Israel is home to an array of monumental churches scattered around the country. Here are ten highlights from this important Holy Land attraction, including landmark Jerusalem churches, like the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity, St. Gabriel’s Church and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth and others in the north especially worth a visit. Most of these churches in Israel are filled to the brim with visitors during peak holiday months for Christmas and Easter, but their architectural beauty and prolific ancient history make them worthwhile places to visit at any time of the year.
Insider's guide to the best churches in Israel
The church itself is Catholic and contains multiple mosaics representing the 12 nations that helped fund it. The church’s location in the tranquil Garden of Gethsemane - another significant reason to visit. Thought to have been an olive tree garden even during Christ’s day, the venue is known for its eight beautiful olive trees – dated to be around 2,000 years old. Approach the garden and church from a path down the Mount of Olives and stop by at the Dominus Flevit Church, where Jesus is said to have wept over the future of Jerusalem.
One of the oldest continuously used churches in the world, the Church of the Nativity is more of a complex, as it also houses the Church of St. Catherine and the Grotto of the Nativity. Visitors should be aware that Bethlehem is beyond the Green Line, and is thus not part of Israel’s internationally recognized boundaries and is governed by the Palestinian Authority. A recognized tourist spot, it is considered safe, but be aware that crossing there from Israel will require you to go through Israeli checkpoints, so have your passport ready.
Built on the site revered by Christians as the location of Jesus' resurrection, the church has been a location of pilgrimage since the 4th century. Christians of all denominations and people from around the world can be seen visiting its various frankincense laden vestibules and chambers.
The Basilica is the largest Catholic church in the Middle East and was built in 1969 over the remains of previous Byzantine and Crusader churches. Before entering, take your time admiring the fascinating mosaics of Mary and Jesus in the portico. Donated by Catholic communities from all corners of the world, they are a moving testament to the poignancy of the mother and child across many cultural divides. After viewing the lower church, walk up a spiral staircase to the upper church to see the building’s most celebrated feature – the dome.
Also called the Greek Orthodox Church of Annunciation, St. Gabriel’s is located in the center of downtown Nazareth. It is the largest Christian church in the Middle East, colorfully decorated in a modern architectural style. According to Greek Orthodox tradition, it is said to be the site Mary learned she would become pregnant with Jesus. Inside, visitors will find impressive murals and stain-glass windows, among other works from around the world. Mass on Sunday starts at 8:30. It is requested that guests dress modestly. A historical, stunning site for travelers of all faiths.
In the heart of Jaffa's Old City, this church is dedicated to Saint Peter's raising Tabitha from the dead, which is reported to have occurred in Jaffa. With roots from the 16th Century, the 19th Century building features an impressive vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows, and marble walls.
It is here that Jesus is said to have uttered such phrases as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are the children of God.” Known as the eight Beatitudes, they uplift those in society who are the most downtrodden, and are enough to inspire believers and social activists alike. With eight sides meant to represent the eight phrases, the church itself is small, simple and lovely and does not attempt to compete with the breathtaking natural beauty of the spot.
Currently there are two churches on the mountain – a Catholic one called the Church of the Transfiguration (or the Church of the Savior), and a Greek Orthodox one, called the Church of St. Elias (Elijah). The Catholic one is the grander of the two, with an impressive mosaic and chapels dedicated to Moses and Elijah. It was built in 1924 on the site of earlier Byzantine and Crusader churches, parts of which are still visible. Also present is a cave said to have been the dwelling of St. Melchizedek, mentioned in Genesis, who dwelt there as a hermit for seven years. Modernity allows visitors to drive close to the summit, but those looking for a little exercise, or perhaps a more genuine experience, may want to seek out one of the many hiking trails.
This church is said to be where Jesus multiplied a mere five loaves of bread and two fish in order to feed 5,000 of his hungry followers. The church features stunningly restored mosaics from the fifth century, the most famous of which depicts two fish around a basket of bread, representing the miracle attributed to the site. Also present is a slab of limestone said to be the rock on which the famous meal was produced, and a charming floor mosaic of various flora and fauna including two cuddling ducks. The current church is less than 100 years old, but it has maintained an aesthetic true to its original Byzantine-era roots, some of which are still visible. Less than 200 meters away on the water’s edge sits the black stone Chapel of the Primacy of St. Peter, where Jesus is said to have feasted on fish with his disciples after the resurrection.