Israel—A land brimming with rich history, stunning natural beauty, and a mix of nice Jews and grumpy Arabs. If you're a sucker for holy sites, Israel is your promised land. This place holds immense significance for three major religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Now, I must admit, I didn't have high expectations for Israel. Having worked with Jews before, I wasn't exactly blown away. But let me tell you, they're a whole different breed in this country. It's like they sprinkle extra kindness in the air or something.
A major plus for me was the compactness of the whole country. You won't find yourself driving for endless hours from one place to another. Usually, a quick 1–2 hour drive will get you to your next destination. It’s like the gods got together and made Israel easy to travel!
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One thing that caught me off guard was the military presence, especially in Jerusalem. It felt like every fourth person was armed with an assault rifle. I mean, talk about intense security! It's a testament to the importance they place on safety in this region.
Israel is a country that defies expectations, serving up history, natural beauty, and, thanks to the interesting mix of religions coexisting with each other, unfiltered experiences that you won’t get anywhere else. Just make sure to pack your sense of adventure and a well-padded wallet.
I have to say right at the start, I'm not a religious person. My list is based purely on my experience and how I liked the place. So, with that in mind, enjoy the beauty and historical importance of these holy sites in Israel:
Trying to summon the wall's mystical powers with my skeptical gaze
I had big expectations for the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall), and given the top spot in my list, there are no spoiler alerts needed: it is spectacular. 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.
So what is it? The Wailing Wall is a religious site with the utmost importance in Judaism. It’s a limestone wall that’s part of the larger Temple Mount complex, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. 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 more about that later, be patient.
Jewish people come to pray to this site and leave small pieces of paper with prayers or wishes in the wall's slits. The wall is also divided into two parts—men's and women's praying side. And of course, the male side is bigger, did you expect anything else?
As I made my way towards the designated section (reserved solely for men), I couldn't help but feel like I was sneaking into someone's bedroom, interfering with the holy transmission of prayers. Awkward? Just a tad.
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.
The Western Wall may have stirred up conflicting emotions within me (and probably not just me, but anyone who doesn’t sway back and forth), but it undeniably holds a place in the hearts of many, and you can literally feel the significance when you are standing there watching it all go down.
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.
Step inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher: Where faith and history unite, and lines test your patience
What I think is most interesting about this place is that even though it's a Christian church and the holiest place of the religion, the keys to the church are owned by a Muslim family. Let that sink in, I’ll wait...
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the holiest Christian place on Earth—it's where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. Despite the fact that the organization that manages the Garden Tomb clearly doesn’t give any promises that this, in fact, the spot, there were many people there that very clearly believed that it was. I mean these people clearly had a direct hotline to the divine if you know what I mean.
I liked the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, too—it's such a nice building! But I can’t get on board with this magic man mumbo jumbo, sorry.
Anyway, it's also known as the Church of Resurrection and is located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. It's the most sacred Christian pilgrimage destination. Millions of believers from all around the world visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher every year, probably trying to connect to Jesus (not sure the wifi was so good in Jerusalem, guys!). So, if you decide to visit during a significant Christian holiday such as Easter or Christmas, be ready for some serious waiting in lines with some slightly nutty individuals. We visited before New Year's, so you can imagine the suffering I had to go through. Don’t be like me, come early and don’t suffer.
The original church was built in the 4th century, making it one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. But since the 12th century, a unique arrangement has been in place, it's known as Status Quo. Basically, multiple Christian denominations claim its rights to the site and have wanted the holiest place for themselves. This was a source of frequent conflicts and tension. So now, the church is divided into six parts each one of them being maintained and managed by a different Christian community.
Temple Mount makes everyone happy
Temple Mount in a nutshell: 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? Nah.
From my perspective, it’s one religiously super important, but otherwise seriously overhyped place. Don't get me wrong, it does have its visual charms, especially from far away. The sight of it, with its captivating blue hue, is undeniably cool, mostly so when viewed from the scenic Mount of Olives.
If you happen to fall on the non-Muslim side of the religious spectrum, you might end up standing there in front of a beautifully wrapped present, only to find out it's not meant for you to open. 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.
