Our love of history and interest in our combined Christian and Jewish heritage put a trip to Israel on our horizon. With a vibrant cultural scene, Israel offers a plethora of engaging activities, making it perfect for active family travel. Israel is also a country that embraces children and kids are welcome, even celebrated, almost anywhere.
Given Israel’s years of on and off violence, admittedly, I was hesitant to book our trip. My husband, who had previously been to Israel and was familiar with their security measures, felt very comfortable. The more I spoke to people, the more comfortable I became. Additionally, I was reassured to know our tour operator had daily security updates and took our safety very seriously. We ended up booking a 14-day custom trip in June — hot, but not unbearable. We had 12 days in Israel in four different cities and two days in Jordan to visit Petra and Wadi Rum.
Overall, our trip was far more than a vacation; it was a rich learning experience. In reflecting on 18 years of family travel, my kids all say that our trip to Israel and Jordan and our trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are the two most impactful trips we have taken.
Israel is heaven for history junkies! As the birthplace of three major world religions — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — the country oozes history. We had spent years reading and in some cases studying about Israel’s ancient history, Jewish history and role in the Crusades, so to see these places firsthand was thrilling. That said, with four kids, we had to be sure it was not a dry historical recount of each site. Cultural food tours, living museums and an excellent tour guide brought both the ancient history and current events to life. Alternating tour days with active days (like visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum, one day and then hiking Masada, an ancient fortress, the next), we created a balanced itinerary. Some of our favorite historical experiences included:
Jerusalem. The historic epicenter! Highlights are the Stations of the Cross, Church of Holy Sepulchre, the City of David tunnel, Temple Mount, the Western Wall and the Ramparts.
Caesarea. An important town during the Roman period, with a Herodian theatre and ruins of Herod’s Palace.
Akko. One of the most important towns for the Crusaders, with an excellent museum, fortress and shuk (market).
Israel is a foodie destination, with Conde Nast Traveler ranking Tel Aviv the fifth-best food city in the world. Hands-down, this was one of our best culinary trips (yes, even rivaling Italy!). Because Israel’s population comes from all over the globe, the combination of influences creates an epic culinary experience.
Highlights included the legendary, sprawling Israeli breakfasts; food tours in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; home hosted meals in a Druze village and with a local chef via Eatwith.com; hummus tasting and shuk tours; and many world-class restaurants. Sitting down with the famous chef and hotelier Uri Buri was memorable as much for his company as his food. The hip, graffiti-decorated Yahuda Market in Jerusalem was another favorite to explore.
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We were intentional in making this an adventurous and active vacation. Our favorite activities included rafting in the Jordan River, hair-raising Jeep tours, hiking parts of Masada, touring rooftops in Jerusalem, exploring miles of David’s underground water tunnels and swimming in the Dead Sea — complete with a salt scrub.
We started in Tel Aviv, a young, hip city dripping with style and sophistication and set right on a beach that looks like Malibu and is full of typical water sports. All over the beach, people play “Matkot” or Kadima, the paddle ball game called the unofficial national sport. Due to the time change, we woke up early each morning and walked for miles along the beautiful seafront promenade, stopping at the various playgrounds and workout stations. Each day we planned an afternoon break to cool off in the ocean or the beautiful hotel pools.
Finding hands-on activities abroad can be a challenge, but engaged learning opportunities are certainly worthwhile. In Tel Aviv, we went to the Ayalon Institute, where you can go into a munitions plant that was hidden in a laundry center. We dined in complete darkness at the Blackout Restaurant in the Nalagaat Center, a center assisting blind and deaf individuals, giving us an appreciation of what it would be like to dine without vision. We also went to an IDF base where we met the first woman leader of an elite infantry group.
At Beit Guvrin Caves we participated in an active archeological dig, uncovering pottery from 2,300 years ago, followed by a crawl through the Maresha Cave Labyrinth. Also, we stayed at a kibbutz and heard our guide’s personal accounts of growing up on a kibbutz, which provided exposure to commune-style living.
This was a trip where we were constantly processing complex information, integrating ancient history with current culture and unravelling years of political conflict. The impact on all of us was significant.
Context. It is very hard to understand the complicated history and intense positions of the different religious groups and countries involved in Israel. Being in the country and seeing for ourselves the places of dispute and the sites of religious importance allowed for an understanding that otherwise would be very difficult. We saw protests and spoke with groups that had a variety of political and ideological positions, which brought up great questions to think about.
Connection with heritage. Meeting Jews from all over the world and learning about their process of coming to Israel captivated us. Seeing a whole Jewish country, especially for my children (who are often the only Jews in their grades) was eye-opening. Hearing some of the ancient stories, like the story of Masada, told in a far different way than we had previously heard was also very interesting. Also, the reason behind speaking Hebrew as the national language felt empowering and helped my children in their studies of Hebrew.
Geography/living with conflict. It sounds simple, but it’s hard to describe the impact of seeing just how close all the borders of neighboring countries are, especially for those of us from the United States. At one point in the Golan Heights, we could see Lebanon and Syria from where we stood. We instantly felt the impact of border security and why both conflict and diplomacy are so real for all the countries involved.
Overall, yes, this was a historic focused trip, maybe even a “heritage tour.” But it was also really interesting, packed with fun activities, in stylish and sophisticated areas complete with beautiful hotels and insane food.
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