There’s nothing quite like stepping out onto the summit of Masada, the sun beating down on you and the Dead Sea stretching out before you.
This stunning ancient fortress is one of the most visited sites in Israel for a reason, and everyone should aim to visit at least once if planning a visit to the country.
A magnificent 2,000 year old fortification atop a rugged rocky plateau, Masada is one of the world’s most beautiful ruins. However this is not the type of site where you can just step off the tour bus, admire for twenty minutes, and then get back on.
Making the most of a trip to Masada requires a little bit of forward planning, so here are some of the things you can do before your visit, an introduction to the history of the site, and whether or not you should hike!
How to Make the Most of a Trip to Masada, Israel
Plan the Trip Beforehand
You need to make sure that you have a sizeable chunk of time for visiting Masada. This is an extensive site and it would be a shame to miss parts of it because you have run out of time. As such, it’s crucial that you plan the trip beforehand.
We recommend planning for a full day here, especially if you’re planning to hike to the fortress instead of taking the cable car (more on the hike below), but you also have to factor in the distance from Masada to other major cities.
Ie, most visitors to Masada are making a day trip from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. However, both cities are over an hour’s drive away so you need to factor that in (an hour and a half each way from Jerusalem, and 2 hours from Tel Aviv).
It’s also worth bearing in mind that this is maybe the most popular tourist attraction in Israel that is outside a major city. It can be difficult to remember this when you see photographs that have no doubt taken at dawn or when the sun is at its highest and the summit is empty.
Aka, if you want stunning photography and need to be at the site before it becomes too crowded, forward planning is absolutely necessary.
Read Masada’s History
Masada is a site that is rich in history, and while it’s a beautiful place to visit just for the architecture and scenery, if you take the time to look into some of the history behind this incredible site, you’ll gain far more from your visit.
King Herod, King of Judea, (who ruled from 37 to 4 B.C.) originally built Masada as a castle complex in the last century B.C. When the ancient Romans overtook Judea in the first century A.D., the grounds became a fortress for the Jewish people.
There are so many amazing eras that this site has passed through, and so much fascinating history. You could start your research at the beginning with a look at the Hasmonean fortress, or you could start with the reign of Herod the Great.
As you read more, you’ll find that Masada was also an important site in the first Jewish-Roman war, with the Roman legion X Fretensis laying siege to the fortress in 73 CE. Finally, the fortress then became a Byzantine monastery during the fifth and sixth centuries.
The site remained uninhabited for nearly 13 centuries, until it was rediscovered in 1828. Researchers excavated the site in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and uncovered an incredible range of structures.
The wealth of archaeological and historic value that has been generated from this site is truly amazing. Standing at the summit, you can feel quite alone and isolated, but this site has seen nearly seven centuries’ worth of activity.
It can be utterly breath-taking to realize.
No matter how you choose to look at it, there is always going to be a new angle to view this site from. History buffs are going to adore learning more about this, but biblical scholars will also no doubt find plenty to love too.
Even if you only have a passing interest in the Roman Empire, the activities of the time, particularly here in the Middle East, are some of the most interesting parts of the Empire’s history. There is a multitude of books and sources from top scholars and academics to choose from.
By putting in the effort to conduct a little research beforehand, you will feel a lot more confident at the site. Instead of viewing the structures passively, you will be able to make strong connections between what you have read about and what is in front of you.
Overall, you will hopefully have a much deeper and more meaningful experience than someone who is just visiting because it is part of their tour’s itinerary.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the latter, but this is such a historic site that further research is always going to be beneficial for visitors. Take the time to read up on the site before you visit. You won’t regret it.
Hiking the Snake’s Path
One of the best ways to visit Masada involves a hike. The Snake’s Path is one of the options for walking. With the visitor’s centre at approximately 400m below sea level and the mesa standing 450m high, this is a fairly substantial hike.
The Snake’s Path winds up the side of the mesa and takes about an hour to complete. It is an easy-going hike so even inexperienced walkers should have little problem doing so, but this doesn’t mean you can afford to be complacent.
The trail is open from 8 AM but it can shut at 10 AM as things begin to heat up. Masada is at the summit of a mesa and the sun can be a foe that many forget about when visiting. You need to make sure you are arrive in plenty of time to hike before the sun gets too high.
Choosing to hike the summit is cheaper than taking the cable car. An adult ticket with two cable car journeys is NIS 74 (21 USD), whereas it is NIS 56 (15 USD) for a one-way cable car trip or NIS 28 ($8 USD) for an adult to hike the Snake Path to the top.
Climbing the Snake’s Path can give you a tremendous amount of satisfaction as well as being cheaper. If you manage to go early in the morning, hiking to the top while the sun rises with you will give you some fantastic views of the surrounding area.
