Unless you have very light luggage and time to spare, it is wise to avoid the train from Ben Gurion Airport during rush hour, if only because it won’t get you very far into the city (and see the tip below for more on why you should avoid Tel Aviv’s infamously bad Central Bus Station).
A cab to Tel Aviv will set you back 150 shekel (it’s a fixed price, so don’t haggle), and it will get you to your hostel, hotel or rental within less than an hour. And, in Israel, you don’t even have to tip the driver.
Dollars and euros are not widely accepted, but change stores are common. You can change your cash at the airport, but the rates are not great, so it’s better to hold out for a small and local exchange. If you don’t like walking around with money, have no fear. Crime is low and pickpockets are very rare. And Israelis love credit and debit cards, and both are widely accepted. There are countless ATMs and those belonging to major banks will also allow you to access your account at home.
Israel’s basic coin is the shekel, and it’s worth a hundred agorot (cents). The coins come in 1, 2, 5 and 10, and the agorot in 10 and 50. The bills are colour coded and come in 20, 50, 100 and 200, with the new additions having a hard sheen. Tel Aviv is pricey and the shekel is a strong currency that is being kept purposefully low for economic purposes, so make sure you change enough for your needs and plan your expenses.
As a general rule, Israelis can and will speak English. All Israelis study English from the 4th grade and have a good-to-decent fluency. Most Israelis will have a heavy accent, but are open to helping and answering your questions.
This travesty of a building holds the dubious title of being the world’s biggest bus station. It is also arguably amongst the worst in the West. Slated for demolition, this endless maze of terminals and stores is the country’s hub for intercity travel and is famously hard to navigate, even for locals. Located in Tel Aviv’s poorest neighbourhood, the bus station is also close to Tel Aviv’s southernmost train station. Go there if you must, but it’s best to avoid it, especially if you’ve just come off a long flight.
One of the main reasons you should take a cab from the airport and not a bus or train, is that the latter will leave you stuck at Tel Aviv’s (or Jerusalem’s) main bus station. Though Jerusalem’s is far better than Tel Aviv’s, it still leaves you in need of local transportation. Tel Aviv’s buses are a bit of a mess, as the city is currently laying the tracks for a light rail system, so the prefered mode of transfer if you’re in a hurry is a taxi (or a bike, see below).
Colloquially called a “special”, these very regular taxi cabs are expensive but are usually the best way to get around if you need to go a serious distance and don’t feel like wasting too much time in public transportation. You can hail a cab from the street or use an app, but Uber has made little-to-no headway in Israel, so it’s best go with Gett. If you do hail a cab, demand they turn on the meter (mone in Hebrew), and don’t try to haggle in advance.
At the lower end of the cab spectrum are the so-called ‘mini-bus’ cabs (moniyot sherut in Hebrew), which are small vans running along bus routes within the city. They take only cash and drive like the devil, but they are also a great way to get around.
Save time and money in the city with a multi-pass or rent a bike. If you only need to get around the centre of the city, buses are more than feasible, so it’s best to buy a “rav kav”, Tel Aviv’s multi-pass. Sadly, after the airport, it can only be bought at the Central Bus Station, so don’t forget to get one after you land! There are daily, weekly or monthly passes.
Tel Aviv is more than aware of its public transportation issues, so it’s revolutionised urban travel with is its Tel-o-Fun – a city bike sharing system. With access points across the city, this is probably the best way to get around Tel Aviv. With weekly and daily deals, and decent bikes, this is the way to go if you want experience Tel Aviv like a local. But ride carefully as the city bike lane grid is incomplete and lanes can end suddenly, sending you zooming into a bustling street.
Israel is a very small country, but the difference between the cities, especially Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the rest of the country can be stark. WIth your Tel-O-Fun, you can be as free as a bird in Tel Aviv, but travelling outside of the city can be a hassle, so it’s best to plan ahead. If you know you want a day in Jerusalem, plan and try to order bus tickets in advance. Generally, for intercity travel, it’s best to get an early start, as traffic can be heavy. The same goes for day trips, so don’t spontaneously decide to go to the Dead Sea or Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret), and book a day trip in advance if you plan to use public transportation to get there.
Though a secular state in orientation, Israel does define itself as Jewish and although kosher food is far from being the norm, respecting the shabbat is. This means that there is no public transportation from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday (aka the Shabbat) and most places of commerce will be shuttered during this time
If you have a car you can travel freely, though you should avoid ultra-Orthodox strongholds in Jerusalem where a Saturday drive is considered a provocation. In Tel Aviv, most restaurants, bars, malls and other places of entertainment will be open, but most stores and supermarkets will not. That means that Friday is shopping day in Israel and Saturday is truly a day of rest, with a special atmosphere that most Israelis cherish. So just don’t plan anything for a Saturday you didn’t prepare for on Friday.
Driving in Israel is like driving anywhere in the Western world, expect there’s Israelis driving there too, so it’s rife with chutzpah. Israelis are infamously impolite drivers, and cutting people off is sadly the norm. If someone is waving aggressively, don’t take it personally; it’s hot here and we express our anger through hand gestures.
There are few toll roads, and the entire country is no more than a 8-hour drive from its snowy northern tip in the Golan Heights to its southern tip in the Red Sea resort town of Eilat. Renting a car for a day trip won’t be that cheap, but it grants you a freedom the public transportation system will not. Again, best to plan ahead, and rent a car in advance.
Though not a society of heavy drinkers, bars and social drinking are as common as you would expect, and there is one important tip to keep in mind; you can’t buy alcohol outside after 11PM, not wine, not beer, not chocolate with brandy, you simply cannot buy alcohol outside of bars after 11pm. This rule is exclusively for kiosks and markets, and pubs can and most definitely will serve alcohol way beyond that hour, but if you need wine for dinner or beers for friends, buy it before the clock chimes 11.
Street food in Israel is relatively cheap and some of it is surprisingly healthy. Israelis tend to have big lunches and light dinners, so options for midday eating are quite diverse. Falafel (deep fried balls of chickpeas) might sound heavy, but for deep fried food they’re quite light. Hummus, the national chickpea paste which is incomprehensible until you’ve tasted it and utterly addictive from the moment you have, can usually be bought for no more than 20 shekels, and will fill you up for a good while. Cofix, a low cost cafe chain, is good for a quick coffee and mediocre sandwich. If you want to eat out for dinner, order in advance, especially in Tel Aviv.
For those interested in Palestinian culture or looking for a more political visit, there are some basic ground rules worth following before leaving Israel proper. Gaza is off bounds, and it is close to impossible to enter it without coordinating with the local Islamist authorities, and even journalists rarely make the journey.
The West Bank is very much accessible, as is East Jerusalem, and Ramallah is increasingly becoming a hot tourist destination. That being said, it is worth going through some organized tour and not driving deep into the West Bank in a car with Israeli license plates, as there are some areas where this could pose a problem. Also, some of these areas are out of bounds for Israelis, so your local friends might not be able to tag along.
On the off chance you find yourself lost or you sense in trouble, you can always call the Israeli police at *100.