Resting at a massive crossroads, Israel is a unique country that sits at the convergence of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The country sits in the continent of Asia but is considered to be part of the Middle East region too.
The politics of Israel are heavily influenced by the three largest religions – Judaism, Muslim, and Christianity. There are numerous religious sites that are of great importance to all three religions, but not all travelers are curious to visit Israel for their faith. Israel is also located along the Mediterranean Sea, which means that there are plenty of drop-dead gorgeous beaches for you to visit. But the diverse and changing landscape will also lead you to the Dead and Red Seas. The land between the seas is also filled with diversity as you can venture through deserts, mountains, and forests.
ברוך הבא – Welcome to Israel
Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and it is known by most travelers because of its religious significance or for being one of the world’s oldest cities. But while Jerusalem has been steeped with a rich and turbulent history, divisions within the region have created ongoing battles. East Jerusalem was once occupied by Jordan, before and currently being occupied by Israel. The divide is an ongoing battle, as Jordan wishes to claim the eastern part as the capital of Palestine. But beyond the politics, Jerusalem is an incredible sight to see and a place where you can witness the combination of the past, present, and future.
Culture and Language
Israel has an incredibly significant history within our world because it was once a pathway between early hominid migrations from Africa to Europe, which started almost 1.5 million years ago. But Israel is also religiously significant because it is the birthplace of two major religions – Judaism and Christianity. The Hebrew Bible’s final form was completed in the city and for Jewish people it is their birthplace. But by the end of the Crusades, the Arab Muslim Empires came into power, which made the Muslim religion the dominant faith.
However, in the late 19th century, a national movement of Zionism brought Judaism back to prominence. With help from the British government during World War I, Jerusalem was named as the Jewish National Home and they retook all of Jerusalem for Israel. Now, 43% of the world’s Jewish population live in Israel.
The city has always been in a state of conflict due to its demographics, which means that the Arabs and Palestinians have always fought over the area. But by 1980, Jerusalem was declared by law as the capital of Israel. A more recent conflict broke out in 2008 between Egypt and Israel along the Gaza Strip, which ultimately ended with a more open border.
Now, the Israeli government has put a Prime Minister at the head, and they run as a parliamentary democracy. The government is established in Jerusalem, but Tel Aviv is also an important city for the countries technological and economic advances.
Many of Israel’s cultures and customs are based on Judaism and Christianity. Jewish customs like the philosophy, literature, art, and folklore are all prominent for the area and are celebrated through numerous festivals and traditions. Israel proudly showcases their culture throughout their numerous museums. With over 200 museums, the country has the world’s highest number of museums per capita. There are many Jewish people who will take a birthright trip to Israel, but the area also attracts plenty of Christians who also wish to visit prominent religious sites.
Hebrew is Israel’s official language and it is spoken by almost every person in the country to a decent proficiency, if not as a first language. Arabic is also a prominent language in the country because it was once listed as an official language as well. While Arabic has lost its official status, 20% of the population does still speak the language and there are many signs that are written in both Hebrew and Arabic.
English is almost important for Israel because of its relationship with foreign countries and their exchanges. English is used throughout business negotiations and is very prominent within the tourism industry. Many people in Israel will speak English well because it is often mandatory as a second language within the educational institutions.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Israel, you do not need a tourist visa if you are planning on staying for less than 90 days. But it is important to know that travel in the West Bank and along the Gaza Strip is greatly restricted, if not forbidden to US citizens. Those who seek to enter Israel from Egypt or Jordan may also face a more detailed screening with physical searches, prolonged questioning, and can even be denied entry or exit from Israel. However, it is important to know that any travel between the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel may be heavily restricted or not accessible, as you travel between checkpoints and areas.
If you are part of any BDS or Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions activities, you will likely be denied entry in the country, even as a US citizen. Groups like the BDS and a few other non-governmental organizations are often seen as being anti-Israel and may not travel within the country. So, if you are affiliated with these types of groups, it is suggested that you look elsewhere to travel as your likelihood of entry into Israel is slim to none.
Other requirements include a valid US passport with one blank page. Israel does not require that your passport have a minimum validity requirement, but the passport must remain valid for the entire time of your stay in the country. You should be aware that certain airlines may restrict your from traveling if your passport does not have a validity that extends 6 months past the date of your return to the US from your trip. It is better to be certain that your passport has 6 months validity past the date of your trip to be sure that you’ll be granted boarding onto the airplane.
Israel has no vaccination requirements, though it is always recommended that you stay up to date on all general vaccinations. You will also have to declare any amount of money that is more than $50,000 shekels or currently $14,473 US dollars.
