Have you ever wanted to visit Israel, then listened to the news and changed your mind? That was me. Israel is one of those places that I always wanted to go, but was also been terrified of actually going. News reports often make it seem like a dangerous place with ever-present threats lurking around the corner. The idea of taking kids to Israel was so far beyond my comfort zone that I assumed that we would never go.
In 2017, I thought I had gotten out of going when Jeremy decided to take James on a trip there while I was at home recuperating from some health issues that prevented travel. Whew. I was nervous for my husband and son, but hoped that it was out of Jeremy’s system. Instead, the two of them were so excited by what they saw that they decided that John and I would have to go there with them at a later date. I was annoyed at first, but in hindsight, I am very happy that they insisted.
The history in Israel is incredible. People go there for many different reasons – we’re approaching this from a Christian perspective. Walking where Jesus walked opens up the Bible stories in a whole new way. Of course, many of the sites that you think will be cool are so crowded and overrun that they loose their appeal, but on the other hand, the sites from which you weren’t as expecting much often hit you hard. For example, the place Jesus was born felt a bit more like a zoo inside a circus tent rather than the peaceful barn that I was expecting. On the other hand, when I found an isolated moment to touch the stone that Jesus’s body was most likely laid on, I had a very profound experience that I will remember forever.
The trip to Israel was part of a much larger trip that encompassed Egypt, Israel, and many European countries, so we avoided things like jet-lag, but on the other hand, it put us in Israel mid-June during the high season with temperatures approaching 105°F on our hottest day (but not uniformly so). Jeremy’s previous February trip was much more pleasant in that regard, but you take what you can get.
The Basic Itinerary
Having been to Israel the year before, Jeremy had a rough idea of what he really wanted to show me and John, so the basic itinerary was a breeze since he thought it was more important for me to see the major Christian sites than for him to broaden what he saw before. For us, this was a bit of a Christian pilgrimage.
We effectively stayed 8 nights: 4 in Jerusalem, 3 in Tiberias (on Lake Galilee), and 1 in Tel Aviv. For transit, we took taxis/buses in Jerusalem, but rented a car for the second half of the trip.
- Day 1: Late morning arrival in Jerusalem. Casual stroll through the Old City, Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane, dinner in New City.
- Day 2: Jerusalem. Guided Holy City Walking Tour, followed by self guided wander through Old City. Evening in the New City.
- Day 3: Jerusalem. Walk on Northern Rampart (city walls), Pool of Bethesda, Garden Tomb, Bible Lands Museum, walk on Southern Rampart.
- Day 4: Jerusalem with excursion to Bethlehem and Rachael’s Tomb. Israel Museum.
- Day 5: Rent car, drive to Masada and the Dead Sea, evening in Tiberias.
- Day 6: Sea of Galilee. Some religious sites include: the feeding the 5000, the calling of Peter, James, and John, the Sermon on the Mount, and the hometown of Peter and Andrew. Afternoon in Banias Nature Reserve.
- Day 7: Nazareth religious sites. Mount Tabor. Thought about visiting Megiddo. Retreated from the intense heat at our apartment.
- Day 8: Acre and Tel Aviv. Crusaders’ Fortress, Templar’s Tunnel, and seaside wander in Acre. Beach in Tel Aviv.
- Day 9: Tel Aviv. Morning departure.
- This is an intense schedule. You will be busy the entire trip and exhausted by the end. Some may want to add more nights, or reduce sites.
- Heat: Summer in Israel can be hot! Always daypack water when walking, and try to schedule indoor museums at the hottest part of the day. Jerusalem has some elevation, making it cooler than the Galilee or Dead Sea areas. Consider contingency plans, e.g. afternoon rest in the hotel, if it’s too hot.
- Safety: We felt very safe in Israel; the sensational news reports often felt a million miles away. Be aware that there are police/military everywhere.
- Cars: don’t rent a car in Jerusalem (take a bus or taxi to get around there). Rental cars are useful if you want to explore the Galilee region or go to the Dead Sea. Waze is useful. Be aware that you can’t drive an Israel rental car into Palestinian cities like Bethlehem or Jericho.
- Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem, but in the West Bank. It’s more complicated to visit because of the border/wall, and we debated whether it was safe. We asked our Jerusalem walking tour guide what she thought, and her advice was that it is mostly a tourist town, the cautions were overrated, and that we should go. Take travel advisories seriously, but consider trying to get advice from a knowledgeable local that doesn’t have monetary incentive to bias their opinions. Our experience was that Israelis love to share their full and frank opinions on a wide variety of topics.
