle to find an equitable and peaceful way to share what they each consider their rightful homeland.

This process has been difficult, and both sides have suffered tragically. Around here, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In the name of defense against suicide bombers, Israel has built what it calls a “security fence,” and what millions of Palestinians consider a degrading and illegal land grab.

And Israel is further asserting itself by building communities for hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers across the West Bank border, in what Palestinians consider their territory.

While there are no easy answers, as a travel writer, I believe traveling here is important. I connect with people whenever and wherever I can. Just meeting people and talking helps build understanding.

Jerusalem is a sprawling and modern city with about 800,000 people. Exploring its shopping boulevards and malls, an American feels right at home. But its historic core, the Old City — home to around 35,000 — feels lost in time. Its venerable walls corral a tangle of vibrant sights. Within a 10-minute walk you can see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — so sacred to Christians, the Dome of the Rock — treasured by Muslims, and at Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism: the Western Wall. For so many people, Jerusalem is the closest place on earth to heaven.

Much of Jerusalem’s importance rests upon a very special rock — which lies under this glittering dome. Muslims believe Muhammad journeyed to heaven from this rock, and they’ve worshipped here for 1,300 years. This glittering shrine, the Dome of the Rock, is one of Jerusalem’s enduring landmarks. Intricate geometric designs in stone and tile fit within its pure and simple lines.

While today this plaza functions as a massive mosque for Muslims, Jews call this place “Temple Mount.” It was the site of their ancient temple complex — only the foundation of which survives. It’s here that they believe Abraham, as a test of his faith, was asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Considering this spot the center of the earth, Jews have worshipped here for 3,000 years.

A thousand years before Christ, King David united the 12 tribes of Israel and captured Jerusalem. His son, Solomon, built the First Temple right here. It was later destroyed, and the Second Temple was built. Then came the catastrophic year for the Jews: AD 70, when the Romans destroyed their temple and ushered in the Diaspora. That’s when the Jews became a people without a land and dispersed throughout the world.

Here, at that surviving bit of foundation — called “the Western Wall” — Jews mourn a horrible past, and pray for a better future. The square operates as an open-air synagogue. The faithful believe prayers left in cracks between these ancient stones will be answered.

It’s a lively scene, with intense yet private worship mixing with the joyous commotion of Jewish families from around the world celebrating bar mitzvahs — a ritual coming of age.

The Old City, corralled by its wall into much less than a square mile, is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian. The Christian Quarter surrounds the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.

A high point for visiting Christians is the Via Dolorosa, the route it’s believed Jesus walked as he carried the cross. Pilgrims from around Christendom retrace his steps. The 14 “stations of the cross” remind the faithful of the Passion — the events that culminated in the Crucifixion.

The pilgrims’ journey ends in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Calvary Hill, or “Golgotha.” Today, the dark, sprawling church is the most sacred site in Christendom. While Emperor Constantine had the first church built here in the fourth century, most of today’s church is the work of 12th-century Crusaders. Built around the tomb, or “sepulchre,” of Jesus, it’s shared by Orthodox, Coptic, and Roman Catholic Christians. Each sect controls a part of this commotion of holy chapels — a reminder of how any religion can be divided into factions.

Nearby is the slab upon which, it’s believed, Jesus’ dead body was laid. Devotion and emotion have been spilled on to this spot for nearly 2,000 years — a powerful experience to witness, regardless of your faith.

A Greek Orthodox chapel marks the site believed to be where Christ was crucified. Only a few steps away, under a grand dome, pilgrims line up to enter the Holy Sepulchre and place a candle near the tomb of Jesus.

The Old City is a labyrinth rich with sights, sounds, and experiences that reward the curious traveler.

Rick: Hello!
Juice vendor: Hello!
Rick: I’d like a pomegranate juice, please.

Even stopping for a drink can be memorable. And the pomegranate — that symbolic bundle of fertility — provides a welcome and refreshing break between the rich sightseeing stops this city offers.

Juice vendor: Pomegranate is healthy; it’s good for the heart, and good for the blood. I hope you enjoy your drink. Cheers.
Rick: Ten shekels.
Juice vendor: Thank you, brother.

The Muslim Quarter holds over half of the Old City’s population. Exploring its busy pedestrian lanes and market stalls, you feel like you could be anywhere in the Arab world. We visited just before a holy day: The shops were jammed, and the energy was exhilarating. Experiences are often edible…and tasty.

While complete Muslim control of Jerusalem is unrealistic, many Arabs envision an independent Palestinian state, with this part of Jerusalem — East Jerusalem — as their capital. It’s a very contentious issue, and Israel seems determined to keep Jerusalem whole and in its control.

In fact, while wandering the heart of the Muslim Quarter, you may see houses fortified and festooned with Israeli flags. These are the homes of Jewish families staking out this bit of the Old City for their community.

