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Visitors to Israel concentrating on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem often only see historic Tiberias on quick day trips through the Galilee and Golan Heights. That is how I first saw Tiberias many years ago; however, I found that I wanted to spend more time there and returned to explore the area further.
The town’s name is said to have come from Tiberias Caesar, a patron during the Roman era, when much of the city was built by King Herod Antipas. Another potential source of its name is the Hebrew word tabor, or bellybutton, a reference to its role as a center of the ancient world.
Spending time in Tiberias, I also discovered the variety the city offered and its ancient archeological heritage. Even the tourism information center is built into what was once a Crusader fortress, its grounds full of Roman ruins. Tourism in Tiberias appeals to a variety of market niches, marked by high- and low-end travelers, both local and international. Religious and historical tourism are also popular in the city.
I stayed at the Scots Hotel, run by the Church of Scotland, and the city’s only non-Kosher hotel. This historical complex was once a hospital, and locals of a certain age will tell you that they were born here. It has a Victorian central building, surrounded by several Ottoman mansions, once belonging to the doctors, and a new wing. The gardens are set among Roman ruins, all with a view of the Galilee. A new spa is under construction in one of the outer buildings.
Other hotels include funky 1970’s megastructures equipped with spas, such as the Leonardo hotels, their grounds adjacent to some of the city’s main archeological sites. Many of the rooms have incredible waterfront views. The Shirat Hayam, a new waterfront boutique hotel, also recently opened in a renovated Ottoman mansion. Its name is Hebrew for “lyric of the sea.”
The waterfront is Tiberias’ focal point. Its promenade is lined with restaurants serving fish caught from the Galilee. A mix of locals and tourists flock here, especially in the evening. Among the best known restaurants is Decks, which is located on a long pier that stretches over the sea. The servers bring out heaving trays of mezzes and other appetizers and finally, the local specialty, St. Peter’s Fish, sliced open, grilled over charcoal and deliciously spiced.
From the pier, you can see tour boats docked nearby such as the Jesus Boat from Holy Land Sailing, a replica of boats from 2,000 years ago, along with other biblical-style boats. Another waterfront activity is the Galilee Experience, a light and movie spectacle that includes more than 4,000 years of history in a variety of languages inside of a large shop filled with interesting handmade souvenirs and other objects.
Hayarkon Street, which leads from downtown to the waterfront, also has many vendors selling souvenirs and other crafts. Crowds gather at night for the Tiberium light show on the waterfront.
A center for religious tourism, Tiberias also offers a large number of churches, synagogues and other Jewish sites, including in the Hamat Tiberias National Park, famous for its impressive mosaics. Several mosques are also located throughout the city. One of my favorite churches to visit shares the same name as my new favorite fish: St. Peter’s. The historic church is adorned with simple golden mosaics and also has a guesthouse. The grounds contain a monument to the Polish Army, which stayed protected here during World War II in exile under German occupation.
Another religious highlight for me was visiting one of the most important Jewish pilgrimage sites in Israel — the Shrine of Maimonides, known locally as Rambam. I found the prayer site busy no matter the time of the day. Even on the rainy day I visited, there were crowds.
Still, staying overnight was not enough time. I would have liked to have visited nearby Safed with its crowded markets, art galleries and tiny synagogues. There are also biking trails surrounding the Sea of Galilee and both the Jesus Trail and the Gospel Trail, which retrace the routes biblical characters took within the region. There is much to tempt me on my next trip.