This way to all the Jesus souvenirs
As far as religious significance, Via Dolorosa is way up there. Like waaaay up there, considering this is the route that Jesus was forced to walk on his way to his crucifixion. Even I got chills when reading up on his last hike. But if you don’t know the story, you’d just think of it as a boring marketplace or an obvious tourist trap. So, read!
Also, know that this isn’t one street, it’s bits of several of them, and it’s like a holy traffic jam! You’ll be led along by the Stations of the Cross—14 stops with paintings that mark significant moments along Jesus' path (where he was made to bear the cross, where he fell, where he fell again, where he was crucified, etc.). But here's the twist: each station is packed with pilgrims, locals, and enthusiastic tour guides, and people selling/forcing you overpriced souvenirs—I mean, who can resist a replica of Jesus on a keychain?
But don’t let that take away from this spiritual treasure hunt, and really try to imagine the event that has millions of people forcing their kids to go to church every week since then. Tip: I’ll save you the energy and tell you that some of the 14 stops are actually inside the Holy Sepulcher. You’re welcome.
Church of Mary Magdalene
Close to Jerusalem's Old Town lies a religiously significant hill, the Mount of Olives, that rises above the city's skyline. And on the hill, the Church of Mary Magdalene, a glorious sanctuary with a roof that gleams like a pirate's treasure trove.
The Mount of Olives offers some stunning views of Jerusalem that are perfect for taking pictures and capturing some memories—or, post it on Instagram to make your followers green with envy!
This used to be a Jewish burial ground, so you can wander among the tombs that hold secrets dating back thousands of years—I felt like Indiana Jones! But that’s not all. The hill is specifically mentioned in both Old and New Testaments, making it an important site for Jews and Christians. It was the stage for pivotal events like Jesus' fervent prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane and his awe-inspiring ascension into heaven. Talk about a front-row seat to biblical drama!
Conquer the Mount of Olives for jaw-dropping views and a heavenly history lesson
On the hill itself you can find another iconic religious landmark, the Church of Mary Magdalene. While the exterior is a sight to behold (and make your eyes hurt if the sun catches the golden roof just right), the interior left me yearning for a bit more pizzazz. Nevermind, I guess they wasted all their creativity on the outside of the church.
Luckily, the true allure of Mary Magdalene’s church lies in the legends that surround the place. Imagine Mary Magdalene's presence during Jesus' crucifixion and her extraordinary encounter with the resurrected Jesus—I can see how that would make worshippers run to be part of the holy gossip.
So, for me, it’s a nice place with nice views. Beware of the opening time that’s only 2 hours, three days a week. You'll have to wait a while to get in. But if the line is crazy and you trust my judgement, you can just skip the interior and have fun outside.
The ancient City of David... and just wait until you see the undergraound tunnel system!
We're staying in Jerusalem for this next one. The City of David is like the OG of ancient cities, where kings ruled, prophets preached, and civilizations thrived. You’ll be exploring the remains of a grand palace, catching glimpses of the ancient private homes, and venturing into the underground tunnel system. It’s impossible not to be captivated by the sheer magnitude of the history that surrounds you when you walk through this place.
The City of David is an archaeological site where Jerusalem was essentially born. About 3,000 years ago, King David left the city of Hebron, which he loved dearly, and headed for Jerusalem to turn it into the capital of the Jewish people. And boy, did he succeed! Thanks to his vision, Jerusalem became the buzzing hub it is today.
I could picture historical events going down here, and I’m not even an especially imaginative person. It's seriously a living testament to the significance of Jerusalem in biblical studies—no wonder that the City of David is the most important archaeological site in the country.
And don't even get me started on the views! It’s located southeast of the Old City and nestled on Ophel Hill near the Western Wall, just waiting to reveal its ancient secrets.
Mount of Beatitudes: As peaceful as it gets
On the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee, there’s the magnificent Mount of Beatitudes. This place is pure magic—a spot where Jesus himself 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!
Imagine standing atop this hill, gazing out at the landscape stretching as far as the eye can see. The sea sparkles with a mischievous glimmer (like the one that had Peter drowning in a jiffy), and the surrounding hills dance with lush greenery. It's a visual feast fit for the gods!
I confess, when I stepped foot on the Mount of Beatitudes, I felt a wave of tranquility. Like I was God or something. It was as if the air whispered ancient secrets of peace and serenity. I couldn't help but feel a sense of calmness and relaxation, making the whole experience truly unforgettable. If only I weren't already so enlightened, I might have achieved a whole new state of zen right then and there!
