In the past five years, our travels have taken us to many captivating destinations, each offering its own unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. Among them, one journey stands out as particularly profound—the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Immersed in the heart of Israel, our exploration spanned the ancient streets of Tel Aviv, the sacred sites of Jerusalem, the hallowed grounds of Bethlehem, fleeting moments in Nazareth, and the serene shores of Tiberias around the mystical Sea of Galilee. Eight days in the land where faith intertwines with history left an indelible mark on our souls.
Enduring the lengthy flight, we intertwined layovers in Amsterdam and days in Istanbul, Turkey, enriching our journey with diverse experiences. Delving deeper than ever before, meticulous research punctuated our preparations, blending logistical arrangements with a rekindling of cherished biblical narratives. Both nurtured in the embrace of the church, my husband and I found ourselves drawn closer to the essence of our faith as we meticulously planned this trip. The realization of witnessing the very landscapes immortalized in scripture was surreal – a complexity of logistics met with an abundance of spiritual fulfillment.
Check out our post on how to spend a short layover in Amsterdam!
Stop 1: Tel Aviv
Our journey began at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv at an early 3:00 AM local time on a Wednesday, following a transcontinental voyage that began in Chicago on a Monday at 4:30 PM. Despite stealing a few hours of rest during the flight and briefly exploring Amsterdam during a layover, the transition remained a blur as we boarded yet another flight. Acknowledging the inevitable jet lag, we anticipated our first day in Tel Aviv to be a haze, a necessary respite prior to our sacred pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
By midday, around 12:00 PM, we found ourselves rested and ready to explore Tel Aviv. We were eager to immerse ourselves in Israeli culture, particularly through its cuisine. Amidst the myriad of flavors, it was here that my husband discovered his newfound affection for Shakshuka—a tantalizing tomato-based dish adorned with peppers, paprika, and delicately poached eggs. Our culinary journey also introduced us to the vibrant spices and freshness of Israeli salads and the savory delights of doner kebabs, setting a delectable tone for the adventures that lay ahead.
Stop 2: Jerusalem of the Holy Land Exploration
Arrival Day: Day 0 in Jerusalem
Opting for a rental car to explore beyond Tel Aviv, we headed to Jerusalem, knowing we’d visit multiple places. But as we neared the city, we hit heavy traffic. Arriving at our Airbnb around 3:00 PM, we found a major water leak in the main family room. Despite trying to contact the owner, we couldn’t reach them, so we contacted Airbnb for help. With the place uninhabitable due to the water damage, we quickly found another hotel. It added some stress to our day, but the new hotel was safe, clean, and offered free parking—a rarity in Jerusalem where parking can be a challenge, requiring either distant lots or regular meter feeding.
Exploration Begins: Day 1 in Jerusalem
On our first day in Jerusalem, our itinerary was packed with iconic destinations. To acclimate to the city and to see as much as possible we booked a guided tour through Viator. The agenda consisted of:
- Old Jerusalem and Bethlehem
- Mount of Olives
- Western (Wailing) Wall and site of the Crucifixion (Church of the Holy Sepulchre)
- King David’s Tomb – the site of the last supper
- Old City of Jerusalem
- Scenes of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Given the breadth of our ambitions, we opted for a guided tour to gain insights from a local expert. This decision proved invaluable as it provided us with a comprehensive overview of the region, allowing us to prioritize our interests for future explorations. The full-day tour was a worthwhile investment, offering a structured introduction to the sacred sites and historical landmarks. For those considering such tours, I recommend signing up for Viator.com’s email club; a little patience might just yield a money-saving coupon, adding further value to an already enriching experience.
Exploration Continues: Day 2 in Jerusalem
The rest of our time in Jerusalem was filled with further exploration. We spent one day traveling to Masada National Park and swimming in the Dead Sea. When researching Dead Sea locations, be mindful of hours and seasonality. Based on our research and recommendations from our hotel concierge we visited Kalia Beach. I recommend tackling both locations in one long day. Start your day early to allow an appropriate time. It will take you approximately an hour and a half to get to Masada and then on the way home, you can indulge in the spa of the Dead Sea at Kalia Beach.
- Book tickets in advance.
- Parking is plentiful, but you will encounter several tour buses.
- Food and beverage are available.
- Plan to visit during daylight hours.
- Wear sturdy shoes. The Masada campus is uneven.
- Plan for a 3-hour visit if you take the tram. If you plan to hike up to Masada plan for 5 hours.
- The visitor’s center is ADA accessible, the Masada itself is not.
