Last year, Israel celebrated 65 years of independence, yet for some 4,000 years, Israel has been the goal of travelers from far and near: pilgrims, crusaders, conquerors and wanderers have all made their way to its shores. And now tourists are once again coming in greater numbers, in 2013 reaching an all-time high of 3.54 million. This year’s visitor list will include a particularly illustrious world leader, Pope Francis I, and undoubtedly millions will be watching as he tours Jerusalem, Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan.
Just ahead of the Pope, this visitor, who hadn’t been to Israel since the 20th century, went back in March to learn what’s new in ancient Israel in the 21st century. And there was no shortage of news, for the trip proved to be a time of discovery.
This birthplace of the three largest monotheistic religions in the world—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—is filled with prayers and songs of different faiths. Most of their monuments are in the walled Old City, an otherworldly place of winding narrow streets, remnants of ancient buildings, a babble of languages and colorful markets. And yes, there is also the handsome, sprawling New City, whose attractions range from the Hadassah Hospital’s stained glass windows by Marc Chagall, and Yad Vashem—Israel’s haunting monument to the Holocaust—to pedestrian malls such as Nahalat Shiva with boutiques and eateries, and the swanky Alrov Mamilla shopping avenue that leads to the Old City’s Jaffa Gate.
Discovery #1. The Old City of Jerusalem is a place of intense sanctity to Jews, Christians and Muslims; within, holy sites tumble over each other, and layers of history wait to be unpeeled. For those not accompanied by a top-notch guide, the key to discovery starts in the Citadel’s Tower of David Museum by the Jaffa Gate where one follows a path of archaeological displays that tell the city’s four-millennia story. The views from here are panoramic, as they are walking the ramparts of the Old City walls. Of note: In the open-air courtyard of the Tower of David, visitors are treated to a new English-language musical, “Ah, Jerusalem,” on stage Friday afternoon through Sept. 5. It’s the story of an American family that travels to Jerusalem on a spiritual journey of a lifetime, visiting historic sites in Israel from the reign of King Solomon to the Crusader and Ottoman periods along the way.
Discovery #2. The Israel Museum stands easily among the world’s major museums. Its collections include a female figurine considered the oldest artwork in the world, the Dead Sea Scrolls, a mighty archaeological wing, and impressive classical and contemporary art pieces. Nearby is the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden. A special treat is the current exhibition “Dress Codes: Revealing the Jewish Wardrobe,” showcasing traditional 18th to 20th centuries apparel gathered from Jewish communities around the world.
Discovery #3. The market scene is at its best in the souk in the Old City, a covered warren of well-worn cobbled alleys, with separate areas for fresh food, spices and gooey pastries, as well as fabrics, hardwares, clothing, shoes, jewelry and trinkets. Equally colorful and more chaotic is the Machaneh Yehuda, a joy to behold and inhale. It overflows with fruits and vegetable, sweets and olives, and all manner of spices and teas. A must is taking in the scene from one of the small cafes.
Discovery #4. Remind clients to take their passport when taking an excursion to the West Bank and onward to one of our favorite towns, the oasis of Jericho, abloom with date palms, orange groves, bougainvillea and papaya trees. Its claim to well-deserved fame is its position as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Kathleen Kenyon’s well-excavated site documents Jericho’s repeated conquest, starting first by the Israelites who first made the walls come tumbling down. The gorgeous ruins of Hisham Palace are here, as is the St. George Monastery and a good little shopping center. For a bird’s-eye view, ride the cable car up to the Mountain of Temptation.
Discovery #5. Discovering hotels with a history is bound to be a no-brainer in a city as ancient as Jerusalem. Years ago, we stayed in each of the following—both updated and now members of The Leading Hotels of the World. The landmark King David—long the grande dame of Israel luxury hotels—is a true classic, overlooking the Old City and Mount Zion. Of the hotel’s 233 rooms, it is the deluxe rooms that face the Old City and flowering gardens. In East Jerusalem, the 96-room American Colony, which began life as an opulent palace for an Ottoman pasha and his four wives, and is now an oasis of classic Arabian arches, beautiful gardens and East-meets-West style. The finest rooms are still the three suites that open onto the fountained courtyard, and tell clients who book here that they should head out for dinner.
Among the newest in Jerusalem’s luxury lodgings, the Mamilla Hotel, overlooking the Old City walls and located by the Jaffa Gate, is a design beauty; it’s a sleek, sophisticated 194-room haven with soaring architectural flourishes. The best seat in the house? The rooftop lounge and restaurant. The latest hotel addition is the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem, which made its debut this past April. Located just a short walk to the Old City, this property began life in 1929 as the Palace Hotel, and the new Waldorf has carefully restored the facade—an amalgamation of Moorish, Roman and Arab architectural features. Facilities include 226 rooms and suites, two restaurants, a rooftop bar, and a luxury spa to open in 2015.
