For most of people Israel is mostly associated with pilgrimages and neverending terrorist attacks. However, the country has really a lot to offer, it has incredible natural and historical spots and sightseeing it does not have to rely on pilgrimages. In this post I gathered for you all practical information about travelling to Israel.
I’ve spent 2 months in Israel (without 10 days when I was in Jordan – here all practical info for you) and it has been probably one of my most active trips ever. I admit that I was a little afraid that after returning home I would be completely bored because I’ve experienced so many wonderful things in Israel.
Israel is truly amazing: tiny but has really a lot to offer, but I’ll write more about it below. That’s why it hurts me so much that people’s idea about that country limits only to pilgrimages and wars. I hope that with my series of posts about Israel I will show you this country and encourage you to visit it.
- 1. Is it worth to go to Israel? What you can do and see in Israel?
- 2. Is Israel safe?
- 3. How a woman should dress in Israel?
- 4. When to go to Israel?
- 5. Limitations during a trip to Israel: Shabbat and other holidays
- 6. Israel: how to get there, airports, visa, entry requirements
- 7. Israel: accommodation, transportation, food
- 8. Israel: money, costs, prices (2015)
1. Is it worth to go to Israel? What you can do and see in Israel?
Worth it, worth it, worth it! As I mentioned, Israel is a wonderful country: small (from north to south is approx. 500 km and at its widest point less than 150 km), and virtually everyone will find something for themselves, both historical, cultural and natural attractions.
Pilgrimage is a classic, in the end it’s the Holy Land where Jesus taught, but it’s not the only historical value of the country. Israel can be visited chronologically, from ancient times (for example Masada, Caesarea Maritima, Beit She’an), through the Middle Ages and the era of the Crusades (Akko and the Nimrod Fortress), the early modern era (the Old City of Jerusalem, which was shaped mostly in 15th century) until the present day (the New City of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv). We can spice it up with all the cultural melange, which especially can be seen in Jerusalem – in the morning you can take a walk through the Orthodox Jewish quarter of Mea She’arim [Meh Sha-reem], during the day stroll in the Old Town and in the evening go out for a beer to the Yehuda Market, one of my favorite places, often visited by locals and tourists. Oh, talking about culture – in many historical places are organized concerts, operas, theatre plays and other outdoor events.
However, if you are more interested in nature… Israel can show off even more. Looking at the map of the coutry from the south: we start with coral reef in the Red Sea (season lasts all year), then we have the huge Negev desert with Makhtesh Ramon, a geological work (looks a bit like a crater and canyon in one, but this is something different) typical only for the Middle East, the canyon Avdat and hundreds of kilometers of hiking trails (though hiking is not the only activity that can be done in the desert!), then the Dead Sea and the waterfall Ein Gedi and the farther we go north, the more green are landscapes, there are hot springs and those natural values as the grottoes of Rosh Hanikra on the Mediterranean Sea, which, by the way, is entirely spectacular, with wide sandy beaches. Oh, and I can not forget the green volcanic Golan Heights, where is my favorite nature reserve of the Banias waterfall, and here you can go even skiing in the Winter!
Coming to Israel, we can not forget about the wonderful food – hummus, tahina, falafel, bourekas, halva, eggplant, freshly squeezed fruit juices and wines! My favorite comes from the Odem Mountain Winery at the Golan Heights.
And I had the opportunity to try this all within two months. Honestly? I went to Israel for so long on purpose, to discover as much of the country as possible for you. And no, I was not disappointed. I love Israel!!!
2. Is Israel safe?
Personally, I felt very safe in Israel, although I must admit that if someone really wants trouble, it’s not hard to find them.
First of all – theft and pickpockets. Never ever leave your things unattended on the beach in Tel Aviv (do not be surprised if someone asks you about keeping an eye on his things – everyone guard each other’s stuff there). Our valuables, such as wallet or mobile, may disappear from there in few seconds, especially at night. Also beware of pickpockets in more touristsy and crowded places, for example Akko or in the Old City of Jerusalem.
When it comes to terrorist attacks, because probably most people are afraid of them, I must admit that during these two months I wasn’t running between bombs and terrorists. However, I could run between mines – there is plenty of minefields in the Golan Heights, but they are fenced and marked, so only a fool would have go there. [What’s more, the first time I was in Israel was in 2002 during the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, and didn’t feel in danger, too. However, it was impossible to go the Palestinian Territories.]
