8 Things You Need to Know Before Traveling to Israel

Israel is one of the most unique and complex countries on earth, with its mega-rich wealth of religious and historical sites, chilling visible evidence of wars gone by and status as the world’s only Jewish nation, one which must coexist very carefully with its minority Arab population. Certain of its unusual intricacies aren’t limited to its own people, though, extending even to those just visiting the country. If you want to travel to Israel, you need to be aware of some of its idiosyncrasies in order to make your journey flow smoothly. Israel is a fascinating, wonderful and perfectly safe place to visit, but if you are thinking about traveling to this country, please consider the following:

1) Jewish/Arab Relations – There is tension between the Jewish majority and Arab minority populations in Israel, but it is not evident most of the time and these two groups do live and work amongst each other with tenuous ease. The Old City of Jerusalem is a particularly good place to witness Jews and Arabs coexisting, if you’re interested in seeing this aspect of Middle Eastern life. The Old City’s streets are clogged with its Palestinian population, with Jews walking right past them on their way to the Western Wall to pray. It’s not likely that you’ll run into any trouble when you travel to Israel, as the last several years have been very peaceful. But keep an eye on the news right before you travel and while you are there, to learn if there is currently any trouble which might affect you.

Typical scene from a street in the Old City souq

2) The Jewish Sabbath – The Jewish Sabbath begins every week of the year at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. A few hours before sundown shops begin closing and train as well as most bus transportation ceases. Most shops will not open again until Saturday night or Sunday morning, and you’ll find limited bus service beginning again Saturday afternoon with finally all buses running Saturday night. If you’re going to be in Israel on Friday, make sure you buy everything you need before the stores close and also make sure you are exactly wherever in the country you need to be, or else you are going to have to rent a car, take a taxi or hitchhike to get there.

3) Jewish Holidays – Israel likewise takes its holidays more seriously than any other country I know. Not only do hotels increase their rates and fill up quickly as in other countries, but opening hours of shops, restaurants, banks and attractions are likely to be limited. On some but not all holidays, public transportation is not only limited by lack of running buses but extremely full buses before service ends for the holiday. The national bus line, Egged, which is likely the line you’ll be taking if you travel from city to city in Israel, has an excellent website which you can check for schedule information. It may also help you to look at a comprehensive listing of Jewish holidays.

4) Food – I find the food choices in Israel to be very limited. Not only is most food kosher but there isn’t quite the variety you can find in other countries. Rather than variety, you may find that there is an overabundance of hummus, falafel and schwarma. These limitations can become boring after a while, but keep your chin up. What food there is is delicious.

Hummus Lunch in Israel

5) Buses vs. Cars vs. Trains Vs. … – Israel’s transportation infrastructure is excellent. There are several means of traveling through Israel:

A) Bus – You can travel throughout Israel via bus, from city to town and within cities and towns. This is one of the best ways to see much of Israel if you have limited money but do have time to spend waiting for buses to arrive and depart.

B) Taxi – You can likewise travel throughout Israel via taxi, although this is of course much more expensive than taking a bus. Unlike bus and train service which ceases on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, you can still find limited taxi service on these days.

C) Sherut – Pronounced Sheh-ROOT, these are minivans which you’ll find at bus stations and other locations and cost roughly as much as a bus. Once they fill with people – which could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour – they travel to their destination. You can’t ask them to take you just anywhere you want to go, as they run specific routes. For example, at the Tiberias bus station there are many sheruts to Tel Aviv but none to Jerusalem. I’ve never noticed signs for sheruts in English anywhere. You’ll probably have to look for a small group of vans outside a bus station or ask someone where you can find them.

D) Private Car – Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are very easy to see via bus, but if you want to visit northern Israel, including the history-rich Galilee area, the Golan Heights and the Negev Desert, it’s really best to have a car. I’ve twice used Eldan Rental Cars and had good experiences, although this was in 2008 and 2009, so my experiences are not fresh.

