f you’re planning a trip to the Holy Land, you may have a few questions running around your head. Things like: is Israel safe to travel? What should you wear? What should you expect? Is Israel expensive to visit? – at least these are the things I wanted to know! And so now that I’m back from my epic trip to Israel I thought I’d put together a post to answer these and a whole heap of other questions you might have for traveling in the region and give you some essential Israel Travel Tips and a bit of a complete Israel Travel Guide to make sure you have the perfect trip!
Top Israel Travel Tips to help you navigate your visit
ESSENTIAL ISRAEL TRAVEL TIPS
BE AWARE OF THE HISTORY + CULTURE
Quick (simplified) history lesson: Eretz Yisroel – the Promised Land of Israel – has been a crucial, sacred concept to the Jewish peoples for over 3000 years; with the Torah stating it was promised to the nomadic Jewish people during the Iron Age. The first Kingdom of Israel came into being in the 11th century BC and existed for over 400 years until the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests. After this things get a little crazy, with empire after empire taking control.
Fast forward to the 20th Century: Jewish people were scattered across Europe and the wider world, where they lived in relative peace although orthodox Jews began to focus on migrating to Eretz Yisroel. During World War 1, the British agreed to form a home of the Jewish people, although did not follow through with it’s creation. World War 2 and Hitler’s Holocaust saw the murder of 5-6 million Jews and the rise in Jewish displacement camps which became home to Holocaust Survivors and Jewish people who feared returning to their homes for risk of violence. A lot of countries restricted immigration to these people, most notably, the leaders of Arab identifying Palestine – which existed on land formerly owned by Jordan and Syria, and had been under the control of British Mandate (decreed by the League of Nations) between 1918-1948. Palestine contained the land which Jewish people referred to as Eretz Yisroel.
These events promoted the 1947 UN partition plan, which divided Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem under UN administration; however this plan never came to fruition as in 1948, the Jewish Community in Israel under David Ben-Gurion, reestablished sovereignty over their homeland and Declaration of independence of the State of Israel was announced on May 14, 1948. Understandably, Israel’s Arab neighbors were less than impressed and they mounted an attack, although in their defeat they lost more land than had been outlined by the UN. Many Palestinian Arabs fled, which is a continued source of controversy to this day and is mostly localized to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Wars, conflict and various peace treaties followed, and without a international resolution, continue to this day – although several media outlets have called for the terminology of Arab-Israeli conflict to cease to be used, as 70 years after Israel’s creation, the issues causing tension between Jews and Arabs have evolved and now represent something completely different.
Shabbat (also known as the Sabbath) is the Jewish day of rest which officially starts a few minutes before sundown on Friday and lasts until the first three stars appear in the sky on Saturday. During this time Jewish people traditionally stay at home all day and put aside weekday stressors to commit themselves to higher pursuits. There are a number of activities prohibited and for the orthodox of the community, a ban on electricity (although in speaking to Jews the way around this is to ask a non-Jewish neighbor to flick the switch on an electric appliance you might want to use – like air-con!).
What this means for visitors is that Israel’s weekend falls on Friday-Saturday. Practically everything closes on Friday afternoons including shops, (most) restaurants and markets and public transport ceases to run. As such, options for things to do over the Israeli weekend can be limited, however if visiting Jerusalem Israel during Shabbat be sure to wander the much quieter Holy city where it is particularly interesting to see the religious Jews mark the start of Shabbat at the Western Wall on Friday evening; and if you are staying at Abraham Hostel, sign up to the huge Shabbat Dinner with your other Hostel guests.
One of the most important tips for travel to Israel is to be mindful of what to wear. Whilst Israel is a mostly liberal country, there are varying dress codes and requirements throughout the different cities and regions. I have put together a complete guide to what to wear in Israel as broken down by city (coming soon) but in essence, in Tel Aviv you can literally wear what you want; in Jerusalem it will entirely depend on where you are in the city – holy city/mount of olives/markets etc – but modesty is expected; and Nazareth, as an Arab city, appreciates shoulder to knee coverage.
My Top Israel Travel Tip is to check the modesty requirements of the places you plan to visit each day before setting out and dress appropriately – and always have a scarf/shawl handy for emergency coverage.
ISRAEL IS AN EXPENSIVE COUNTRY TO TRAVEL IN + WHAT THINGS COST IN ISRAEL
Israel is not a cheap destination, with prices for things on a par with – and in some instances – even more expensive than in Australia (!). I’ve listed a few prices below in local currency and am working on the loose exchange of 5 Shekels (NIS) = £1 GBP; $2 AUD or $1.35 USD.
