Israel is a top draw for all types of travelers. In 2017, some 3.6 million people came to experience the ancient history and cultural significance of this Middle Eastern country. This insider guide to Israel will highlight the most popular sites along with lesser known points of interests.
Located along the Mediterranean Sea, Israel is a tiny country, roughly the size of New Jersey in both geography and population. It’s bordered by Egypt to the south, Jordan to the east and Syria and Lebanon to the north. Israel is regarded as the biblical Holy Land by Jews, Christians and Muslims, and the capital of Jerusalem is considered a holy site by each of these religions.
The State of Israel was created following War World II as a homeland for Jewish refugees. Today, Jews make up about 75 percent of the population; Arabs make up about 20 percent. Israel’s creation set off a long-standing conflict in the Middle East with some geographic areas being claimed by Israel as well as other nations.
Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel, but since it’s a country of immigrants, you’ll likely hear many languages spoken. French, Russian, Amharic and English are common. In fact, many television programs are broadcast in English and road signs, product labels and official documents are often written in English. Learning English is a requirement of most Israeli school children, so communicating should be relatively easy.
Money and Tipping
The official currency of Israel is the shekel. You can exchange currency at banks or private currency exchanges found in tourist zones. Many banks offer special rates and programs for visitors. Credit cards are widely accepted, but it’s always a good idea to have cash on hand.
Tipping is expected in Israel, and tipping customs generally follow those in America. Waiters and bartenders receive 10 to 15 percent. Some restaurants, especially those in tourist areas, automatically add gratuity to the bill. Taxi drivers usually aren’t tipped and will return all of your change, even if you don’t ask for it.
Israeli cuisine usually follows kosher practices. Therefore, you won’t find pork, shellfish, eggs or milk as readily available as in a western supermarket. In restaurants, especially those in Tel Aviv, you’re more likely to encounter non-kosher dishes. Elsewhere, expect to find food similar to Mediterranean and Arabic cultures: shawarma, pita bread, kebabs, falafel, meshawasha, hummus, shakshuka and jachnun.
Weather and When to Go
Israel is a hot, dry country that can be oppressively warm in the summer. Thermometers can top 100°F in July and August, and it gets quite humid along the coast. The late spring, especially May, and fall are generally the most popular times to visit, though many brave the heat to visit in summer. Winter is often rainy, especially along the coast.
Jewish and Christian holidays influence the high seasons more than the temperature. Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot in September and October are exceedingly popular as are Chanukah and Christmas in December and Passover and Easter in the spring.
When planning your trip to Israel, you should also remember that Saturday is considered the holiest day of the week in the Jewish faith. You’re likely to find shops, restaurants and tourists sites closed. Called Shabbat, Jews don’t work, travel in vehicles, cook or use electricity. The observance lasts from just before sunset on Friday until just after sunset on Saturday. While visitors are free to do what they please on Saturdays, you should plan ahead since services will be limited during these hours. A day at the beach or visit to the Arab markets of Nazareth, Haifa or Acre are good options for Saturdays.
Adventure and Exploration
Despite its small size, Israel is geographically diverse. You’ll encounter a world of differences as you travel from north to south. Our insider guide to Israel will help you create a memorable itinerary.
Jerusalem’s Old City is the most popular site in the country. It’s divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. See all the quadrants by strolling along the Ramparts Walk.
Located in the Jewish Quarter, the Western Wall is the last remaining wall of what was the Jewish Temple and the holiest site in the world for Jews. Anyone can approach the wall and place a written prayer in the cracks, but there are separate areas for women and men. Women should dress modestly, and men should cover their heads with paper kippahs. Make time to see the Western Wall Tunnels, an active underground archeological site where you can learn about the history of the temple.
In the Muslim Quarter, you’ll find the Dome of the Rock, a site sacred to Muslims as it it where Muhammad is said to have ascended into heaven. Non-muslims aren’t allowed to enter, but you can tour the compound or the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Within the quarter, you’ll find a busy shuk and try out your bargaining skills. A few minutes’ walk will bring you to Christian Quarter where 40 sites holy to Christians are located. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the place where Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified and buried, is located here. The Armenian Quarter is home to a few thousand Armenians who have lived in the city for thousands of years.
Elsewhere in Jerusalem, see the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, the Mount of Olives and the Machane Yehuda Market for authentic Irsaeli food.
Israel’s modern commercial hub, Tel Aviv offers museums, beaches, nightlife and fine dining. Explore the White City, a collective of some 4,000 buildings built in the 1920s and 1930s in the Bauhaus architectural style. To the south, explore the ancient port of Jaffa. See New England-style cottages in the American Colony between the Florentin quarter and Jaffa. The settlement dates to the 1860s when a group of 150 Americans arrived. Visit the Maine Friendship House, the Beit Gidi Etzel Museum where you can learn more about the colony Mark Twain wrote about in “The Innocents Abroad.” For some exercise, go biking or hiking in the Judean Hills outside of town.
Galilee and Golan
Explore the mystical beauty of the Golan Heights where eagles nest, deer graze and Israel’s only ski resort is located on Mt. Hermon. Bike around the Sea of Galilee or float across in a rented canoe. Acre, on the northern end of Haifa Bay, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. You’ll see remnants of Muslim and Ottoman conquerors as well as the underground Crusader City which includes a Turkish bath and Templer tunnel. In Caesarea, explore an ancient underwater city by scuba diving.
The Dead Sea and the South
With an extremely high salt content, the Dead Sea is known for its healing properties, so people come here to float their pains away. While in the area, check out the hot springs whose holistic properties have been touted since Roman times. Visit Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Lounge on one of Eilat’s famous beaches or gaze out over the Raman Crater, the world’s largest erosion crater or makhtesh. Explore the caves at Beit Guvrin where visitors can sift for artifacts and see B.C.-era wall paintings, tombs, dwellings, cisterns and more.
Israel may be small, but there’s a lot to see and do here. Use this insider guide to Israel to plan your adventure to this fascinating ancient land.