Israel & Holy Land travel guide
Barely bigger than Wales, Israel packs in an extraordinary range of ecosystems: from the North’s snow-capped peaks, through fertile plains along the Med and the unique saline environment of the Dead Sea, onto the southern deserts with their enormous karst craters and lush oases.
Israel’s plant and wildlife is equally diverse – its 2,380 species of flora, 510 bird species and 116 mammals (to the whole continent of Europe’s 100), make it a hotspot for nature enthusiasts. Hikers too are well-catered for with hundreds of well-marked trails, including the 1200km-long Israel National Trail which meanders the entire length of the country.
At the crossroads of three continents and the world’s three major monotheistic religions, Israel has an exceptionally rich history, which is still visible today in its Roman ruins, Crusader fortresses and Jerusalem’s holy sites. And in modern times, the influx of immigrants from all four corners of the globe has created a vibrant of mesh of cultures quite unlike anywhere else in the world.
With the exception of Haifa, no public transport runs on the Sabbath (from nightfall on Friday to nightfall on Saturday) in Israel. Many restaurants and shops also close, though most of proudly secular Tel Aviv remains open. The same is true during religious holidays, which are particularly numerous in September and October.
Wear modest dress when visiting places of worship and orthodox religious neighbourhoods. It is a good idea for women to bring a shawl to cover bare shoulders. Men should cover their head when entering synagogues. Mosques will require you to take off your shoes before entry.
You should consider regional weather variations when travelling in Israel. The southern half of Israel is mainly desert and is hot and arid year-round. Winter is a good time to visit Eilat – right on the southern-most tip of the country – as temperatures can stay in the low 20s and you can take advantage of low-season prices. The middle section of Israel has a Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Spring and autumn are good times to visit, both in terms of weather and prices. The mountainous North and Golan heights can be chilly in winter and sometimes see snow, but have pleasant weather throughout the rest of the year.
July-August is generally the peak season for tourists – hotel prices are at their highest and it can be difficult to get accommodation. Another busy period is during the Jewish festival of Passover, which usually falls towards the end of March and beginning of April.
Tel Aviv (TLV), 14km from the city; Eilat Central Airport (ETH), 8km from the city.
By air and train Israel State Railways run an efficient train service, though it is mostly concentrated on the Mediterranean coastal region between Nahariya, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Trains also go from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and by 2011, there will be a high speed service connecting the two cities in under half an hour. There are also plans to extend the railways down to Eilat and in the meantime, there are daily flights between Tel Aviv and Eilat.
By road Buses are the most commonly used public transport in Israel, with both inter- and intra-city networks highly developed. The bulk of buses are run by Egged. Tel Aviv is served by Dan buses. Excellent roads link all Israeli towns and you can easily hire cars in the major cities. All major towns have taxis a-plenty. If you’re on a tight budget, sherut are well-worth considering. These 13-seater “shared taxis” depart from taxi ranks but only depart once full (though you’ll rarely have to wait more than 20 minutes). They run along fixed routes but you can get out anywhere you like. Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat have an extensive network of bike paths.
From 5* hotels to private guesthouses and zimmer (German-style rural chalets), Israel is packed full of accommodation to suit every budget. For a unique stay you can’t find anywhere else, why not spend the night at a kibbutz and join in the communal breakfast the next morning. For details of which Kibbutzim are open to the public, see www.kibbutz.co.il. Camping is highly popular in Israel, with sites dotted all over the country from the grassy national parks to the sandy shores of the Sea of Galilee. Eco-tourism is becoming an increasingly popular option. For leads on eco-destinations, from organic farms to eco-communities, see www.ecotourism.org.il.
For over 60 years, Jews have been immigrating to Israel from the four corners of the globe, bringing with them their own culinary traditions. From Yemeni, Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi mezzes to cinnamon-laced Moroccan dishes, from the New York bagel to Hungarian goulash, and more recently, Russian blinis, Israel’s restaurant scene is the world in miniature. Though not kosher, seafood can be found on many menus, though pork remains something of a lasting taboo.
For vegetarians, Israel truly is the Promised Land. The market stalls are piled-high with wonderfully fresh apricots, figs, dates, olives and other goodies described in the Bible. And thanks to the Kosher rule of not mixing milk and meat, every town in Israel has “dairy” restaurants, serving strictly meat-free dishes. Vegans should checkout Amirim – a village on the Galilee that is Israel’s vegan-restaurant capital.
Like elsewhere in the Middle East, you’ll find anise-flavoured Arak liqueur widely available. Local beers include pilsner-style Maccabee and Goldstar – a Munich-style dark draught. Widely-available and inexpensive fruit juices and iced-coffees make great refreshers in the hot summer.
With the strict security measures put in place over the last few years, suicide bombings have all but ceased in Israel. However, there remains the risk of shelling in the towns bordering the Gaza strip.
If hiking in the Golan Heights, heed signs warning of landmines (yellow with red triangles) and do not enter fenced-off areas. If trekking in Israel’s Southern desert regions, be aware of extreme temperature changes and the possibility of flash floods in winter.
Violent crime is extremely rare in Israel but pick-pocketing does occur in touristy areas, so keep an eye on bags and valuables.
Israel has Western standards of healthcare. No vaccinations are required to enter the country, though it’s worth checking your tetanus jab is up to date. Tap water is safe to drink here.