For first time visitors, Israel may seem somewhat daunting. It has a completely different culture to what many in the West are accustomed to, and a society filled with its own idiosyncrasies. But worry not; we’ve put together a list of top tips to prepare you for a trip to the Holy Land.
Bargaining is normal
When you visit any shuk (market) in Israel, it is expected for customers to haggle with the sellers. Whether you’re buying a swimsuit, a necklace, or a new beach mat, you should always try to lower the price. In fact, anyone who doesn’t do this will instantly be deemed a frier, or a sucker. Don’t be a frier.
Israelis are sabres
Sabra is the Hebrew word for cactus fruit – prickly on the outside, sweet in the middle. The word has come to represent a proud form of self-identification for native born Israelis. So, while many Israelis may seem direct and brusque, be patient. Once you get through this outer layer, they are on the whole incredibly warm and friendly people.
Like anywhere unfamiliar, traveling in Israel using public transport can be confusing at best, traumatic at worst. But worry not — an app called Moovit provides accurate bus and train schedules, plus directions and routes to make your travel experience as smooth and easy as possible.
Bus ride survival
If, having downloaded Moovit, you’re confident enough to hop on a bus, you should take this advice: hold on for dear life. Israeli bus drivers are notoriously impatient and drive like maniacs: the doors slam shut and, before you can even get your coins out to pay, the bus is aggressively weaving in and out of traffic, throwing you from left to right, while the driver simultaneously looks at the road and gives you your change and ticket.
Learn a few useful phrases
While anyone can get by in Tel Aviv without speaking a word of Hebrew, it is still useful to learn some phrases to help you communicate in the less metropolitan areas. Here are some essentials:
Cama ze oleh? ‘How much does this cost?’
Ma, ani frier?! ‘What, am I a sucker?!’ (To be said when you think someone is trying to rip you off)
Efshar heshbon? ‘Can I get the bill?’
Eizeh derech la yam? ‘Which way to the beach?’
Hacol sababa. ‘Everything’s cool.’
Watch out for Jerusalem syndrome
Visiting Jerusalem, the holiest city in the world, can often be a moving and intense experience. For some visitors, however, this can be too much to handle. Every year, around 100 tourists catch what is known as Jerusalem Syndrome, a real phenomenon whereby foreign visitors suffer psychotic delusions that they are figures from the Bible or harbingers of the End of Days. So, if you’re heading to Jerusalem, try not to lose the plot.
Wear modest clothing for Jerusalem
When visiting holy sites such as the Wailing Wall, modest clothing is essential, especially for women. This means skirts or trousers that go below the knee. If you forget then don’t worry, as religious women volunteer to hand out garments to those showing excessive skin by the Wall.
Israelis are not blessed with the best time management skills. In fact, it is doubtful that the word ‘punctual’ has even entered the Hebrew lexicon. So, if you are planning to meet up with Israelis during your visit, expect them to arrive around 30 minutes later than agreed.
For such a tiny country, Israel is blessed with an incredible diversity of landscapes. You can go skiing on Mount Hermon in the north during the winter and scuba diving along the beautiful reefs in the southern city of Eilat. You can go on amazing hikes in the lush greenery of the northern Galilee region and Golan Heights, as well as in the dry Negev desert. Bear this in mind before your trip and pack accordingly!
Israelis smoke a lot
Israelis love to smoke, whether it’s cigarettes, nargillah (shisha), or weed. Walk into a nightclub and you’ll come home smelling like you’ve just walked through a tobacco factory. Weed was recently decriminalized, so don’t be surprised if you smell it in bars, hangout spots or at the beach.
Tel Aviv is a bubble
Tel Aviv is an amazing place. Secular and liberal, hedonistic and metropolitan, it is a dreamy city where enjoying life is the only obligation, one that is pursued with a voracious fervour. It is a unique bubble in Israel, a state within a state. While other parts of Israel are fantastic in different ways, don’t expect them to come anything close to Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv is expensive
The Israeli currency is the Shekel (NIS). 1NIS currently equals 29 cents USD, and 22 pence GBP. While this sounds like a good rate, your hard earned money can disappear in Tel Aviv quicker than you’d think. From renting an apartment to buying drinks at a bar, Tel Aviv can do serious damage to your bank balance. The cost of living is so high, in fact, that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for young Israelis to live there, with many moving out to the suburbs.
Every week, from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, the Jewish Sabbath sees Israel either shut or quieten down, depending on where you are. In Jerusalem, you’ll struggle to see a car and most establishments will be closed. Even in secular Tel Aviv the air is noticeably quieter and the atmosphere calmer (if that was even possible), but there is still a lot going on, with many restaurants and bars staying open. Public transport throughout the country ceases to operate during Shabbat.