There’s two parts to the trip: North & South, both linking up at Tel Aviv. The last section discusses driving conditions/travel basics. Read more below although be warned that this post is a little long with lots of beautiful photos!
This road-trip, although possible with public buses, requires a car. You can rent a reasonable car for about a week for around $100 USD. More on driving at bottom.
Tel Aviv / Jaffa (2-3 days)
It's not always the most aesthetically pleasing city as you'll just have falling apart buildings randomly dispersed with really well kept up buildings, but it's a nice place to explore. Sometimes, it can be downright charming. You go to Tel Aviv for the beach, the nightlife, the food, and the culture.
Food: You must try Sabich, which is a sandwich made of eggplant, mango, onion, boiled eggs, and tahini. There's a huge debate over the best place to get it. Plan on having it in shekels as the best places often don't take credit cards.
Southern Road Trip
Beit Guvrin / Maresha National Park (1 day)
Ein Gedi/Dead Sea (1 day)
Don't make my mistakes: cover up ALL your cuts with waterproof bandages, don't get mud in your hair, and don't try to flip over. The salt water stings a lot and it will strip your hair.
Masada (Morning hike)
The fortress was built on Masada in about 30 B.C. and it was used to defend the Jews against the Romans. The 930 soldiers who defended this fortress committed suicide when they realized that the Romans would soon be upon them. It's incredibly well-preserved and touristy, but worth while.
Timna National Park (1 day)
Timna is absolutely stunning and you'll need the whole day to explore it properly. It's a National Park filled with oddly shaped rocks (like the Mushroom Rock, the Snail rock, Solomon's Pillars, and arches) with a heavy dose of history. The rock is full of copper and scientists estimate that mining/humans have been living in this area--and caving--since 930 B.C. You can even enter one of the oldest caves as well as crawl up an ancient Egyptian copper mining shaft to have an incredible view over the entire park. The hiking around Timna definitely surprised me. Definitely give yourself enough time to hike as some of the long hikes are up to 4 hours.
Eilat/Coral Beach National Preserve (1 day)
If you're in Eilat, you must go to Ashkara Grill. I was skeptical, but this is my favorite restaurant in Israel to date.
They have a special for under 5 euros where you can do ALL YOU CAN EAT Israeli Salads + Pita. Yes, all you can eat. They bring you about 20 different salads and as you eat them, they're replaced. Even with a tea and free baklava for dessert, we paid under 8 euros for both of us to feast, which meant that the staff actually started recognizing us because we came back for basically every meal in Eilat after discovering it.. The falafel is quite nice as well and it's all vegetarian.
We stayed at the Alpaca Farm outside of town, which has a little hammock on the porch of the cabin to make it easier to enjoy the stars. However, it was January and it was cold. The Alpaca Farm allows some of its alpacas to roam the farm at night freely. If you stay here, you can feed the alpacas in the morning. Book in advance as they have very few cabins!
Sde Boker/Ovdat National Park (1 day)
This past time, I struggled to find one until we pulled away only to see this grand-daddy ibex in the distance, so we pulled off the road and got out of the car. You can tell the age of a male ibex by how curled his horns are and this one had a very long beard/curled horns. Luckily, he didn't see to be too bothered by us taking photos, but in the distance, we saw little baby ibex running down the cliffs away from us as we quietly approached.
Something to keep in mind that these are WILD animals that are threatened, so if you're lucky enough to see an ibex (1,200 are suggested to be found in Israel!), be sure not to feed it, leave trash, or get too close.
Jerusalem (2-3 days)
I find the Western Wall so incredible that it's lasted so long (19 BCE!) and it humbles me every time that I visit it.
There are many holy sites in Jerusalem, so be aware that you may not be admitted if you dress inappropriately. If you're female, be sure to wear something that covers up your knees/elbows/collarbones/cleavage. I often carried around a scarf, light cardigan, and a longer skirt that I could throw on over my shorts whenever I wanted to enter a holy place or enter a neighborhood that was more religious that I could remove afterwards.
