Understanding the Geography of Israel

It’s always good to look at a map when planning a trip to a foreign country. This way, you can estimate how long it would take to travel from one point to another and get a bigger picture of where you want to go. So, if you’re planning a trip to Israel, one of the first things you might want to do is open a map of Israel. You’ll see that it’s very small compared to other countries. It’s only about 22,145 square kilometers, which is about the size of the US state of New Jersey. It has three large cities – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, and many smaller cities, towns, villages, and kibbutzim. But there are things you can’t really see by looking at a Google map, and that’s the geography of Israel. For example, you can’t see that more than half of the country is a desert. So, that’s why I created this post – to help you better understand the geography of Israel, what can help you better plan your trip to Israel.

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Where is Israel located?

Let’s start with the location of Israel. It’s located in the Middle East, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Actually, it’s located right in the middle between Europe, Asia, and Africa. Thanks to this strategic location between continents and next to the sea, the Land of Israel was an important place throughout history. It was a major place of commerce, where cultures met and exchanged ideas, and battles took place between many different armies. Today, because Israel is encircled by many Muslim countries that deny its existence, there’s less movement in the region. Still, millions of birds pass through the country twice a year from Europe to Africa and back.

Today, Israel borders Lebanon in the north, Syria in the northeast, Jordan in the east, and Egypt in the south. Because everyone is talking about Gaza lately, I’ll also mention that Gaza is located to the southwest, on the coast. We have peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt, which means you can travel to those countries directly from Israel, through the land borders, or by flying by plane. Many people combine Jordan, Egypt, or both before or after their trip to Israel.

As mentioned, Israel is a small country – only about 22,145 square kilometers (8,630 square miles). It is about 470 kilometers (290 miles) in length, and its widest point is about 135 kilometers (85 miles). But despite its size, it has a variety of geological and climatic features. Within just 6 hours of driving, you can drive from the mountainous desert of Eilat in the south to the snowy peak of Mount Hermon in the north.  

The geographical regions of Israel

Many divide Israel into four physiographic regions: the Mediterranean coastal plain, the North and the Central Hills, the Jordan Rift Valley, and the Negev Desert. The first three regions are three parallel strips running from the north to the south, while the Negev Desert is a large area that covers most of the south. The division is a bit broad, but let’s try digging into it.

The Mediterranean coastal plain

As I’ve already mentioned, Israel is situated right next to the Mediterranean Sea. The sea is the country’s western border. The coastal plain is a flat region, which made it easy to be settled throughout the ages. You can find some of the most ancient cities in the world, including Old Jaffa (in Tel Aviv) and Old Akko (Acre), on Israel’s coastal plain. Both were port cities through which goods were shipped out and into the region.

Another fact that drew people to settle on the coastal plain is that the ground there is very fertile, and the groundwater is quite high, which makes it easy to pump out water. In the past, the central area of the coastal plain was covered with orange orchards, but today, most of them are gone due to the rise of real estate in the area. Still, there are many agricultural fields along the coastal plain, including oranges and avocados.

What to see in the coastal plain? 

  • Tel Aviv – The second largest city in Israel that has become the beating heart of Israel in terms of economy and culture. In Israel, we call Tel Aviv and its surroundings “The Center,” although if you look at the map of Israel, it makes more sense to call Jerusalem the center. But, because everything is happening in Tel Aviv and most people work there, it has become “the center” of the country. Here’s my complete guide to Tel Aviv.   
  • Akko (Acre) – An ancient port city known for its underground city from the time of the Crusaders. It’s located on the northern coastal plain, about a 1.5-hour drive from Tel Aviv.
  • Caesarea National Park – Located on the coastal plain, only about a 50-minute drive from Tel Aviv. Caesarea was a major port city in the time of King Herod. When he built it here in the 1st century BCE, it was one of the most sophisticated ports in the ancient world. Read my full guide to Caesarea National Park

There are also other cities, but they are recommended mostly for second or third-time travelers who have already seen the highlights. These cities include Ashkelon, where you can see an ancient gate from the 18th century BCE, and Netanya, which is known as a great beach destination.

