Let me just preface this article by saying that I don’t intend to offend Palestinians in any way when referring to Israel as the Holy Land. The politics there are very complicated and I don’t want to get involved in that argument, so please don’t read into this advice column with the intention of political discussion/critique. I’m simply trying to help people plan for a trip to that region of the world, whatever name you choose to call it.
With its rich history, religious significance, beautiful beaches, and great food, who wouldn’t want to visit the Holy Land of Israel? If you’re Jewish, you are a lucky dog because you qualify to do Birthright, which is a free, organized trip to Israel. But, if you’re a non-Jew like me, you’ve gotta plan and pay for your own trip – that’s where I come in to help you. So here’s my guide to traveling Israel!
Useful Things to Know
- Israel is not a cheap country. On the contrary, it’s quite expensive. It is possible to travel Israel on a budget, but it’s going to take some sacrifice on your part. I didn’t eat much while I was there, and mostly ate a falafel whenever I did have an actual meal. If you’re looking to cut costs, do not eat or buy drinks in the main tourist areas. They’ll overcharge like crazy. My suggestion for coffee is to find a Coffix; it’s only around $1.50 USD for a small coffee there. I was sleep deprived that whole trip, so Coffix was my lifeline lol.
- Give yourself plenty of time to explore the country – one to two weeks. I had a week there and was rushing because there was so much I wanted to see and do. I should have planned ahead to stay longer, and I ended up really running myself ragged with exhaustion, so don’t make the same mistake I did. There’s a lot to explore there, so take your time if you can!
- Buy a RavKav card when you arrive. You can use this to take trains, buses, etc. all over the country. You’re going to need it! You can’t pay with cash for public transportation in Israel; you have to top up your RavKav card at a machine (most major train stations have machines where you can do this) and use that.
- The only intercity bus you can book in advance online or by phone is the route between Tel Aviv and Eilat. However, be aware that the website is only in Hebrew, and if you call to book you have to be able to call an Israeli number. If you aren’t traveling there during the busy season, you should be fine to get a ticket in person. But if it’s the busy season when you’re there, I suggest finding an Israeli friend to help you book it online ahead of time.
- Choose wisely where you decide to spend Shabbat. Shabbat is the Jewish holy day. It begins on Friday evening and ends on Saturday evening. During this time, there is no public transportation in Israel, so you need to plan ahead to spend that time in one place. Taxis still run but they’re expensive so I don’t recommend that if you’re on a budget. Where you choose to spend it depends on what kind of experience you are looking to have. In Israel, the workweek starts on Sunday, so their Friday is like the American Saturday, which means that the best night to go out and party in Tel Aviv is Friday night. The nightlife is fantastic in TLV, so if clubbing is your thing then I suggest spending the weekend there. Jerusalem, however, is the most pious city in Israel, so Shabbat there is a really unique, special, interesting experience (Can you tell that’s where I chose to spend it? 😉 ). People gather in front of the Western Wall at sundown singing prayers to mark the beginning of Shabbat, and then during Shabbat the city becomes basically a ghost town. I was more after a special cultural experience, so I chose to spend Shabbat in Jerusalem. Figure out what kind of experience you’re more into, and choose accordingly! 🙂
Where to Go, What to Do
-Visit Alma Beach. Swim if it’s warm, or just enjoy a stroll along the boulevard and listen to the waves.
View of Alma Beach and Old Jaffa
-Go on a free walking tour of Old Jaffa. Jaffa was the first city in Israel and has a rich history. There are two free Sandeman walking tours that leave every day from the clock tower in Old Jaffa that last for two hours. All you have to do is tip the guide whatever you feel is deserved at the end of it – definitely worthwhile!
-Visit the Carmel Market. The Carmel Market has heaps of food, souvenirs, and miscellaneous trinkets for all your shopping needs! You can haggle there so make sure you don’t ever pay the initial price you are told. If you aren’t familiar with haggling, it means that they always start super high and you have to negotiate for the price you think is reasonable.
-Stroll along Rothschild Boulevard. This famous street is full of bars and restaurants and is a great place to spend an evening out socializing.
