Israel is a destination with a thousand faces, ideal for all types of travelers and for all tastes. Do you want a intense nightlife and a cosmopolitan feel? Go to Tel Aviv. Do you want to find yourself in the narrow streets of an old city? Then Jerusalem is the place for you. And then there is you who would go crazy for hiking and are a nature lover. Mitzpe Ramon awaits you. But before you book your tickets and pack your suitcase, learn here everything you need to know before you travel to Israel.
PASSPORT & VISA
Make sure your passport has at least a six month validity while you do not need to be afraid for any stamps upon your arrival or your departure from the country. Visa is now issued free of charge, in card form when you enter and exit Israel.
Tip # 1: If your passport has the special chip (ask somebody from the airport security to check it for you), then you can avoid the long queues and issue your visa on the special machinery.
Tip # 2: Get ready to have your luggage thoroughly checked, but also for questions like “do you carry any ammunition?”. The security at Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, is not joking at all, so reply seriously and do not make fun of the questions if you want to get out of there quickly.
The currency used in Israel is New Shekels (Israeli New Shekel). You can exchange at the airport, at the hotel or in the various exchange points of your destination. Almost all cards are acceptable but before using them, make sure to check about all the extra charges.
Tip: If you are like me then you may need some time to become familiar with the currency. Try to understand it quickly, or you will end up at the end of the trip with an entire pouch filled with coins.
The official languages of Israel are Hebrew and Arabic, but it’s hard to find someone who does not speak English.
Basic Words in Hebrew
Hello – Shalom
Goodbye – Shalom
Please – Bevakashah
Thank you – Toda
English? – Anglit?
Yes – Ken
No – Lo
Tip: The Israelis have a specific accent sometimes when speaking English, which oddly sounds… French! Très cute!
SHABBAT & HOLIDAYS
It is very important to know that from Friday’s sunset until Saturday’s sunset, every week, is the Shabbat (Saturday), or the seventh day of the week for the Jews. According to Jewish tradition, that day the man should be resting, refraining from any kind of work or creation. Therefore, during Shabbat, most shops and businesses are closed, while the various means of transportation such as trains or buses aren’t working either.
The same happens during other religious celebrations too. Personally, I learnt my lesson when the last day of my stay in the country, I was in Mitzpe Ramon, two and a half hours away from Tel Aviv and the airport. It was Sunday and a public holiday because of some celebration. Absolutely no means of transport were working so we had to overpay a taxi driver to take us to the airport.
Tip: If you are not planning to rent a car to get around, then make sure your arrival in the country is on any day other than Shabbat. Learn about the religious holidays during all of which everything is stationary and generally avoid traveling from town to town these days.
Get ready to see a lot of weapons during your stay in Israel. I’m telling you this now so you won’t be shocked when you get there. Not only the military, but anyone who has a gun license, mainly Jews, can carry his weapon freely; usually wearing it on their chest. Under normal conditions this should scare you. But here there is a big BUT. The reason why there are so many weapons around is protection. Unfortunately, the situation in the country is such, that “imposes” somehow this protection method.
Tip: You have nothing to worry about! Tourists are not the target in the political and religious conflicts. Generally just make sure you’re taking the necessary precautions, just as you would do if you were in any other country.
LEARN HOW TO USE THE SHERUT
The Sherut is a kind of a minivan- taxi which you share with 8-10 more people. You can get quickly and cheaper to your destination, than if you would use a normal taxi. It operates routes from city to city, routes within the same city and finally, routes to and from the airport from Jerusalem and Haifa.
You can use it from the starting points, otherwise you can use it nodding from some point of the predetermined route. If it doesn’t stop, most likely there aren’t any free seats. I personally used Sherut in two cases. Both were to go from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. From the airport I paid 64 Shekel/15 Euros to go to the city of Jerusalem. Before you get in the taxi, be sure that you explain to the driver exactly where you’re going, because there is always a risk to get into the wrong sherut and end up somewhere else.
Tip: When you use the Sherut or even the bus, you can sit in your seat and pay later. If you’re wondering how you’ll pay while you are sitting, then listen to this! The passengers sit and then “send” the money for the ticket to the driver, tapping lightly on the shoulder of the passenger sitting in front of them (aka poking). From hand to hand, therefore, the money reaches the driver who sends the change back in the same way. You cannot imagine how many hits on the shoulder I received during my trips.
HOW TO DRESS
It is most likely during your stay in Jerusalem, to visit the old city and the holy sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Wailing Wall. It doesn’t matter if you have a different religion or even if you’re an atheist. You should be dressed modestly, if you want to get in. For example if you want to enter the tomb of Jesus, you have to have your legs covered to the ankles and shoulders. If you are wearing shorts, the priests will not let you enter. The same goes for the Western Wall as well. There, you should also have your elbows and knees covered, while married women must have their heads covered with a scarf too. Unless you are in the old town or sacred space, you can wear anything you want.
Tip #1: A scarf or a bandanna will do the job. If you come in the summer, the heat is sometimes unbearable to constantly be 100% covered. So you can carry a scarf with you to cover your legs or your shoulders before entering a sacred space.
Tip #2: Pay attention to the areas where the conservative Orthodox Jews or the Ultra Orthodox, as they call them, live. You will recognize them by their attire. Men wear black suits and a top hat, have two tufts of hair coming down from the temples, while ladies always wear a skirt that goes below the knee and have their elbows covered. If you go to their sites and you aren’t dressed decently, they may spit on you or throw eggs and tomatoes towards you. No joking.
