If you’re visiting Israel, odds are good that you’ll be based in Jerusalem, even if only for a few days. It’s the epicenter of holy sites for the world’s three main religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But it’s also a great place to base yourself for several day trips (or half-day trips, as time allows). Here are the top destinations to consider when planning your trip, several of which can be combined into one day to truly maximize your time!
Best Day Trips from Jerusalem
The Valley of Elah
Lots of tour groups and individuals skip the Valley of Elah, but once they find out what it is, they’re disappointed that they missed it. No, there are no historic churches, mosques, or synagogues here to mark the spot. No, it’s not at the top of any “must do in Israel” list (except this one). So why bother?
Well, this is where David fought Goliath! Just under an hour from Jerusalem, this is a great half-day excursion any time of year. Start at Tel Azeka, where you can get a full view of the valley and the positioning of the Philistine and Hebrew troops as described in the Bible.
If you want to make this a more active excursion, plan to hike down into the valley and take in the view from below. Take the Tel Azeka Loop (1.4 miles total), and bring your Bible to read 1 Samuel 17 while you’re at it for reference.
A trip to the Valley of Elah can easily be combined with a trip to Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
While Tel Aviv is a destination in itself, you can definitely hit the highlights in a day if you’re pressed for time, especially if you’re planning to base yourself in Jerusalem for your trip.
Start in Jaffa, and take a walking tour if you can. This was Israel’s main port city in ancient times, so it’s worth a look if you’re here for the history. Take a walking tour to see where Jonah set out to sea while avoiding God’s plan for Nineveh (Book of Jonah), see where Tabitha was raised from the dead (Acts 9:36-43), and stand in the place where Peter had a vision that meant Christianity was for all, not just the Jews (Acts 10:9-16).
Tel Aviv, on the other hand, is much more modern and progressive. As much as Jerusalem is conservative and pious, Tel Aviv is liberal and vibrant. Come for the beaches and boardwalks, check out the water sports, explore the museums, and indulge in diverse the international food scene. Plan to stay for the night? This is also the headquarters of Israel’s nightlife scene.
A trip to Tel-Aviv-Jaffa can easily be combined with a stop at the Valley of Elah.
You already have this one on your “must go” list, right? It’s Jesus’ birthplace (Luke 2), so if you’re a Christian traveling to Israel, it’s basically the whole reason you’re coming! But even if you’re not religious, this is still such a famous and momentous place that you’ll still want to include it on your itinerary. You can see everything you want to see here in half a day, but if you have a full day to spend, you won’t get bored.
Just be aware that Bethlehem is in the West Bank, which is a Palestinian Territory. That means you’ll need to bring your passport and arrange for a Palestinian guide and driver for the day. Also plan to either leave your rental car in the parking lot outside the checkpoint, plan to take the bus, or arrange for a driver to get you there and pick you up after.
Tons of people do this, so don’t be intimidated by the logistics. This is one place in Israel, however, where it pays to go with a reputable company that can configure the logistics for you.
A trip to Bethlehem can be combined with Jericho and/or Qasr El-yahud.
It’s kind of ironic that you can take a day trip to the oldest city in the world, isn’t it? Dating back to around 9,000 B.C., it’s also the longest continuously-occupied city in the world. It’s also in the West Bank, like Bethlehem, so you will want to arrange for a Palestinian or Arab guide and driver for the day.
Jericho is famous for Jews and Christians as the city whose walls were miraculously crumbled in Joshua chapter 6. But Jesus was also familiar with the city thousands of years later. He met Zacchaeus, the short and hated tax collector, here in a Sycamore tree (Luke 19:1-10). Your guide may even be able to point out what is believed to be this same tree when you come.
A trip to Jericho can be combined with excursions to Bethlehem and/or Qasr El-yahud.
Qasr El-Yahud (Jesus’ Baptismal Site)
Another West Bank site (though easier for Israeli guides to bring you to) is the place on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3:13-17). It’s not far from Jericho, so it’s an easy site to add on to a day trip there as well. Just pay attention to its closing time in the afternoon.