Still, I would avoid visiting religious places during the holidays, mostly Jewish (for instance, on September 13, 2015 during the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, there was an attack on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem), and during Shabbat in Jerusalem watch out for demonstrations of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Although it’s hard to call it demonstrations, they just run around town in search of an open restaurants and in the best case they only chant “Sabbath, Sabbath!“, though at worst they can throw bottles and stones. No matter which option they choose each day, there is always army following them and beating with truncheons. If you want to see that, it is better to do that from a distance. 😉
Oh, I would forget: never ever go during the Sabbath to Mea She’arim, because those guys don’t want you there that time and they can stone you. If you want to go during other days, then – here a huge appeal to women – dress modestly. Details of the dress code in the next section.
But overall, I reckon that Israel is safe. Security controls are at almost every train station, sometimes also at the bus station, you can see army and police every few steps there … Personally, I felt really great in Israel!
3. How a woman should dress in Israel?
Israel is officially a Jewish country, but remember about the Arab minority, who lives even in whole neighborhoods. Also, if you want to visit religious places, remember to dress appropriately and if you are planning a visit to the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea She’arim, the dress can be an essential thing about your safety. Details below.
When you come to Israel, you shouldn’t forget shorts, t-shirts or bikini. Especially in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, or for hiking in the Negev Desert and in the Golan Heights. On the other hand, even a polar jacket can be useful in the evenings. 😉
During sightseeing a typical summer clothing should not be a problem, unless you plan to visit religious places (you need to cover your shoulders and knees), e.g. places from the Jesus Trail or in Jerusalem, or a typical Arab neighbourhood like the Old City of Jerusalem, Akko or Jisr az-Zarqa by the Med Sea, so here I suggest just long trousers or dress and a shirt, as in the Arab country.
When planning a visit to Mea She’arim we really should keep in mind that this place has a very particular character. Many Ultra-Orthodox Jews have a completely closed mind on cultural otherness. If we show up there in jeans and a t-shirt, in the best case we will be asked to leave the district. In the worst, people will spit and throw eggs or even stones at us. [Anyway, they can spit on you even in modest dress, Ultra-Orthodox just do not like non-Jews.] Going to Mea She’arim you should have a long skirt (not trousers!) and covered neckline and shoulders, preferably to the middle of fore-arm. Married women (or even going there with a guy) should cover the hair. The more baggy and unattractive you look, the better. 😉
4. When to go to Israel?
Theoretically, Israel can be visited during whole year, but seasons of course differ from each other and we should prepare for that.
In winter, the Golan Heights are white, while in Eilat we have 27 Celsius degrees (that time I recommend a short break on the coral reef). Temperature in the rest of the country is about 10-15 degrees during the day but nights are quite cold in the Negev desert. Besides, it is windy and it snows and rains.
Summer (July-August, I’ve been there in this period twice) is hot, 35-45 degrees during the day, although I must admit that I had to wear a polar jacket (in the Golan Heights and in the Negev Desert) or thin cardigan (in Jerusalem). Air humidity (75%) can be unbearable in Eilat or the Mediterranean Sea. I admit that I was literally choking in Eilat, it was a feeling like if someone had squeezed my lungs. Not very pleasant.
It’s also not the best time for hiking in the Negev Desert, where there is no shade, and the temperature may reach 50 degrees. We heard about this year’s cases of dehydration and death among tourists, dehydration happened to us too and believe me, waiting for several hours for help is not a comfortable situation. If you want to go in the summer for hiking, I recommend this activity very early in the morning or late afternoon. It’s better to spend the hottest hours of the day in a cooler place.
Spring and autumn are the best time, especially if you are interested in outdoor activities, e.g. hiking. The days are warm, but not hot, evenings can be cooler, but not cold. In addition, the north of the country is green and blooming.
These two seasons are also the best time to hike the Israel National Trail (the main hiking trail in Israel, which counts nearly 1,000 km and it takes about 2.5 months to pass it) or parts of it. Spring (from early March) we start in the south and with the increase of temperatures we slowly reach the cooler north of Israel; in the autumn we are moving in the opposite direction and at the beginning of December we finish in Eilat.
Always before you go to Israel make sure when exactly are holidays in Israel, because they can paralyze the entire country and spoil our plans.