Where to Stay:
West, All Suite Hotel, Tel AvivOpened in 2011, Tamares’ new West, All Suite Hotel is on Tel Aviv’s coastline, along the shores of the exclusive Tzuk Beach. Located near the commercial and business centers of Ramat Aviv and Ramat Hachayal, the 65-suite hotel uniquely blends city and sea for relaxation and convenience. Every room is styled as a suite, offering a private balcony with full or partial sea views and guests receive access to amenities such as bicycle rentals, a swimming pool and unlimited entry to Tzuk Beach. www.tamareshotels.co.il
Ritz-Carlton, HerzliyaDue to open in 2012, this 12-story property will feature a Ritz-Carlton hotel, while the top six floors will serve as Residences, which owners can enjoy for up to six months a year (and rent out for the rest of the year). Located north of Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean Coast, the city of Herzliya is centrally located and within easy access of Israel’s major destinations, making it convenient for both leisure travelers and long-term Residence owners. Both guests and owners can enjoy the rooftop pool, Ritz-Carlton Spa, fitness center, business center and more. www.rcr-herzliya.com
King David Hotel JerusalemBuilt in the 1920s, the King David Hotel has become a landmark in the city of Jerusalem, hosting world leaders, artists and celebrities. The hotel is within walking distance of the Old City as well as Jerusalem’s new Light Rail, and features views of the city’s scenic walls, minarets and domes. With 233 guestrooms and suites, as well as lawns, gardens, a pool area, a fitness center and a spa, the King David offers leisure amenities and easy access to the attractions of Israel’s capital city. www.danhotels.com
Qasr el Yahud, River JordanKnown since the fourth century as the site of Jesus’ baptism, the Qasr el Yahud site on the River Jordan is considered the third most important site for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land (after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem). Due to the importance of the site, Israel recently completed $2.3 million in renovations to improve the spiritual and physical experience for tourists and pilgrims. Upgrades to the site include wooden ramps into the Jordan River, shaded areas for prayer and wheelchair accessibility. The site, which is also considered to be the place where the Children of Israel crossed the River Jordan when they entered Canaan, is now open daily to the public and is free of charge. www.goisrael.com
Monasteries in the Judean DesertDesert monasteries began appearing in fourth-century Egypt, with Byzantine monks who sought a return to simplicity and emulation of the prophets Jesus and John the Baptist. Visitors can see a number of these sites in the Judean Desert, including the fifth century Martyrius Monastery, which contains remains of colorful mosaics and an ancient guesthouse; St. George’s Monastery, which is accessed by a recently rebuilt 1,500-year-old road carved out of the rock face; the picturesque Deir Hajla, with shaded courtyard picnic tables; and sixth-century Mar Elias, featuring the preserved remains of St. Saba and dramatic views of Bethlehem, Herodian and the surrounding wilderness. www.goisrael.com
Tachana Entertainment ComplexThe historic Tel Aviv-Jaffa train station underwent a 10-year restoration project, completed in 2010, that transformed it into a 49-acre entertainment and leisure center. Visitors to the complex can explore more than 20 historic buildings, including the old train station, a freight terminal, an 18th-century Arab-style Red House and German Templar Wielands’ family home. In addition, the complex features a variety of stores, restaurants, cafes and bars, many of which host special events throughout the year, such as art exhibitions and performances for families and children. www.hatachana.co.il
Bahai Shrine and Gardens, HaifaThough Israel is certainly known for its Judeo-Christian attractions, one might be surprised to learn that Haifa is the international headquarters for the Bahai faith. The shrine, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, began as a religious tomb in 1909, was enlarged in 1953 and was restored in recent years. Now a major tourist attraction, the shrine features a golden dome and has nine sides to represent the nine major religions of the world. Beautiful gardens surround the shrine, extending over 19 terraces with unique features such as the sculpted topiary of the Persian Gardens, the breathtaking Hanging Gardens and the Al Bahaja gardens, which are the most holy site for members of the Bahai faith. www.goisrael.com
Masada, Judean DesertOverlooking the Dead Sea, Masada is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built as a palace complex by Herod the Great, King of Judaea, Masada is a symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, its violent destruction and the last stand of the Jewish patriots against the Roman army in 73 A.D. Visitors can see the camps, fortifications and attack ramp that encircle the monument and make it the most complete Roman siege site surviving to the present day. Also of interest is the new museum in Masada National Park, which displays some of the most precious finds of past excavations. The site also boasts magnificent views of the surrounding landscape, making it a worthwhile stop for its many historical, cultural and natural values. www.goisrael.com
Mt. HermonThe highest point in Israel, Mt. Hermon provides outdoor activity options all year long. In winter, Mt. Hermon is Israel’s only skiing site, where visitors can enjoy the slopes, ride a cable car up the mountain, race down it on sleds or simply play in the snow. When snow is scarce in warmer months, visitors can hike the hills and take pleasure in an abundance of flowers and birds not visible anywhere else in the area. Guided tours of the region are also available, as well as other a number of other activities. www.goisrael.com
New and Noteworthy:
Kensington Tours Offers Customizable ItinerariesKensington Tours has introduced a collection of customizable and themed tours throughout Israel, from spiritual pilgrimages to culinary encounters, heritage journeys and active outdoor adventures. Each tour is custom tailored for the group and includes an expert private guide, driver and hotels.
