From the (occasionally) snow-capped mountains and green hills of the north, to the Red Sea coastal resort of Eilat in the south, with any number of landscapes in between, including forests, beaches, desert landscapes and black basalt rock, Israel is blessed with a biodiversity that outdoes many countries ten times its size. Israel is also stuffed full of vantage points to enjoy the aforementioned biodiversity, and so I thought I’d share some of my favourites with you. On each one I’ve provided a few things to look out for on the map. Enjoy:
Amir Kara Scenic Viewpoint – Galilee
There is no shortage of beauty spots on the so-called “Finger of the Galilee”. I particularly like this one because it’s quiet and relatively out of the way, and because you have a wide view over the entire valley below. It’s a 15-minute or so walk from the car park at the upper station of the Manara Cliffs recreation park. For the best view, come in the afternoon, when the sun is at your back.
1 – The hulk of Mount Hermon, the highest point in Israel, is hard to miss!
2 – Look north (to your left) and you’ll spot the village of Ghajar (pronounced rajar) in the middle of the valley. Ghajar is referred to as “the fish” because of its unusual shape (this is clearer when illuminated at night). This is an Alawite Muslim village (the only one in Israel), divided in two by the Lebanese-Israeli border, the residents of which often identify as Syrian.
3 – My grandfather was one of the founders of Kibbutz Dafna back in the 1930’s. There’s nothing special about it other than that, and they wouldn’t even let us in recently to show a guest around and show it off. Still, my grandfather founded a kibbutz!
4 – During the peak season of migration, birds flock to Hula Lake Park, using it as a sort of motorway service station. Attempts to drain the marshy land in the early years of the State of Israel had major repercussions, and in recent years preservation/reclamation of the site, the first nature reserve in Israel, has been stepped up. In season, the sunset tours here are a fantastic experience.
Mount Bental – Golan Heights
The dormant volcanoes known as Mt Bental and Mt Avital are the two highest peaks on the Golan Heights, and are instantly recognisable from far away. There’s no walking involved on this one, just some remarkable views out over huge swathes of Syria to one side (far enough away to be perfectly safe), and Israel to the other. To your north (left as you enter the site) you can see Mount Hermon, a cluster of peaks which serve as the highest point in Israel and Syria respectively, and one of the highest in Lebanon too. You can wander through the military bunkers here at the summit for a sense of what life was like for the soldiers (first Syrian, later Israeli) who served here. There is a 360° panorama from here, so any time guarantees a good view of somewhere. It’s the view over Syria that makes this viewpoint unique for me though, for which it is best to arrive in the afternoon.
1 – Same Mount Hermon, from a different angle. It says something about the dominance of it that it can be seen from so many places in the north.
2 – Quneitra is an abandoned city on the Israeli-Syrian border, currently held and controlled by the Syrian opposition rebel forces. The city was destroyed by Israel post-Yom Kippur War, and was left abandoned for 40 years by the Syrian government.
Louis Promenade, Haifa
An incredible view is guaranteed from here, right in the middle of Haifa. You’ll be overlooking the world-famous Baha’i Gardens, Haifa Bay, and on a clear day, from here too you’ll be able to see Mount Hermon! Best time to visit? Any time, day or night, the view is always spectacular.
1 – The grottoes of Rosh HaNikra, a beautiful network of sea-caves, accessible on foot, right on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Not clearly visible from the promenade, but the coastline is.
2 – The city of Acre (Akko in Hebrew) will however be clearly visible across the bay. Acre will be the subject of another blog post.
3 – The Baha’i Gardens are one of the most beautiful gardens anywhere in the world, not just in Israel. If you time your visit to the Promenade right, you can join one of the free guided tours of the site (times can be found here).
HaMasrek Nature Reserve – Jerusalem Hills
This one is a personal favourite. HaMasrek (literally: the comb) nature reserve is right by the village of Bet Meir (Shoeva Junction on the main road towards Jerusalem) and is in itself a pleasant walk through the pine forest which typifies this area. On the western side of the reserve is a stone viewing platform with benches which is my highlight. The sea, some 50km away, is visible on the horizon, as is everything south to Ashkelon and north past Tel Aviv, in short, half of Israel’s coastline. Undoubtedly morning is the best time to come here, so make it your first stop on the way in to Jerusalem. In the afternoon, there’s a haze caused by the sun which reduces visibility drastically (see photo).
- The urban sprawl on the coastline is the area known as the Tel Aviv Metropolitan Area, or Gush Dan in Hebrew. Gush Dan accounts for only 7% of the total area of Israel, but 42% of the country’s population lives here.
- The big city nearby to the north-west (your right) is Modi’in. It’s an entirely unremarkable modern city, but it’s the most recognisable place in the view.
- Just to the south of Ashkelon (your left), you’ll see the start of the hills in the area of Sha’ar HaNegev (the gateway of the Negev).
Austrian Hospice, Jerusalem
In days gone by, the roof of the Hospice was a secret known only to Jerusalemites, but that is no longer the case, so there is now a 5NIS (1GBP) charge to go up. It still feels like a secret though, because the structure itself is a non-descript building in the market area, on a corner of the Via Dolorosa. To get in, ring the doorbell and wait to be buzzed in. Stop on the corridors on the way up to see a veritable who’s who of famous visitors to the Hospice over the centuries from Bavarian princes to rock singer Nick Cave. Once on the roof, you’ll be almost face to face with the Temple Mount, easily identified by the golden Dome of the Rock. Coming from the silence of the hospice, you’ll be struck by the bustle and noise of the market below. Come either early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the day-trippers and have some peace and quiet to take in the view.
1 – Considering how immensely important it is, I’m constantly amazed by how low-key the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is. You’ll spot it by the two blue/grey domes straight ahead as you come out onto the roof.
2 – Nothing low-key about this. You won’t need help spotting the immense golden Dome of the Rock and silver dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a few hundred metres away. This is on the Temple Mount, one of the most contentious places in the world. Visits are possible, but personally I would discourage going up onto the flash-point site.
3 – The Tower of David, with the Israeli flag on top, marks the western-most point of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Masada – Judaean Desert
Hardly reinventing the wheel, the desert fortress of Masada is one of the most visited tourist sites in the country. There is a very good reason for that though, and it really couldn’t be left off the list. There is really only one way to experience Masada, and that’s at sunrise. During the day it’s too hot to climb, and the cable car is expensive. Plus if you do it all before sunrise, you’ll be back at the hostel in time for breakfast and you can comfortably be at the Dead Sea by 9am, before it’s too hot to go in.The early alarm-call and the 45 minute walk up the steep “Serpent’s Path” to the top of the fortress may be a shock to the system, but the first rays of the sun coming up over the Jordanian mountains and illuminating the Dead Sea will more than make up for it.
Har HaNegev Field School – Negev Desert
The Ramon Crater is some of nature’s finest work. At over 40km long, this is the largest national park in Israel, as well as a geologist’s dream. Once thought to have been caused by a volcanic eruption or even a meteor impact, today we know that it is actually a long-dried-up ocean bed, and therefore not technically a crater at all, but a “makhtesh”. From the back of the Field School, you have a commanding view, taking in all the varied colours in the usually dull yellowy-brown desert. The visitor’s centre in the nearby town of Mitzpe Ramon is also well worth a visit in order to better understand the geology and history of the place. Being in the middle of the desert, this place gets HOT, so avoid going in the middle of the day if possible.
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-The Wandering Jew-