- Dead Sea: The beach at the Dead Sea can be hot! We burned the bottoms of our feet. Bring flip flops if you will be traveling there in extreme heat.
- Crowds: The cool-sounding religious sites can be overcrowded. See them, but lower your expectations of a profound religious experience to something reasonable. You might be surprised when you get what you were looking for, but at least you won’t be disappointed when it doesn’t happen.
The Detailed Itinerary
Days 1-4: Jerusalem, Bethlehem
We spent 4 days in Jerusalem, with a last-minute day trip to see both Bethlehem and Rachael’s Tomb. It would have been easy to spend more time in Jerusalem, and Bethlehem is worth a stop if safety issues seem reasonable at the time.
Stroll through Old City
Ideally, we would have started the trip with the 4 hour Old City walking tour – this is an excellent orientation to Jerusalem and its history. That said, we were arriving on a morning flight, and we didn’t want to risk being late for the morning tour. So, we decided to do the walking tour on the second day, and instead focus on the Mount of Olives area, just east of the Old City, the first day.
That said, given that we had to walk through the Old City anyway to get to the Mount of Olives area, we did a scattered self-guided walk through the Old City. We focused on the markets and a quick stop at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is where they believe that Jesus was both crucified and buried.
Dung Gate to Lion Gate
Knowing that lunch options would be slim at the Mount of Olives, we made a lunch stop, then continued to the Western Wall, formerly also called the Wailing Wall. From here, we made our way to the Dung Gate, walked along the outside of the wall, getting nice views of the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives Cemetery.
Mount of Olives
After making it to the Lion Gate, we thought about taking a bus up the mountain, but it felt complicated and we didn’t want to get on the wrong bus, so we opted for a taxi. If it would have been cooler, we would have considered walking, but a ride up and a walk down made a lot more sense.
From the top, we spent some time at a nice overlook, then continued down the mountain, stopping at the Chapel of the Ascension, the Church of the Pater Noster (closed), the Dominus Flevit, Garden of Gesthsemane (had to wait for it to open), the Russian Church (closed), and the Tomb of the Virgin.
Note that both Sundays and close to lunchtime isn’t a great time to visit sites. Some sites are completely closed on Sundays, many of the rest have two hour lunchtime closures every day of the week.
From here, we debated getting out of the heat, or doing a walk across the Kidron Valley, where tombs of Absalom and Zechariah. After checking our water supply, we decided to see what Jesus may have experienced whenever he walked from Jerusalem to Mary’s, Martha’s, and Lazarus’ house in Bethany.
Returning to the Lion’s Gate, we decided to walk part of the Via Dolorosa (the “way of the sorrow”) back to our hotel, resting until sunset.
For dinner, we decided to venture into the New City, but no one was particularly hungry, so we stopped at a pastry shop and picked up a few things. Delicious!
It was a very full day with lots of walking in very hot weather, but it was a great introduction to the city.
In the morning, since our walking tour wasn’t until 11am, we started the day wandering through the markets again. We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher again – it was much less crowded, but the line for the actual tomb was still fairly long. Next was the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky, which has some interesting theories about whether Jesus may or may not have passed through there on the way to Calvary. Then we stopped by the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, which is where the discovered the original city walls. It has a nice archaeology site.
Guided Holy City Tour
By this point, it was almost time for our guided Holy City Tour. We had thought about taking the free 2 hour tour, but decided that the paid 4 hour tour would likely be a lot richer and probably less crowded. This is a tour that I highly recommend to take at the first opportunity you have after arrival.
We started with a talk about the city walls, then toured the Armenian Quarter. On arrival to David’s Tomb, I was surprised to discover that the site of the Last Supper was directly above the tomb, and was much larger than I expected. Next was the Jewish Quarter and a break for lunch. This was followed by the Roman Cardo and the Western Wall.
As we entered the Muslim Quarter, we learned about the Ramadan-related celebrations going on. The tour concluded with the Via Dolorosa (“road of sorrow”), where you can visit the 12 stations of the cross that Jesus passed by on the way to Calvary. Depending on the height of the tourist season, expect to see at least a couple of pilgrimage processions where groups of people are carrying a cross and reflecting on Jesus death and resurrection. The culmination was at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but in the late afternoon, it was very crowded, so we didn’t spend a lot of extra time there.
We went back to the hotel to rest and escape the heat for a bit, and decided to venture out a bit before sundown. The plan was to head towards the Damascus Gate and explore the New City, but the Muslim celebration was so packed that we felt like fish swimming upstream. Eventually we gave up, but it was fun to see. We walked back to the Jaffa Gate and finally made it to our destination. More pastries and ice cream for dinner!
