Information on Israel’s UNESCO sites, where to stay near each site and travel tips to navigate your way through Israel.
By Judy Koutsky
Acre is a well-preserved medieval town that’s known for its outstanding representation of an Ottoman walled city. The town is located both above and below street level and visitors can enjoy outstanding views of the Mediterranean from this UNESCO site.
Masada is considered an extraordinary example of an early Roman Villa and the Roman siege works surrounding the plateau are the most complete in the world. The new museum displays archeological objects found during the excavation.
The White City of Tel Aviv
The White City of Tel Aviv is credited for blending architectural trends of the Modern Movement and integrating them into local conditions. The streets of Dizengoff and Rothschild, among others, showcase buildings of architectural and historical significance, as well as great beauty.
The Incense Route and the Desert Cities of Negev
The Incense Route and the Desert Cities of Negev is one part of the 1,500-mile-long frankincense trade route from Mediterranean to Arabia that crosses Israel’s Negev desert. The route carried precious spices, ideas and cultural exchanges. The cities along this route — Mamshit, Avdat, Haluza and Shivta — were built by the Nabateans about two millennia ago and show how people can make a life in such a hostile, desert environment.
The Biblical Tels
The Biblical Tels — Megiddo, Hazor and Beersheba — are testimony to cultural exchanges along major ancient highways. Their intricate water systems, which are highlights of a visit to these sites, also show ingenuity and ancient community cooperation. The sites, with their palaces, ramparts and storehouses, are also grand remnants of great ancient civilizations and show the power of the biblical narrative.
WHERE TO STAY
Israel is about the size of New Jersey, and it takes roughly eight hours to cross the country from north to south. That means many travelers will pick three cities in which to base their hotel accommodations and then take day trips to visit historical and cultural sites. Here are suggested accommodations based in a large city nearby to the UNESCO sites.
Dan Carmel Haifa Hotel: A short drive north of Haifa is the city of Acre, considered to be one of the most spectacular cities of the world and declared a World Heritage Site in 2001 by UNESCO. In Haifa the Dan Carmel Haifa Hotel boasts panoramic views of the bay and the city. The hotel also offers a great location on the crest of Mount Carmel. 800-223-7774; www.danhotels.com
The Renaissance Tel Aviv Hotel: The hotel is unique in that all 342 rooms have a private balcony overlooking the Mediterranean while half of the rooms overlook the ancient city of Jaffa and the sea and half overlook the Tel Aviv Marina. There is also a health club, spa area and an indoor pool. Guests enjoy direct access to the beach and Tel Aviv’s beautiful promenade. 888-236-2427 www.marriott.com
Lot SPA Hotel at the Dead Sea: A short drive from the Dead Sea sits Masada in all her glory. For a decadent stay consider the Lot SPA Hotel at the Dead Sea. The ultra-modern, spacious hotel offers views of the Dead Sea and the desert. After a long day exploring the ruins of Masada, guests can partake in the spa’s Dead Sea mud treatments. 972-8-668-9200
Incense Route and the Desert Cities of Negev: The Dead Sea is a good home base for a visit to this UNESCO site. Visitors can visit Masada and the Biblical Tels of Hazor and Beersheba with a stay at the Dead Sea.
The Biblical Tels — Megiddo, Hazor and Beersheba: Megiddo is located in the southern Galilee region. Hazor and Beersheba are located in the south not far from the Incense Route and the Desert Cities of Negev (thus the Dead Sea is a good base).
Rimonim Galei Kinnereth Hotel: For Megiddo, visitors can stay at the Rimonim Galei Kinnereth Hotel, located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The hotel rooms are spacious and comfortable and for affluent travelers, there are six suites and a luxurious Presidential Suite. 972-3-675-4591 www.rimonim.com
Acre: The weather is especially beautiful May-July and September-October. Visitors don’t need to book a tour, but instead can walk the city and take in its beauty independently.
