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Israel is one of the most unique and complex countries on earth, with its wealth of religious and historical sites, visible evidence of past wars and status as the world’s only Jewish nation, coexisting very carefully with its Arab population.
This country is a fascinating, wonderful and safe place to visit, but some of its unusual intricacies should be known and understood if you’re thinking about a trip to Israel. I’ve spent a lot of time both living in and traveling through the country the past several years and now want to share with you 8 important things to know for traveling to Israel in 2020.
Traveling to Israel 2020
8 Important Things to Know
1) Be aware of Jewish/Arab relations – There is tension between the Jewish majority and Arab minority populations in Israel, but it is not evident most of the time. These two groups live and work amongst each other with tenuous ease.
The Old City of Jerusalem is a particularly good place to witness Jews and Arabs coexisting, if you’re interested in seeing this aspect of Middle Eastern life. The Old City’s streets are filled with its Palestinian population, with Jews walking (or running, when tensions are high) right past them on their way to the Western Wall to pray.
It’s not likely that you’ll run into any trouble on a trip to Israel, as the last several years have been very peaceful. But keep an eye on the news right before you travel and while you are there, to learn if there is currently any issue which might affect you.
2) Know that the Jewish sabbath is a big deal – If you’re traveling to Israel, you really need to know that the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) begins every week at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. A few hours before sundown, shops begin closing, and trains as well as most buses cease running. Most shops will not open again until Saturday night or Sunday morning, and you’ll find limited bus service beginning again Saturday afternoon with finally all buses running Saturday night.
Arab cities, towns and villages operate as usual on Shabbat. In Jewish areas there are a few spots where you can find shops and restaurants open for business. Many gas stations will be open.
If you’re going to be in Israel on Friday, make sure you buy everything you need before the stores close and also make sure you are exactly wherever in the country you need to be. If are aren’t, you are going to have to rent a car, take a taxi or hitchhike to get there once Shabbat begins.
3) Know that Jewish holidays are likewise a big deal – Israel takes its holidays more seriously than any other country I know. Not only do hotels increase their rates and fill up quickly as in other countries, but opening hours of shops, restaurants, banks and attractions are likely to be limited. On some but not all holidays, public transportation is not only limited by lack of running buses but extremely full buses before service ends for the holiday. The national bus company, Egged, which is likely the bus you’ll be taking if you travel from city to city in Israel, has an excellent website which you can check for schedule information. It may also help you to look at a comprehensive listing of Jewish holidays.
4) Understand food options – Israel has a pretty large variety of local and international foods to offer. Not all of the people in Israel are Jewish and not all of the Jewish people keep kosher, so there is plenty of food that is not kosher.
I find the fast food choices to be very limited. Israeli fast food consists pretty much of hummus, falafel, schwarma and chicken schnitzel. A large variety of dining options exist outside of fast food. I think my favorite type of local food which you can find at a restaurant is mezze. This is popular throughout much or all of the Middle East. These are a large number of small dishes containing a variety of foods such as babaganoush, olives, tahini, and veggies, served with bread.
5) Know your transportation options – If you’re thinking of traveling to Israel, you’ll be happy to know that the country’s transportation infrastructure is excellent. There are several means of traveling through Israel:
Bus – You can travel throughout Israel via bus, from city to town and within cities and towns. This is one of the best ways to see much of Israel if you have limited money but do have time to spend waiting for buses to arrive and depart.
Taxi – You can likewise travel throughout Israel via taxi, although this is of course much more expensive than taking a bus. Unlike bus and train service which stops on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, you can still find limited taxi service on these days.
Sherut – Pronounced Sheh-ROOT, these are minivans which you’ll find at bus stations and other locations and cost roughly as much as a bus. Once they fill with people – which could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour – they travel to their destination. You cannot ask them to take you just anywhere you want to go, as they run specific routes. If you want to travel somewhere by sherut in Israel, ask at your hotel or at a bus station where you can find them.
Private Car – Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are very easy to see via bus, but if you want to visit the Negev desert in the south of the country or the Galilee and Golan in northern Israel, it’s really best to have a car. There are several rental car companies in Israel including Avis, Hertz and Budget. I’ve always rented from Eldan Rental Cars and have always had good experiences.
(Fun fact – the Waze app was created in Israel.)
Train – If your point of origin and destination lies on the Mediterranean coast, you might be able to take a train. Check out the Israel Railways website for their schedules, routes and rates.
If you’re traveling within Jerusalem, you can use the light-rail system which will take you to many locations in the city for only a few shekels. Be sure to get a ticket from a machine at any train stop before you board or buy a multi-use card. Once you’re on the train you can’t purchase a ticket and if you’re caught riding for free you will be fined.
Apps – Uber is apparently illegal in Israel. However, I’ve heard that the Uper app does work in the country. But instead of an Uber driver, a regular taxi and taxi driver will come get you. I believe the same is true with the Gett app.
6) Pack a piece or two of modest clothing – On your trip to Israel, unlike much of the rest of the Middle East, you can usually dress as you like. The Arab population dresses more modestly than the Jewish population as a rule, so if you’re going to be spending time in Arab areas (such as East Jerusalem and most of the West Bank), you don’t have to but you might feel more comfortable covering your arms and legs.
Also, when visiting any holy sites of any of the religions, dress modestly. At some sights women are required to cover their shoulders, so bring a scarf or jacket with you. At the Western Wall, men are required to cover their heads.
7) Realize there will be many soldiers – You will see soldiers most everywhere in Israel, many of them packing some serious weaponry. Their presence doesn’t mean that there is any danger. Rather, military service is mandatory for three years for most male and two years for most female Jewish Israelis, thus their omnipresence. Do not fear. The soldiers are there only to protect Israel and will not hurt you.
8.) Get to know the people a little – When you’re traveling to Israel, talk to the people of the various cultures that live in this beautiful country. The people of Israel, including soldiers, civilians, Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, are generally nice, helpful and interesting. They are one of the reasons I have spent so much time in their country throughout the years. On your trip to Israel be sure to get to know the people.
You can get to know a bit of amazing Israel for yourself on a trip through Jerusalem right here.
(All photos were taken by me.)