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
For some reason, we were really drawn to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and visited it yet again. The boys rolled their eyes a bit, but we finally found it in a peaceful state and I got my “moment” when I touched the stone that Jesus body was laid on. I can’t explain what happened, but at that moment I felt closer to Jesus than at any other point in my life.
Sound and Light Show
Upon returning to our hotel, we discovered that there was a sound and light show across the street. From the rooftop garden, we actually had a bit of a view, and enjoyed it for a while before bed.
The kids were getting tired of churches, so we decided scrambling around on the city walls would be perfect. A ticket includes both the northern and the southern section, and you have two days to visit both. We started at the Jaffa Gate for the Northern Section and walked along it all the way to Herod’s Gate. This is a great activity for kids, although safety standards are a bit looser than in the United States, so keep an eye on them. In general, the kids have had to learn that most places in the world are not as bubble wrapped as things at home. Common sense is a great skill to have!
Pool of Bethesda
Next we stopped at the Church of St. Anne, which is also the site of the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the paralytic. The kids also thought that was cool.
Via Dolorosa and Garden Tomb
We decided to revisit the Via Dolorosa in a bit more detail, making a detour to see the Garden Tomb. One thing you will quickly see in Jerusalem is that there are lots of theories about what exactly happened in Jesus’ time, but the evidence is long gone, so it is a bit tricky to be sure which things are correct and which aren’t. In the case of Jesus’ death and burial, most experts think it happened at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but a smaller contingent thinks that it was actually at the Garden Tomb. So, we visited both sites, hoping that one of them was actually the real deal.
Even if some of the sites weren’t quite right, the visualization and idea that some of the Bible stories could have happened exactly where you are standing is powerful and helps you see them in a whole new light. Of course, some of the stories are so far-fetched that you have to dismiss them out of hand. For example, one story says that Jesus stumbled and that his shoulder left an imprint on the stone wall. The problem is that the ground was many feet lower in Jesus’ day, so it would be a bit like saying he tripped and left a mark on the second level of the house. Listen to and enjoy the stories, but don’t take everything at face value. You will be seriously disillusioned if you do.
At this point, we got some lunch, then took a taxi over to the Israel Museum, but were thwarted by odd Tuesday hours. It was only open from 4pm-7pm!?! So, we went across the street to the Bible Lands Museum. This museum covered the groups of people mentioned in the Bible: the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Philistines, and tons more. Fascinating, but a little less so for us since we were in Egypt just a few days before.
Rest and Escape Heat
We went back to the hotel to rest and escape the heat. James remembered that the Muslim Quarter was filled with incredibly inexpensive gummy candies, so Jeremy took him out to get both those and a T-shirt while John and I continued to rest.
Once we recovered a bit, we decided to do the Southern Rampart, ending just before the Western Wall. So we visited there again. Lots of repeated visits, but each time we got something new and broadened our understanding and connection with the site.
On the way back to the hotel, we wandered through the markets again, and picked up snacks for dinner.
Getting to Bethlehem
When we started the trip, our plan was to stay out of the West Bank, but we were feeling so comfortable with the city that we asked around a bit and decided to go ahead and visit Bethlehem. Since Rachael’s Tomb looked nearby, we decided to add that – note, we learned that this is quite atypical, even though they are right next to each other, due to the wall. If you are a nervous type of person, consider hiring a tour company to take you. We did it on our own, but there were a few moments where we questioned our sanity. Read my full post on this before you decided to try it yourself.
We thought about taking a taxi to Bethlehem, but couldn’t readily find anyone who was willing to do a one way ride. All they wanted was an expensive full day tour. So, we hopped on the bus. Not wanting to deal with aggressive taxi drivers, we decided to walk about a mile to Church of the Nativity. So peaceful and pleasant! Until it started to downpour. But then a taxi driver came by, recognized Jeremy and James from the year before when they visited, and drove us the last few blocks for free! “Friend, friend, I remember you!” Yes, this is in the Middle East where we constantly felt like people were trying to make money as much money as they can from us. Odd, but very refreshing to see a glimpse of humanity.
Church of the Nativity and Other Sites
The church was packed. We stood in line, and after a long wait, were able to touch the place where Jesus was born and his cradle lay. The guard rushing people along ruined the atmosphere a bit, but some of the people would have spent hours there without the reminder, so not sure what a better solution would have been. We then visited the Church of Saint Catherine, the Chapel of the Milk Grotto, then got lunch in the square.