-Go clubbing. One of the things Tel Aviv is most known for is its amazing nightlife, and for me it certainly did not disappoint! I went out dancing at a club called Kuli Alma that had three different dance floors and had an absolute blast. Just one thing to warn you ladies about though, many Israeli men are quite….direct. Some of them are particularly interested in western women (that’s what I observed anyway), so be prepared to get hit on like crazy. Some of them were pretty relentless, but I never felt unsafe in any way. They just know what they want and go for it, so be clear with them from the start if you aren’t interested.
Inside a super fun club called Kuli Alma in Tel Aviv
-Visit the Old City. If you only have time to do one thing in Jerusalem, this is what you have to do. The Old City is incredible and so full of history and culture. You can easily spend an entire day there (or two), visiting different historical places, enjoying a “holy coffee”, or just wandering around and getting lost on purpose (which is what I did my first day in Jerusalem).
Street in the Old City
-Go inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church is located in the Old City and it houses the grave of Jesus. Obviously it’s an empty casket (because Christians believe he rose again), and the line is often super long to go inside the actual casket room, but if you are a religious Christian I’m sure it would be worthwhile to you. I personally am not Christian (nor do I follow any organized religion), but I can certainly appreciate the history related to religion.
-Visit the Western Wall. The Western Wall is also in the Old City, and it’s definitely a spot you can’t miss seeing. You can even write a note for God if you like and leave it on the wall. The Jews consider the Western Wall to be an extremely sacred place, so please be respectful and dress modestly.
The Western Wall
-Walk around the Ultra Orthodox neighborhood. My Couchsurfing host in Jerusalem took me to the Ultra Orthodox neighborhood and taught me about their way of life, costumes, etc. They are the most strict sect of Jews and it was really interesting to learn about it. Just make sure you dress modestly in that area, out of respect.
Traditional Ultra Orthodox hat worn during Shabbat
-Go scuba diving and/or snorkeling in the Red Sea. If you’re a diver, this is a place you’ll love! The Red Sea has some of the most beautiful coral in the world. If you don’t want to dive, no worries – rent a snorkel and go check it out that way! But be careful of sharp coral. I recommend wearing protective water shoes. I cut my foot on some coral and it got pretty bad. Luckily I didn’t end up having to go to the hospital, but it is taking weeks to heal (still currently healing), so just watch out for it. If you do get cut by anything, clean it and wrap it up right away. Make sure you take care of it; my biggest mistake was that I didn’t really take care of it the first few days because I didn’t think it was that bad, and then it got really bad.
-Go to Princess Beach. This is the best beach in Eilat. The view is incredible and the water feels great. It’s right next to the Egyptian border. If you’re looking for a chill day at the beach, this is where you want to go. It was so peaceful (however, I was there in the winter; I reckon it would be super busy in the summer so a bit of a different experience in terms of peacefulness).
Relaxing afternoon at Princess Beach
-Visit the Underwater Observatory Park. I actually didn’t have time to make it to this when I was there, but I would have liked to. You can see a ton of gorgeous coral without having to get in the water. This would be a great place to go with kids if you’re on a family trip.
-Check out the Baha’i Gardens, which is the number one tourist sight in Haifa. However, this place is a bit tricky. You can access the upper viewpoint at any time of day, but to be able to see the inner gardens and the temple you have to get there before noon and go on a guided tour. They have tours in English, Russian, and Hebrew, so check their schedule online to see the times and respective language being offered for the day you want to visit. Baha’i is a lesser-known religion and it was cool to learn a bit about it. I personally wasn’t impressed with Haifa in general, but if you are in Haifa, this is a must see place.
The temple at Baha’i Gardens
View from the upper part of the Baha’i Gardens
-Have a coffee at Aroma coffeeshop. A friend of mine recommended this place to me so I decided to try it out. If you have a sweet tooth (which I certainly do), you’ll like this place!
-Walk around the German Colony. Not much to see here but there are lots of shops and restaurants so it’s nice to just have a little stroll and check it out.
-Walk around the Old City. Acre is an ancient city and it’s definitely worth visiting if you have the time. Personally, I wish I had spent more time in Acre and less time in Haifa (I did both in the same day). If I had done my research better, I would have just spent the whole day in Acre, but you live and you learn! Hopefully all of you can take the lesson from my mistake.
