For a country that’s only the size of New Jersey, Israel is completely fascinating—boasting millennia of history and culture, you could spend weeks here and not come close to seeing everything. But, due to its size, you can sure accomplish an awful lot in a short visit, and that’s exactly what we did.
This post covers my first day in Israel, and it’s pretty long because it was a jam-packed day and I wanted to share bits of all of it. I also crammed some of the history and background in here, which makes it longer, but to me that’s so critical to understanding the impact of visiting. But I’ve labeled each section clearly so that if you’re only looking for one particular place or you want to skip through the history bits, you can find it easily.
Dad and I flew into Tel Aviv in the evening and our friends picked us up, got some food into us (nommy fresh falafel and pita), and then we crashed into bed at Abraham Hostel Tel Aviv. You can read more about our stay in Tel Aviv if you’re planning to base yourself there for a couple days.
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But we were up early the next morning to get on the road, since we had a ton of ground to cover in the north of Israel. Below is the route we took, then returned to Tel Aviv from Haifa. It was a long day, but is doable.
What to do in Israel: the north
Here’s a recommended itinerary for a day trip from Tel Aviv. You do really need a rental car for this itinerary. Driving in this part of the country is really easy, roads are good and signs easy to understand. Otherwise you’ll need to find a tour group…public transportation isn’t really a good option for this type of trip.
- Get an early start (7-7:30ish), and stop in Netanya for coffee and French pastries
- Stop and enjoy the views and ruins at Caesarea Maritima
- Wander the ruins and soak in the history at Tel-Megiddo
- Nosh on a delicious street food lunch in chill Tiberias, then swing by Capernaum and the Mount of Beatitudes
- Drive up to Akko for a different perspective, and grab a delicious seafood dinner before enjoying the sunset
- Consider catching the bright lights of Haifa’s Ba’hai Gardens on the way back to Tel Aviv
If you’re coming from Jerusalem, you’ll probably need to shorten this a little bit since that’s a longer drive. You also could visit Haifa instead of Akko if you’d rather explore the Shrine of the Bab, Baha’i Gardens, and Mount Carmel. And if you have a second day to spend in this area, there is a lot more around the Sea of Galilee and you could get up to the white cliffs of Rosh Hanikra (I was bummed to miss this!).
Our friend Steven picked us up at our hostel and we headed north, stopping in Netanya quickly for coffee and French pastries. Netanya is a community of French Jewish emigrants, so the pastries are primo. Then we arrived in Caesarea Maritima for our first stop.
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Originally settled in the 500s BCE by the Sidonians (Phoenicians), Caesarea is relatively new compared to a lot of the places we were visiting. It flourished during Greek times and then the Romans conquered it sometime between 100 and 70 BCE. It was given to Herod (yeah, THAT Herod…) around 30 BCE and he built a large port—a planned city, with a hippodrome, aqueducts, temple, amphitheatre, markets, etc.
The hippodrome is pretty big, and has an amazing seaside view. It’s easy to imagine the races and other events that went on here.
You can definitely see the signs of wealth in the ruins. Herod so fancy. (He’s still a jerk though.)
Something that I hadn’t known is that Caesarea became the capitol of Judea after the fall of Jerusalem in the 70s AD.
Tel-Megiddo & Jezreel Valley: Ancient Battleground
Next we drove over to Tel-Megiddo, one of three designated biblical “tels” (or archaeological mounds). You may also recognize it by another name—Armageddon (Har-Megiddo).
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There are over 200 tels in modern-day Israel, but three that have been designated as official biblical tels—Megiddo, Hazor and Beer Sheba (Be’er Sheva). We also visited Beer Sheba later in our trip. They were chosen because they have substantial remains with biblical connections, were densely-populated areas, and also because of their pretty ingenious and sophisticated underground water systems.
Megiddo overlooks the Jezreel Valley. The city was of strategic importance for millennia, as it sat right at the crossroads of major trade routes and so lots of caravans (and armies) went through the Jezreel Valley. When Megiddo was first excavated, it was before some of today’s modern, gentle excavation techniques had been developed so they kind of almost cut down in the hill (I want to say it was maybe 1950s?). Because of that, we’re able to see strata of various civilizations and eras…in the first and third pics below, there are between 25 and 30 different layers of civilizations and eras piled on top of each other.