The Jewish Quarter is more orderly and modern than the other quarters. Much of this area was destroyed during the fighting in 1948, or under the ensuing period of Jordanian occupation. After they took control of Jerusalem in 1967, the Israelis rebuilt this quarter.

While it’s not convenient or economical to live in this medieval tangle, devout Jews find great joy in living and raising their families so close to the Western Wall.

The Damascus Gate leads from the Old City into modern Jerusalem. Joining locals in an afternoon stroll down Ben Yehuda Street, in Jerusalem’s New City, we appreciate this culture’s fascinating mix of east and west, secular and sacred, modern and traditional.

About three-quarters of all Israelis are Jewish. But most of these are secular Jews — non-practicing. About 15 percent of Israeli Jews are Orthodox — very religious, and living conservative lifestyles that require them to be apart in many ways. Entire districts of Jerusalem are known as “ultra-Orthodox.” And about 20 percent of the population is Arab Israelis — generally Muslim Palestinians who never left after the formation of Israel. Christians, who are mostly Arabs, make up a very small and shrinking minority.

The diversity of Israel’s Jewish melting-pot community shows itself in the way people dress. This is especially evident at places of worship and in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. With the help of a local guide, like Abie Bresler, simply people-watching comes with fascinating cultural insights.

Rick: Walking down the street, there are so many different fashions, different ways people dress.
Abie: Well, that’s because they express their belonging to a certain group and following a certain rabbi. Different rabbis set standards of how their followers should be dressed.
Rick: What does the block on the forehead indicate?
Abie: Well, in the Scripture, it says you should always have the love of God on your mind. So in that capsule they have a parchment with that Scripture.
Rick: What’s the significance of the yarmulke?
Abie: Jews wear yarmulkes because they are constantly reminding themselves that God is above them.
Rick: Ah, so everybody who’s wearing a yarmulke, it’s a constant reminder: Their Maker is up above.
Abie: Definitely.
Rick: Now, you see a lot of Orthodox, even the little boys, with long ear locks.
Abie: Regarding the ear locks, the Torah is very specific: “Thou shalt not shave the sides of your face.” And these people take those words as it is written.
Rick: You notice women are dressed quite modestly.
Abie: The Orthodox women are always dressed modestly. But when they get married, they take it one step upwards, and they cover their hair in public.
Rick: Now, most people wear black, among the men. Why is that?
Abie: The dominant color amongst the men is black because they’re still mourning the destruction of Jerusalem, nearly 2,000 years ago. Regarding the hats, it’s part of, actually, the uniform defining which movement you belong to. So, by looking at somebody, you can tell if he’s Ashkenazi, and which movement amongst the Ashkenazi, or Sephardi, or Lithuanian, and so on and so forth.
Rick: This man has a striped robe.
Abie: That’s a declaration that he belongs to a certain movement, which is considered very extreme, and also does not acknowledge the legitimacy of the state of Israel.
Rick: So there are many different stripes of Orthodoxy in the Jewish faith.
Abie: Definitely. In Jerusalem, 19 amongst the ultra-Orthodox.
Rick: And it’s like the rabbis are almost like pop stars — they have their own following. These are the great teachers.
Abie: Uh, more than pop stars.
Rick: More than?
Abie: More than pop stars, sure. Put it this way: They’re spiritual stars, without the pop.

Israel is laced by modern freeways. By tour bus, public bus, or rental car, getting around is easy. Road signs are in three languages and three scripts: Hebrew and Arabic for Jews and Arabs, and English for everybody else. And the scenery can be dramatic. Driving along the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth, you marvel at the timelessness of the landscape — and the history it’s witnessed. Our destination: Masada — an ancient fortress dramatically capping a mountain and the site of a pivotal event in Jewish history.

A gondola zips us effortlessly to the summit. Built over 2,000 years ago as one of King Herod’s many palaces, Masada served as a refuge of last resort back when the Jews were the rebellious subjects of Roman occupation.

In about AD 70, the Roman Emperor Titus, in an effort to put down the Jews once and for all, destroyed Jerusalem. About 1,000 Jewish rebels, in a desperate last stand, fled up here to this fortress to defend their families, religion, and way of life.

A mighty army of Romans attacked. You can still see the rocky remains of their camps. To avoid a long starve-’em-out siege, the Roman army engineered and built a massive ramp up the side of this mountain.

Slowly, as the rebels watched with frustration, the ramp was completed. The Jewish rebels realized they were doomed to a life of slavery, or worse. So, on the eve of the inevitable Roman breakthrough, Masada’s rebels methodically took their own lives.

Today, that mass suicide is the symbol of Israel’s staunch “they’ll never take us alive” commitment to freedom. And “Masada shall never fall again” is a popular slogan, declaring Israel’s determination to remain free. While Masada is etched into the psyche of Israelis, perhaps even more so is the Holocaust.

