Israel was one of the more surprising stops on a recent multi-country trip. My initial reaction was pretty negative, with several things combining to make it feel like a fairly unwelcome place. By the end of our week, however, my opinion had completely changed. A big reason for that was 2 trips I consider can’t-miss activities if you’re traveling in Israel with kids.
I found both of these activities through our private tour guide, Izzat, who I highly recommend. He handled my kids’ moods and needs well, and he taught us a tremendous amount about ancient history and the modern Middle East. He completely delivered on my directive to find us hands-on learning opportunities and a unique experience where the kids could see and do things they could only find in Israel. Find him on Instagram @ohmyguide_israel.
These 2 days set a high bar for me for our future trips. They were immersive, educational, fun, hands-on, and at the exact right level for a 6 and 9 year old. If you’re heading to Israel, don’t miss these spots!
Biblical Israel Journey at Neot Kedumim Park
Located a 45 minute drive outside Tel Aviv, Neot Kedumim prides itself on being the world’s only Biblical nature preserve. If you’re not sure what that means, it means that they have taken 625 acres and restored them to what they would have looked like 2000+ years ago. Visitors get to experience what life would have looked and felt like in ancient Israel. The preserve offers a family tour that our kids completely loved, even though they don’t have an extensive background in the Bible and we are not followers of any particular religion.
Our private guide, Hadar, spoke perfect English and kept the kids engaged and learning throughout the 2-hour tour. We started our day by learning about water cisterns and how ancient Israelites would have gotten water from lakes and rivers. The boys were thrilled to get to turn the cistern themselves and watch the water fill the jugs before spilling into ancient wooden channels and imagining what it would be like to fill a drinking jug that way. My younger son, who craves big movement and sensory input, had to be torn away from this activity.
Next up was writing with quills made from reeds. We learned about vellum and parchment and papyrus and each kid got to write a secret message to take home. My younger son, who is a reluctant writer at the best of times, did not care for this part of the day, but my older son enjoyed it.
The 7 Plant Species
Ancient Israel was awash in agriculture, and Neot Kedumim offers visitors an up-close look at all 7 of the most important foods in ancient times:
During our trip, we saw date palms, wandered through vineyards and tried grapes at different stages of ripeness, and saw pomegranates ripening on the trees.
We also went past an animal enclosure where we discussed the role of donkeys and camels in ancient times, and were able to pet the donkeys. It wasn’t a petting zoo per se, but it was a way to get up close with a few of the most important animals in Israel’s history.
Working a Flour Mill
There are 2 ancient flour mills that visitors can use to grind flour by hand. It was both fun and challenging, and the kids got a kick out of seeing their wheat kernels slowly turn into a coarse powder as stone ground against stone. It was an excellent lesson in the power of technology and how different our methods of food production are these days compared to Biblical times. Neither kid seemed interested in grinding their own flour as part of their weekly chores!
Making Our Own Zaatar and Pita
Everyone’s favorite part of the experience was making our own zaatar, a spice blend that we muddled with a mortar and pestle. Mixed with a little olive oil, it was an excellent dipping sauce for the homemade pita bread that we cooked over an open fire.
Hadar led us to a folding table set up with all the necessary ingredients and guided us through mixing and kneading our own pita dough, while our guide Izzat helped get a roaring fire going. He placed what looked like a cast iron wok upside down over the flames, creating a dome on which we tossed our pita dough. After a minute or two, our dough was cooked and we had piping hot, handmade pita to dip in our zaatar. It was absolutely the highlight for the kids because a) it involved fire, b) it involved snacks, and c) it was safe for my food-allergy kid! (His allergies are eggs and all nuts, including peanuts, and both the zaatar and the pita were safe for him).
Our private Biblical tour cost 900 ILS ($264 in November 2022) for our group and I deemed it absolutely worth it.
Worldschooling topics covered:
- Native plants of ancient Israel
- Ancient methods of writing and food production
- Biblical history
- The role of animals in Biblical times
Find out more information and book your tour here.
Dig for a Day
The other incredible, hands-on experience we won’t soon forget was the Dig for a Day at Beit Guvrin National Park. Read on for our full review.
Located about an hour’s drive outside Tel Aviv, I first heard about this tour from our guide Izzat but booked it on my own, as I had planned to combine it with a stay in the desert.