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This city and valley has possibly seen the most battles of any single spot throughout history. I’m going to go all “history” on you for a sec (because I geek out on that kind of thing), but here are a few examples:
- There was a huge battle between the Egyptian pharaoh and rebel Canaanite king of Kadesh (and first recorded use of the composite bow, which I find fascinating)
- During the reign of Judah’s King Josiah, another Egyptian pharaoh, Necho, came to Megiddo to engage the king of Assyria. Against God’s instructions, Josiah involved himself in this battle and was killed (2 Kings 23:29). Josiah’s death at Megiddo was a stunning blow to Judah. He was the last good king before the nation’s destruction at the hands of Babylon.
- Even in modern times—both Napoleon (1799) and British General Allenby (1918) defeated Turkish forces here
- Revelation 16:16 – speaking of the time right before Christ returns, when the armies of the world will turn to fight Him, it says “and they gathered them together to the place which is called in Hebrew, Armageddon”. That’s where we get the term Armageddon.
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The Sea of Galilee area
After baking in the sun at Megiddo, we turned toward the Sea of Galilee area, where a lot of Jesus’s ministry was concentrated. As such, there are TONS of different places you could visit (and boy, do the tour groups try and catch every one!). We concentrated on just a few—Tiberias, Capernaum, and the (supposed) Mount of Beatitudes.
One note…if Jesus-related history and sites are a complete turnoff to you, then totally cool, skim through Capernaum and the Mount of Beatitudes at your leisure. I totally get it. I am religious and I am super interested in bible history, but some parts of this area were kind of a turnoff to me as well. There are a LOT of tour groups in the Sea of Galilee sites. Oy. And a lot of the places in the Sea of Galilee area where different things are supposed to have happened don’t really have much historical or archaeological backing for that being the right place—they feel more manufactured for tourists. So I was going through with my normal “grain of salt” mentality (particularly for the Mount of Beatitudes).
Tiberias: Seaside Resort Town
Tiberias is a thriving resort town these days, and gave us a super chill welcome. Because it wasn’t high tourist season and it was a Friday (a holy day for Muslims and the day of preparation for the sabbath for Jews), things were pretty quiet.
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The Sea of Galilee is the lowest freshwater lake on earth, and the second-lowest lake in the world (after Dead Sea). This is where a lot of Jesus’s ministry was concentrated, so there are many sites around there that various tour groups visit.
Tiberias is only tangentially mentioned in the bible, and actually was a strictly pagan city early on. Later it became the religious, administrative, and cultural center of the Jewish nation after the loss of Jerusalem (for about 500 years, until the Persian and Arab conquest). However, our purpose in Tiberias was less historical—we wanted lunch.
We had a delicious shwarma lunch from a little food stand and basked in the sun, watching a street sweeper scratch a kitty’s chin with his broom (cutest thing ever).
Then we hopped back in the car and zipped over to Capernaum.
Capernaum: The Town of Jesus
It’s believed that Jesus lived here much of his adult life, so the ruins of Capernaum are a major draw for mainstream Christian visitors. Capernaum is also famous as being one of the three cities that Jesus pronounced woes on in the bible, along with Chorazin and Bethsaida.
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A lot of the ruins are made of the local black basalt rock, giving it a very unique look. You can even see that basalt as the foundation underneath the more famous white synagogue in the pic below. That older (basalt) synagogue is believed to be where Jesus taught at the beginning of His ministry. The white synagogue was built around the 3rd century AD, and is made of white limestone.
In addition to being the supposed home of Jesus during some of His adult years, the apostle Peter was from Capernaum as well, and they have built a (quite honestly hideous) church on top of what was believed to be his house. They have a statue of him as well, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I’m not a big fan.
You can also walk right down to the Sea of Galilee when you’re visiting Capernaum, which is nice and surprisingly peaceful (given the crowds). The vegetation was really interesting as well, and you could look across the sea to the famous conflict-torn Golan Heights, which was cool (it’s hard to see the settlements, it was pretty hazy).
I snagged a delish mint lemonade slushy thing from a little tent vendor in the parking lot, and then we drove just a few minutes up a hill to the (supposed) Mount of Beatitudes.
Mount of Beatitudes: Landscaped Oasis
I say “supposed” because there’s really no way of knowing where Jesus gave one of His most famous sermons. Honestly it probably wasn’t exactly right here.
