Israel is a travel destination of biblical proportions, in every sense of the word, and has a lot to offer the intrepid traveller who looks beyond the erroneous stereotypes and often overblown safety concerns.
The spiritual and literal home to all three of the worlds Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and with more sites of religious and cultural significance than almost anywhere on the planet, Israel is a simmering hotbed of cultural and political clashes, iconic religious sites and one of the richest historical and cultural tapestries in the world.
And yet with a reputation for being unsafe and having one of the strictest security checkpoints in the world, many travellers avoid Israel. This really is a mistake.
Israel is a fascinating place to visit from a historical and cultural perspective, but it is also a great destination for relaxing at the beach, exploring some unique and world class nightlife, going crazy with some adventure activities or even indulging in a winery visit or two.
Whatever your reason for travelling you will find something to interest you in Israel, and you will leave with a permanent imprint of a surprisingly diverse and eclectic country.
Israel is a relatively modern country by most standards, but has a culture predating written history. Considered as part of the Holy Land alongside Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Territories, it is a focal point for the three primary monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Israel is predominantly Jewish, with the various Jewish denominations making up the bulk of Israeli society, with Muslims and then Christians making up a small portion of society.
With such a large focus on religion within everyday society, Israel is still a paradoxically conservative but still quite liberal country, and there are standards of decorum expected at religious sites, but there is generally no need to worry too much about this, just be polite and conservatively respectful and you will get on fine.
There are deep divisions within Israeli society along these religions lines, with various parts of Jerusalem in particular being designated for one denomination or another, and sometimes significant prejudices are still held very deeply and are hotly debated. None more so than the differences between the Israeli state and the Palestinian territories. Travellers would be wise to both see and keep an open mind about all aspects of these divisions from both sides of the coin, but also not to get involved too deeply.
Israel grants visa’s on arrival to the large majority of nationalities, including the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and major European countries. This is mostly for up to a period of 3 months but check with your own nations embassy for specific entry requirements, and anyone entering from a land border from Egypt or elsewhere may only get 30 days depending on the discretion of the border authorities. Citizens of numerous Arab and Muslim states are not banned from Israel as many people believe, but may have a harder time getting a Visa depending on the absolute discretion of the Israeli authorities.
Anyone who openly disagrees with the Israeli state or is engaging in pro Palestinean activities, is engaging in political or relief activities or is in any way openly protesting Israel will face heavy questioning at the border and will be highly unlikely to be allowed in. Various country stamps in your passport may be questioned more heavily than others depending on the political situation at the time but are not necessarily an automatic bar.
Important note: contrary to still popularly held belief, Israel no longer stamps your passport, but instead gives you a stamped piece of paper which you keep inside your passport for the length of your stay and can remove later. This avoids any trouble with borders that do not allow an Israeli stamp in your passport. There have been some reports that on occassion travellers crossing the land border from Egypt or Jordan may have a page stamped, so it is important to request a paper stamp if you do this.
All travellers are strongly recommended to be up to date on their routine vaccinations including MMR, diptheria – pertusis – tetanus and varicella (chicken pox).
Polio is also strongly recommended if you have not got it already as part of your routine vaccinations, or the booster if it has been over 10 years since your shot.
Diptheria, Hepatitis A and B, Japanese encephalitis and Rabies may be recommended for at risk groups. Discuss this with your physician, specialist nurse or travel clinic to see which vaccinations are suitable for you.
There is no risk of malaria in Israel and so antimalarials are not advised. It is still recommended that you take insect bite prevention methods however as sandflies are a problem around the coastal areas and can cause a nasty, itchy bite. They can also rarely cause a skin disorder called cutaneous leishmaniasis.
Hospitals and clinics are readily available in Israel and are of a high standard. They are expensive however so ensure that your insurance is up to date and relevant to your needs.
Crime and Safety.
The UK Foreign Commonwealth Office advises against travel to Gaza and any approach of the perimeter fence surrounding the Gaza strip, and cannot offer assistance there. There is also a strong warning to be vigilant when travelling in the West Bank.
There are often political demonstrations in Israel and the Palestinian Territories,and it is common sense to avoid these as much as possible and stay up to date with local news concerning any trouble. There is of course always the risk of terrorist activity just like there is anywhere else in the world but there is no need to be overly paranoid about this.
