If you've never been to Jerusalem, you must visit the Old City -- home to ancient holy sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The walled city is entered through various gates and is split into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Arab and Armenian. If you're not on a tour, prepare to get lost in the warren of stone streets -- the city is confusing, even with a map. "Free" guided tours are available from the Jaffa Gate (for more information on these tours visit NewJerusalemTours.com). If you're approached by someone wishing to serve as your guide, a firm "no, thank you" will suffice; if you do accept the offer, a tip will most likely be expected at the end of the tour.
The holiest sites include the Western Wall (also called the Kotel or Wailing Wall), which is the only remaining structure left from the Jewish Second Temple; the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, once the location of the Temple's Holy of Holies and believed by Muslims to be the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven; the Via Dolorosa, a street thought by many Christians to be the site of the Stations of the Cross; and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the sites where the cross was erected and where Jesus was buried and resurrected. (Some Christians think the Garden Tomb, located outside the Old City on Conrad Schick Street, is a possible site for the burial and resurrection of Jesus; the site is open for tours and worship services.)
Note that tourists who are not Muslims cannot enter the Dome of the Rock and -- though rules tend to vary -- often cannot access the Temple Mount at all.
If you can, get tickets ahead of time (or ask your guide to do it) for the Western Wall Tunnels, which take you under the Muslim Quarter between the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. The Jewish Quarter houses the Cardo, the remains of a Roman thoroughfare, and the twin archeological museums of the Wohl Archeological Museum and Burnt House, as well as kosher restaurants and Judaica shops. If you enjoy shopping and haggling over prices, the Christian Quarter is where you'll find markets that sell everything from religious items and souvenirs to food, T-shirts and rugs. At the Jaffa Gate, between the Christian and Armenian Quarters, the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem explores 4,000 years of Jerusalem's history. Just outside the Old City is Dormition Abbey, occupying the sites where tradition says that Mary spent her last night and Jesus held the Last Supper.
Across from and above the Old City, the Mount of Olives is also a religiously important site, mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. It's currently home to several churches. Jesus often gave teachings there, and Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, God will raise the dead from the hillside. (Hence, a very prominent Jewish cemetery is located on the slopes.) The Mount of Olives is also the site of the Garden of Gethsemane (where Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion), Church of Maria Magdalene and Dominus Flevit Church.
At the base of the Mount of Olives, the Kidron Valley houses a series of tombs carved out of the hillside. A peaceful atmosphere surrounds the tombs of Zechariah, the Hezir sons and Absalom, among others.
Yad Vashem is Jerusalem's Holocaust memorial and museum. The sprawling complex on Har Hazikaron includes a history museum and art museum, as well as memorial and commemorative sites, such as the Children's Memorial and the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, which honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. If you're not on a tour or in a cab, take a public bus to the Mount Herzl bus stop, where free shuttles will take you into the Yad Vashem campus.
Art and archaeology of the Holy Land are the hallmarks of the Israel Museum, the country's largest cultural institution. There, the Shrine of the Book contains the Dead Sea Scrolls -- the oldest biblical manuscripts ever found (2nd century B.C. to 1st century A.D.) -- as well as medieval manuscripts. The 20-acre campus also houses a Second Temple-era model of Jerusalem, an art and sculpture garden and a substantial amount of contemporary art, including pieces on hot political topics.
Christian tourists flock to Bethlehem, which is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, as well as King David. It's just a short cab ride outside of Jerusalem. Located in the central Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest Christian churches and is built around the Grotto of the Nativity, the site of Jesus' birth. Other pilgrimage sites include the Milk Grotto, where the Holy Family sought refuge during the Slaughter of the Innocents, and a cave where St. Jerome translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin. Note that Bethlehem is part of the West Bank Palestinian Territories, and you must cross a checkpoint to go from Jerusalem to the West Bank. Take your passport. Israeli buses and taxis cannot pass through the checkpoint, so you'll need to get out and pick up Palestinian transportation on the other side.
Located on the Mediterranean, Tel Aviv is Israel's cultural center, full of galleries and art museums, distinct architecture, and buzzing nightclubs. Come for a day at the beach, or stroll among the waterfront restaurants and shops at the revitalized Tel Aviv Port. You won't find any ancient history here -- for that, you'll need to go to Old Jaffa, once a separate city and now part of Tel Aviv. In its maze of winding streets, you'll find the 1906 Clock Tower and the popular Flea Market.
Although it's a long day-trip from Jerusalem, a visit to Masada and the Dead Sea is worth it if you have the time. At Masada, visit the fortress built by Herod in the first century B.C. During the Jewish revolt against the Romans in first century A.D., Jewish rebels and zealots took over the fortress and held out against the Romans for three years before committing suicide, rather than being captured. A cable car takes you to the top. (There are also stairs, but the ascent is not recommended for visitors arriving midday when the desert sun is quite hot.) The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth at 1,276 feet below sea level. The sea water is so salty that bathers can't help but float easily, and the mud near the sea has an array of therapeutic benefits. Part of the fun is slathering your travel companions with mud, then taking a dip in the Dead Sea. Don't miss the nearby oasis of Ein Gedi with its nature reserves, botanical gardens and health spas.
A good choice for families with young children, the 62-acre Biblical Zoo is home to a wide range of animals with a special focus on creatures indigenous to Israel and species named in the Bible. Kids can pet animals in the Children's Zoo, climb on fantastical creations in the Noah's Ark Sculpture Garden and watch nature come to life in the 3-D theater. A zoo train ride circles the park.