The site is called Qasr El-yahud, which means “Tower” or “Castle of the Jews.” John the Baptist and Jesus’ disciples baptized many people here, making it an important place for Christians to visit. However, it’s also believed to be the site where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land after the Exodus from Egypt and 40 years of wandering in the desert. That makes it an important place in Jewish history as well.
A trip to Qasr El-yahud can be combined with Qumran, Jericho and/or Bethlehem.
Qumran (Dead Sea Scroll Caves)
You can actually see some of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which you should definitely do. But if you want to see the caves where they were found, you’ll need to plan a day trip to Qumran, about 45 minutes southeast of Jerusalem.
Here, you’ll learn about when and how the scrolls were discovered, then head outside to see some of the caves themselves. Make sure you can do this one early in the day in the summer months. The desert location far below sea level grows far too hot by afternoon.
A trip to Qumran can easily be combined with trips to Jericho, Qasr El-yahud, Ein Gedi, Masada, and/or the Dead Sea.
This site is notable for being the largest oasis in Israel, complete with palm groves and even an epic waterfall. The freshwater source here means it’s been inhabited for millennia, almost continuously. Presently, the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve is one of the most popular sites in Israel, so it very well may already be on your list of places to go on your trip.
Aside from the draw of natural beauty, Ein Gedi also has Biblical history attached. Joshua 15 mentions Ein Gedi as one of the wilderness cities that belonged to the Tribe of Judah. King David hid at Ein Gedi in 1 Samuel 23:29. And King Solomon wrote about vineyards of Ein Gedi in Song of Solomon 1:14.
A trip to Ein Gedi can easily be combined with trips to Jericho, Qasr El-yahud, Qumran, Masada, and/or the Dead Sea.
Speaking of hot places, this one is popular at sunrise for a reason! Situated on a plateau overlooking the desert on three sides and the Dead Sea on the fourth, Masada has a long, difficult, important history for the Jewish people.
Masada was originally built as a fortress by King Herod the Great around 37 B.C. In 73 A.D., a group of nearly 1,000 Jewish men, women, and children lived here while under siege by the Roman army. When defeat was imminent, a group of Jewish men killed everyone there, including each other, with the last man standing committing suicide. Only two women and five children survived to tell the historian and writer, Josephus, what happened, which is how we know about it today.
It’s an active archaeological site now, complete with fortress ruins and a state-of-the-art steam room once used by King Herod. Many Jewish families have a tradition of doing the hike up to Masada at sunrise for a child’s 12th birthday, but you’ll also find tourists doing this sunrise hike as well. You can hike (about 45-60 minutes each way) or take the cable car to the top and back down, or a combination of the two. Either way, don’t forget to take in the views along the way.
A trip to Masada can easily be combined with trips to Jericho, Qasr El-yahud, Qumran, Ein Gedi, and/or the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea
This is a bucket list item for many, and it’s an easy day trip to pair with several others on this list (Qasr El-Yahud, Qumran, Masada, Ein Gedi). It’s one of the lowest and saltiest places in the world, coming in at over 1,300 feet below sea level and over 34% salinity. What else makes it unique? The salinity allows visitors not to swim, but to float!
The Dead Sea is mentioned by a few different names in the Bible (the “Salt Sea,” “Sea of Arabah,” and the “Eastern Sea,” to name a few), but most importantly it’s referred to as the eastern border of Israel (Numbers 34:12). Also interestingly, biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, along with the supposed remains of Lot’s wife (Genesis 19), are located on the southeastern side of the Dead Sea, in Jordan.
While you’re here, be sure to take a float and try the healing, exfoliating, skin-softening mud, too. Not into a mud bath? You can purchase products made from the minerals (and mud) of the Dead Sea to take home with you instead.
A trip to the Dead Sea can easily be combined with trips to Jericho, Qasr El-yahud, Qumran, Ein Gedi, and/or Masada.
Day Trips Not Recommended from Jerusalem
Jerusalem is a great place to base yourself for several day trips (or half-day trips), but it’s not perfect for exploring all of Israel. If you plan to visit Haifa, Caesarea, or Akko (aka Acre), Tel Aviv is a better base for that. If you’re interested in visiting Nazareth, Galilee, Capernaum, Migdal, or the Golan Heights, Tiberias in the Galilee region is a better place to stay for a night or two to see all of those places at a more leisurely pace.