It is no doubt that Masada is one of Israel's top sights to visit. Visiting the ancient fortress built on top of a mountain plateau truly is a life-changing experience, because there is something magical about this place - not only because of it's majestic location overlooking the Dead Sea, Jordan and Judean desert, but because of it's historic importance and symbolic meaning.
Masada means fortress in Hebrew, but on top of the mountain there are not one but two fortresses, built by the famous Jewish King Herod between 37-4 BC. The massive complex also housed vast storerooms, synagogues, bathhouses and cisterns - all well preserved because of the dry desert climate. For Jews, Masada is of great symbolic importance. During the invasion of the Romans and the destruction of the Jewish kingdom of Judea, there was a massive revolt against the Romans at Masada. The fortress was the last stand against the Romans and it was so impregnable that after three years of siege, a massive ramp was built (which took months!) made out of rocks and sand - that is still visible today and one of the two entrances to the fortress. Once inside the fortress, the Romans found that around a thousand men, women and children had chosen to die free above slavery. This tragic story is one of heroism, courage and strength - now an important symbol of that in modern day Israel.
Masada is most famous among tourists for it's sunrise. It is said to be among the most beautiful sunrises in the world - and having seen it myself a few months ago, I can only agree. It was the highlight of my year! There are several touring companies offering tours to Masada, both for the sunrise and during the day, and I recommend booking with www.abrahamhostels.com. However, if you have a car, I recommend spending the night at Masada Campsite West. It is very cheap, well organized and in the morning you climb the mountain from the Roman ramp, which only takes about twenty minutes. On the east side of the mountain lies the Snake Path, the original, oldest path to the mountain, which takes you to the top in over an hour (even 90 minutes for not experienced hikers). Note: all tours take this entrance. I strongly discourage you to climb the mountain from this entrance if you have your own car, since it is in the sun (the west side hikes in the shade) and the path is long and hard.
Obviously, if you climb the mountain: take plenty of water with you. Along the routes there are no water sources, only up the mountain or at the parking lots. Like at all national parks in Israel, drinking water tabs are filtered and cooled. In case you're planning to hike the mountain in the summer from the Snake path, keep an eye on the website https://www.parks.org.il/en/reserve-park/masada-national-park/, if it's too hot this path can be closed after 8 or 9 am.
Very important to bear in mind is that you have to choose the West or East entrance in advance since they are both reachable from a complete opposite direction. The West entrance is only reachable through the city of Arad, while the East entrance is reachable through Jerusalem and Highway 90. You cannot climb up one side and climb down the other side, there are no hiking paths along the mountain and by car it takes about an hour and a half to get from the West to the East entrance and vice versa. Bottom line: don't forget from which side you climbed the mountain!
For not-so-early risers
The good news is that the east entrance also has a cable car that starts running at 8 am. This takes you up and down the mountain in about two minutes - making the site accessible to everyone. It does cost a few shekels extra, entrance to the park + cable car is 46 shekels whereas entrance without cable car is 28 shekels. This entrance is the largest one, with a MC Donald's and information center.
My advice if you have a car: take the route from Arad and climb Masada from the western side - it's authentic, the route is spectacular and much less crowded.