Israel: Crossroads of the Holy

The birthplace of two of the world’s great religions and housing major sites of a third, much traversed by many cultures, the conquerors and conquered alike, Israel has a deep and rich history that stretches back millennia.


Getting in, out, and about


To get into Israel for tourist purposes, you need a US passport with validity for up to six months after your planned departure. You will need to provide proof of a return trip as well as sufficient funds during your stay. In addition to this, you have to declare any electronic equipment, which may be subject to being searched. In fact, expect an extensive security screening. Israel can deny entry for any reason, even when there is no explicit law against a planned activity. For instance, if someone is entering Israel to do missionary work, they may be denied entry despite the fact that there is no explicit law against religious proselytizing. US citizens of Palestinian or Israeli descent should contact an Israeli consulate or embassy for additional requirements and procedures. Because it can lead to problems for travelers traveling beyond Israel into other Middle Eastern countries, Israel no longer stamps passports. Instead, you will be issued a card which represents your travel visa. Be sure to hold onto it until after you have left Israel because a lack of it can cause delays in your departure.


Once you get into Israel, keep in mind that not all areas are available for you to travel to. Most travelers will not be allowed entry into the Gaza strip whatsoever, while the US State Department advises you to exercise extreme caution when traveling in the West Bank area. In addition, if you travel in Jerusalem, make sure you dress respectfully and modestly. Travelers have been assaulted in ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem for not dressing modestly.


The US State Department recommends that you have a polio vaccination that’s been in effect for at least one year prior to your travel to Israel. If you haven’t had a complete polio vaccination, you may be denied entry into Israel. In addition, the CDC recommends that all travelers be up to date on the most common vaccinations. While the tap water is safe to drink in Israel, the CDC also recommends that most travelers vaccinate against Hepatitis A, which is passed through contaminated food and drink. Some travelers may find it advisable to get additional vaccinations against rabies, Hepatitis B, or typhoid, the latter particularly if you plan on going into Gaza or the West Bank, though the choice largely depends upon what travel activities you plan to engage in. Consult with your local physician before you travel to determine if any vaccinations are right for you.


Israel is a relatively small and compact country with a now revived train and bus system that makes getting around the country fairly easy and inexpensive, with one small important caveat. During the Sabbath, Israel’s public transportation system shuts down completely. The Sabbath begins at sundown on Fridays and continues until sundown on Saturday. If you rely on public transportation, make sure you plan for this eventuality. Another thing to consider is that travel on Thursday nights, Friday mornings, and Sunday mornings tends to be a lot busier as a result of the shutdown on the Sabbath.


If you intend to drive a car while in Israel, keep in mind that driving is more intense and reckless in Israel than what you might be used to in the US. Drivers tend to make lane changes suddenly and without the use of signals. They may also crowd into lanes or drive without leaving any space between you and them. Israeli law requires that all passengers wear seatbelts, and that you drive with your headlights on at all times. Use of cellular phones without a hands-free device is prohibited. Also beware of potential hazardous conditions when driving in volatile areas such as the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Drivers there have been known to be attacked by stones, guns, and even bombs.


Israel is generally no more dangerous a place to travel than other places in Europe, but this can change in specific areas from time to time. It’s best to check with local residents about your plans before going to unfamiliar towns, particularly on Israel’s borders.


The traveler’s tongue


The two official languages of Israel are Hebrew and Arabic, with Hebrew being the most common. In addition to this, English is widely spoken as a second language throughout the country. Since Jewish settlers in Israel have come from all over the world, you will likely find numerous other languages spoken, such as Russian, Romanian, German, and Polish. In some of the more conservative neighborhoods throughout Israeli cities, Yiddish, an Eastern European dialect of Hebrew, is widely spoken.


Money matters in Israel


The unit of Israeli currency is the shekel, or more specifically, the New Israeli Shekel, which is written with a monetary symbol first and followed by the number, just as we do in the US. The monetary symbol used can vary. While it is possible to pay in US dollars in some places, you should never be required to pay in US dollars and coming across such an instance, you should expect a scam. You can exchange money at banks and ATMs, which are common throughout the country. Tourists are usually exempt from a value added tax (VAT) that gets added to most goods and services. However, you have to get your own refund by standing in a long line at the airport at the end of your trip in order to get that refund. Furthermore, you may not be able to get the refund if your purchases were not from a “tax-free” vendor.


Tipping in restaurants and bars is appropriate, usually around 15%, but it’s not necessary to tip taxi drivers. Expect costs to be largely commensurate with costs in the US. For example, low end accommodations in hostels are typically around $30 to $40 USD, whereas midrange three-star hotels average around $125 to $150 a night per person.


Highlights of a vacation to Israel


Being a country steeped in both religious traditions and secular history, there are numerous activities awaiting you in Israel. Here are some of the highlights:


  • Jerusalem. This city is holy to three of the five major religions of the world. The sheer volume of sites to see here, from the Western Wall to the open market to the garden at Gethsemane to al-Aqsa Mosque, will keep you busy for days. In addition, you can find numerous day trips to Jerusalem’s outskirts, such as a trip to Bethlehem or Qumran Caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Dress modestly when in Jerusalem because failing to do so can bring you a lot of grief.
  • Tel Aviv. In addition to housing the oldest port city in the world, Jaffa, Tel Aviv is also a great resort town and the capital of Israel. Be sure and check out the White City, a neighborhood of fantastic modern architecture that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. An energetic night life and some of the best beaches in the world make Tel Aviv a must see for vacationers.
  • Safed. This small town in the Galilee region of Israel is the birthplace of Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism that surfaced in the early Middle Ages. With beautiful synagogues, ancient fortresses, and art galleries and museums that put an accent on the mystical, Safed is an otherworldly destination. Outside the town, you can find numerous other activities, including hiking and wandering the Mount Meron Nature Preserve or the tomb of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, the presumed author of the Zohar, one of the principle works of Kabbalistic mysticism.
  • Caesarea National Park. This park houses a well-preserved Roman city that was built by Herod the Great 2000 years ago. Near the park is the town of Caesarea, which features luxurious environs for those with a bottomless pocketbook.
  • Mazada. This famous mountaintop fortress was the site of a famous siege by Romans of a Jewish base. In addition to being able to tour the ruins of the fortress, as well as the Roman encampment, you also get a breathtaking view of the Dead Sea and the desert of Judea.
  • Eilat. This city on the coast of the Red Sea is a popular destination for scuba divers in addition to other water sports enthusiast. In the surrounding Eilat Mountains, you can find numerous trails for hiking.
  • Avshalom Cave. Underground enthusiasts will find numerous opportunities to delve deep, and one of Israel’s most spectacular caves is this one at Mount Ye’ela.


The above highlights barely scratch the surface of the available sites and activities you can find in Israel. Whether your purpose for travel is a pilgrimage to see the holy sites, or a more conventional vacation, you’ll find much to delight you, much to make you think and to make you feel. Start planning your vacation to Israel today.