Even combined, Israel and Palestine with the Westbank and Gaza do not cover a large area of land. Barely 500 km lie between the southern city Eilat at the Red Sea, and the northernmost point, Mount Hermon. The Dead Sea at the border to Jordan is less than 100 km from the Mediterranean coast. And yet, on this 500x100km there are a million things waiting to be discovered.
The barren landscapes of the Negev Desert and the green slopes of the Golan Heights, the Dead Sea, which is hostile to any life, and the beaches of Tel-Aviv and the Mediterranean coast bustling with bathers and fisherman bringing in the day’s catch, and, of course, the solemn religiousness bursting with love for their God of the believers in Jerusalem and a few meters on, the blind hatred of the settlers and Palestinians throwing rocks at each other or worse.
Israel is a country of contrast as much as it’s a land of history. Everyone who’s anyone in Western and Middle Eastern history has ruled in modern-day Israel: from Egyptians to Israelites to Nabateans to Romans to Ummayads to Crusaders to Ottoman to British.
There is something for everyone in this small country. To get your planning started, here are a few important things to know about traveling in Israel. To make it easier for you to navigate through this very long post, I have collapsed the categories. Just click on the respective header to reveal the text.
The question I get asked most when I tell about my travels in Israel and Palestine is that about safety. That is why I want to get it out of the way first:
At no point did I feel in any way unsafe traveling in Israel and Palestine.
Before saying more about today’s Israel/Palestine let me try to briefly explain how Israel got to where it is now (Warnung: This is very much a simplification!):
The main population groups in the region are and have been for the past 3,000 years, Arabs and Jews (this is very simplified!). Arabs can have any given religion; there are, of course, Muslim Arabs, but also Christian Arabs, Arabs who follow lesser known religions such as the Druze or the Baha’i; there are even Jewish Arabs. Since most of the religions are younger than Judaism, it is possible that the ancestors of today’s Arabs once followed the Jewish faith but not a given. While the term Judaism derives from the Israelite Tribe of Judah and the term Israelite refers to the descendants of Jacob, both tribes were initially not exclusively Jewish. Throughout history, the region that is now Israel was home to diverse religions.
Those who were of Jewish religion were violently driven out of the land over and over again: First by the Egyptians, then about 2,000 years ago by the Romans, who made Israel part of their empire, and a millennium later by the Christian Crusaders. The Romans made Israel part of their province Syria Palestina. From now on, Palestina was the name used for land in the area, last by the British Mandate in the first half of the 20th century.
Because Jews feel a strong connection to the land of their ancestors, some groups persisted persecution and never left Israel, and through the centuries others have returned, a process known as Aliyah. Aliyah has caused friction with the people that have always been living in the region. Eventually, early in the 20th century, a few Muslim leaders convinced their followers to kill those returning Jews by spreading the rumor that immigrant Jews were going to dispose of Arabs.
That sentiment then got mushed with a Western World deeply shamed by allowing the murder of 6 million Jews during WWII. So they decided to return control over Israel to the Jews not considering that there was still a majority of non-Jewish, Arab communities on the land, communities that were not sufficiently involved in the process.
The result is a Jewish state fiercely defending what they believe is the land of their ancestors and Arabs (or Palestinians) pointing to the facts of hundreds of years between the last Jewish nation and the 1947 UN resolution to form the new State of Israel. This situation is not easily solved.
I recommend doing a dual-narrative tour of Hebron to understand why the situation is so frustrating. Read more about Hebron here.
Furthermore, the Golan Heights are, in fact, not internationally recognized as part of Israel. The Eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee, as well as the Golan Heights, are legally a part of Syria that has been occupied by Israel in the past decades. That is why you will see not only Israeli soldiers but also UN forces up here — they are to monitor the armistice between the two states.
However, the good news is: All of this has little to do with visitors to both Israel and Palestine.
Yes, you will see a lot of guns in Israel. All young adults (men and women of any faith, only certain sects are excluded) have to serve in the army, and the public transport seems to be how they move about. Some people even bring their guns to Shabbat. Majority Arab cities like Nazareth or Akko see a lot fewer guns while in Jerusalem they seem almost to be a must-have accessory.
Another thing to expect is to have your bags checked and to pass metal detectors going into buildings (malls, bus stations, train stations,…).
For Palestine, checkpoints crossing into the West Bank are usually quickly passed. Coming from the West Bank, I was never stopped. But if you appear Arab expect to have your documents checked. The checkpoints may also move. Transport from/to the West Bank can take a lot longer than planned because the straightest route might be blocked (examples are Jericho and Bethlehem from Jerusalem).
