While Israel is a common destination for cultural and religious pilgrimages, travelers seeking the best hotels, fine dining, and upscale relaxation less often find themselves in the Holy Land.
Yet in recent years, the country’s burgeoning tech scene has attracted a business crowd accustomed to ritzy accommodation. Besides, the permanent summer of Tel Aviv and Eilat makes them prime destinations for European vacationers.
Israel’s populace managed to tame the swamps and irrigate the desert—so going luxury should be a cinch. Here are six ways to travel Israel in style.
Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem
When onetime employees of Israel’s Ministry of Trade visit their former workplace, “you can literally hear their jaws hit the floor,” says Amira Lauer, guest relations manager at the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem.
The rotunda that once housed the decrepit government office is now the ornamental centerpiece of the hotel, featuring custom furniture and a restored grandfather clock that once stood atop the Jaffa Gate. Few expenses were spared in restoring the hotel just a block from the Old City, recently named by Condé Nast Traveler as the finest in the Middle East.
First built in 1929 by the infamous Mufti of Jerusalem—a notorious anti-Semite who re-entered the news cycle due to recent comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the Mufti’s role in the Holocaust—the new hotel opened in 2014 as a prime destination for Orthodox travelers attracted by one of the world’s finest kosher kitchens. Ironically, the building’s second patron after the Mufti was the haredi Reichmann family of Canadian business magnates, yet another draw for religious guests.
“They say, ‘If it’s good enough for Reichmann, it’s good enough for us,’” Lauer says.
How to get there: Transportation is available from Ben Gurion Airport in shuttles, taxis, and buses to Jerusalem’s Rechavia neighborhood, where the hotel is located.
Ein Bokek Dead Sea Beaches
Located on the biblical site of Sodom, it’s no surprise that the resort town of Ein Bokek is hedonistic in the extreme. A palm-lined strip of hotel rises from the sand on the shore of the Dead Sea, a Judean Las Vegas hemmed by solemn desert.
The otherworldly quiet and ethereal desert moonscape of the lowest point on Earth makes Ein Bokek a convenient escape from bustling Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But the main draw here is the restorative effects of the Dead Sea and the spas that line its shore. The still, salty air brings in day-trippers from around Israel, but also international travelers seeking relief from ailments like arthritis and psoriasis.
Salty pilgrims can spend their days floating in Jordan’s shadow on beaches where salt stands in for sand, or opt for outlandish spa treatments. For a price, spas here will lather you in mineral-rich mud and wrap you up into a hot mud burrito. You know, if that’s what you’re into.
How to get there: Renting a car is likely your best bet, allowing you to also visit nearby Masada and Ein Gedi. Otherwise, you can catch Egged bus lines 486 and 44 from Jerusalem’s Central bus station and make it in about two hours.
Jaffa Art Walk
When legendary Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff set out to clean up the seedy element of historic Jaffa by incentivizing artists to move in, he probably didn’t realize how successful he would be.
Now, the cobblestone alleys of the ancient fortress form a maze of high-end galleries that make for unbeatable souvenir shopping or art collecting. In studios tucked away behind low-ceilinged showrooms fashioned from stone, artists craft everything from interpretive Jewish art to modern sculpture.
For travelers on a budget, the window-shopping here can’t be beat. And even Jerusalem’s Old City is hard-put to beat Jaffa’s selection of Judaica to haul home.
How to get there: Within Tel Aviv, a taxi is your best bet, although Jaffa is an easy and pleasant walk from most locations on the shore.
Jerusalem’s First Station
Modern Jerusalem is a dynamic interplay between old and new, and nowhere is that more evident that at the First Station, a revitalized Templar structure now home to some of the city’s trendiest commerce.
The old infrastructure of the now-disused Ottoman train station has been renewed and packed full of shops and farm-to-table restaurants, as well as an art gallery. Nearby, the train tracks that once connected Jerusalem and Jaffa have been turned into a greenway for pleasure walkers and bikers.
How to get there: Within Jerusalem, taxis are a fast and reasonable option; bus lines in the winding city streets can induce nausea.
Ice Skating in the Desert
At Israel’s southernmost tip, world-class scuba diving and swimming with dolphins are the standard tourist fare. The briefing for most visitors includes a rundown of these options, along with the local aquarium park and the Three Monkeys Pub, a popular bar and live music venue fronting on the boardwalk.
But a less likely attraction sits at the heart of Eilat’s commercial neighborhood, under a glass and steel dome that covers its central shopping mall. Surrounded by eateries and apparel shops—swimwear is always in season—is a 6,000-square-foot ice rink. Between skating shows, the rink is a welcome relief for travelers fatigued by the desert heat.
How to get there: Flights from Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov airport run as low at $35.
Sheva Spa at Hilton Tel Aviv
Luxury seekers on Tel Aviv’s shore have a Cinderella story to thank for the Thai spa on the ground floor of the Hilton: a few years ago, Israeli business tycoon Chaim Hurvitz fell in love with his masseuse, Naomi (formerly Nam), who had immigrated from a village in Thailand with no electricity or running water.
With the help of her now-husband, she opened the Sheva Spa, a Thai getaway facing the Mediterranean on the northern tip of the Tel Aviv boardwalk.
Visitors to the mood-lit, lemongrass-scented spa have access to the normal range of massage treatments, but also specialty treatments like “sabay chay,” a massage using warm coconut oil, and “tok sen,” which makes use of a wooden hammer to relieve knots.
How to get there: The Hilton and spa is located at the northern tip of Tel Aviv’s tourist shore. Taxis or walking are the best options.