While areas in Israel Aviv are safe to travel to, there is currently a Travel Advisory placed by the US government in regard to travel in Israel. US citizens should not visit the Gaza area and you should reconsider travel to the West Bank. Jerusalem can also be unstable due to the politics of the area and you should reconsider travel.
If you do choose to visit the country and those areas, you need to exercise increased caution. You should register to receive alerts from the US Embassy and remain on high alert as you travel. You should always follow the law, but avoid any large crowds, demonstrations, and protests. The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is also a good way to alert the US Embassy of your travel plans and stay up to date on alerts.
You should also note that most US citizens will have fewer problems entering the country when they have been given the correct tourist visa but leaving the country can be an entirely difference experience. Travelers should arrive at the airport 3 hours in advance of their flight to give enough time for them to be screened and cleared for boarding and exit from Israel.
While the tourist visa is crucial for entry into Israel, the next step of planning your trip will be to determine your spending budget for the duration of your stay. Israel is expensive to visit, and you won’t be able to get by on a backpacker’s budget like other countries in Asia. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t find an affordable way to travel on your vacation. There are a few ways that you can save money and not blow your budget. However, the most important parts of your budget will include the airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
Israel is far away, and the cost of the airline ticket will be expensive with the cost going up even more if you are traveling from the West Coast of the United States. From the East Coast of the United States, a round-trip plane ticket to Israel costs an average of $800 US dollars. But those who are traveling from the West Coast should expect to spend an average of $1,000 US dollars.
Plane tickets will also increase or decrease in price depending on when you travel to Israel and how far in advance you book your ticket. The tourist season in Israel ranges from June to September. Even though it is hot, summer is still the high season for tourists to come to the country, which means that this is also when plane ticket prices will go up in price. Traveling out of season can help you save money on the cost of a plane ticket. Booking your airline ticket further in advance also helps reduce the price, as waiting closer to your date of departure to book a ticket means you’ll have to spend more to find a seat.
Accommodation is also quite expensive in Israel, so you will need to plan your budget accordingly for the duration of your stay in the country. Until more recently, hostels were not very common in Israel, which only made the cost of accommodations add up more. But now, due to the increase in tourism, hostels have become more common, but they can book up fast because they are the only affordable accommodation options. Most hostels will start at $20 US dollars per night for a dorm room and can be up to $30 US dollars per night in high tourist areas like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. However, outside of the big cities, most hostels will cost about $15 US dollars per night. A private room with the bare minimum of furnishings at a hostel will cost about $40 US dollars per night.
Hotels will be more expensive with the average cost being $114 US dollars per night for a three-start location. Nicer hotels will start their prices at about $150 US dollars per night. Nicer hotels prices will increase to over $200 US dollars per night with resorts costing hundreds to thousands of US dollars per night. But there are plenty of options for all types of travelers, so that you can find the proper accommodation and still keep an affordable budget.
Once you have decided on where you want to stay for the duration of your trip, you also need to consider the cost of food and drink with your travel budget. Israeli food is known for being rather healthy, but it is delicious too. So, you shouldn’t be surprised if you actually gain weight trying all the various dishes that are offered.
Hummus masabacha is one of the most common dishes throughout Israel and it is widely available in restaurants or on the street. The hummus is freshly made and is often served with hot bread. Garnishes like paprika, minced lamb, onions, and parsley may be used to make it even more delicious. Falafel is another common dish in Israel, but it is extremely important to the country because it has become a part of their national identity. Falafel is made of fava beans or chickpea and is served with bread or salad.
Tahini is a garnish that is featured in a variety of dishes and it is as common as olive oil and garlic. Kanafeh is a cheese-based desert that is common to top off a meal as it is soaked in sugar water to give it a sweetness and is sometimes served with yogurt for a different flavor. Eggplant is the most common vegetable that has become a staple in Israeli cuisine, and it is often served with baba ganoush, which means that it has tahini, garlic, lemon juice, and is served alongside bread.
But that’s not all and there are plenty of other dishes that you can try. Many tourists are excited to eat Israeli food because it is often described as being fresher due to many vegetables being grown in the country and the fish coming straight from the seas.
Good food does come at a cost and you should expect to spend up to $50 US dollars per day on your meals. Breakfast and lunch are more affordable with plenty of options costing less than $15 US dollars per meal, but dinner can be more expensive with dishes costing up to $25 US dollars. Street food is the most affordable way to eat with many dishes costing less than $3 US dollars, but you may grow tired of always eating falafel. Local restaurants will usually cost less than $15 US dollars for a meal, but in touristy areas you should expect the cost to start at $25 US dollars and increase from that price point.
