People always talk about epic road trips around the US, but why not around a country full of incredible natural beauty, history, and modern cities? Luckily, Israel isn’t too big, so the road trip can be shorter. If you follow this trip, you’ll see Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, snorkel in the Red Sea, explore Roman ruins, swim in the Mediterranean Sea, explore old caves, hike in the Negev, see wild ibex, and experience the spiritual side of Israel.
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!
Although people often think of Israel has the holy land, it's a modern country where you can do so much, see so much, and hike a lot. The food is fantastic and people in general are really nice.
This is where Israel's major international airport is (Ben Gurion International Airport). This is typically the cheapest point of entry in Israel and if you're considering also visiting Jordan, you might save a lot of airfare money by flying to Tel Aviv.
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)
Tel Aviv is Israel's modern metropolis and where both parts of the road trip begin/end. Most of Israel's population lives in this area. In the center, you'll see many high-rises outpacing each other trying to get the best view of the beach. I found Tel Aviv to be relatively affordable in terms of food and sights, however hotels in the downtown Tel Aviv area were a little pricey ($100+ per night). You can save some money by staying in Jaffa and driving/biking/bussing it into central Tel Aviv.
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.
I really enjoyed exploring Shenkin, Allenby, and Bograshov St with all the shopping, bars, cafes, and bakeries, all open quite late. Even better, I loved the 1+1 drink specials at many of the cafes that allow you to get a FREE drink with any purchase of one drink before a certain time (typically 8pm). You'll need to look outside for a sign with "1+1". The nightlife is famous, with good reason, however it requires going out starting at Midnight. Things don't really get going until 1am, so expect a long night if you're planning on heading out.
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.
Closeby is the historic city of Jaffa. Although the two are close, it's a separate area that feels different although it's gentrifying rapidly. Modern Jaffa is quite hip and affordable. It's full of great bars, restaurants, and cozy little shops. I really liked the Noga area as well as the area around the Shaffa bar where we had dinner/drinks. Here's a fantastic guide by a local to make your trip worthwhile.
Southern Road Trip
Despite this trip covering most of Israel, the drive is not too long and absolutely stunning, especially once you get into the Negev desert. Surrounded by the Wadis, you'll see a million stars at night in between taking in lots of history and stunning natural beauty. It starts and ends in Tel Aviv.
Beit Guvrin / Maresha National Park (1 day)
About an hour from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Maresha was an important town around 550-250 B.C. The incredible part: people lived in houses with entire tunnels linking together their resources, including water and storage areas, underneath the city. These areas are completely impossible to see from above and I honestly, walked past an old ruin of a home saying it was time to go since we couldn’t find the main city of Maresha. Luckily, I found the large complex of tunnels/storage areas that are still being excavated.
Nearby, you can see the famous Bell Caves, which were used for excavating chalk. The caves, despite their beauty, are not naturally formed as the holes were used to help remove the chalk. Now, the only thing coming in and out of the caves are the friendly bats who live in the caves.
Amazingly, you can see yet another period of history: Greek graves from the 3rd century B.C. None of the caves are as elaborately painted as the Sidonian burial cave. There’s a strange inscription inside the cave that says, “I can neither suffer anything for you nor give you any pleasure. I lie with another, although I love you. But truly, by Aphrodite, I am exceedingly glad that your cloak lies as security. Don't knock on the wall. That makes noise. Rather [give a sign] through the door with a nod. Arranged!"
Ein Gedi/Dead Sea (1 day)
2 hours from Tel Aviv. Sure, it's touristy, but the Dead Sea is still awesome. I found it quite funny to people-watch there as kids threw mud at each other and everyone giggled in delight over floating so easily. Instead of spending all your money on a high-end spa, you can also go to less expensive Ein Gedi Public Beach. No joke, the Dead Sea is incredible for your skin!
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.
While you're there, visit the stunning Ein Gedi Nature Preserve for hiking, greenery, and animals in the Judean Desert. There are two streams that flow year-round in the Nature Reserve, which means that you can see some beautiful waterfalls. This area has been lived in for almost 5,000 years, so you'll see a range of historical sights from all different eras just while hiking. Plus, the view of the Dead Sea is absolutely stunning.
Masada (Morning hike)
It's close to Ein Gedi, however you'll need a couple hours to hike it. If you're not into hiking, you can take a cable car to the top to explore the incredible rock, the fortress ruins, and take in the view. It has an incredible view of the dead-sea, however the hike can be quite brutal in full-sunlight, which is why many people often start out early in the morning.