With Dig for a Day, you get to join in on a real archeological dig in the city of Maresha. Once a great city in the Hellenistic period from the 6th to the 1st centuries BCE, Maresha was destroyed by its inhabitants as they fled an invasion by the Maccabees in the 2nd century BCE.
The people of Maresha gathered everything they could take with them as they fled. Everything else they threw down into a network of man-made underground caves which had been dug out to mine for stone to build the many buildings in the city. What remained was a dug-out pit, used as a basement of sorts.
Rather than let the Maccabees profit from their invasion, anything that remained behind was tossed into the caves and buried. Those caves now make up an archaeological site that laypeople are invited to contribute to.
On the day of our dig, we were met by an American guide living in Israel and working with Archaeological Seminars, the company that runs the digs and which works with the Israel Antiquities Authority. We were joined by one other family from Australia with similar-age kids, which made it even more fun for our group!
We had a safety briefing and a history lesson and then went into a cave. We used picks, shovels, and trowels to comb through the dirt, looking for shards of pottery, animal bones, and charcoal. I’m not sure what I was imagining, but I didn’t think we would find much. In reality, we found tons of pottery shards, a few bones, and one piece of charcoal.
It was dirty, extremely hot (at the surface…much cooler in the caves), and a ton of fun. The thrill of scooping up dirt and finding ancient pottery was electrifying. We could have dug for much longer than the experience allowed, and all too soon, we created a daisy-chain to hoist all our buckets of treasures and dirt to the surface. Our guide then talked us through the different kinds of pottery we had found, and we sifted what we thought was just dirt through large sieves to catch any missed treasures. Surprisingly, there were many.
Everything of value found at any archaeological sites in Israel remains the property of Israel and is cleaned and cataloged for historical significance, so you can’t take home anything you dig up. However, there is a huge bin of pottery shards that have been deemed unimportant that visitors can take home at the end.
In addition to the dig, there was an optional cave tour. It was doable for my 6 and 9 year olds, but I wouldn’t try with younger kids. It is fairly physically strenuous, with lots of up and down climbing, scooting through narrow passages, and crouching down. Larger or unfit adults may also want to sit this one out.
For those that join, expect a winding path, tight passages, moments of pitch black, cavernous rooms, and lively discussions about pigeon roosting practices and water cisterns. Fun fact: the best fertilizer for olive trees is…pigeon poop!
Pro tip: The Dig for a Day experience is hot and extremely dusty. You are required to wear completely closed shoes and should not bring or wear anything that you do not wish to be entirely covered in dust. Modest gym clothes and tennis shoes are best.
To get to the Dig for a Day, I rented a car through Hertz in Tel Aviv. We picked up the car in the morning and packed road trip snacks to eat as lunch on our drive. The drive took about an hour, and our dig began at 1 pm. We ended around 4 pm. There are no bathrooms inside the dig site, so make sure to visit the bathrooms either as you are entering Beit Guvrin National Park or at the gas station just outside the park before you arrive.
Make sure to pack lots of water for each person, and leave any unnecessary or valuable items behind.
Though Dig for a Day offers private digs, we found that our group of 2 families was perfect and added to our enjoyment of the day. I would recommend joining a group rather than booking a private dig, as our guide still had plenty of time to answer any questions and give hands-on attention.
Digs are offered twice a day and there are options to join a group in English or Hebrew. Though the afternoon dig will be hotter, you do spend most of your time underground and it was manageable in September. I imagine the height of summer would be better avoided, but even the morning dig is not until 10 am, so you will emerge from the caves at the hottest part of the day.
The Dig for a Day cost 95 ILS ($28) per adult and 72 ILS ($21) per child. Additionally, you have to pay the entrance fee for the national park, which is 28 ILS ($8.25) for adults and 14 ILS ($4) for children. You may be able to save a bit on the national park fee if you get the Israel Pass, which discounts the fees at multiple national parks. This was the only park we were visiting during our trip, so we just paid the one entrance fee.
Worldschooling topics covered:
- Biblical history
- Ancient building practices
Other Must-Do Activities with Kids in Israel
Though the Dig for a Day and the Biblical nature preserve definitely stand out as highlights of our trip to Israel, there was much to enjoy throughout the rest of our trip.
Visit the Beach
Tel Aviv’s beaches are famous for a reason – they are clean, well-managed, and beautiful. I kept reading that they are some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and I would not go so far as to agree, but they were lovely and the water of the Mediterranean Sea was warm and a lovely bright blue. The kids and adults had a blast.
