Below are my notes for visiting Israel. These travel tips, such as the best time to visit Israel are obtained from a variety of sources including some of the following: my first hand observations, personal conversations, magazines, newspapers, websites, books and so forth. Whenever I hear something that interests me about Israel, I jot it down here. Hope this comes in handy.
Best Time to Visit Israel
Short Answer: Year-round, summertime for beach activities/nightlife in Tel Aviv, Spring & Fall the rest of the country.
Longer Answer: The best time is always relative. The winter is more wet than the rest of the year. I went in January and it was mostly dry (even though January is typically the wettest month). Summer is really hot. Spring is a nice medium and some say the best. Winter can be nippy but whereas Jerusalem was on the brisker side in January, Tel Aviv was, provided the sun was providing assistance, warm enough for a t-shirt or light jacket, with mornings requiring a light jacket. But, as noted, the risk is rain.
Weather in Tel Aviv
The summer obviously has more activities, concerts, beach activity, etc. but the prices for lodging are higher and it can get quite hot. Personally, from a weather standpoint, I’d be fine visiting any time during the year (with Spring probably being the best) depending obviously on what you want to do. The winter is better than most northern hemisphere countries at that time with Mid-December to Mid-March average highs in the 60’s (~18C) but obviously the actual highs can be lower (40’s/7F) and is prone to rain, whereas Mid-June to October sees average highs in the 80’s (~28C) and thus more conducive to beach fun, etc.
Weather in Jerusalem
It is always cooler in Jerusalem than what you will find in Tel Aviv. Generally, take about 6F/3C off of the temps in Tel Aviv. Otherwise, much is the same. If you are there in the summer, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights will feel like a good escape. In the winter, you will need to pack an extra layer.
Weather in Eilat
In January, the Red Sea is in the low 70’s (~22C) which is equivalent to New England, USA in the summer. The air temperatures top out cooler than the water temperature which would make swimming a borderline proposition in January. Rain is not an issue at any time of the year in Eilat or the Negev in general. Weather wise, November has air temps in the low 80’s (27C) with warm water temperatures and a reduction in UV power. Water temps are warmest May-November. Air temperature get quite hot May-September, with it peaking in the standard June – August timeframe (100F/38C).
Thoughts about Visiting Israel
Israel was quite a disappointment. Maybe it is because I am not Jewish and/or don’t know Hebrew. Maybe it was because I went in the winter (even though the weather was great). Maybe it was because I didn’t disappear into the Negev or dip into the Dead Sea. Maybe it was because it just is. Despite the shortcomings I had, there is – as in every country – much to experience in Israel and alternate impressions to be made.
On the upside:
The Mediterranean Sea lines the western coastline and thus beaches are very accessible and ever present. Granted, much of the sea in Tel Aviv seemed to have signs posted suggesting you cannot swim in it (even though people did anyways) – but regardless, it is always a plus having a clean beach-lined coastline.
The buses were generally on time, affordable and easy to navigate with a modern internet website (sidenote: Tel Aviv has public WiFi in much of the city) assisting on scheduling needs, etc. Trains were modern and quiet although on the day of arrival, the trains were not running and signage to get alternate public transport was lacking. It is relatively easy to see the whole country due to the small size.
Obviously the historical value contained within the country’s borders is off the charts with places like Jerusalem and such. Further, it is a good jumping off point to see the West Bank which was a totally mind-blowing experience.
Lastly, Tel Aviv had a reasonably high quality street art scene, more pronounced in Yafo (Jaffa) which is found most easily by walking south along the beach in Tel Aviv, as well as pieces in Florentine and other various locations.
On the downside:
Israel, especially Tel Aviv, was generally expensive. Drinks were expensive. Food was expensive. Goods were expensive. Lodging was on the high end of moderate. Public Transportation was reasonably priced.
