Israel is a trendy, modern country of progress. But don't be fooled, it's also filled with history and sites that have made their way into history textbooks. From ancient ruins to awe-inspiring architectural marvels, this article will take you on a journey through time, unveiling the ten best historical landmarks in Israel that showcase the rich tapestry of Israel's heritage.
Welcome to a remarkable land, where literally every stone tells a story, and every corner holds a secret waiting to be discovered. I mean it, I'm an absolute history nerd and I felt like a child on Christmas Day, unwrapping one gift after another, as I discovered more and more Israel historical sites and archaeological treasures.
There is plenty of famous landmarks in Israel, which will appeal to every traveler enticed by the Middle East. I did my best to select the finest options, which was like Sophie's choice. But here we go. Pack your Indiana Jones hat and whip, the show's about to begin.
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Here is the list of the most important historical sites in Israel:
Starting off very strong, this list is topped by one of the greatest surprises on my travels around Israel. Masada, lying on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, makes one of the most magnificent fortresses I have seen in my entire lifetime. And that's saying something, considering I've visited my fair share of fortresses! It has everything I seek in a place. Significant historical importance? Check. Breathtaking views? A giant check! A pleasant hike? An ultra gigantic check! Nearby the Dead Sea? Check—I don’t seek that one in other places obviously, or my blog would be emptier than a Scottish pay toilet.
You see, when you're a wealthy monarch in ancient history, you want to ensure your safety, protect your wealth, and consolidate your rule by showcasing your power. And what says, "I'm the king around here!" more than a massive fortress in the heart of the desert? Built in the 1st century BCE, Masada is an awe-inspiring place that holds the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site... and occasionally serves as a venue for Bar Mitzvah ceremonies. Yep, that's a thing there. No further comments, I'll leave it at that.
I had to strike a pose @ Masada Israel
Masada is a huge place, we spent five hours exploring the area. The views from the top are simply breathtaking. You can see all the Roman forts that played a crucial role in suppressing the Jewish revolt, as Jewish rebels took refuge in Masada. Personally, as a European, I’m #teamRome on this one. How would you react if some peasants challenged your authority? Considering the shameful mass suicide carried out by the Jews at the end of the revolt. The rebels said they would rather die than fall into captivity of Rome oppressors. Surely, women and children would have shared the same sentiment.
But let's return to a more cheerful topic, and that is the stunning beauty of the surroundings of Masada. Herod the Great must have had an excellent realtor because he couldn't have chosen a better location to build the fortress. The cliffs surrounding it are extremely steep, but the summit itself is flat, making it perfect for the construction of remarkable monuments offering epic views.
And be sure to add the Snake Path hike to your Masada to-do list. It's best to visit it during winter when temperatures are reasonable. However, if you are from hell, you can hike it all year around and it'll feel like home. The Snake Path is a nice, roughly hour-long hike, depending on how fit you are. The trail is well-maintained, and you can conveniently descend back down using a gondola, saving your knees from unnecessary struggle.
A magical evening in Akko
Akko was a love at first sight. As a Roman history geek, I have a deep appreciation for the rich history of the Middle East. Did you know that it was the only enter port into holy land and was the city longest controlled by crusaders? Now you do! Thank me later. Akko, with its extensive history spanning thousands of years, was just the right fit for me, and I'm confident it will be for you too! What it doesn’t lack in historical significance makes up in the cultural richness and beauty. I call this a win-win game.
In Akko, there's history literally on every corner. Especially in the Old Town part of the city, where you stumble upon some of the most well-preserved Crusader-era architecture in the world there. Those buildings must have witnessed some things, man. I couldn’t help but imagine what life must have been like during the Crusader period. Would I be Prince Charming or a court jester? Too hard to tell as I am both incredibly handsome and funny. Too hard to tell…
Here’s proof that I’m incredibly handsome
The central part of the Old Town is highly compact and easily traversable on foot. You can simply meander through the narrow, picturesque streets and alleyways, immersing yourself in the sights and sounds of this historic place. However, your footsteps should guide you towards the fortified walls that connect the city with the coast of Akko. Although it is no longer considered part of the Old Town, it is still worth taking a few extra steps to go and see it. And they are definitely old as well.
Another for me even more historically interesting place (being one of the top things to do in Akko) is definitely Knights’ Halls. One could say it’s just a big cellar. BUT it's the most impressive cellar I’ve been to in my life. The Knights Halls are divided into several chambers, for instance the Dining Hall. It’s a large room with a high ceiling and impressive acoustics. It’s said that the knights would gather here to hold important meetings. Or just drink liters of beer, eat wild boar, and share stories about who killed more people—I mean, introduced Jesus to them—on their crusade. Ahh, simple Medieval times.
