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Pauline

Israel Israel Travel Basics

Israel is a popular tourist destination. People travel to Israel for many reasons. For people from a Jewish background it can be a chance to visit the modern Jewish state built on their biblical homeland. For other religious people it can be a trip to see the places in their religious texts. Tourists interested in archaeology are drawn to Israel where many ancient sites are well preserved. People seeking outdoor adventures go there for hiking.

While many people go on organized tours, it is easy to create an independent trip. For our first trip, two weeks in March 2018, I booked accommodations and car rental online and we traveled much as we do in Europe. We returned for a month in November 2018 and another month in March 2019 doing the same. I was nervous about our first trip, because I did not know what to expect, but I had a lot of planning help from travel friends who do regular travel to Israel and from the Slow Europe and Trip Advisor Israel forums and the trip worked out great. These notes will help you plan your independent trip to Israel. We are heading back to Israel for another month in a few weeks.

Israel is a Small Country

Israel is about the size of New Jersey. You can drive from the top to the bottom in 5 hours (Rosh Hanikra to Eilat) and across in under an hour (Haifa to Tiberias). The population of Israel was 9 million in 2019. Even discussing the layout of Israel is controversial so I will give my brief view and leave it to you to read more about the geographic and political situation.

Israel borders Lebanon and Syria in the north but has no open border with these countries. From near the Sea of Galilee to the southern tip at Eilat, Israel borders on Jordon to the east. There are a few places where you can cross into Jordan, but you cannot take an Israeli rental car into Jordan. On the west Israel borders Egypt and the Mediterranean. There is a border crossing from Eilat into Egypt.

The largest city in Israel is Jerusalem in the center of the country, followed by Tel Aviv and Haifa, both on the coast. Jerusalem is considered a religious city, while Tel Aviv and Haifa are secular. The The Galilee is the northern part of Israel and is green with large agricultural areas. Here there are many smaller towns, usually either Arab or Jewish. The larger towns are Nazareth and Tiberius. Many of the Christian religious sites are around the Sea of Galilee.

The southern part of Israel, south of Beersheva and the Dead Sea, is desert, the Negev. This is not as populated as the rest of Israel but does have some farming areas. It can get very hot in that area, so trips are best done in winter, early spring or late fall.

The Palestinian Territories consists of Gaza, a small strip along the southern Mediterranean coast, with a population of about 2 million, and the West Bank, a large area roughly in the center of Israel along the Jordanian border, with a population of about 3 million. There are specific border crossings into the Palestinian Territories.

Many people combine a trip to Petra in Jordan with a trip to Israel but it is complicated by the lack of border crossings. You cross into Jordan near Eilat and have to drive, or be driven, two hours north to Petra because even though Petra is very close to the Israel border, there is no closer border crossing.

Read more about Israel on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel


The Language is Hebrew

The written and spoken language in Israel is Hebrew, which is written from right to left, like Arabic. You may see opening times written from right to left which can be confusing. Many people speak English so you can get by with no Hebrew. Road signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Food items in the supermarket may be in Hebrew only, or Hebrew and Arabic, but other shoppers will help you find what you are looking for. Restaurants frequently have English menus.


The Money is Shekels

The money in Israel is Shekels (ILS –Israeli New Shekel - ₪ in Hebrew). Only very touristy places near the main Christian sites take American dollars.


The Weekend is Friday and Saturday

I don’t know why but I have a hard time adjusting to this. The weekend is Friday and Saturday. Thursday night is the start of the weekend (Thank God it’s Thursday – TGIT). Sunday is the start of the work week.

Israel is a Jewish country and the sabbath (shabbat) starts at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday. On Friday before sunset religious Jews get ready for Shabbat. Food is prepared or takeout food purchased since they do not cook on Shabbot. Restaurants set up on Friday mornings just to sell prepared meals. The bakeries and supermarkets are full of challah, a braided egg bread used in the Shabbat meal. In the late afternoon on Friday shops close and buses stop running. Trains too I think. Only in Haifa, a more secular city, do buses run on Friday night and Saturday. In Jerusalem the city quiets down and in religious neighborhoods, like the German Colony where we stay, there are no cars on the street. Families walk down the center of the road to the Synagogue. Even though I am not religious, I find it a magical time in Israel. We plan our trips so we are in Jerusalem for Shabbat.

