The first time I bumped into a backpacker from Israel I was pleasantly intrigued that someone from a country I knew relatively little about would have the same travel bug that seems to plague so many Europeans and Australians (among others). After a mere month on the road, I quickly came to realize that the seemingly lone Israeli backpacker was not alone after all. He’d brought his entire country with him; or at least those who had recently finished their conscription in the army.
At the age of 18, Israel’s boys and girls are required to serve in the Israeli Defense Army for three and two years respectively. For many Israeli’s this is followed by a common path – gaining a university education, getting married, having children, and ultimately retiring. But not before making one important stop on the way, venturing out into the world in search of fun, freedom, and a lifetime of memories to take them through to retirement and beyond.
It struck me that despite the sheer number of people who leave the shores of Israel with exploration in mind, there are comparatively few who put this small nation on their travel itinerary.
While the infliction we know as wanderlust plagues a fair percentage of the people in my home country (England), the disease appears to have been contracted by the entirety of Israel’s youth, who grasp traveling life by both hands and shake every last drop of fun out of it. These vibrant travelers are an intriguing bunch, and in their company the conversation will often drift in the same direction, away from travels past and planned to a shade deeper, with the same question always arising, “What is Israel like?” Time and again I heard the curiosity from many travelers, and it struck me that despite the sheer number of people who leave the shores of Israel with exploration in mind, there are comparatively few who put this small nation on their travel itinerary. And yet, the people of Israel can’t speak more highly about their country.
Description after colorful description of the cities and sights crammed into such a small space, the ultimate advice from the Israeli people I met was always the same, “You should go.”
And so I did.
I spent a month traveling independently in Israel, and while I don’t pretend to be an expert on the finer details of life in the country (political, religious, or otherwise), I got enough of a flavor to be able to share my insights. From safety to getting around to what to see, hopefully you will find enough here to pique your interest to stray from the usual backpacker trail and put Israel and the Palestinian Territories on your travel itinerary.
What to see
A deep sense of history, the ability to see the Red, the Dead, and the Med (seas) in one trip, sights of ancient and religious importance, a good smattering of Bauhaus, ports, and places to party, Israel and the Palestinian Territories have enough sights to make even the most easily bored backpacker floundering for what to see and do next.
Starting in the south and heading north, here is the route I took.
I crossed into Israel by land from Jordan and fast found myself in the coastal resort town of Eilat, which is only 3.1 miles (5 km) from the border. Fronting the Red Sea and with a curiously European feel, it was easy to settle into the carefree beach vibe. The town can only claim 7 coastal kilometers of the Red Sea, which it shares with Egypt and Jordan, but it puts every meter to good use. Diving, snorkeling, and kite surfing are the most popular water based sports, but Eilat’s proximity to the Negev Desert makes camel and 4×4 land based treks equally attractive activities. There are also a number of water-themed sights, including an underwater observatory and Dolphin Reef where you can swim or dive with dolphins, but my personal favorite is the Red Sea Star Underwater Restaurant, Bar, and Observatory.
The area is a popular vacation spot for Israelis as well as European tourists, and the prices are pitched accordingly, meaning there isn’t a huge choice of budget accommodation; so, if you’re looking for pure beach time and don’t want to dive the Red Sea, Tel Aviv may be your cheaper bet.
I enjoyed a trouble-free stay in Eilat, but see the section below regarding safety.
Find a hostel in Eilat
Heading north from Eilat my next stop was Jerusalem. Although I don’t have a particular religious persuasion, I was still excited to see the city that is home to so many sights that are of such importance in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. If you have the time, I’d recommend staying for at least a week to explore the city properly, more if you want to add in some side trips to the Dead Sea and Bethlehem.
The majority of Jerusalem’s sights rest in the Old City, which is demarcated by a wall that was built in the 16th century. The wall has several gated entrances, which are a good way for getting your bearings and are impressive sights in their own right, with Damascus Gate, the main entrance, being particularly striking. There are free walking tours that will help you locate the main sights in the city as well as providing an overview of their historical and religious importance. Taking the tour and following up with a more in-depth look without the crowds is a good way to see Jerusalem.