The location of the coastal plain | Map data ©2024 Mapa GISrael, Google
The coastal plain near Caesarea

The North and the Central Hills

A main portion of Israel is its northern and central hill region. We can divide this area of Israel into several sub-regions: the Golan Heights, the Upper Galilee, the Lower Galilee, the Carmel Mountain, and the Judean Hills. And although they are not mountainous areas, we can also include the Jezreel Valley and the Shfela (the Lowland) in this region of Israel.

In general, if you want to visit the northern part of Israel, stay either in the Golan Heights or in one of the towns or villages in the Galilee and explore from there. And if you want to explore the Central Hills of Israel, your best option, in my opinion, would be to stay in Jerusalem.

Here’s a short description of each sub-region within the North and the Central Hills, from north to south:

The Golan Heights

The Golan Heights is a flat basaltic plateau with many water springs, which made it easy for people to settle here throughout the ages. It’s located to the east of the Jordan Rift Valley.

According to the Bible, the Israelites settled in the Golan after conquering it from Og, the Amorite king of the Bashan. Much later, in the time of the Romans, the area of the Golan Heights was included in the kingdom of Agripas the Second, the great-grandson of King Herod. Archeologists have found Jewish settlements in the Golan from the Roman-Byzantine periods, from the 1st to the 4th century. You can visit the remains of some of those settlements today in Gamlathe Talmudic Village in Katzrinand Ein Keshatot (Umm el-Kanatir). 

Later, for many years, the Golan region was not very populated. The Turks tried to populate it with Circassians, and there were a few Druze settlements and Bedouin tribes who lived there, but it was still quite deserted. In 1923, following the First World War, the British Mandate, which controlled the Land of Israel, and the French Mandate, which controlled Syria and Lebanon, split the territories between them. They decided that the Golan Heights would become Syrian territory, and that is how Syria got the Golan. Later, Israel captured the Golan during the Six-Day War and, by doing so, protected the settlements near the Sea of Galilee, which were until then under constant attack by the Syrians. Until today, some people do not recognize Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights, which they call “occupied territory.” They believe the Golan needs to be handed back to Syria.

Maybe because of this uncertainty regarding the region’s future, there are only a few settlements in the Golan Heights. The largest city in the sub-region is Katzrin, which only has around 7,000 residents. Other settlements include small villages, kibbutzim, and Druze villages. Unlike the Druze who live in the Galilee, many of the Druze who live in the Golan see themselves as Syrians and not as Israelis because they believe that one day, the Golan will be passed back to Syria.

What to see in the Golan Heights? 
  • Nature in the Golan – Most people visiting the Golan Heights come to enjoy its natural beauty. As mentioned, it’s a basaltic plateau rising above the Sea of Galilee. At the northern tip of the Golan, there’s Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in Israel, which gets covered in snow during winter. Many streams run down from the Golan to the Sea of Galilee, and in winter, you can enjoy many waterfalls and a beautiful green landscape.
  • Local agriculture – The basaltic ground and the elevation of the Golan Heights, which rises to about 1,100 meters above sea level in its northern part, make it also a perfect place for agriculture. There are many vineyards and apple and cherry orchards in the region. You can stop at one of the many wineries to taste the local wines. Some recommended wineries are Tel Shifon WineryPelter Winery, and Odem Mountain Winery. If you’re coming in the summer, from June to August, you can stop at one of the cherry orchards to pick ripe cherries. One recommended place is the Ein Zivan Orchard.
  • The Golan Trail – If you want to experience the beauty and diversity of the Golan on a deeper level, you can try hiking the Golan Trail. Read my full guide here.
The location of the Golan Heights | Map data ©2024 Mapa GISrael, Google
Birkat Ram - a lake in the northern Golan

The Upper Galilee

The Upper Galilee is the northernmost part of Israel, located west of the Jordan Rift Valley. It is mostly mountainous and includes the second-highest mountain in Israel, Mount Meronrising to a height of 1,204 meters. The sub-region is bordered by two main valleys – the Hula Valley in the east and the Beit HaKerem Valley in the south. There’s the coastal plain to the west and Lebanon to the north.  