During my travels around, I stayed at Crowne Plaza in Tel Aviv and you should too. I had a divine sleep there. No, I'm not paid for the promo, but I was so excited, I'll promote it gladly for free. You deserve to have the sleep of your life, as I had there. Because—hold on to your hats—they had a pillow menu! Aka a list of pillows they offer with descriptions and who they are best suited for. I mean, what a great idea! Every hotel should implement this, it’s an absolute gamechanger!
Trying to summon the Wall’s mystical powers with my skeptical gaze
Western Wall is undoubtedly one of the most famous and important holy places in Israel for Jewish people. Judaism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world and many of the significant places bound up with it are in the spiritual center and holiest city—Jerusalem. So, if you are on a scavenger hunt for souvenirs from religious places, you should definitely start there.
My expectations for the Wailing Wall—as some also call it—were higher than the wall itself. And without any further ado or an awkward drumroll pause I can assure you; it passed with an A+! Its importance smacks you in the face and you scramble every ounce of spirituality inside you to try to comprehend it even if you’re not religious. You can feel this is a sacred spot.
As if this religious site wasn’t important enough, it's a part of another sacred spot, Temple Mount complex. But here's the catch—Temple Mount is sacred both to Jews and Muslims, so you know that here comes the trouble. While the Western Wall is a symbol of Jewish worship and identity, the Temple Mount houses the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Basically, the Wall is the holiest place closest to Temple Mount where Jews are allowed to pray. But we'll get to that later.
The visit to the Wall itself was a tad weird experience for me. First of all, you should know that the Wall is divided into two unequal parts: one for men and one for women. You can guess which one is bigger.
The Western Wall in Jerusalem
As I went to the designated section for boys, I felt like I was interrupting someone's most private moments. Jewish people come to the Wall to pray and leave small pieces of paper with prayers and wishes written on it, which they tuck into the wall's slits. Call me an outsider, but watching individuals sway back and forth was an unexpected sight. It had this strange, yet amusing charm to it. I couldn’t help but chuckle inwardly, appreciating the uniqueness of it all.
Here’s an important tip—don’t ever turn your back towards the wall! It’s disrespectful. Walk backwards if you must, but don’t be an uninformed tourist and check out some of my other tips for your Israel vacay.
Temple Mount makes everyone happy, but it’s a little overrated. Pretty, but overrated
Temple Mount 101: Jews claiming it as the holiest of holy sites, Christians marking it as the place where baby Jesus made his grand entrance into God’s presence, and Muslims recognizing it as the celestial launching pad for Prophet Muhammad’s heavenly escapade. Talk about a crowded space! But surely, it’s amazing and so so cool for everyone who visits? I have my doubts.
Yeah, its religious importance couldn’t be probably bigger, but for a non-religious fella like me, it’s just a seriously overhyped shack with a golden roof. That's it. It looks nice, but from far away does the work. And if you happen to be non-Muslim, you are probably not even getting in.
The limited visiting hours for non-Muslims make it clear that while they say everyone is welcome, they might mean it with a disclaimer of “but not too much”. According to our guide, all it takes is a little Jewish swaying action (as in prayer) and the whole of Palestine is on their feet and up to their teeth in armor. He said it in a funny way, but you could tell the atmosphere here is pretty darn tense.
Here’s a better overview of what Temple Mount means to which religion:
For Jews, it’s believed to be the location of the First Temple, which was central to Jewish worship, constructed by King Solomon.
On the other hand, for Muslims it’s the third holiest site in Islam as it’s believed to be the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from Earth during the Night Journey.
And not to feel left out, Christianity had to add its story. For them it’s a place where Jesus was first presented to God still as a baby.
For me, an overrated pretty building.
The ruins in Avdat Natoinal Park
If you feel like you haven't experienced breathtaking views or witnessed jaw-dropping scenery in a while, join me at Avdat National Park trip. And it also offers a refreshing change from all those old cities, synagogues, walls and after a while boring stuff.
Avdat is truly one of those special places you'll fall in love with the moment you arrive. For me, it was the superb views and beautiful Roman and Nabatean architecture what made me fall head over heels for it. And as you probably expect (hinted by the title of this post) Avdat also has some article-worthy history!