Some of the most popular sights within the Old City include:
The Dome of the Rock: Situated on Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock is of significance to both Jewish and Islamic faiths. Believed to be the place where the universe began, where Abraham planned to sacrifice Isaac, where Mohammed left the earth to join Allah, and the location where the Second Jewish Temple was built before it was destroyed by the Romans, the Dome of the Rock is one of Jerusalem’s most iconic places as well as images, which is visible across the city. You will certainly want to take a photo (or 12) of this impressive structure, but unless you are of Muslim faith, you will not be permitted to enter.
The Western (wailing) Wall: Located to the west of Temple Mount, the Western Wall is part of the retaining wall of the mount where the Second Temple once stood. The wall is of significance to the Jewish faith and has become a place of pilgrimage and prayer. Men and women are segregated, and prayers are often written and placed between the stones while others visit simply to place a hand on this historic landmark. The wall is also a place where many Jews have displayed their grief at the destruction of the temple, hence the colloquial name “wailing wall.”
Via Doloroso: This street is thought to be the path that Jesus took, carrying his cross, on the way to his crucifixion. There are fourteen “Stations of the Cross” representing significant spots on the route. Five of the stations are within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Don’t be surprised to see pilgrims bearing a huge cross on the route in homage to Jesus’ plight.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher: If you follow the entire route of Via Doloroso, you will naturally find yourself at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Reputed to be the place where Jesus was crucified (the Rock of Calvary) and buried (the Sepulcher), the church is the most significant location in the Christian Faith, a fact that is clearly evidenced by the number of visitors. If you want to get a close look at the Calvary or Sepulcher, pack your patience, as you’ll be in for a long wait.
Beyond the Old City, there are many other sights to see. Some of the best include:
The Mount of Olives: The Mount of Olives lays claim to the title of oldest continually used cemetery. The area also has several churches, gardens, and unsurprisingly, olive trees, some of which are thought to be over 900 years old. The mount is yet another location of religious importance, but even if you have had your fill of holy sights, the mount merits a visit if only for its excellent panoramas over the city.
The Israel Museum: As well as being Israel’s largest museum and the site of many archaeologically important artifacts, the museum also houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Jerusalem Yad Vashem: Although not exactly a “best” sight, the Holocaust Museum of Jerusalem nevertheless deserves a stop. There is nothing sweet or light about the artifacts and images on display in this small series of rooms, which are nothing short of harrowing, so prepare to be left with a lingering sense of somberness. Stepping back into the brightness of the day, the garden outside the museum is a pretty place for quiet reflection.
Come sunset, find a rooftop terrace (the Citadel Youth Hostel is a good spot) and listen as the call to prayer starts to ring out across the city, while the mosques and crosses illuminate the sky as light turns to dark.
The Dead Sea
Conveniently located a short day trip away from Jerusalem is the Dead Sea. Offering the chance to float in one of the world’s saltiest spots with over 33% salinity, the Dead Sea is also one of the lowest places on earth, being over 985 feet (300 m) below sea level. There is a wide range of places where you can take a buoyant dip, ranging from public beaches to luxury spas. Although the public beaches charge a small entry fee, they provide access to freshwater showers, which you’ll be grateful of to wash away the salt crusts and self-applied mud-masks.
Ein Gedi is one of the most popular beaches to visit, and from there is it possible to take an extra hop to the ancient ruins at Masada. I visited Kalia Beach, which sees fewer tourists. Kalia sits towards the north of the Dead Sea and is therefore located within the West Bank. However, as this part of the West Bank is under Israeli control, there was easy access from Jerusalem (via a direct bus), and the only trouble I encountered during my visit was getting out of the Dead Sea, which required an inelegant backward crawl and flipping motion.
After a successful jaunt into the West Bank I took another day trip from Jerusalem to the “little town” of Bethlehem. Believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus and by Jews the birthplace of David, King of Israel, Bethlehem lies a mere 6.2 miles (10 km) south of the Old City in Jerusalem.
Unlike my comparatively casual saunter into Kalia, Bethlehem is administered by the Palestinian Authority and therefore requires you to pass a military checkpoint to enter. However, with your passport and Israeli entry stamp ready, you’ll be through in no time. I took a taxi to Bethlehem with three other travelers, and if you do the same, make sure that your driver isn’t Israeli. They are not permitted into Bethlehem, and you’ll be left at the border searching for alternative onward transport.
