Despite its tiny size, Israel can be a daunting destination for first-time visitors. Israeli society is complex and full of idiosyncrasies; a melting pot of histories, cultures and ethnicities that make it a truly fascinating place to explore. Here’s our top pieces of advice that will help you enjoy your trip to the fullest – and avoid any unwelcome surprises!
Moovit will be your most useful travel companion while in Israel. The free app provides live public transport schedules, journey routes, service alerts, and an in-app car sharing service, where you can contact an Israeli driver (all verified and reviewed) to arrange a lift, or “tremp” as it is known in Israel.
Dress modestly for religious sites
If you’re visiting Jerusalem’s Western Wall, modest attire is essential. For women, this means covering the shoulders and collarbone and wearing something that goes below the knee, and for men, long trousers and no sleeveless shirts. Kippot (yarmulkes) are handed out on the site as are garments for women whose dress doesn’t meet the modesty requirements.
Aside from the religious sites in the Old City, even for walking Jerusalem’s streets it is advisable for women to dress somewhat modestly – wearing something revealing might lead to strange looks from Haredi Jews or being cursed at by religious women.
Every Friday as the sun sets, the Jewish Sabbath begins and most of Israel shuts down until the following evening. There will be no public transportation, most stores and restaurants close, and the roads will be noticeably calmer. Bare this in mind before making travel arrangements in Israel as you don’t want to find yourself stranded somewhere!
However, the extent to which Shabbat is observed depends on where you are in Israel: in West Jerusalem pretty much everything will be closed, but in Tel Aviv a significant number of bars, restaurants, and stores remain open and the city stays very much alive!
And religious holidays
A simple Google search will reveal the dates for the Jewish holidays. The main ones to look out for are Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar during which the roads in Israel are all but empty and most Jewish Israelis fast; Purim, which is best described as the “Jewish Halloween”, with crazy parties, fancy dress and lots of alcohol; and Passover (Pesach), a week-long holiday that forbids the consumption of leavened bread (restaurant menus adapt their menus to this).
Prepare to see soldiers with guns everywhere
This will be a shock for all first-time visitors, and will take some time getting used to. In Israel, most people draft into the army after high school, at the age of 18, usually for three to five years of military service. Whether you’re walking through a busy street, sitting on a bus, or soaking up sun by the beach, you will never be far from a young Israeli soldier equipped with a rifle.
Bargaining is normal
In all of Israel’s open air shuks (markets), bargaining with vendors is not just accepted, but expected. In fact, if you don’t try to haggle, you will be seen as a fryer (sucker). Whether you’re buying jewellery, food, or an item of clothing, the price given is very much flexible!
Beware of taxi drivers overcharging
Taxi drivers are known to overcharge tourists in Israel. One way to reduce the likelihood of being ripped off is by telling the driver to turn on the meter, or “monay” in Hebrew. Alternatively, you can download Gett, the Israeli Uber, and order cabs at legitimate prices.
Israel is a tiny, yet incredibly diverse country – in terms of both landscapes and ethnicities. For example, in winter, you can drive three-and-a-half hours from the beaches of Tel Aviv to the snow covered mountains of Mount Hermon in the far north (home to Israel’s only ski resort).
Israel’s population is also extremely diverse: Jews descending from all over the world, from Ethiopia to Yemen and Poland, make up the majority, while Arab Muslims and Christians make up over 20% of the population.
Learn these essential Hebrew phrases
Although most people in Israel speak at least a decent level of English, especially in the main cities, it is worth equipping yourself with some useful Hebrew vocabulary.
ata medaber / at medaberet anglit? – “Do you speak English?” (male/female)
“efshar heshbon?” – “Can I get the bill?”
ata magia le… – To ask a bus driver, “are you arriving / going to… (location)”
hacol sababa – “Everything’s cool/alright”