Israel really was one of the most fascinating countries I’ve been to recently. There’s so many diversity in this country in any kind of way. The contrasts between the modern city of Tel Aviv and the historic city of Jerusalem, the beautiful beaches vs the dry deserts and last but not least, the diversity between the religions and cultures. I have to say – it’s a lot to take in, but I’m also so happy I went. It’s a country you often see on the news due to the political conflicts, but also a country that I knew very little of. I did, however, hear a lot of positive stories about visiting Israel and all the beautiful attractions it has to offer. With my family, we were looking for a holiday where we could explore a totally new and different country, not too far away from home where we could spend a lovely week away during our Christmas Holidays.
When we started the booking process and picking our destinations in Israel, it soon became apparent that it wouldn’t be the most accessible country to get around in though. Due to the different conflicts and religious differences within the country, you’ll have to be aware of where to go and not go as well. I’ll be happy to share our experience and provide the Pros and Con’s of visiting this country.
1. All highlights are located super close to each other
When setting up our itinerary for 1-week, we had a hard time making a selection of what places to visit, as there are just so many things to see! Also, everything seems closeby, as the country isn’t too big – which makes it very tempting to visit. However, we quickly decided we did not want to travel around too much and also have a relaxing time together with the family over the holidays. We decided to make a tour of the south of Israel – visiting Tel Aviv (2 nights), Jerusalem (3 nights) and the Dead Sea area (2 nights in Arad).
Getting around is quite easy as well, we’ve booked an airport transfer from Abraham Tours, which brought us from the Ben Gurion Airport to our hotel in Tel Aviv city centre. It’s also possible to go by train and Taxi, but we preferred the easy way. Getting from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was quite easily done by train, as there’s a direct connection and it’s very affordable. For going to the Dead Sea & Dessert area, we decided to rent a car for a few days. We were able to pick up the cars (we needed 2 as we were with 6 people) in Jerusalem city centre and return it at Ben Gurion Airport. This gave us a bit more freedom to drive around and explore the country outside of the big cities. However, renting this car was quite an adventure in Jerusalem – it wasn’t easy due to the Shabbat and limited parking. I’ll tell you more about that under the Con’s of visiting Israel ;)
2. There’s so much to learn about culture, history and religion
The places we visited were so beautiful and diverse, there were so many interesting things to see and learn about! Everywhere, there are religious places to explore, of course, there are beliefs about the holy lands and Jesus’ visits there. There have been (and still are) plenty of battles between the inhabitants of the country and their surrounding populations. And finally, the recent history around the Jews moving to establish Israel after World War II.
We visited churches, synagogues, baptism sites, The Mount of Olives, the Western Wall, The Massada and Yad Vashem Museum as the most significant highlights. Make sure to schedule enough time for them so you can take it all in! We went to Yad Vashem on a rainy day and spend quite some hours there – it was very impressive and touching to read all the stories. Massada was also incredible to visit, we went up there as an early morning hike, to be able to watch the sunrise over the dead sea – truly magical! It’s such an ancient ruin on a very unique place on top of a very hard-to-reach mountain. The story of the people who lived there and did not want to surrender was very special to learn about.
3. Tel Aviv is such a vibrant and cool city!
Like mentioned above, Tel Aviv really feels like a bubble – such a cool, young and vibrant city that makes you feel like your in some European capital. Tel Aviv is perfect for relaxation at the beach, wandering around charming streets in Jaffa, shopping and enjoying the nightlife in the city centre. We did not go out partying or anything, but there were plenty of cool restaurants, cafes and bars to enjoy during our stay! The city is vivacious and we were lucky to have a sunny day of 25 degrees Celcius during wintertime! It’s very modern with high buildings, huge shopping streets and a lot of graffiti/street art (which is perfect for photography;)). You’ll also see a lot of hipsters and thousands of people passing by on electric steps, which apparently are a thing there ;) I would definitely return to Tel Aviv!
4. Diversity in landscapes: Beautiful Beaches vs Deserts
From the beautiful sandy beaches and blue ocean in Tel Aviv, we quickly went into the green hills to visit Jerusalem. We didn’t get to see much of nature there, but when leaving Jerusalem for the dead sea we did – and how amazing it was! The dead sea itself was a bit muddier than I expected, but the surroundings with the views on the mountains of Jordan were beautiful! Driving more southwards along the coast of the Dead Sea, we went more and more into a deserted area, which I personally love! We spotted wild camels and Rock Hyraxes in Ein Gedi National Park. Being used to all the green and flat lands in the Netherlands, I always love the raw nature, with different sand colours and rock formations! When going up to the Massada, we enjoyed the beautiful views over the dead sea during sunrise, it was amazing! I know there’s also the Negev Desert, more southwards, so I think this only gave a small glimpse of how beautiful and diverse the landscapes are in Israel.
5. The food is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!
If there’s one reason to go back to Israel, it must be the food! The tastes are so different due to all the fresh ingredients and spices they use in their cuisine. Of course, there’s the delicious humous everywhere, but we enjoyed really a lot of great food! Their food is perfect for sharing, just order some random things on the menu, and you’ll get some plates for everyone to try out – similar concept as the Spanish Tapas. On the downside – I personally hate Coriander, and that’s almost in every dish xD, So if you have the same issue as me, you’ll have to mention that when ordering, otherwise you’ll have to fish it out from your dish ;). There are so many nice restaurants where they serve food, at one restaurant, we were lucky enough to experience a Bar Mitswa party of a young boy and his family a fun experience to witness!