Usually, those who visit the Upper Galilee are travelers who have already been in Israel and want to get to know new places. Here are some top places to visit:

  • Safed – The largest city in the Upper Galilee, one of the four holy cities of Judaism, perched on a hill not far from Mount Meron. Read my full guide about Safed.
  • Peki’in – A Druze village, which also has a cave, believed to be the place where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai hid for 13 years from the Romans. 
  • Rosh Pina – One of the first Jewish settlements in the Galilee.
  • Rosh Hanikra – A beautiful place on the border with Lebanon, where you can see underwater grottos. 
The location of the Upper Galilee | Map data ©2024 Mapa GISrael, Google
Mount Meron from the city of Safed

The Lower Galilee

Southward from the Upper Galilee, you’ll find the Lower Galilee. This region is still hilly, but the hills are lower than the ones in the Upper Galilee. Mount Tabor is one of the tallest mountains in the Lower Galilee, rising to a height of 588 meters, much lower than Mount Meron in the Upper Galilee.

The Lower Galilee is bordered by the Beit HaKerem Valley to the north, the Jezreel Valley to the south, and the Jordan Rift Valley, together with the Sea of Galilee, to the east. To the west, there’s the coastal plain.  

One of the most famous settlements in the Lower Galilee is Nazareth, known as the childhood town of Jesus in the Christian faith. By the way, if we look at the geography of Israel, we’ll see that the Sea of Galilee, which we’ll talk about when talking about the Jordan Rift Valley, is not so far from Nazareth, only about a 7-hour hike. So, it definitely makes sense that Jesus left Nazareth to Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He didn’t have to walk much, and it could be that he knew the place beforehand since he could have quite easily visited it while in Nazareth.

The location of the Lower Galilee | Map data ©2024 Mapa GISrael, Google

The Jezreel Valley

So, the Jezreel Valley is not a hilly area. It’s a valley. But it’s a valley in northern Israel, to the south of the Lower Galilee, east of Mount Carmel, north of the Samaria Mountains, and west of the Jordan Rift Valley. It’s a huge valley with fertile lands and water sources, which made it an excellent place for settlement throughout history. There are many ancient towns here. One of them is Megiddowhich is a national park today. In the time of the Bible, Megiddo was one of the land’s most powerful towns; you can learn that from its impressive gateways and sophisticated water system. It is mentioned 11 times in the Bible!

The Jezreel Valley is usually an area you pass by on your way to the Galilee, the Coastal Plain, or the Shfela. There’s another valley right next to it called the Beit She’an Valley, or the Springs Valley, which is well worth a visit if you want to enjoy the fantastic natural water sources of the area. An excellent place to go is the Springs Valley Park, a free-to-enter park with a lovely deep stream and several water springs. There’s also Gan HaShlosha, a park run by the INPA, which includes a huge natural swimming pool, a waterfall you can stand under, and a lovely little stream you can swim in. 

The location of the Jezreel Valley | Map data ©2024 Mapa GISrael, Google

The Carmel Mountain

Another main feature of Northern Israel is the Carmel Mountain, which has been recognized as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO thanks to its diverse species of plants and animals. This beautiful mountain stands right next to the Mediterranean Sea and rises to a height of around 550 meters. It is actually part of a large mountain range that stretches all the way to the northwestern corner of Samaria (the Shomron), but when people say “Mount Carmel,” they usually mean the green mountain right next to the sea. If you want to have a first-hand experience of Mount Carmel, I recommend hiking the section of the Israel National Trail that starts in Kibbutz Yagor at the foot of the Carmel and ends in Ein Hod.

