Israel is a small country: Its northern and southern points are just 424km apart. At its widest, it is 114km from east to west, and at its narrowest, it's a mere 15km long. Yet, what you see within this tiny land is an amazing range. From mountain tops to azure Mediterranean waters, from Biblical deserts to modern farms irrigated the way only Israel can, it's a packed eyeful.
It is a melting pot of a myriad cultures, which the returning Jewish diaspora brought back. This multiculturalism is best seen in Israeli cuisine, where influences from Europe, North Africa and West Asia have fused to create a unique taste. The multicultural heritage, however, does not extend to the languages of the world. The people speak Hebrew, Arabic and English. Even Yiddish is a dying language, desperately being kept alive by patrons.
Although predominantly Jewish, Israel is home to many minorities — Palestinians, Bedouins, Druze and Christians. While this doesn't necessarily mean a big, happy family (religious conflict is big here), it certainly means there are many influences which enrich the nation's tapestry. If, in one corner, you see ultra orthodox Jews (men with their dreadlocks and top hats, and women with wigs and legs demurely covered), you could chance upon a homosexual couple nearby, walking hand in hand, unafraid.
When you visit another country, it is always good to know the don'ts to observe. But the Israel Embassy in New Delhi told us, there is no don't list for Israel. You can wear what you want, though Israelis prefer comfort to formality. So suits and ties is overdressing, even in formal places. You can eat what you like. The orthodox Jews are kosher, but they don't force it upon others. In fact, Israel is a vegetarian's paradise, with crunchy veggies straight off the kibbutz farms. Israel is also said to be the most vegan-friendly country in the world. For a country where rocket attacks happen regularly, Israel is among the "safest'' countries. Heavily patrolled, and with big cameras everywhere watching, it is not the place for muggers, rapists and pick-pockets. Even late at night, it is absolutely normal to see young children strumming their guitars in the city square.
The top places to visit are the resort town of Eilat by the Red Sea, Galilee, in the mountainous north, Haifa on the Mediterranean, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
This ancient city is Israel's capital and most populous. It is holy to three big religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Religious tourism, de facto, is a huge component of 'what to do' here. The Stations of the Cross, which depict Christ's last journey, is a poignant walk for the devout, though the heavy commercialisation — with cafes and curios — are a big distraction. The walk ends at the Church of the Sepulchre, which encompasses the last three stations — the hillock where he was crucified, the stone on which his followers washed him, and the cave where he was buried and from where he resurrected. Various denominations of Christianity have come to a tense agreement on which part of the church is theirs, and we see a wondrous mix of Greek orthodox, Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian practices.
The famed Western Wall is the closest that Jews can reach the disputed site of their temple (which was destroyed in 70 AD.) The devout come to this wall to pray, to open up their innermost secrets and to leave notes. It's a sombre place.
The black domed Al Aqsa mosque is the third most sacred site for Muslims after Mecca and Medina.
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The Yad Vashem museum is a must visit, it leaves the visitor shaken as personal stories of the Holocaust tumble out. The Israel Museum houses the Dead Sea scrolls in an urn-shaped building that is a tribute to the urns in which the scrolls were discovered. The museum also has the Indian-born sculptor Anish Kapoor's famous installation, Turning the World Upside Down.
A bit of R and R is recommended, and the best place for it is the Dead Sea. The drive to one of the resorts on the shores is scenic, and you can feel your ears pop as you descend to the lowest point on earth. The Dead Sea is so saline, it supports no life. It's the easiest place to float, but not so easy to flip back. You understand buoyancy here like no physics class can teach. Once you've smeared yourself with the black, mineral rich clay, it's but natural to do the touristy thing and buy loads of Dead Sea skin products, and hope that your skin will dazzle.
A food tour is the best way of discovering the taste of Israel. Enrol in one of the many tours, and walk your way to hummus, falafel, sambusak outlets.
Hotels to stay
Where: 23 King David Street, Jerusalem 94101
Call: 00 972 2 620 8888
Wallet: £340 for double room (Rs 31,000 approx)
Where: Gershon Agron St 26-28, Jerusalem, 9419008
Wallet: $910 for King terrace room (Rs 63,000 approx)
This ancient town on the Mediterranean Sea is the main naval base of the Israeli Defence Forces and also an important port. The limestone constructions, the azure waters and the gently sloping hillside are picturesque, especially so the German colony.
Haifa has an ancient past, but also a proud modern history. Its Israel Institute of Technology has produced three Nobel laureates. Locals smugly point out that all of China hasn't produced a single laureate, yet. The Science Museum, therefore is a must visit.
There is a strong Indian connect with Haifa. The city was liberated from Ottoman occupation in 1918 during World War I, and around 400 Indian soldiers took part in this liberation.
They were from the princely states of Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad, the three representative statues at Delhi's Teen Murti circle. The Haifa Indian Cemetery, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves commemorates the eight Indian soldiers, including Maj Dalpat Singh Shekhawat (Military Cross) who were martyred.
The other Indian connect is with the Bahá'í faith. Haifa is the resting place of the prophet Bab, entombed in a beautiful shrine in the famous tiered Bahá'í garden. The garden, on Mount Carmel, is the most iconic imagery of the city and draws lakhs of tourists. The largest population of Bahá'ís now lives in India.
Haifa is a city of beaches, museums and historical sites like Elijah's Cave and the Stella Maris Monastery. While Israel is not really a shoppers' hub (most artefacts are Made in India), the Arab market might have some handicrafts.
Haifa is one city where the Arabs and Jews are at their most amicable with each other, and there's no better way to celebrate this than having some of the local arak, made of anise, and sold under the brand name, Ramallah.
Hotels to stay
Where: 107 Hanassi Avenue, Haifa
Wallet: $668 for executive suite (Rs 46,000 approx)
Where: Hanassi Blvd 85-87, Haifa
Wallet: $501 (Rs 35,000 approx) for executive bay triple room
Tel Aviv means the City of Spring and is referred to as the Old New Land. It is Israel's first modern city, and houses the embassies. Set on the shores of the Mediterranean, it is a United Nations-designated World Heritage site for the abundance of Bauhaus architecture. It's also a city of beaches and museums.
Old Jaffa balances out Tel Aviv's modernism with an overdose of history. Walking through the narrow alleys with picturesque buildings on either side, one can feel transported back in time — back to the medieval times, or even way back to Pharaonic ones. The imposing St Peter's Church stands by the sea, facing west, unlike most churches. In the sea beyond, the waves crash around a rock, said to be the one on which poor Andromeda was tied to by Posiedon.
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Jaffa is a good place to pick up some artwork. There are several artists who have set up studios and shops in this picturesque town.
At least on one of the nights in Tel Aviv, you should go for a pub crawl. You can even get a guide to navigate you through the watering holes.
Hotels to stay
Setai Tel Aviv
Where: David Razi'el St 22,
Tel Aviv-Yafo, 6802919, Israel
Where: HaYarkon St 19,
Call: +972 3-740-5000
Wallet: $2540 (Rs 1.76 lakh approx) for a two-room suite
Where: Kaufmann St 12,
Tel Aviv-Yafo, 61501
Phone: +972 3-795-1111
Wallet: $930 (Rs 64,000 approx) for a two-room suite
Where: Eliezer Peri St 10,
Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel
Wallet: $1,000 (Rs 69,000 approx) for a two-room suite