Few places on Earth allow you to travel through history quite like Israel: one moment you could be enjoying tapas at a rooftop bar overlooking a sunset along the Mediterranean Sea, while the next you are retracing the steps of the royal descendants of the world’s largest monotheistic religions. Israel is a relatively new country, celebrating the 70th anniversary of its independence beginning April 18 with 70 hours of festivity. (The Jewish Federation of New Orleans will host its own celebrations here as well, welcoming delegates from the Israeli city of Rosh Ha’ayin during this time through the first weekend of Jazz Fest.) Still, the holy history echoing through its landscapes dates back millennia before the common era.
Israel is one of the most unforgettable destinations you can visit overseas, overflowing with culture, history, amazing food, and exhilarating experiences. For those considering a pilgrimage to the Promised Land, here are a few suggestions to maximize your stay in Israel’s two main cities.
We booked our stay in Jerusalem at the Inbal Hotel. A short walk or cab (or Uber or Lyft) to most anywhere you want to go, this gorgeous hotel features a number of luxurious amenities, including a fitness center that rivals most local health clubs in both size and variety.
Now is a good time to discuss Israeli breakfast—it’s fit to fill a T-rex. In contrast to the West, breakfast is their largest meal of the day; we were welcomed each morning with a bountiful banquet of cheeses, breads, smoked fish, regional fruit, and the best Turkish coffee to ever caffeinate my taste buds. The pictures below speak a thousand calories—this was the first vacation I have ever returned from and found I had to squeeze into my work pants.
A short walk from the Inbal Hotel is the Montefiore Windmill. Originally built to support the first Jewish neighborhood outside of the Old City in the late 19th century, it is a historic Israeli landmark with ties to New Orleans—the primary financier for this venture was Judah Touro, for whom the local synagogue and hospital are named.
Next, catch a ride to the Israel Museum. The country’s official national museum is home to the Shrine of the Book, dedicated to preserving the world’s oldest religious manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Though this is the highlight of the exhibition, the Bob Rose Art Garden offers a picturesque and serene outdoor stroll, and the tour detailing the recreated model of Jerusalem from the period of the Second Temple is a fascinating lesson. There are also several international exhibits well worth your time. I was fortunate to catch Chinese activism artist Ai WeiWei’s current “Maybe, Maybe Not…” showcase, featuring a sophomorically satisfying display featuring the artist giving the middle finger to numerous historic landmarks. Don’t feel like you need to rush—if you get hungry, the Mansfield Café inside the museum offers several Israeli dishes and is quite enjoyable.
Before heading back to the hotel, stop at the Mahane Yehuda Market , which includes more than 250 vendors selling local produce, breads, desserts, and more. If you can hold out until lunch, you may want to check out the Original Azura. Serving traditional Iraqi cuisine, this was the best meal we had during our trip. Seriously, you don’t want to miss it. In the evening, stop by one of the market’s many bars after dinner, or grab a drink to-go and admire the professionally commissioned and biblically-inspired street art adorning the area’s side streets before heading back to the hotel.
For dinner, try the Anna Italian Cafe, just a short stroll from the Inbal Hotel. The gnocchi and sea bass were fantastic, and be sure to try one of their desserts. The restaurant also helps train at-risk youth, similar to our Café Reconcile, so you get a great meal and serve a good cause for the price of one.
Before turning in for the night, book a trip to Masada and the Dead Sea at the front desk. After about an hour-and-a-half bus ride the next morning to the Western end of the Judean desert, trek the Snake Trail to the top of Masada and walk among the remains of King Herod’s fortress. What is most fascinating about this visit is how intricate the kingdom’s irrigation system was. The desert doesn’t get much rain, so these crevices had to gather what little it received and sustain it for a population throughout the year.
After Masada, head to the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea Hotel and grab lunch at the buffet before making your way to the Dead Sea. Feel free to go savage on the regionally inspired smorgasbord—my Fitbit estimated the ascent up the Snake Trail to be equivalent to 101 sets of stairs.
The hotel has lockers for rent, so you can change clothes and store your valuables before heading to the beach. One of the saltiest bodies of water on Earth, the Dead Sea’s salinity both prohibits aquatic life—hence the name—and renders the human body buoyant. Floating in the Dead Sea feels more like being at the surface of an anti-gravity chamber than swimming; it is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. Just be sure to wear swim shoes and not to let your shins hit the bottom in the shallow end. The salt creates a barnacle-like surface on the sea’s floor—imagine gashing your leg and having salt repeatedly rubbed into it.
