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 and I recommend you do too. In fact, I’ve now been twice. However, 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. Sure, they have some incidents but tell me a country that doesn’t. On a whole, I felt safe the entire time I was in Israel. Whether I was wandering around Old Town Jerusalem on my own or taking part in the tour of the divided city of Hebron which has a history of tragic violence, I never once felt as if I was in danger.
I think that one of the main reasons why people perceive Israel as dangerous is because of the large military force and the fact that there are plenty of people walking around with guns. I’m Canadian. We don’t do guns. So when I arrived in Israel and saw police and soldiers in uniform complete with huge guns every time I turned around, well, it was pretty unnerving. Especially when most of these soldiers looked like children (all Israeli citizens have mandatory military service starting at the age of 18).
Some of the soldiers won’t pay you any attention, but others will strike up a conversation or ask you where you are from, especially if are in a setting where it’s obvious that you are a tourist. I can’t say I ever got used to seeing so many guns, but I did eventually get used to the large military and police presence.
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 and, honestly, they made this trip. Which is funny 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 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.
What I loved about Abraham Tours is that you could do multi-day trips or single day trips. I did all single day trips which meant that I still had the freedom to spend some time in the evening to explore on my own, but I still got to explore the highlights of Israel with a knowledgeable guide. Some of the days were long and busy, but I felt pretty good coming back at night having learned so much.
Another great perk about these day tours is that they made it easy to get around Israel. Israel does have public transit but getting to spots like Masada is much harder as the bus stop is actually quite far away from the actual site. Most other travellers that I talked to or met either relied on day trips or rented a car to get around.
For those interested, you can check out Abraham tour and day trip options here.
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.
This is another area where I think Abraham Tours did an awesome job by offering several tours to the Palestinian Territories. My absolute favourite tour was the dual narrative Hebron tour. I also enjoyed visiting Bethlehem (such a cool city!) and other areas of the West Bank. From having lunch in our local guide’s home to wandering markets chatting with vendors, and seeing the refugee camps (yes, Palestine has several refugee camps), visiting Palestine and getting those stories is both eye-opening and fascinating.
Israel is Not Known for it’s Friendly Locals
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.
I still wouldn’t say Israelis are the friendliest people I’ve met, they definitely need a bit of convincing, but once they warm up to you Israelis can be incredibly kind.
Palestinians, on the other hand, are incredibly friendly and welcoming. Everywhere I went in Palestine I was greeted with waves and friendly hellos. The same goes for the in Old Town of Jerusalem, many Palestinians have shops there and while yes, they absolutely want your business, they are very easy to just have a conversation with too.
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. After visiting Egypt last year, which I found quite inexpensive by North American standards, I guess I expected costs would be similar. I thought wrong. I found prices in Israel to be very similar to what I would pay here at home in Canada.
Food was perhaps where I experienced the biggest ‘sticker shock’. I often went to the market and bought our own pita bread, hummus (SO GOOD), and vegetables to make meals back at the hostel. These types of meals ended up costing me about $10-12. Street food staples like shawarma and falafel sandwiches cost about the same (or more depending on where you went). Pomegranate juice was one of my favourite finds in Israel and even that cost somewhere between $4-$6CAD depending on where it was sold. There’s no doubt that Israeli food is delicious, but I did need to watch what I spent on it.
PS: Speaking of food, if you are planning to visit Israel, make sure to check out my post on the best places to eat in Jerusalem.
Accommodation was another factor. We were hosted by Abraham hostels in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and I was surprised at what a wide range of ages and types of travellers stayed at these properties. Normally, when I think of hostels, I think of younger backpackers. However, while these hostels absolutely cater to younger travellers, I met and saw a number of couples and families with young children (especially in Tel Aviv) as well.
That being said, they were really nice hostels in good locations that felt more like budget hotels rather than a typical backpackers, so I can see why they would appeal to anyone trying to save a little money. Click here to check out Abraham hostels.
Packing Appropriately for Israel (and Palestine) Can Be Tricky
I hate packing. Despite the fact that I have gotten much better at it and often travel carry-on only even for month long trips, I still think packing sucks. Packing for Israel and Palestine? Well, that really sucked. It’s like I needed to pack two different wardrobes; more conservative clothing but also cool, trendy clothing because Israel is both.
For tours to the historic 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 long sleeves, pants or skirts past your knees, and no cleavage.
However, parts of Israel are also very trendy and fashionable, especially Tel Aviv. While I didn’t want to run around with plunging necklines and tiny skirts (not that either of those are even my style) I did want to wear some nicer more stylish clothing that didn’t focus on modesty. Especially since I did go out at night.
Finding that balance took a while but I think I got it down in the end. 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
Both times that I arrived in Israel, I breezed 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, it was a whole different story when I left. I was grilled for a solid 10 minutes about where I had been, what I had done, and what I had with me. The woman questioning me flipped through my (very full) passport and started asking about my travels back in 2015 to Malaysia and 2016 to Bali. I had nothing to hide, but it was pretty intense and I’d never been questioned like that before.
That was only the first part though. Next I had to go through security where my entire bag was unpacked, scanned, and thoroughly checked. I had to open my packing cubes, my bags of cords, every tiny pocket in my backpack- all of it.
For my second visit I travelled with a checked bag. No surprise, when I got back to Canada, there was a note that it had been opened and searched. Nothing was missing, everything was fine. But I’ve never had my checked bags searched before.
So, as you leave Israel make sure you get to the airport early (like the full 3 hours early, but not earlier than that or they won’t let you through) and expect to be questioned and have people dig through your bag.
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 (that changed when I went back again) however, I can absolutely say that my time in Israel (and Palestine) was easily one of the most fascinating trips of my life and I’m very grateful to have had that experience. It is absolutely a place that I recommend everyone to visit should they get the opportunity. From history to religion to the Conflict, there is so much to see and learn.
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 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.