The Middle East is a complex and beautiful region, and Israel is one of the most accessible ways to experience it's culture, food, people, and history. If you want to know how to travel in Israel, here are some of the basics you need to know.
Israel's rich history, desert landscapes, delicious food, and manageable size make it a prime destination for visiting, for both short trips or lengthier stays. This article will give you an overview of what you should do, what to expect, and important tips to keep in mind if you want to travel in Israel.
Size: Israel is quite small, making it very manageable for tourists. It's comparable to the size of New Jersey, and home to about 9 million people.
Languages: Hebrew and Arabic are the primary languages, but English is common and widely understood, especially in the major cities.
Politics: Israel is one of the most controversial countries in the world, and lays claim to the West Bank, an area of the country home to Palestinians, which many criticize as being illegally occupied. Tourists can visit the West Bank, and there are several holy sites in the area as well.
Climate: Israel has a Mediterranean Climate, meaning the summers are very hot and dry, and the winters are cool and rainy.
Safety: Israel is widely viewed as being incredibly safe to visit, both as a solo tourist and on trips. While there are times of conflict with neighboring countries, and it's important to keep an eye on the news, Israel is typically still considered very safe.
Tel Aviv: This one is easy, because it's very close to Ben Gurion airport, the main international airport of Israel. Tel Aviv is nestled on the Mediterranean Sea, and has all of the offerings of a balmy metropolis. It's nightlife is rich, with clubs and bars open until all hours of the night, there is cuisine from all over the world (including Middle Eastern fare, of course), and there are museums, parks, and malls. I recommend renting a bike and cruising up and down the coastline, before taking a dip in the sea. Plus, make sure you visit Old Jaffa, including the Jaffa Port and Jaffa Flea Market.
Jerusalem: Just 45-minutes away from Tel Aviv by bus is Jerusalem. Jerusalem is home to the Old City of Jerusalem, held by many to be one of the most sacred parts of the world, where the famed Western Wall and Dome of the Rock are located. Spend time in Jerusalem's shuk, or market, and taste delicious foods from from the stalls. In the Old City, stroll through history, and visit the religious sites held dear to many people.
The Dead Sea: The Dead Sea is a salt lake located 430 meters below sea level, making it the lowest point on Earth. Because of how salty it is, you'll float like a buoy in it's clear waters. The Dead Sea located just about an hour from Jerusalem, and two hours from Tel Aviv, and is accessible both by tours, and public transportation.
The Golan Heights: The Golan Heights is a rocky plateau in the north of Israel, which the country captured from Syria in 1967. It is home to many incredible natural attractions, such as nature areas, hiking trails, wineries, and Israel's only ski resort.
Masada: This ancient fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was the site of a great siege by the Romans, all the way back in 66 A.D. You can take a trolly car ride up to the top of this awesome site, or you can hike the zig-zag ridge to the top, although you might need to set off in the early-morning or late-afternoon, to beat the heat.
Eilat: Not all tourists make it to Israel's southern city of Eilat, but it's truly one of my favorite parts of the country. It's located on the Red Sea, and you can do tons of fun water activities, such as snorkeling and diving. Eilat is about a 5-hour trip on public transportation from Tel Aviv, but I think it's well worth the trip. You'll get unparalleled views of the Negev desert, and feel like you're on a Martian planet. From Eilat you can cross by land into both Jordan and Egypt. In Jordan, you can visit Petra the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in Egypt, you'll be in the vacation hot-spot of the southern Sinai Peninsula.
Hostels: While hostels typically aren't for everybody, I have to recommend the Abraham Hostel group. They have locations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Nazareth, and have dorms as well as private rooms. Plus, they run an incredible tour company in the country, and provide tours to all of the places I've listed above, plus many more.
Private Accommodation: If you want to rent your own apartment or room, there are tons of listings on Airbnb.
Hotels: All of the major cities have an array of hotels. Here is a list of some of the best hotels in the country.
Your tastebuds are in for a treat, as Middle Eastern food is flavorful, comforting, and diverse. I recommend eating fresh hummus with hot fluffy pita (about $8 USD), it's a lunchtime favorite I would eat at least once a week. Jachnun is a Yemenite Jewish pastry, which is doughy and crepe-like, while Shakshuka is a breakfast favorite, which is eggs cracked into a fresh tomato sauce. For some specific recommendations, check out this article.
Here's a fun fact: Tel Aviv is also one of the vegan food capitals of the world, and is home to many vegan restaurants.
The entire country shuts down on Friday: This might be one of the biggest shocks for tourists, and it's important to keep in mind while traveling. From Friday at around sundown, until Saturday at around sundown, the country grinds to a half, in observation of the Jewish Sabbath. This means there's no public transportation, cabs are much more expensive, and many shops and restaurants are closed. An exception would be in the more westernized Tel Aviv, where much of the nightlife and restaurants are still open for business.
You'll see armed soldiers everywhere: Israel has a draft, and most young adults join the army from the age of 18 until at least the age of 20. At all major tourist sites and around the country, you'll see armed soldiers. I know for me, it was a little shocking at first to see armed people in the streets, but it's extremely normal there.
The politics are complicated: Brushing up on your Israeli/Palestinian history would't be the worst idea before visiting this region, especially if you want to visit the West Bank. Looking at both sides of the conflict, and the current state of the geo-politics can help you appreciate your trip and the sites you're seeing on a much deeper level.
Be prepared for the sun: The weather most of the year is hot and dry, and also extremely sunny. This can be taxing on travelers who are not used to doing things in these conditions, and it's important to bring proper sun protection such as sun screen, hats, and to drink plenty of water when you're walking around for the day.