Nearby, in the fishing port, there are excellent fish restaurants that serve the best of the previous night’s catches. Not far away from the city is a beautifully manicured Bahai Garden, built by members of the Bahai religion in Israel. It’s wonderful to wander the garden’s paths and enjoy the meticulously designed flower beds.
Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv hosts a wide range of architectural styles which were influenced by various schools of architecture — among which was the International Bauhaus style. The central portion of Tel Aviv, known as the White City, contains the largest group of buildings in the world built in the International Bauhaus style. For this reason the White City has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This style originated in Germany and was based upon clean geometric shapes and asymmetry, and flourished from the 1930s until the establishment of the state. It soon attracted other city architects as well. To truly experience this jewel, it is best to book an architectural tour during your stay.
Masada: The desert can be hot in the summer, so dress appropriately and drink a lot of water. I recommend walking to the top of the mountain, but the cable car is the preferred method for most travelers. Make sure to allow plenty of time as there is a lot to see among the ruins. If staying at a Dead Sea Hotel make sure to get a spa treatment with Dead Sea mud — famous throughout the world.
Incense Route and the Desert Cities of Negev: The town closest to this site is Beersheba but many travelers stay in the Dead Sea region and book a day trip to the ruins. It’s best to book a guided tour to this site. Also, it can be very hot in the summer. It’s interesting to note that the Negev and the Arava deserts make up two thirds of all the land mass in Israel, yet are home to only 10 percent of Israel’s population.
The Biblical Tels: One of the most important archeological sites in Israel from the time of the bible, Tel Megiddo is a beautiful and impressive national park. Megiddo was important in antiquity: it is mentioned in Egyptian writings and is forecast to be the site of Armageddon in the Christian Book of Revelations. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, the impressive remains of several civilizations draw many visitors and pilgrims. It’s best to book this as a tour in order to grasp the historical context.
Israel Ministry of Tourism
The Pillars of Civilization
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My first trip to Israel was filled visiting historical sites and ancient wonders. For a country so small, I realized one could easily spend two weeks there and even then, it’s hard to cover everything.
Frequent visitors to Israel know that this country prides itself on its large number of UNESCO sites given the land mass of the nation. There are five UNESCO sites — each one well worth a visit. The five sites are the Old City of Acre; Masada; the White City of Tel Aviv; the Incense Route — the Desert Cities of the Negev; and the Biblical Tels — Megiddo, Hazor and Beersheba.
Masada is one of my favorite destinations in Israel not only because of the historical implications, but because of the sheer beauty of the site. It continues to be a big draw among all tourists — not just those interested in history. The total size and depth of this ancient marvel impressed me long after my trip. UNESCO included Masada on its list due to the symbol of Jewish cultural identity in particular and the human struggle for freedom and oppression in the larger sense. This fortress built on top of a mountain was designated Israel’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
Visitors can reach the mountaintop by cable car or on foot. Cable car is the preferred transportation for most travelers, but I highly recommend hiking. The long, winding, switchback path is usually quite deserted and thus allows hikers to be entranced by this ancient world. The sound of the wind blowing in this barren land and the beautiful colors of the mountain and desert really make for a spiritual experience. Despite being steep, the hiking route is very well maintained.
What can visitors expect here? Spectacular desert views illustrating hues of yellow, brown and salmon. Beyond the desert visitors can see the deep-blue color of the Dead Sea. The fortress was constructed by Herod the Great with the aim of building a settlement that would last forever. It was built as a refuge for Jewish people in the century of Jesus and was later used by Christian monks.
It was during the Great Revolt against the Romans, taking place less than 40 years after Jesus was crucified, when the history of Masada is most crucial. Jewish rebels took over Masada and when surrounded by the Roman army, the rebels took their own lives rather than become slaves. This act has made Masada a symbol of the human spirit’s need for freedom.
The Israel Nature and Parks Protection Authority has worked hard to protect the ruins here. Various sections of the ruins have been expertly restored and the brilliant colors of the frescoes of Herod’s cliff-hanging Northern Palace are excellent examples of that. The latest attraction is the world-class museum that displays life-size statues and paints a realistic picture of the last moments of the siege of Masada.
