Israel is unlike any other travel destination on earth. Not only does it hold a cherished place in the hearts, histories, and beliefs of three of the world’s major religions, but visiting this tiny but beautiful country along the eastern Mediterranean coast is a top bucket list item for hundreds of millions of people across the world.
However, unlike other countries you and/or your loved ones may have visited before on your travels, Israel serves up unique and exciting surprises at every turn. Along those lines, here are seven things about traveling to Israel for the first time that are good to know about in advance of your journey.
1. You will Do a Lot of Walking
What’s a lot of walking? Think 15,000-20,000 steps per day. You may think, “Well, it’s just walking. I can handle that.” And you certainly can. However, the terrain anywhere in Israel is not flat. There are cobblestones, uneven stairs, hills, etc., all of which will create more of a challenge than you may expect. Add to that the 300+ days a year of direct sunshine, and you’ve got a recipe for some exhausting touring days. Wear good walking shoes, and remember to hydrate!
2. There is a Stark Contrast Between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv
Jerusalem is an undeniably holy city. It’s solemn, relatively quiet, and the definition of historic. It’s not a party city, it’s a reverent and conservative city. By contrast, Tel Aviv is bright, vibrant, and exciting. Tel Aviv is the place to go for an avant-garde art scene, fusion cuisine, beaches, nightlife, and watersports! It’s a bit of a shocking contradiction with just an hour’s drive between the two, but no matter what you’re looking for, you’ll find it in one of these two, world-famous cities.
3. People at Home will Tell You it’s Not Safe (but they’re wrong)
It’s true that present-day Israel has been in the midst of conflict since its inception, but it’s not true to say that Israel is an unsafe place to visit. One thing to keep in mind when you hear the (sometimes) well-meaning safety concerns of others is that usually, the person saying it has never been to the country in question, and probably not even the region. Israel is just as safe as anywhere in the United States, and generally even safer than many large cities around the world.
Don’t let someone else’s unfounded concerns talk you out of your trip of a lifetime to Israel and the Holy Land.
4. Everything Stops for Shabbat (and various other holidays)
Shabbat, or the Sabbath, is a day of prayer for the Jewish people. Practicing Jews are not allowed to work on Shabbat, which means that shops, restaurants, and other businesses will be closed throughout the country, particularly in Jerusalem and other more conservative areas. This is important for visitors because Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday and lasts through Saturday. It takes some forethought and planning to be in the country on a Saturday.
You can plan to be in Tel Aviv for Shabbat, where you will find more open restaurants and businesses than other cities in Israel. Or, you can go local and use Shabbat as a day of rest for yourself as well.
5. Some Restaurants will only Serve Kosher Meals
You may start to notice that some restaurants keep kosher, while others do not. For a non-Jew or non-practicing Jew, this doesn’t make much difference, but you might be curious. “Kosher” means that the food has been prepared according to Jewish law. Meat and milk products are not mixed together, meats from non-kosher foods (pork, shellfish, rabbit, etc.) are not consumed at all, and all meats that can be eaten are butchered in a certain way. Plan to have a kosher meal while you’re in Israel, and feel free to ask questions if you want to understand more.
6. You will Learn New Things about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
No matter how much you know about these three religions, there is a good chance that you’ll learn something new about one or all three while you’re in the Holy Land. The entire country holds special meaning to all three religions, but Jerusalem in particular is one of the holiest cities for each. As a result, there is a plethora of history to see, experience, observe, and learn about all three.
7. Your Visit will Grow Your Faith
If you’re religious, a trip to Israel is often intended to deepen one’s faith. This is one case, however, where reality exceeds expectation. You can read up on the sites, learn about the history, and look at photos all day long, but the actual experience of walking the same streets as Jesus, standing in the Garden of Gethsemane and reading about his prayer there in Matthew 26, and sailing on the Sea of Galilee where he walked on water will all move you in unexpected, life-changing ways.
The miracles you read about in the Bible will take on new meaning, and you’ll go home with a fresh understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice. It’s a feeling you can’t quite have until you visit for yourself.