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Golan Heights

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Travel Warning WARNING: In August 2014, there was heavy fighting between Syrian government and opposition forces in the Syrian-controlled Golan. Most of the Israel-Syria border is now controlled by rebel groups including Al-Nusra (affiliated with Al Qaida) and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade (affiliated with ISIS). As of early April, 2015, no UNDOF peacekeeping troops are left in Syria. The situation is fluid; some mortars have been fired either accidentally or intentionally at Israeli-run areas, there have been a few Israeli fatalities, and the Israeli Air Force in turn is believed to have killed some high-ranking Hezbollah officials and an Iranian general who were reportedly trying to set up missile batteries in order to attack Israel from the Syrian-controlled Golan. So if you plan to visit the Golan, check on current conditions and exercise caution.
(Information last updated Jun 2016)

The Golan Heights is a rocky plateau at the southern end of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, and straddles the borders of Syria and Israel. Israel currently holds about two-thirds of the territory, which it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed in 1981, while Syria holds the remaining one-third.

Israel formally annexed the portions of the Golan Heights it controls in 1981. This annexation is not recognized by the United Nations. Nothing said in this travel guide should be misunderstood to constitute an endorsement of the position of any side.

Golan map with shaded relief for elevation

Cities[edit]

  • 1 Qatzrin. The largest town in the Israeli-controlled part of the Heights.

Other destinations[edit]

  • 1 Gamla. A picturesque nature reserve and archaeological site of a Jewish stronghold from 87 BCE until it fell to the Romans in 67 CE. ₪28/24/14 adult/student/child.

Understand[edit]

History and politics[edit]

Two-thirds of the Golan Heights has been under Israeli control since 1967, when Israel seized the area during the Six-Day War. The remainder is under Syrian control. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel returned another 5% of the land to Syria. Israel subsequently began building settlements in the area, and granted the Syrian Druze inhabitants permanent residency status. In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights.

Unlike the West Bank, the part of the Golan Heights controlled by Israel is considered part of the country by most Israelis and officially by the Israeli government. Security is on par with Israel proper, and you won't find roadblocks.

In Israel, it is generally understood that the Golan Heights will not be returned to Syria. The Israeli viewpoint is that this would not be feasible due to economical and political reasons, and for reasons of security which they believe have only strengthened since the Syrian civil war started. There are no negotiations between Israel and Syria and this not likely to change any time soon.

The de facto Israel-Syria border runs through the Golan Heights along an area known as the Purple Line. This line was until recently patrolled by a United Nations peacekeeping force, but the peacekeepers were attacked by the Syrian opposition and all of them have been withdrawn from Syria, removing a stabilizing element from the border. No one is allowed to cross the border without special permission, and the border crossing is under the control of Israel and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

Geography[edit]

The Golan Heights mostly consists of a flat plateau made out of volcanic basalt. Near the Israel-Syria line of control (on the Israeli side) is a chain of extinct volcanoes which protrude above the plateau. A number of streams cut through the plateau, forming deep valleys and occasional waterfalls, and eventually end up in the Jordan River or Sea of Galilee.

Due to the flatness of the plateau (unlike Israel's mostly hilly or coastal landscapes), the dark basalt and fertile volcanic soil, and the year-round streams, the Golan Heights looks and feels different from the rest of Israel, so it is a popular destination for Israeli tourists.

The Hermon mountain differs from the rest of the Golan, as well as from any other place in Israel. The highest point in the Israeli-controlled part of the Hermon is 2236 meters above sea level, nearly twice as high as the next-highest place in Israel (Mount Meron in the Galilee.) As a result, the Hermon gets far more snowfall than anywhere else in Israel, and it is the site of Israel's only ski resort (in the winter months).

The most popular season to visit the Golan is the spring. For a brief period in spring, the entire Golan landscape is covered by a bed of flowers. Also, at this time the streams and waterfalls are at their most powerful due to the winter rains. Autumn and winter are also good seasons to visit the Golan. Summer is the worst time to visit - Israel gets no rain in summer, so the mostly tree-free Golan landscape turns entirely brown, and the weather is hot and humid. Summer can be a good time for a hike that includes walking in the water (there are several popular ones), or to see historic sites. But hiking anywhere else is best left for another season.