The Church of the Nativity is the most significant sight in Bethlehem, marking the place of Jesus’ birth, and is also the world’s oldest continually used church dating from the 4th century. As with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, expect to linger for over an hour to see the exact spot of the birth. Beyond the church, Manger Square functions as the center of Bethlehem, while Rachel’s Tomb and Mosque of Omar are also interesting places to visit.
It is advisable to check the current safety situation before you travel. I once again had a trouble free visit and couldn’t have found the people of Palestine more hospitable, particularly the street vendor who served me one of the freshest pomegranate juices I’ve ever tasted.
I didn’t quite know what to expect as I left behind the Old City of Jerusalem and took the one-hour bus up to the country’s capital, Tel Aviv. I’d heard some say that the city, with its 1930s Bauhaus architecture, was in desperate need of a makeover, tending more to gray and crumbling than the white, clean lines that is so fundamentally Bauhaus. However, within less than a day of exploring the city, I knew I didn’t agree. For me, Tel Aviv was charming in every way, not least because I find any town that has such an endless stretch of beach and promenade irresistible.
With the Mediterranean as your marker, take a wander down the promenade south, and you will stumble into the past that is the old town of Jaffa, where the falafel is fresh and the sheesha plentiful. From Sunday to Thursday visit the flea market and see if you can track down Pua’s (Rabi Yoachanan 3). The café doesn’t bear a sign but is recognizable from the eclectic range of fresh flowers on the tables, which are a nod to the days when the owner was once a flower seller in the market. Everything in the café, and I mean everything, is for sale. I watched with intrigue as one tourist purchased all four mis-matched chairs that she and her family had just sat on while eating lunch.
At the other distant end of the promenade, heading north, is Tel Aviv port, Namal, where an entirely different era exists. The place has been kitted out for the 21st century with up-market eateries and brasseries that will sting your budget, but are pleasant enough to wander around and soak up the laid back lifestyle of Tel Aviv.
If you’re looking for more entertainment, the city is full of the usual trappings with museums, art, parks, and a kicking nightlife. I couldn’t resist the Sunday night entertainment at the quirky bar Evita (off Yehuda Halevi Street), where obscure songs from the Eurovision Song Contest were mimed into mobile phones and hairbrushes (pretend microphones) by a wonderfully entertaining cast of characters. I will be eternally grateful to the performer for lip-sync serenading me with the British entry for 1983, though I hope he didn’t realize that I had never heard the song before in my life.
Beside the sights and the beach, which occupied a good chunk of my time (I’d been in flesh covering India for too long), Carmel market should be high on your agenda. As well as seeing the hustle of hummus being traded in its freshest form alongside cheeses, vegetables, olives, and other produce, this is by far the cheapest place to procure food in the city.
Find a flight to Tel Aviv
After lingering for far longer than I’d intended in Tel Aviv, I headed north to Nazareth. The journey takes between 2 and 4 hours depending whether you get the direct or stopping bus (a fact I only discovered on the return route), and within that time and distance Israel transforms again, presenting yet another side to its sights, being known as the Arab capital of Israel.
Although not quite as pretty as Jerusalem, or as cosmopolitan as Tel Aviv, Nazareth has an appeal all of its own with its souk riddled streets. Famed as the place of Jesus’ childhood, and home to parent’s Mary and Joseph, there are plenty of historic sights to work your way around including the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Mary is thought (according to Christian faith) to have received news of the arrival of Jesus. The Greek Orthodox Church of Annunciation, and specifically Mary’s Well, is the alternative location where the news was thought to have been delivered according to the Greek Orthodox faith, while St Joseph’s Church is believed to be the spot where Joseph’s carpentry shop once existed.
One of the most fascinating discoveries in recent times is an ancient bathhouse in the middle of the city. Uncovered by a couple who purchased a property in 1993 with the intention of renovating it into a shop, the pair have since opened their shop above, “Cactus,” while digging goes on below. Excavations in the basement have made slow progress and much remains to be done, but for a small fee that comes complete with delicious coffee and homemade cookies, Elias and Martina will let you explore their find, which some consider may have been the location where Jesus bathed.
Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights, Haifa, and Caesarea
My time was running out in Israel (the downside of pre-booking flights), and I didn’t get the opportunity to visit some of the other sights of this fascinating country.
