Israel has been a coveted land for millennia and the recent fighting with Gaza is the latest chapter in this enduring conflict. Yet, tourists seem undeterred.
In 2012, Israel’s visitor numbers were up an impressive 8 percent, and this October saw the country’s highest visitor numbers ever (Israel Ministry of Tourism).
The reality is that despite the disputes, there is so much to see—from historical and religious sights to the Red, Dead and Med Seas—that tourists can’t bring themselves to shun this fascinating part of the world.
Understandably, many travelers are nervous about visiting Israel, but with a little knowledge and some good planning, it’s possible to have a safe and rewarding stay in this tiny country.
Here are 10 essential tips for your visit:
1) Consider your passport stamp
Passport stamps are usually sought after, but if you’re planning further travel in the Middle East you may want to think twice before collecting an ink print from Israel. Many Arab countries either do not permit or make entry more difficult for visitors who have the Israeli stamp.
Ask politely to get your stamp on a separate piece of paper instead.
Get your passport stamp on a separate sheet of paper to keep future travel options open. Photo by koadmunkee.
2) Know before you go: history and politics
Visiting Israel is a great opportunity to brush up on your knowledge of the history and politics that surround the region as well as understanding the diverse blend of cultures.
With a little homework you can avoid that awkward moment where you ask an Israeli-passport holding taxi driver to take you to Bethlehem (it is not permitted).
Use your visit as a chance to understand the country better. Photo by nagillum
3) Understand the safety levels
Israel can be visited without issue, but conflicts can arise and escalate quickly.
Follow the international news and check with your foreign office for travel restrictions before you leave home.
Generally, the Gaza Strip is to be avoided, but trips into the Palestinian territories are usually trouble free.
Assess the safety situation before you go and while you’re there. Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi.
4) Pay special attention to Fridays and Saturdays
The work week in Israel centers on the Jewish day of rest, Shabbat. Starting at sunset on Friday and ending at sunset on Saturday, many businesses close and services stop.
This means no buses and fewer, more expensive taxis while shops and restaurants shut for the entire period starting as early as 2 p.m.
Levels of observance differ between cities, with Jerusalem more observant than Tel Aviv. On the plus side, Shabbat can equal a feast in hotels.
Plan for Shabbat. Photo by yoavelad.
5) Get around easily: buses, sheruts and car hire
Israel has a cheap and efficient bus network that covers most of the country, while sheruts (shared minivans) offer a great alternatives for shorter trips, e.g. from Tel Aviv to the airport or traveling during Shabbat.
Car hire is almost essential if you want to visit the north, including the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights.
A car is advisable for visiting the Sea of Galilee. Photo by amira_a.
6) Pack clothes to cover up
It’s tempting in hot climates to wear those tiny shorts you wouldn’t brave at home, which will work on Tel Aviv’s beaches, but more decorum is needed at religious sites.
Women should cover their arms, chest and legs and in ultra-orthodox areas, pants should be worn, not skirts. Men at Jewish religious sites must wear a kippa (skull cap, supplied).
The Western Wall may be outside, but it is still considered a religious site, so dress appropriately.
Dress with decorum and follow the customs at religious sites. Photo by Laika slips the lead.
7) Eat local
There is no avoiding the fact that Israel is costly (I recall paying nearly $2 for a tomato), which provided the perfect excuse to find some cheap local eats.
Falafel and hummus are excellent, abundant and comparatively cheap while the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv has some of the freshest fruit, vegetables, olives, cured meats and cheeses you’ll find.
In addition, you’ll get an excellent glimpse into the local life.
Visit Carmel Market for a taste of local food and life. Photo by infliv.
8) Save on hotels—sleep communal
Staying in beachfront hotels can chew though a travel budget pretty fast. The good news is that Israel has a great choice of hostels available for a fraction of the cost.
Even if dorm-style communal sleeping isn’t for you, many of the hostels offer a number of private rooms. I stayed in one hostel that was a 200-year-old Arab mansion.
Hostels can be a budget-saving option. Photo by Nina J. G.
9) Plan for the Palestinian territories
Bethlehem can be seen from Jerusalem and is one of the most popular day trips from the city. However, it is administered by the Palestinian Authority and you must therefore pass a checkpoint to enter.
The security situation has improved in recent years making it much safer to cross, but check before you go. If you travel by taxi, you will need to find a driver with a non-Israeli passport or change cars at the border.
Prepare for your visit to the Palestinian territories. Photo by welshkaren.
10) Plan your next move
If you are hoping to hop from Israel to another country by land, you need to plan your route.
Make sure your exit strategy is planned out. Photo by kudumomo.
What were your impressions of Israel? Do you have any other tips for traveling through this fascinating country? Let me know in the comments below.
If you liked this article, you might also like: Photo Essay: Colors of Israel.
Main photo: Israel: It’s not a case of whether to visit, but when and how by David Holt London.