Of course, hiking may not be for everyone. If you feel like an hour’s hike is not for you, on top of the time you spend in the site itself, there are other paths you could take.
The assault ramp is one of the other popular hikes. Unlike the Snake’s Path, it does not start at the visitor’s centre. Instead, you will make your approach from the western side of the mountain and it will take approximately 25 minutes to scale the route.
This still may not be preferable, especially on very hot days, so there is a cable car. This allows you to sit back and marvel at the sights around you as you climb to the top of the mesa.
If you do choose to hike, it may be a better choice to go earlier in the day or even towards the autumn or winter. Though even the Snake’s Path is not too long a hike, the heat can be a real enemy.
Do not try to attempt the hike without the right footwear, headwear, or water supplies – in fact, you should bring plenty of water with you even if you’re taking the cable car to the top, to last you throughout your day on site.
Stay the Night
Many love to hike Masada as the sun is raising, to fully experience the site at one of the most beautiful times of day. However, getting up at 5 AM to leave Jerusalem or Tel Aviv is also not for everyone.
If you want to see the beauty of Masada at this time of day, it would be better to find accommodation near the National Park. There are many hotels in the neighbouring area that could provide you with the perfect starting point for a morning expedition.
They range in price from a youth hostel within a few minutes’ walk of the National Park, to boutique hotels closer to the Dead Sea. As this is the next logical place to visit after you have been to Masada, a shrewd adventurer would make sure to put them close together in an itinerary.
Many tours out of Jerusalem offer you the chance to go to both the Dead Sea and Masada together. However, this will not allow you to properly experience them at your own pace.
If you are used to tours, then it could be a great option for you. However, going on a tour does mean that you cannot spend more time anywhere that could interest you. You are given a strict time that you have to adhere to, and it might be better to set your own pace instead.
Additionally, choosing to stay the night on the shores of the Dead Sea means that you can indulge in some rest and recuperation after you have visited Masada; you could very easily have an extremely pleasant long weekend out there before returning to the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv to continue your day.
Reaching the Fortress
Of course, the main point of any trip to Masada will be to reach the summit and take in the sites up here. There are several points of interest up here and you need to make sure that you have time enough to see them all.
Herod’s Palaces can be found to the north and south of the plateau. There are several amazingly preserved sites up here to view. You can see plenty of columns and even some Roman floors as you explore each of these palaces.
The view from the terrace of the Northern Palace, in particular, is stunning. No matter what time of day you are visiting at, you will undoubtedly be wowed by what you see here.
The other Roman structure up here worth visiting is the bathhouse. Anyone familiar with the layout of Roman bathhouses will be pleased to find how well-preserved the ones up here are. From the courtyard to the bathing pools themselves, and of course some stunning tiled floors, there is lots to explore.
Finally, there are two holy sites at the summit of Masada. There is a synagogue that is thought to be one of the oldest in the world. There is also the Byzantine Church.
Only a portion of the wall and window remains, but they are worth a visit. In previous lives, Masada would have no doubt been bustling with life. From the servants of the Palaces to those who lived here during the siege, there would have been plenty of people living on this summit.
The structures atop the mesa are not the only attractions at Masada. There is also an informative museum in the visitor centre that acts as a starting point for many tours and visits to this site.
Even if you have done some research about Masada prior to visiting, you should still make a point to visit the museum. If anything, it can tell you more about the archaeological digs here; archaeologists have been working hard for years to try and uncover more finds from the structures on the summit, or even new structures entirely.
Many of the stories about Masada come from the accounts of Titus Flavius Josephus, a Romano-Jewish historian who recorded the First Jewish-Roman War, including the Siege of Masada.
While his works have been incredibly important and are a key testament in the importance of Masada as a location, there is also some disparity between his written word and the archaeological evidence that has been presented here.
Due to this, the work of the archaeologists at Masada cannot be ignored. It is incredibly important that visitors spend some time in the museum here to fully understand some of the discrepancies that have emerged when reading these accounts from someone who may well have visited Masada in the first century, and the evidence that is presented to us in the modern day.
Start Planning a Visit to Masada Today
Even if you’re not interested by 1st-century history, Masada is most definitely worth a visit. There is so much to see and do at this historic site that it should be on every Israel itinerary.
Masada is one of those sites that has distinct periods of occupation that can be tracked throughout its lifetime. Visitors to this ancient site will be wowed by the views and humbled by the time they spend on this mountaintop.
If you are looking to enrich your visit to Israel with experiences beyond the wealth that is offered by Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Masada will be one of the best places to visit. Start planning your trip there now!