By Sophie Needelman, Editorial Coordinator for www.gaytravel.com
It is not every day that one gets the opportunity to travel to a culture-rich country in a controversial part of the world with a history and significance greater than most modern travel destinations combined! I was lucky enough to spend six weeks in Israel this summer getting to know the various sites, cities, and incredible features of what this beautiful country has to offer- and have tons of insights and tips to report back! Between visiting the big cities and exploring some local neighborhoods, towns, and off-the-beaten-path finds that are too good not to share, I have officially lived the full Israeli travel experience. While planning your next visit to Israel, be sure to add these incredible hotspots to your to-do lists!
Visit the Tel Aviv LGBT center, Tel Aviv
Among an overwhelming number of homophobic neighbors, Israel is a beacon of prideful light- with Tel Aviv as the heart center of this inspiring LGBT community. No matter where you go in Israel, it is perfectly clear that Tel Aviv is not only the most gay-friendly destination in the Middle East let alone Israel, but a city that paves the way in expression and equality of the LGBT identity and rights. Tel Aviv is the gay center of the Middle East, and the Tel Aviv LGBT Center is literally at the heart of it all! This incredible organization is housed in a cozy little abode complete with a café, gardens, and comfy places to hang out with friends. This center features a variety of events, workshops, and classes at any given day so no matter when you are in town pay a visit to this inspiring organization in its adorable home!
View from the top of the Bauhaus Gardens, Haifa
There are a number of incredible sights to see throughout Israel, but the best view in the entire country is definitely the view from the top of the Bauhaus Gardens hill in Haifa. This lookout spot offers visitors panoramic views of the Mediterranean Sea, the entire city of Haifa, the miles of Bauhaus Gardens spanning from hilltop to coastline, and neighboring towns and villages in the Israeli north. After walking the grounds of the Bauhaus Gardens themselves, be sure to make your way to the top of the Haifa hill to the Louis Promenade with a fully charged camera in tow! On a clear day you can see for miles as the sun sets over this incredible port city so make sure you don’t let this photo opportunity pass you up.
Snorkel in the Red Sea, Eilat
The city of Eilat is like the Vegas of Israel, with huge resorts and spas and plenty of tourist boardwalk attractions to go around! A unique aspect of this coastal city, though, is the incredible Red Sea that it borders. The Red Sea is not only historically- and biblically- significant, but it is also home to an incredible coral reef nature reserve that can only be experienced in the water. Water temperatures are warm and water quality is crystal clear, so this is a notorious city to practice water sports including snorkeling- and for good reason too! Some of the most colorful and exotic fish call the Red Sea home, and snorkeling is a great way to experience some of the Eilat locals.
Eat lunch at the Yemenite Cheese shop, Tsfat
There are many things the northern city of Tsfat is famous for- including being the founding site of Kabbalah. These days, tourist visit Tsfat for its incredible views of the Galilee as well as its proximity to the controversial Lebanese and Syrian borders. Others love to spend their time in Tsfat shopping for candles, jewelry, or art while perusing the winding cobblestone streets of this gorgeous city. Every time I visit this town, I make sure to stop at the Yemenite Cheese shop for their whatever their daily special happens to be. This hidden gem is a great place to experience often less accessible parts of Middle Eastern culture, with a great representation of Yemenite cuisine at its finest. If you are as sensitive to spicy food as I am be sure to order your cheesy creation on the mild side!
Attend a drag show at Evita, Tel Aviv
It is no surprise that Tel Aviv is the ultimate destination for LGBT nightlife in Israel, the Middle East, and the entire world for that matter! Of all of the gay bars and clubs, Evita is by far my favorite hotspot to hit up. This incredible venue offers great dance party tunes, incredible people watching, and even better drag show events multiple times a month. On any given evening you might find a famous drag queen or LGBT figure perusing the beautiful LGBT people hitting up this hotspot. I made sure I incorporated a drag show into my Israeli itinerary and I am so glad I did- the Evita drag show was the best drag performance I have ever seen both live and on the big screen. The fabulous Israeli drag queens especially loved tourists in the audience and I even got incorporated into their evening of routines and acts! They are also darling enough to throw in plenty of English into their usually Hebrew numbers to create a diverse and inclusive environment for locals and visitors alike. When you hit up this hotspot, tell the ladies that Sophie sent you!
Go antique shopping, Jaffa
The port city of Jaffa is famous for its rich history and coastal presence, long before Tel Aviv was even on the map. Jaffa is a gorgeous and ancient town just south of the big city of Tel Aviv- and even offers the best views of Tel Aviv from the many cute boardwalk restaurants and cafes lining the coast. You will definitely want to fuel up at one of these great eateries because there is plenty of great antique shopping around the entire area of Jaffa. Whether you are shopping for your own humble abode or just window shopping, the furniture and antique stores in and around this city are absolutely not to be missed!
Visit the new Science and Technology center, Be’er Sheva
At the cusp of the Negev desert, Be’er Sheva is a city rich with academic institutions and educational organizations fit for any and every age of local and visitor alike. This city leads the way in research and technological developments, and the best way to experience the progressive work done in around this town is at its brand new Science and Technology center right in the heart of town. This interactive center features a number of exhibits that make the Israeli science and technology that leads the world forward on a daily basis accessible to locals and visitors of any age. No matter who you are visiting with, be sure to make a trip to this eye-opening new site- complete with full size functional and educational sculpture garden that will teach you more about physics than you ever learned in high school!
Walk through the Old City right before a holiday, Jerusalem
The Old City of Jerusalem is one of the most culturally and historically significant sites in the entire world. Various world religions and heritages come together all within the confines of a few square kilometers. Whether you are looking for authentic Israeli food, shopping, museums, or people watching, the Old City epitomizes the rich offerings of this incredible country. The Old City is busy all year round, but the best time to get an especially great feel for the heart of the Israeli people by visiting this heart of the country before a holiday! The streets are packed with people of all ages and cultural backgrounds, which provides the ultimate people watching and fix for the senses as any site in this bustling country. Just remember, the closer to a holiday of any religion, the more exciting the Old City will be!
Shop at hidden second-hand stores, Tel Aviv
It is no surprise that some of the world’s best shopping is in the world, with European and Middle Eastern styles coming to a head in the most inspiring and unexpected ways possible. No matter what sort of garments or tzetchkes you are looking for, Tel Aviv will surely provide! A variety of vendors, from street stands to boutiques to full on department stores, provide locals and tourists with the latest up and coming fashions. And the best place to get the most fashion-forward finds is at Tel Aviv’s plethora of second hand stores and thrift shops scattered strategically around the city! The more off the beaten path places you can find, the better- think alley ways, side streets and tucked away corners for the best finds Israel has to offer!
Attend a Women of the Wall protest, Jerusalem
The Western Wall is one of Jerusalem’s most infamous and sacred sites, with countless visitors a day from all corners of the world. Visiting this irreplaceable gem is life changing no matter how many times you go there. One of my favorite ways of experiencing the Western Wall in the Old City is with the feminist group Women of the Wall. This group of feminist men and women of all nationalities and backgrounds gather at the Wall at the beginning of every Jewish month to protest religious constraints on women during worship and other practices held at this holy site. I am lucky enough to attend one of the most radical and progressive universities in the world, and the protest conducted by Women of the Wall far exceeded any other rally or gathering I had previously witnessed. This alternative and unique way of experiencing one of the world’s most coveted religious sites is absolutely not to be missed, regardless of background or belief.