WHEN TO GO
The answer is simple. It depends on what you want to see and do. There is always something exciting happening any month you choose to go. February is ideal for hiking, but you should already know that you will probably get wet. In March, even though it will still be raining, you will have the opportunity to see up close, how the locals celebrate the feast of Purim, a week full of festivals and parties in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In April they celebrate Easter while the locals have two weeks of vacation so everything is more expensive as they all go in the countryside. Who would not want to spend at least once their Christmas in December in Bethlehem, or go swimming in Eilat during the summer? So the choice of the date of your trip to Israel is purely yours and depends on the experience you want to gain. I wasn’t of much help to this question, huh?
Tip: If all this do not satisfy you, find out what concerts and festivals will take place to decide the dates of your visit and who knows? Your favorite singer may have scheduled a concert there next month. I know that by the end of the year many famous artists will be there, like Ricky Martin, Beyonce, Avicii, Queen and Adam Lambert. Ah! And if you’re a fan of the Gay Parade then you should not miss it, since in gay friendly Tel Aviv, every year, perhaps the biggest Gay Parade in the world takes place!
WHERE TO GO
Again, it depends. Do you want mountains, do you want sea, do you want history, do you want nightlife, do you want an oasis with waterfalls, spas, do you want to go snorkeling or do you like hiking in the wilderness? In Israel, you can do ALL of the above! Go to Tel Aviv for the nightlife, the Dead Sea for the mud baths, Ein Gedi to see a true oasis in the middle of the desert, Jerusalem and Bethlehem for pilgrimage, history and mystery, while if you want to relax in coastal town, the best choice is the cosmopolitan Eilat. If you are fond of walking like I am, you should visit the Mitzpe Ramon and the Golan Heights.
Tip: When you arrive in Israel, you will hear the locals say that Jerusalem is the city of God, Tel Aviv, the city of fun and party, while Haifa is the working city. My own experience tells me that this is not absolute. In Jerusalem you can easily have fun and party too, while in Tel Aviv you can relax quietly going to the beach and watching the beautiful sunsets, without this necessarily leading you to a wild evening!
WHAT TO EAT
Not a single day did go by in Israel when I didn’t eat shakshuka for breakfast or dinner. An incredibly simple but delicious dish with egg, tomato and garlic, that anyone who tries it, cannot stop eating it. Beyond shakshuka you can try falafel, hummus and shawarma wrapped in pita bread with fresh salad. Make sure to order, at least once meze, foods in small saucers that are intended to be put in the middle of the table to share with your friends. You will thus have the opportunity to taste many different dishes in a single meal!
Tip: Get ready for huge portions and incredible amounts of food. My only advice is to not feel embarrassed to ask to take the food that’s still on the table, with you. We do not throw anything away while we are also saving money and a meal!
Personally I do not do well at all with haggling. It causes me anxiety and frustration. But if you are good at it, get ready to haggle in the narrow streets of the old city of Jerusalem. It is unusual in the rest of the country, but you have to do it in small shops with antiques and memorabilia, otherwise you will pay a lot for everything.
Tip: If you follow an organized tour in the old city of Jerusalem, they will probably take you to a store that sells souvenirs, jewelry, amulets of silver and gilded small icon. These shops usually are expensive but if you choose to buy something from there make sure at least that they will also give you a certificate of authenticity.
MAKE THE RESERVATION FOR YOUR TOURS IN TIME
In Israel, I believe it is necessary to participate in a couple of organized tours, before you start exploring the country on your own. Especially in Jerusalem, you will find it very difficult to “understand” the city without first having an experienced guide help you. In my last trip to Israel, I participated in two incredible tours, both from the Tourist Israel.
In the first tour called “Masada Sunrise, Ein Gedi & Dead Sea Tour”, I climbed to the top of Masada to enjoy the sunrise, cleaned myself in the waters of a waterfall in Ein Gedi, and daubed with mud treatment at the Dead Sea. In the second tour, I explored with an amazing guide the old city of Jerusalem and then passed to the Palestinian territories to visit Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. This experience called “Jerusalem and Bethlehem day tour” was unique and incredibly informative.
Tip: If you want to visit Bethlehem, then definitely take with you your passport since the city is part of the Palestinian territories. If you go there on a tour then you need to leave your bus and your guide back and cross the checkpoint on the wall on feet to meet the local guide and another bus on the other side. If you choose to cross the border with a rental car, make sure that the insurance covers for your entrance there, otherwise there is a risk that you won’t be allowed to enter.
WHERE TO STAY
- In Jerusalem, you should definitely choose the Post Hostel, the trendy and incredibly cool hostel near Jaffa Street, with the most delicious breakfast I’ve ever tasted in a hostel.
- In Tel Aviv there is only one perfect economical choice and it is called Beachfront Hotel. You have the sea at the doorstep of your room, the most beautiful sunsets in the country just two steps from the hotel entrance and the most polite and helpful staff ever!
- The Green Backpackers Hostel in Mitzpe Ramon will become your home for the days you want to spend in the desert Negev. Located literally on the rim of the crater Ramon is what we call a home away from home. Lee is an amazing host, and if you find yourself there on a Friday night, you will have the opportunity to share your meal with the owners and other backpackers in the weekly Shabbat Dinner potluck style!