Other ancient sites in Israel allow glimpses into the Christian and Jewish past.
The main historical sites in the Galilee region include Mount Beatitudes, where Jesus gave his sermon on the mount. A beautiful church stands at this site with windows inscribed with the Beatitudes (in Latin); the outside walkway is full of flowers and boasts amazing views of the Sea of Galilee. This is not only a spiritual place, but a beautifully maintained piece of ancient history.
Capernaum, where Jesus established his ministry, is a very popular site for tourists and one I found very moving. This is where St. Peter lived and Jesus lodged. There are ruins here including the remains of a synagogue which dominate the complex.
Other sites include Tabgha, where Jesus multiplied the bread and the fish, and Yardenit, which sits on the Jordan River and where many to this day come to be baptized. I found this to be moving, that a site so steeped in ancient culture still beckons people today.
For history enthusiasts, Rosh Pina is well worth a visit. It’s one of the first Jewish settlements in the Galilee region when Galilee’s first Zionist pioneers came from Romania in search of their own homeland.
A full day should be spent in Nazareth, where Jesus spent his childhood. This city is neither small, nor quaint, but wonderfully alive with Israel’s largest Arab population. (Two-thirds of Nazareth’s population is Arab.) The old town has small, hidden alleyways, cobblestone streets and a lively population.
A highlight of Nazareth is the Church of the Annunciation: The largest church in the Middle East, it was consecrated in 1969. This is where Christians believe the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she would conceive and bear a son. The upstairs of the church is quite interesting — there are mosaics of Mary created by artists from around the world (Japan, U.S., Spain, Mexico and more) depicting the Madonna and Child in the way their country views her. From a historical and cultural perspective, I found this church to be one of the most impressive.
The Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel is located a block away and is built over the only natural hot spring in Nazareth. The hot spring is called "Mary’s Well" and it’s here that the Greek Orthodox believe the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary.
Two national parks worth visiting are located in the north of the country. Beit She’arim National Park has remnants of the ancient Jewish city of the same name. In the middle of the city are the remains of a large synagogue and a graveyard, 100 burial caves hewn on different levels.
Another is Hamat Tiberias National Park, which has its own museum. The site was first built during the Hellenistic age and then developed as a bath complex during the Turkish period. The museum exhibits the history of the baths, which are based on the 17 hot springs that feed the nearby modern Hamei Tiberias. The ruins of pre-Hellenistic Tverya were discovered nearby.
In Bethlehem, one of the most popular attractions is the Church of the Nativity, the place Christians believe Jesus was born. The church was originally built in the 4th century and, between 1165 and 1169, the Crusaders captured the church and it underwent a major restoration project. It’s the oldest church in the Holy Land and attracts Christians from around the world.
Of course it’s impossible to visit Israel without several days in Jerusalem. There are so many cultural, religious and historical sites that date back to ancient times. Visitors should start their tour with an overview of the city from the Mount of Olives. Proceed to the Western Wall Tunnel, the original Western Wall of Herod’s Temple Mount over which the Jerusalem of later eras was constructed. Visitors can walk along 1,445 feet of the original, enormous 2,000-year-old Herodian stones, and see the lofty Warren’s Gate.
Ancient sites dating back to the time of Jesus make Jerusalem must-see for Christian tours. The Christian Quarter alone houses approximately 40 religious buildings, and one of the most prominent and most visited sites in the quarter is the Via Dolorosa, the "Way of Sorrows." This was thought to be Jesus’ final path, which according to Christian tradition led from the courthouse to Golgotha Hill, where he was crucified and buried. Many pilgrims come to Jerusalem to follow Jesus’ footsteps along a route that starts in the Muslim Quarter, at Lions’ Gate, and passes the 14 Stations of the Cross, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Several of the most important Christian relics are housed in this church, including the anointing stone (on which Jesus’ body was laid before his burial) and Jesus’ grave. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a pilgrimage site for millions of Christians from all over the world.