Most people are friendly and very interested in meeting you. You cannot cross a street in Palestine without hearing a cheerful “Welcome!”
OK, there are also a lot of rude people, especially in Orthodox Jerusalem getting a smile is often hard work. But that is less hate than it is fear and skepticism. Once you break the ice, you might just make friends for life.
The only thing I’d stay away from in Israel/Palestine is political demonstrations on any side.
Respect local customs regardless of religion. Most (religious) groups have their conservatism in common. That includes a modest dress code of covering shoulders and knees.
Needless to say that in religious structures of any denomination you should enquire about other norms such as a head scarf for women or a hat for men.
Israel is officially a Jewish state. This means that from Friday afternoon to Saturday sunset, virtually all of public life in Israel comes to a standstill. Though Shabbat only starts at Friday sunset, shops will shut a few hours before and public transport will stop running. In your hotel/hostel, you may find that the elevators don’t run and that coffee machines are switched off.
This has to do with religious rules that prevent Jews from earning money during Shabbat and effectively forbid them to operate machines.
However, being the country of many religions it is, Arab cities such as Nazareth will function almost without interruption (other than the lack of Egged buses), and even in Jerusalem you’ll always find some non-Jewish cab drivers, for example, to take you to the airport (the buses and train to/from the airports are not running during Shabbat!), restaurants, and small shops to buy snacks and drinks.
When you happen to be in Israel on a Friday, I recommend you find somebody to invite you to a Shabbat celebration. There is a guy called Shlomo who comes to the Stay Inn Hostel or the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem every Friday. He invites anybody interested — regardless of denomination — to an American synagogue and after to a Shabbat dinner with a rabbi who has been opening his house to anybody for more than 20 years. A very peaceful and energizing experience.
Shabbat does, of course not apply to the West Bank.
In tune with the diversity of Israel’s society, you will hear a multitude of languages: the official languages are Hebrew and Arab but English is widely spoken, and there are also large Russian and Ethiopian communities. And beyond that, people from all over the globe have made Israel their home.
Navigating within the two official languages and their non-Roman alphabets can be tricky since a lot of the signage outside the tourist areas is in Hebrew (even Arabic isn’t always there).
I never had problems finding somebody to translate for me. Just smile and approach people.
It’s also worth noting that many places have a multitude of different spellings in English: Yaffa = Yaffo = Yafo = Jaffa = Jaffo = Japho; Akko =Acco = Acre; Ovdat = Avdat and so on. To boot, the spelling on Google Maps may differ from the one used by Egged, the national bus company (see below for public transport). And sometimes the preferred name differs completely: Jerusalem is Al-Quds to Arabs, though they know what you are talking about when you use Jerusalem.
Learning the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet helps tremendously. But if you ask for help you’re bound to find someone to translate and send you to your destination.
Israeli Food is typically Mediterranean/Middle Eastern with falafel, hummus, yogurt (labneh), plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, shawarma for the meat eaters (and fried liver), and sweet sweets like halva and baklava.
The traditional breakfast is savory – labneh, tahini, pita (bread), tomato, and cucumber are standards but often jam and chocolate spread plus cornflakes/muesli are also on offer; Israelis are picky with their breakfast and if you stay somewhere where there are many of them (such as HI Hostels) you’re guaranteed to find a full spread including different cream cheeses/yogurts, goat cheese (not unlike feta), fish (pickled and tuna), pickled vegetables, shakshuka (tomato sauce with egg), cake, za’atar (an herb mixed with salt, often eaten with oil on bread), hummus, lentils,…
Pork, of course, is hard to find with both the Jewish and the Muslim tradition shunning it. If you can’t do without pork, the recent influx of Russian Orthodox Christians brought with it a few butchers.
Generally, meat is very expensive, while fresh fruit and vegetables bought at the market are very affordable. However, prices can vary considerably – a kilo tomatoes can be NIS5 ($1.25) at one stall and NIS10 at the next one with many vendors not bothering to display prices.
Most people still do their day-to-day shopping in the market. There are supermarkets, but they are more expensive. The markets don’t only offer fruit and vegetables from the many farms (kibbutz) across the country, but also bread, fish, cheese, and sweets, even household goods.
There are a few traditional drinks in the region: black/mint tea is one; Arabic coffee – heavily infused with cardamom — another one; Nazareth is famous for its hot Cinnamon; sachlav is hot custardy milk drink with rose water, nuts, coconut flakes that you find in the North.
BTW: Tea and coffee (the Nescafe kind) are often complimentary in hostel/hotels.