Many hotels and vacation rentals do not have check in or out on Friday evening or Saturday so plan accordingly.


Flying into Ben Gurion Airport

The main airport is the Ben Gurion Airport, east of Tel Aviv. The arrivals area is a bit chaotic. Two out of the three times that we have flown into Israel there were large crowds in front of the passport check. You come down a wide hallway and crowds form well outside the passport area. People with Israeli passports go off to the left (there are no signs for this but once you are inside the passport area you see that the booths on the left are for Israeli passports only). We’ve waited 45 minutes or more in this crowd, then you finally get into the passport area and go into lines.

They do not stamp your passport because other countries in the Middle East will not allow you in if you have been to Israel. Instead you receive a slip of paper which is your entry visa. After talking to the passport officer, you receive your visa. Scan this slip of paper to get through an electronic gate into the luggage area.

Once you have collected your bags, you are in the main Arrivals hall. Here you can pickup your Israel SIM card for your phone (more about this later) and purchase a RavKav card for public transportation (more about this later). Car rental desks are here too.

When you go outside the train station is immediately to your left. You will find a taxi area and a shared taxi area outside.

By Taxi it is 20 to 30 minutes to Tel Aviv or one hour to Jerusalem. Fares are set and you can find them online before you leave or use a machine by the taxi stand where you type in your destination and it tells you the fare.

Shared taxis are popular in Israel. I have not used them but they are small vans that leave when full and drop you off at your accommodations. Read more about this on the Trip Advisor Israel forums.

There is a new high speed train from the airport to Jerusalem which looks like the best option. You still have to get from the new Jerusalem train station (near the Central Bus Station) to your accommodations by bus or taxi.


Accommodations – Vacation Rentals

There are local agencies for vacation rental apartments in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem but for the rest of the country I use AirBnb or Booking.com (affiliate link). In Jerusalem I use the agency Colony Suites. They have apartments in the German Colony, a very good area to stay in.

Many vacation rentals say they have a kitchen but have only a fridge and coffee maker, maybe a microwave. Look carefully at the photos. If there is a full kitchen, the stovetop may be a one or two-burner portable unit. These are very popular in Israel and work well. Don’t reject a place because it doesn’t have a built-in stovetop. Vacation rentals outside the large cities are mainly used by vacationing Israelis and many feature hot tubs (or Jacuzzis) in the apartment or on the terrace.

In Jerusalem many vacation rentals are Kosher. There may be separate dishes, cutlery and pots for dairy or meat meals. This is where it works out well to be vegan, then you can use any of the dishes and pots because you will never put meat or dairy on the wrong thing.

Check the location of vacation rentals carefully. You probably don’t want to stay in a West Bank settlement or in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.

Renting a Car

Eldan Car Rental: https://www.eldan.co.il/he

You do not need a car for Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, but having a car lets you get around the rest of the country easily. We usually spend our first week in Jerusalem, picking up a rental car there before we leave and dropping it off at the airport when we leave.

It is best to book directly online with an Israel Car Rental Company. Hertz and Avis have Israel sites. Eldan is a local car company that we have used. Israel requires that you purchase all insurances and when going through a broker like AutoEurope you end up paying twice for insurance, once through them and then when you are in the office getting the car (and they convince you that the coverage you purchased with AutoEurope will not cover you). Save yourself this complication and book directly with the Israel website.

Every car we have rented in Israel has a security code that you enter before you can start the car (to prevent car theft). It is usually a 4-digit code and you enter it on a box attached to the steering wheel. They give you this code when you rent the car. Take a photo of it or write it down somewhere to remember – you don’t want to forget this code.

Drive on the Right

They drive on the right, as in the US and Europe. Highways are well signed with signs in three languages – Hebrew, Arabic and English. The driving is a bit aggressive but no more so than in Italy. Driving in the cities is possible and we have managed to drive in most of them.