The overall vibe from the non-bartending population (bartenders generally were quite friendly and helpful) seemed cold and indifferent. The very first experience began with people pushing and pulling each other in an airport bus mob to ensure they could get on first. I know, I realize, and I’ve read, that Israelis are lovely on the inside and prickly on the outside due to the political and military conflicts that pervade the culture. But I don’t care about excuses or reasons, I just see it like it is. I would presume the people are generally wonderful (how can one judge with such little time) but that is not what I, as a traveler, felt on the surface. In some countries, the people bubble outwards with warmth. In other countries, the people come across in a more neutral manner – not warm and not cold. This was not either of those. As an experienced respectful traveler, I felt like I was generally presumed to be a bothersome outsider.
The scenery was average. Sure, it is nice to have a beach, but these beaches don’t surpass others along the Mediterranean. The interior of the country is a lot of scrub land. This isn’t to say there aren’t any good parts – cause there are – but as a whole, the overall scenery didn’t standout. Was the scenery bad? No. Was the scenery amazing? No. It was average. Equally so, much of the growth of Israel has been in recent times, and thus, much of the architecture and feel (outside of the ancient cities much of which is turned into a tourist charade) lacks character. For instance, the old parts of Tel Aviv are interesting, but most of the remainder is soul-less strip-mall architecture (much like you’d find with new developments in many other places in the world). And, while we are on the topic of how things appear, one cannot bypass the garbage littered streets that fill the streets of the public markets. Meat scraps, liquids, trash and discarded produce combine in massive quantities. For instance, check Hacarmel Market after hours (and then on Saturday morning – for the perfectly cleaned up ghosttown).
In a more surprising finding, the food in Israel, for being so highly acclaimed, was not memorable at all (other than the high cost). The only exception was an amazing breakfast spot found in Tel Aviv that served the best hummus dish I’ve ever experienced. I have pondered about the disconnect between food hype and the food and have three theories. One, I just hit it wrong. Place after place experienced an off day on the day I ate there. Or two, I went to all the wrong places or lost my fondness of food for the duration of the trip. Or three, the Israeli government pays for food bloggers to visit which perhaps results in bloggers hyping the Israeli food scene. Whatever the reason, I found the food to be nothing special, especially disheartening given that it is typically one of the primary things I generally look forward to in a country.
Tel Aviv has amazing worldclass nightlife? Huh?
Lastly, airport security was brash and aggressive. Singled out for a shakedown (for whatever reason), I came face to face with an agent with a dialogue along the following:
“Do you know Hebrew?”
“Why did you come to Israel?”
“And why Israel?
“Because the flight was cheap”
“So then why not Egypt?”
“Because the sale fare was to Israel”
This was followed by a whole litany of other questions with high-powered attitude asking where exactly I did my laundry and where I stayed. Why don’t I have more baggage? Eventually I was allowed to move on from that interrogation. Then it was over to the metal detectors for every single thing to come out of the bag. When they came across items from Hebron (West Bank), they flew into a skepticism-packed rant asking where this (pointing at Hebron goods) came from. After confirming it came from the West Bank, they told me they had to throw out my Israeli-purchased coffee that I had bought as a gift to my mother. “You know ground coffee is not allowed on planes” “No, actually I have never heard of that”. After much back and forth, they allowed me to take a ziplock bag of it as a momento and threw out the packaging and the remainder of the coffee. Somewhere in there, one agent seemed to be arguing my case to the superior but it went no where with the only thing I gathered in the Hebrew-laden dialogue was the superior repeating the word “Hebron”.
As I was leaving that area, they started barking at another passenger who had pamphlets in Arabic in his carry-on. It looks like import-export pamphlets with pictures of agriculture, oil & mining, etc. He claimed to be an Ivy League student who was doing some exchange program in Tel Aviv. They kept asking where he got the brochures, he told them he got them at his university and they kept saying that is impossible because they aren’t in Hebrew.
Transportation into and around Israel
Flying into Israel
The main airport is Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) and located outside of Tel Aviv (in a town called Lod). Expect for things to shut down on Friday afternoon and to stay dormant until Saturday night (due to Sabbath). This is especially important if you are planning airfare. Try to leave & arrive on dates other than Friday/Saturday if able or else you will be jumping through hoops and paying more. Even in Tel Aviv, which is regarded by many as some city of hedonism & whatnot, it gets really uneventful on the Sabbath.