We thought we’d try to visit Rachel’s Tomb, since it was effectively right next to Bethlehem. Google Maps claimed to have directions, but it took us to the impenetrable border wall right next to Rachel’s Tomb. We then took 2 short, over-priced taxi rides to get there – one to the Israeli border (which was a fairly annoying crossing), and another for a round trip from the Israeli border to Rachel’s Tomb.
Things got a little weird then because, initially unbeknownst to us, the taxi driver who picked us up on the Israeli side was apparently an Arab Israeli citizen (note: this is different from being Palestinian). I think legally, the driver was allowed to take us to Rachel’s Tomb, but it’s also a sensitive Jewish site, and neither the military guard nor the other visitors at the site were happy that he was there – they made this abundantly clear to us. After the drama, we spent about 10 minutes visiting Rachael’s Tomb on the separate men/women sides and he took us back to the border checkpoint. Sometimes the journey is more exciting than the destination.
From the border checkpoint, we took the bus back to Jerusalem, then caught a metered taxi to the Israel Museum. What a relief! The museum was fabulous! We only had two hours before closing, but what we saw was incredible. You could easily spend a half day here, and if you are really into museums, consider staying for the entire day.
Day 5: Transit from Jerusalem to Tiberias
Renting a Car
Finished with Jerusalem, Jeremy rented a car and we started our trip to Tiberias via Masada and the Dead Sea. Read up on driving abroad before deciding to do this. Driving in Israel cities is not for the faint of heart. But we did it without incident. One thing to remember is that you are likely to get a tiny car, so make sure you don’t have too much stuff. And if they give you a bigger car, you are going to have serious problems with navigating the narrow city streets. Tiny is good!
Road to Jericho
Starting towards Masada, we drove on the road to Jericho. The story of the Good Samaritan came alive. Miles of desolation, lots of hills for robbers to hide, and you have the perfect setting for a good story.
The Masada is awesome! Seriously consider taking a tour here. Herod (the one who wanted baby Jesus dead) built a fortress here, then in 66 A.D. to 73 A.D the Jewish people had their last stand in the rebellion and 900 of them hid out here. It took the Romans seven years to get control of it. The defense possibilities are amazing. The kids loved scrambling over the ruins, looking at a model of the water system, and more!
The Dead Sea
From here, we drove to the Dead Sea, where we spent an amazing time floating like corks and rubbing mud all over ourselves. John and I both burned our feet before we realized that the sand was way too hot to stand on. The water is so salty that it can burn your eyes, so we had to keep reminding the kids that they were not to stick their faces in the water. It’s particularly hard for kids to remember this. Unfortunately, Jeremy had a couple of scrapes on his body, so the super salty water was really painful for him. And sitting in the hot weather wasn’t any better. So, we ended up leaving earlier than the boys and would have preferred. I could have spent the whole day there, but Jeremy was fine with a shorter visit. Sigh.
After checking into our apartment, we rested a bit, then went out to see the lake and get groceries for the next few days. Restaurant food in Israel is on the pricier side, so we mostly just ate out for lunch, while having breakfast and dinner in the apartment.
Days 6-7: Near the Sea of Galilee
The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes and the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter
First, we drove to Tabgha, which contained the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes and the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter. Events that happened here included the feeding of the 5,000; the calling of Peter, James, and John; Jesus giving Peter the leadership of the church; and more.
Sermon on the Mount
We then drove up the hill to the place where the Sermon on the Mount happened. Now there is an Italian Monastery, built by Mussolini no less.
Next was Capernaum, which was the hometown of Peter and Andrew. There was a modern church that was built suspended over the ruins of Peter’s house. Next door, there were also some interesting ruins of a destroyed synagogue.
Banias Nature Reserve
When Jeremy was here the year before, he had continued further down the lake, but we felt like we had seen the major sights, that the kids were starting to get bored with the religious sites, and decided to spend the afternoon in Banias Nature Reserve. After lunch, we arrived at the reserve in the Golan Heights.
This park features the biggest waterfall in Israel, a bunch of cool Roman ruins that were known as Caesarea Philippi, streams, and plenty of shady hiking paths, complete with land mine warnings not to venture off the path. I guess that is one way to teach your kids to stay on the trail. It would be easy to spend a half day to a full day here, but we were on a schedule, so only spend a couple of hours.
Golan Heights U.N. Peacekeeping Station
Next up was the active Golan Heights U.N. Peacekeeping station with an awesome 360° view of the surroundings. The kids loved exploring the bunkers, plus we could say that we saw a view of Syria. If you are in the area, it is definitely worth a stop.