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)
2 hour drive from Masada through the Negev desert along the Jordanian border. 20-30 min from Eilat. Camping possible.
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)
Within the city of Eilat, which is a tourist mecca due to its location next to Egypt and Jordan, you can see the Red Sea. Better, you can swim in the Red Sea AND snorkel for about $10 USD. Run through the Israeli National Parks,this small preserve is meant to help people appreciate the beauty of the Red Sea without destroying it. The money you spend on admission will go back partially to help preserve the environment.
As soon as you walk over the water, you can see colorful fish swimming underneath. Once you get in the water, you're surrounded by schools of fish, coral, and colorful fish like the Picasso fish. (More about the strange fish that you'll see in the Red Sea here.) Even in January, it was warm enough that we could wear our bathing suits although it was COLD when we got out.
We stayed in the Sunset Motel, which was the single cheapest place I could find in Eilat for a private room. It has a nice little courtyard where you can sit outside in and it's walking distance from Ashkara.
Word to the wise: Avoid Eilat unless you're looking to spend a lot to spend time on the beach. Admittedly, it's quite stunning on the Red Sea, but it's quite touristy and reminds me a lot of the beach towns that my family would drive through in Florida. If you're into shopping, Eilat has a tax-free zone and quite a few malls. None of these things are anything that I get excited about, however I'd say it's worth driving to Eilat JUST to snorkel with the fish in the Red Sea and visit Egypt/Jordan. (More information about crossing from Israel to Jordan in this post.)
My favorite place in Israel. This was the reason that we ended up taking the trip, honestly. I don't have a good comparison for it, but it just takes my breath away EVERY single time. We got excited at the idea of seeing wild camels running around and it turns out that Camel Hill is a rock that looks like a Camel. Really. However, it overlooks the desert in a stunning spot where you can see the cliffs that the town is situated on as well as the Ramon Crater.
The best part about the Negev: there are no lights for miles. If you're into stargazing, there is an observatory here with good reason: I've never seen so many stars, even as we were only about 3 miles from the city. Although the options for accommodation are more limited, I would definitely recommend having one night out here in the desert to enjoy the stars. Plus, the drive is substantial enough that it's one of the few options you'll have while driving the Negev. For food, we really enjoyed the food at Hahavit, a neighborhood bar/restaurant with huge salads that gets packed with locals even on weeknights.
We stayed at the Alpaca Farm Hotel 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!
I really love alpacas although a few who didn't seem to hate us being so close to them. I admit, I totally went crazy over the pen of baby alpacas and and I got up around 8am just to spend 4 hours with the alpacas. It was glorious.
Sde Boker/Ovdat National Park (1 day)
I just feel at peace here. If you want to visit this stunning place, head to Midreshet Ben Gurion NOT Sde Boker itself (a mistake we made). Then follow the signs to Ben Gurion's grave, which is where the town drops off and nature begins. It's a bit abrupt, but absolutely stunning. This will be the last town for a while, so get gas/food while you're here.
The coolest part? Wild Ibex live out here in the wild. My first time visiting here, I saw so many ibex.
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.
Ein Avdat National Park is the to-go area to hike close to here as Midreshet Ben Gurion is more a look-out than a hiking area (it is cordoned off). You'll need to give yourself a few hours to do some of the trails.
Jerusalem (2-3 days)
The reason you came to Israel. Despite being one of Israel's most holy cities, it's also the second most populous. There's the old city (which is famously divided into four sections) where you can see the historic sites, then the rest of the city, which is more modern.
In the old city, you can get lost in little alleyways in the gorgeous old city before stuffing a note of some wishes you'd like to come true in the Western Wall (be sure to walk backwards as you leave!), bargaining in the Mahane Yahuda Market, see the stunning Holy Sepulture Church, and visit the Dome of the Rock. (Read more here about seeing the Jerusalem as I'm not doing it full-justice in this post!)
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.
In the newer parts of the city, you can go out with all the other young Israelis, smoke hookah at cafes, see the building where all Israeli government occurs (the Knesset), and the Yad Vashem museum on the Holocaust. If you're curious about seeing Shabbat as observed by Orthodox Jews, you can go to the Mea Shearim neighborhood. However, be sure to dress appropriately and be respectful.