Israel has a large agriculture growing everything from wheat to dates to bananas to avocado,… The country is a pioneer in desalination techniques and has managed to make the desert bloom in many places, just as one of the nation’s founders, Ben Gurion, envisioned it. The Kibbutz is an expression of this desire – everybody works together, shares the load, shares the fruit. Plus, many of the Zionist settlers of the first half of the 20th century, I was told, came to Israel to work the land, after being barred from farming and many other professions across Europe. These days, a lot of the workers on the farms are Asian immigrants or poorer Arabs. Many tourists also stay for a while in the Kibbutzes to volunteer and to find reprieve from very expensive life in Israel.
The money in Israel, also used in Palestine, is the New Israeli Shekel (NIS). An Agora is 1/100 of a Shekel. 4 Shekel roughly equal 1 Dollar.
US-Dollars are widely accepted in hotels and hostels as well as many other tourist-frequented locations.
Life in Israel (and Palestine) is surprisingly expensive: A hostel dorm can easily cost $20, a falafel costs on average $2, even though prices vary massively with $1 for falafel in Ramallah in the West Bank and $5 for falafel in Eilat.
On average, I spent about $1,500 for a month in Israel without a lot of partying or going out (if possible I would cook vegetables from the market at my accommodation).
Only public transport is easy on the wallet. It is also easily available, and touristing is perfectly safe on your own.
Tel-Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport is the big international hub that is also connected to a small but very useful train network (see below).
There are two more international airports in the South:
Eilat City, a tiny airport literally in the middle of Eilat and therefore very convenient. You can walk to your accommodation in town and are only about 500m from the bus station with several buses a day to the North, including the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, and the coast.
Ovda is the other Eilat airport and Ryanair’s Israel destination. However, the airport is, in fact, more than 50 km north of Eilat in the Negev desert. It is hard to get to or away. There are only a handful of buses to/from Eilat and Beersheba, from where you have to connect to other destinations. If you want to use a taxi, it is best to organize it before as taxis are not only hard to come by, the drivers also tend to abuse the situation.
Note, that security controls at Israeli airports are very strict. It is imperative that you go to the airport three hours before departure time. I have heard several stories of people being stopped and questioned for one or two hours when they were on their way out of the country. That goes especially for young European women traveling solo.
There are currently no airports in Palestine. The only way to get there is via Israel. Visa wise the two are one country. This means that even if you fly into Jordan and cross straight into Palestine via Allenby Bridge, you will still deal with the Israeli border control and need a visa for Israel.
Note, that Israeli law prohibits Israeli citizens that aren’t Palestinians from entering most of the West Bank.
Egged is the national Israeli bus company with a tight network throughout Israel, but only a few selected stops in the West Bank. Click here to check routes, schedules, and prices of Egged buses.
The so-called Arab buses run in the Westbank and from/to East Jerusalem but are not allowed anywhere else in Israel. Click here for info on Arab bus routes.
In the South, the regional bus company is Metropoline, in the North, it’s Golan Bus. Click here for Metropoline and Golan Bus lines and schedules.
Bus travel is rather affordable with ticket prices around $10 for a 4h journey. Local companies are usually cheaper than Egged. So are Arab buses where Egged and the Arab buses offer similar routes (which is rare).
Many buses have free WiFi on board.
Israeli buses have a schedule (Arab buses usually don’t) but are often either late or early (up to 40 minutes) en route. So if you plan on taking a bus that runs only a few times a day (or the last bus of the day), be at the stop with plenty of time to spare and a good book.
At the bus stop:
The train is a lovely way to see the country. Trains are relatively new and offer free WiFi plus, in some instances, charging options. Tel-Aviv is the hub. From here, you can go along the coast as far North as Nahariya and as far South as Beer-Sheva.
The line to Jerusalem — passing Tel-Aviv airport — ends far away from downtown/old town Jerusalem. Connections into the Old Town are abundant but tricky to find. If you’re arriving from the airport, taking a cab might be the easiest option.
Local transport comes mostly in the form of buses. But some cities have upgraded to trams (or light rail). Haifa has one line, Jerusalem has one, and Tel-Aviv is building a line as we speak. Tickets are about $1.50 per ride.
Shared taxis are a good bus alternative that is only slightly more expensive.
The Hebrew name for shared taxis in Israel is sherut. Palestinians prefer to avoid Hebrew words and use the term Caravelle (for the type of care often used as shared taxi).
Usually, the Sherut has a set route, though, in contrast to buses, they can stop in more places and will drop you off near your destination address. If you are lucky, the sherut might even make a detour to take you all the way to your destination
For those budget travelers who want to avoid public transport, Abraham Hostel has a daily shuttle between their houses in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, und Nazareth.