“Your tour focuses on the highlights that are most important to you and your private guide gives you the freedom to make the most of your time in Israel,” said Jeff Willner, CEO of Kensington Tours.
New itinerary options include the Jewish Heritage Tour, an Active Israel Adventure, the Vineyards and Visions culinary journey, a Christian Pilgrimage itinerary through biblical wonders, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Tour for families, the Classic Israel grand tour and a Catholic-centered tour called In the Footsteps of the Virgin Mary. www.kensingtontours.com
Tel Aviv Museum of Art Opens New WingLast November, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art opened its new Herta and Paul Amir building, which doubles the size of Israel’s largest contemporary art museum. The new building was designed by Preston Scott Cohen and is centered around a spiraling 87-foot-high atrium known as the “Lightfall,” providing some of the natural light found throughout the building. A selection of some 250 works by Israeli artists will be displayed in the Amir Building, creating the country’s largest permanent installation of Israeli art. www.tamuseum.com
Self-Guided MP3 Tours of JerusalemThe Jerusalem Development Authority has launched a new program for travelers to the Old City. Visitors can now take self-guided walking tours through the city’s historical, religious and cultural sites with the help of new JerusaleMP3 digital guides. Available in multiple languages, the digital tours include maps and written explanations, in addition to the multimedia audio and video tour. The tours can be operated from a smartphone or similar audio device, and are free for download online, helping enrich the touring experience of the Jewish Quarter, Via Dolorosa, Temple Mount and other popular sites. www.jerusalemp3.com
Carmel Forest Launches “Forester for a Day” ProgramLaunched by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), the new “Forester for a Day” program in Carmel Forest allows travelers to Israel to participate in the reforestation process. Participants assist park rangers in clearing underbrush, pruning trees and preparing fire breaks and forest paths in the Carmel Region. The program takes three hours and is available for groups of up to 150 in English, French, German, Spanish and Hebrew languages. Participants receive a hat, pin and certificate upon completion.
“The Carmel Forest restoration program combines voluntourism and eco-travel and will add some additional excitement for travelers arriving in Israel this year,” said Haim Gutin, Israel commissioner for tourism, North and South America. www.kkl.org./il
Second Annual International Opera Festival Begins in JuneIn June and September, Jerusalem will host its 2nd annual International Opera Festival, featuring a selection of opera, vocal and classical music concerts by world-renowned vocalists and musicians, performed around the Old City sites. Offerings will include Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Puccini’s “La Boheme,” the multi-media production “Pretty Woman Meets the Fifth Element” and the concert “Cantors and Tenors.”
“The festival is sure to create an extraordinary musical environment unlike any other,” said Haim Gutin, Israel commissioner for tourism, North and South America. www.jerusalem-culture.com
New International Airport to Open in 2014The Israel Ministry of Tourism has announced plans for a new international airport in Timna, set to open in late summer 2014. The $422 million airport, which is to be named after late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, will replace the existing airports in Ovda and Eilat. It will feature a state-of-the-art light rail to transport travelers to downtown Eilat, a mere 11 miles away, as well as long- and short-term overnight parking. The new facility is expected to spark a 300 percent increase in tourism to southern Israel. www.goisrael.com
Ben Shemen Forest Opens Bike TrailsActive travelers may want to make use of the 20 miles of new mountain bike trail that have recently been opened to the public in central Israel’s Ben Shemen Forest. Created by the Karen Kayemeth LeIsrael Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), the trails pass by an assortment of Second Temple period oil presses, for added sightseeing along the way. The new paths pave the way for an additional 19 miles of bike trails, set to be opened later this year. www.goisrael.com
Peter Paul Rubens ExhibitionThe Israel Museum in Jerusalem is featuring a new exhibition highlighting Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. The special exhibit, titled “Rubens, Venus and Adonis: Anatomy of a Tragedy,” debuted in January, and will be open until June 9. The display features Rubens most famous piece of work, The Death of Adonis, and examines its iconographic sources, composition and contribution to the development of Rubens’ unique style. Also on view are more than 25 drawings, sketches, paintings and prints by 17th century Flemish and Italian painters on the same theme. www.english.imjnet.org.il