3NIS – Small Bottle of Water from Supermarket/Shop
5 NIS – Large Bottle of water from Supermarket/Shop
6-7 NIS – Can of Coke
4-5 NIS – Cup of Coffee
15-20 NIS – Street/Market Food (Pitta + Falafel)
12-20 NIS – Hummus & Pita (Cafe)
30-50 NIS – meal in cafe
50-90 NIS – meal in restaurant
4-6 NIS – one way ticket on public transport
25-30 NIS – pint of beer in a bar
30-40 NIS – glass of wine in a bar
DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE PASSPORT STAMP…
Whilst there are a few quirky Israel travel requirements, For the past year or so – and at the time of visiting in July 2018 – tourist visitors to the country no longer have to be concerned with receiving the troublesome Israeli passport stamp. (FYI – Due to tensions in the region, there are several Arab nations who do not allow visitors into their country if they have previously visited Israel). Instead, on arrival you will have your photograph taken and a barcode issued which is given to you, along with your personal information, on a small blue identity card. This tourist card is to be presented to all hotels or car rental agencies to prove you are on a tourist visa and is important for business to record for tax purposes (as tourists are exempt). It is important not to loose this card (which is just smaller than the size of a credit card) but it is not the end of the world if you do – you’ll just have pay tax.
On your departure from the country you’ll be provided with another version of the card, except this one will be pink. You can keep them both as souvenirs, but I would recommend not carrying them inside your passport in case you inadvertently hand them over at a subsequent border crossing.
BUT REMEMBER THAT YOU WILL BE QUESTIONED ENTERING AND EXITING THE COUNTRY
It’s not personal, it’s just what they do. On arrival you will be asked why you’re here, where you’re staying, if you know anyone etc; and on departure they’ll go through your passport and question you about stamps from countries they are wary of. Don’t panic, just allow yourself plenty of time in the airport and answer their questions truthfully. 99% of the time, you don’t have anything to worry about. Occasionally they may decide to hold you for what appears to be no apparent reason, or search you and your entire possessions (at the airport I had my bag emptied into 6 trays, every piece of electronic equipment checked, a full body search behind a curtain – as in between my toes and in my hair and a thorough pat down kinda of body search!) but there was no malice in it, it’s just something they do. If it happens you just have to be patient and stay calm .
In Jerusalem – albeit a very walkable city – public transport is great and the metro (tram) runs from one end of the city to the other. Aside from that there are a multitude of public buses and Sherut’s (shared taxis) operate throughout the country with prices from 6-10 NIS per journey (depending on the destination.) For those not comfortable with flagging down a communal van (I wasn’t), Abraham Tours offer mini bus shuttle transfers between key destinations for reasonable prices. For everything else – and one of our essential travel to Israel tips is – to download Gett (search GetTaxi App) – which is the equivalent of Uber.
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT ISRAEL
If you were wondering when is the best time to go to Israel, the answer is unfortunately not totally clear! While there is no time of the year when visiting Israel that is impossible or unpleasant, different seasons bring different weather conditions and Jewish and/or Christian festivals can change the character of a visit. Summer (June-September) is Best for Beach lovers, Spring (April – May) & Autumn/Fall (October-November) are best for touring the country and Winter (Dec – Mar) can be perfect if you plan on skiing in the highlands, but may not be ideal for sightseeing throughout the rest of the country. Hopefully these tips will help you narrow down the best time to travel Israel.
CAN YOU DRINK THE TAP WATER IN ISRAEL?
Whilst tap water is safe and drinkable in Israel (except at the Dead Sea), it’s mineral composition is likely different to what you are used to and may make you feel queasy. As an alternative, bottled water is readily available, and the majority of hotels and hostels have a drinking fountain that you can refill your own re-usable bottle. (Check out our full list of the best water bottles for travel here)
IS TIPPING PART OF THE CULTURE IN ISRAEL?
Tipping in Israel is discretionary but expected, similar to most of the Western world. The Going rate is between 10-15% with 10% being the lowest, 12% average and 15% for great service (although if you wish to tip more, nobody will complain!) Waiters and bartenders are generally paid a low salary with the majority of their earnings coming from tips. However, tipping taxi drivers, on the other hand, is not usually expected.
LEARN SOME USEFUL PHRASES BEFORE YOU GO
When in Israel you’ll see and hear English, Hebrew and Arabic, but learning a few words of Hebrew will certainly put you in good stead with the Jewish locals.
Shalom – Universal for hello, goodbye and a few things in between. It’s direct translation is “peace”
Bevakasha – Please
Toda/Toda Raba – Thank you/Thank you very much
Chen/Ken & Lo – Yes & no.
Sababa – Cool / Great / Alright / Sure
Beseder – a simple OK (but one that isn’t too over enthusiastic!)
Chen/Ken & Lo – Yes & no.
L’chaim – is what you say for ‘Cheers’ & the literal translation is “to life”
Slicha – Excuse Me / Pardon me / Sorry
Tov is Hebrew for “good”: ie. Mazel Tov (Good Fortune) or Boker Tov (Good Morning)
Lehitra’ot – See You Later