Within its small perimeter, Israel packs in abundant riches, from cherished religious sites and well-preserved archaeological treasures to spectacular natural wonders. Holy land to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, this is where biblical place-names like Jerusalem and the Galilee come vibrantly alive. Here, too, you can party by the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv, float in the super-salty Dead Sea, and explore cool mountain waterfalls or sweeping desert landscapes. Whether you’re in a shrine or on a hiking trail, Israel is a place to renew the spirit.
Many large cruise companies, including Costa, Holland America, Regent Seven Seas, and Seabourn have Mediterranean itineraries that include stops at the Israeli ports of Ashdod and Haifa. In addition, the Israeli company Mano sails from Haifa to many points in the Mediterranean between April and November.
The least expensive airfares to Israel are often priced for round-trip travel and must be purchased well in advance. Airlines generally allow you to change your return date for a fee; most low-fare tickets, however, are nonrefundable.
Flights to Israel tend to be least expensive from November through March, except for the holiday season at the end of December. Prices are higher during the Jewish High Holiday period (usually in September or October) and Passover (usually in April).
Flying time from New York to Israel is approximately 11 hours; from Los Angeles or San Francisco, it’s about 14 hours nonstop, or 18 to 19 hours with the usual stopover in Europe or New York. International passengers are asked to arrive at the airport three hours prior to their flight time in order to allow for security checks.
From North America, the New York City area international airports have the highest number of nonstop flights, with El Al Airlines, United, and Delta providing nonstop service. Direct flights are also available on El Al from Los Angeles, Boston, and Toronto, and on United from San Francisco. Major European carriers—including Aeroflot, Air France, Alitalia, Austrian Airways, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, Czech Airlines, Iberia, KLM, Lot, Lufthansa, Swissair, Turkish Airways, and Virgin Atlantic—have daily flights from the United States and on to Israel with stopovers in their domestic hub airports.
Because Israel is only slightly larger than New Jersey, it’s more efficient to drive within the country than fly. The exception is the resort city of Eilat, which is about 360 km (224 miles) south of Tel Aviv on the Gulf of Aqaba. There are flights several times a day from Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Reconfirmation obligations differ from airline to airline (and change from time to time); be certain to check with your carrier for all legs of your journey.
Israel’s main airport, Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV), is a few miles southeast of Tel Aviv. The airport has towering interior walls of Jerusalem stone adorned with 5th- and 6th-century Byzantine mosaics discovered throughout Israel. A soothing fountain is in the center of the departure hall, which has plenty of comfortable seating and cafés. Free Wi-Fi means you can stay connected while waiting for your flight. The spacious food court serves Middle Eastern cuisine and fast-food favorites. From Sde Dov Airport (SDV), about 2½ miles north of Tel Aviv’s center, domestic airlines fly to Eilat in the south and Haifa or Rosh Pina in the north.
From October to April, there are charter flights to the Red Sea resort town of Eilat from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Helsinki, and Tallinn. There are also charter flights to Eilat from Paris and London during the Jewish holiday months of September and October. Eilat will close its current airport and open a new international airport in 2017; Ramon Airport (www.iaa.gov.il) will be 12 miles north of the current one in the city center. All international charters to Eilat land at Ovda Airport (VDA), about 37 miles north of Eilat; Ovda may close for civilian flights when the new Ramon Airport opens.
The quickest and most convenient way to get to and from Ben Gurion International Airport is by taxi. Taxis are always available outside the arrivals hall and charge fixed prices. Fares are NIS 155 to Tel Aviv and NIS 288 to Jerusalem, plus NIS 4.50 per piece of luggage. Between 9 pm and 5:30 am, prices are NIS 175 to Tel Aviv and NIS 345 to Jerusalem.
From the airport, trains depart for Tel Aviv every half hour. They take you to the city in 15 minutes for NIS 13.50. Trains continue on to Herzliya, Netanya, Haifa, Akko, and Nahariya. For Jerusalem, change at Haganah Station in Tel Aviv, and expect a two-hour commute.
The Nesher shuttle service takes you to Jerusalem for NIS 64. The 10-passenger sherut taxis (minibuses) depart whenever they fill up. The main disadvantage is that there’s no telling if you’ll be the last passenger to be dropped off, so it can take an hour while the driver lets off the other passengers. To get to Ben Gurion International Airport from Jerusalem the same way, call Nesher a day in advance. Otherwise order a private cab from any taxi company, called a “special” taxi, for the fixed price of NIS 290, or NIS 340 after 9 pm nightly and on Saturday and holidays.
If you depart for the airport from central Tel Aviv by car or taxi at rush hour (7 to 9 am, 5 to 7 pm), note that the roads can get clogged. Allow 45 minutes for a trip that would otherwise take only about 20 minutes.