The Sea of Galilee is Israel’s largest freshwater lake and best known as the place where Jesus took his legendary walk on water. It is also close to the town where he apparently turned water into wine (a skill I’ve long coveted). Further north is the dramatic Golan Heights, with its mountainous terrain stretching out to Syria and further north to Lebanon. The best way to explore the area is by car, but be aware that the three quarters of the Golan Heights were seized by Israel in 1967 and is subject to ongoing conflict, so do your research before you visit.
Two other areas of note that will be on my list when I one day return to Israel are Haifa and Caesarea. The former is a seaport and home to the terraced Bahá’í Gardens while the latter has ruins dating back as far as the third century BCE.
There are travel practicalities associated with every trip. Here are a few pointers to help you get to and around Israel.
Language and going solo
While it is always a good idea to learn a few key phrases in the language of the country you are visiting (for me this means hello, goodbye, thank you, asking for a beer, ordering a sandwich, and locating the toilet), you’ll be pleased to know that most people speak at least a little English in Israel. However, the two official languages are Hebrew and Arabic if you’re looking to learn some basics.
You may want to hire a tour guide when you visit some of the sites for a more in-depth understanding of what you’re seeing, but Israel is well set up for independent travel, and there is no need to take an organized tour to visit the country unless you prefer to do so.
“Is it safe?” is one of the most common questions I’m asked by other indie travelers, and I can understand why when we live in a world where the international news is ever ready to pepper our perceptions with a limited snapshot of a country: The West Bank. The Gaza Strip. Hamas. Hezbollah. The Middle East conflict – words have the power to create a sense of danger.
It is fair to say that the country is at times unstable due to ongoing disputes with neighboring countries. However, with an eye on the news, both local and international, and a good measure of vigilance, there is no reason why you can’t travel perfectly safely within Israel. That said, there are some areas that require more caution than others, and they are largely situated around the borders and the disputed areas.
The general advice is to avoid all travel to Gaza, advice that most people would gladly take. However, some of the areas that you may wish to travel to also require more attention than a “turn up and see” approach. For example, there has been a recent increase in trouble at the border between Israel and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, including an incident affecting the beach resort town of Eilat. The border with Egypt is also subject to closure at short notice, so do your research before you visit.
To the north, the border with Lebanon is subject to ongoing military operations, and the advice is not to visit this area, while the Golan Heights is under dispute with neighboring Syria and is also littered with unexploded land mines, so you must keep to defined routes when you visit.
With an eye on the news, both local and international, and a good measure of vigilance, there is no reason why you can’t travel perfectly safely within Israel.
The West Bank has actually seen an increase in security in recent years and many tourists visit areas like Bethlehem without incident. However, the situation can deteriorate rapidly, and there has been recent disruption around the central area of Hebron, so once again, check before you go.
Although most visits are trouble free, and I felt nothing other than safe during my stay, problems can flare up quickly, so keep a closer than usual eye on the news and take local advice. You should also check with your local foreign office for their view, baring in mind that if you travel to areas when a “do not travel” warning is in place, it is possible that your travel insurance may be invalid and consular assistance may be limited.
Read Dangerous Liaisons: Should You Add “Unsafe” Destinations to Your RTW Trip? and How to Safe on the Road
Border crossings and passport stamps
Travel through South East Asia or Latin America and the one thing you realize is how easy it is to skip from one country to the next. There may be visa or other entry requirements, but on the whole you can pass reasonably freely. This is where the difference is perhaps most notable when traveling to and from Israel.
The entry requirements for Israel are pretty straightforward – visitors from most countries are issued with a free tourist visa on arrival, which lasts for up to three months. As with most places, the only requirement is that you have a minimum of 6-months validity remaining on your passport.
My land crossing from Jordan was barely more complicated than crossing any other border, though my bag was scrutinized more, and there seemed to be more questions about my intended stay (I’d recommend having a rough plan of your itinerary available to present if asked). However, crossing from Jordan is perhaps one of the easiest ways to get into the country by land, as the border relations with Egypt can be fraught and therefore unpredictable, while it is simply not possible to cross the border (or even fly) from Israel into Lebanon or Syria. For these reasons, if your trip to Israel will encompass more of the Middle East, some advance route planning will be required.