The largest city on Mount Carmel is Haifa. It’s also the third largest city in Israel. Read my full guide about Haifa. But other than Haifa, there are also other, smaller settlements on Mount Carmel, including the Druze villages of Dalyat al-Karmel and Isfiya and the artists’ village of Ein Hod. 

The location of the Carmel Mountain | Map data ©2024 Mapa GISrael, Google
Mount Carmel from a distance

The Shfela

The Shfela – or the Lowlands – is a region between the coastal plain in the west and the north, the Judean Hills in the east, and the Negev in the south. The Shfela rises from around 20 meters in the west to about 460 meters in the east and serves as a mediator between the flat surface of the coastal plain and the high and steep Judean Hills.  

One of the main features of the Shfela is that it is made mostly from soft chalk rocks, which made it possible for humans to dig into the stone and create artificial caves for various purposes. You can see some of those caves in the Beit Guvrin National Park.

The Shfela also includes several archeological sites; one of them is the ancient city of Khirbet Qeiyafa, believed to be an important city on the border between the Philistines and the Kingdom of Judah and Israel in the time of King Solomon in the 10th century BCE. The Philistines lived in the coastal plain, while the Jews lived in this area of the Shfela and in the Judean Hills. Other ancient cities include Tel Lakhish and Tel Gezer.     

The location of the Shfela | Map data ©2024 Mapa GISrael, Google
View of the Shfela from Tel Lakhish

The Judean Hills (including the Jerusalem Hills)

The Judean Hills, including the Jerusalem Hills, are located between the Shfela in the west and the Judean Desert in the east. They are high mountains – around 1,000 meters at their peak, built mainly from hard chalk and dolomite. This area was once the heart of the Kingdom of Judah. The capital of the kingdom and today’s capital of Israel, Jerusalem, is situated in this region. Read more about Jerusalem here.  

The location of the Judean Hills | Map data ©2024 Mapa GISrael, Google

The Jordan Rift Valley

The Jordan Rift Valley runs from the north to the south in the eastern part of Israel. It was formed millions of years ago following tectonic movements in the region. Here are some of the main features in the Jordan Rift Valley – from north to south:

The locations of the different features in the Jordan Rift Valley | Map data ©2024 Mapa GISrael, Google

The Hula Valley

The northernmost part of the Jordan Rift Valley in Israel is the Hula Valley, a valley located east of the Upper Galilee and west of the Golan Heights. It’s most well-known as a stop for birds migrating from the north to the south. So, if you’re a bird-lover, you can definitely come here in spring or fall and enjoy the beautiful bird migration in Agamon Hula Park. 

The Hula Valley and in the background - the Golan Heights

The Jordan River

This is the most famous river in Israel, and it is even mentioned in the Bible as the eastern border of the Land of Canaan (the Land of Israel). Its sources – the Snir Stream, the Banias Stream, and the Dan Stream, are located in the Hula Valley, but the Jordan River makes its way all the way to the Dead Sea in the Judean Desert. Today, there’s not a lot of water flowing through the Jordan River, especially in its southern part, but you can still enjoy some easy rafting in its northern part.

The Sea of Galilee 

Also called Kinneret, this is the lowest freshwater lake in the world. In the past, the area around the lake was quite barren, but the Jewish settlers who came here at the beginning of the 20th century turned it into a fertile region covered with trees, plants, and agricultural fields. It’s known worldwide as the place where Jesus walked on the water and is surrounded by ancient Jewish settlements from the Roman and Byzantine periods. The largest city around the Sea of Galilee is Tiberius, but there’s little to see there today.

The Sea of Galilee from the Golan Heights

The Dead Sea

Next up is the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth. The Dead Sea, which is actually a large lake, is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, with a salinity level of around 34%. This is because water flows into the Dead Sea only from the Jordan River, and no river flows out of the lake. The water cannot get out of the lake, so it has no choice but to evaporate. Because the region is so hot and dry, the water evaporates fast, which raises the salt density.