Taking the bus from Ben Gurion International Airport to Jerusalem is tedious. Board the Egged local shuttle (line 5, NIS 5.80) for the 10-minute ride to the El Al Junction, and wait there for a Jerusalem-bound bus (line 425 or 947, NIS 25). It runs to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station about every 30 minutes during the day, less frequently in the evening.
Buses can take you almost anywhere in Israel. Most in Jerusalem are run by Egged and most buses in Tel Aviv are serviced by Dan, though other city bus companies also operate. Buses in Israel are clean, comfortable, air-conditioned, and some have Wi-Fi. Intercity bus fares vary according to distance traveled. During weekday rush hours, allow time for long lines at the obligatory security checks to enter most bus stations. Buses are often overcrowded on Saturday night as people return home after Shabbat and always packed on Sunday morning when it looks like the entire Israeli army is returning to base after a weekend at home
The Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv resembles an M.C. Escher drawing: a jumble of staircases and escalators appearing to lead nowhere. The stark concrete building has multiple entrances and exits on several levels, endless corridors, and a dizzying array of platforms. It’s all topped off by dozens of kiosks selling fast food and cheap merchandise, plus Asian minimarkets serving the local community of foreign workers. By contrast, Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station is clean, well-organized, and easy to navigate. There’s a pleasant enough food court, ATMs, information desk, and branches of some of the country’s best-known stores.
Although buses resemble those in most other countries, there are a few quirks. When you’re in Jerusalem, lines 1 and 3 primarily service ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods and end at the Western Wall area. On bus lines like these, it’s generally accepted that women sit separately, in the back of the bus, and men in the front half. Although gender segregation is not compulsory by law, in ultra-Orthodox society it is the norm. If you’re a woman and sit in an empty seat next to an ultra-Orthodox man, you shouldn’t be surprised if he would rather stand than sit beside you. (In case you’re wondering, ultra-Orthodox women generally accept this arrangement.)
Frequent bus service is available between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Egged Bus 405 runs from the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station every 15–20 minutes, and Bus 480 from the Arlozorov Street terminal (near the Savidor train station in Tel Aviv) leaves a bit more frequently, depending on the time of day (NIS 16 for each). There’s a similar service to Jerusalem from most major cities, terminating at the Central Bus Station. The three small bus stations in East Jerusalem are for Palestinian-operated bus lines, with daily service to West Bank towns such as Bethlehem and Ramallah. The main bus depot is next to Damascus Gate light-rail stop.
For both local and long-distance travel, drivers accept payment in shekels. Drivers on long-distance buses grumble when they have to make change for a bill over NIS 100, so make sure to have smaller denominations. Unless you are running to catch a bus, it’s almost always faster to buy your ticket at the office in the bus station. On city buses you don’t need exact change. Children under age five ride free whether or not they occupy their own seat.
If you need a round-trip bus ticket, you have to buy an electronic Rav Kav card from the bus driver. It costs NIS 5 but you can load money on the card and use it for all tickets on all Israeli buses, trains, and Jerusalem’s city tram.
The fare on most central city routes is NIS 5.90. If taking another bus within 90 minutes, ask for a free ma’avar, or transfer ticket.
Intercity fares are based on distance traveled. The one-hour trip between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem cost NIS 16, while the 2½-hour journey between Tel Aviv and Tiberias runs NIS 37.50. There are no advance reservations except to Eilat or the Dead Sea area.
Most major bus lines are available Sunday to Thursday from about 6 am to midnight. Keep in mind that public transportation in all cities except Haifa ceases to run on Jewish holidays and Shabbat, which lasts from sundown Friday afternoon to an hour after sundown Saturday evening. Be sure to give yourself extra time if traveling just before Shabbat.
Every large bus station has an information booth with schedule and platform information in English. The Egged website has an easy-to-use trip planner that includes timetables, routes, and fares.
Taxis are the most convenient way to get around cities. They’re not cheap, but if you need to get somewhere fast or are unfamiliar with the area, a taxi (monit in Hebrew) is your best bet. Hail one on the street or order by phone. Taxis are white sedans with a yellow sign on the roof. On the whole, drivers are knowledgeable, talkative, and like to practice their English with tourists. But be warned: some try to take advantage of tourists, charge hefty prices, or run up the meter.
According to law, taxi drivers must use the meter. Be firm when you request this (moneh is meter in Hebrew) and make sure the meter is running at the beginning of the ride. The exception is if you hire a driver for the day or a trip out of town, for which there are set rates. In those cases, agree on the price before you begin the journey and assume that the driver has built in a tip. In the event of a serious problem with the driver, report his cab number (on the illuminated plastic sign on the roof) or license plate number to the Ministry of Tourism or the Ministry of Transport. It is not customary to tip drivers.
