Israel was somewhere I wanted to visit for a while. My mom went when she was around my age and had some great stories about floating in the Dead Sea and exploring the Old Town of Jerusalem. Yet when I told people (other than my mom) that I wanted to travel to Israel I was met with plenty of hesitation. Many questioned me if Israel was safe to visit because in the western part of the world, including my home country of Canada, Israel is often perceived as dangerous.
Clearly, I went anyways. In fact, I’ve now been multiple times and even spent 3 months living in Tel Aviv. I love this part of the world but it isn’t always easy. So, before you start planning your trip to Israel, I’ve got a few tips and suggestions based on my own experience. From me to you, here are 8 important things I think you should know before you travel to Israel.
Yes, Israel is Safe to Visit
Well, as safe as anywhere can be these days. Yes, they have some incidents but tell me a country that doesn’t.
I realize that probably sounds surprising as Israel only ever seems to make the news when there is violence. However, having spent a considerable amount of time there, including being at bar during the Tel Aviv Terror attack in April of 2022, I still would argue that Israel is generally safe. After all, how many shootings take place in the USA every day? The sad reality of this world is that violence can occur at any place and any time, and while being in close proximity and experiencing the panic of a terror attack was alarming, overall I never felt unsafe exploring as a tourist in Israel (or Palestine).
What many people find alarming is the soldiers. Once you land in Israel it’s hard to avoid the huge military presence in the streets, especially in Jerusalem. I found this very shocking my first visit. After all, I’m Canadian and we don’t do guns. So walking around and seeing a number of heavily armed police and solders, many of which are very young (Israel has mandatory military service when you are 18) took awhile to get used to. However, overall the soldiers are very friendly and curious and many will strike up a conversation with you.
Tours and Day Trips are a Great Way to See the Country
My first visit to Israel was a press trip with local company called Abraham Tours. At first I was wary of a guided tour-heavy experience because I don’t normally consider myself to be a tour type of person. I like my freedom and the ability to do what I want on my own time. However, Israel has so much history and so much to learn that, without the day tours, I wouldn’t have known or understood a thing. Since I’m big on hearing the stories behind places, this was pretty important for me.
You can take multi-day trips to Israel but for independent travellers, day trips are perfect. You can spend the day learning and exploring with a guide but create your own schedule and still have plenty of time to explore on your own. There are tons of tour options throughout Israel ranging from historic to religious to adventure. I’ve taken several with Abraham Tours and highly recommend them.
Another great perk about these day tours is that they make it easy to get around Israel and Palestine. There is a public bus and train system but some places can be long and difficult to get to. For example, the bus stop for Masada is actually quite far away from the actual site.
If you don’t plan doing day trips, you can consider renting a car for some days. Just know that Israeli drivers can be pretty crazy!
A Visit to Israel Really Should Include a Visit to Palestine
You can’t visit Israel without knowing about the Israel/Palestine conflict. And, in my opinion, I don’t think you can visit one without the other (assuming your passport will allow you to do so). Every story has two sides and I think you owe it to yourself, as a traveller, to take the time and learn a bit from both.
While I have been to Palestinian cities and areas several time, I have not gone on my own. I believe that Bethlehem is quite easy to access by public transit however I have also preferred to go with a tour. It’s not that I don’t feel safe in Palestine alone, Palestinians in my experience have always been warm and friendly. But rather I prefer to explore with a local to meet the people and hear the stories. Especially when it comes to seeing the refugee camps which can be a very sensitive area for many residents.
Again, I recommend Green Olive Tours for visits to Palestine. These are more political tours (if you want more historic ones, look to Abraham Tours). These are heavy tours that require you to come with an open mind but I really recommend them. My favourites were the tour to Nablus, Bethlehem, and the Gaza Border Tour.
Israelis Take Some Getting Used To
This was a hard one for me to process because I will literally smile and talk to anyone. However, some Israelis are really hard to crack. My first time, in 2018, was tough. It wasn’t that I felt unwelcome, its just a felt like I didn’t matter and nobody could be bothered with me. I was pushed aside and ignored in markets to the point where I sometimes left without being served. In turn, this made me feel a little more reserved and shut off and, in all fairness, probably not the most approachable person.
My second visit in 2020 was a different experience. Perhaps because I was more comfortable having been before. Maybe because I was with a friend who knew the country pretty well. But I was definitely more authoritative this time around which made a huge difference in markets. Since I was more comfortable, I was also chattier with the locals which made a HUGE difference.
After living in Tel Aviv I’ve learned that Israelis take awhile to warm up to you. Many are blunt and direct. The men especially are incredibly forward. However, despite their sometimes tough exterior Israelis are generally warm and kind once you get to know them.
Israel is NOT a Cheap Travel Destination
The cost of things in Israel really surprised me. It’s a pricey country in every aspect; food, accommodation, tours etc. It may be a Middle Eastern country but you can expect North American pricing. In fact, Tel Aviv is considered to be one of the most expensive places to live-in the world.
Accommodation and tours will be the priciest and it’s hard to work around those, but there are a few handy tips for saving money on food and drink. First off, fresh groceries there are reasonably priced. Especially produce. I paid way less on fresh vegetables and in-season fruits in Israel than I do in Canada. For going out, take advantage of Happy Hours. You can save 30% or more on drinks and/or food at many restaurants.
Packing Appropriately for Israel (and Palestine) Can Be Tricky
Part of the magic of this part of the world is how diverse it is in terms of religion and culture. However, it also makes it tricky to figure out what to pack and how to dress.
For tours to the historic or more religious parts of Israel, you’ll want to be more covered up. If you are planning on visiting Palestine as well, you’ll need to cover up. This means longer sleeves, pants or skirts past your knees, and no cleavage.
However, parts of Israel are also very trendy and fashionable, especially Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is very casual but it really feels like anything goes here. You’ll see a mix of the religious jews covered up and young girls walking down the tayelet (boardwalk) wearing just bikinis.
Finding a balance of what to wear was tough at first but after all my time there, I’ve pretty well figured it out. If you’re looking for packing tips check out my article on what to wear in Israel.
Getting in is Easy, Leaving is Very Nerve-Wracking
Every time I arrive in Israel, I breeze through immigration. My first visit, I don’t even think the officer looked at me as he scanned my passport and handed me the required papers to enter the country. However, leaving is a whole other story.
I’m always questioned. My bags are always searched and twice I’ve actually been taken aside and scanned and questioned away from the crowd. It’s pretty intense, but it’s part of the process. As a solo female traveller with plenty of stamps in her passports, including multiple from Arabic countries, I’m a huge red flag. While the experience isn’t fun, everyone has always been kind and friendly and there have never been any issues.
That being said, when you leave Israel make sure you get to the airport early (like the full 3 hours early) to give yourself plenty of time.
A Visit to Israel (and Palestine) will be one of the Most Fascinating Trips of Your Life
I didn’t love Israel my first visit, however, I’ve been back multiple times and now love this part of the world. It is absolutely a place that I recommend everyone to visit should they get the opportunity. Most people come for history, religion, or conflict but don’t forget to also enjoy the food, the beaches, the nightlife, and the beaches.
This part of the world really is a unique travel destination and is definitely worth exploring. Yes, it is safe to visit Israel and, while I am happy to share the stories of my personal adventures here, I truly believe that this is a destination that everyone should experience for themselves.
A Note on Travel Insurance in Israel
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine multiple times. While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance as they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found, plus, they are who I use and I have had great experiences with them. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.