Because of its high salt density, the Dead Sea is known as a place with healing properties. It was one of the world’s first health resorts, and people come here from around the world to enjoy its health properties. Many also come to float in the salty waters, an unforgettable experience!

The Dead Sea is located in the Judean Desert and is shared by Israel and Jordan. Near the Dead Sea, you can find the famous Masada National Park and the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.

Read more about the Dead Sea in my full guide.  

The southern part of the Dead Sea

Eilat and the Arava

Southward from the Dead Sea, you’ll find the Arava, a flat valley between the Mountains of Edom in Jordan and the mountains of the Negev in Israel. It is dotted by small settlements such as kibbutzim and communal villages. There are also many agricultural fields, especially all kinds of pepper. And one of the most famous sites in the Arava and in Israel is Timna Parkwhere you can see beautiful rock formations and the most ancient copper mines in the world.

At the southern tip of the Arava – and of Israel – is Eilat, Israel’s vacation city. It is situated on the northwestern shores of the Red Sea and is encircled by the Eilat Mountains and the Arava Desert. On the other side of the sea, there’s the Jordanian city of Aqaba, and many people go on day tours or multiple-day tours from Eilat to Petra and other Jordanian destinations.

When visiting Eilat, you can snorkel or dive through the northernmost coral reef in the world, hike in the beautiful and colorful Eilat Mountains, explore the Arava, or just enjoy the vibes on the seaside promenade.

Read more about Eilat in my full guide.

The Negev

The largest region of Israel is the Negev Desert, which covers about 60% of the country. Only 10% of Israel’s population lives within this region, so it’s very unpopulated. The largest city is Be’er Sheba, which is best-known thanks to its university. Other than that, there are mainly Bedouin villages, many of them illegal settlements, and smaller towns and villages, such as Mitzpe RamonThere are also several lone farms, where families grow vineyards, raise sheep and other livestock, or are engaged in other agricultural branches.

Unlike the Sahara Desert, where there are sand dunes, the Negev Desert is a rocky desert that includes dry wadis and crater-like forms. This makes it a very friendly desert for those who want to explore it. There are dozens of marked trails throughout the Negev Desert, many of them day hikes. If you want to explore the Negev Desert, one of the best places to go is Makhtesh Ramon, a stunning geological phenomenon where ancient rocks are revealed. Read about Makhtesh Ramon here

The location of the Negev Desert | Map data ©2024 Mapa GISrael, Google
Colors in Makhtesh Ramon in the Negev Desert

What about Judea and Samaria (the West Bank)?

To understand the geography of Israel, we also need to talk about the West Bank, or as Israelis call it, “Judea and Samaria.” This area includes the Samaria Hills in the north, part of the Judea Hills in the south, and part of the Jordan Rift Valley, including the northern part of the Dead Sea. It comprises about 21 percent of Israel and is called “the West Bank” because of its location on the west bank of the Jordan River. 

During the 1948 War, Jordan took control of this area. It dreamed of annexing it to Jordan and controlling both the east and west banks of the Jordan River, but that didn’t happen. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel took control, and since then, some people refer to this area as “occupied territories.” Israel calls it “an area under dispute.” You can learn more about this conflict around the West Bank in my post >> Is Palestine a state?

If you plan to visit this region, you should note that not all places are accessible by Israeli rental cars. Most rental companies do not allow you to enter Areas A and B in the West Bank, which are main Palestinian cities such as Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jericho, and smaller Palestinian towns. Area C, which includes the main roads and Jewish settlements, can be accessed without a problem.   

The location of the West Bank | Map data ©2024 Mapa GISrael, Google

Conclusion

The geography of Israel is diverse. There are tall, green mountains in the north and a beautiful rocky desert in the south. There’s the coastal plain in the west and the Jordan Rift Valley in the east, where you can find some of the lowest places on Earth. I hope this post helped you understand where all the regions are located and what you can do in each one.  

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Yours,

Lior

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