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Introduction to Israel

Israel Flag

Everyone has their own perception of what Israel and the Palestinian Territories (or just 'Israel' for brevity) are about: it's a travel agency package of beaches and sun; it's the Promised Land of the Jews; it's a ticking time bomb; it's the birthplace of Christ. And while it is all of these things, it's much more besides.

Israel is a bustling, noisy, modern country. It's best not to arrive with preconceptions of spiritual epiphany. If you do, you'll almost certainly have them confirmed, but in doing so you run the risk of missing the best that this fascinating country has to offer.

If you want to understand Israel, take time to visit the new, cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv, dive the Red Sea at Eilat, explore some of the country's thriving national parks and float for hours in the salty stillness of the Dead Sea. Look beyond the larger-than-life figures of the past and have a chat to your bus driver or hostel owner.

Traveler Facts

  • Time Zone: GMT/UTC +2
  • Dialling Code: 972
  • Electricity: 230V ,50Hz
  • Weights & measures: Metric
  • Currency: Shekel (ILS or NIS)

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Events

Not surprisingly, Israeli holidays and festivals are mostly religious. Keep an eye out for Jewish holidays, in particular, as the country really does grind to a halt on these days and you'll have to put your travel plans on hold. The Jewish sabbath day, Shabbat, is celebrated from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, and no work may be done on this day. Yom Kippur, in October, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. This is the day of atonement, and it is marked with 25 hours of abstinence from just about everything, combined with prayer, contemplation and confession. The Feast of Passover celebrates the Jewish exodus, led by Moses, from Egypt. For a week in April everyone eats matza, a flat, tasteless bread. Jewish festivals aren't all abstinence and abnegation, though - during Purim, held in March to celebrate Jewish resistance to assimilation, everyone is required to get so drunk that they can't distinguish the words 'bless Mordechai' from 'curse Haman'.

The big one for Muslims is Ramadan, a month where everyone fasts between sunup and sunset to conform to the fourth pillar of Islam. If you're in Israel at this time, be sensitive to the fact that most of the Muslims around you are very, very hungry. Ramadan ends with a huge feast, Eid al-Fitr, where everyone prays together, visits friends, gives presents and stuffs themselves.

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Best time to Visit

Climate shouldn't be a major factor in your choice of when to go to Israel - whatever time of year it is, some part of the country is always pleasant. You might want to avoid major Jewish holidays, as the country fills up with pilgrims, accommodation prices go up and it's almost impossible to travel between cities.



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Costs / Approx. Spending

Meals

Budget: NIS10-45

Mid-range: NIS45-90

High: NIS90-180

Deluxe: NIS180+

Lodging

Budget: NIS15-90

Mid-range: NIS90-450

High: NIS450-1500

Deluxe: NIS1500+

You can bring as much foreign and local currency as you've got into Israel, which is lucky because you're going to need it. Israel is pricey, but you will get what you pay for. If you're on a tight budget you can get a pretty good dorm bed for $7 upwards. If you want a double room with its own bathroom, you'll be looking at around $50. Food is the real budget breaker - although it's possible to live on three felafel rolls a day for about $2, realistically you'll need $10-16 if you're ever going to get a break from street food. For $25-30 you should be able to get decent accommodation, eat well and travel around, but if you want to drink, go to museums or take a tour that will quickly blow out.

Up-market spots will be just as happy to take US dollars as NIS, and if you pay this way you'll save yourself 17% VAT. However, if you're frequenting the lower end of the market, you'll need shekels. US dollars are the easiest to change, and anywhere will change them, but most other hard currencies as well as travellers' cheques are also widely accepted. Israelis are renowned for living on credit, and most places will take your plastic. ATMs are also widespread, and the majority of them take international credit cards.

The tipping culture has hit Israel with a vengeance, and you'll be expected to give at least 15% whether it's been earned or not. Hospitality workers are paid a pittance - keep it in mind when you're wondering whether to shell out those extra shekels. Although there's a value added tax on most goods, you should be able to get a refund if you can face up to the hideously bureaucratic procedure involved.

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Attractions

Jerusalem

They don't come any holier than this. Jews, Muslims, Christians: all three hold Jerusalem sacred. Of course, most people come to Jerusalem to immerse themselves in the people and places of its holy history, but try to remember that Jerusalem is also a modern city, full of living, breathing people.

The city is divided into three parts: the walled Old City, where most of the sights are; the predominantly Arab East Jerusalem; and the rapidly expanding new city, known as West Jerusalem. The Old City is also divided, into Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters.

Bethlehem

Bethlehem is a cynic's delight, with Manger Square, Manger St, Star St, Shepherds' St, two Shepherds' Fields and an unheavenly host of 'Christmases'. If you've got even the remotest Christian background, you'll likely end up here. Bethlehem is built around Manger Square and the town carpark.

The Church of the Nativity is the raison d'être of this holy town, and is one of the world's oldest working churches. Built over the spot where Jesus is said to have been born, it's a suitably august and venerable piece of architecture.

Galilee

Serious Bible territory, this is where Jesus did most of his preaching as well as a spot of water walking and some fish multiplying. It's also Israel's lushest region, with green valleys, verdant forests, fertile farmland and the Sea of Galilee.

Nazareth, Jesus' childhood home, is a popular destination for pilgrims, but not much chop for the casual visitor. Although there are some important churches here, such as the Basilica of the Annunciation where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, the town itself has seen better days.

Tel Aviv

Less than a century old, Tel Aviv is about finance, business and fun - it's pretty hard to compete with Jerusalem's three millennia of history, so Tel Aviv doesn't even try. Nearly everyone who lives here came from somewhere else, a short walk through the city will uncover this diverse cultural mix.

From the spicy orientalism of the Yemenite Quarter, the seedy vodka cafes of Allenby St and the Miami chic of pastel pink beachfront condos, Tel Aviv isn't big on historical wonders, but if you've been to Jerusalem you've probably had a gutful anyway.

The Dead Sea

It may be clichéd, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. No trip to Israel is complete without a float in the Dead Sea. You'll be doing your body a favour as the water is packed full of invigorating minerals and there's 10% more oxygen in the air here than at sea level.

The area around the Dead Sea has plenty to keep you entertained once you've floated to your heart's content. Ein Gedi is one of the country's most attractive oases, a lush area of freshwater springs, waterfalls, pools and tropical vegetation and a haven for desert wildlife.

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