Photograph by Nicolas van Ryk, VISUM/Redux
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Discover why this tiny piece of land is sacred to three major religions.

Photograph by Nicolas van Ryk, VISUM/Redux

See Jerusalem like a Nat Geo Explorer

At cultural and historical crossroads, this ancient city is constantly reinvented.

Every visitor to Jerusalem arrives with an expectation and leaves boggled by how vast and complicated this jewel in the rocky hills truly is. As the home of three major world religions, Jerusalem attracts people from far and wide. No two travelers to the city leave with the same experience, nor do they leave as the same people they were when they arrived. (See the top 10 things to do in Jerusalem).

My work in Israel

National Geographic has supported my research related to tsunamis that impacted the coastline during ancient times. For more than a decade, we conducted underwater archaeological excavations and offshore geological collections. This work has contributed to the Israeli government’s decision to include tsunamis as one of the national disaster preparedness programs. If you stay in Tel Aviv or stroll the beaches in Ashdod or Ashkelon, you will notice tsunami information signs and evacuation guides that are the direct result of these efforts. (Read our travel guide to Israel).

Travel for good

Planting trees is an old tradition in the region, and travelers can arrange to plant their own through the local arbor association. However, a quick way to do some good is to fill a bag with trash as you walk the beach. You can contribute a selfie to #2minutebeachclean, an international effort hosted locally by Eco Ocean.

You can also support local dual narrative tours that highlight both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, designed by National Geographic Emerging Explorer Aziz Abu Sarah.

What's in my bag

I may sound like Sherlock Holmes, but I always carry a small magnifying glass, or loupe. Getting up close to objects, whether looking at ancient stone, beach sand, flower petals, or jewelry, gives a whole new dimension. And if there are kids in tow it can keep them very busy! I also carry a Rite in the Rain notebook. In serious expeditions, this is essential for taking notes in all weather conditions, but even for casual travel it avoids running ink disasters if your water bottle leaks. Another essential I have on all expeditions, but especially in Israel, is lip balm. Israel’s climate varies from zone to zone, and the windy outlooks, hyperarid deserts, and salty coastal areas make lip balm a must.

Traditional crafts

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Prayers take place at the Western Wall inside the Old City of Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, handmade Armenian tiles are a beautiful gift. There are many mass-produced options in the markets, so stop at the family-owned production shops located in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City. If heading to the north, I love the tapestries from the Druze village stores in Daliyat al Karmel. With their bright, tightly woven detail, they quickly turn into treasured family heirlooms.

Local etiquette

While traveling in Jerusalem, dress in light-colored, breathable materials with sleeves that can be rolled up and a hem or pant length that goes beyond the knees. This will help you stay cool, prevent sunburn, and gain entrance to religious sites without any hassle. A scarf made of light material is also handy for this purpose.

Know that shaking hands between opposite sexes is not a standard practice for many of the region's religious sectors. When approaching someone from the opposite sex, it is best to wait for their cue to know whether to reach out or not. Usually just a hello with a smile is sufficient for greetings, though someone may surprise you with a bear hug at your departure.

Must-read book

Someone to Run With by David Grossman provides a wonderful fictional window into the nooks and crannies of Jerusalem. The Source by James A. Michener gives an essential, timeless summary of the history of the Jewish faith from the beginning. Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi will both prime the appetite and tell a story from the eyes of this Jewish and Arab Israeli chef team from Jerusalem.

Savor the flavors

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Dedicated in 1149, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre dates to the crusader era, although portions are older. Pilgrims and tourists from around the world visit the historic basilica each year, which is still an active church.

In Jerusalem, the culinary options are endless. In the Machane Yehuda market on the western side of the city, there is a huge range of top-tier gourmet restaurants that take reservations or have multi-hour-long waits every evening. However, just walking around and nibbling is a great way to try tehini, seasonal fruits, international cheeses, freshly-roasted espresso, and local craft beers. There are companies that give tasting tours for the real foodie travelers. Ask any local where the best hummus is and they will have an opinion. My favorite is found at Lina.

Outside of Jerusalem, Uri Buri restaurant in Acre is an amazing, long-standing institution established by the Julia Child of Israeli cuisine, Uri Jeremias. If you don’t have the time or the budget for a sit-down meal, stop at his ice cream parlor for some of the most unusual and delicious flavors like cardamom or black pepper, pomegranate sorbet.

Get off the beaten path

Spring systems all around Jerusalem helped support agriculture for thousands of years. Many of these springs were channeled into natural pools or basins that can be visited for swimming or to refill water bottles. They are an excellent escape from the city year-round.

Cultural experiences

People-watching is perhaps the best cultural experience in Jerusalem. The hustle and bustle of the Western Wall late on Friday afternoon is only second to Central Station during rush hour. Watch as people complete their shopping before the Sabbath, pray, and connect with friends. If you are Jewish and would like to join a family for a Shabbat meal, there are organizations that connect hosting families with visitors.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not only a tourist destination, but it is an active, working church. After your own experience in the church, take some time to quietly watch as the different sects come and go to complete their rituals and prayers. Since the church is open to visitors and pilgrims all the time, they are accustomed to onlookers. (Read about the site that may be Jesus’ tomb.)

Explore the outdoors

Even within Jerusalem there are areas with beautiful natural areas where you can observe birds, insects, lizards, and snakes in their natural habitats. The nature area of Ein Kerem and other hiking areas around Jerusalem are full of wildlife. Israel is located along the migration route for birds making their journey from Africa to Europe, making it one of the best bird-watching regions in the world. During migration periods massive flocks of pelicans can fill the sky like pterodactyls, and pink flamingos will show up in the most unexpected places! For the best bird-watching, travel north to the Hula Valley or south to the Eilat Birdwatching Center.

Travel back in time

Stop at Caesarea Maritima to see the remains of the massive Roman city that King Herod built along the sea, which was damaged by at least three tsunami events. The remains of the ancient aqueduct, theater, hippodrome, and bathhouses make for a daylong adventure. Snorkeling or scuba diving is available in the ancient harbor through the Old Caesarea Diving Center. The site is unusual in that a portion of it has been dedicated to restaurants, so you can also have cocktails or dinner at sunset. Many tourists only realize this after scheduling for just a trip through the site and regret not being able to enjoy all it has to offer.

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Caesarea, Israel, holds a large Roman amphitheater and historic port on the Mediterranean coast.

Nimrod Fortress, a Muslim castle and stronghold that was built to fend off the crusaders, sits on a geological seam in the very north of Israel. Because it is far away from the main tourist attractions, it tends to be quiet almost year-round. You can wander the ancient outposts, dungeons, and vaulted rooms. Many hyraxes have taken residence within its walls and can be seen scrambling along the ruins during the cooler parts of the day.

Beverly Goodman is a professor in the department of Marine Geosciences at the University of Haifa. She blends skills from archaeology, geology, and anthropology to explore the complex ways nature and humans interact on coastlines. She is a National Geographic Explorer and her research has been shared in several National Geographic television specials and media stories. Follow her on Twitter @goodmanbeverly.