Masada  (Hebrew: מצדה) is a magnificently located fortress site in Israel's stark Judean Desert, close to the Dead Sea. The last Jewish holdout to fall to Rome in 73 CE, Masada symbolizes the exile of the Jewish nation from the Holy Land. Its violent end has become a symbol of bravery and self-sacrifice since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
Masada, whose Hebrew name means "fortress", is on a breathtaking rock plateau with steep cliffs rising on all sides. Roman client King Herod the Great constructed a fortified palace complex atop of the plateau between 37 and 31 BCE. During the Jewish rebellion against Rome in first century CE, a sect of Jews called the Kanai took refuge in isolated Masada. They were known in Greek as zelotes, or the Zealots. After remaining there for seven years, the Zealots finally fell at the hands of the Roman army in 73 CE. However, rather than be killed or enslaved, it is claimed the holed up rebels chose to commit a mass suicide, a deed which forever enshrined them in the annals of Jewish history. The mass suicide story has never been proven and archaeologists working the site have found fewer than 30 skeletons in total and no sign of any mass burial. As a result of this there is evidence suggesting the mass suicide is nothing but a myth.
Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been granted a special place in the heart of the Jewish nation. Though the actions of the Zealots are still debated, Masada has become synonymous with the tragic and much-mourned downfall of Jewish life in the Holy Land. More recently, this symbol of death has been contrasted with Jewish rebirth, the founding of the State of Israel. Indeed, many Israeli soldiers, sworn in atop Masada, emotionally chant, "Masada shall never fall again."
Most people access Masada from the eastern side near Road 90, which runs down the Israeli coast of the Dead Sea. The less used option is Road 3199 from Arad to the western side. The road ends at a parking lot, from which there is a comparatively easy 15-20 minute ascent to the top.
By bus you can get to Masada with line 486 from Jerusalem or Ein Gedi or with line 421 from Tel Aviv Arlozorov - Terminal 2000 via Ein Bokek (Dep. 09:00 Su-F and 12:00 M-Th from Tel Aviv, 13:13 Su-F and 16:13 M-Th from Masada, 2h40, ₪84.20 return). The buses stop at the main entrance from Road 90, and the price is quite expensive (₪40 from Jerusalem, ₪36 with a student discount).
Many visitors to Masada visit the site with one of the many daily tours which travel here every day from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Eilat. Many tours combine Masada with the Dead Sea, Ein Gedi, Qumran, or other sites. Tours vary from self-guided tours to fully guided tours, and range in price from approximately $60 - $115 depending. More details about how to visit Masada can be found in this guide which compares the options between taking public transportation or tours.
If you are really adventurous, you can hike through the valleys to the north or south of Masada, and thus reach it from the "other side". Be aware that due to the steep cliffs and desert terrain, this is dangerous if you don't know what you're doing.
The entrance to the site costs ₪29 for an entry by foot, ₪76 for entry with a cable car lift bothways. Discounts are available for students, youth and the elderly.
The fastest way to ascend Masada is via cable car. The cable car is based from the east side of the mountain, near the snake path. However, the cable car does not begin running until 08:00, meaning the option in not available to those wishing to experience sunrise at Masada.
The other two routes up are the so-called "Snake Path" or the Roman Ramp.
The Snake Path (actually a combination of tracks and steps) is accessible from the eastern side of Masada via the Dead Sea Highway. It consists of a series of switchbacks 'snaking' all the way up to the summit. The climb can take anything from 40 minutes to 2 hours or more depending on stamina/speed. Because of the difficulty of the climb, and the path's exposure to the sun, the Snake Path is usually closed from 10:00, and many choose to ascend before sunrise.
The Roman Ramp is not accessible from the Dead Sea Highway and must be approached from a road to the west -- a forty minute detour for those coming from the Dead Sea Highway, but is considerably less strenuous than the Snake Path.
Once there, the Herod's palace complex, replete with Roman-style mosaics and bath houses, can be toured. Also viewable are the zealot's synagogues, storehouses, and homes. From Masada, the remnants of the Roman encampments are clearly visible. Also, the stark natural beauty of the Judean Desert and nearby Dead Sea can be fully taken in from high atop Masada.
Masada includes two main time periods, when it was built as Herod's palace and where Jews staged their last holdout against the Romans. If you lead a tour, it is best to discuss these two concepts separately. Discuss Herod's palace while standing in his palace. From there, you can see the square walls where the Romans held their camp.
Next, walk over to the Roman ramp and discuss the history of that location.
The visitors' centre below the fortress contains a small food court including a McDonald's.