Certain shared taxis or minivans have fixed rates and run set routes, such as from Tel Aviv to Haifa or from the airport to Jerusalem or Haifa; such a taxi is called a sherut (as opposed to a “special,” the term used for a private cab). Some sheruts can be booked in advance.
Sheruts are an option if traveling between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They operate from the (grungy) side street alongside Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station seven days a week, departing when they fill up (NIS 24 on weekdays; NIS 35 on Saturday). They end their journey with stops near the Jerusalem Central Bus Station and 31 Haneviim Street, about a block from Zion Square. From Jerusalem, the sherut leaves from 31 Haneviim Street. A “special” cab on this route costs NIS 320, or about NIS 350 after 9 pm and on Saturday and holidays.
Most hotels in Israel have connections for laptops, and most have wireless access. Ask about the price, as some charge for the privilege. You can also find Internet access in most cafés. Tel Aviv has free public Wi-Fi, and Jerusalem has free Wi-Fi in the downtown area, in the German Colony, and Safra Square. Ben Gurion and Eilat airports also have free Wi-Fi.
Israel’s landline phone numbers have seven digits, beginning with a two-digit area code, and mobile phone numbers have 10 digits, beginning with a three-digit prefix. Toll-free numbers in Israel begin with 177, 1800, 1700, or 1888. Many toll-free customer service numbers begin with an asterisk followed by four digits. When calling an out-of-town number within Israel, be sure to dial the zero that begins every area code.
The country code for Israel is 972. When dialing an Israeli number from abroad, drop the initial 0 from the local area code. The country code for Jordan is 962. When dialing from Israel, dial 00962 and the area code 3 before landline numbers in Petra; for Amman, use 00962 and the area code 6. When dialing within Jordan, include the initial 0 from the area code.
Calling Within Israel
Making a local call in Israel is quite simple. All public telephones use phone cards that may be purchased at newspaper kiosks and post offices. Pick up the receiver, insert the card in the slot, dial the number when you hear the tone, and the number of units remaining on the card appears on the screen. One unit equals about two minutes. From 7 pm to 7 am, calls are much cheaper.
The area codes for dialing between cities within Israel are Jerusalem (02); Tel Aviv (03); Netanya and Herzliya (09); Haifa, Galilee, Tiberias, Tzfat, and Nazareth (04); Eilat and the Negev (08).
Dial 144 for directory or operator assistance. Operators all speak English. Dial 188 for an international operator.
Calling Outside Israel
When calling internationally direct from Israel, first dial 00 then the country code. The country code for the United States and Canada is 1.
You can make international calls using a telecard from a public phone. A call from Israel to the United States costs 2.5 units a minute, or about 40¢ per minute.
If you have a multiband phone and your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (like T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon), you can probably use your phone abroad. Roaming fees can be steep, however: 99¢ a minute is considered reasonable. Overseas you normally pay the toll charges for incoming calls. It’s almost always cheaper to send a text message than to make a call.
If you just want to make local calls, consider buying a new SIM card (note that your provider may have to unlock your phone to allow a different SIM card) and a prepaid service plan in the destination. You then have a local number and can make local calls at local rates.
If you travel internationally frequently, save one of your old mobile phones or buy a cheap one on the Internet; ask your cell-phone company to unlock it for you, and take it with you as a travel phone, buying a new SIM card with pay-as-you-go service in each destination.
Depending on your cell phone provider’s global roaming rates, it could be cheaper to rent a cell phone at Ben Gurion International Airport or order a rental phone to arrive at your address before leaving for Israel. Rental booths are in the airport arrivals hall.
Israeli restaurants are sophisticated and varied, as one would expect from a country with immigrants from dozens of countries and a well-traveled population. Be sure to sample the culinary traditions of the Middle East at neighborhood restaurants. Here you fill up on dishes such as hummus and warmed pita bread accompanied by a variety of skewered grilled meats, bowls of falafel, and an astonishing array of fresh salads and mezze. Unlike the street version, pita is served on the side to tear into pieces and dip into mezzes, and portions tend to be very generous. Restaurants in Eilat, Haifa, and Tel Aviv take advantage of their seaside location to serve the best in seafood dishes, and in the major cities it’s not difficult to find authentic Italian, Georgian, Latin American, French, Japanese, and American food.
While “kosher” once meant “boring,” the number of inventive and sophisticated kosher restaurants is growing. Restaurants certified as kosher by the local rabbinate in every city are required to display a dated and signed Hebrew certificate. All the major hotels throughout the country are kosher and their restaurants and cafés welcome nonguests. The website eLuna is a good source for listings, reviews, and discount coupons for kosher eateries.
