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Your Trip to Israel: The Complete Guide

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The tiny nation-state of Israel is fraught with political tension, but it’s also one of the most incredible places to visit, filled with religious landmarks, archaeological finds dating all the way back to the Bronze Age, stunning natural landscapes, and vibrant cities with acclaimed restaurants, museums, art galleries, and more. At just over 8,000 square miles, it’s also fairly easy to see most of the country on your trip, especially if you have more than one week.

The capital of Jerusalem is bursting with history and is a cultural melting pot of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, all of whom consider the city holy. (This also causes some major political tensions that you should be aware of before your visit). Tel Aviv, always considered the more modern of the two main cities, is known for its beaches, inspired art scene, fantastic shopping, and renowned bars and restaurants.

And beyond these cities lies a diverse landscape dotted with deserts, mountains, fertile valleys, and some of the most impressive geologic formations in the world—plus of course the salty Dead Sea, sparkling Mediterranean, freshwater Sea of Galilee, and even a tiny piece of the diving haven, the Red Sea.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Luckily, Israel is a pretty good place to visit year-round, thanks to mostly good weather; although summer can be very hot, it still attracts plenty of tourists. In fact, summer is peak tourist season in Israel, along with the week of Passover. Many of the Jewish holidays are fun times to visit, but beware of rising flight and hotel prices and larger crowds at some attractions during those times. It’s also important to know that many things (restaurants, stores, museums, government offices, etc.) are closed during holidays, so plan accordingly. Spring and fall are ideal times to visit since the weather is mild and crowds are smaller (except for Passover, which occurs in the spring).
  • Language: Israel’s national language is Hebrew, but you’ll also hear and see lots of Arabic and English—most people in Israel speak English, and it is taught in schools. All road signs and other important information are often printed in all three languages.
  • Currency: New Israeli Shekel, usually abbreviated as NIS or just referred to as “shekel”
  • Getting Around: Israel has an extensive bus system, from intra-city systems in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and other cities to a countrywide inter-city system that can get you almost anywhere in the country. The main bus company in Israel is called Egged, except for Tel Aviv and its surrounding area, which is served by Dan. The last few years have also seen an expansion of the rail system in Israel. There are now 10 lines that criss-cross the country, going from Beer Sheva in the south to Akko and Nahariya in the north, and as far east as Beit Shean. One of the biggest recent developments was a new high-speed rail between Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ben Gurion International Airport, shrinking travel time dramatically. Taxis are also used frequently, especially in urban areas, and sheiruts, or shared vans, operate within and between some cities. Uber and Lyft do not operate in Israel, but people use the taxi app Gett to hail a cab. If you’re in the country for a long time and planning to get off the beaten path, renting a car and driving might be right for you.
  • Travel Tip: Make time to explore beyond Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, if you can. Places like the Dead Sea, Akko, and the Sea of Galilee are each only a few hours from Israel’s two major cities, making day trips an easy way to see more.

Things to Do

Israel is jam-packed with attractions and activities, with everything from thousand-year-old archaeological sites to stunning beaches and national parks. There are things to occupy families with young kids, clubbing college kids, foodies, history buffs, culture hounds, and nature lovers. Don’t miss these activities:

  • Hiking: Israel’s diverse geographic terrain means there are some excellent hiking trails across the country. From deserts to canyons to mountains to forests to caves, the national parks and nature preserves of Israel offer incredible landscapes to explore. Plus, some of them include ancient ruins of Biblical, Iron Age, or Ottoman-era cities and fortresses. If you’re attempting an off-trail hike, be sure to have a guide with you, as environment and weather can sometimes be extreme—and you also don’t want to accidentally cross the Green Line.
  • See the Holy Sites: Israel, also called the Holy Land, has so many important religious sites for so many different religions, it’s no wonder that many visitors to Israel are on some kind of pilgrimage. But even if you’re not religious, seeing these often ancient landmarks, meaningful sites, and beautiful temples and shrines are sure to move you. Sites like the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Dome of the Rock, Bahai’I Gardens, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Cave of the Patriarchs, Masada, and the Mount of Olives, are all impressive.
  • Hit the Beach: Israel is home to some of the world’s most stunning beaches, thanks to its 170 miles of Mediterranean Sea coastline, the desert-surrounded Dead Sea, the lush Sea of Galilee, and clear waters of the Red Sea in Eilat. Aside from swimming and sunbathing, Tel Aviv beaches also offer a lively scene complete with dining, drinking, volleyball, outdoor gyms, and more. And biking or walking along the promenade is a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

Where to Eat and Drink

Israel has gained acclaim in the last five to 10 years for its incredible food scene, getting on the radar of many foodies. Tel Aviv in particular is a standout city with a dynamic and varied dining scene, with top-quality and creative restaurants. Additionally, Tel Aviv has become a bastion for vegans and is known as one of the vegan capitals of the world, with about 40 vegan restaurants and 44 vegetarian restaurants.

Israelis love their falafel and shawarma of course, but Israelis are also the world’s biggest consumers of fruits and vegetables, and when you walk through any of its bustling outdoor markets like the famous Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem or Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv you’ll see why.

While classic Middle Eastern fare like hummus, halvah, tabbouleh, and Israeli salad are easily found, visitors will also be rewarded with modern Israeli food at critically acclaimed restaurants like Onza, Mashya, Claro, HaBasta, Dok, Santa Katarina, North Abraxas, Opa in Tel Aviv and Machneyuda, Anna, Mona, and Chakra in Jerusalem. (Plus Uri Buri in Akko is a must-visit for fish and seafood lovers.) And for those willing to venture off the beaten path, Majda, located in an Arab-Israeli village just outside Jerusalem is one of the most lovely and delicious dining experiences you’ll ever have—it’s one of Chef Yotam Ottolneghi’s favorite places. Israel has also improved its international offerings, with Japanese, Thai, Italian, French, and other cuisines more widely available now—and they’re actually good.