You can trace Avdat's roots back to the Nabateans, a crafty tribe of traders who knew a thing or two about desert survival. These desert people transformed Avdat into a prospering caravan station along the Incense Route, trading route delivering goods between Arabian and Mediterranean Peninsula. The ruins of their city show that those guys had some respectable architectural skills. And agricultural as well, Nabateans were serious wine makers during their time. Cheers to that!
When the Nabateans took a backseat, the Byzantines swooped in, leaving their mark on the site. They built churches and fortifications, adding a touch of divine beauty to the already impressive landscape. Check out the mosaic floors and frescoes of the Byzantine church.
What sets Avdat National Park apart (not including the historical part) is its unique location. Just imagine—you’re standing amidst stunning ruins on a balcony, overlooking the vast desert below, and if you time it exactly right, you might even witness a breathtaking sunset. It’s undoubtedly one of the memories I have from my time in Israel I will cherish the most.
Sea of Galilee, a place of many wonders and miracles?
Ladies and gentlemen, behold. The magnificent Sea of Galilee, a place where miracles (allegedly) happened. Not to sound too smart, but the Sea of Galilee is not technically a sea at all. Try the biggest freshwater lake with the second lowest point on Earth—holding a close second after the nearby Dead Sea (another great day trip from Tel Aviv option like this one).
The Sea of Galilee literally overflows with sacred sites from left to right, and it would be hard to find a place that is so full of history as this one. The surroundings of it boast immense natural beauty, offering surprisingly pleasant weather during winter, especially when we visited around Christmas. I was so ready to take a dip myself, but after I saw all the enthusiasts being baptized in the Jordan River… You gotta love such a place, right?
We spent three days exploring the area of the Sea of Galilee, which was just enough to see all the places where something important happened. I especially enjoyed the Mount of Beatitudes for its breathtaking views and Magdala for its modern structures. Capernaum, where Jesus is said to have walked on water, was kind of disappointment. Not that impressive Jesus, the lake is quite shallow—I could’ve done that and wouldn’t start a religion around it. However, the surrounding mountains, superb restaurants, and pleasant weather at 25°C made it a truly special place.
The lake Capernaum that wasn’t deep enough for me to be impressed with Jesus’ miracle there
Let me tell you something more about each place I think is visit-worthy in the surroundings of the Sea of Galilee.
Mount of Beatitudes: absolutely magical place, also because Jesus the Great is said to have delivered his iconic Sermon on the Mount. For those who couldn’t care less about that, here’s Jan’s sermon: let it be known that the views from Mount of Beatitudes are absolutely mind-blowing! Amen!
Magdala: aka hometown of Mary Magdalene, Jesus' female BFF. I liked both the ruins and quite ironically also the modern structure of the city. Truly the best of both worlds.
Capernaum: the place Jesus made his home during his Galilean ministry, and where he performed numerous miracles that left the crowds amazed and hometown of his first apostles.
No, you're not at Forum Romanum but in Beit She’an!
Now, let me introduce you to Beit She’an, an archaeological gem in the Jordan Valley. Be ready to be blown away by a city that has witnessed the rise and fall of empires like an ancient game of dominos, but still standing proud and tall. Well, not exactly, it's mostly ruins now, but you get the point!
Some of the oldest remains of Beit She’an date back to the times when Romans inhabited the area. It's very easy to figure out if Romans lived somewhere. Not many cultures built magnificent theaters like the good ol' Romans did. They loved their theatrics, and Beit She'an was no exception. The Roman theater here is a showstopper, boasting a grand stage fit for the most dramatic tragedies and comedies. Next to the remains from the Roman period you'll see a great share of work from Byzantine times as well, comparably impressive.
But Beit She'an wasn’t flourishing all the time—the city has been through quite a journey of destruction and resurrection. Earthquakes and conquerors have left their mark, that scared the area deeply. Thanks to the ongoing restoration efforts the city's transformation continues, Beit She'an is like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Or rather a Roman column being pieced back together.
Today, Beit She'an proudly displays its historical treasures for all to see. And another fun fact for you: only 1/10 of the city has been excavated! After you see how huge this place is, you won't believe that. Those ancient civilizations don’t cease to amaze me! As I said, the place is quite vast, it'll take you at least 3 hours to visit.
There are some cool ruins to see in Tzipori!
One thing about National Parks in Israel is that they deliver. You expect grandiose nature, nice ancient ruins with a touch of mystery, and it gives you exactly that. And Tzipori National Park is no exception. This spot will leave a deep mark in your memory (a cheerful one of course), and it shouldn’t be missing on your Israel itinerary.
