For any Christian, there can be no place more meaningful to visit than Israel. Steeped in history, this is the country where Christ was born, raised, ministered, arrested, crucified and, finally, risen from the dead. Packed with ancient sites, it really is an opportunity to step back in time and actually walk in the footsteps of Jesus!
For most visitors (first time or otherwise) the best way to do this is take one of the many Christian tours in Israel that are on the market. And the good news is that, whether you’re staying a week or longer, and whether you’re looking for a luxury trip or watching your wallet, there’s something to suit everyone.
The fact that Israel isn’t a large country also means you’ll get to pack in an enormous amount and, as well as the ‘must-see’ Christian sites get a general flavour of the Holy Land. Here’s the kind of itinerary you might expect, once you’re ready to plan your trip…
Which other place should you begin a Christian pilgrimage to Israel than Jerusalem? Enchanting, beautiful, mysterious and steeped in spirituality, there are few things as magical for visitors as visiting the Old City. Two thousand years old, it’s a veritable labyrinth and although each of its four quarters (Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian) all have great beauty, the Christian quarter is where you’ll want to head first.
Walk the Via Dolorosa (‘the Way of Sorrows’) as Jesus did, en route to crucifixion, stopping at the different stations along the way, much as he did, since his cross was so heavy to bear. Visit the extraordinary Church of the Holy Sepulchre - dating back to the 4th century, tradition dictates it was here that the Son of God was buried and then resurrected.
Today, it is probably the most sacred spot in the world for Christians to visit, who stand in awe before Calvary, the Stone of the Anointing and the Aedicule. The Church is overseen by a number of Christian denominations but entrance is free to all. At Christmas and Easter it’s particularly busy, but the atmosphere is electric!
Besides the Old City, every visitor should tour Mount Zion which, according to Biblical tradition, is where the God of Yahweh dwells. Not only does it afford tremendous, panoramic views of Jerusalem and the Old City, but it boasts many sites of its own These include King David’s Tomb, the Room of the Last Supper, the Protestant Cemetery, the Abbey of the Dormition and the grave of Oscar Schindler, the famous ‘righteous gentile’ who saved so many Jews during World War II,
You’ll also want to explore the Mount of Olives, home to the Garden of Gethsemane (where Jesus prayed before his arrest), and some very special churches, including Dominus Flevit (with its exceptionally beautiful stained glass window) the Church of Mary Magdalene (with its famous gold cupolas) and the Basilica of the Agony (recognisable by a stunning gold mosaic on its facade).
Bethlehem, Jericho and Qasr al Yehud
An easy journey from Jerusalem, all three of these sites are loaded with historical and cultural significance. Bethlehem, of course, is a major pilgrimage site, since it is home to the Church of the Nativity, which marks the spot where Jesus is thought to have been born. The city is also home to the Milk Grotto, a Catholic chapel where Mary, Joseph and Jesus took during the Massacre of the Innocents, afterwards fleeing to Egypt.
Close by, you’ll tour Jericho, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet and mentioned on many occasions in the Old Testament. Famous for the battle there (where Joshua made walls tumble down), you can take a cable car to the top of the Mount of Temptation (where the devil unsuccessfully tempted Jesus to forsake God) and visit the Monastery of St. Gerasimus, and kneel on stone floors where the monks of St. Jerome prayed over the centuries.
The final stop of the day will be to Qasr al Yehud, the baptismal site on the edge of the River Jordan where, according to tradition, Jesus was baptised (this symbolising his spiritual birth). Incredibly sacred, this is where Joshua defeated the Caanites (the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant across the river), the Prophet Elijah performed miracles and Abraham allowed Lot to choose fertile valley land.
With palm trees, breathing desert vistas and silence all around you, it’s hard to tear yourself away and, of course, it is possible to be baptised here.
Nazareth, Kfar Cana and the Galilee
Travelling north towards the Lower Galilee, your first stop will most likely be Nazareth, which is the largest Arab Israeli city in Israel. You’ll visit the Basilica of the Annunciation (the largest church in the Middle East) where, according to tradition Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel, and told that she would conceive a child by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Outside, look around the courtyard, filled with mosaics representing Mary, all donated by churches from around the world. Whilst Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he spent much of his childhood in Nazareth and so a visit here could also involve a trip to St. Joseph’s church (built in Romanesque style and over many previous churches) as well as a stroll through the lively, bustling market in the heart of the city.
From Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee is about 45 minutes by tour bus but more often than not you’ll stop at Kfar Cana, a small town just 7km north of Nazareth, which is famous in the New Testament as being the place at which Jesus performed one of his most famous miracles - transforming water into wine. Inside the Franciscan Wedding Church, you might even see couples renewing their wedding vows - it’s a very popular thing to do here.
Sea of Galilee
Then onto the beautiful Sea of Galilee, where Jesus spent most of his adult life ministering. It is in this region that he recruited twelve humble fishermen to be his disciples, here where he preached to the masses and here where he performed other important miracles (calming the waves in the midst of a storm, turning food for a few into food for five thousand and raising the dead).
All Christian tours in Israel will include visits to some of the most important sites here. The Galilee (or ‘Kinneret’ as it’s known in Hebrew) is situated on the ancient Via Maris trade route, so there are many examples of Greek and Roman architecture here, as well as some beautiful Christian sites.
At Tagba, visit the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes (built in the 4th century) and marvel at the beautiful and intricate mosaic floors. Close by is the Church of the Beatitudes, where Jesus is said to have given his famous Sermon on the Mount and at Mount Tabor step inside the Church of the Transfiguration, before enjoying wondrous views of the Golan Heights (to the north), the Carmel Mountains (to the west) and Mount Gilboa (to the east).
Capernaum, sometimes referred to as ‘the town of Jesus’ sits on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee and is home to a number of restored churches, synagogues and ‘the House of Peter’ which historians believe was an early meeting place for Christians. Part of a Franciscan monastery, it’s dedicated to St. Peter, whom Catholics regard as the first leader of the church - look out for the statue of him outside, holding keys (the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven).
Finally, you won’t want to miss Yardenit, Israel’s official baptismal site, on the south of the water, where thousands of pilgrims come each year from around the world to be baptised. Also on the banks of the Jordan river, it is incredibly tranquil and green and as well as being able to watch the immersions (or participate), stroll around the outside courtyard which has prayers inscribed in many languages.
Finally, If you have any free time, perhaps take a boat out on the Sea of Galilee (early in the morning or at sunset) or make a trip to Kibbutz Ein Gev (on the eastern shore) where there’s an excellent restaurant, a small train which chugs around the kibbutz and even carpentry workshops for the kids.
If you’re in Israel for more than a week, it’s also possible to make trips to other parts of the country that are of interest to Christians. Akko is an ancient Crusader City which is home to Templar Tunnels, a lively market and a beautiful harbour. The beautiful city of Jaffa is home to the port where Jonah fled God and was swallowed by a whale as punishment, as well as a beautiful Franciscan church.
So when deciding which Christian tour to israel is best for you, take a good look at their itineraries, before deciding what sites are most important for you to see.