Talk[edit]

Hebrew is spoken among the Jewish inhabitants in the towns and kibbutzim. Arabic is also spoken in the region mainly by the Arabs and Druze living there, although many of them can also speak Hebrew or/and English.

Get in[edit]

Map of Golan Heights

There is no visible border between the Galilee and the Golan Heights. You will not realize that you are entering the Golan Heights, except from the terrain.

It is essentially impossible to cross between the Israeli-controlled and Syrian-controlled parts of the Golan Heights, so don't bother trying.

By bus[edit]

There are a few daily buses from Tiberias, Hatzor and Kiryat Shmona to the Golan Heights, operated by Golanbus. Services are infrequent due to the low population. There are also a handful of direct buses to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa.

By car[edit]

Private transportation: From north-south route 90, there are four road "ascents" to the Golan Heights.

Hitchhiking[edit]

Hitchhiking is accepted here as it is throughout Israel, but you can still wait a long time to get to many destinations. Hitchhiking is easiest in the south Golan Heights, as more people live there. In the center and north, the traffic is mostly tourists, who are less likely to pick up hitchhikers.

Get around[edit]

Waterfall in El Al river (southern Golan)

This area, due to low population, has one of the worst public transport services in the entire country, with some bus stops receiving as few as two or three buses daily.

You might try hitch-hiking, which is used by Israelis of all ages and gender. You can rent a car as well, but only from a few rental services.

See[edit]

The Golan Heights is the wettest area in the region. There are many waterfalls including the Gamla, Sa`ar and the Banias waterfalls. It is especially recommended to visit the Golan Heights in spring, when the ground is covered with wildflowers. The waterfalls are strongest then too.

The western part of the Nimrod Fortress as seen from its top tower
  • 2 Nimrod Castle. an ancient fortress in the northern Golan Heights, built in the 13th century by Muslim rulers to defend against a possible Crusader attack. It is located on a steep mountain ridge, with deep forested ravines on either side, and has a stupendous view of its surroundings. A trail leads from the fortress's west edge downhill several kilometers to Banias, another important historical and nature site in the area. around ₪20.
  • 3 Mount Bental. A mountain in the eastern Golan Heights with an Israeli stronghold (formerly a Syrian stronghold) on top and views of Syria to the east and the Golan Heights to the west. On some days, you might hear or even see a bomb going off in the distance, part of the Syrian Civil War. From this distance, it sounds like thunder. You can explore the Syrian army bunkers here from before 1967.
  • 4 Tel Dan National Park. A beautiful nature reserve, which includes the ruins of ancient Dan, famous for the Israelite temple uncovered there.
  • 5 Sa'ar Fall & Viewpoint.
  • 6 Tel Faher. A Syrian military post between 1948-1967. In that period the Syrian army would shell Israeli agricultural settlements in the valley below as part of border disputes. The post was conquered by Israel in a bloody battle in 1967. It is now the site of a memorial, and you can explore the Syrian bunkers, which have a great view down to the fields of the kibbutzim.
  • 7 Majdal Shams. A Druze village. Nearby is the Shouting Hill where villagers communicate with their relatives in Syria.
  • 8 Observation to Quneitra. Quneitra is a ghost town, which was abandoned by the Syrians during the 1967 war and left in the no-man's-land ever since. Thoroughly wrecked not only in 1967 but in the subsequent 1973 conflict as well, from the Israeli side, the area can only be viewed from designated viewpoints set up along the border road, as it's just across the de facto line of control. From Syria, it used to be possible to visit the area with a permit from the relevant military office in Damascus. But as of 2016, it is in a zone controlled by rebels, and like the rest of Syria, is off-limits to ordinary visitors.

Do[edit]

Hiking is the activity of choice in the Golan Heights. Many sights are only reachable on foot, and it is a great way to see and explore the area. Having said that, most tracks are short in distance.