Tzipori used to be a bustling city, known for its wealth, culture, and savvy residents. Picture a place where philosophers pondered the mysteries of the universe while enjoying a glass of fine wine, and poets penned verses that would inspire generations to come. It was the spot for the cool kids, attracting the interests of Roman emperors and influential rabbis. If I had lived a few centuries back, you'd have found me in one of those houses for sure.
As I wandered through the ruins, my eyes were treated to a magnificent sight—the splendid views that extended as far as the eye could see were like an advertisement for a blissful life. While it is said that the journey through Tzipori takes around 3-4 hours, I, an intrepid explorer, managed to conquer it in just 1.5 hours, relishing every moment and taking my time.
Top tip: Leave some space between cars when parking. Tourists can be careless everywhere as well as in Israel, and I ended up leaving the place with a seriously scratched side of the car. Thankfully, I had full-coverage insurance.
I would categorize Caesarea into the same group as the previous two spots, Beit She’an and Tzipori. And you know, it's hard to outshine this kind of competition. Don’t get me wrong, Caesarea is a beautiful place full of nature wonders and historical remains. It's a renowned historic city known for its archaeological sites and their cultural significance, so it must be good.
However, despite its rather positive reputation, I have to admit that the visit didn’t quite live up to my expectations. While there were certainly some interesting and beautiful places within the city that were captivating even to me—and that’s an indicator, I found the overall experience to be somewhat underwhelming. Caesarea simply didn’t leave a greater impression on me—but it's still one of the most important and visit-worthy historical landmarks in Israel.
Maybe I was just too demanding and expected too much from Caesarea. It's for sure one of the most impressive historical sites in Israel, but let's get down to the nitty-gritty of this. They didn’t quite maximize the full potential of the place, and trust me when I say there’s nothing, I hate more than a wasted opportunity. I believe that this place has much more potential, both in terms of its historical significance and the way it is presented with informative signs—but they should fire the guy who made the plates.
If I were capable of it, I could even fall asleep standing up while reading the few and uninteresting pieces of information provided on-site. Let's be honest, this place has a very rich history. Is it so difficult to make its visit entertaining and educational for others? I guess I'm asking for too much. But my grumpiness instantly turned into excitement once we visited the local caves. If you had seen the hundreds of small, adorable bats inhabiting these caves, you wouldn't be able to stay angry for much longer either. I was so ready to shove one of them into my backpack and take him home.
What I appreciated—so I don’t criticize the whole time—was the video explaining the history of Caesarea, providing some context for the site that is so missed on the actual site. On the other hand, I was not a fan of the fact that parts of the ruins had been transformed into restaurants and cafes, which felt somewhat out of place. Capitalism really popped off on that one.
Behold, Bethlehem from above! A perspective that even angels would envy
So, speaking in terms of historical significance, Bethlehem probably doesn’t need to be introduced that much. It's the legendary Bethlehem, that takes the spotlight as the birthplace of a certain someone you may have heard of. Yes, that's right, the big guy with the beard and the red suit—Santa Claus! Okay, I'll try to keep my humor to myself. Bethlehem is the birthplace of none other than Jesus himself, earning it a spot on the holiest sites list for Christians around the globe.
To make it a little spicier, Bethlehem lies in the West Bank territory, and it gets political. West Bank is a place of ongoing Palestinian-Israeli tension, but remains a symbol of hope and peace. It’s like walking through a doorway where history, religion, and modern-day challenges collide. But stay tuned, the plot thickens.
Bethlehem has a little something for everyone, so nobody feels left. How generous! For the Jewish community, it’s where Jewish King David was born. And let’s not forget about Rachel, Jacob’s better half, who found her eternal resting place here. Her tomb stands tall as one of the most revered holy sites for Jewish folks in the city.
But let's not forget about Muslims for who Bethlehem is also an important spot. That’s because Jesus isn’t just a superstar for Christians—he’s also a highly respected prophet in Islam. So, this town becomes a melting pot of religious significance, with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all vying for their piece of the spiritual pie.
One of the must-visit spots is the renowned Church of the Nativity, where the star of the show, Jesus Christ, made his grand entrance. Check out the exquisite mosaics and sacred atmosphere. Having to navigate through the sea of enthusiastic believers is a little annoying, but I guess if anyone were to leave, they would probably unanimously vote me out. Just be prepared for some crowds—it's a popular spot, I wonder why that is.
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