Israel is literally in the center of the never-ending turmoil of the Middle East.
So it may surprise you that it’s extremely easy and safe to travel there and it’s an extraordinarily fun place to visit, even if you’re an American travelling alone who doesn’t speak or read Hebrew.
I recently spent a week in Israel meeting with the country’s super hot tech startup scene.
When not in meetings, I spent some hours wondering through two of Israel’s main tourist cities alone, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
I felt as safe (or safer) as wandering around San Francisco by myself.
When you first arrive in Israel, you are greeted by a huge, modern, international airport in Tel Aviv filled with travellers from all over the world. Israel is a major tourist destination for Americans, Europeans, Asians, and Africans, for instance.
If you're a U.S. citizen, you don't need a visa to visit Israel. It's not hard to get through the border, but do take Israeli security seriously. If you joke about your visit, or your travel plans are vague (no return ticket, hotels or Airbnb not booked in advance), you could be detained and searched for hours.
Make sure you contact your wireless carrier before you travel. I forgot to add the necessary international calling plan and when I landed, I had no service. It the middle of the night in the U.S. it's so hard to get customer service at that hour. It took most of the day to get it sorted out, but then my phone worked fine. Fortunately, Google Maps worked even with no service. The GPS can track you if you have WiFi turned on.
And the street signs are in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Plus, Google has a big presences there and Waze was invented here. So Google Maps and Waze work great.
I spent my first few days in the gorgeous beach city of Tel Aviv, on the shores of the warm-water Mediterranean. Tel Aviv was brutally hot in August, though. Over 90 degrees with high humidity. I couldn't wear jeans or long-sleeved T-shirts. But casual dress (shorts, T-shirts) was perfectly acceptable.
Walking around or driving is challenging right now in Tel Aviv. Construction just started on the city's first metro/subway city train. Streets are torn up everywhere and Google Waze doesn't always seem to have the latest road closures.
Shopping is easy. American style grocery and pharmacies are common. They aren't as big, but they carry lots of familiar American brands.
There's so much English spoken here that this shop's name is in English. This shop lets you make your own jewellery based on inspirational sayings.
If you enter just about any restaurant and speak English, even just a simple, 'Hello, table for 1,' you'll be given a menu in English.
Don't worry about weird food. Israeli food is fresh, delicious and recognisable. A typical Israeli breakfast is eggs, a salad, and bread with a variety of cheeses or dips to spread. You can probably drink the water, but everyone in the city drinks mineral water, so you can get bottled water everywhere.
Whatever you do, don't leave the country without eating hummus. It's not like American hummus. It's creamier, less tart, absolutely amazing. Restaurants pride themselves on it.
If a good, old-fashioned burger is more your style, that's easy to find, too. Tel Aviv is very international, and many of the restaurants are not Kosher. So if you want to eat bacon, ham, or a cheeseburger -- all foods that are not Kosher -- they are easy to find.
The Israeli sun is hot, hot, hot. But you can rent beach chairs and beach umbrellas for a few shekels for the day. A chair cost me 12 shekels or about $3.
This will take you to one of Tel Aviv's hidden treasures, the outdoor food market (called a shuk) known as the Carmel.
Israelis are very proud of the country's agriculture and rightly so. Every city has a shuk, and the produce is fresh, often organic, and delicious. If you enjoy haggling, this is the place. Merchants will definitely up the price when they hear you speak English.
Make sure you've got GPS with you as you wander the shuk. Although it's safe to wander alone, the Carmel is huge, a giant maze of small streets.
Even if you don't make it to the Carmel shuk, there are fresh juice stands all over the city, squeezed right in front of you. It will cost you 20 shekels or so, about $7.
If produce from an outdoor market isn't your style, Tel Aviv is a major food city. There are cafes everywhere and it's hard to go wrong with any of them. Israelis are very serious about delicious food.
In Israel, you can't judge a book by its cover or a neighbourhood by its apartment buildings. Run-down buildings are everywhere, right next to newer ones. Inside, these apartments will be very nice, and very expensive, and they will soon get a facelift.
Rothschild is a wide street with a walkway/bikeway in the middle with offices, apartments and cafes lining either side. When in doubt on where to eat, get yourself to Rothschild and wander into a nearby cafe.
Bike rentals are everywhere, so a visitor can travel by bike, too, if you wish. Most people take taxis, which are also plentiful and easy to order through the Israeli Get Taxi app, or via Uber. (Uber drivers are taxi drivers in Israel, not private cars.)
They aren't big into recycling in Tel Aviv, so recycling bins at hotels, etc., aren't easy to find. But they do have these recycling bins scattered around the streets if you want to save your plastic water bottles until you encounter one.
An hour's drive from Tel Aviv is one of the crown jewels of the country: Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a modern city, too, but within it is the ancient and holy Old City, which dates back centuries before Jesus was born.
This city holds some of the holiest sites for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. It has a large population of Orthodox Jews and a large population of Arab/Palestinian/Muslim people, and many 'secular' folks live here, too, people who aren't particularly religious.
Everyone in Jerusalem is cohabiting peacefully. Millions of tourists visit as well. Police and soldiers are everywhere, but, like these two Israeli soldiers, the atmosphere is chill. This is a friendly, safe area of the country.
There are many gates to enter the old walled city. The biggest is called the Jaffa gate. A road leads up to it.
People still live here, divided into four quarters: the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, and the Christian Quarter. The Muslim quarter is the biggest, most populated. You can wander around the city and explore on your own, but beware. It's a maze of twisty narrow walkways and very easy to get hopelessly lost.
Also beware the friendly folks who offer to give you directions in the old city. They call themselves 'guides' and they can be pretty sketchy. They offer to help you find someplace, and may walk you into the maze and then demand money before they show you the way out. Some of them are perfectly friendly and fine and can offer a great tour. Others. not so much. If someone sees you holding a map and offers to help you, it's best to ignore them.
Absolutely DO book a tour of Jerusalem from a reputable, licensed tour company. There's so much history here, a tour offers insight you can't get by looking around on your own. Your hotel can recommend one and you can book last minute, the day before. I booked with Bein Harim Tour company. They picked me up at my hotel. It cost $100, plus another $12 for lunch. This is my guide, Itamar Buk, a history major, who did a great job. Note: it's customary to tip the tour guide if you had a good experience.
... the spectacular, lowest-spot-on-earth, the Dead Sea, where the water is so salty and full of minerals, that you float like sitting in a chair. Pro tip: it was brutally hot to visit on an August afternoon and the water was hot. Better to visit the Dead Sea in the summer at night.
This Israeli weekend is Friday and Saturday, coinciding with the Muslim Sabbath on Friday and the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday. And that means Thursday night is the party night in Jerusalem.
A traveller alone can find a great time by heading to the outdoor mall adjacent to the old city, known as the Mamilla Mall. On Thursday night its full of street performers, artists fairs and ...
On Friday night and Saturday, the town will be closed. Everything shuts down to celebrate the Sabbath, known in Hebrew as Shabbat. 'Shabbat shalom' is the greeting used on that day. It's like a religious version of TGIF.
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