This was our hottest day of the trip. We had lots of grand plans, but most of them went by the wayside when the heat became too much. First, we drove from Tiberias to Nazareth while it was still a reasonable morning temperature.
The Basilica of the Annunciation
On arrival, we went to the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is where they think Gabriel appeared to Mary. It is a pretty cool church with all the stuff you might expect, plus a ton of beautiful mosaics that were donated by various countries.
The Church of St. Joseph
Next was the Church of St. Joseph, which had more of a natural cave-like feel, but the artwork was still really interesting.
Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation
We then took a walk through town to Mary’s Well. It may have been more fun if the temperature would have been cooler. Next to the well was the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, which I loved. The outside was quite plain, but the inside was a different story. There is something about the Orthodox decor that fascinates me, maybe just the fact that it is blatantly different from other denominations, and therefore more jarring to the senses.
After lunch we headed to Mount Tabor to try and get some relief from the heat, but no such luck. Worse was that the Church of the Transfiguration was closed for lunch. We waited around for the opening at 2, walking around the gardens a bit, but by 2:10pm it wasn’t open, everyone was hot and cranky, so we decided to move along.
We considered going to Megiddo, which is the place in Revelation where the Armageddon is supposed to happen, but we were too hot, so we decided to head back to Tiberias and enjoyed views of the lake from our air-conditioned apartment.
Day 8: Transit from Tiberias to Tel Aviv
For our last full day in Israel, we decided to stop by Acre on our way to Tel Aviv. This was a really cool stop that could easily take up a full day. On arrival, there were an overwhelming number of ticket choices and we bought something that seemed to make sense to Jeremy.
We started with the Knight’s Hall, which gave us access to the Crusader’s Fortress and was really cool. There are lots of hands-on activities for both kids and adults. It gave us a reasonable idea of what it may have been like to grow up there. The boy’s favorite room was the Crusader’s Latrines, which had rows of stone seat over a big pit. I really can’t imagine what that must have been like.
Next up was the market. We bought a few food items and enjoyed looking at everything else. This was followed by Templar’s Tunnel, which was the perfect height for the boys, but not so great for Jeremy. Last was a walk by the water. It had a carnival type atmosphere with hot dogs, popcorn, and lots of food that would appeal to American children.
We had thought about making a stop in Caesarea, which is different from the Caesarea Phillippi we visited at Banias Nature Reserve, but the heat had sapped us, and after several weeks of a too full schedule, we were tired.
So we checked into our hotel and took the kids to the beach.
Day 9: Departure from Tel Aviv
After a quick breakfast, we headed to the airport for a morning departure. Security is fairly thorough there, where everybody gets a mini-interview before check-in. We were even asked about why we had Turkish Airlines luggage tags (mostly because we got them for free years ago and they were nice), though they then probed about who we might know in Turkey and when we had visited there.
We left feeling very happy with our time in Israel. If you have the opportunity, seriously think about going.
It is hard to visit Israel for less than a week. There is way too much to see and do. Even in two weeks, there is a lot of stuff you still won’t be able to do. Make a list of priorities and focus on those. For us, this meant visiting the Christian sites. Do as much as you can, but if you need a break from intense travel and sightseeing, consider the Dead Sea or Tel Aviv.
Everyone in Israel has an opinion that they want you to hear. Whether it is why is bad, what places you should see/avoid, what they think about various political leaders, or something else. We mostly chose to nod and agree, keeping our opinions to ourselves. It kept the peace. The oddest conversation was when a taxi driver told us how we should take the kids to a fresh-water pool rather than to the Dead Sea. Umm. No. Otherwise, there were lots of comments from almost every taxi driver, tour guide, or other person we met about Arabs/Israelis, Muslims/Christians, Trump, etc.
Israel is hot and dry. Why was this the promised land? One article I read suggested that in Biblical times, it was ideal grazing land for sheep. And when Jeremy went in February, the hills were fairly green. But in summer, everything seems to be in shades of brown.
In any case, this has been one of my favorite vacations ever. After the first day or two, I was compelled to re-read the Gospel stories. They came alive in a whole new way. Seeing where major events actually happened made them much more personal and relatable. If people were watching the things in the Gospels actually happen, it’s no wonder that Christianity took off so quickly. Now, all we are left with the stories, and sometime they seem so unbelievable that it is easy to question if they could be true. For Thomas, seeing was believing. Visiting Israel was my “seeing” moment.