Whether you’re going to be experiencing breathtaking views on the lush green mountains of the Golan Heights or the sandy cliffs of the Negev Desert, visiting religious landmarks and sacred sites, or soaking up the sun on the Mediterranean coast, it’s important to keep in mind local laws, safety guidelines and social etiquette rules. Here are some crucial tips and tricks for first-time visitors to Israel.
Before embarking on this great adventure, make sure that your passport meets the legal requirements: it must be valid for a period of at least six months from your initial entry into Israel. Border officials no longer stamp passports upon entry, but provide an entry visa, which could be especially useful for those planning on travelling to one of the many Arab countries that hold no diplomatic ties with Israel. While visitors from many countries (including the USA and UK) are visa-exempt for travel to Israel, passport holders from most Arab countries must receive prior approval from the Israeli authorities before booking a flight, and many others must apply for a tourist visa, so it is crucial to check before you travel.
The currency in Israel is the New Israeli Shekel (NIS). While some establishments – especially those catering to tourists – will accept foreign currencies like US dollars or euros, it’s always best to come prepared with either shekels or a credit card. Shekels can be withdrawn upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport from one of the ATMs or money changing services. ATMs are also readily accessible in all major cities and most accept foreign cards. Shekels are legal tender in Palestinian cities throughout the West Bank as well, although visitors can often also use Jordanian dinars to make purchases. The latter currency can be withdrawn from banks in Ramallah, Hebron and Nablus, among other places.
There’s no easy answer as to what time of year is best to visit Israel – this completely depends on what kind of trip is most appealing to you. Jerusalem and (unsurprisingly) the desert regions have dry climates, and as such are relatively pleasant in the hot summer months, in contrast to humid Tel Aviv. In the winter (December to March), on the other hand, Tel Aviv and the coastal areas are warmer and far more comfortable for exploring. For those who are looking to kick back on the famous Mediterranean beaches and are prepared for daytime highs reaching upwards of 40C, the ideal period to visit is between June and September. For the more sun-shy and those looking to go on hikes or cycle the National Biking Trail, October–November and April–May offer much more bearable temperatures and less crowding at tourist hotspots.
With its rich history and innumerable landmarks, planning a tour of Israel can be overwhelming. Its relatively compact size, however, makes it easy to cover several places in a short time. When mapping out any trip, it is important to remember that the weekend falls on Friday and Saturday. Most restaurants, shops and places of business close on Friday afternoons and reopen late on Saturday in order to respect the Jewish day of rest (also known as Shabbat). For the same reason, public transport doesn’t run during this period. While this can be an inconvenience for travellers, in many major Israeli cities communal taxis (known as sheruts in Hebrew) run 24 hours a day and provide a practical alternative.
In predominantly Muslim areas such as East Jerusalem and Palestinian cities in the West Bank, businesses are closed all day on Friday, while Christian-owned shops in Jerusalem’s Old City, Bethlehem and Ramallah remain shuttered on Sundays. Both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are very walkable cities but, in case of emergency, the mobile app Gett is always available and allows users to order a taxi at the click of a button. For public transport logistics, nothing beats the Moovit app, which provides accurate and up-to-date bus and train schedules.
Sacred to the three Abrahamic faiths, Israel is also home to a wide array of lifestyles and cultures. For instance, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are near polar opposites in terms of atmosphere, with the former being the more conservative and religious centre of the country, and the latter known as more liberal and vibrant. That is not to say that travellers won’t feel welcome in both cities, rather that they offer unique experiences that are key to discovering different facets of Israeli life. Visit Tel Aviv for the beaches, nightlife and the LGBTQ-friendly vibe, or wander through Jerusalem for a greater understanding of Jewish, Christian and Muslim history.
Similarly, take a tour of cosmopolitan Ramallah for its vibrant young energy and bustling night scene, or go to the ancient city of Hebron for a better understanding of how Islamic and Jewish holy sites there continue to play a major role in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Many places in the West Bank are perfectly safe for tourists to visit. Although Israelis are officially banned from entering areas that are under Palestinian control, foreign passport holders can join an organised tour or get a licensed guide to show them one of the many fascinating points of interest in this area. These include Bethlehem, home to a number of important Christian sites; Jericho, also known as the world’s oldest city; Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs; and Ramallah, a modern Palestinian city with vibrant nightlife. Palestinian cities and towns are demarcated by Israeli military checkpoints, so bear in mind that border officials may require travellers to show identification papers.
Being sensitive to cultural traditions and political tensions is crucial. While some find that local people are keen to discuss politics, religion and everything in between, the best advice when visiting a new place is to avoid making potentially uninformed statements about contentious matters.
Regarding photography, getting a camera out is generally not an issue in most places frequented by tourists, but be considerate and ask for permission. The same rule applies to some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities and taking snapshots at the Western Wall – the holiest site in Judaism – on Shabbat. Also off-limits for photographers are military sites and border police at checkpoints. If you’re unsure, it’s always best to ask.
As Israel is famed for its cuisine, restaurants will surely form a key part of your itinerary. Patrons are generally expected to tip between 12% and 15%.
Most places in Israel are perfectly safe for travellers and have very low crime rates, but visitors should exercise caution. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid demonstrations, especially in the West Bank and close to the Gaza border. Entrances to malls, train stations and other venues in Israel all have security guards, so bags need to be opened for a quick inspection. Street crime in Israel is relatively low, but visitors should always be vigilant and avoid wandering alone at night, especially in the West Bank.
From the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel is a holy land for multiple faiths and as such is packed with fascinating religious sites. When visiting places of worship or sacred spaces such as mosques, churches or synagogues, it’s important to wear appropriate clothing. For women, this means long trousers or skirts that cover the knees, and keeping shoulders covered. A scarf or a cardigan is particularly handy in these situations. Islamic holy sites might also ask women to cover their hair. For men, no shorts above the knees or sleeveless shirts should be worn. Keep these modesty guidelines in mind as well when walking through very religious Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem or Muslim-majority areas around the country.
This article is an updated version of a story created by Reuben Lewis.