One story that I found really interesting was about Constantine’s first wife, Flavia Julia Augusta. Constantine, as most people know, was the Roman emperor who made Christianity the state religion, and his first wife was very devout and did quite a bit of pilgrimage in the Holy Land area.
The story that our friend Steven heard from different locals and tour guides was that when she came to visit, she wanted to know where all these famous sites from the bible were, but since no one could know for sure (and they were afraid of telling the emperor’s wife “no”), the local people just picked a spot and that became gospel truth. It definitely could explain how certain places became famous when modern and biblical evidence suggest otherwise (particularly in Jerusalem), so thought that was an interesting story to share.
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So the Mount of Beatitudes is…a tourist destination. The landscaping is very pretty but very sanitized (in my language, not very authentic feeling). There are a supposed to be lot of Byzantine ruins in this area due to Constantine’s wife, but we didn’t see any of them. Generally I wasn’t a fan.
I was oddly fascinated by the intriguing cinderblock church there though. It’s just strangely striking and pretty when, by all rights, it shouldn’t be.
Akko: The Arab/Crusader Port
For our final planned stop, we drove up to the Arab-majority town of Akko. Also called Acre, Accra, etc., Akko is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited sites Israel, with a fascinating and rich history (I find that’s often true of port cities…they get around).
There is this really interesting breakwater that was built during Roman times to make it a safer harbor, which you can see in the picture below. It’s like a really shallow shelf (also known as a sea wall or jetty) that’s built around parts of the city to protect it from the force of the waves.
Once again, bear with me while I drop some history on you…or just skip further down if you don’t care 🙂
- It began as Tel-Akko in the way, way back, and was known as Ptolemais during Greek & Roman times, with the status of an autonomous “polis” (which was a big deal)
- It was a key port city during Greek times, and was the main port in the area until Caesarea was built during Roman era (ahem, the first place we visited in this post, if you’re not paying attention)
- It flourished in the Byzantine times, but was captured after the great Jewish revolt in 614, and shortly thereafter it started to become an Arab stronghold
- Over the course of hundreds of years, the balance of power slowly shifted to the Arab community from Jewish and Christian elites; it was renamed Aka during this time
- It was a world center between 1000-1300 AD, and capital of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem in the 13th century, run by the Templar (there are some sweet tunnels you can explore if you have more time here)
- Became an Ottoman town and today it is an Arab-majority town, famous for its market
- It’s also sometimes called Napoleon Hill; yep, he swept through here too (that becomes a theme in this region…)
Yeah. It got around.
We were running a little later than planned for dinner, so we found a place to sit down. After quite a bit of back and forth with the owner, we somehow ended up with a smorgasbord of salads (a traditional meal), as much as we could eat.
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Stuffed and happy, we walked out of the restaurant…and were rewarded with an absolutely breathtaking Sabbath sunset on the breakwater around the harbor. It’s one of those travel moments that is unexpected and you know will stick in your mind forever.
The breakwater turned into the most magical mirror for the sunset. I walked up and down the beach and the promenade, happily snapping away as the sky morphed from red to pink to purple and the sabbath set in.
Haifa: A Quick Sparkly Bonus Stop
We didn’t spend any time in Haifa, but stopped quickly to see the Baha’i Gardens at night on our way back to Tel Aviv. Haifa is the third-largest city in Israel and a major tech center as well. It’s also where Mount Carmel is located, which is mentioned a few times in the bible, and where Elijah was thought ot have faced off with the 450 prophets of Ba’al. As I mentioned above, you could certainly include Haifa in your day’s itinerary, but you’d have to give up one of the other places (probably Akko, since it’s more out of the way).
Haifa is also the center of the Baha’i faith (established in the 1860s) and home of famous Baha’i Gardens & Shrine of the Bab. We literally just drove past the gardens and stopped on the side of the road to snap a couple pics, but you can get a sense of how big they are!
WHEW! There you have it—a completely packed day trip through some of the historical highlights of northern Israel. Hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for what to do in Israel during your trip, good info for planning your own adventure, and I hope you enjoyed some of the historical context as well.
Let me know if you have any questions about our experience, I’m happy to help others plan their own trips! If you’re in the middle of trip planning right now, you can see all my posts about Israel and Jordan as well.
Other history-rich destinations:
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