Offbeat destinations in Israel
Israel is one of the most diversified spots on earth. Desert fortifications, weird waters of the Dead Sea or hills made of salt say it all for nature lovers. For those traveling to rub shoulders with locals, instead, deep glimpses into Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as unexplored ethnic minorities and utopian settlements, will blend into a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Finally, the Middle Eastern cuisine combined with exceptional hospitality is one more reason to put Israel on your bucket list, and even plant-based travelers are not going to miss out on local delicacies. Going around? Whether you decide to rent a car, use public transport, sheruts (shared taxis) or hitchhike, you’re going to reach your destination with no trouble.
Akhzivland – Anarchy inside Israel
Usually referred to as the most peaceful nation of the Middle East and an anarchic-hippy retreat, this micronation founded by a sailor, Eli Avivi, is a proof that an absolute freedom exist and you don’t need to put up with your government if you don’t want to. Although initially charged with a crime of “Creation of a Country Without Permission,” Eli was eventually granted a 99 years’ lease of the land after everybody had realized such a crime did not exist. The First Couple offers a chat, accommodation and a museum of eccentricities collected from all over the world during Eli’s life as a sailor. (Eli’s current condition makes communication with him rather difficult; however Rina, his wife, will be there to chime you with their jaw-dropping tales.) You can read my coverage and interview with Rina here: Country in Israel: What happened with Akhzivland? (Tribute to Rina)
Amirim – Vegetarian dream
The village was set up back in the 50s with the aim of promoting plant-based, peaceful and inspiring life. Although some residents sneak some meat into the village, you’re not able to buy any animal products from the local store. However, the menus at Amirim’s eateries run both vegan and milk-based options. Friday is the best day to show up, as the local ‘Roman’ theater with a marvelous view over the Sea of Galilee hosts atmospheric concerts. This is also a good chance to meet the extraordinarily hospitable locals and try some couchsurfing. Many of the villagers are activists and artists, hence the initial impression of sluggishness couldn’t be more misleading.
Majdal Shams – Peaceful bite of Syria
Majdal Shams is home to a Druze community north of the Golan Heights. Since the Six-Day War in 1967, the village has been under Israeli control. The Druze people are famous for their non-violence attitudes and unspeakable kindness. Hence, be prepared for a flood of smiles, invites, liters of coffee and any other acts of sheer altruism. The town’s most peculiar attraction is the Shouting Hill, featured in the award-winning 2004 movie “The Syrian Bride.” Druze families separated by the Israeli-Syrian conflict used to communicate with relatives and friends through megaphones assembled on opposite sides of a UN-controlled ravine.
Right next to the southwestern part of the Dead Sea, there is an ever-growing hill made almost entirely of salt. The 720 ft mount, crowned by polished limestone, has been sitting in the Judean Desert for hundreds of thousands of years, getting measurably taller and taller every year. If you’re familiar with the eerie biblical account of ‘“Lot’s wife,” one of the pillars separated is believed to be the wife herself punished for looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah being torn into pieces by God’s rage. The evocative hike requires a hat, sunblock and a few liters’ supply of water per person. Although the hill is not very high, it’s five miles long and three miles wide with little chance for shade.
Masada – Palace on the desert
One of the most ruthless and despised rulers in history, Herod the Great suffered from megalomania which left us with breathtaking examples of Roman architecture. His desert fortresses are usually perched on isolated sand-yellow rocks, such as the one in Masada which tells a chilling story of certain heroic mass suicide (you’re going to learn about it in the reminiscent setting of the isolated fortress). The fortification is very high and can be reached on foot following a winding “snake path” or by aerial tram. A hat and sunscreen are obligatory, while potable water stations are available all over the site.
The Dead Sea – Walking on water
The Dead Sea – sharing its banks among Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan – is a 997 ft deep lake, which makes it the lowest point on dry land. However, its most thrilling uniqueness lies in the hypersaline water: the level of saltiness is so high that a person can float on the surface without the slightest effort or risk of drowning. Another attraction is the reservoir’s mineral-rich black mud widely used in organic cosmetics production as well as for therapeutic treatments at nearby resorts. (The extensive exploitation has caused so much damage that the Dead Sea is gradually… dying.) Two words of warning: (1) do not shave on the same day, or you’re going to get what “to rub salt into the wound” means literally. (2) Swallowing the water is very dangerous and needs immediate medical assistance.
Mea Shearim – A rare glimpse into ultra-Orthodox neighborhood
The fact that it’s one of the oldest and most tourist-unfriendly Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem should already sound intriguing to any intrepid traveler. The residents – all dressed up in their traditional finest – make up a strictly Orthodox Jewish community that frowns at any intruder. What’s more, outrageous conduct such as bare legs, shoulders or shorter-than-maxi skirt may provoke an aggressive response. Speaking to or even walking on the same side as the opposite-sex is unthinkable. However, as long as you wrap yourself properly, don’t drive, smoke or use any mobile devices on Shabbat, you should be rewarded, safe and sound, with a truly unique experience.
The Bahá’í Gardens – The eighth world wonder
The strictly monitored religious complex in Haifa looks like an actual projection of heaven: divine grandeur, equilibrium, and peace. And this is what Bahá’í faith appears to be about: whether it was Mohammed, Buddha, Jesus or any other prophet, the dogma states they were all legit and just right for the times and cultures they occurred in. Despite this highly nonpartisan stand, Bahá’í followers have endured massive persecutions. Another curiosity is that, despite being located in one of the biggest cities of Israel, it’s the Israeli citizens who are not allowed in and, surprisingly, everyone thinks it’s fair. (Before you go: check out the changing opening hours and dress modestly).
Palestine – A day trip abroad
The Occupied Palestinian Territories is an area featuring nearly 50 years’ of military occupation, apart from stunning architecture and Banksy’s famous murals. It’s an absolute must for a complete tour around Israel as the conflict has been having a huge impact on both countries. Main cities are well connected by public transport, including the Jerusalem – Bethlehem route. (There’s only one car rental company in Jerusalem that covers insurance on both territories.) Although generally safe for tourists, political situation is unstable and travelers should stay clear of any possible unrest and, preferably, ask one of the locals to show them around: not only for safety reasons – Palestinian hospitality and kindness are second to none, and the citizens are always willing to share everything from a meal, history to personal experiences. As a hint, you might want to hear Hamdan’s personal story and read a detailed, local-coworked advice on travel around Palestine: Palestinian territories: Travel safety and etiquette.)
Note: The article originally appeared on Matador Network