5. Limitations during a trip to Israel: Shabbat and other holidays
Shabbat and Jewish holidays can greatly frustrate, if you’re going to use the local transport, because beyond Haifa virtually no public transport runs this time. The whole country stops, so it’s the best to spend this time in the Arab neighborhoods, e.g. in Akko and in the Old City of Jerusalem (although I don’t recommend it during Jewish holidays, because you do not know how the Palestinians can behave), in the Golan Heights or in Negev, where we have plenty of hiking trails to pass, or in Tel Aviv, where most of the places is practically open, because the people there are really relaxed. 😉
The Sabbath begins on Friday around 5-6 pm and lasts until sunset on Saturday when everything opens up again, and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv live at night. 🙂
6. Israel: how to get there, airports, visa, entry requirements
There are two international airports in Israel: the main is Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and another one (mostly for low-costs and charters) is the Eilat Airport by the Red Sea.
There are many legends and myths about the entry to Israel, especially about stamps and interviews…
Let’s start with an Israeli stamp in your passport. It can be impossible to entry with it to many countries in the Middle East and North Africa: Lebanon, Iran, UAE, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. We should not however have problems entering Israel with a stamp from those countries, although we can be interviewed longer in the Israeli airport office.
Fortunately, at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv we will not get a stamp in our passport, only a blue piece of paper (do not throw it away – in every hotel must scan it to prove that you are tourists, otherwise you’ll have to pay tax). During the trip you get an exit paper – pink one.
But if you cross the border with Jordan and Egypt, you’ll get border stamps to your passport. Everyone knows that a stamp from Taba in Egypt is from border crossing with Israel, the same with crossing on Jordan river. Besides, at the Israeli airport you get the card but on a land border crossing (like Eilat-Aqaba), an Israeli officer will stamp your passport. In this case, react quickly and ask them to stamp on a separate paper. Otherwise you will need to change your passport, just like me. 😉
This stamp prevents visiting many countries in the Middle East, but does not interfere with transit flights, e.g. at the airport in Dubai, as long as we do not intend to leave the airport. Confirmed in the Emirates Airlines.
The second issue is the interview while entering Israel. When we entered Israel in 2002, security took us to the office and thoroughly interviewed for about an hour. This time, fortunately, I wasn’t taken to the office, but I had to say (silly me!) that I will have a blog cooperation with a travel company from Israel. The offcier wanted a proof, so I showed her my e-mail correspondence (yes, I prepared myself), that she passionately read. Whole.
Questions at the entrance are always roughly the same: why are you coming to Israel, what are you going to do here, where you will stop, do you know anyone in Israel (and if yes do you have contact with him), do you have a family here, do you speak Hebrew, what do you think about Israel. Gold advice: say as little as possible (but true) and play a dumb tourist.
But in addition to entry, there is still the question of departure, also shrouded in dark mystery. There are even suggestions that it is harder to leave Israel than to enter it, and security doesn’t care if you miss your flight or not. I have to agree with the second issue – it’s better to be at the airport three hours before departure, because if they wish they will do a scan of your entire body or revision of your computer. Both cases happened to my friends.
But the questions at the exit are the same as at the entrance; you can add to them: did you pack you luggage on your own and did anyone have an access to your luggage after packing it. Again, best to pretend a stupid tourist. (This time I do not babbling that I worked with local companies.)
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7. Israel: accommodation, transportation, food
At the beginning I used booking.com to book the accommodation but later I did it only directly through the hostel’s website, because booking, hostelworld and hostelbookers charge a large commission. Accommodation in Israel is not cheap already (usually a bed in a dorm room costs about 20 euros), so why should I overpay about 20% of the price as a commission?
Tel Aviv – the first night I spent in the Overstay TLV hostel, then returned there for 2 nights, and finally I came there for 2 weeks as a volunteer. I’ll tell you that the hostel is a neverending party, so if it’s what you’re looking for, I highly recommend it. Besides, it lies not far from the Old Jaffa (beach!) and artistic district of Florentine.
Jerusalem – at the beginning I stopped in the Citadel Hostel in the Old City, but everyone recommends the Abraham Hostel. I didn’t have the opportunity to try it out, because later I spent some nights in my couchsurfer’s place, but because I have heard very positive feedback about Abraham from both tourists and locals, I guess I can recommend it to you.
Nazareth – the city is a great base for exploring the north of Israel, especially if you have your own car. I spent in Nazareth first 10-days of my trip, where I worked as a volunteer in AbuSaeed Hostel, which looks a bit like a museum in a 400-year-old Arabic house. If you do not mind the chaos, I recommend it. Another place where you can stop is the Fauzi Azar Inn, also recommended by many people I have met.
