12 amazing things to do in Israel on Shabbat

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    From Friday night to Saturday evening, the pace of life in Israel slows down, but there are still plenty of options for going out and about.

    When traveling in Israel, part of your initial culture shock may not be the assertiveness of the Israeli people, the knock-you-down summer heat, or harsh winter downpours. It just might be the weekly schedule. The week starts on a Sunday? How can that be?

    Well it just does, and spending time here will eventually get one used to this unusual twist, as well as the even more unusual notion of going out to party on a Thursday evening.

    What is one to do when Friday is a half day, and many businesses, restaurants and public transportation are closed from late Friday afternoon through Saturday (Shabbat) until the sky grows dark? Fret not! There are plenty of options for those who prefer to be out and about as the week draws to a close.

    Here are 12 of our favorites to satisfy your every whim and wish.

    1. Hit the beach, and not just for a tan

    Haifa beach boardwalk. Photo by Jessica Halfin

    Many of Israel’s coastal beaches are equipped with beautiful boardwalks. Friday evenings and Saturdays are a popular time for walking, but these areas are not just for walking anymore. Many have seaside bike paths, playgrounds, art displays, exercise equipment, drum circles and Israeli folk dancing.

    The newly redone beach boardwalks of Rishon LeTzion and Bat Yam, which connect, feature a sustainable bamboo deck that absorbs carbon dioxide and emits oxygen. Water features and parks, as well as a passageway lit by hanging lanterns, dubbed the “ceiling of the stars,” and upscale restaurants are reason enough to pay a visit there.

    Netanya’s network of beachfront promenades includes a unique elevated sea view from the cliffs above the beach. Bar Kochba Promenade in Ashkelon, just north of the marina, includes a great view of the beach and access to giant metal artwork that doubles as a children’s playground.

    In the North, Haifa’s well-kept boardwalk is continually expanding north into the tranquil Bat Galim neighborhood, while Nahariya’s boardwalk is both peaceful and filled with city pride, displayed on colorful art displays made of painted grass next to the path.

    1. Check out a museum

    Children’s Museum in Holon offers unique interactive exhibits

    Classic museums like the Israel Museum, which you should definitely not miss, are open on Saturdays, but so are less well-known places like Nazareth Village.

    The site of many period movies, Nazareth Village is a living replica of an Israeli village during the first century CE, based on archaeological evidence. That means you can interact with a shepherd, a carpenter and a weaver, among other villagers, and see a replicated ancient mikveh (ritual bath), cistern and winepress.

    The Israel Children’s Museum in Holon offers unique interactive exhibits including a Beatles magical mystery tour, and experiential sub-museums that allows visitors to feel what it is like to be deaf, blind or elderly.

    1. Dine at non-kosher restaurants

    Israel has a surprisingly active restaurant life, even on Friday nights and Saturdays. Even more surprising are the handful of chef restaurants open in Jerusalem, like Hasadna culinary workshop, run by the Machneyuda chef group, which specializes in inventive dishes such as octopus salad with pickled fennel, fresh herbs, orange fillet, and sour labane cheese.

    In Tel Aviv, head over to OCD, a local foodie favorite that highlights local culture, materials and a bold Israeli attitude through Chef Raz Rahav’s nine-course tasting menus. There are two seatings per night.

    1. Sip a fancy drink

    Chef Guy Gamzo of Aria Restaurant, Tel Aviv. Photo by: Yaron Brener

    Just like in fine dining, there are many options for upscale bar experiences on the weekends in Israel.

    Classy speakeasy joints like Gatsby Cocktail Room in Jerusalem, and wine and cocktail specialty bars like Batardin Haifa offer a glimpse into the world of personalized craft cocktails and service.

    For a Tel Aviv cocktail experience you won’t soon forget, try Imperial in the Imperial Hotel; or Aria lounge for perfectly concocted cocktails and appetizers whipped up by Guy Gamzo, one of the city’s best and most innovative chefs, who also leads the kitchen staff in the lounge’s adjacent restaurant, Aria Upstairs.

    1. Meet Israel’s minorities

    Saturdays are a great day to visit Israeli populations outside of the Jewish majority. Head north to learn about the Druze people and their culture, and even take a personalized cooking workshop at a Druze home arranged by Gaileat.

    Or follow our food tour of Acre (Akko) to experience excellent Arab cuisine on the northern coast.

