One thing is for sure when you take young kids with you to Israel: You’ll want to have more on your itinerary than holy sites and 2,000-year-old ruins.
Fortunately, this small country has a diverse range of fun family attractions that appeal to toddlers, kids and pre-teens. From a biblical zoo to a chocolate factory and science museum, here are the highlights that will keep your kids smiling in the Holy Land.
Biblical Zoo: The 100-acre biblical zoo in Jerusalem started as a petting zoo in the 1940s and now includes over 300 species, a quarter of them animals that were mentioned in the Bible, such as Syrian brown bears, Persian fallow deer, Asian lions, Nile crocodiles and the Asian leopard.
But there are also many non-biblical animals in this expansive zoo, which easily takes a half-day to explore. Look out for Sumatran tigers, a rhino and hippo, giraffes, kangaroos, wolves and fruit bats. Many of the animals are under threat of extinction.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East offering protection to wolves, for example, and the wolf exhibit tries to raise awareness on how wolves and people can live in harmony. Open year round, the zoo charges $28 for admission for adults and $11 for kids. Info: jerusalemzoo.org.il
Science Museum: When it first opened 21 years ago, the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem was the only one in the country; today it’s one of four. Its interior is far from fancy, but it more than compensates in its wide range of innovative exhibits, a selection geared to entertain and engage all age groups, from three years through 83. “Hands-on” is the theme here and in every exhibit, visitors are encouraged to touch, play and explore.
We visited during Chanukah, when the museum had set up a station for kids to build their own unique spinning tops using recycled materials. We loved the light and shadow exhibit, a labyrinth of rooms which combine art with the science of how light and shadow interact.
Other exhibits explain the connection between physics and how amusement parks work, how electricity is distributed, and how science and technology play out in some of Israel’s favourite children’s stories. Free for kids under five, the museum charges $12 for kids and adults or $45 for families. Info: mada.org.il
Galita Chocolate Factory: Combine kids and chocolate and the result is delight, especially if the experience includes making your own treats. The chocolate factory at Kibbutz Degania, on the Sea of Galilee, offers a selection of kids’ workshops with various candy-making projects, from building and decorating a miniature chocolate candy house to creating chocolate lollipops, truffles and more.
Kids play with mixtures of white and brown chocolate and carefully decorate their creations before the finished versions are refrigerated and taken home. An on-site chocolate shop sells the creations of Galit Alpert, the Belgium-trained Israeli owner whose delicacies are irresistable. Prices range from $11-$22 per person, depending on the project, and reservations are recommended. Info: galita.co.il
Holon Children’s Museum: Don’t be fooled by its name – this is a children’s museum unlike any other you’ll ever set foot in. Its four segments cater to vastly different age groups. Kids age nine and up will love Dialogue in the Dark, an exhibit where visitors get to experience what it is like to have no vision by taking a tour in complete darkness, in the company of blind guides.
Along the way, they experience the various rooms they enter by relying on their other senses. Likewise, in Invitation to Silence, adults and kids age 10 and up get immersed in a tour of silence, one where they need to use other methods of communication – hands, face and body – to communicate emotions and reactions. In Dialogue with Time visitors explore the concept of aging through experiences and games. They’re invited to identify various songs and objects that crisscross the generation gap, and to experience what it feels like to lose dexterity in the hands and feet by donning special gloves and shoes.
Talking figurines reflect on their different experiences of aging and the entire experience invites discussion, dialogue and contemplation on what it means to age gracefully. Finally, in the only segment of the museum that remotely resembles a typical children’s museum, children ages 4-8 get to explore the making of music and art using unconventional instruments and objects, led by actor guides. Each tour lasts 90 minutes and costs $15 per segment. Reservations are essential. Info: childrensmuseum.org.il.