Transportation from TLV Airport to Tel Aviv
The train can be found at the lower level of Terminal 3 takes approximately 15 minutes and is less than $5/ea way. When you buy your ticket – you need to keep it for exit. Most likely you want to get off at Tel Aviv’s HaShalom station or Merkaz/Savidor station depending on your final destination. Alternatively you could take a taxi which was approximately $40-$50 in 2014 and will take around 25 minutes.
Transportation from TLV Airport to Jerusalem
TLV Airport is about a 40 minute drive from Jerusalem.
For approximately $20 per person, you can take a sherut (shared van) from TLV to Jerusalem. They will drop you off at whatever address you need to go to in Jerusalem. However, as warned, if you are flying in on a Friday night through Saturday, you will encounter issues due to Sabbath.
A taxi from TLV to Jerusalem will run about $80.
Getting Around Israel
Outside the obvious, such as renting a vehicle, the public forms of transportation in Israel are train (which is limited but modern) and bus. For train schedules and routes, see the Israeli Railways website. For Israel’s public bus system, check out Egged.
Hitchhiking is also feasible in Israel. For a high-level summary, see the Wikipedia entry
Other Countries to Visit from Israel
Inexpensive flights you can use to get into or out of Israel: Wizz Air flies to/from several Eastern European cities, EasyJet flies to/from Western European cities, Norwegian Air Shuttle flies to/from Scandinavia, Pegasus to Turkey and El Al (Israel’s Airline) to a handful of places at low prices such as Budapest. You can also visit Egypt or Jordan overland. Access to Lebanon is not feasible from Israel.
Places to Visit in Israel
Israel is a relatively small country so it is not time-consuming or ludicrous to cover it all. With a car, everything is in reach. And, without a car, the public transportation network is reasonably decent. Popular ideas: Old City in Jerusalem, HaCarmel Market in Tel Aviv, beaches/sunset along coastline, Baha’i Garden in Haifa (north of Tel Aviv), float/see the Dead Sea, visit Eilat (very southern “resort” city on Red Sea which it seemed was a waste of time per my research and preferences), and wander/adventure/visit the Negev including Masada (see Wikitravel on Negev)
Tipping in Israel
10-20% to Restaurants & Bartenders. 0% at Hair, Spa, Taxis, Hotels.
What to Buy & Try in Israel
Foods to Try in Israel
Falafel (although none of it was anything better than what you can get at a good food truck in NYC), Hummus (see below), Juice such as pomegranate juice (although, as a traveler, most juice bar stands that you run across are not cheap if you develop a habit [at least when I went]), Shakshooka (think tomato sauce and eggs – a dish from Africa), Israeli olives (although the ones I had were average), spices.
If there was any one highlight of Israel for me, it would quite easily be the morning hummus with mushrooms with a side of yemeni bread found at Shlomo and Doron Hummus, Yishkon 29, Tel Aviv. This establishment just had that quintessential look to it and paid off with big dividends. I tried the shakshooka here, the various types of hummus and so forth and kept coming back to the Hummus with Mushrooms. The coffee here is, as in my friends words, “like spiced mud”. But go there and eat the mushroom hummus (no need to get the hardboiled egg (as shown below) in my opinion) while the sun illuminates the streets of this small but character-filled neighborhood. That is my only strong advice when it comes to Israel.
Gifts to Buy in Israel
Soap and cosmetics from the Dead Sea.
Eilat Stone jewelry (although I believe the Israeli mines for this stone are depleted and so they import it)
Some say Israeli designer clothing.
Neighborhoods and Lodging in Israel
Neighborhoods in Tel Aviv
For a bounding box of where I would stay knowing what I know – I’d stay no further south than Jaffa. I’d stay no further north than the Yarkon River. I’d stay west of Route 2 & Highway 20 (or however they are called – if you look at a Google Map – you will understand) with the goal being to get as close to the beach as possible. If you stay in relative proximity to the HaCarmel Market – you are doing well in my opinion as a really rough idea.