The GPS app Waze, which works with Google Maps, was created in Israel and is commonly used there.

There is one toll highway in Israel, highway 6, which runs inland from south of Tel Aviv up to Haifa. You can avoid the road or talk to your car rental company about it. With Eldan you pay a small fee once and charges when you use the toll road are put on our credit card.


Gas stations usually have self service pumps and assisted service pumps. I have not figured out self service pumps. We tried to use a self-pay machine at a station that had no assisted service but had to enter in information that we did not have (ID number?). Another motorist figured it out for us, but we usually try to find a place with attendants.


Parking Your Car

The parking app Pango is used to pay for parking in most cities. You have to have an Israeli phone number and your rental car license number to register with the app. You give it your credit card information and that is charged for parking. Remember to remove your credit card from the app before you leave. Once that rental car license is used again you can never log in to your account and remove your credit card (I know this from personal experience).

The color on the kerb, and posted signs, indicate where you can park.
  • Red and white painted kerbs - parking is illegal
  • Blue and white kerbs - legal, paid parking
  • Yellow signs next to blue and white kerbs - state at what hours one must pay for parking, when it is free, and the maximum number of hours allowed.
  • Gray kerbs - with no signs indicating that parking is forbidden or that payment is required, signify that parking is free
Be very careful with the gray kerbs and avoid them if you can. We parked on one assuming it was free, only to receive a ticket. There was a very small sign, in Hebrew, high up on a post at the end of the block indicating residents only parking.


Public Transportation

Israel Trains: https://www.rail.co.il/
You can see much of Israel by train. Trains run along the west coast from Be'er Sheva on the edge of the Negev to Tel Aviv to Haifa to Nahariya. From Haifa trains go through the Jezreel Valley to Beit She'an. You can take a train from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

Israel Buses: http://www.egged.co.il/
RavKav Card for Buses: https://www.touristisrael.com/rav-kav-using-the-bus-in-israel/25702/
The main bus company in Israel is Egged. It runs buses in the cities and between cities. To ride buses in the cities you need a RavKav card. You cannot pay cash to ride the bus. RavKav cards are like London Oyster cards. You put money onto them and then swipe them when you get on the bus. One thing to remember, if transferring from one bus to another, or to the city train in Jerusalem, always swipe your RavKav card. There are machines on the train to do this. You are not charged since you are on the same journey, but you have to swipe the card (they come through and check your cards).

Use Google Maps for bus routes. In Jerusalem the bus routes are complicated but using Google Maps to find which bus to take works well. Jerusalem has a light rail system through the city center.


You Probably Can’t Use your Mobile Phone Plan in Israel

I have a UK mobile phone plan and the charges for using it in Israel are very high. From what I read on the forums, this is also true for US mobile phone plans. There are companies that will sell you a SIM card for your unlocked phone.

019 Mobile. https://019mobile.com/ Order online, receive your phone number so you know it before you leave and pickup your SIM at their shop in the Arrivals hall of the airport. We have used them twice. They put the SIM into your phone for you and get it set up.

Sim to Israel (also called Snapir). https://www.simtoisrael.com/ Order online and they will mail your SIM cards to the US or UK, so you have them and your phone number ahead of time. We are using them for the first time on our next trip because I wanted to avoid spending more time in Arrivals. They are highly recommended on the Trip Advisor Israel forums.

Walls, Fences and Checkpoints

The West Bank is divided into three areas – Area A under Palestinian control, Area B under joint control and Area C under Israeli control. If you are traveling about you may go in and out of Area C. One of the main highways from the Airport to Jerusalem goes through Area C. The highway from Jerusalem going to the Judean Hills takes you through the West Bank. You will go through checkpoints when driving in and out of some parts of Area C. Usually you are not stopped when entering the West Bank, but you are stopped when leaving. Sometimes you are waved through, sometimes they look at your passports.

You cannot bring an Israeli rental car into area A. Don’t worry, you won’t drive in by accident - there are huge red signs warning you that you are entering Area A and there is usually a security wall you have to pass through.