Other than that Israel is generally a very safe country to travel through, with general crime rates throughout Israel far lower than the US, the UK and many major Western European nations. Reasonable common sense safety precautions will limit any personal risk of becoming the victim of any petty crime such as theft, which can happen anywhere.
Many people fear Israel’s infamous heavy security, and whilst it may cause a few slight inconveniences at the airport it really isn’t anything to worry about. It is there to protect and reassure people, not scare them.
Avoid the places such as Gaza which can raise the personal risk factor to you significantly, and explore the rest of Israel, especially the major interest points of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and even the coast of the Dead Sea, and there is no reason to fear travelling through Israel at all.
Costs and money.
Israel’s currency is the New Israeli Shekel (INS).
Israel is an expensive country, more expensive than you think it will be for the region and en par with any Western country, including the UK. That does not mean you can’t travel there on a budget, you just have to be careful with your money and plan carefully.
A budget traveller can get by on around £40 – 50 a day by staying in hostels (around £20 a night), eating at souks and markets or sticking to supermarkets, (around £10 – £15 a day), sticking to public transport and limiting their paid activities.
A more realistic budget for a midrange traveller would be between £50 – £100 a day which will cover a private room in a hostel or a cheap guesthouse (around £30 – 50 a night), a mixture of cheap souk meals and the occassional restaurant, the occassional taxi with public transport and an excursion or two a week.
Obviously if you want more comfort, the sky is the limit depending on how much luxury you want and what you want to do.
When to go.
As for many places the shoulder seasons of Spring and Autumn are the best time to visit Israel as the temperatures are moderate and pleasantly mild. The desert regions and the coast, including the Dead Sea, can be cold at night and brutally hot during the day, so make sure you pack for the right climate and take precautions.
You should also take into account the many religious holidays (and the weekly Shabbat) into consideration when planning your trip as crowds will be heavier, prices will be higher and shops and attractions may not be open.
The Old City Of Jerusalem.
The old city of Jerusalem has been the focal point of the three main monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism for millennia, and has a millennia’s worth of culture and sites of historical and religious significance crammed into a tiny square mile to explore as a result. Imagine walking the same streets that Jesus Christ was said to have walked carrying the cross on his back, where Jacques De Molay led the Crusader Knights in the conquest of Jerusalem, where Muhammad was said to have his initial revelations or where King David (of Goliath fame) ruled. The stories of our past, our collective religions and faiths all come to life here and you can feel them pulsing through every single stone and rock.
Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.
This picturesque nature reserve consists of two large canyons, Wadi David and Wadi Arugot, both of which can be used to access the reserve, and there are plenty of trails of differing lengths and difficulty levels to explore the area of outstanding natural beauty. There is even an ancient Synagogue to explore.
Masada National Park.
This UNESCO world heritage site is not only a stunning plateau in the heart of the Judean desert where you can get unrivalled views over the Dead Sea and into Jordan, it is one of Israel’s many fascinating sites of biblical significance. This is where the last of the Jewish rebels, made up of Sicarii, Essenes and Samaritans, made their last stand against the Roman invaders after the destruction of Jerusalem and is the location of the first mass suicide in written history. Whether you come out of historical interest or just a pretty view of the desert on a sunrise tour, the hike up to the Masada plateau is not to be missed.
These formal, picturesque gardens in Haifa are well worth a morning just wondering around and exploring. There are 19 terraces in all, all flowing down to a shrine, the final resting place of the prophet of the Baha’i faith. Both men and women should be covered from shoulders to knees.
Beit She’an National Park.
These Roman ruins are a fascinating way to spend the day and are so fantastically and painstakingly restored and maintained that they give a genuine glimpse into Israel’s Roman past. Walking the colonnaded streets, exploring the huge public theatre, the bath houses and even the parts that are still in relative ruin all evoke a sense of what Israel was like 2000 years ago.
Maktesh Ramon National Park.
Nicknamed the Grand Canyon of Israel, this vast national park offers up some of the best desert and mountain hiking trails in the country, not to mention a vast array of adventure travel activities, from horse riding to mountain biking, rappelling and climbing. If you need an adrenaline rush in Israel, this is the place to come.