Karem Ha-Teimanim, also known as the Yemenite Quarter or Yemenite Vineyard, was, by far, the best neighborhood that I found in my many wanderings around Tel Aviv. The Hacarmel Market is nearby, the beach is nearby and a good restaurant selection is nearby. But most importantly, it is one of the only neighborhoods that had the kind of soul I like in a neighborhood. You can walk (although it is a bit of one to be sure) to the central bus station or the train stations, and there is a good bus connections to those as well if you don’t want to walk [one bus goes directly to Savidor from the big bus lot in the Yemenite Vineyard. From there, you can take the train directly to the airport. I went to that station to return to the airport because when the trains weren’t running on the way in, the shuttle took us to that station. Since I couldn’t confirm via website, email, phone, etc. the status of the train, I returned to Savidor to be safe. However, I am sure you’d be better off going to HaShalom or HaHagana to catch the train generally.] The mornings here are splendid, with a nice warm sun blasting sunshine down the narrow, quaint streets.
Yafo (Jaffa), to the south of Tel Aviv, was a nice mix of gritty and clean and had some nice street art pieces. There is a flea market Sunday through Friday (closing before sundown) called Shuk Ha Pishpishim. Definitely worth checking out. There is also a newer section down by the water. There is a nice walkway that runs along the beach between Jaffa and Tel Aviv (within walking distance for me without a problem and walked many times).
Florentine, is often noted as an up and coming, artsy pre-Neve Tzedek neighborhood. Terms like the Tel Aviv SoHo and other such foolishness is bandied about. I like gritty, I like creative and I don’t mind riff raff – so I thought I would love Florentine based on all the accounts. However, I found the neighborhood to generally lack energy and lack that art-saturated culture I had read about. I didn’t see much of any starving artist community. The street art and grit in Yafo (Jaffa) was superior and there was a much better neighborhood charm in the Yemenite Vineyard
Neve Tzedek is often noted as a very charming, quiet neighborhood with designer shops and so forth. Was not my kind of neighborhood at all although it is well-located. To me, it felt septic, clean, boring, and generally “trying too hard” to exude class. As mentioned, I like a little more authenticity and thus, Neve Tzedek was not a perfect match for me. Even though the neighborhood is old, it looked like it had been over-glossed. But from a lodging standpoint – it has a great location and, if you want clean & prissy – it would be more perfect.
Neighborhoods in Jerusalem
The Old City is a very peculiar place. It is steeped in history and that is quite interesting. However, when you descend past the tourist shops and all, you feel as if you are entering into some Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole. The place has a certain feeling or energy. Maybe it was the experiences with the various groups living in their various quarters – but there is a sense of bubbling tension. As night falls, everything seems to close up and go dead. The upside is you are in the middle of the mix and the downside is that you are in the middle of the mix.
Near the Mahane Yehuda Market (which is quite lively and a good place to sample great dried mango or olives or whatever you find) feels more active and real than the Old City, yet Old City is just a walk away from here. I think this gives you the best of both worlds.
If you don’t mind a quiet night and are considering the Old City – you should definitely look at East Jerusalem as well. I found that the Arabic hospitality was very friendly and helpful and East Jerusalem is not only still close to the sights, but you should be able to save some money as well.
Simple Words and Phrases in Hebrew
A quick source with rough pronunciations can be found at Wikitravel however I would say that due to the very high level of English speakers, it is not all that essential.
Quick Travel Information About Israel
Can you get by with English?
Yes – English is very widely spoken
Do I need a visa to visit Israel?
American, Canadian and most Western Countries do not need a visa to visit. Check the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs to check on your country
What Power Plugs are Used in Israel?
The European Plug (Type C). Also they have Type H but a type C will fit in a Type H. 220 Volts / 50 Hz. Be careful using things like US hairdryers without a converter. Most electronics (battery chargers, mobile phones, etc.) only need an adapter plug
Is the Water Safe to Drink in Israel?
Do I need vaccines or shots to visit Israel?
What currency is used in Israel?
Israeli Shekel (ILS). See conversion
Will Israel stamp my passport?
No – they stopped doing this in 2013. Instead, they issue you an entry card that you keep with you for your travel. You can throw it out after you leave the country. There is no marking whatsoever in your passport that you were in Israeli with this method. However, note, that if you go to Jordan or Egypt overland, there will be proof that you were in Israel by sheer deducement
More Information on Travel to Israel
Israeli Tourism FAQ – A Nice Primer