7 fail safe ways to impress first time visitors to Israel.

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Thank you to everyone who commented and shared this competition entry for www.expatblogs.com writing competition, no, I didn’t win, but it’s the taking part that counts right?!

For those of you who didn’t see it, here is my entry.  Despite what you may see and read in the press there is a side to Israel that most people don’t know, so if you fancy a visit this is what you can expect to see – especially if I am your guide!

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The Israel most people don’t see

1. Jerusalem. It goes without saying that any first time visitor to Israel should visit this most awe-inspiring city. Not only is Jerusalem geographically impressive, historically extraordinary and religiously remarkable it is also a bustling, noisy city of everyday people in an urban melting pot. Start with a view from the Hebrew University over the whole city then wind down by the Garden of Gethsemane to do a tour of the old city; the religious sites cannot fail to impress. Don’t forget to take an empty stomach to feast on the street food as you wander, from fresh bagels and zartar to hummus, kube, knafe (traditional Arab cheese pastry soaked in sweet syrup), lahmabajeen (meat on pitta) and tamarind lemonade. Watch as your guest’s senses become bloated, as their minds try to absorb the languages, cultures, religions and sheer enormity of the importance of the city to so many. Take some time to visit outside of the old city walls; to the Machne Yehuda Market to taste halva and listen to the shouts of the market traders, to walk through the ruins of David’s City and wonder at the ancient ruins, to sit in the shade of the Montefiore windmill and take in the sights. Leave to the sound of church bells and calls to prayer ringing in their ears via a short hop to Ein Kerem or with a glimpse of the road down to the desert to tease their expectations for what’s to come.

2. The Dead Sea. No matter how stinky and stingy the water of the Dead Sea might be to some, no first time trip to Israel is complete without the compulsory photo reading a book whilst floating on the Dead Sea. Make your visitors strip off and cover them in mud (cameras at the ready), remind them to shower vigorously afterwards and then sit in silence on a cliff top whilst they take in the view. Arrive in the morning and spend the day in the desert so that the true beauty of the changing light on the barren land is fully appreciated. For the historically minded a visit to the majestic Masada fort is fascinating and even for those not so inclined, take them anyway. The view from the top is more than worth the climb or the cable car ride and the story cannot fail to move. Finish the day with traditional coffee in a Bedouin style tent on the shores of the sea, for extra ambience enhancement for your guests, take your guitar (and someone who can play it) to strum as the sun goes down.

3. Tel Aviv sea front and Jaffa. A walk or bike ride from one end of the tayelet (promenade) to the other will take your visitors from the modern cafes and restaurants in the Tel Aviv port, passing the sun worshippers, kite surfers and boogie boarders on the long white beach to the tranquil historic beauty of Jaffa port. A good guide-book to explain the significance historically and emotionally of the port is key, plus a comfy pair of shoes to climb the stairs into Jaffa itself. Once in the buzz of the town, food is once again crucial to the experience so put diets aside and make your visitors tuck into malabi, hummus and shakshuka, pausing for mint tea in the flea market to people watch and pick up an unusual bargain (odd shoe anyone?). If their feet can stand it, make the short walk to the old train station and into the oldest part of Tel Aviv, Neve Tsedek where the tiny run down cottages rub shoulders with designer jewellers and gourmet ice cream parlours and eat dinner in one of the atmospheric restaurants.

Jaffa port

Quiet in Jaffa port

4. North to the Sea of Galilee. The drive from the populated centre of Israel up into the hills of the Galilee should be savoured with regular stops for your visitors to appreciate the abundance of scenery changes on the way. Take the coast road for maximum effect, alongside the turquoise of the sea, the mountain pine forests and city of Haifa and the cliffs of Rosh Hanikra. As you drive inland make sure to point out the Keshet caves, the lonely impressive Montfort, tell the stories of the kibbutzim and their history and make a stop in the ancient and mystical town of Sefad high above the lake’s shore. Pause to take in the history and spirituality of the town, marvel at the views; east to the Golan, north to the Hermon and Lebanon, west to Mount Meron and south to Tiberias and the lake itself. Drive down to Rosh Pina to amaze with the choice of culinary experiences and then head to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) itself. I’ll bet they don’t know it’s a lake.

5. The Sea of Galilee. Depending on the age and interests of your visitor, the lake and its surroundings to stun all tastes. The religious sites and churches on the banks marking the locations of Bible stories from Old and New Testaments, Roman ruins, Jewish holy sites, Byzantine mosaics and a 1st Century fishing boat, to name but a few of the historic and religious gems in the area. For the thrill seekers; white water rafting on the Jordan River (in season of course), windsurfing or jet skiing on the lake and for the nature lovers a walk around or up from the lake promises a wealth of bird life, wildlife, and evidence of ancient life. The views are majestic and don’t forget to keep one eye on the sky to catch a glimpse of impressive preying birds swooping and hovering. End your day with a dip in the lake, in summer the water is warm and the muddy bottom slips between your toes. Don’t forget to take along your shesh besh (backgammon) board, your gas burner and finjan (pot) to make the coffee as you watch the sunset.

6. The Negev. So you took them to the Dead Sea and they had a glimpse at the desert. Now you need to head further into the Negev and show them the Israel they had probably imagined. Camels, donkeys and long stretches of road with nothing but rocks and sand, eagles overhead and Bedouin tents in the distance. The Negev has a stark beauty that cannot fail to impress, especially visitors from the Northern hemisphere. Pack your binoculars and the ubiquitous coffee-making equipment for unscheduled shady stops to listen to the silence and wonder at the dry enveloping heat. Your goal is to get to the town of Mitzpe Ramon where your visitors get their first glimpse of the impressive crater, stock up on all the knowledge there that they need to fully grasp the enormity, geographical wonder and history of the massive natural crater. Remember to make friends with the nosy ibex that wander around the hot town’s streets. Take them for a walk in the crater’s floor to pick up ammonite fossils and get a glimpse of the geological curiosities which crowd the area. Don’t forget to show your insider knowledge by leaving via the small crater and your descent by the Scorpion’s Ascent, a steep and winding road down to the main desert highway. As night falls, pull over to watch and listen to the desert come to life as the temperature drops. For the more adventurous, pull out your sleeping bag and sleep under the stars but only if you can handle it, nothing worse than your host panicking when there’s a rustle in the sand.

7. Tel Aviv by night. Any self-respecting local knows that the nightlife in Tel Aviv only starts after 11pm so pre-warn your visitors to take an afternoon nap and prepare to be out ‘til dawn. Book a dinner at one of the many notable culinary establishments Tel Aviv has to offer, think Middle Eastern, your visitors want a taste of the local fare not a bowl of spaghetti. When setting out to the restaurant take a walk down Rothschild or Nachlat Binyamin streets to get a taste of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus past. Stop for a quick cocktail in one of the multitude of bars. Once full and astounded by the quality of their dinner you can start to head to the bars spilling out onto the streets. If they are still able, at 1am head downtown to one of the clubs where the music is loud, the drinks are shots and the dancing is sweaty. A sleep on the beach as the sun comes up followed by a quick dip should sort out the ringing in their ears and clear their heads for the day ahead.

Congrats to the winners, you can have a read at http://www.expatblogs.com

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