As I mentioned, The Mount of Beatitudes is believed to be the location where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, which is one of the most revered and influential teachings in Christianity. Christians still come here to seek peace and connect with Jesus' teachings. And hey, let's be real for a moment. If high school learning had taken place in a classroom with such awe-inspiring views, I have no doubt I would have been the most attentive and obedient student ever. I can see it now, taking notes with an otherworldly focus, my mind elevated to new heights of knowledge and enlightenment. Well, maybe in my next life.
Get your shakshuka @ Ein Gev Holiday Resort
While discovering the most important sites in Israel, you'll notice most of those from my list—at least the best ones—are close to the Sea of Galilee. I spent three days exploring the area of the Sea of Galilee, which was just enough to see all the important attractions.
W stayed at a hotel called Ein Gev Holiday Resort. And when I say they had a grandiose breakfast, I’m not exaggerating. When it comes to breakfast, I'm one demanding fella. The best breakfast shakshuka I've ever had was at Ein Gev Holiday Resort. If you want to wake up to a delicious breakfast selection with fresh ingredients, this is the place for you (and, obviously, the sleep is good, too!).
Ein Gev Holiday Resort gets extra points for their internet connection. It was great in the entire resort, which is pretty unusual. Staying there is a great bargain!
Dunking for divinity: witness the waters of Jesus' baptism—come for the history, stay for the free baptisms!
One of the pivotal moments in the history of Christianity is the baptism of Jesus—and you can visit this very spot... kind of. He was baptized by John the Baptist on the bank of Jordan River, but the exact spot where this momentous event occurred is shrouded in a veil of uncertainty. However, it's generally believed to have taken place near a site on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, close to today's Jordan—I mean the country, not to be confused with the Jordans on your feet.
This is not a regular pilgrimage site like the others I mentioned earlier. Visitors don’t often come here just because they want to see the place. They want to experience it with their own bodies! And it’s all for a price tag of zero, so you'll witness a sea of adults clad in white gowns as they plunge into the (maybe) holy waters. It's like a heavenly version of synchronized swimming.
I must say, it's not exactly my preferred cup of tea, but from an observer's perspective, it was an incredibly fascinating sight to behold. It's not every day you come across a river that holds the power to wash away sins.
Loaves, fish, and divine math: Tabgha, where Jesus showed off his catering skills
Tabgha, also known as Tabhka or Tabiga, Tabgha, or as I like to call it, the Christian miracle hub on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s a great place to come relax a bit and enjoy some stories that are hard to believe.
This picturesque site represents a deep meaning for Christians, because it's where miracles performed by the one and only Jesus Christ took center stage.
The obvious blockbuster: the infamous Feeding of the 5,000.
The plot: Jesus, in all his miraculous glory, took a few loaves of bread and some fish and turned it into a feast fit for an army. I mean, talk about a culinary wizard! Just imagine the logistics of dividing five loaves and two fish to feed a horde of hungry souls. Now, that's a skill I wouldn't mind having in my back pocket (but there would have to be some sort of magical dishwasher that came along with it).
When you come to Tabgha, make sure to swing by the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter. It's like stepping into a time capsule, marking the exact spot where Jesus reinstated Peter as the chief apostle in a divine promotion ceremony!
It's a charming monument and overall, a very cool spot. There's beautiful nature surrounding the church where you can enjoy the peace and tranquility of the place.
Capernaum: walk where Jesus walked
Capernaum is often referred to as the town of Jesus. It holds a special place in history as it's said to be the place Jesus made his home during his Galilean ministry, and where he performed numerous miracles that left the crowds amazed.
Capernaum was a hometown of Jesus' first apostles Peter, Andrew, James, Matthew, and John. Nowadays, you can visit the ruins of what once was a great city.
But that doesn’t mean it's less beautiful or not worth the visit. On the contrary, this was one of my favorite spots from this list. And on top of that, you'll be walking the path Jesus himself did. You'll be in the streets where he found his fame, healed the sick, and preached—and I think that’s pretty special.