Eilat – by the Red Sea I spent some nights in a bit strange, colorful Corinne Hostel, which I can recommend for 1) location – it’s only 200 meters from the bus station (buses to the reef!), 7-minute walk from the airport, 13-minute walk from the beach, 2) the price – within 5 days in a private room with a private bathroom and a refrigerator we paid 1200 shekels for two people – and it was the lowest price for so many days in Eilat.
Mitzpe Ramon – you have to go to the Negev Desert and stay in the Green Backpackers, one of the best and coolest hostels I ever slept in, not only in Israel, but in general during several years of travels. It’s small and cosy, designed in a very warm, family style, it’s impossible to avoid company of other travellers there. Moreover, it lies just on on the edge of Mitzpe Ramon, near the hiking trails in the desert. And if you want to experience some desert adventure (like jeep tour, abseiling, horse riding by the sunset and star gazing with telescope), the owners will help you organise it! I truly recommend this place!!!
the Golan Heights – there is only one place where you should stay in the Golan: the Golan Heights Hostel in Odem. Another family-atmosphere, small hostel, decorated in a very cozy style, clean, surrounded by tranquility of the forest of Odem (where is the Odem Mountain Winery with one of the best wines from Israel I’ve tasted!), near the hiking trails and a crater called the Big Juba and about 12 km from my favorite nature reserve the Banias Waterfall. Besides, if you’re keen on other activities such as rafting or a day by the Jordan River, it can all be arranged by the owners of the hostels. Highly, HIGHLY recommended!!!
Jisr az-Zarqa – a small Arab town by the Mediterranean Sea, just north of Caesarea Maritima with a beautiful, wide, deserted beach. If you want to relax on the beach away from the crowds, head to Zarqa and stay in Juha’s Guesthouse, the only accommodation in the town. This place is cool, cozy and right in the center of the town, about 7 minutes walk from the beach.
Transportation that I used in Israel are buses, trains, I hitch-hiked once, and once we rented a car. Didn’t have a lot of experience about hitch-hiking in Israel, but I could notice that many locals (especially in the Negev Desert and the Golan Heights) were very sure about this way of travelling and recommended it to me, even despite the fact I was travelling solo. So I tried, and I survived. 😉 (But I don’t recommend it for solo female travellers for safety reasons.)
There is not so many railway lines in Israel and trains are expensive. It’s better with the bus, but connections to some small places are limited (e.g. on Friday from Eilat to Mitzpe Ramon there was only one bus at 6:30 am). What’s more, buses are also quite expensive – specific prices I give you in the next paragraph.
We also rented a car for 1 day for 5 people, which is probably the most popular option among tourists and not much more expensive than public transport, but for sure more flexible and allows us to quickly move around the country.
I’d like to mention also a transfer from the airport to Tel Aviv. I took a train but it is limited with number of connections, which can be a difficulty especially if your flight is at night. But now there is an option of a shuttle called FloShuttle (they take you directly to and from your hotel!), which you can book online. On the website you will also find prices, but I will mention now that this option is much much cheaper than taking a taxi!
Food in Israel is very diverse, but for a typical street food you have to know falafel, shoarma, hummus with pita bread, tahina (my love). On the markets and suqs in big cities we can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, but the cheapest shopping you’ll do in supermarkets.
8. Israel: money, costs, prices (2015)
I’ll be honest with you: Israel is not a cheap country. The prices here are comperable to those in UK or Western Europe in general, however, some products may be even more expensive. It’ll never be cheap to travel around Israel but there are ways to do it cheaper.
The currency in Israel is the New Israeli Shekel (ILS). 1 USD = 4 ILS
[The most expensive city is Tel Aviv and due to price differences in relation to other cities of Israel it was named the State of Tel Aviv.]
You can pay with card almost everywhere, and certainly in most hostels and hotels. ATMs are widely available, but beware – some of them (especially those placed in stores) charge a commission (up to 7 shekels), and it happened to me once, that ATM didn’t support my Visa, only the MasterCard.
If you need a SIM card with 8 gb of data and unlimited calls in Israel for a month: 20 ils (the sim card) + 140 ils (top-up). I used the Orange BigTalk, you can check out their website for other options.
Sample prices in Israel:
– a bed in a dorm room in a hostel usually costs about 70-100 shekels
– prices of double rooms start at 200 shekels, usually cost 250-300 shekels
Tip: Instead of booking through booking.com, hostelworld or hostelbookers that take about 20% commission, I recommend you take a look at the website of the association of hostels in Israel, the ILH. In every hostel you should get an ILH card that allows you to 5% discount per person per night for the next accommodation in the ILH hostels. The website has a list of all the affiliated hostels by region.
