HEADING along a busy motorway, past signs to Bethlehem, Galilee and Mount of Olives, I thought of the picture books I read at Sunday School.

My visit to Israel began in Tel Aviv and soon I was heading to Jerusalem, following the footsteps of pilgrims over thousands of years.

With vibrant bars and restaurants, the capital blends its contemporary high energy with an ancient heritage - felt most strongly in the Old City, with quiet alleys, old market streets and holy shrines.

Wandering through the Jewish quarter, we approached one of the holiest places in the city, via a busy plaza. The area was dominated by a long, ancient wall on the west of Temple Mount, encased in walls under King Herod's reconstruction.

The 'Wailing Wall', a site of Jewish prayer and pilgrimage, stems from Roman rule when Jews were prohibited from Jerusalem except on a day of mourning for the lost Temples. Standing at one of the world's most significant religious sites, alongside a row of women deep in prayer, I scribbled mine onto a piece of paper and pushed it into a crack in the wall.

Even holier is the area behind the wall, reached via a labyrinth of tunnels descending through the 17 layers built by various civilisations. Original Herodian stonework is visible, and a glass floor allows a glimpse of the wall's foundations. New tunnels are being discovered, said our guide, as we passed by the original quarry and aquaduct.

Returning to daylight, we followed winding streets to Via Dolorosa, where Jesus took his final journey. Heading westward, marked by nine Stations of the Cross, it begins in a narrow street in the Muslim Quarter, outside a boys' school where we were invited in for a view of the Golden Dome, the ancient Islamic shrine on Temple Mount.

Winding through a bazaar, the air filled with the call to prayer, we followed Via Dolorosa to the Christian Quarter, where church bells were ringing. Not for the first time, I was struck by how close the three faiths, Jewish, Muslim and Christian, are in this ancient city.

Inside the fourth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, site of the final stages of Christ's Passion, crowds were climbing steps to Calvary, site of the Crucifixion, to light candles and peer beneath the alter at a cross in the bedrock.

The cave where Jesus's body was taken is now a mausoleum, the "Resurrection Rotunda", holding what is believed to be the stone sealing the tomb and the tomb itself, covered in marble. Further on we entered a cave tomb from the time of Christ, where generations of families would have been buried.

I approached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as a tourist rather than a pilgrim but I was moved, and awestruck, nonetheless.

Leaving the church, we headed to a street cafe surrounded by bustling shops. Nearby is the Mahana Yehuda market, stalls crammed with lanterns, kippahs, pastries, religious icon wall hangings, spices, freshly-brewed coffee and Israeli craft beers.

We left behind the energy of the "Shuk" for the tranquility of Israel Museum (imj.org.il), where original fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls are displayed in the Shrine of the Book, a domed structure two-thirds below the ground. Reflected in a shimmering pool, the quirky contemporary building houses ancient archaeological finds including hundreds of manuscripts, written on animal skin parchments, discovered in the mid-20th century in caves near the Dead Sea.

Taking the ancient text into the 21st century is "the world’s smallest Bible", the entire New Testament printed onto a silicon chip the size of a grain of sugar. It's incredible - the text has to be magnified 10,000 times to be read!

In a cemetery on the southern slope of the city is the grave of Oscar Schindler, the German factory-owner who saved over 1,000 Jews during the Second World War. Schindler is honoured at Yad Vashem (yadvashem.org), the city's National Holocaust Museum, in a memorial garden honouring gentiles who saved Jewish people from the genocide.

The museum is painfully haunting, not least in the Hall of Names where hundreds of photographs of those killed in the Holocaust, along with written testimonies of survivors, cover the walls of a huge well-like structure rising from an underground water-filled base.

As darkness fell we headed for Citadel, a medieval fortress near the Jaffa Gate, the city's historic entrance. Music filled the courtyard as the story of Jerusalem unfolded through a spectacular light show; giant colourful images screened onto the ancient walls.

Nearby, halfway up a narrow street twinkling with multi-coloured lanterns, we enjoyed a "Biblical feast" at lively kosher restaurant The Eucalyptus (the-eucalyptus.com). Our nine-course supper offered as much for vegetarians like me as the meat-eaters in our party. As well as beef stew, fig-stuffed chicken and slow-cooked lamb we were served fish falafels, roasted eggplant, fried cauliflower, seaweed caviar, creamed artichokes, red lentil stew, hyssop pesto and tahini.

I spent two nights at the elegant Inbal Hotel, awaking the second morning to cheering crowds and live music, as the Jerusalem Marathon snaked along the street below. The jovial noises faded as we climbed Mount Zion - which has fabulous view of the city and the Mount of Olives - to visit King David's Tomb and the room of the Last Supper. Anyone expecting Leonardo da Vinci's long table would be disappointed, but the Cenacle has beautiful stone pillars. The building has been attacked and restored numerous times, culminating in the Gothic structure standing today.

Israel fuses its rich, turbulent history and religious shrines with a tourism infrastructure encompassing vibrant cities, sun-kissed beaches, markets, nature reserves and health spas. Having walked through Jerusalem's history it was time to head south, to visit the lowest point on earth.


Emma Clayton stayed overnight at the Holiday Inn (holidayinn.com/luton) at Luton Airport, and flew to Ben Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv, with Easyjet. Visit easyjet.com

The five-star Inbal Hotel (inbalhotel.com) offers rooms from £267 per room, per night.

For more about Israel, visit uk.thinkisrsael.com