1. Your safety needs to be closely watched
We heard a lot of stories about Israel not being safe due to the conflicts with the Palestina areas (like the Gaza) and other neighbouring countries, which was also slightly reflected in the travel advice for the country. This might scare you off a lot, but fortunately, we quickly discovered we could feel very safe there. Especially in Tel Aviv, you won’t notice anything about these conflicts, and I feel like you’re kind of in a bubble there. In Jerusalem you’ll notice it a lot more, the first thing we noticed is that the train station was actually a huge underground bunker. Ready to welcome thousands of people when there would be a war. Things like that make you very much aware of the situation in this country, showing that peace is not a guaranteed thing like we’re so used to in the Netherlands. On the streets, we saw many soldiers, armed while walking around and not even working at that point. That was really strange to me as well, and I can understand that this could make people feel insecure and unsafe. Also, in Jerusalem, you can really feel the tension between the different religions and their different neighbourhoods – people really live in silos there. Despite all of this, I feel like they are very aware of these tensions and also, therefore, take all the precautions necessary to make sure your safety is closely watched. Airport security is the first thing you’ll notice when entering the country, they will take a lot of time for screening people entering and leaving the country. All in all, I did not feel like I had to be afraid of anything happening, but it’s was good to be aware that you’re not celebrating your vacations in a peaceful country.
2. The different religions can make your planning more difficult
It may sound weird, but all these religions and different cultures living together in one country can make it hard for you to plan your holidays. There’s a lot of things you need to take into consideration:
- In what neighbourhood to stay: each religion (especially in Jerusalem) are clustered together in certain neighbourhoods. It’s good to consider where you would feel most comfortable to stay.
- When to plan your activities: You’ll have to take into account the religious traditions and holidays. For instance, there’s the Shabbat for the Jews on Saturday, which actually already starts Friday afternoon, when the city basically shuts down. This means, a lot of shops and restaurants are closed and everyone is rushing to get home in time before the Shabbat starts.
- To anticipate on different languages: I can advise you to bring your accommodation details/address in Hebrew as well. If you make use of taxi’s or private transfers, this is really recommended to be able to show your driver the address in their native language, as English proficiency isn’t always guaranteed!
3. Limited Parking space in the cities
Free parking in Jerusalem city is a utopia: Get yourself an accommodation which has parking space, or just don’t go into the city centre by car (the tram connection is highly recommended). We did stay in an Airbnb in the city centre, and we decided therefore not to get a car from Tel Aviv when going to Jerusalem, because of limited parking. However, we did need to pick up our car in Jerusalem the day before Shabbat (because it was closed then). Meaning, we had to find a parking space right before Shabbat, which everyone is doing then at the same time, because they are not allowed to drive during. Trying to find free parking was a nightmare – getting lost in small streets, and when we thought we found a spot, it was actually for residents only. We decided to take our loss and go for paid parking, however, even that was very hard, as most parking garages also close on Shabbat. Luckily, we found the “Mamilla Parking Garage” Close to the Old town, which had reasonable prices. It was actually quite funny as it was the place where we picked up our car. So it would have been best just to keep it there until departure, rather than trying to find a spot closer to our apartment ;)
4. It’s quite an expensive country
We actually were quite surprised by the high prices in this country, they were similar to rates in the Netherlands actually. We mostly had a hard time finding affordable accommodations, mainly since we wanted to get an apartment for 6 persons to stay together. Even though we started booking everything well in advance, it was challenging to find nice places for a decent price, so we often ended up for 50 EUR per person per night. Also, going out for dinner is not the cheapest, to cut back on this a bit, you can order shared platters, which are often really good!
5. National Parks close quite early in the day
Our plan was to visit Ein Gedi National Park and Massada National park, basically in one day. However, when we arrived at both sites, we were sent away cause the parks were closing soon or already closed, even though it was not nearly getting dark yet. We arrived at Ein Gedi at 2pm, however, it appeared that a lot of the park gets shut down after a certain time and you’re not allowed to go up certain walks then anymore – they don’t really trust you to manage your time yourself and get out the park before dark. At Massada, we arrived at the parking and when we got out of the car – there was actually a woman screaming through a microphone that we needed to get back to our car since the cable cart was closed. It was quite funny but disappointing at the same time, since the time we arrived there was only 3 ‘o clock. Luckily, we had another day planned for the area, so we were able to return the next day and be well in time. But it’s important to consider this if you’re thinking of visiting National Parks later in the day.
All in all, I’m still thrilled we went to Israel, and would definitely want to return. I tried to cover as much as possible from my experience, but it’s tough to put everything into words, and there are so many pictures I would love to share! I can only say – just go there and experience it for yourself! It’s not a standard and easy country to travel to, but that’s also what it makes very special. Especially Tel Aviv really invited me to come back again during summertime and just have a relaxing holiday there, maybe visiting more of the north of the country then as well!