Sunset in Old City Acre
-Try the “best hummus in the world” at Hummus Said. Unfortunately this place closes at 2:00 PM, and I didn’t make it over there until closer to 5:00 PM, so I missed out on it. My Israeli friend told me it’s supposedly the best hummus in the world, so if you have the chance to test that theory, go for it (and let me know your thoughts once you do since I wasn’t able to try it!).
-Go check out the Underground Prisoners’ Museum. I sadly didn’t make it in time to visit this museum, but it sounded right up my alley. If you’re into history, I think you’ll enjoy it.
-See El-Jazzar Mosque.
-Walk through the Templar Tunnels. I did get to do this when I was there. It was quick but interesting to see where the templar fighters walked. However, if you’re super claustrophobic, it may not be a good idea for you.
Inside the Templar Tunnels
-Visit Knights’ Hall. I didn’t make it to this, but it’s probably the most popular tourist activity in Acre, so go check it out and let me know what it’s like!
-Learn some heroic stories at the Ghetto Fighters’ House. I also would have loved to make it to this, but once again I arrived too late. As I said, I didn’t plan out this day very well. I hope you all get the chance to see the cool stuff I missed in Acre!
Tours on Tours on Tours
There are literally tons of organized tours you can do in Israel or from Israel to other countries. I did two, but if you have the money in your budget you could do more. Here are some that I recommend.
-One or two-day tour of Cairo, Egypt from Eilat. I did a one-day tour to Cairo with Tourist Israel and it was quite the adventure. After a long 10.5-hour overnight van ride through the Egyptian desert (with many security checkpoints), we arrived in Cairo in the morning and immediately started a jam-packed day of sightseeing. That evening, we drove overnight back to Eilat. It was exhausting, but so incredible. I thought it was worthwhile personally, but it was expensive ($320 USD, plus the fees to exit Israel and enter Egypt, which added another $90 USD) and also very tiring, so this style of travel would definitely not be for everyone. Only you can decide what sacrifices you’re willing to make! I’m glad I made this one. If you go, make sure you pay to do the camel ride at the Pyramids of Giza – that’s the best way to get amazing pictures without other people in them!
Camel pic at the Pyramids of Giza
The Great Sphinx
-One or two-day tour of Petra, Jordan. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to do both the Cairo and the Petra tours, so I chose to do Cairo. I would have loved to see Petra as well, especially since I was so close, but I’m going to save that for a future trip. I’d rather spend a week or so in Jordan as opposed to just a couple of nights. It’s an expensive country, so it’s important to have sufficient savings for a trip there. Like the Cairo tour, the tour to Petra from Eilat is also very expensive, but if you can afford it and you have the time, I definitely suggest it (unless you want to do a longer trip to Jordan). Tourist Israel does a tour to Petra from Eilat.
-Jerusalem Old City, Bethlehem, and Dead Sea tour. I did this day trip with Tourist Israel and I have to say I don’t think it was worth the price ($110 USD). You can go on a free walking tour of the Old City in Jerusalem instead (just tip based). Bethlehem was nice and it was cool to check out the West Bank, but the Church of the Nativity was not impressive, in my opinion, and we didn’t even go down into the cave where the actual nativity is. On top of that, we were brought to a ridiculous souvenir shop where the salespeople were like vultures, and it was a complete waste of time. Also, when it comes to the Dead Sea, you can take a public bus there on your own and then you’d have as much time as you like, instead of being rushed. So, all in all, I’d say don’t book day tours to any of these places.
Casual newspaper reading while floating in the Dead Sea 😉
-For tours around Israel or to neighboring countries, Tourist Israel is the most popular tour company. They also give good advice for tourists traveling around Israel. Their website is: https://www.touristisrael.com/
-To check timetables for the public buses around Israel, here’s the Egged website: http://www.egged.co.il/HomePage.aspx
Israel may not be a typical vacation destination, but if you’re looking for a place where you can learn about history, enjoy delicious food, and and meet some lovely locals, start saving up. It may not be a cheap country, but you’ll leave feeling enriched!
Have you been to Israel? Share your experience in the comments!