Founded just over 100 years ago on a vacant stretch of Mediterranean coast, Tel Aviv is Israel’s second city and capital of style and culture. It was dreamt up as an overspill for Jaffa, the nearby medieval port mentioned in the Old Testament. Today, Tel Aviv is an urban and sophisticated metropolis in its own right, with Jaffa one of its many gentrifying neighborhoods colonized by art galleries and sculpture studios. They share miles of beach, seaside promenades, paths for hiking and biking, and spectacular sunsets.
Discovery #6. Explore the city along three walking trails covering key aspects of the city’s attractions: its architecture, beaches and greenery. Our pick is the Bauhaus Trail and the discovery that the central part of Tel Aviv hosts the world’s largest collection (more than 1,000 buildings) of Bauhaus architecture, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tel Aviv’s defining Bauhaus-inspired architecture, referred to as International Style and distinguished by its geometric forms and pastel colors, is the work of Jewish architects fleeing Europe in the 1930s. The trail leads to the city’s bounty of Bauhaus buildings and homes, mixed with pleasant cafes and restaurants, mostly on and just off Rothschild Boulevard.
Discovery #7. Tel Aviv and its environs have several intriguing museums. The addition of an impressive new wing recently doubled the size of the fine Tel Aviv Art Museum, displaying modern artists such as Marc Chagall and Roy Lichtenstein, while architect Ron Arad’s colorful, internationally acclaimed Design Museum Holon focuses on contemporary design such as fashion, jewelry and textiles. We loved the Eretz Israel Museum, whose eight pavilions span 1,000 years of Israeli life, covering everything from ethnography and folklore to ceramics and other crafts. On display through June 15 is a superb exhibit, “Woven Consciousness: Contemporary Textile in Israel.” In the center is the ancient site of Tel Kassile where archaeologists have uncovered 12 layers of settlements. Note: Don’t bypass the excellent gift shop.
Discovery #8. Wonderful, imaginative, fresh food was a big discovery for us in Tel Aviv. Our introduction was a late lunch at the Manta Ray right on Alma Beach; there could be no better spot to order up Middle Eastern meze dishes, fresh shrimps, and roasted calamari with chimichurri, accompanied by a dry sauvignon blanc from Israel’s Golan Heights wine district. Showcasing the best in Israeli fresh fruit and vegetables is the open-air Carmel Market, and visitors coming on Tuesdays and Fridays can continue on for a sampling of crafts at the Nahalat Binyamin Pedestrian Mall street fair. On any day just off the Carmel Market, reserve to savor the inspired dishes served up at the tiny Ha’Basta restaurant and wine bar.
Discovery #9. Tel Aviv has no shortage of large chain hotels and resorts, and the inventory in the neighborhood is growing. The Ritz-Carlton, Herzliya, which opened last December, features 197 luxury rooms including studios, 1- and 2-bedroom suites and penthouse suites, all with balconies overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Coming up next in 2015 in the neighboring port of Jaffa is a W property, located within a converted 19th century building that once housed the French Hospital; the hotel will have 125 rooms and suites.
But the real discovery is the boom in boutique hotels. It all started with Hotel Montefiore, a 12-room residence fitted out in contemporary colonial chic and hosting a good French restaurant. Now hot on the boutique hotel roster in the trendy Neve Tzedek neighborhood is the Brown TLV, whose 30 rooms are defined by rich chocolate-and-caramel-colored walls, dark wood floors, canopy beds, and vintage writing desks. Guests enjoy a rooftop bar and sundeck, as well as an easy walk to the beach. Culturally plugged in is the Artplus Hotel Tel Aviv, whose public areas display works by leading Israeli artists. Each of the 62 guestrooms has multi-channel cable TV, coffee and tea facilities, a mini-fridge, complimentary WiFi, and Israeli breakfast is served in the library.
Occupying a historic and iconic building, the Rothschild Hotel is located, fittingly enough, on Rothschild Boulevard and is packed with especially commissioned local art. It occupies a historic and iconic building and features 29 rooms fitted with 900-thread-count sheets, espresso machines and complimentary WiFi, as well as a top-notch restaurant. Opening in June is The Norman Tel Aviv, located in the heart of the city within two carefully preserved Bauhaus buildings: one fitted with 30 individually designed rooms, the other an all-suite property. Other features will include complimentary WiFi, a Japanese-style restaurant and rooftop infinity pool. ●