Israel’s booze scene has also grown by leaps and bounds, with dozens of wineries, distilleries, and breweries, now operating in the country, plus plenty of top-quality bars and restaurants to get well-made cocktails and diverse wines.

Explore our article on the best foods to try in Israel, the best outdoor markets in Israel, and the top 10 restaurants in Tel Aviv

Where to Stay

The hotel scene has vastly improved in Israel over the past 10 years, with plenty of luxury and more affordable options in locations across the country. In Tel Aviv, there are diverse options on the beach, in the White City, in Jaffa, and in Neve Tzedek, with many excellent boutique hotels (like the Norman, Hotel Montefiore, Hotel Vera, and Brown Beach Hotel), while in Jerusalem you’ll want to look in and around the Old City and downtown. Major cities also have several hostels. Airbnb is also a good bet, and there are often good deals to be found.

Outside of Israel’s two major cities, you’ll find large and sometimes over-the-top resort hotels, especially around the Dead Sea and Eilat. Up north, there are some stunning boutique hotels. While there are some major international hotel chains in Israel like Hilton, InterContinental, and Marriott, there are also Israeli brands that have become acclaimed, including the boutique Brown Hotels, Isrotel (which operates the top-rated Cramim, Beresheet, and Mitzpe HaYamim, along with dozens of others), and Dan Hotels.

There are also a few uniquely Israeli accommodations to check out: Tzimmers and Kibbutzes. A tzimmer is like a bed-and-breakfast, often located in rural areas or on farms and hosted by a local family. Tzimmers are a great way to get a more local experience, and are often accompanied with delicious, homemade breakfasts. Meanwhile, kibbutzes—shared communities that were integral when Israel first became a state—often have hotels or houses and apartments for rent and some can be quite excellent. Aside from offering a peak inside a kibbutz, many of them also have great amenities like swimming pools, fitness centers, restaurants, cafes, and more, and can be more affordable than hotels.

Explore our articles on the best hotels in Jerusalem and the best hotels in Tel Aviv.

Getting There

If you’re flying from the U.S., you’ll fly into Ben Gurion International Airport, just outside Tel Aviv. From there, you can take the high-speed train to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, take a bus to many locations, or grab a sheirut (shared taxi) or taxi. Ramon Airport, located north of Eilat, operates locally and welcomes a few flights from Europe.

When you arrive and depart, expect to be interviewed by passport patrol and other security agents. If you are not Jewish or have a lot of stamps from Arabic countries in your passport you will be questioned heavily about the reason for your visit. Security is very prevalent at the airport.

Culture and Customs

While there are many cultural things to be aware of, the most important thing is to be respectful. As the world’s only official Jewish nation, there are countless customs that may be unfamiliar if you are not Jewish.

  • From sundown on Friday until Saturday night, is the Sabbath, or in Hebrew, Shabbat. During Shabbat, certain parts of the country, especially Orthodox neighborhoods, shut down in many ways, with buses not running, restaurants and stores shut, and museums and attractions closed. That said, some parts of the country that are more secular will operate as usual, like much of Tel Aviv. The customs around many Jewish holidays are similar to Shabbat, and many have several more traditions. For example, if you’re in Israel on Passover you’ll notice that many restaurants don’t serve wheat or grains during that week because they can’t be eaten during Passover, according to Jewish law.
  • It’s a good idea to bring modest clothing with you as religious neighborhoods and sites will require things like skirts past your knees, no low-cut tops, and long sleeves for women. Modesty is also required in Muslim sites, including the requirement of women to cover their hair.
  • While many restaurants in Israel are kosher, there are also plenty that are not these days, especially in Tel Aviv. So don’t be surprised to see bacon, shrimp, and cheeseburgers on menus!
  • Many Israelis are known for being brusque and brutally honest. They don’t sugarcoat things, have thick skins, and customer service has only become a concept in recent years. That said, Israelis are also friendly and generous—it's pretty easy to score an invite to a Shabbat meal.
  • Tipping in Israel is discretionary, but expected, especially in bars and restaurants. Taxi drivers are not usually tipped.
  • Security is very tight in Israel. It’s common to see metal detectors everywhere from the mall to the train station, and soldiers with guns strapped to their backs is a common sight. When you arrive and depart the country you’ll be questioned about your purpose of travel. Checkpoints while driving can occur anywhere, but are usually only found at borders with Palestinian Authority-controlled areas.
  • Finally, it’s important to be aware of the political tensions of the country. Borders, occupied territory, the Green Line, terrorist attacks, the military, the government, and more are all hot-button subjects. That’s not to say that Israelis won’t talk about them, but it might be best to listen more than speak.

Money Saving Tips

Israel is actually quite expensive, with restaurants, hotels, taxis, and fuel stations charging premium prices, here are some tips to save money.

  • Try to buy food from local markets, and don't be shy about bargaining at outdoor markets (shuks).
  • Stay at a hotel where breakfast is included.
  • Use public transportation as much as possible.
  • Spend time at free attractions, beaches, and parks without admission fees.
  • If you can, travel in the off-season (but not during holidays).
Article Sources
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  1. Tel Aviv Press. "World Vegan Day Survey." Nov. 1, 2020

  2. The Jerusalem Post. "Flying to Israel: Heeding Security Is Key to Smooth Travel." August 4, 2019

  3. BBC. "Jewish Nation State: Israel Approves Controversial Bill." July 19, 2018