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Israel packs an abundance of riches into its small perimeter. This amazing amalgam of cherished religious sites, plentiful archaeological treasures, and incomparable natural wonders has a history so long and dense that at every turn you feel the past in the present. Holy Land to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Israel emits a powerful spiritual aura: biblical place names — Galilee, the Judean Desert, Jerusalem — suddenly demythologize and come vibrantly alive. In Israel, too, you can tread white-sand Mediterranean beaches, explore wildflower valleys and haunting deserts, float on the Dead Sea, and dive along brilliant coral reefs. In the quiet of its holy shrines or on its sun-drenched hiking trails, Israel is a place to renew the spirit.
To most visitors Jerusalem means the Old City, its ancient walls embracing sites deeply sacred to three of the world's great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Even nonbelievers can't help but feel a palpable spiritual presence here, where history, faiths, and cultures commingle as perhaps nowhere else. No Jewish shrine is holier than the Western Wall, the remains of the Second Temple, whose stones vibrate with prayers uttered by centuries’ worth of pilgrims. Nearby, on the Temple Mount, also known as the Haram Esh-Sharif, stands the Dome of the Rock, a dazzling gold-topped sanctuary. It was built over a site Muslims venerate, the rock from which the prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven. Northwest of the Temple Mount, the Muslim Quarter merges into the Christian at the Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus walked to Calvary carryinghis heavy cross, a journey often reenacted by the devout. At the end of the route stands the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the most hallowed site in Christianity.
Whether you’re inside the walls of the Old City or outside them in the “New City,” Jerusalem ricochets you back and forth, from the archaic and religion-bound to the modern and worldly. Near the city center, for example, is the Mea She’arim quarter, an ultraorthodox Jewish enclave with the feel of an Eastern European Jewish village. Dressed and coifed according to sect, residents here live as if nothing has changed in centuries. Yet not far away you’re jolted back into the present by the teeming, thoroughly secular pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda Street, lined with jewelry and souvenir shops and sidewalk cafés, where you can sit back and take in the night scene. It’s sure to include packs of young Israeli soldiers and the occasional street performer. In contrast, the Old City takes you back in time again, with its ancient stone alleyways and arches. When you enter the Muslim Quarter through the Damascus Gate, be prepared to leave any notion of personal space behind. The streets here are very narrow and crowded with travelers, pilgrims, and vendors of everything from fresh produce and pastries to Bedouin caftans and videocassettes. This is the souq, with its sometimes overwhelming sensory stimulation: the thunder of a wheelbarrow careening along the pavement; the intense colors and smells of spices like turmeric and fenugreek; the strong scent of fresh mint, wafted by women hoping to entice a sale; the blare of Arabic music; the Babel of languages; and all manner of garb. As an antidote to this brilliance and tumult, visit the serene synagogue of the Hadassah Hospital and watch the light stream through its 12 stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall. Or wander among the splendid exhibits of Israel Museum, which houses an extensive Judaica collection and some of the region’s richest archaeological finds, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. More sobering is the Yad Vashem Memorial, which commemorates the victims of one of the most horrific events of all-too-recent history, the Holocaust. This is Jerusalem: a heady mix of profound sensations both worldly and emotional to which no one can remain indifferent.
Less than a century old, Tel Aviv is Israel’s economic and cultural nerve-center, representing the country’s fast-moving present and future. Hugging the Mediterranean are the beautiful Tel Aviv beaches and a long seaside promenade. Hayorkan Street is vibrant with clubs and cafe[ac]s, and people-watching is a major pastime. The city’s energy buzzes at the outdoor Carmel Market where crowds jostle in search of knickknacks and fresh produce: it’s a great place to see savvy Tel Avivians shop. Nightlife? If, like the locals, you want to party till the wee hours, nap in late afternoon to prepare for the throbbing post-sundown scene. Quieter cultural diversions also await you, and Tel Aviv is rightly proud of them, including the Israel Philharmonic and the up-and-coming New Israeli Opera, resident at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. Still older venues call; visitors and natives alike are inescapably drawn to Jaffa. This ancient port city, now annexed to Tel Aviv, dates from at least biblical times. Among its charms are the 1906 clock tower, the El-Mahmoudiye Mosque, and a bustling flea market. A walk through the hilltop section of restored Old Jaffa, with its galleries and cafés set amid reconstructed ruins, is a must; come in the evening for a waterside dinner and sweeping views of Tel Aviv.