When you visit smaller towns in Israel you will notice that most of them are fenced and have an entrance gate. Most gates are open during the day and closed at night, but some are manned at all times.

You pass through a type of airport security to get into shopping malls, or to get into the Western Wall Plaza in the Old City.

The security walls, checkpoints and security checks are intimidating but you get used to them. You do not pass through any security at the airport on arrival. On leaving there is one extra layer of security, before you get to the checkin desks.


Kibbutz – Moshav

Smaller rural communites can be called a kibbutz or moshav. The Kibbutz are not all like we read about in the 1970s, where ownership is shared, meals are eaten together and children may be raised by the community (a bad definition of this - please research this to get more information). Only about 15% of kibbutz are the “real” kibbutz. The rest have been privatized with the people who live there owning their own houses and a share of the kibbutz business.

A Moshav is a community where people own their own houses and businesses but may work together in a cooperative way (e.g. in agricultural towns).

Israel is Crowded

Israel actively seeks new Jewish immigrants. They receive about 30,000 a year and modern cities spring up to accommodate them. I read that northern Israel is one of the most dense places in the world, similar to Bangladesh. But southern Israel, the Negev, is almost empty. The main cities - Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa - do not feel more crowded than any US or European city. When you drive around the countryside you see shining new cities, and older cities, but you see a lot of wilderness too.

On our first trip I did not know what to expect. After three trips my description of Israel is that it is like the United States in many ways, but you really feel like you are in the Middle East. It is hot and dry. Things are a bit chaotic. There is a lot more litter on the roads and in towns than we Americans and Europeans are used to. Many areas seem "scruffy". Even walking around the upscale Mount Carmel neighborhood of Haifa you see abandoned lots full of weeds, litter in the parks.

Are Israelis Friendly? Yes.

People say that Israelis are not friendly but I would say they are not overly friendly. You won't get "have a good day" with each purchase. But, if you ask someone for help, they will help. I've had random strangers help me figure out the parking app, make sure I get the right ticket for what I want in the post office and explain all the types of peanut butter when I could not read the Hebrew labels. They did not offer their help, but once I asked they were very happy to help me.

Town Names

Because town names in English are translated from the Hebrew and Hebrew doesn’t deal with vowels the way we are used to, a town name can be spelled in a variety of ways. Sometimes there are Arabic versions of a town name too. For example, we stayed in Paran in the Negev, but it is also written in English as Faran. Acre, north of Haifa, is also Akko or Akka. Zikhron Ya’akov, south of Haifa, is also Zichron Yaakov.

Be flexible when searching for town names. I have included a list of translations of common words used in town names at the bottom of this article.

Israel National Parks

Israel has something for everyone. It is historically significant for several religions and many places are mentioned in the Bible (both Old and New Testament). The Ancient Romans conquered the area 2,000 years ago and you can explore some very good Roman sites.

The Israel National Parks have preserved many of these significant sites. https://www.parks.org.il/en/

You can purchase a pass for two weeks. Details here: https://www.parks.org.il/en/israel-pass/

What to See and Do

Israel is a fantastic travel destination with things to see and do for every kind of traveler. Rather than tell you my favorite things, I will refer you to some good resourses.
  • The Lonely Planet Israel and the Palestinian Territories Guide is excellent.
  • Bible Walks is a very good site to find out what there is to see: https://biblewalks.com/
  • Tourist Israel offers tours but also has a lot of good information on its site: https://www.touristisrael.com/
  • On the Trip Advisor Middle East - Israel forums the member "Douglas D" offers a free 50+ page guide that he has written for travel in Israel. He updates it each year. I use this when planning my trips. This thread on the TA forum has a post from Douglas giving his email address where you can write to receive the free guide.
Hiking

Israel is a great destination for hiking. There seem to be hikes everywhere. Most National Parks have marked trails and they will give you maps at the park office. There are park areas all over Israel and they have marked trails. Trails can get crowded on the weekends (Friday and Saturday). National Park trails can be crowded during the week with large school groups. We seem to run into large, and loud, groups of teenagers out hiking frequently.

It gets hot in summer, so your best hiking time is spring, fall and winter.

