Traveling Tips for Israel
Israel is a beautiful country rich with history that includes a rather tumultuous past. Don't let that scare you away though—it is a far safer place now than it has been. Today it is a very tourist-friendly area that is easy to travel and explore.
I spent five weeks in Israel, four of which were on an archaeology dig (you can read about that in my article on archaeology). I had an incredible time and certainly learned a lot about the culture and history. This was also my first time leaving North America, so I picked up many helpful tips along the way that I hope to share with you.
These travel tips apply to almost anywhere in the world you travel to. If you're new to traveling, read closely to make sure you keep yourself safe and make the most of your time. If you're a more experienced traveler, you can skim this section and move on to the next one.
1. Do not wear a backpack on your back while you are out traveling. This is a very easy way for locals to pickpocket you. Same goes for keeping your wallet in your back pocket or slinging your purse behind you. They can be very sneaky and can take your valuables without you realizing it. Only take what you need to and make sure you keep a very close eye on it.
2. Don't wander around at night alone, especially if you're a woman. Always bring at least one friend with you. Traveling in numbers is always safer, but if you prefer to travel alone, make sure you stick to areas that are crowded and don't stay out late.
3. Try to avoid taxis if you can. They tend to be very overpriced and there are other, cheaper methods of transportation such as buses. If you need to use a taxi though, make sure that you agree on a price before getting in. If you don't do this, they may take you on a longer route and charge you a very high price.
Here are some of my more Israel-specific tips that you should pay close attention to if you plan on traveling there.
1. Do not be intimidated by the guards that are everywhere, particularly in Jerusalem. Everyone in Israel is required to serve at least two years in the military, so there are many of them around. While the enormous machine guns strapped to their chests are rather scary, know that they are only protecting the area and do not wish to harm you or anyone else
2. Bring modest clothing. No tank tops or anything above the knees. Women should also bring a headscarf to cover their hair with for some of the religious sites. Sometimes clothing will be provided to help tourists cover up, but ultimately it's far more respectful and easier to simply bring your own. If you plan on entering any religious sites, you should plan on dressing conservatively.
3. There will be many religious areas where men and women must be separate. Be aware of this so that you don't get yelled at for going into the wrong area!
The Western Wall
4. In Old Jerusalem, there are many shops where you can buy items. You MUST haggle with the shop merchants or else you are guaranteed to get ripped off. Especially if you're an American, and even more so if you're a female American (I learned that one the hard way and got ripped off a lot). I would recommend starting at about 25% of what they originally asked for and work from there. Also check the tags to see if the items are actually made in Israel. You may find that many of them aren't authentic and are actually made in other countries.
5. Be prepared to get asked about your religion a lot. In America (and many other countries) this is very rude but, in Israel, it is common because religion is a very important part of an individual's identity. They most likely don't realize that this is considered rude in many countries, so let them know if their question makes you feel uncomfortable.
6. If you go to Bethlehem, make sure you bring your passport with you because the guards may ask to see it. When I went they didn't, but always bring it just in case.
Church of the Nativity
7. Since it is a more conservative country, women should prepare to have many men flirt with them. Many Israeli women will not talk to men, so the men will usually go after foreign women instead. If you want them to leave you alone, be as rude to them as possible, just like the Israeli women do. They will eventually give up and leave you alone.
8. The biggest cultural shock I encountered was how close together everyone would stand. Americans have a very large space bubble, so it made me feel uncomfortable how close people would stand to me when they were talking. It's a bit awkward sometimes, but that's the way it is.
9. There are jelly fish in the Mediterranean Sea. And not only are there jelly fish there, but apparently there is also a season for them (typically one to two months, somewhere between June and August). I know this because I received a very nasty sting from one that left a scar for about six months. I'll spare you the picture, but it did, in fact, happen. If this happens to you, do not panic and do not put anything on it. You can pee on it (that's what the locals will tell you to do. I didn't, but I've heard it does work), but that's about it. It will sting for a while afterwards depending on the severity of the sting (mine was about 10 hours), but you will ultimately be okay.
The Dead Sea
10. The Dead Sea is a must-see when you go because it is disappearing at an alarming rate due to global warming. When you go though, make sure that you don't have any cuts anywhere on your body because it is the saltiest body of water in the world. The salt will find cuts that you didn't even know existed on your body. Also make sure that you cover yourself in the mud there because it is excellent for your skin and will make it as soft as a baby's bottom. If you choose to buy any dead sea products to bring back home with you, hide them very well in your luggage because the Israeli airports have been known to confiscate such items.
11. You will get heavily questioned at the airport, but this is nothing to be worried about. Everyone goes through the same process and it is only done for security purposes. If you are traveling alone, you may get more questions though. Just be prepared to answer the questions calmly and thoroughly.
12. Some hostels and hotels will offer tours to go see various places in Israel or even Jordan. It would be cheaper to do it on your own, but having a guided tour is much less stressful and allows you to enjoy your time a bit more. When I was in Israel, I stayed at the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem. They also have locations in Tel Aviv and Nazareth. They offer lots of tours and I found them to be extremely helpful, especially as a new traveler. I went on the Dead Sea, Ein Gedi, and Masada tour, the Bethlehem tour, and the 2 day Jordan tour. I would highly recommend all of them, but especially the Jordan tour because our tour guide was absolutely phenomenal! If you want to learn more about staying at a hostel, you can read my article on it here.
Do you think that Israel is a safe country?
13. Three major cities in Israel that people commonly visit and stay in are Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. I would recommend visiting Nazareth, but there isn't more than a day's worth of sights to see so I wouldn't recommend staying much longer than that. Tel Aviv is a good city to go to if you're looking for night life, modern culture, and beaches. Jerusalem is where you can find lots of famous ancient sites as well as excellent shopping. I would recommend staying in Jerusalem because a lot of what makes Israel famous is located within the city or near it. The other cities certainly shouldn't be overlooked, but I wouldn't spend more than a couple days in them.
14. If somebody offers you a free camel ride, say no because I promise you that that is not a free camel ride. You can get on the camel for free, but you had better believe that you will not be getting off that camel until you have paid them.
15. Bethlehem is worth visiting if you consider yourself to be a religious person or are interested in religion. Otherwise, you won't get much out of it other than being able to tell people that you went to Bethlehem.
16. Absolutely nothing is open on Saturdays, even in the touristy areas. If you find yourself in need of some food on a Saturday, be sure to ask your hostel or hotel staff where to go because otherwise you may be wandering around for a very long time. This is because Israel is a highly religious country and Saturdays are their holy days. To them, it would be disrespectful to have any shops open on such a day.
The City of Petra
Transitions Across Cultures
This book is a helpful guide to any traveler and discusses how to recognize and handle culture shock.
I've done quite a bit of traveling for a 20 year old, and I must say that Israel has been my favorite trip by and far. Most of my traveling has been isolated to North America and Europe, but I believe that Israel is one destination that cannot be missed. The history is incredible and you won't find anything like it in the world. It's a bit off the beaten path, but it is well set up for tourists because it has an important history that holds a lot of meaning for many people. If you get the chance, Israel is a must-see in my opinion.
If you have any questions about Israel, my experiences, or anything else that comes to your mind, please let me know in the comments!
© 2017 Lindsay Langstaff