Visiting Israel is an unforgettable experience. A complex and colourful history has left its mark on the country, evident in an incredible wealth of attractions, as well as in its continuing political problems. A convergence of cultures has resulted in a melting pot of influences that never fails to fascinate. As the origin of three of the world's major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Israel is a favourite destination for pilgrims, though there is much of interest there to travellers of any faith or none.
Expect security to be tight on the way in, especially if you are flying with the Israeli airline El-Al. Checks and metal detectors are common in potential problem areas once you are there, but in general, the country is far safer than most people imagine from the news reports.
Modern Hebrew is Israel's official first language, though most people will speak at least some English – especially those involved in the tourism industry. Arabic is spoken amongst the Palestinian population.
Shalom – hello Bevakasha – please Todah – thank you Shemi... – my name is...Kama...? – how much is...?
Currency in Israel is the New Israeli Shekel (NIS). At the time of writing (August 2006):US$1 : 4.36 NISUK£1 : 8.24 NIS€1 : 5.57 NIS
Shekels can also be used across the border in Palestine, although if you want to send post you will need to buy different stamps. International post in Israel is extremely cheap, but somewhat unreliable!
Israel's weather is generally very sunny. Spring and autumn will be far more comfortable for most travellers than the summer months, which can be extremely hot, especially in the south. Even so, it is wise to bring sunblock whatever time of year. Rain is more frequent in the winter, and in hilly regions such as Galilee.
Israel's attractions are extremely numerous, from sites of religious and historical interest to museums, art galleries, beaches, and the breathtaking scenery of its national parks.
Jerusalem, the capital, is a must for any visitor. From here, you can also take day trips south into the desert to climb the famous hill-fort Masada, “swim” in the Dead Sea, visit Qumran, the early settlement where the Dead Sea Scrolls were written and hidden, or walk amongst the beautiful flora and fauna of the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. (In the north, the Tel Dan Reserve offers something similar with added archaeological remains.)
The shore of the Sea of Galilee and the surrounding hills are home to many churches and chapels commemorating events from Jesus' life, favourite destinations for pilgrims.
Standards for beaches in Israel are generally fairly high. Some charge entry fees (or are owned by hotels and only open to guests) but many are free municipal beaches. The southern resort of Eilat is extremely popular for beach tourists and scuba-divers, and beaches in Tel Aviv are also very well equipped.
For tourists, crossing the border to the West Bank to visit Bethlehem or other areas may be a lengthy and sometimes daunting process due to security procedures, though there should ultimately be little to worry about. The residents will certainly appreciate your efforts once you get there.
Israel is quite westernised in the big cities and you will be able to find large malls and shopping areas in many places. There are staggering numbers of souvenir shops for tourists and pilgrims across the country, especially at sites of special interest. In addition, the bazaars in most towns and cities sell just about everything imaginable, from fresh fruit and vegetables, to spices, incense, ceramics, olive wood carvings and much more. Be prepared to haggle: tourist prices are high and you should be able to secure a large discount. Vendors enthusiastically pursue any possible sale: if you are really not interested in buying, try not to make eye-contact!
Note that in many areas, everything closes down for Shabbat on Friday evenings. However, this is not always the case; as the saying goes, “Jerusalem prays and Tel Aviv plays.” Tel Aviv's bars and clubs are famed for rivalling those of London, New York and Paris, and entertainment is lively and easy to find in the bigger cities. In the south, the beach resort Eilat is well-known for its perpetual party atmosphere.
In terms of paperwork, it is far easier to rent a car in Israel than bring your own. Israelis drive with serious chutzpah – “attitude” – and you will need to keep your wits about you. Don't be afraid of using the horn – other drivers won't be! In addition:
- Drive on the right
- Expect roadblocks and security checks, and always carry your passport and driving licence
- If you can, it is best to avoid large cities, especially at rush hour
- The drink-drive limit is 50mg per 100ml
Food and Drink
Food in Israel is along the same lines as that in other Mediterranean countries. Because of the Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), restaurants are often separated into those that serve milk and cheese products and those that serve meat. Dishes will be kosher – made from approved ingredients and prepared in the correct way. Except in a few specialist (and controversial) places, you will not find any pork or shellfish. Chicken dishes are common.
Street food is generally excellent, particularly the falafel (crushed, dried chick peas, fried and served in pitta with humous and large amounts of salad). This is extremely popular as a snack or quick meal and is available almost everywhere. The same goes for shawarma, effectively a high quality doner kebab.
Thick, black, heavily sweetened and flavoured Turkish coffee can be found in areas with a larger Palestinian population, but be warned that Israelis do not make this well themselves (it is called botz – “mud” – for good reason in Hebrew).
Israeli wine will also be kosher, whilst any strict Muslim restaurants will not serve alcohol at all.
All car hire locations in Israel
- Be'Er Sheva (teyman) Airport
- Ben Gurion International Airport
- Bet Shemesh
- Eilat Airport
- Haifa International Airport
- Kfar Saba
- Kiryat Shmona Airport
- Ness Ziona
- Petah Tikva
- Qiryat Gat
- Qiryat Shemona
- Ramat Gan
- Rishon LeẔiyyon
- Rosh Ha‘ayin
- Sde Dov Airport
- Tel Aviv
- ‘afula ‘illit