The political situation in Israel is complex and can be tense, but that doesn’t stop millions of people who visit the historic country every year. With a rich history and fascinating culture, beautiful beaches, a surprising range of adventure activities, and fantastic food, Israel is more than the headlines splashed across the evening news. If you decide to visit Israel now, here’s what you need to know.
Recent elections in January left Benyamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition party in a weakened position, the country is still adjusting after the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and The Arab Spring has affected stability across many countries in the region. But day-to-day living conditions within Israel itself are not unsafe. In fact, it has the highest standard of living in the Middle East and is a place full of history and culture. Like most countries, Israel has problems with minor crimes like pick pocketing in larger cities, but it’s very unlikely you will be caught up in anything more serious if you are aware of the dangers and avoid unnecessary risks.
The latest travel warning from the US Department of State says “citizens need to be aware of the continuing risks of travel to these areas, particularly to areas described in this travel warning, where there are heightened tensions and security risks” but goes on to say that “over three million foreign citizens, including hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens, safely visit Israel and the West Bank each year for study, tourism, and business.”
Specific areas which you are currently advised not to travel to include the Gaza strip, the Golan Heights on the borders of Israel and Lebanon, and except for the towns of Bethlehem and Jericho, most of the West Bank is considered a travel risk too.
Thankfully, there is plenty of this intriguing country left for you to explore safely. You are advised to avoid using public buses, and in Israel people commonly use private or shared taxis to get about, or you could take an organised tour of the area you are interested in.
So should you visit Israel?
You may find the heightened security a little uncomfortable at first, there are sensitive religious issues to be aware of, and it is normal to see armed Israeli military personnel in public, but that’s all part of daily life for the 7.9 million inhabitants of Israel. The Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority make considerable efforts to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations. The country is home to thousands of international students, religious visitors and expat workers, all enjoying the very different aspects of life here. From the parties and beaches of Tel Aviv, and the natural beauty of the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, to the historical birthplace of Jesus and the legendary ruins of Masada, there is plenty to visit in Israel.
Suggested areas to visit
Jerusalem & Tel Aviv
Only an hour from each other by car, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are both great places to base yourself during a visit to Israel. The small size of the country means you can make day trips to most of the top attractions from the spiritual capital Jerusalem, or from the cultural center of Israel, Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem is home to lots of famous religious landmarks, like the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock. The Old City of Jerusalem is one of the only places in the world where you can see religious buildings from four different faiths all built within 100 yards of each other. Starting at Damascus Gate and walking through the markets here is a unique experience you won’t forget.
Tel Aviv however has a very different feel. Here you can stay in luxury hotels along the beach, eat in modern restaurants, enjoy air-conditioned shopping malls and find nightlife to rival the best Europe has to offer.
Bethlehem & The Dead Sea – Easily reached from either city, day trips are easy to arrange to Bethlehem (inside the West Bank) for visiting Manger Square and the birthplace of Jesus, and to float 400m below sea level at the unmissable Dead Sea.
Caesarea – Just 45km north of Tel Aviv along the coast, Caesarea was built over 2000 years ago by King Herod as part of the Roman Empire, and named after the Emperor of the time, Caesar Augustus. Full of archaeological finds, the restored amphitheatre is used in the summertime for concerts and other events.
The fertile North of Israel is home to many significant sights and towns, most of which have good accommodation options if you want to stay to explore the area in more detail.
Haifa – The university town of Haifa sits on the coast and is home to the impressive Baha’i Gardens. Built on Mount Carmel, it is visible from the cafes of central Haifa, and is stunning when lit up at night, as well as being a great place to view Haifa from above.
Sea of Galilee – This area is known for being lush and beautiful, and is home to two of Judaism’s four holy cities, Tiberias and Safed. There are also lots of other historical sites like the ruins of the ancient synagogues at Capernaum where Jesus was said to teach.
Masada – You can reach the top of the ancient desert fortress here by cable car, or by walking up the 1300ft to the top as the Romans who attacked the fortress would have done in 73 AD.
Acre – The charming town of Acre is often overlooked by visitors to Israel. With good seafood restaurants nestled in the fortified walls and old tunnels built by the Knights Templar to check out, you can also watch the local kids cooling off on hot days by throwing themselves from the ramparts into the sea.
Nazareth – Many pilgrims come here to visit the worthwhile Church of the Annunciation, but it is also great to wander around Nazareth’s old market streets, grab a freshly squeezed fruit juice and look for hidden gems.
The Red Sea at Eilat
If you are planning a longer stay in Israel or want to budget more time for relaxing, then Eilat will interest you. Often compared to the Spanish riviera or maybe Las Vegas, this seaside resort is at the very southern tip of Israel on the Red Sea. Great for scuba diving, snorkeling, beaches, and all the usual trappings of a sunny getaway, Eilat is surrounded by the Negev desert and gets 360 days of sun a year.
With so many places to see around Israel, many people opt for the ease and comfort of a guided tour. From Tel Aviv, you can take the Best of Israel 2-Day Tour, which shows you Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Masada and the Dead Sea, including full guided tours of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
To explore the Northern Israel from Tel Aviv, the Nazareth, Tiberias and Sea of Galilee Day Trip has a full itinerary in the footsteps of Jesus, ending by taking you to the place of his baptism on the Jordan River.
And for those interested in a less conventional trip, the Day Trip from Tel Aviv to Caesarea, Rosh Hanikra and Acre has a great mixture of faiths, history, and the beautiful rock formations at Rosh Hanikra for nature lovers too.
Photos courtesy of Peter Parkorr.
- Peter Parkorr
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