The best place to both remember and learn about the Holocaust is Yad Vashem, back in Jerusalem.

This sprawling and beautifully landscaped memorial and museum is dedicated to chronicling, remembering, and learning from the slaughter of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany. School groups, visiting heads of state, and soldiers are all brought here to appreciate what the Holocaust means to the Jewish people. The museum artfully tells the story. While working their way through the thoughtfully laid out exhibit, visitors struggle to comprehend the madness and the scope of that nightmare.

The Hall of Names is designed to give every Jewish victim the dignity of simply being named and recorded. This archive aspires to catalog and therefore remember each of the 6 million victims.

Yad Vashem also celebrates the creation of modern Israel. It shows the spirit of Zionism — that determination of those who came both as concentration-camp survivors and refugees from Europe to forge a state for the Jewish people. Photos of the first settlers show early Zionists returning to their historic homeland — starting as a trickle in the late 19th century, and becoming a flood after the Holocaust.

Today, just a few generations later, the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv are like exclamation points declaring, “we’ve come a long way.”

There was a popular slogan back then: “A land without a people for a people without a land.” That was inspirational, but it ignored the reality of the Palestinians who actually lived here and were displaced with the creation of Israel. Still, it’s impressive how the true grit of those early Jewish settlers turned sand dunes into Tel Aviv and built modern Israel.

Tel Aviv is a young city. If looking for historic charm, you can stroll the original main drag, Rothschild Boulevard, with its nostalgic cafés and venerable buildings. But Tel Aviv is gleamingly modern and growing fast. Its infrastructure is impressive, and its new buildings look to the future.

Its beach scene comes with some of the best sand on the Mediterranean. A world away from the religiosity of Jerusalem, the people here seem focused on living for today.

In this culture, food is love. And it seems to celebrate the bounty of the land. We sat down with our guide Benny and driver Kobe to get an edible lesson in this part of the Jewish culture.

Benny: Hey, cheers. L’chaim.
Rick: L’chaim! Very good. So, Benny, could you say is typical Israeli?
Benny: Yeah — you can say this is typical Israeli. Everything that you see here is grown here locally.
Rick: Now, you could say this is Israeli, but it’s also Arab cuisine.
Benny: Yes. We call it now Israeli food, but you can find it in the Arab countries, you can find it in Lebanon, you can find it all over the Middle East. Here we have eggplants with olive oil and tahini. Here we have the tahini itself. Here we have another eggplant salad with vegetables. That’s the hummus; very famous hummus made from chickpeas. This is something special: This we call tabbouleh. It’s made of bulgur and parsley and cucumbers. Very special, very tasty. It’s OK to reach and dip your pita bread into it — you dip it in each of the salads, and that’s the way to do it; no need of a fork or a knife…
Rick: And, Kobe, how do you say bon appétit in Hebrew?
Kobe: Beteavon.
Rick: Bete…
Kobe: avon.
Rick: Beteavon.Thank you.
All: L’chaim!

A short drive up Israel’s coastline and then into the interior takes us down — 700 feet below sea level — to the Sea of Galilee. Israel’s primary source of fresh water, it’s both fed and drained by the Jordan River. This area has long been popular with Israeli vacationers and Christian pilgrims. Galilee is famous as the place where Jesus did his three years of ministry, and where so many Bible stories were set.

In the Jordan River, the faithful believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus. And today, Christians from all over the world come here in droves to affirm their baptism with a dip into that same fabled river.

This busy north end of Galilee is where the Bible says Jesus walked on water, calmed the storm, and talked fishermen into changing careers.

In the Bible, Matthew wrote, “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Peter and Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, as they were fishermen. And Jesus said, “Come follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of men.”

The faithful come here to worship, be inspired, and walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

In this church, a rock marks Mensa Christi — the place where it’s believed Christ, resurrected after his crucifixion, ate with his disciples and said specifically to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” For Roman Catholics, this is a very important site, as it established the importance of Peter — the first pope — among the disciples.

Another church is built upon the place where, according to the Bible, the 5,000 who gathered to hear Jesus preach were miraculously fed by a few fish and loaves of bread. This mosaic is from the original church that stood here in the fifth century.

And this church, perched high above the Galilee, on Mount Beatitude, marks the place where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. Beatitude is Latin for “blessing.” The faithful come from far and wide to remember how Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. And blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

This group, from Nigeria, is one more spirited example of how so much of our world embraces this land as truly holy.

Having sampled the great sights and experiences of Israel, visitors — whether religious or not — leave impressed by the amazing diversity of the sightseeing packed into this small country. And it’s hard not to be impressed by the richness and complexity of the cultures and traditions that have steeped for so many centuries here in the Holy Land.

In this land, so treasured by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, I’m reminded that the prophets of each of these religions taught us to love our neighbors. And the lessons learned from traveling here in Israel can inspire us all to strive for that ideal. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’. Shalom.