A small Middle Eastern country with a population of only 8 million people, bordering Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestinian Territories, the State of Israel is a very young country, established only in 1948. On the other side, the Land of Israel (part of the Holy Land) is an area with rich and complex history and cultural diversity, to which all three major monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism & Islam) have historical ties. Invaded and conquered throughout the ages by the Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Turks and British amongst other, Israel is well known for its ever exchanging periods of peace and conflict.
The question of being pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian is not really appropriate for a travel blog, but a historical overview is crucial for a better understanding of the current situation in the country.
A quick fast forward from the Israeli origins tied to Abraham, who is considered the father of both Judaism and Islam and whose grandson Jacob was renamed Israel by the Hebrew God in the Bible, followed by the rule of King David and King Solomon, as well as all the previously mentioned conquests; in 1917, following a 400-year long Ottoman Empire rule, the Balfour declaration expressed support of the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. With the end of WWI in 1918 Great Britain took control over the area known as Palestine (modern-day Israel, Palestine and Jordan) and the British Mandate, which was opposed by the Arabs, lasted until the end of WWII and the formation of State of Israel in 1947. After the announcement of independence, five Arab nations (Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon) invaded the region, which was the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. As part of temporary armistice agreement in 1949, the West Bank became part of Jordan, and the Gaza Strip became Egyptian territory, while several other wars between the Arabs and the Jews have ensued in the years to follow. Considered a sacred and holy land by both Jewish and Muslims, conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians are still quite common in the area.
To a traveler, Israel and the Palestinian Territories offer a great deal of historical sites, delicious food options, vast landscapes and vibrant cities, as well as access to four ‘seas’ – two of which are actually lakes – the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee.
Before you decide on visiting this incredibly interesting and unique country, here’s a couple of tips & suggestions that may turn out useful when planning your trip.
1. The notorious passport stamp
Some countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, will not issue a visa to travellers with an Israeli stamp in their passports. Do not let this fact discourage you from visiting this captivating country!
A couple of years back, Israeli Immigration Officers ceased stamping passports and started handing over blue entry (and pink exit) cards. You should hold on to your entry card and carry it together with your passport at all times throughout your stay in Israel, as the hotels will ask to make a copy of the entry card and your passport may be randomly checked at train stations and bus stations, as well as at some tourist sights.
False information is also circling around the internet that you may be denied entry, if you have a passport stamp from Arab countries. We had passport stamps from countries like Egypt and United Arab Emirates, which presented no problem whatsoever.
2. The currency
The currency of Israel is the Israeli New Shekel (NIS), which equals EUR 0.23 and $ 0.28. The easiest way to get an approximate result in EUR or $ is to divide the amount in shekels by 4.
In Judaism, Shabbat or the Sabbath (basically meaning Saturday), i.e. the seventh day of creation, is considered a day of rest and celebration. It begins at sunset on Friday and ends at nightfall the following day. During Shabbat, it is forbidden to work, to travel in vehicles, to switch on the electricity and to cook.
When planning a trip to Israel, take into consideration that public transport does not run after 4 pm on Friday and most shops, businesses and restaurants will be closed during this special day, starting as early as 2 pm on Friday.
We opted to stay in the more secular Tel Aviv during Shabbat, where you can hardly notice any difference. If you find yourself in Jerusalem, you can visit the Israel Museum or take a walk through the Old City, which will be much more peaceful, especially the Jewish Quarter.
4. Safety and security
Israel is generally very safe, but conflicts can arise, so follow the news, travel restrictions and your own country’s travel advice regarding safety and security.
You should avoid the Gaza Strip and the area near the border with Syria at all times (the border with Egypt and Lebanon can also be problematic), but you can travel to Jordan and into the Palestinian Territories without troubles.
Also, don’t be surprised to see a lot (and I mean A LOT) of soldiers and policemen – both men and women – on the streets, especially in Jerusalem. All Israeli citizens over the age of 18 (except Arabs) are required to serve in the military forces – men for almost three years and women for two years.