Meals and Mealtimes
Hotels serve a huge, buffet-style breakfast called arukhat boker, comprising a variety of breads and rolls, eggs, cereal, excellent yogurt, local cheeses, olives, vegetables, fish salads, and such American-style breakfast foods as pancakes and granola. (It’s generally included in hotel rates.) You can find the same spread at many cafés. Outdoor coffee shops serving salads, sandwiches, cakes, and delicious coffee abound. Every city and small town has modestly priced restaurants that open midmorning and serve soup, salad, and grilled meats.
Many restaurants have business lunch specials or fixed-price menus, but à la carte menus are most common. A service charge (sherut) of 10% to 15% is sometimes levied and should be noted separately on your bill.
Because Friday isn’t a workday for most Israelis, Thursday night is the big night out at the start of the weekend, when cafés and restaurants fill up quickly. Friday mornings at Israeli cafés are the equivalent of the U.S.–style Sunday brunch.
Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants, but always check first. Tips between 12% and 15% can usually only be paid in cash, but sometimes restaurants can add the tip to your credit card if you ask. If you’re dining in a smaller town or village, make sure you have sufficient cash with you, as credit cards are sometimes not accepted.
Reservations and Dress
Dress in all but the most expensive Israeli restaurants is generally casual. Except for some restaurants in five-star hotels, men don’t need a jacket and tie. Israeli restaurants in the larger cities fill up in the evening. Unless you’re dining early—before 7 pm—reservations are advised for all except the smallest neighborhood restaurants.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Wine has deep roots in Israeli culture. Israel is one of the earliest wine-producing areas in the world, and the symbol of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism is a large cluster of grapes borne on a pole by two men—straight from the Bible story of the spies sent to fetch fruit from the Promised Land. Wineries built during the 19th century are still producing wine today, and a plethora of boutique wineries have sprung up in the past decade. Dalton, Domaine du Castel, Tishbi, Yarden, and Carmel are good bets and on many Israeli wine lists. As for spirits, those with a taste for Greek ouzo may enjoy the comparable local arak. Sabra is a locally produced chocolate- and orange-flavored liqueur.
The commercially produced beers in Israel are Maccabee and Goldstar (lagers), and Carlsberg, Heineken, and Tuborg are popular imports. Beer is most commonly available by the bottle, though most bars serve it on draft. In recent years, the microbrew trend has hit Israel, with more than 20 boutique breweries producing craft beers and some winning awards in international competitions. Ask for Dancing Camel or Malka, if you’re adventurous. The Palestinian beer Taybeh is very popular and often available in Israeli bars.
Israel has an extremely sophisticated emergency response system and a high percentage of citizens who are trained medics. If you find yourself in any kind of medical or security emergency in a public place, the professional and citizen response is likely to be instantaneous.
To obtain police assistance at any time, dial 100. For emergency ambulance service, run by Magen David Adom, dial 101. To report a fire, dial 102. Emergency calls are free at public phones.
Emergency rooms in major hospitals are on duty 24 hours a day. Be sure to take your passport with you. There is a fee.
Eilat and the Negev
Three hospitals serve the Negev: Soroka in Beersheva, Barzilai in Ashkelon, and Yoseftal in Eilat. All have English speakers on staff and 24-hour emergency rooms (bring your insurance documents). At this writing, Yoseftal faced possible closure at the end of 2017.
The privately run Terem Emergency Care Center in Jerusalem provides first aid and full medical attention, 24 hours a day, at its Romema and Bikur Holim clinics, and more limited hours at its third Jerusalem location.
The major hospitals in Jerusalem are Hadassah Ein Kerem, Shaare Zedek near Mount Herzl, and Hadassah Mount Scopus.
Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (also known as Ichilov Hospital) is in north Tel Aviv, about a 10-minute drive (depending on traffic) from downtown. There’s a 24-hour emergency room. Be sure to bring your passport with you. You are provided with all records in English for your insurance providers at home.
No vaccinations are required to visit Israel. The country has one of the world’s most advanced health-care systems. Most doctors at emergency clinics and hospitals in Israel speak English. Emergency and trauma care are among the best in the world.
It’s safe to drink tap water and eat fresh produce after it’s been washed as well as food from outdoor stands. Heatstroke and dehydration are real dangers if you’re going to be outdoors for any length of time. A sun hat and sunblock are musts, as is plenty of bottled water (available even in the most remote places) to guard against dehydration. Take at least one liter per person for every hour you plan to be outside. Use sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Most supermarkets and pharmacies carry sunscreen in a range of SPFs, but it’s much more expensive than in the United States.
U.S. brands of mosquito repellent with DEET are available in pharmacies and supermarkets. Wear light, long-sleeved clothing, and long pants particularly at dusk, when mosquitoes are most likely to attack.