We went to the beach after walking around Jaffa, the ancient fortress on the southern side of Tel Aviv. My kids aren’t of an age to appreciate wandering the streets of a city and enjoying the architecture, but they did like the market and seeing the old canons that were used to protect the ancient city. That was a nice way to combine an activity younger children will love (the beach) with the picturesque alleys of Jaffa, which they otherwise had no patience for.
A full day trip to Jerusalem was honestly too much for my kids, especially my 6 year old, but we powered through because it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Our private guide Izzat was great about reading the room and modifying the day to accommodate kids who got increasingly hot, overwhelmed with history, and frustrated by a lack of allergy-free ice cream.
He was clutch at helping us navigate the holy sites in Jerusalem with kids, and even found ways for us to skip the line to see Mary’s tomb and Jesus’s tomb. If you have young children, the lines in the old city of Jerusalem can be overwhelming, and the heat can be a big blocker to enjoying your time. Having a private guide with connections was a huge benefit. I think that without Izzat, we would have turned tail and run back to Tel Aviv without seeing very much!
That said, we all have wonderful memories from our day in Jerusalem and I would absolutely make sure it is part of any trip to Israel. My older son found the religious sites to be particularly meaningful and it was beautiful to see how moved he was.
If you’re looking for something a bit more physical, try a visit to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. Here you can see animals from all around the world and learn about their habitats. For an even more interactive experience, head over to the Clore Science Center, which is packed with interactive science exhibits.
Rough it in the Desert
We had planned to spend our last few days in Israel in the Negev Desert, which is full of fun activities for the whole family. I booked a stay at Kedma Hotel, a 5-star resort a bit in the middle of nowhere. Most visitors to the Negev Desert stay in or around Mitzpe Ramon, which has the Ramon Crater where you can take Jeep or off-roading tours, rappel down desert cliffs, and stargaze at an observatory.
However, I ended up changing plans at the last minute because I was concerned about Kedma’s ability to accommodate my younger son’s food allergies. Being that it is in the middle of nowhere, I knew that we would have to eat many of our meals at the hotel. I contacted them several times in an attempt to connect with the culinary staff and game plan how our stay would go, but I could never get a return phone call or email.
In general, Israel was tough for our food allergies, and I was worn out from the vigilance required to keep him safe even in a big city like Tel Aviv. For everyone’s health and comfort, I decided to skip the Negev and we went north to the Ritz-Carlton Herzliya and chilled out in the rooftop swimming pool instead.
What to Skip with Kids in Israel
The Dead Sea
Both my kids hated, HATED, the Dead Sea. We did another private day tour with Izzat with the intention of visiting the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea. We ended up cutting both the Jordan River and Ein Gedi because my kids didn’t have that much stamina, but I was unwilling to miss swimming in the Dead Sea.
My younger son has eczema, and I worried about how the extremely salty water would impact his skin. I was right to worry, and he had to spend a long time under the fresh water hosing stations to calm his skin. He sat on one of the chairs and was uncomfortable, bored, and generally pretty unpleasant 😀
My older son was game to enter the water, but also found the water to be too irritating to stay in for more than a minute or so. He did join me on the banks and enjoyed putting some Dead Sea mud on, but he was ready to go home long before I was.
I had read from other families that the Dead Sea is just not a good idea with kids, and while I sort of wish I had listened, I also wasn’t sure when any of us might get back to see it, so I pushed ahead. This was not their most pleasant part of the day at all, but I do still think it was worth doing if you are not sure when or if you will be back.
What to Know About Shabbat – for Non-Jewish Visitors
Many nicer hotels offer a large Shabbat dinner on Friday night, with food cooked earlier on Friday afternoon and served buffet-style. We went to the buffet at the Ritz-Carlton Herzliya and it was very impressive. Saturday morning, there was a very similar buffet with food from the night before, meaning that it was a savory-heavy buffet. The adults found plenty to eat, while the kids struggled a bit more. At restaurants that are open (many are not open on Saturday evenings), food will be limited to cold options – cold sandwiches and wraps, fresh/raw veggies and hummus, and the like.
Last Thoughts and Tips
Israel was tough from a food allergy perspective, to the point where I seriously considered leaving early. However, I’m so glad we stayed, because we had two of the most enriching, memorable travel experiences our family has ever had. If you are heading to the Tel Aviv area, do not miss the Dig for a Day and Neot Kedumim nature preserve!
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