How to discover the best of Israel – a hip and holy land

With trendy cities, historical sights and beautiful wilderness areas, this Middle Eastern country is a surprising delight, says Sophie Goodall

A Middle Eastern country lapped by the Mediterranean Sea, Israel is a country with two very different personalities. In Tel Aviv, hip young people pose on the beachfront and street artists decorate city walls; Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the beating heart of a biblical Holy Land.

Although still closed to Irish citizens, the country has now opened to UK travellers. Here’s what you can expect, if you’re hoping to plan a trip.

Get to grips with street art in Florentin

This bohemian neighbourhood is home to many of Tel Aviv’s most famous visual artists and is known for its abundance of graffiti. The sides of concrete buildings play host to important messages communicated by street art, which feels appropriate, given the tensions that besiege the country.

Weave your way down dingy alleyways and tiny side streets, past grey walls splashed with yellow, blue and pink artwork, and meet artists who are setting up their own creative spaces. Then relax in one of the area’s many courtyards shaded by trees, and enjoy traditional Israeli treat, malabi – a silky, smooth milk pudding.

Go back in time to Jaffa

An ancient port, Jaffa is the oldest part of Tel Aviv. It’s a wonderful place to amble through at a relaxed pace, eyeing up shops brimming with Israeli gold, or finding bargains in the local flea market. Stop for lunch at tiny food outlet, Hummus Elijah, where the chef brings out bowls of creamy hummus, spiced falafel, tangy shakshuka, soft and pillowy flatbreads and lemony mashawsha. Heavily influenced by its neighbouring countries – Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen – Israeli food is a heavenly feast.

Find solitude in the Judean Desert

A short distance from Tel Aviv, this wilderness area is a sacred world of yellow rock and sandstone. Squeeze into a cable car and ascend a tall cliff face to Masada, an ancient fortress built by King Herod, which served to act as a garrison to protect the spice road to Asia. Built in 73AD, Masada is now a Unesco World Heritage Centre, but it’s not just for history buffs; it’s a beautiful location, and gives impressive views for miles over the Dead Sea, and all the way to the Jordanian mountains.

After leaving Masada, travel by 4WD to the centre of the Judean Desert, bumping and jolting over rocky terrain and racing past large salt formations until you reach a plateau. Some say it’s the most peaceful place in the whole of Israel, a place to seek out sanctuary. It’s difficult to feel anything other than peace, when surrounded by such vast emptiness and beauty.

Cool off in the Dead Sea

A cavernous salt lake and the lowest elevation on Earth, the Dead Sea has a saline content so high, it stops plant and marine life from flourishing. However, combined with the sulphur-scented clay from the banks, scooped up in large handfuls and slathered on bodies, it is said to have healing properties for the skin. Wade into the warm water and lay flat on your back, floating effortlessly.

Say prayers in a holy place

The heart of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, Jerusalem is a picture-book perfect biblical city, where it’s easy to visualise the famous religious stories. Courtyards are built with ancient stone walls, brimming with dark green shrubs and olive trees. Everything here must be constructed in pink, white, and yellow Jerusalem stone.

Walk past lemon trees and stone walls draped in bouquets of lilac wisteria and cerise bougainvillaea. The gorgeous, heady scents of lavender and herbs fill the air at Jaffa Gate, one of the entrances that leads into the walls of the old city. The area is home to many religious sites, such as Temple Mount, Church Of The Holy Sepulchre, Via Dolorosa and the Church Of The Condemnation.

And enjoy some sinful treats

For food, the Mahane Yehuda market is a must visit. Troughs of black dates, golden sweet apricots and nuts sit alongside silver urns containing Tunisian rosebuds and white jasmine tea. Trays of freshly baked tarts and pastries encrusted with crystallised fruits and honey, compete with baklava brimming with lime green pistachio nuts.

But for an evening meal, The Eucalyptus is a good choice. Waiters bring out endless platters of rosemary focaccia, Jerusalem artichoke soup and glasses of hibiscus tea. Moshe Basson, the chef and owner, wanders around the dining area, proffering fresh herbs for customers to taste, picked from his kitchen garden.

Jerusalem is a hub of sensuality, from it’s visually beautiful and well-maintained courtyards, to the sound of prayer and floral scents that fill the air. Just like Israel itself, there is so much beauty to discover.

How to plan your trip

A three-night stay at the Prima City Hotel ( costs £386pp (two sharing), room only, including flights from London Luton to Tel Aviv.