Yad Sarah is a nationwide voluntary organization that lends medical equipment and accessories such as wheelchairs, crutches, and canes. There’s no charge, but a contribution is expected. In Jerusalem, it’s open Sunday to Thursday 8:30 to 6:45 and Friday 8:30 to 11:45. Equipment can be returned elsewhere in the country.
At the pharmacy (beit mirkachat), it’s easy to find many of the same over-the-counter remedies as at home. Imodium (Rekamide) and Pepto-Bismol (the local version is Kal Beten) are available over the counter at every pharmacy. Everyday pain relievers such as Tylenol (called Acamol) and Advil are also widely available. You need a prescription for antibiotics. Medication can be obtained from pharmacies, which are plentiful. English is spoken in the majority of pharmacies. Locally produced medication is fairly inexpensive, but expect to pay more for drugs that are imported.
The municipal website of every city lists the pharmacies on duty at night, on Saturday, and holidays. This information is also available from Magen David Adom. In Jerusalem, Super-Pharm on the pedestrian mall is open Sunday to Thursday 8 am to 2 am, Friday 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, and Saturday one hour after the Sabbath ends until 2 am.
In Eilat, Michlin Pharmacy delivers to your hotel and is open Sunday to Thursday 8 am to 9 pm and Friday 8 to 3. Super-Pharm Mul Hayam is open Sunday to Thursday 9 am to 1 am, Friday 8:30 to midnight, and Saturday 9 am–1 am. There are also pharmacies in this region in Arad, Beersheva, and Mitzpe Ramon.
Israel is a very casual country, and comfort comes first. For touring in the hot summer months, wear cool, easy-care clothing and sensible shoes for walking. If coming between May and September, you don’t need a coat, but you should bring a sun hat that completely shades your face and neck. Take one light sweater for cool nights, particularly in hilly areas (including in and around Jerusalem) and the desert. Also take long pants to protect your legs and a spare pair of walking shoes for adventure travel or hiking shoes for more serious hiking. A raincoat with a zip-out lining is ideal for October to April, when the weather can get cold enough for snow (and is as likely to be warm enough in the south for outdoor swimming). Rain boots may also be a useful accessory in winter. Pack a bathing suit for all seasons.
Note that many religious sites forbid shorts and sleeveless shirts for both sexes, so a light scarf comes in handy to throw over the shoulders. Women should bring modest dress for general touring in religious neighborhoods.
Along with a sun hat, take sunscreen, insect repellent, and sunglasses in summer. Essentials such as contact-lens solution and feminine hygiene supplies are available everywhere but are more costly than in North America.
Public restrooms are plentiful in Israel and similar in facilities and cleanliness to those in the United States. At gas stations and some parks, toilet paper is sometimes in short supply, so you might want to carry some with you. Few public sinks, except those at hotels, have hot water, but most dispense liquid soap. Occasionally you may be asked to pay 1 shekel at some facilities.
A value-added tax (V.A.T.) of 17% is charged on all purchases and transactions except tourists’ hotel bills and car rentals paid in foreign currency (cash, traveler’s checks, or foreign credit cards). Upon departure, you’re entitled to a refund of tax on purchases made in foreign currency of more than NIS 400 (about US$100) on one invoice; but the refund isn’t mandatory, and not all stores provide V.A.T. return forms. Stores so organized display “tax refund for tourists” stickers, or you can inquire. Make sure you fill out the tax refund form.
Keep your receipts and the tax refund form, and ask for a cash refund at Ben Gurion Airport. Change Place Ltd. has a special desk for this purpose in the departures hall in Terminal 3. You also need to present the items you purchased.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for tipping in Israel. Locals do not tip taxi drivers. In other situations, a gratuity for good service is in order. If you’ve negotiated a price, assume the tip has been built in. If a restaurant bill doesn’t include service, locals tend to tip 12% to 15%—round up if the service was particularly good, down if it was dismal. Hotel bellboys should be tipped a lump sum of NIS 10 to NIS 20, not per bag. Tipping is customary for tour guides, tour-bus drivers, and chauffeurs. Bus groups normally tip their guide NIS 30 to NIS 40 per person per day, and half that for the driver. Private guides normally get tipped NIS 100 to NIS 120 a day from the whole party. Both the person who washes your hair and the stylist expect a small tip—except if one of them owns the salon. Leave NIS 10 per day for your hotel’s housekeeping staff, and the same for spa personnel.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.
Biking has taken off in Israel, with tens of thousands of avid cyclists hitting the trails every year. With mountains, deserts, and wooded hills, this small country is ideal for two-wheel adventures. Off-road tours take you to remote archaeological sites and other places not reachable by car. The Keren Kayemet LeIsrael (Jewish National Fund) has information about trails through some beautiful areas. Keep in mind that the going can get rough due to the summer’s extreme heat, and there are winding and hilly roads with aggressive drivers. The weather is best from September to June.