    1. Take a Galilee/Golan boutique winery tour

    Got a car? Great, now you can spend your weekend in the Tuscany of Israel, where award-winning family-run non-kosher boutique wineries such as Chateau Golan, Assaf Winery and Galil Mountain Winery  — the latter specializes in sustainable winemaking — await you.

    Assaf Winery.
    1. Experience Shabbat

    In a world of smartphones and social media, the concept of observing Shabbat, and therefore switching it all off for an entire day, can actually be quite appealing.

    But preparing for Shabbat can be just the opposite—a hectic song and dance of shoppers grabbing last-minute items, and cooks rushing to get a lavish meal ready before the sun sets.

    Going to a city with a majority of observant residents, such as the old cities of Safed (Tzfat) or Jerusalem, allows you to experience the buzz of Friday morning preparation followed by the distinctive calm of Friday evening and Saturday.

    Anouhav Winery in Safed is open Friday morning. Photo by Jessica Halfin

    To get the full experience, we suggest arriving on Thursday evening or early Friday morning. In Tzfat visit the famous Kabbalistic synagogues, walk the Artists Quarter and stay overnight in a bed-and-breakfast or hotel, and spend your Saturday strolling the city and taking in the beautiful mountain views.

    The same can be done in Jerusalem’s Old City. Come early on Friday, see the sights, enjoy a traditional Shabbat meal with a local family, then wander the ancient alleyways and explore the nooks and crannies on Saturday until the first stars come out and the new week begins.

    Old City of Jerusalem. Photo by Jessica Halfin
    1. Hang around the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)

    A beach in Tiberias. Photo by Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock.com

    Many of Tiberias’ beaches are overly popular with Israeli campers and rowdy visitors, but there are also a few private more well-kept beaches that allow you to experience a different side of Israel’s largest body of fresh water, where Jesus is said to have walked.

    Bora Bora Beach may not condone outside snacks on their shores, but the ₪50 fee is certainly worth the view and well-maintained facilities.

    Just east of the sea is Hamat Gader. A resort built up around natural hot springs next to Roman ruins, it is a one-stop shop for relaxation that includes a spa, boutique hotel, fishing ponds, waterpark, crocodile farm and petting zoo. Many go just to picnic and splash in the thermo-mineral springs for an afternoon.

    1. Spend time down on the farm

    Children hold up freshly dug carrots from a field in the Western Negev. Photo by Doron Horowitz/FLASH90

    Israel specializes in family-friendly agricultural experiences. Open on the weekends, Shvil HaTapuzim (The Orange Path) and Pull Gezer, both in the central Sharon region, encourage visitors to learn about farm operations, pick their own fresh produce and flowers in season, and enjoy other fun activities such as ropes courses and mini-golf.

    1. Catch a flick

    Improve your Hebrew skills by heading to a movie theater, many of which are open on Friday evenings and Saturdays, to see an Israeli movie.

    Alternatively, watch a popular children’s cartoon dubbed in Hebrew, or a Hollywood blockbuster in English with Hebrew subtitles. With Hebrew learning like this, who needs ulpan?

    1. Indulge in a romantic retreat

    A dish served at Yehelim Boutique Hotel in Arad. Photo: courtesy

    Who doesn’t dream of a romantic getaway in a cabin or country inn (tzimmer) in a beautifully remote area surrounded by nature?

    Hundreds of these individually owned cabins exist, and can be booked through sites like booking.com. We’re partial to bed-and-breakfasts like Yehelim in the Southern Judean desert town of Arad, which offers privacy, spectacular views of the Dead Sea, a full country breakfast, and just maybe a camel or ibex sighting from your window/private wading pool.

    Or stay at a kibbutz guesthouse to get a real modern kibbutz experience including dining in a communal dining hall or café, having a beer at the community pub, taking a swim in the pool, and strolling the quiet paths.

    1. Commune with the desert

    Stargazing in Mitzpe Ramon. Photo courtesy of Deep Desert Israel

    A visit to the Vidor Center in the Arava Valley (open seven days a week) gives you a fun, interactive education about Israel’s blooming desert agricultural industry.

    Enjoy a night of desert music magic at Mitzpe Ramon Jazz Club or a private desert stargazing tour with an astrologist.

    About the Author:

    Jessica Halfin is an American immigrant who arrived in Israel in 2006.  She is an Israeli-trained baker, gourmet cook, food and culture writer, and gives foodie tours to tourists in Haifa City.

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