"I could not conceive of a small country having so large a history." — Mark Twain, after his visit to the Holy Land, 1867
Israel is a small country with a big story. Of its many surprising facts, two things stand out.
Despite a complex political situation that seems to live in the headlines of international media, everyday life is astonishingly normal. As the most visited destination of the region known as the Holy Land, many imagine it to be locked in biblical times.
But there is a thrumming, modern and future-forward element that takes many visitors by surprise. It has the second-largest number of startup companies in the world (after the U.S.), with a youthful energy (the average age is 29.5) and cosmopolitan wealth that are often manifest in Tel Aviv, a kind of Miami Beach of the Middle East.
Outside the ancient crenelated walls encircling Old Jerusalem, an ongoing makeover focuses on the future in Israel's golden-stone capital: think wine bars, world-class museums, Calatravas' new Chords Bridge and a brand-new Waldorf Astoria, all enhancing a growing upmarket appeal.
Nightlife in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, which is Israel’s entertainment and cultural center.
Of Israel's average 3.5 million annual tourists, the U.S. accounts for approximately 622,000. If it feels like every one of them has converged in Old Jerusalem (roughly one square kilometer), you wouldn't be all wrong. Many of the country's best-known landmarks are here.
It is the only place in the world equally sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, whose numbers embrace half of the world's population. Christians follow in the footsteps of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa to the candlelit Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the spot where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried. Jews pray at the Western Wall, the most visible remnant of the Second Temple complex destroyed by Roman troops in 70 A.D. Muslim visitors head to the Haram esh-Sharif, the elevated Temple Mount plaza, dominated by the gold-top Dome of the Rock and the nearby Al-Aqsa mosque commemorating the Prophet Muhammad's mystical Night Journey — all within a short walk of each other.
Secular-minded Tel Aviv, an hour away from Jerusalem, is the country's cultural and entertainment center, a coastal bastion of easy-going contemporary life with seaside promenades and crowded bar lounges.
It is known as the "White City" for the central neighborhood where more than 1,000 original buildings were inspired by the post-World War I Bauhaus school of architecture, recognized by Unesco in 2003 as the largest such collection in the world.
The Church of All Nations is located on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, next to the Garden of Gethsemane.
For those with time to explore other parts of the country, here are some personal favorites: Caesarea, the coastal capital of Roman Judea and Byzantine-era Palestine; Masada, King Herod's mountaintop palace that still echoes with the Jewish rebellion against Rome; the neighboring Dead Sea for a good float; mountainous, sparsely populated Golan Heights for its natural beauty; the Galilee, for pastoral charm and mystical villages like Safed and Tiberias and the gemlike lake (or freshwater "sea") at its heart; the picturesque port city of Akko for its mosques, markets and Crusader ruins; and the Negev Desert, a vast place of solitude (including the enormous Ramon Crater) with its own subtle beauty that fills Israel's southern third.
Ancient Israel is nirvana for religious pilgrims, archaeology and history buffs. But as a tourism destination it is always re-creating itself, and since my introduction three decades ago, I have seen it change from one visit to the next.
Joe Yudin, a New Jersey native who has lived in Israel for 25 years, attributes it to the innovation that runs deep in Israeli society. "I specifically see a huge change in culinary and wine tourism. Twenty years ago you really had to look hard for a great meal and a superb Israeli wine."
Not so anymore, said Yudin. "There has been a huge upswing in quality restaurants and wineries as a result of Israelis returning home from long trips abroad and melding that experience with local, ancient traditions."
Yudin was also adamant regarding what he feels is the key to an exceptional visit to Israel: "It's simple: an extraordinary tour guide." Yudin's flourishing Israel-based company, Touring Israel, provides expert guides and premium custom tours (including the unconventional) for the experience of a lifetime.
Despite its limited perimeter, Yudin explained, Israel packs an abundance of topography, and the growing sector of adventure tourism is on the rise. "Today there are myriad professional options such as power gliding, balloon rides at dawn, nature hikes, mountain biking, camel treks, military boot camps, self-defense workshops and much more."
What remains clear to every visitor, with interests either sacred and profane, drawn to cities or nature: Israel is a place to renew the spirit. Upon reflection, travelers who return home find that the experience has changed them, in ways subtle and profound.