The Yad Vashem museum deeply moved me. It's hard to visit Israel and not recognize the impact of the Holocaust for the Jewish people as well as the founding of Israel. The museum itself has interesting architecture as well as many objects belonging to victims of the Shoah (the hebrew word for the Holocaust). You will need several hours to see the museum and admittedly, you might cry or not be in the mood to really sight-see after. I still recommend it. If your family is Jewish, you can search their very large recordbase for mentions of relatives that died in the Holocaust.
Northern Road Trip
More French Jews have been immigrating to Israel. Most of them have been going straight to Netanya, where most signs are in French and you can find some fantastic French food. The beach is absolutely stunning and everyone is out walking around/hanging out with their friends on Friday and Saturday nights. For anyone who speaks French, this place is a great place to practice with native speakers. You can find high quality French bakeries, creperies, and restaurants that mostly cater to locals and visiting French visitors.
Caesarea National Park (stop off)
The Aqueduct beach by there is very unique and worth visiting if you're a beach lover as you can swim close to the former aqueducts in the warm Mediterranean Sea.
Haifa/Carmel Mountain/Bahá'í Gardens (1 day)
Acco/Acre/Akko (1 day)
Safed/Tzfat (1 day) צְפַת
The artists flock to this little town, which means that you can get some beautiful religious objects, jewelry, and interesting modern art from artists from all over the world. You'll find many galleries in Safed and shopping at the galleries is definitely worthwhile.
On the way back to Tel Aviv: Nazareth & Tiberius
Note: I intentionally left out Golan Heights due to current warnings at time of writing from the US & Dutch State Departments regarding safety, but many Israelis live/work in this region.
Driving in Israel
Once you’re out of the cities, the driving is pretty straight forward. Prepare for a lot of roundabouts although they drive on the RIGHT side of the road. Road signs are in English, Hebrew, and Arabic although most street signs in cities are in Hebrew/English.
There’s one major toll road in Israel to be aware of: Route 6. You can take it for a short while for free close to Rahat, but if you’re on a budget or using a rental, avoid this road. You get tolled automatically using your radio antenna or license, so expect no toll booth and a bill later on. Avoiding this road will cost time.
Be aware that once you go into the desert, there will be NOTHING for miles. Stock up on gas in the big cities as you won’t have many options once you get south of Beer Sheva or north of Eilat. The Negev desert is beautiful, but in the case of a breakdown, it might be good to have an Israeli SIM card in case your phone isn’t working since my phone service wasn’t as reliable out in the desert. Similarly, go to the bathroom and find supermarkets/restaurants BEFORE you go into the desert as your options become quite limited very quickly.
Gas: A bit complicated. A lot of Israeli businesses have a strange thing about accepting some, but not other, foreign credit cards, so plan on paying in cash. If you can find a gas station, you will need to enter your license before getting gas. It’s often a good idea to ask the attendant inside to help as the steps were in Hebrew.
Parking wasn’t too difficult anywhere although we had to circle a bit in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Don’t follow other people’s awful decisions to park in the middle of a road, please.
English: Most people speak very good English. More often than not, Israelis that I've met had family in the US.
Money: I was a fan of Leumi Bank, which is located in most major Israeli cities and accepts many cards. You can even can take out your bills in dollars. (You might want to do this if you’re visiting Jordan.). I had a significant issue using my Maestro card, including at ATMs.
You’ll find ATMs pretty easily in most major cities and most restaurants/sites/shops will take Mastercard/Visa. However, it’s still good to have Shekels on you. The exchange rate was quite favorable although I felt like things overall cost what I’d expect them to cost in a cheap American city. Not terrible, but not super cheap either.
Music: The essential for ANY road trip. Luckily, Israel has a lot of radio stations that play Israeli OR Arabic music (as you get close to Jordan).