- Visit during daylight hours
- Parking is plentiful, but you will encounter several tour buses
- Book tickets in advance
- Food and beverage are available
- Showers and lockers and changing rooms are available
- Plan for a 2-hour visit.
- ADA accessible
Exploring Jerusalem: Day 3
Our day commenced at the serene Garden Tomb, offering a serene vista despite its proximity to a bustling bus depot. From there, we navigated the labyrinthine alleys of the Old City, retracing the footsteps of history along the Via Dolorosa, and eventually arriving at the revered Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount. Notably, the Old City, spanning a mere half square mile, is divided into distinct quarters—Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish—each bearing its own cultural and historical significance. For independent explorers, a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall is paramount when traversing the Old City’s storied streets.
Continuing our pilgrimage, we ventured to the Grotto of Gethsemane, the final Tomb of the Virgin Mary, and the tranquil Garden of Gethsemane, all nestled within a quarter-mile radius. The entirety of our Old City odyssey consumed approximately five hours, leaving us just enough time to return to our hotel for a brief respite and to attend to practicalities such as laundry—a crucial component of longer journeys. Laundry on longer trips is highlights on our post about travel tips.
Stop 3: Pulling into Nazareth
Embarking on the journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth, we anticipated a scenic road trip through the diverse landscapes of Israel. However, reality didn’t quite match our expectations. With a projected two-hour drive ahead, we soon realized that much of the route were long stretches of highway, offering little in the way of captivating scenery. Rather than encountering bustling shopping malls or inviting restaurants along the way, the landscape was punctuated by modest highway pull-offs, often featuring no more than a gas station and the occasional diner, whose hours of operation remained uncertain. It was unclear if many were even operational. If considering a pit stop, exercise caution, as amenities may be limited. I recommend postpone dining until reaching Nazareth.
Our rationale for visiting Nazareth was to tour the Basilica of the Annunciation. This is where the angel appeared to Mary. The Basilica was beautiful and definitely worth the trip to Nazareth. After grabbing a coffee and darting under shop awnings due to extreme downpour, we made our way to Tiberias.
We arrived in Tiberias, and I highly recommend our hotel, the Royal Hotel Tiberias. The hotel was under renovation when we stayed in 2019 and appears to be fully remodeled. The hotel was highly rated and was primarily used as tour bus stop with available meal plan. I recommend getting the meal plan for breakfast and dinner. The buffet has a variety of options, local favorites and flavors from other areas in the world. Restaurants are not plentiful in Tiberias and the meal plan allows you to focus on your purpose of the visit, the Holy Land sites.
A Full Day of Holy Land Sites in Tiberias
We had one day to explore the entire Tiberias area and definitely made the most of it. All sites require a car. Public transportation is not available. We visited:
- Capernaum National Park known as the “Town of Jesus”
- Bethsaida, the birthplace of apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip
- Tabgha, where Jesus fed 5,000 people
- Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, where Jesus exorcised demons from two possessed men
- Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount
- The place of Jesus’ Baptism on the River Jordan. For this site, you will literally stop on the side of the highway to view the Jordan River.
Wrapping Up the Holy Land Exploration
On our final day in Israel, we traveled from Tiberias back to the Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport. The drive was an uneventful two hours. You will travel on the highway and there are not any significant sites to see along the way. We left Tiberias five hours prior to our flight to allow for a lunch stop, rental car drop-off, and time to relax prior to catching our flight. For our return leg, we stopped in Istanbul for three nights and also did a day Viator trip to Ephesus. Our Holy Land exploration trip was more than we could have imagined and encourage everyone to take this trip.
Overall Holy Land Recommendations
- Research extensively and prioritize sites for this trip. There is so much to see, and you will not have time to visit every site.
- Recommend 8-9 nights in the Holy Land.
- Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Tiberias are must-see areas for Holy Land trips.
- Masada is a stunning historical phenomenon; however, you will need to dedicate a day to the visit.
- The Dead Sea is a unique experience but is not ideal for the elderly or anyone with mobility concerns.
- Overall, the Holy Land is not ADA accessible. Streets are uneven, steps and hills are plentiful, and in areas like Jerusalem, it is impossible to park next to attractions.
- Accommodations outside of Tel Aviv are quite different than US flag hotels. Unless you are prepared to spend $600 per night, expect older, worn hotels with limited amenities.
- Food varieties are limited. Hummus, falafel, doner, and a variety of salads will be your primary diet.
To best prepare for this trip, check out my blog post 6 Crucial Tips for Traveling Internationally.