Rental cars are widely available in Israel and Palestine, and roads are quite good. However, some Israeli companies don’t allow you to go into the West Bank. So, you should go to East Jerusalem to rent from one of the Arab-run companies instead, if you plan to visit Jericho, Bethlehem or anywhere else in West Bank.
In sparsely populated areas such as the Golan Heights and the Negev, hitchhiking is a very common way to move around.
The correct technique is as follows:
Throughout Israel you will find numerous tours on offer, some of which make sense, some don’t. You can even do Petra in a day from Jerusalem: I don’t recommend it – Petra is too precious to rush through in a few hours.
The only tour I ever did was the Dual-Narrative Hebron tour from Jerusalem. Everywhere else I visited by public transport.
Before throwing a lot of money at organized tours in Israel, have a look at the map, check out the public transportation options I laid out above, and read my blog posts. For example, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea are only one hour by bus from Jerusalem – which means you don’t have to rely on a tour to go there.
Abraham Tours is a big, reputable provider with different options from food tours in Tel-Aviv to multi-day trips into Jordan. At the time of writing, they were the only company with a dual-narrative tour. To boot, Abraham Hostel guests get 10% discount.
If you are not a Muslim and want to visit the inside of the Dome of Rock on the Temple Mount, contact the Waqf, the religious authority in charge of the Temple Mount to organize a tour. Unfortunately, all I have is a phone number for them: +972 2 6281248. Alternatively, you can contact VisitPalestine at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask them to broker a contact at the Waqf.
Throughout Israel, there is a multitude of accommodations on different budget levels available. However, by and large, everything is a bit more expensive.
The quality of hostels varies vastly, and cheap usually means little comfort and lack of cleanliness. So expect to invest about $20 for a night in a dorm, sometimes up to $40. In Palestine, hostel prices are a little lower but so is the comfort.
ILH Hostels Israel is an association of independent hostels around Israel and Palestine. They try to bypass the big booking platforms by offering guests discounts when they book directly with them.
HI Hostels is the place to go for locations with a limited hostel coverage such as Masada or Ein Gedi. Prices are quite high. But the houses are more resort-style than hostel-style, dorms tend to have fewer beds, and a splendid breakfast buffet is always included in the room rate.
Airbnb has some very affordable options in tourism magnets such as Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, and Haifa. I spent only $14/night for my own room by the beach in Haifa.
From the deepest elevation on land, the Dead Sea at 400 m below sea level, to Mount Hermon at 2,800 m above sea level, temperatures may differ by 20°C on any given day.
Daytime summer temperatures in the desert reach up into the 40s while winter temperatures in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights can go down to freezing.
So even more than in other countries, make sure you google “weather in [the precise location] in [the month you’re traveling].”
Dress modestly in a religious context (churches, places of prayer) and as a female have a scarf at the ready. But there is no need to cover up completely. And you might even find nudist beaches at the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea.
If you are going for a hike, bring appropriate attire like a hat and closed shoes with good grip. Click here for more advice on packing for a desert adventure.
Otherwise, you don’t need to bring any specific supplies. Everything is available in the markets and supermarkets of Israel and Palestine, albeit a bit more expensive than in other parts of the world.
If after this long text you’re still reading, you must be truly interested in going to Israel and Palestine. I was in Israel for two months and could have easily stayed longer.
To make it easier for you to chose what you want to see here’s the complete list of my posts on Israel. Scroll down for a basic idea of how much time to plan. You’ll note that I have zilch blog posts on Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. That’s because various travel bloggers have done this before me. I also found it very easy just to rock up, grab a map and discover the cities by myself (no pre-planning required).
For Jerusalem, you should plan at least 2 days to explore the old town with Temple Mount and Tower of David (check out their exhibition, which chronicles the history of Jerusalem and enjoy the fantastic views of the old town from its walls), climb the Mount of Olives, and have a stroll or two along Yaffa Street to Mahane Yehuda market.
For Tel-Aviv-Yaffo you should also plan at least 2 days, enough time to explore Yaffa (1/2 day), discover the street art around Florentin, canvas the markets, and see a sunset (or two) at the beach.
You could do Haifa in a day. But to me, the city lends itself even better than Tel-Aviv to spend a bit longer and relax at the beaches when you’re not out exploring.
If you have little time, you’d be best off renting a car to see things outside of the big two cities: you’d need minimum 2 days for the coast, 2 days in Palestine, 3 days in the North, 3 days in the South, the main limitation being opening hours of the monuments and National Parks since they close at 4 (or earlier) and don’t open at all on Saturdays due to Shabbat.