Urban biking is also becoming popular. Tel Aviv has 75 miles of designated bike lanes and a bike rental system. Look for the green Tel-O-Fun pay stations throughout the city. Use a credit card to pay the daily fee of NIS 17 (NIS 23 on Saturday and holidays) or a weekly fee of NIS 70. If you need help, dial *6070 to talk to the call center.
In Jerusalem, there are a number of bicycle paths to ride, including the landscaped 3-mile pedestrian and bike path that goes along the old train tracks, starting at the First Station, where you can rent bicycles. A new circular bike trail opened in Jerusalem’s Metropolitan Park, and there are plans to expand it in the coming years.
Bikes are welcome on intercity buses with luggage holds. Trains accept bikes Sunday through Thursday during nonpeak hours (between 9 and 3 and after 7) and anytime on Friday. Folding bicycles stored in carrying bags are always allowed.
Bike maps in English can be hard to find, but Israel Bike Trails has comprehensive trail information listing elevations and levels of difficulty on its website.
The Hebrew word for a native-born Israeli is sabra, which is the name of a prickly cactus that’s sweet inside. You meet sweet Israelis if you get lost or have automotive difficulties—helping hands are quick to arrive—but behind the wheel, Israelis are aggressive and honk their horns far more than their Western counterparts.
Some travelers feel more comfortable hiring a driver, and there are plenty of ways to find someone reliable. Ask for recommendations at your hotel. Every hotel has taxi drivers who serve their guests, and most are familiar with all parts of the country and happy to quote you a daily rate.
Israel’s highways are numbered, but most people still know them simply by the towns they connect: the Tiberias–Nazareth Road, for example. Intersections and turnoffs are similarly indicated, as in “the Tiberias Junction.” Brown signs indicate tourist sites.
In Israel, streets are generally named after famous people or events, meaning that almost every community has a Herzl Street and a Ben Gurion Street. Don’t worry about the “boulevard” or “alley” attached to many street names—Israelis just use the proper name. You don’t find a Jabotinsky Street and a Jabotinsky Alley in the same city. What you likely encounter is a street that changes names after a couple of blocks. Street numbers follow the standard format, with odd numbers on one side and even numbers on the other.
If you know history, you’ll have an easier time finding your way around Jerusalem’s neighborhoods. In Baka a block of streets are named after biblical tribes, in Rehavia they’re medieval Jewish scholars, and in Old Katamon, the brigades who fought in Israel’s War of Independence.
Towns in Israel that have functioning Old Cities, some dating back to biblical times, include Jerusalem, Jaffa, Akko, and Tzfat. Streets and alleys in these areas have names, but sometimes it’s hard to find numbers.
Gas stations are found at regular intervals along the country’s major highways, except in the Negev. On highways they’re generally always open, while those in the city tend to close at midnight. Prices are standardized, so it doesn’t matter which station you choose (though gas tends to be cheaper in Eilat). Most offer both full- and self-service pumps. If you go the full-service route, ask for a kabbalah (receipt). Attendants don’t expect to be tipped. Most rental cars take unleaded gas, which at the time of this writing costs NIS 6.15 per liter. Most stations accept international credit cards.
In Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, parking laws are stringently enforced. Expect a ticket of NIS 100 on your windshield if you’ve overstayed your welcome at a paid parking spot. Cars are towed if parked in a no-parking zone. Pay attention to the curb, as parking is forbidden where it’s painted red. In downtown areas, parking is permitted only where there are blue and white stripes on the curb, meters, or pay stations.
Parking in Jerusalem costs NIS 5.70 per hour, and in central areas, pay stations print out small parking tickets to wedge at the top of the car window on the curb side. Parking in Tel Aviv costs NIS 6.20 an hour and you can only pay with a cell phone payment service like Pango. Read the signs carefully: in some areas free evening parking begins at 6, in others at 7 or 8.
Sound complicated? Stick to parking lots. Covered and open parking lots are plentiful in the major cities and can cost around NIS 15 per hour or NIS 70 per day.
If you plan on heading north to the Golan or Upper Galilee, a rental car is a significant time-saver. If sticking to cities, a rental car is often more bother than boon. In Jerusalem, a combination of walking and taking cabs and the city tram is your best bet.
Familiar American car-rental companies operate in Israel, as do local ones such as Eldan. Rental rates in Israel start at around US$35 per day and US$200 per week for an economy car. Minivans and four-wheel-drive vehicles are very popular and should be reserved well in advance, especially during high season. Allow plenty of time to pick up and drop off your vehicle if renting from a city office.
Drivers must be at least 21. Your driver’s license is acceptable in Israel.