Note that some of the hikes are difficult. A hike graded as moderate may have some scrambling up rocks or climbing up them using handholds and steps attached to the rock.

There are two long distance paths:

Israel National Trail (INT) goes from the top of the country to the bottom. There is a book in English, with maps, for the trail. The Jerusalem Trail goes from the INT into and around Jerusalem.

Jesus Trail: A new trail designed to take you through the area where Jesus lived, from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. There is a book in English, with maps, for the trail.

More information by Erez from Israel by Foot in our Resources – Best Hiking Areas in Israel.

Most hiking websites and books are in Hebrew but here are a few resources in English.

Israel by Foot: https://hike-israel.com/ This new website was created to give hiking information in English. I met Erez, who developed the site, on a recent trip. He is an avid hiker and the site is excellent. You can download detailed maps and GPX files for the hikes for $5. I downloaded several hikes and we loved them. See my trip reports for the hikes that we did. They also lead hiking groups or arrange long distance hiking.

Hiking in the Holy Land: https://hikingintheholyland.com/

Diana Barshaw – hiking in the Carmel Mountains: http://www.dianabarshaw.com/


Food and Drink

Hummus! Falafel! The food is fantastic in Israel. It is not the heavy New York City Jewish Deli food that I expected. It is more middle eastern, because, after all, Israel is in the Middle East. Jews from around the world bring their styles of food with them to Israel. The variety of types of food is amazing. The markets are full of amazing fresh produce.

Israeli breakfast is fantastic. It is usually a dairy meal (no meat) and consists of bread, omelette, salad, and a variety of dips and cheeses. Bagels are not as popular as I thought they would be, but you can find them. What you can’t easily find is a breakfast of coffee and a toasted bagel. The bagel will be included in a larger breakfast.

Hummus is a meal. Hummus restaurants server hummus with a variety of things – cooked vegetables, boiled eggs, meat.

Falafel is a quick and inexpensive lunch. I don’t have the words to describe how much I love falafel and there are great places everywhere.


Israel is very vegetarian and vegan friendly. There are many vegetarian restaurants (these might be Kosher Dairy restaurants) and vegan restaurants. I am a long-time vegetarian and I feel very comfortable in Israel, knowing I will always find vegetarian dishes. The Natural Foods shops are plentiful and very good.

The coffee in Israel is excellent. If you order a black coffee, you may get a scoop of ground coffee with hot water poured over it. At first I thought - yuck, what is this? Let the grounds settle for a minute or two and then drink. Don’t add milk or sugar. It is very good. It is also called Turkish Coffee (toorki) or botz (Hebrew for mud). Some places brew it for longer, some just pour the hot water over the ground coffee. In the Arab neighborhoods the black coffee may have the spice cardamom added to it – very nice. I like to go to a small café in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, just in from the Damascus Gate, and have a nice black coffee while people watching. You don’t have to have this type of coffee. They have all the espresso drinks that we are used to.


One last thing – fresh pomegranate juice! I think it has a season, but it has been available in March and November when we were there. Fresh juices of all types are very popular.


There are many great independent restaurants but you will find chains as well. Aroma is a good Israeli chain selling coffee and food. McDonalds and Pizza Hut are found in many places.


Resources

Resources - My Trip Reports
Language – Place and Town Names

Many place and town names have similar words in them. Here are a few:
  • Beit (Bet) - House (Beitlehem or Bethlehem, house of bread - bakery)
  • Ein – Spring (Ein Gedi, a Kibbutz on the Dead Sea)
  • Ha – The (Haaretz, a newspaper - The Land)
  • Har - Mountain (Har Nof, outside of Jerusalem)
  • Kfar – Village (Kfar Blum, a town in the northern Galilee)
  • Mitzpe – Lookout (Mitzpe Ramon)
  • Nahal – Valley (Nahal Amud)
  • Shuk (souq) - Market
  • Tel – Hill (Tel Meggido)
  • Wadi – Dry stream bed (Wadi David near Ein Gedi)
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Pauline Kenny is the Slow Europe forums admin.
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