  • 1 Mount Hermon +1-599-550-560. 08:00-15:00. Enjoy the view from 2284m in the northernmost point of the Golan Heights, and even ski there in the winter. There is a cable car going up the mountain. Paid shuttle and cable car (ski pass ~₪250 a day, ski equipment ~₪280 a day).
  • 2 Banias. This national park follows the Banias stream, and includes some easy and fairly short hiking trails that pass by old water mills, vigorous rapids, a waterfall, an old overturned Syrian tank, and the ruins of a temple to the ancient Greek god Pan.
  • 3 Aniam artists' village. A quaint artists' village where you can see many of the artists working in addition to perusing and buying their works. In the valley south of Aniam is a picturesque river and water pool. Further up the valley (just before the main road, route 808) is the Ayit waterfall, which is impressive in winter but totally dry in summer. All these sites are in walking distance from each other.
  • 4 Yehudiya Forest Nature ReserveYehudiya-Hushniya Road (87) (7 km east of the Yehudiya junction, approximately 5.5 km south of Katsrin),  +972 4 6962817. Winter 8AM to 4PM, Summer 7AM to 5PM. Amazing hikes through natural pools. A must do for anyone with a strong sense of adventure and some basic athletic ability. Different hikes with different difficulty levels. ₪21 with deductions for children and senior citizens.
  • 5 Hexagon Pools (Breichat Meshushim) (Hike 3.6 km from highway 888 or about 5 km from highway 87). A set of famous pools in the Meshushim river with natural hexagonal volcanic tiling. Within the Yehuda Brechat HaMeshushim Site Nature Reserve.
  • 6 [dead link]Majrase (Daliyot estuary). A very nice water hike in the wetlands along the north Sea of Galilee shore. You walk for about 1.5km in the river, including some swimming (you must know how to swim). Bring shoes to wear in the water. There is also a dry path if you don't want to get wet. This is near the New Testament site of Bethsaida.
  • 7 Rujm el-Hiri (Gilgal Refaim) (A 4km walk east on the Golan Trail from Daliyot junction (the road junction closest to Gamla)). A large megalithic monument dating to around 3000 BCE. It consists of concentric stone circles, and is sometimes called the "Stonehenge of the Levant". It is hypothesized to be an astronomical and/or ritual site. It looks very impressive from the air, but is difficult to appreciate from ground level.
  • Hike the Golan Trail or sections of it for anything between a day and a week.

Sleep[edit]

  • Merom GolanKibbutz Merom Golan +972-4-6960267. Kibbutz Merom Golan sits in the north of the Golan Heights, at the foothill of the extinct Ben Tal Volcano some 1000 meters above sea level.

Eat[edit]

  • Fruit picking - A number of places in the Golan offer fresh fruit picking in the summer and autumn months. See list here.

Drink[edit]

  • The Golan Brewery. Located in "Kesem Hagolan", the Golan Visitors Center, close to the Golan Heights Winery. Established in 2006, brewing German Style Beer by a German brewmaster. They offer 4 to 5 types of beer, including an genuine Bavarian "Weizen". Open every day.

Stay safe[edit]

Mine warning sign

The Golan is mostly a rural area, and as such it is pretty much crime free. However, the Golan is also one of the world's largest military barriers, and while it offers many hiking options, several basic safety rules should always be followed:

  • A large part of the Golan Heights area is either heavily mined, or is suspected as being mined - this is because old mines may drift during heavy rains, which are frequent in winter. You should never walk or drive in open fields, off main roads or dirt roads (unless there are very clear signs which indicate that this area is safe, such as trail signs). While most mine fields are designated by warning signs (as the one shown in the picture), do not go into off-road barb-wired fields, even if they are not marked with signs (in short, never cross any fence unless there are clear signs and/or suitable gateways in the fence). Never touch unidentified metal or plastic debris in the open even if it looks harmless.
  • Some areas of the Golan are used by the Israeli military as training grounds. There are usually recognised by the "Firing Zone" signs in the entrance. While marked trails are pretty much safe, when going off-road you should check the local maps to make sure you are not going into a fire ground. If in doubt, check with local police or military authorities. Most training grounds are accessible during weekends (Fridays - Saturdays) and public holidays, and can also be accessed after coordination with military authorities.
  • Due to the civil war in Syria, you may hear heavy bombing sounds. A few bombs shot by either side have drifted into the Israeli-administered part of the Golan, where they hit open ground near the border. You may want to keep a safe distance of a few miles from the border as a precaution.

The golden rule is: Take as many words of advice as possible regarding safety from any local guidebook or people. If in doubt, keep safe!

Go next[edit]


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