Drinking in Israel is also very expensive, and a single beer can cost $8 US dollars. But it is also a popular activity and many people are late night drinkers, which means some bars will stay open until the last customer leaves. However, you should expect to pay US prices for drinking, which means that it can drastically increase your spending budget if you like to head out on the town regularly.
Overall, travelers on a tight budget should expect to spend about $100 US dollars per day in Israel. However, a more moderate budget would be to spend about $350-$400 US dollars per day. Higher budgets would likely mean you are taking a luxury vacation, but with different options, there are plenty of places you can find to fit your budget.
How to Get Around
Unlike other countries, the many restrictions regarding travel around Israel means that most people will really only travel to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv or between the two cities. The other areas close to the borders with Jordan and Egypt are closed to travel by tourists and you may be denied entry into those areas. This means that you won’t be traveling around all of Israel, but just because you’ll be traveling around a smaller area doesn’t mean that its easy.
Most travelers will use local transportation because it is affordable. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv both have their own transportation systems and you can easily take a bus between the two cities for about $10 US dollars. If you’re traveling around Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, you will likely spend around $5 US dollars per day on transportation costs. However, you should expect to increase your budget if you rely mostly on taxis.
Taxis in Israel are more expensive, and you will usually spend about $6 US dollars for a ride around town. A few rides here and there make sit affordable, but if you are constantly using taxis, the cost can quickly add up.
As we stated earlier, the safety of many places in Israel make it difficult or impossible to visit remote locations. So, most travelers will only stay in the tourist areas, which does make finding reliable and safe transportation much easier.
Walking is another way to explore areas and in places like Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, it is considered to be safe in the daytime, as long as you are aware of your surroundings and keep your belongings close.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
Due to the safety of travelers, most tourists will only visit Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. But there are a few other cities that have become a tourist destination hotspot. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Israel.
Jerusalem is the most visited city in Israel with an annual 3.5 million tourists heading to view its ancient history. Also called the Holy City, Jerusalem is significant to Judaism and Christianity where there are numerous religious sites and artifacts for people to see. The Old City is the most historic part of Jerusalem, but it can be a tricky place to visit due to the local politics. Other sites to visit include Mount Zion and Mount Scopus.
Tel Aviv is a major tourist destination because of its cosmopolitan vibe. It is the economic powerhouse of Israel and the place where you can relax along the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea. It has been listed as one of the top ten best beach cities and also features the Bauhaus architecture, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With plenty of resorts, tourists are eager to romp and play in Tel Aviv.
Another holy city to visit is Safed, which is filled with old synagogues and nature reserves. The red roofs of the city and ancient stone walls only add to the beauty. With mountains in the distance, there is also a picturesque view from the city’s hills.
The entire town of Acre, also spelled Akko, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Acre is the holiest city to the Bahá’í faith, and many pilgrimages are made to sites like the Old City and the Knight’s Hall. The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh is also extremely important because it is the resting site of Bahá’u’lláh who founded the Bahá’í faith.
For Christians, Nazareth is very important because it is the biblical city where the angel, Gabriel, told Mary that she would have a child. The child was Jesus and the Nazareth Village came to be his home and where he practiced carpentry. The city today marks the church where Mary spoke with Gabriel and has reconstructions of Jesus’ life.
Points of Interest
Israel is filled with so many points of interest that we can’t list them all. But here, are a few of the top tourist points of interest in Israel.
Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee is another biblical site where Jesus walked on water and perform many of his other miracles. Now, the lake is a popular destination for rest and relaxation. But for Christians, this lake is sacred, and many will flock to its shores so that they can feel even more connected to their faith.
The Golan Heights is a mountain region in Israel, which is home to the famous Hermon Mountain. The area is heavily used in the summertime for hikes and in the winter, you can ski down the slopes. There are also historical sites with ancient ruins that rest on top of the green peaks.
The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth, and it rests 1,412 feet below sea level. Tourists come to the Dead Sea to view this famous are and float on the water. With extra salt in the water, it is extra buoyant and perfect for your skin. With seaside resorts, you can also explore the shores for a fun time.
Get Out and Go
While Israel is one of the world’s most sacred countries, it is also a place that people go to see ancient history, whether they are religious or not. The beauty of the country from the architecture to the culture draws in millions of tourists. While there has always been a chaotic political scene, tourists are safe in areas like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. So, don’t let the media scare you away from exploring this magical and historical country.