– train from the airport to the main railway station HaHagana in Tel Aviv – 16 ils
– one ride ticket for public transportation in Tel Aviv / Jerusalem – 6.90 ils
– bus from Tel Aviv to Nazareth – 40 ils
– Nazareth – Akko by bus (one way) – 31.50 ils
– Nazareth – Beit She’an by bus (with a change in Afula) – 27 ils
– bus from Nazareth to Amman – 80 ils
– Eilat – Mitzpe Ramon by bus (the Negev Desert) – 46 ils
– Mitzpe Ramon – Ein Avdat by bus – 15.40 ils
– Mitzpe Ramon to Jerusalem by bus (with a change in Ber Sheva) – 50 ils
– bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv – 19 ils
– Tel Aviv – Jisr az-Zarqa – 34 ils (train to Beniamina 26 ils + bus to Jisr 8 ils)
– train Tel Aviv – Akko – 45 ils
– bus Tel Aviv – Kiryat Shmona (Golan Heights) – 75 ils
– bus Kiryat Shmona – Odem (GH) – 17 ils
– renting a car for the whole day for 5 people costs 200-250 ils (for 4 persons about 150-200 ils)
– 1 litre of fuel costs about 6.50 ils (current prices can be found here)
– in general, from Nazareth we did a 250 km and it costed us 85 shekels per person (we visited Cana, Tabgha, Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Banias waterfall and the Nimrod fortress, and on the return we stopped in Rosh Pina for dinner)
– falafel in pita bread – 10-15 ils
– shoarma in pita bread – 20-35 ils
– falafel / shoarma as a meal in the restaurant – 35-50 ils
– a plate of hummus – 15-20 ils
– 1.5 l bottle of mineral water – about 5 ils
– a can of Coca-Cola – 7 ils
– a bottle of the Goldstar beer in the store – 10 ils
– 0.5 liters of beer in a pub – 25 – 36 ils
– a cup of freshly squeezed fruit juice – about 15 ils
d. The entry fees / sightseeing
– a full-day tour with a local tour operator Tourist Israel to Caesarea Maritima, Haifa, Akko and Rosh Hanikra – $ 103-114 (Tel Aviv / Jerusalem; entry tickets included)
– the Banias Waterfall and the Nimrod Fortress in the Golan Heights – 41 ils (combined ticket; separate tickets: 29 and 22 ils)
– Zippori – 29 ils
– Beit She’an – 40 ils
– places on the Jesus Trail (Cana, Tabgha, Mount of Beatitudes) – free, Capernaum – 3 ils
– entrance ticket in Akko (Citadel, the Templar tunnel) – 40 ils
– Caesarea Maritima – 40 ils
– the City of David (the City Walls) in Jerusalem – 29 ils
– Masada – 29 ils
– Ein Gedi – 29 ils
– Canyon Ein Avdat and the ruins of the city of Avdat – 46 ils (combined ticket; separate tickets: 29 and 29 ils)
– Coral reef – 35 ils
Tickets, as you can see by the list above, are very expensive, but there are (thankfully!) discount tickets (the tickets are worth buying because in Israel we have more than 60 national parks and they’re valid for 14 days from first visit):
– 3 national parks: 60 ils
– 6 national parks: 110 ils
– All national parks: 150 ils
Akko and Walls of Jerusalem are not included in the ticket.
If you want to visit, e.g. a coral reef, Masada and Caesarea Maritima, you’d have to pay for the entries 104 ils, so we save 44 ils per person.
If we come to Israel for 2 weeks and we want to see the whole cross-section of the country, from north to south, with its most important places I’d recommend (counting from the north of the country): the Banias waterfall, the Nimrod fortress, Beit She’an, Caesarea Maritima, Masada, Ein Gedi, Ein Avdat and the coral reef, which would cost us 253 ils. With discount ticket we save 103 ils.
Are you going to Israel? Do you have any additional questions? Or maybe you’ve already visited the country and would like to add something? Write all questions or opinions in the comment box below!
PS. My journey to Israel took place in 14.07 – 15.09.2015 in cooperation with the Tourist Israel, Tourist Israel Tours, the Green Backpackers Hostel, Juha’s Guesthouse and the Golan Heights Hostel, whom I thank for help. All opinions in the text are subjective.