Touring Israel: What You Need to Know
If the numbers are anything to go by, the tourism drought in Israel appears to be receding. With decade lows between 2001 and 2003 due to an escalation in violence, Israel has seen clear signs that visitors are coming back. Even before the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, the number of tourists more than doubled in the first half of 2004 and the number of first-time visitors in the first six months of 2005 increased 73 percent, according to the semi-annual Israeli Inbound Tourism Survey. In all, 2005 witnessed a 26 percent increase of visitors from the preceding year.
On the ground, of course, it can be a wholly different story, and travelers should naturally be aware of ongoing security concerns. And certainly, in-country security precautions may seem daunting by Western standings, but to most Israelis it’s life as usual. Adopt their point of view, and the roadblocks, soldiers, and the need for vigilance can become part of the local atmosphere rather than a reason to stay away. After all, life in Israel goes on, and there’s still plenty to discover and enjoy.
About the size of New Jersey, Israel is ripe with places to go that encapsulate thousands of years of world-shaping history, and it’s nearly impossible for travelers to hit everything. However, for first-time visitors, especially those staying a week or two, there are several obvious choices that should be featured on any itinerary.
Jerusalem, particularly the Old City, is a must, but anyone going to Israel already knows that—in fact, it’s typically the first destination after flying into Tel Aviv and taking an hour-long bus ride. Walk the narrow cobblestone streets. Tour the tunnels by the Western Wall. Enjoy the view of the city along the ramparts. Visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a monumental, ancient shrine that straddles Calvary, the hill on which Christ was crucified. But wherever you do decide to go, don’t pet the stray cats. Also, beware souvenir prices in the Old City. The merchants offer items at nearly twice the price that they’re ultimately willing to settle for, so be prepared to haggle. Whether you’re purchasing a wooden camel, a decorative candle, or an Israeli Army T-shirt, the merchants may get pushy, and sometimes rude. If you’re due change, they may claim they don’t have small bills and then try to up-sell you.
Another must-see location in Israel is Ein Gedi, a lush oasis in the midst of the barren desert and gateway to the salty Dead Sea on the country’s eastern edge. People come from all around the world, sometimes exclusively, to bathe in the therapeutic baths by the Dead Sea, rub mud over their bodies (making for a great photo op), and float in the salt water at the lowest spot on earth. First-time visitors typically stay overnight, wake before dawn, and hike up Mount Masada to view the brilliant sunrise before taking a tour of the history-rich plateau. The fortress here has served as a mountaintop refuge from pillaging Syrians and Greeks, Herod’s pleasure palace, and the vanguard of a dramatic revolt against the Romans in the first-century AD, so you’d be forgiven for taking your time to absorb its millennia of history.
When most travelers arrive in Israel, they land at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, and then head to Jerusalem. It’s not uncommon, however, for them to spend their last couple of days in Tel Aviv before their return trip home. Unlike Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is a very modern city that’s only been around since 1909. It is the country’s modern cultural capital and commercial center, and beautiful beaches line the Mediterranean coast. The city is known for its openness as well as superlative nightlife. It has quite a few museums, too, like the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Eretz Israel Museum, and the Diaspora Museum, which features a multimedia exhibit that illustrates the history of Jewish communities throughout the world.
Visitors who have time should travel a couple of hours south to visit Eilat, a resort city that closely borders Jordan and Egypt on Israel’s southernmost tip. The border to Taba, Egypt, is accessible by foot, and tourists who want another stamp on their passport often spend part of the day exploring the small town. Tourists frequently take a worthwhile day-long tour to Petra, Jordan, by way of Aqaba. It’s expensive, but an unforgettable experience amidst the World Heritage-listed “City in the Rock”—the same amazing locale that Indiana Jones and his father explored in The Last Crusade. In Eilat, be sure to take a glass-bottom boat ride, and when the weather is warm, enjoy the beaches and the soothing waters of the Red Sea. Eilat is also a birder’s dream destination, sitting under the migratory flight path of birds beating a path each spring from North Africa to breeding grounds in Europe. Hotels and resorts here abound, among them the five-star Neptune Hotel and Herods Vitalis Spa.
Access & Resources
Good to Know:
Security is tight in Israel. Expect to go through metal detectors frequently and answer many questions about what you’re doing there, whether you’re at the airport or cruising the shopping mall. Though Hebrew is the main language, English is widely spoken. Often, travelers can spend time in Israel without needing to understand a word of Hebrew, but it’s still wise to pick up a few common phrases. Remember that many attractions are closed on Fridays after sunset until Saturdays after sunset in accordance with the Jewish Sabbath, and there is no bus service in most places during those times.
El Al Israel Airlines, Delta, Tower, World Airways, CSA/Czech Airlines, Air Canada, and British Airways, among others, all serve Israel from a variety of international hubs. About 90 percent of visitors arrive at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. Check the airport website for a complete listing of airlines and contact details. Travelers from the U.S., Canada, and most European countries don’t need a visa to visit Israel, just a valid passport (visit the Israeli consular website for full details).
The most practical way to get from place to place is on the bus. All cities have extensive bus service, but most do not operate between Friday night and Saturday night. However, buses do operate in Haifa and in eastern Jerusalem on the Jewish Sabbath. Taxis are available in every city, but don’t be fooled by drivers who offer you a special price, which is often higher than the meter. Car-renters need only a passport, credit card, and U.S. or Canadian driver’s license. Most traffic signs are in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. And don’t worry—they drive on the right-hand side of the street.
To call Israel from North America, dial 011-972, then the number (omitting the initial zero). To call home, AT&T, MCI, and Sprint all have toll-free access numbers in Israel. Ask your hotel operator how to dial from your room. You can also rent a cell phone at the airport. As for the Internet, there are cafes and public Internet outlets all over the place.
Israel’s voltage is 220 volts, like Europe, so break out the converters if you’re coming from North America.
No vaccinations or shots are required for U.S. or Canadian visitors to Israel, but if you’ve visited a country prior to coming to Israel where cholera, typhoid, or yellow fever is endemic, you will need a vaccination certificate.
For college-aged travelers looking for adventure, there are volunteer programs that will offer memorable experiences. If you find the right Kibbutz (a communal farm), you can work for your room and board and meet people from all over the world. Whether you’re gardening, washing dishes, or working the fields, the Kibbutz experience is a way of life you won’t soon forget.
Jewish adults aged 18 to 26 who have never been to Israel before can take advantage of the Birthright Israel program (www.birthrightisrael.com), which is a ten-day expenses-paid educational trip.