If you want a taste of the new, modern Israel then the bohemian vibe of Tel Aviv is where to go. There is still a wealth of history here of course, but unlike it’s sister city Jerusalem, Tel Aviv embraces the new, vibrant and cosmopolitan lifestyle of a chilled, laid back hipster city. With a huge and evolving foodie scene, trendy classes, infamously hedonistic nightlife and a ton of great shopping, beach getaways and relaxing places to explore, Tel Aviv is becoming the new city break golden child.
The City of Jaffa.
The old part of Tel Aviv is one of the oldest cities on the Mediterranean coast, and wandering the small, winding streets filled with old churches, mosques and even a wishing bridge, gives you a glimpse into what life could have been like in this ancient port.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
This picturesque and awe inspiring church, said to be built on the location of Jesus’ resurrection, is a must se in Israel, even if you aren’t yourself religious. The church has been a location of pilgrimage since the 4th century, and to see the level of fervor and worship that some people display is humbling.
The Western Wall.
Otherwise known as the Wailing Wall or the Kotel, this site is one of the most significant and holiest sites in the Jewish faith. Located in the old city of Jerusalem it can easily be reached by foot and is a singularly interesting experience, if not a religious one. Even if you don’t believe, you have to write a prayer or a wish, however you want to view it, and place it in between the stones of the wall.
Explore the city of David with a walking tour.
The City of David (former King and of Goliath fame), is now an open archaeological park. Parts are still very active digs and it is fascinating in and of itself to see this process take place, but the walking tours take you through the ancient tunnels underneath the city and give you views of a plethora of biblical sites from the top, all while regaling you with the history and the iconic stories that happened on the very stones you are walking on.
Take a tour of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park.
As part of the City of David, this high tech virtual reconstruction of Jerusalem’s fascinating past in the Davidson centre offers an in-depth, three-dimensional reconstruction of the Temple, based on excavations and ancient writings, and is an absolute must see.
Eat at the first Station.
The First Station is a refurbished train station in Jerusalem that has become a focus of entertainment and culture as well as a foodie heaven. The newly gentrified area is right in the heart of Jerusalem itself and has a good selection of little boutique shops, lively entertainment and amazing restaurants and is a great relaxed way to spend an evening and grab some dinner.
Shop, people watch and then eat at Mehane Yahuda Market.
Mehane Yahuda Market, commonly referred to as the Shuk, is one of the oldest markets in Jerusalem and everyone gets their daily groceries there and it is an amazing place to get a snapshot of daily life in Jerusalem. But wants the evening sets in it becomes a hipsters and a foodies paradise as a ton of pop up eateries, chic boutique restaurants and craft beer stalls start setting up.
Float on top of the Dead Sea.
Surrounded by the staggeringly stark beauty of the Judean desert, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth, a sea so heavy with salt and minerals that the unique effect of not being able to sink as you float in its supposedly rejuvinating waters has become a bucket list item for travellers around the world. There are countless spas, kibbutzim and hotels you can base yourself in to experience the dead sea so look around and find the spot that is best for you, but spending the day floating in the Dead Sea really is a must have experience!
Israel may not have the shopping mecca reputations of Singapore, London or Paris, but what it does have is a lot of new, modern malls and shopping districts in Tel Aviv, as well as some famously historical souks and markets in Jerusalem, with a good mixture of traditional crafts and foods and international brands. Be prepared to let your budget take a big hit though!
View the Dead Sea Scrolls up close.
The Israel Museum is an absolute must see site in Jerusalem, not just for its wealth of historical exhibits from the holy land and its connections to ancient Egypt and other great civilisations, but for its prized possession. The infamous Dead Sea Scrolls.
Unknown to a large majority of people, these vastly underrated historical treasures, these ancient Hebrew texts are one of the most significant finds in Biblical Archaeology, and are on par with the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum or the treasures of Tutankhamun in Cairo, but without the fanfare or wide public knowledge.
The scrolls are housed in the dedicated Shrine of the Book, a unique and awe inspiring building, and chances are that whenever you go, you can actually see the exhibit without many crowds.