The other matter to consider is whether to get your passport stamped. My advice would be that unless you plan on renewing your passport pretty quickly after you leave the country, you’re best asking for the Israeli entry and exit stamps to be placed on a separate piece of paper to be kept loose in your passport. The reason is very simple: with the Israeli stamp in your passport, you will suddenly find yourself unwelcome in several Arab countries, including the aforementioned Syria and Lebanon as well as places like Libya and Saudi Arabia. While some of these places may not be on your “must-visit” list right now, remember that passports are generally valid for 10 years, and who knows where you’ll want to go in future. As well as a flat refusal into some countries, you may also experience difficulties visiting places in the UAE, including Dubai.
When I left Israel I exited by air, and it was one of the few occasions that I needed every minute of the recommended three hours to clear security (not because I’m suspicious, but because of the thoroughness of the process), so it is worth turning up early so you don’t miss your flight.
Conflicts and customs
Providing a short history of Israel’s past is a challenge since the area has been marred by conflict since ancient times. From the Pharos to the Romans, the arrival of the Muslim army, the Crusaders and the Ottomans, the Holy Land has been fought over for millennia. Like many people I’ve gleaned snippets of information about the conflict in the Middle East from the international news, and I was pleased to use my visit to focus my mind and finally learn more about the history and issues at play, and for any visitor I would recommend you do the same.
Like many people I’ve gleaned snippets of information about the conflict in the Middle East from the international news, and I was pleased to use my visit to focus my mind and finally learn more about the history and issues at play.
Israel is a rich blend of religions, more so than most other places, and you should be sensitive to local customs. For example, if you decide to visit ultra-Orthodox areas in Jerusalem, you should ensure that you are dressed appropriately, which for women, includes wearing trousers. Dressing inappropriately in such areas doesn’t just offend, it can result in strong and violent reactions. Also, such neighborhoods should be avoided on Shabbat (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) for the same reason.
Respectful dressing is also required at religious sites. Women should cover arms, chest, and legs, and men visiting synagogues and the Western Wall are required to wear a kippa (small cap), which is usually supplied.
Beds and buses
I was pleasantly surprised how indie travel friendly most of Israel was. Clearly a number of past travelers have taken the hostel concept home, making for a wealth of dorm choices in most locations.
The country also has an excellent and comparatively cheap bus network for getting around, with buses leaving at frequent intervals. The company Egged runs both local and national services and is the country’s biggest bus network, while Dan buses mainly cover Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the West Bank. Sheruts, shared minibuses, are a great alternative to taxis that run some of the shorter routes such as between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the airport.
Unfortunately buses diminish in number the further north you get, so unless you’re skilled in the witchcraft of lining up the buses that run every third Thursday and fourth Tuesday to coincide with the motion of the tides, your best (yet most expensive) option is to hire a car to explore the Galilee area and beyond. Do be aware that if you hire a car in Israel, check whether your company permits travel outside of Israel, for example to Bethlehem and other places in Palestine.
The real danger: keeping your budget in check
Ironically, my biggest concern traveling in Israel was not whether the country was safe, but whether I was going to run out of money. Admittedly, I’d spent the previous months in India with its rock bottom rupee prices, but paying the equivalent of $1 for a lone tomato was super expensive, even by my native London prices. Israel is, unfortunately, not a cheap place to visit. In fact, 2011 saw some of the countries biggest protests as Israeli’s came out in force, disgruntled by the rising cost of living.
Hostel accommodation is around $20-$30USD per night, while a local beer will set you back around $7. The cheapest way to eat is from the markets and street vendors – thankfully fresh falafel, hummus, and pita bread are not in short supply – otherwise a cheap meal out will come in around $15.
I don’t always take the advice of my fellow backpackers (“It would be really fun to go into Rio’s favelas late at night”), but following the suggestion that I should see Israel for myself is one piece of advice I don’t regret. Now, when I’m asked, “What is Israel like?” I wholeheartedly say, “You should visit.”
Check out the following articles about so-called “dangerous destinations”:
- 10 of the Most Dangerous Destinations (and Which Ones Are Worth the Risk)
- Why You Should Ignore Everything You’ve Heard and Go to Colombia
- Why You Should Ignore All the Urban Legends and Take the Kids to Mexico
Photo credits: Ester Inbar, Ezry A Rahman, Seetheholyland.net, israeltourism, israeltourism, israeltourism, Israel Defense Forces, Phasepage, ח סלוצקי, דני גולדשמידט, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.