That evening, visit the Ben Yehuda area to get a taste of Israel’s nightlife. This area will be especially bumping the evening before and following Shabbat, bustling with young people like a civilized, alternate-reality Bourbon Street. Filled with shops, bars, authentic street food, street musicians, and artists, New Orleanians will certainly feel at home.
The next day, get an early start and pay a visit to the Yad Vashem, the world holocaust remembrance center. No journey of Jewish history is complete without acknowledging the Shoah—the firsthand letters from victims and survivors make this one of the most powerful and heart-wrenching testaments to one of history’s greatest tragedies. The exhibit ends with a look-out onto the land of Israel, a testament to the perseverance of the Jewish people.
On your way back, be sure to spend an afternoon visiting the Old City. Home to the Temple of the Mount, it is one of the most religious sites in the world, possessing sacred significance to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Jerusalem Archeological Park includes a tour of many excavational finds from the Second Temple through the Byzantine era, and the Tunnel Tour inside the Western Wall, explaining the construction of the Temple Mount, shows a foregone civilization whose architecture was so sophisticated, it makes you question whether ancient aliens didn’t somehow have a hand. For those of the Jewish faith, I highly recommend welcoming Shabbat at the Western Wall. It is truly exhilarating to see thousands of people dancing, singing, and celebrating in unison, allowing you to embrace your connection to the land, its people, and your legacy.
If you are a fan of street art and have time before leaving town, catch a 25-minute cab from the Inbal to the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem. The latest interactive experiment by the elusive graffiti-turned-performance-artist Banksy, the hotel overlooks the wall separating Israel from the occupied West Bank where it is located. Though only guests can visit the hotel rooms, other visitors are welcome to visit a gallery of local art, a museum, and the piano bar, including several works revisiting recurring Banksy motifs (state surveillance, rats, etc.) and a piano that plays itself a la Westworld. Exit through the gift shop for some tongue-in-cheek souvenirs, or visit Wall Mart outside to buy art supplies like spray paint and stencils, so you can leave your own mark on the wall. What surprised me most about the wall’s many murals was the focus on American culture rather than overseas issues. The artwork seemed to poke fun more at our own questionable leadership as well as paying homage to Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty.
Much like the artist’s infamous street stencils, the Walled Off Hotel may soon be scrubbed clean—the exhibition/inn is rumored to reach its expiration date sometime during 2018 after it has earned back its production costs. Book a stay now while you still can.
Our visit to Israel’s second largest city began at Independence Hall, where on May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. While the occasion of this decree was reason enough to include this historic site on our itinerary, it was the opening presentation that took my breath away. It began with a picture from 1909 on the day Tel Aviv was founded: what is now a flourishing business district pulsating through a dramatic architectural wilderness of modern high-rises was then a barren, lifeless desert deprived of irrigation. It is staggering to consider just how far the land has come in barely 100 years.
To truly appreciate this contrast, book your stay at the Carlton Hotel. Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the hotel’s rooftop bar offers a breathtaking perspective of the city for you to enjoy. Take a sunrise jog along the beachfront path behind the hotel for an extended view, or follow it in the evening and leisurely stumble upon seaside entertainment such as hookah bars, cafés, and recreational activities such as volleyball, surfing, and stand-up paddle boarding. Don’t miss breakfast at the hotel’s Carlton on the Beach buffet. With a pier extending out into the water, the award-winning spot is as scenic as it is savory.
For a taste of local culture, spend an afternoon walking through the Jaffa flea market. Located in the oldest part of Tel Aviv, the market offers a treasure-trove of mostly authentic tchotchkes to finalize your souvenir search. Enjoy a light lunch at Shaffa Bar while you are there. The much-talked-about cozy café features live music, clever cocktails, gourmet coffees, and is vegetarian-friendly.
For dinner, end your stay with a romantic dinner at Cannon Bistro. This relatively recent addition to the local restaurant scene is as modern and refined as the city that houses it, offering delicious small plates featuring Italian and Moroccan influences.
Brimming with biblical and modern history, visiting Israel is as spiritually fulfilling as it is pleasurable. If I have not convinced you yet to add a trip there to your bucket list, perhaps peruse the additional photos below for some extra motivation.