Rental Cars in the West Bank
There are no restrictions on driving Israeli rental cars into West Bank areas under full Israeli control (known as Area C). However, your rental-car insurance coverage doesn’t extend to West Bank areas under Palestinian control. If you rent from companies at the airport, in Tel Aviv, or in West Jerusalem, you are unable to drive the car to Bethlehem, Jericho, and other towns under the Palestinian Authority. If you plan on visiting these areas by car, use Dallah or one of the other Palestinian-operated car-rental companies in East Jerusalem. Have your passport with you to show Israeli guards at West Bank checkpoints if asked.
Even if you’re using GPS, it’s always a good idea to discuss possible routes with your car rental company if you plan on passing through the West Bank.
Train travel between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is more a pleasant and scenic excursion than an efficient way to travel. The journey currently takes nearly an hour and a half, compared to an hour by bus. It’s a comfortable ride, and many just do it for the attractive scenery. The train, which departs every one to two hours, runs nonstop between Jerusalem’s Malcha Station and Tel Aviv’s Savidor Station. There are connections to Haifa and other destinations to the north. Service ends midafternoon on Friday and resumes about two hours after dark on Saturday. The fare to or from Tel Aviv is NIS 20 one way and NIS 32 round-trip.
Other cities—including Ashkelon, Beersheva, Beit Shemesh, Haifa, Herzliya, Akko, and Nahariya—are easily reachable by train from Tel Aviv. There are no different classes of service. All carriages are clean, spacious, and comfortable with well-upholstered seats. They’re often crowded, however.
All train stations post up-to-date schedules in English. Complete schedules are also available on the website of the Israel Railway Authority. Tickets may be purchased at the ticket office in the station. Reserved seats are available Sunday to Thursday and may be bought up to a week in advance at the ticket office. Reserved seating is not available for the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv line and other short rides in metropolitan areas.
Jerusalem has a light-rail train, the country’s first. It’s a much more comfortable way to traverse the city than the bumpy roller-coaster rides on the city’s buses. There’s only one tram line, but it hits many points of interest.
For visitors with nothing to declare, clearing customs at Ben Gurion International Airport requires simply following the clearly marked green line to the baggage claims hall. There are generally no lines and customs inspectors rarely examine luggage. The red line for those with items to declare is next to the green line. Those over 17 may import into Israel duty-free: 250 grams of tobacco products; 2 liters of wine and 1 liter of spirits; ¼ liter of eau de cologne or perfume; and gifts totaling no more than US$200 in value. You may also import up to 3 kg of food products, but no fresh meat.
You may bring a pet if you bring a general health certificate in English issued by a government veterinary officer in your country of origin issued within 10 days prior to travel. The certificate must state that you’ve owned the pet for more than 90 days and that the animal has been vaccinated against rabies not more than a year and not less than one month prior to travel. Dogs and cats less than four months old won’t be admitted. As soon as you receive the health certificate, but no less than 48 hours prior to arrival, pet owners must fax or email the veterinary department at Ben Gurion International Airport, including the name of the owner, veterinary health certificate, animal species, age, date of birth, breed, sex, identification number of electronic chip (for dogs), flight number, approximate arrival time, and your contact information.
The electrical current in Israel is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets generally have three round holes, but most of these will also take continental-type plugs with two round prongs. Some outlets require plugs with three flat prongs in a Y shape.
If your appliances are dual-voltage, you need only a small adapter plug. Most large hotels provide 110-volt outlets marked for shavers, but don’t use those outlets for high-wattage appliances such as blow-dryers. Most laptops operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts and so require only an adapter.
Israel has earned a reputation as a popular destination for gay and lesbian travelers. The country recognizes same-sex marriages performed abroad, bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, and has long allowed gays to serve openly in the military. Most gays gravitate toward Tel Aviv, one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. The city has a gay beach, a vibrant gay nightclub scene, an annual gay film festival, and a gay pride parade that attracts 100,000 participants every June. The Red Sea resort of Eilat is renowned for its pride festival in May. Tel Aviv Gay Vibe has a comprehensive guide to the local scene and advice for travelers.
Sunday is a regular workday in Israel. All government offices and most private offices and travel agencies are closed on Friday, Saturday, and all Jewish religious holidays. Businesses are generally open by 8:30 am.
Although hours can differ among banks, almost all open by 8:30 Sunday to Thursday. Most close around 12:30 and then reopen from 4 to 7 pm some evenings. Banks are closed on Saturdays and Jewish religious holidays and have limited hours on Friday. In Muslim areas, banks are closed Friday. In Christian areas they’re closed Sunday.
Museums don’t have a fixed closing day, so although they are usually open 10 to 6 and on Saturday mornings, confirm the schedule before you go.