You can also visit the place where Jesus walked on water near Capernaum, but for me, it was kind of a disappointment. Not that impressive Jesus, the lake is shallow! I could've done that and wouldn’t start a religion about it. This was one of your less impressive tricks, I have to say.
The lake that wasn’t deep enough for me to be impressed with Jesus’ miracle there
Capernaum is one of the most popular holy sites in Israel that lies on the northern coast of Sea of Galilee. A beautiful, preserved church worth seeing there is the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Apostles. Also don’t miss out on the iconic site of the Capernaum synagogue, where Jesus taught his teachings.
Don’t forget to withdraw some cash before you wander through this area—they don’t accept cards almost anywhere around the Sea of Galilee and you don’t want to be left hungry; there’s no fella to feed you with fish and bread there anymore!
Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene
Magdala is known as the hometown of Mary Magdalene, a woman whose life had a profound impact on the early Christianity. This place might not be as popular as the others, because it's not first-hand connected to Jesus' life, but just the life of Mary Magdalene. And we've all seen the Da Vinci Code to know some conspiracies are tied to this biblical figure. Maybe you'll even unravel some.
Even though Magdala is not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, it holds an incredible importance to Christianity. Mary Magdalene—aka Mary from Magdala—was one of the most devoted female followers of Jesus, and he most likely visited her in the village and preached there, too. The Christian church put a great effort into developing the city to honor Mary Magdalene, and you can see Magdala is really flourishing.
I enjoyed my visit to Magdala (also known as Migdal) more than I thought I would. I liked both the ruins and quite ironically also the modern structure of the city. Truly the best of both worlds.
Magdala is a place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a place with religious sites literally on every corner—as you've probably already gathered.
Behold, Bethlehem from above! A perspective that even angels would envy
Now let’s venture out into the most famous place on this list, the legendary town of Bethlehem! This place holds some serious star power in the New Testament, because it's the birthplace of none other than Jesus himself, earning it a spot on the holiest sites list for Christians around the globe.
Bethlehem lies in the West Bank, so there’s a political twist added to the mix. 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.
And then the plot thickens. Bethlehem doesn't just cater to Christians; it's got a little something for everyone. For the Jewish community, it's where King David, the rockstar of ancient Israel's monarchy, made his grand entrance into the world. 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 the fun doesn't stop there. Bethlehem also rolls out the welcome mat for Muslims. 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.
The crown jewel of Bethlehem has to be the Church of the Nativity. It’s a pilgrimage site that guards the very spot where Jesus came into the world. If you can squeeze past everyone, 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. So, I’ll just take some photos over here and be on my way!
Visiting Bethlehem is memorable for sure, an experience that's part historical, part spiritual, and part dodging the crowds, trying not to stare at the people bursting into tears.
Jesus' hometown: Nazareth
Nazareth holds a special place in the hearts of believers worldwide, and it's not hard to see why. Legend has it that this humble town was home to the holy trio themselves—Mary, Joseph, and the one and only Jesus. Just imagine the potential for catchy t-shirts proclaiming "Hometown of Jesus." Seriously, why hasn't anyone capitalized on this business idea yet? It's a goldmine waiting to happen!
Prepare to be dazzled by a myriad of religious sites that will have you hopping from one holy location to another. Trust me, if you're aiming to visit every church and every sacred spot, you might as well pack a sleeping bag because it's going to take you a while.
Some of the most famous are the Church of St. Joseph and Mary's Well.
But the pièce de résistance, in my humble and undoubtedly correct opinion, is the Basilica of the Annunciation. This magnificent structure stands proudly, claiming to be built precisely on the spot where the Angel Gabriel paid a visit to the Virgin Mary. Prepare to be awe-struck as you step foot into this sacred space. I was, and it’s not easy to do that to me.
Beyond its religious significance, Nazareth is a city that embraces its multicultural heritage. I recommend letting yourself experience the fusion of different traditions. So, grab your adventurous spirit and get ready for an experience that will leave you with a newfound appreciation for the wonders of the world.
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My expectations for Israel were as low as the Dead Sea because my past experiences with Jews were, let's just say, unremarkable. But surprise, surprise, they're actually pretty charming in their homeland!
I’ll be honest, I didn’t understand why everyone adores the Dead Sea so much. What could be so unique about a lake that’s ten times saltier than the sea? The answer is EVERYTHING! Keep reading to find out why!