5. Getting around
Public transportation is very well developed and buses and trains will take you almost everywhere. However, the northern areas (Golan Heights, Sea of Galilee) can be hard to reach if you don’t rent a car.
Buy the anonymous Rav Kav card that enables travel on public transportation like the Jerusalem Light Rail and Egged buses for a one-time payment of NIS 5.00 (the card can be purchased from the driver or at sales points) and then simply (re)charge the card. More than one person can use the same card.
Another type of transportation is the sherut, i.e. a shared taxi, which is basically a minivan for 10 people. The sherut runs on three routes – from city to city, within a city and from the airport to Jerusalem or Haifa. A sherut from the airport will drop you off at the desired location in Jerusalem for NIS 64.00 pp. Using a sherut is simple (you can find sheruts at ground level (Level G) just outside Arrivals), but the driver will wait until the taxi is full before taking off, which may take some time.
6. Dress code
Visiting religious sites, such as Temple Mount, the Bahá’í gardens, the Western Wall and other places of worship, requires modest attire and covered shoulders and knees for both men and women. Don’t forget to pack long trousers/skirts/dresses and a scarf or something similar to cover up when necessary.
Otherwise, “normal” clothes work just fine, especially in westernized cities like Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat. Also, there are many places where you can go for a dip, so swimwear is a must. And don’t forget sunscreen!
7. Food & Costs
In short, Israel is quite expensive. Our daily budget, accommodation costs excluded, amounted to EUR 100+.
The biggest cost, of course, is the accommodation. We stayed in a boutique hotel in Jerusalem for EUR 70.00/night, a boutique hotel in Haifa for EUR 110.00/night and a hostel in Tel Aviv (room w/ private bathroom) for EUR 110.00/night.
The prices of basic necessities are exorbitant and you end up paying EUR 2.00 for a small bottle of water. Tap water is potable, but it has a very strange taste, so we rather stuck to bottled water instead, despite the price. Even fast food is expensive, as prices for shawarma, kebab and similar dishes range from EUR 5-10 and pizza costs EUR 15+, let alone drinks, as you won’t find a beer for under EUR 8 and cocktails under EUR 15.
Open marketplaces like Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem and Carmel Market in Tel Aviv are a great option for buying fruit, vegetables and local products, while fixed price cafes (Cofix and Cofizz) offer sandwiches, sweet and savory pastry, refreshing ice coffee and fruit juices for NIS 6.00, so it quickly became our favourite breakfast spot. In Tel Aviv we have even found SuperCofix supermarkets, where you can buy most products for a fixed price of NIS 5.00 (e.g. three 2l bottles of water).
Endulge in some local cuisine and try the delicious hummus, shawarma and falafel or the sweet baklava. In Tel Aviv, the seafood was also worth a splurge.
You can read more tips for planning your budget here.
8. Tipping & haggling
Tipping is optional, yet expected, and standard practice in restaurants is a 10-15% tip. Even though the amount is up to the customer, we had a quite unpleasant experience when we rounded the amount, which resulted in an 8% tip, and the waiter almost made a scene.
Haggling is common in the marketplaces and Old City markets.
Best time to visit Israel weather wise is during spring (April and May) or autumn (September and October), when the temperatures are pleasantly mild.
During our summer stay (end of July), Jerusalem was hot but bearably dry, Haifa and Tel Aviv were very hot and humid, while the Dead Sea was just scorching hot.
Before we came to Israel we had the idea that English was very widely spoken, however, you will often encounter bus and sherut drivers, salespeople, train station workers, elderly people, even young people, with basic or no knowledge of the English language. Those Israelis who do speak English however (hotel clerks, waiters, tourist workers, etc.), generally have a very good knowledge of English and you can ask them for directions, dining suggestions and so on.
Israelis may appear a bit stand-offish around strangers and tourists at first, but everyone is actually very kind and polite and happy to help (especially when you find certain signs, train tickets and similar only in Hebrew).
All in all, language should be the least of your worries, as it will most certainly not present an obstacle.
Hello/Goodbye – Shalom
Yes/No – Chen (pronounced Ken)/Lo
Thank you – Toda
Please – Bevakasha
Sorry – Slicha
Good – Tov