Most local pharmacies close at 7 pm. Large chain stores, such as Super-Pharm and NewPharm, are usually open until at least 10 pm. In most cities a few drugstores are open all night, on a rotating basis. Shops generally open at 9 or 9:30; neighborhood grocery stores usually open around 7. A few shops still close for a two- or three-hour siesta between 1 and 4. Most stores don’t close before 7 pm; supermarkets are often open later, and in large cities, there are all-night supermarkets. Arab-owned stores usually open at 8 am and close in late afternoon. Mall hours are generally 9:30–9:30 Sunday to Thursday. In Jerusalem, malls shut down about two hours before sundown on Friday and reopen two hours after sunset on Saturday evening. Outside Jerusalem, some malls keep regular hours on Saturday, while others stay closed.
Israel is a country similarly priced to Western Europe for visitors, but more expensive than many of its Mediterranean neighbors. Prices tend to be cheaper in smaller towns. To save money, try the excellently prepared food from supermarkets, take public transportation, eat your main meal at lunch, eat inexpensive local foods such as falafel, and stay at hotels with kitchen facilities and guesthouses. Airfares are the lowest November through March, except for the holiday season at the end of December.
Banks never have every foreign currency on hand, and it may take as long as a week to order. If planning to exchange funds before leaving home, don’t wait until the last minute.
ATMs and Banks
ATMs—called kaspomats in Hebrew—are ubiquitous all over Israel. Look for machines that have stickers stating that they accept foreign credit cards or PLUS, NYCE, or CIRRUS signs. All have instructions in English. Almost all ATMs now have protective shields around the keypad to prevent anyone seeing your PIN.
With a debit card, the ATM gives you the desired amount of shekels and your home account is debited at the current exchange rate. Note that there may be a limit on how much money you are allowed to withdraw each day and that service charges are usually applied. Make sure you have enough cash in rural areas, villages, and small towns where ATMs may be harder to find.
The main branches of all the banks—Hapoalim, Leumi, Discount—are in Jerusalem’s downtown area but are arguably the last resort for changing money. Several times a week they have morning hours only (different banks, different days) and give relatively low rates of exchange. It usually involves waiting in line and having the clerk fill out paperwork.
Your own bank probably charges a fee for using ATMs abroad, but some apply no foreign transaction fees. The foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than in a bank. Extracting funds as you need is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
PIN codes with more than four digits aren’t recognized at ATMs in Israel. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity. Keep all your credit card numbers and phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen in a safe place. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost.
All hotels, restaurants, and shops accept major credit cards. Plastic is also accepted at banks for cash advances. Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted.
Most credit cards offer additional services, such as emergency assistance and insurance. Call and find out what additional coverage you have.
Currency and Exchange
Israel’s monetary unit is the new Israeli shekel, abbreviated NIS. There are 100 agorot to the shekel. The silver 1-shekel coin is the size and shape of an American dime, but thicker. Smaller-value bronze coins are the half-shekel (50 agorot) and the 10-agorot coin (both of which are larger than the shekel). There’s also a 2-shekel round coin (silver), a 5-shekel coin with 12 edges (silver), and a similar-size 10-shekel coin (bronze center, silver rim). Paper bills come in 20-, 50-, 100-, and 200-shekel denominations.
Dollars are widely accepted at hotels and shops, less so at restaurants. As of this writing, the exchange rate is about 3.80 shekels to the U.S. dollar.
In Israel, the best rates are at ATMs or at the myriad of currency-exchange shops (typically marked “Change”) in and around the central areas of the large cities. In Jerusalem, these are around Zion Square, the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall, and a few strategic locations elsewhere in the city (Jerusalem Mall, German Colony neighborhood, Jewish Quarter).
Israel issues three-month tourist visas free of charge at the point of entry when a valid passport is presented. Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months after your travel date or you won’t be permitted entry. No health certificate or inoculations are required. Many Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East, except Egypt and Jordan, have long refused to admit travelers whose passports carry any indication of having visited Israel. But that shouldn’t be a problem now for tourists: Israel doesn’t stamp passports anymore, only issues entry and exit permits on small slips of paper. Keep your entry permit paper in your passport during your visit.
For the latest governmental travel advisories regarding travel to and within Israel, check with the U.S. State Department. The Israel Ministry of Tourism includes a section on its website with a nonalarmist perspective on visiting Israel during periods of unrest. For the latest local news, check the English-language papers Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, or The Times of Israel, available online.
Israel is two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, or three hours ahead during Daylight Saving Time, known in Israel as Israel Daylight Time (IDT). Normally, New York and Montreal are seven hours behind Israeli local time; California is 10 behind. From late March until late October, Israel operates on Daylight Saving Time. When the Daylight Saving Times don’t match, the time difference is reduced by one hour.