One of our favorite spots to visit - and take guests to - is Mount Bental in the Golan Heights. The region itself is fascinating and definitely worth a visit if you come to Israel, so this will be the first in a series of posts about touring the Golan Heights.
In a nutshell, Mount Bental is a magical little place that combines great scenery, lovely local art and a lot of military history. The highlights of your visit include -
- Amazing views of the three countries that meet in this area: Lebanon, Israel, and Syria.
- Entering and wandering through a real IDF army bunker.
- Walking through a unique display of recycled-metal art.
Visiting Mt. Bental is free. The entire visit can be as short as half an hour but I guarantee it's going to be a memorable one.
Where is Mount Bental and how do you get there?
Mount Bental is located in the north-eastern side of the Golan Heights, Israel. To find it in Google Maps, type in "Coffee Annan, Merom Golan". That's the name of the coffee place that's right at the top of the mountain.
(Wondering why they named the place after a former UN secretary? That's actually a play on words in Hebrew. The word "Annan" means a cloud so you're basically "having coffee on a cloud".)
The Bental is an extinct volcano that stands 1,165 meters (3,822 ft) above sea level. Since the entire area around it is approximately 900 meters (2,950 ft) above sea level, it looks more like a cone-shaped hill. The mountain was formed over 100 million years ago during one of the massive volcanic eruptions that formed the Golan Heights.
How to get to Mt. Bental?
The best and easiest way to get here (and tour the Golan Heights in general) is driving. It would take you about two and a half hours to reach the area from Tel Aviv. Add an hour if you're coming from Jerusalem. Take off one our if coming from Tiberias or Nazareth. You can use either Waze or Google Maps to get here. Try "Mt. Bental" or even better, "Coffee Annan, Merom Golan" (Merom Golan is the name of the nearby kibbutz).
If you don't have a car, then my advice would be to rent one! I posted here about why you should rent a car when traveling in Israel.
If you can't drive or still prefer not to, you can get to Mt. Bental using public transportation. It's just going to take you 4-5 hours instead of two and a half, and it won't get you to the observatory and all the fun stuff at the top. You'll be taking a bus from Tel Aviv to Kiryat Shmona and then another bus to Kibbutz Merom Golan. From there, you'll have to hike up the mountain to get to the top. Not a problem for a fit hiker, but a bit of the problem if you're not very fit.
What is there to see and do when visiting the Bental?
Once you reach the location, you'll be driving up the mountain until you get to the parking lot. It's well-signed and there's usually parking available.
See the artwork
As you walk towards the observation points and bunker, you'll be welcomed by the Dinosaur and other fun sculptures.
There are dozens of these all along the path to the bunker.
These are all the work of Johannes (Joop) de Jong, a Dutch artist who lives and works in the nearby Kibbutz Merom Golan. de Jong uses recycled and reclaimed metal scraps found along the area to create these beautiful works of art. Take the time to enjoy them!
Take in the scenery and learn about the area's history
To your left, you'll see the Coffee Annan cafe. Keep walking and you'll see the large signpost, with signs in every direction showing you how far you are from locations in the world.
The path takes you to the right, where you can take in the views of neighboring Syria.
There's an automated interpretive station at the lookout. Press the button for the English narration which will explain exactly what you're seeing, as well as providing information about the battles that took place at that very location.
As of 2019, this area of Syria is relatively peaceful, so you're not likely to see any war action. Three years ago, things were vastly different. ISIS and other rebel factions were engaged in active fighting over the area you can see from here.
What you are likely to see is UN observers. They're a new feature of Mount Bental. This is the force that used to monitor the area from the ground within Syria. That area is no longer safe for them to be in, so they've moved into Israel and are now making use of the observation posts here.
Here's a short video showing the views into Syrian from the Bental. You can see the UN observers there in their post.
Visit the IDF bunker
The Golan Heights is a surprisingly peaceful area, despite being so close to Syria and Lebanon. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the area was a war zone but today it's partly demilitarized.
Mount Bental has an effective army post that's currently not in use. Should the area experience war again, the IDF will be able to take hold of the post and bunkers. Until then, you're welcome to wander around and get a unique and authentic Middle-eastern experience. Get a torchlight, or use your phone as a light source, because as you go underground, it gets dark.
The fortifications include tunnels and sunken posts, so watch your step and be careful. To add to the atmosphere, you'll see silhouettes of soldiers at various points above ground.
Where to eat
The Coffee Annan cafe offers a variety of dishes, including pizza, salad, and sandwiches. They also have great coffee and pastries. A perfect place for a quick lunch.
If you're looking for something more substantial, try the Habokrim (Cowboys) Restaurant in the nearby Kibbutz Merom Golan. If you're coming with a group, you could also make reservations to eat at the communal dining room of the Kibbutz. You can find details about all of these in Merom Golan's website.
Where to stay
The Golan Heights lands itself very well to a full day's itinerary or even two or three days of sightseeing and hiking. Staying anywhere in the area would work well. If you want to, you could stay in the nearby Kibbutzim:
We've stayed at Kibbutz Ortal twice so far. They offer a choice of cabins or rooms. The cabins are more spacious and pampering, usually with a jacuzzi in the bedroom area. The rooms are functional, clean and more affordable. All rooms and cabins have a small kitchenette too and you can also have tea or coffee at the nearby communal coffee area, the Basilicum.
If you choose to stay at either kibbutz, I suggest signing up for a meal at the communal dining room. That's almost always an option during breakfast and it's a great way to view kibbutz life first-hand.
Visiting Mount Bental - Additional Tips
A few more tips, based on our own experience -
- It can get cold and windy at the top. Especially during winter time, but not only then. If you're visiting during summertime, a jacket may still be appreciated. During other seasons, dress warmly.
- If you can't find a parking spot, just hang around for a couple of minutes until you see someone pull out. Most people spend up to an hour on the mountain, so there's always someone leaving.
- You can hike up the mountain. Don't go on the road - there's a hiking trail that's much safer, and it's actually part of the Golan Trail. It's quite steep, so watch your step.
- Check the weather before you come. If it's hazy or cloudy, you may want to skip the visit. Also, winter can get very cold in the Golan Heights and it can snow on the mountain, so again, check the weather forecast.
- During summertime, it can get hot and very sunny. Bring a hat and sunglasses and wear sunscreen. And hold on to your hat - it can get windy on the mountain and you don't want your hat flying over into another country!
That's it! I hope you find this post helpful. As always, if you have any questions about traveling to the Golan Heights, or anywhere else in Israel, leave me a comment to let me know!