E) Train – If your point of origin and destination lie on the Mediterranean coast, you might be able to take a train. Trains run along the sea from the northern town of Nahariya to the southern desert town of Beersheva. Check out the Israel Railways website for their schedules, routes and rates.

If you’re traveling within Jerusalem, there is a brand new light-rail system that can take you to many locations in the city for only a few shekels. Be sure to get a ticket from a machine at any train stop before you board or buy a multi-use card. Once you’re on the train you can’t purchase a ticket and if you’re caught riding for free you might be fined.

F) Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking is legal and safe in Israel. I myself have done it many times. It is possible to hitchhike absolutely anywhere you need to go in the country, although possibly not with the airport as a starting point. You will see many people hitchhiking throughout northern Israel and you’ll also see many cars pulling over to pick them up. It may take a while to find a car that is going where you want to go, but stick in there and you’ll have a safe and free ride.

6) Dress – You really should dress conservatively when visiting most Middle Eastern countries due to the very conservative sensibilities of their Muslim populations. However, the majority of Israel’s people are not Muslim but Jewish so the same rule doesn’t apply. You can dress most any way you wish when you travel to Israel, although you are required to dress somewhat conservatively when visiting the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious sites in the country or else you will be turned away. Seriously. Conservative dress in these cases means only covering your shoulders and knees. No biggie.

7) Soldiers – You will see soldiers most everywhere in Israel, many of them packing some serious weaponry. Their presence doesn’t mean that there is any danger. Rather, military service is mandatory for three years for all male and two years for all female Jewish Israelis, thus their omnipresence. The ultra-conservative Haredi Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians do not typically serve. Do not fear. The soldiers are there only to protect Israel and will never hurt you.

IDF soldiers on the beach in Tel Aviv, Israel

8.) People – The people of Israel, including soldiers, civilians, Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, are all very nice, helpful and friendly people. They are one of the reasons I’ve spent so many months of my life in their country. Come to Israel and get to know them!

12 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Andrea says:

    These are great tips – it’s always nice to know the cultural norms before visiting a country. I would love to visit Israel one day…though I’m a bit surprised to hear about the limited food variety. All of my Jewish food experiences outside the country have involved such a range of dishes!
    Andrea recently posted..Cruising Along the LysefjordMy Profile

  2. That’s a great post with so much great information. A friend of mine has been to Israel several times, and the first time she came here she was worried about all the soldiers, as well as needing to show her bag at every mall / central bus station / campus / etc. For us, it’s no biggie at all, as everyone knows someone who’s a soldier and most of us were soldiers in the past. And the showing your bag issue has been going on for all my life too, so we’re used to it here. I now remember to tell newcomers about it though :) I would like to add that sherut (service cabs) are always yellow, and that they do run on weekends (Sat and late Fri), just less frequently and they charge more.
    Ayelet – All Colores recently posted..Buenos Aires Photos: The Opera House that Became a Book StoreMy Profile

  3. Aurora says:

    I have never been and people have been worrying me about getting an Israel stamp in my passport……
    Intending to do at some point though

  4. Sabina says:

    Hi, Andrea – Israel is such a must see country. You absolutely should travel here! And yes, the food choices are limited, in my opinion, but it’s okay. I don’t hold it against them ;)
    Sabina recently posted..8 Things You Need to Know Before Traveling to IsraelMy Profile

  5. Sabina says:

    Ah, Ayelet, thank you for the information about the sheruts running on Fridays and Saturdays! I didn’t know that. And also thank you for pointing out that you have to have your bags inspected before entering many places. I’ve been here for so long now, I completely find it normal and didn’t think to include it in this list. It’s an important point, though.

  6. Sabina says:

    Aurora, I’m not sure that the Israel stamp is as big a deal as it is believed to be. If you’re planning on traveling to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria or any other major enemy countries of Israel after visiting here, you do indeed need to make sure not to have an Israel stamp in your passport. I’ve traveled to Jordan and Egypt, which are bordering countries which have pretty good relations with Israel currently, with Israel stamps with no problem. You can always ask the border agent not to stamp your passport in Israel, and it is likely that they won’t. I hope you don’t let this issue stop you from visiting this spectacular country.

