Ever since I got back from my trip to Israel everyone around me has been asking me why in the world would I plan a trip to Israel. From silent murmurs of "wow that's an unusual choice for a holiday destination" to a loud, "but it's a Muslim nation", "isn't it a pilgrimage", "you must have had to cover yourself fully", "why would you subject your child to such an unconventional location", "must have been unsafe- did you see some bombs and drones" or "what did you eat there? Must have carried lots of food no?" . I don't blame many of these people. There is ignorance about the country plus because it's in the Middle East it's only natural to confuse it with other slightly orthodox countries nearby. But, let me set the record straight.
Israel is definitely an unusual choice for Indians as a holiday destination but it's a favourite across the world. It is NOT a Muslim country (not that it should make a difference) however, a lot of Arabs live there. It is largely resided by Jews and has a very interesting history and culture. Do read up on how Israel came into being (only about 70 years ago or so) and you'll know what I mean. From a country of so-called refugees (for want of a better word) from across the globe to an extremely technologically advanced nation, Israel has come a long way in a very short span of time.
Here are my top reasons for visiting the country.
Small but packed with so much to do.
You can travel from one corner of Israel to the other in less than 6 hours! Whether you're a religious tourist or a party person or someone who loves nature- there is just about everything at offer in Israel. Even the landscape is very varied from mountains to beaches to desert- the country has it all.
Israelis are extremely friendly people. We experienced that up and personal with our various tour guides, our apartment host, the ever smiling grocery store owner-couple next to our apartment in Tel Aviv and the hundreds of people we met everyday at the beach and on the roads and restaurants.
Israel has beautiful beaches especially on the Mediterranean Sea shoreline. Blue waters and the softest possible sand will make sure you spend entire days here. See the best of the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv and nearby coastal cities.
Apart from the rich history, there is so much of street art, fashion and culture at every corner that you will not have enough of it whatever the duration of your stay. From the shuks to the graffitis to the designer cafes and millions of galleries- there's culture oozing at every nook and cranny. Also, contrary to common belief, Tel Aviv is one of the most liberal cities in the world. You could wear absolutely anything (or nothing) on the roads and no one would bat an eyelid. Israel is also extremely LGBTQ friendly with some calling it the unofficial gay capital of the Middle East!
This definitely needs a separate post! Israel has a burgeoning food scene like no other country. Whether it is Middle Eastern cuisine or Jewish fare or authentic International spreads- you name it and you'll find it there. Tel Aviv is also very vegetarian and vegan friendly. Many restaurants have entire menus dedicated to vegetarians. Whether it is lip smacking street food or fine dine, they have it all. My favourites- Shakshouka, the Jewish Challah, Sufaniyot, Rose Malabi and the anise flavoured liqueur- Arak!
Dogs, Cats, Playgrounds
Did you know Israel has the highest density of pet dogs in the world! I kid you not. Israelis are extremely pet loving people and we saw it every second of every day. Whether it was our neighbours in the apartment building or passers by on the roads or fellow beach bums, everyone had a dog or five in tow. Iy ofcourse had a great time. She would stop every few minutes because she would either spot a dog or one of the thousands of stray cats (There is an interesting story about how Israel has so many stray cats but I can assure you, you will spot one in every corner) and would want to play with them. Her days started and ended with: "can I pet your dog please"!
Israelis take their dogs every where- to restaurants, pubs, beaches, playgrounds, shopping (even the ones that do not allow dogs explicitly) and no one seems to mind it.
I have never seen as many play grounds in any city as I did in Tel Aviv. I think we spent most of our mornings in Tel Aviv at the beaches and ended the day at the playgrounds.
Proximity to other countries
You can easily plan a trip to Jordan or Egypt from Israel. We also did a quick weekend trip to Jordan during our stay in Israel. Do make sure you have taken care of visa requirements before you plan a trip to a nearby country.
Getting to Israel
Air India flies 4 times a week to Tel Aviv from Delhi and even though I can't believe I am saying this, we had an extremely comfortable experience with Air India. It is a 7 hour flight.
When should you plan to travel to Israel
March to May and September to November has mild temperatures and are the best times to visit the country.
Where to Stay
We rented an apartment in Tel Aviv for our entire duration of stay. (You may want to read our reasons here). Since travelling is extremely comfortable and easy in Israel we did day trips to most parts.
However, you can choose to travel around the country and stay in different cities. We preferred staying close to the beaches so that we could visit them every day. Also, the night scene in Tel Aviv is really something you may not want to miss. Israel has everything from affordable hostels to mid-range accommodation and luxury hotel chains.
One Israeli Shekel is equal to Twenty Indian Rupees. Israel is little expensive especially in terms of public transport etc. However, I always believe that you can set a budget for your daily expense and stick to it. We used a mix of Gett (Uber like app), public buses and lots and lots of walking for travelling within the city. As for travelling to cities outside, you can do a mix of trains and private transport or self drive.
Driving in Israel
Israel follows the right hand drive rule. It's very easy to drive in Israel, the roads are very good and everyone follows traffic rules. However, parking is a huge issue and you end up paying much more in parking than the rent of the car especially in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is also an extremely bike friendly city and I urge you to rent a bike during your stay in the city.
Our entire stay in Israel was extremely safe and never even once did we see any kind of fireworks. We even visited parts of West Bank, Palestine and it was extremely quiet. We interacted with a few Palestinians from our tour guide to shopkeepers and all of them including the Israelis we spoke to thought the Israel- Palestine conflict is meaningless and should come to an end. Israelis are not allowed to enter Palestine and vice versa and that's why we were advised to carry our passports into Palestine.
Important things to keep in mind Tips
You're expected to pay anywhere between 10-20% tips in restaurants etc. Israelis take pride in their service and tend to take it personally if the tips given are not adequate.
Shabbath is technically the Jewish weekend. It starts with sunset on Friday and ends with sunset on Saturday. Jews treat this as a time to be away from work and technology and spend it with their families. Most people are not even available on phones and social media at the time. Restaurants run by Jews are closed from Friday to Saturday and even markets including malls are shut during Shabbath. Only taxis run- public transport also takes a break. Shabbath is a good time to explore the city on foot or just spend time at the beach.
I hope I have convinced you enough to put Israel in your consideration list for your next holiday. If not, I ll be back super soon with things to do and places to visit in Israel. Till then happy travelling!