Have you been watching Shtisel during lockdown? Or maybe you are just one of the hundreds (thousands?) of us eyeing vaccination rates and realising the obvious candidate for this year’s summer holiday green list: Israel. Land of mountains, sea, multiple religions, ancient and knotty history, and copious amounts of houmous.
Whether the 8,550 square mile country, just a fifth of the width of England and its widest point, can fit us all is another matter but if you are searching for more or less any type of holiday, it’s likely that Israel can provide.
Historic city break
No prizes for guessing Israel’s most storied city. Legends, tales and parables seem to hum from Jerusalem’s old town walls. Taking a walking tour (the Sandeman’s ones are free and excellent) is an advisable start to even begin to grasp the complexities of this uneasy hub. Browse an Edenic feast of Israeli produce and nibbles at the Machane Yehuda market and walk it off up the Mount of Olives and to the Garden of Gethsemane following Jesus’s last steps.
If you can bear the queue, Jerusalem’s most famous holy sites - Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - can be a moving experience whatever your spiritual inclinations. Chase an early evening trip to watch prayers at the Western Wall with a sundowner at the truly old world American Colony hotel. From there a dive into the bustle around the Damascus gate feels like a world away from the streets inside the city walls. The Israel Museum is also a day well spent: it has a compendious collection of ancient and modern art including the famed Dead Sea Scrolls.
Tel Aviv is an almost perfect four day city break spot. A day spent browsing the old town Jaffa - of orange fame - and Shuk Hapishpishim, its buzzy fleamarket; a day learning about the so-called White City’s striking Bauhaus architecture and how it came to rear up so suddenly out of the desert sands; time meandering through its artistic neighbourhoods of graffiti-laden, craft beer-swilling Florentin and chi-chi Neve Tzedek with its boutiques and languid cafes; and a day to either hit the museums, the drool-worthy Carmel Market (seek out some sabich - the Tel Avivian lunch staple) or lounge along the city’s remarkably Rio-esque beach and promenade.
If it’s not too windy, it’s fun to end the day with a stretch out in Gordon swimming pool - a saltwater bath sat on the edge of the beach. Or treat yourself to supper at the strikingly restored Norman hotel, home to the Japanese restaurant Dinings and the Mediterranean-inspired Alena.
Israel’s wine industry is arguably more ancient than Europe’s but was only really born in the late 19th century when the French baron Edmond de Rothschild, of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild fame, began importing French grapes and knowhow to the region. After a revival in the 1980s thanks to an influx of New World winemakers, the country is now dotted with wineries ripe for a train trip - or road if you’re happy to not sup too much.
Carmel Winery is Israel’s largest and most set up for tours but it’s equally worth seeking out smaller establishments. The Golan Heights winery is an award winner and allows you an excuse to explore this troubled but stunning region, which is also great for bike tours. If you want to hit a few at once, there is a small string on the rail line between Tel Aviv and Haifa, mostly around Zichron Ya’akov.
Hit the beach
Long stretches of white sand, languid sunsets. Israel has some enviable beaches - all the more so if you’ve spent most of the last year staring out of an urban flat window. Around Tel Aviv, many are packed at the weekends with young, sporty Israelis hoiking up volleyball nets but it’s perfectly possible to find your own quiet spot - not least if you venture to one of the country’s inland seas. For a restorative experience, the sodium-laced Dead Sea is fun not only because you can float on it (advised: avoid swallowing the water). You can also slather yourself in mud for a semi-spa experience.
You’ll need to pay for the best beaches - Kalia and Ein Bokek are popular - but it’s worth the shekels. Elsewhere, Eilat is home to a younger, ritzier beach experience - try Mosh’s Beach, which faces the Jordan Mountains. For something quieter, head to Tiberias: to Bora Bora or the more rough and ready Tze’elon, where loud music is not allowed.