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
Only 30 minutes north of Tel Aviv by car, Netanya feels like you've been transported back to Europe.
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)
45 minutes from Tel Aviv or 25 minutes from Netanya. The port city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea dates back to around 25 B.C. It has a colorful history with lots of ruins: palace ruins, one of the oldest well-preserved amphitheatres in the region, hippodrome, aqueducts, an obelisk, and remains of the port.
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)
Haifa is loved by every Israeli and visitor I've met. It's a modern city with lots of interesting neighborhoods/history, however it's known as the gateway to the North. It's a great city to stay in if you're looking to do day trips across the region and have a reasonably place to stay. The Bahá'í gardens are absolutely stunning and worth seeing, especially if you're Bahá'í. The gardens are actually free, however try to be respectful as this is a holy site in their faith. Mount Carmel is also nearby if you're looking for a nice hike. Read more about what to do in Haifa on Cory's inspiring blog!
Acco/Acre/Akko (1 day)
I loved getting lost in Acco. In addition to being a historic city, it's a real city that people live and work in despite it being one of the oldest cities in Israel that has been lived in by people continuously. Although Acco is a UNESCO World Heritage site recognized for its stunning medieval buildings, it has a fantastic market with friendly locals (and cats!). Be sure to try the Baklava.
Safed/Tzfat (1 day) צְפַת
Safed is such a stunning place. It's one of the spiritual holy cities in Israel and you feel it when you're there. People from all over the world seek out this tiny mountain town about an hour from Haifa in order to study Kabbalah there, see the work of the artists' colony based there, and see the blue architecture. You'll see a lot of blue accents on the buildings in Safed. Most of the walls aren't as blue, but it's still quite gorgeous. The reason for the blue is the Kabbalah links the color blue to Heaven. There's lots of little tiny alleys to wander down, which I always love.
If you visit, the Sephardic temple (Ha-Ari) dating back to the 1500s is worth a visit. Although you're likely to visit a couple historic synagogues (and churches) while in Israel, Sephardic temples have a very different layout and feeling to them compared to most Jewish temples. Unlike many Sephardic temples that are now museums, this one is still used. You'll see a lot of religious people while in Tzfat, so try not to stare if this is something you're not used to seeing! It can get quite cold in this region in winter.
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
I haven't spent much time here, but these are often essentials on anyone doing a religious road-trip across Israel. Nazareth is the town that Jesus is from and Tiberius is where he walked on water. I really enjoyedthe Wild Junket's post on Nazareth for anyone interested in exploring it and learning about the history.
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.
Israel Road Trip Advice
Tips for Driving in Israel
It’s a little crazy and you should be prepared for anything. Case in point, when I was in Tel Aviv, a van pulled up blocking the entire street, starting blaring Israeli trance music, and started dancing in the street while all the cars honked. Really.
In the cities, be prepared for honking, people parking in the middle of driving lanes, minimal turn signals, sudden turns, motorcycles using the sides as a road, and a lot of defensive driving. Jacob found the driving to be quite fun and strange at times.
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.
Gas Stations in Israel
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.
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 in Israel
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.
Summer is very hot and if you’re considering visiting in summer, the Negev can get as hot as 38 degrees C (or 100 degrees F). You can hike, but carry water on you. Basically everywhere will have AC, but it’s still hot and you can get heat stroke if you’re not careful. Winter is usually mild, however if you’re planning on visiting in December or January, bring a good coat as it can snow, especially in the North. Nowhere we stayed (on a budget) had a heater in the building, but one had a space heater close to the bed. Even in January, we had several days in Tel Aviv where no jacket was required (60 degrees F / 15 C) although we actually saw snow in Jerusalem about a week later.
ATMs in Israel
Most people speak very good English. More often than not, Israelis that I've met had family in the US. Russian is also fairly common.
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.
Do people speak English in Israel?
Safety in Israel
In light of recent events, we were cautious where we went in Israel. However, we felt safe the entire time, even as we drove next to the West Bank. As with any other country, there are standard problems that you'll encounter anywhere: scams, theft, and break-ins. Especially for Israel, it is very good to be aware of what is going on before/while you're there, areas where things have happened recently, and the travel advice of your country of areas to avoid. This can change very rapidly.
Would you want to visit Israel on a road trip?
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Karen & Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Then, Paris. (Confusing, we know!) Now, we're living in The Hague, the Netherlands.
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