  7. Erik says:

    These are so true. I’d read about the soldiers before I left– but it still takes some getting used to.

    I rented a car when I was there. I couldn’t have been more happy with it- it allowed me to get to many places I wouldn’t have had I not had it.
    Erik recently posted..Photo of the Day- Monorail, Walt Disney World, Orlando, FloridaMy Profile

  8. Sabina says:

    Erik, I rented a car to explore the north the first two times I visited Israel. It was so easy and quick to get around, I think it’s the only way to go – unless you have family or friends who can drive you everywhere :)

  9. Steve says:

    I’ve never hitchhiked before since I always seem to find a ride other ways, but I guess I’d be open to it. I didn’t realize that it was legal there and so widespread.

    Actually when I think about it, i did pick up a hitchhiker once in Belize. Although the distance wasn’t too far. It was really a great way to meet a cool local though.
    Steve recently posted..The 5 Important Risks You Need to Take for a Full LifeMy Profile

  10. Sabina says:

    Hitchhiking I think is really off the radar for most Americans because it seems in my country if you hitchhike you might as well be holding a sign that says “murder me,” it’s so dangerous. Happily, it’s perfectly safe in some countries. I’m glad you got to experience being on one side of it. Maybe someday you can hitchhike in Israel.

  11. Krysti M says:

    Dear Sabina,

    I am planning on visiting Tel Aviv in a couple of weeks with my boyfriend and your tips have been extremely helpful, if I could badger you a little more about the dress code situation for women, we are not planning on visiting religious sites particularly but might come across a few, so what do you recommend I take as clothing? shorts? trousers?
    As for visiting, are there any places you recommend above all others to visit as a tourist, any hidden gems I might not have heard about on tourism sites or on other blogs?
    And finally Im not sure whether you are the right person to ask but on the off chance you know, we plan on driving down to Jordan for a couple of days, me on an English passport and my boyfriend on a French one, do we need visas having already been in Israel before hand (as i read somewhere the stamp of entry into Israel is enough to then get into Jordan but Im a little confused…).

    Hope I haven’t bombarded you with too many questions and have thoroughly enjoyed reading your post about Israel!

    Thanks, looking forward to your answer,

    Krysti :) xx

  12. Sabina says:

    Hi, Krysti! Thanks for reading and thanks for your questions.

    As far as dress, in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel except for reglious sites, you will be just fine dressing however you do at home, even it that is shorts and a tank top, as Tel Aviv is quite the liberal city. If, however, you plan to go to religious sites in Jersualem or elsewhere, you should cover your shoulders and knees. Capris, long pants or a skirt will be good, as well as a short-sleeved top or even a tank top, as long as you bring along a scarf or another shirt to cover your shoulders once you arrive. If you spend any time in Jerusalem’s Old City, be sure to cover up there too, as there are tons of male shopkeepers who may give you unwanted attention if you don’t.

    As far as hidden gems, the entirety of northern Israel is underrated. It’s just beautiful, full of empty, rolling farmland, villages and small cities. You are arriving at absolutely the perfect time of year to see northern Isarel at its best, as it is springtime here and the north is in full bloom, full of greenery and colorful plants and flowers. The Sea of Galilee in particular is something you should see, and a good day trip would be visiting the Christian sites dotted around it, like Capernaum, Tabgha and the Mount of Beatitudes. Whether you’re Christian or not, you’ll probably like these sites as they are quite beautiful and hold much of Israel’s important religious history. There is also a 2,000-year-old boat at Kibbutz Nof Ginnosaur on the Galilee’s west side, which you should check out.

    As far as entry into Jordan, I have been there but didn’t travel from Israel to get there. I cannot imagine that an Israel visa will get you into Jordan. I am sure you’ll need a Jordan visa. Here’s information from the Jordan Tourism Board’s website on the topic http://www.visitjordan.com/visitjordan_cms/Default.aspx?tabid=61.

    Take care, and I hope you have a wonderful trip!

    Sabina

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