There is much to see in Israel from the impressive Crusader city of Akko to Herod’s Massad. But if time is against you then centre your stay around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The contrast is symbolic of Israel as a whole.

Jerusalem remains a mish-mash of cultures and creeds. Although the city has its respective quarters – Jewish, Arab etc – there is more intermingling than I had imagined or rather than a polemic press would have me believe.

At the tomb of St David I got my first real sense of religion, of history as Hassidic Jews rocked and chanted prayers. Even the Western Wall did not have the solemnity I had presumed. There was less wailing but more railing as parties of men and young boys chanted and chorused their celebration of one of their party’s Bar Mitzvah.

Cardo is a visual illustration of the historical decline of Jerusalem. Looking along the tunnel I marvelled at the width and grandeur of Rome, narrows in Crusader times and shrinks visibly under the Ottomans. Also see sense of accumulated history, wherever you go you look down, down and back into the remains of generations and civilisations.

Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries the practice of the Way of the Cross spread far and wide throughout Europe to the extent that fourteen designated stations were formally declared, starting with the point where Christ was given the cross to the stone on which his body was laid to rest. It is a site of pilgrimage but not one immune Interspersed between the various stations and stalls with tourist tat, t-shirts emblazoned with “Guns n’ Moses” and “Don’t worry be Jewish”

The irreverence of those in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was striking. A melee, a heaving, shoving mass as pressing pilgrims struggled to get a view of, kiss or touch the stone on which Christ’s body lay, or worse still stand in front with a beaming beatific grin. Little respect and dignity, but then that is little wonder given pilgrims of the past – graffiti from previous centuries was scrawled on walls and staircases – and the fact that the denominations of the church cannot agree on its running – so much so that the key to the church is held by a Muslim couple. A wonderful irony.

In contrast the peace on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre was deafening in its silence. Here with the bubbling chirping of the birds and the soft chirping of the Ethiopian Orthodox monks I found a peace and serenity that had eluded me through much of the Holy City.

By comparison Tel Aviv is a secular and cosmopolitan city, where, the sun and sea set the rhythms of life: the beaches swarm with people from dawn to dusk, happily bearing out the saying that while Haifa works and Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays.

Of course, Tel Aviv cannot entirely avoid the daily toil – the city by the Med is, after all, the country’s financial centre. Founded just over a century ago, today, Tel Aviv is the biggest Jewish city in the world and it is still expanding. It hums with energy and excitement and the Israelis do not hesitate to compare it with New York and Paris, pointing out that it is ninth on the list of the world’s most expensive places to live. But behind the buzz of business deals, round-the-clock construction and traffic jams, the cheerful hedonism shines through.

Throughout the city, but especially districts such as Shenkin, there is a café culture where the hip sip cappuccinos, wear sunglasses and sit in the sun soaking up the rays and admiring glances. As my guide told me, “Tel Aviv people like to sit drink and enjoy. The weather is good. Why not?” Why not indeed.

At night the dynamic energy of Israeli youth brings the streets alive. The door policy at celebrity bars is just as ruthless as anything you’ll find in Soho or Manhattan. The same goes for clubs where Israeli bouncers prefer to be known as “crowd designers”, while one of the scantily clad young women advertising escort services introduces herself as an “entertainment coordinator”.

Like the rest of Israel, the Tel Aviv of old used to be a gastronomic desert. Not any more, though. A new generation of chefs is teaching Israelis that there is more to eating out than bolting down falafel, humus and matzo balls from the innumerable, and generally reliable, street stalls.

A metaphor for the whole country, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are contrasting, surprising and well worth discovering.