Although Israel is no bigger than the state of New Jersey, its cities and towns are as rich and varied as nations much larger in size. Tel Aviv is the country's cultural and commercial capital, a thriving metropolis spread out along six miles of balmy Mediterranean shoreline. Just under an hour inland, Jerusalem is Israel's spiritual heartland, the nation's hilltop political capital and a holy site to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Eilat—roughly a five-hour drive south from both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—is a Red Sea resort town wedged between Jordan to the east and Egypt to the west. The wineries, artist colonies, and Christian pilgrimage sites (such as the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth) of the Galilee region are about two and a half hours by car north of Tel Aviv.
WHEN TO GO
Trips to Israel usually fall into two categories—pure pleasure, or with a focus on Jewish culture. For those seeking a secular visit, go in late spring or early fall, when the country is busy with summer vigor but free of its sweltering heat. May and late September are particularly favorable for warm weather, low humidity, and enough sunshine to ensure a few hours at the beach each day. For religious-minded visitors, holidays and festivals are a great time to see the country. During Passover in the spring, the country—and Old Jerusalem in particular—comes to life with outdoor processions and rituals. The spring holiday of Purim is considered Israel's version of Halloween, marked by raucous street parades in most major cities for the kids, and late-night parties at top clubs for adults. Whatever your objective, it's worth noting that July and August are very hot in every part of Israel—especially in desert destinations such as Eilat. Winter months, meanwhile, are mild (50s and 60s) in most parts of the nation, though cold weather and even snow are not unheard of in more mountainous areas such as Jerusalem.
HOW TO GET THERE
Four airlines currently offer nonstop service between the United States and Israel. Flagship carrier El Al links New York (JFK), Newark, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami with Tel Aviv (www.elal.co.il); Israir offers daily service between New York's JFK and Tel Aviv (www.israirairlines.com); Continental flies twice daily between Newark and Tel Aviv (www.continental.com); and Delta flies daily from Atlanta to Tel Aviv, with nonstop service from New York (JFK) beginning in March 2008 (www.delta.com). Good connections are also available on Air Canada (via Toronto) and Lufthansa (via Frankfurt). All flights arrive at Tel Aviv's new Terminal Three at the Ben Gurion International Airport, about 25 miles from Tel Aviv and 40 from Jerusalem. A new train links Terminal Three with Tel Aviv and runs throughout the day at 15- to 30-minute intervals (depending on the hour). It costs about NIS 12 (about $3) each way, and the ride takes roughly 15 minutes. Plenty of taxis line up directly outside the terminal and cost between NIS 75 and 125 (about $18 and $30) to most major destinations.
For the moment, there are neither subways nor light-rail systems in major Israeli cities, so buses, taxis, and sherut (shared minivan taxis) are the best bet for travelers. Schemes for light-rail lines in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are in the works (travelers will see posters for the system throughout the capital), but in the meantime, buses are the only cheap options. In Tel Aviv, the Dan and Egged bus companies operate lines that traverse the entire city, linking most suburbs. Travelers should look for lines 4, 5, 24, and 25, which connect Tel Aviv's northern tip to its southern end point. Tickets run about $1.25.
Small red sherut—which look like oversized minivans—also serve the public on main bus lines, such as 4 and 5, and cost about $1. It's a system most major cities would covet: Travelers simply flag them down like taxis and are dropped off at the destination of their choice along a predetermined route—with no more than nine other passengers on board.
As in New York or London, taxis can be waved down on almost any reasonably sized street without a prior reservation. Taxis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will generally take guests anywhere within the municipal region. However, it is not uncommon for drivers to be nonnatives and to be less than 100-percent familiar with the area.
Unless you reserve a taxi through prior arrangement or take one from a major hotel (where a doorman can translate), travelers (especially first-timers) should try to have their destination written in Hebrew to avoid confusing the driver. In cases where you do want to reserve taxis in advance, major companies include HaShekem (972-3-527-0404), Kastel (972-3-699-3322), or New York (972-3-523-7722). Fares begin at $1.78, though surcharges are tacked on for luggage when heading to the airport. Cabbies will also work as personal drivers for trips between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, or really, anywhere in the country. Ask a particularly friendly driver if he or she offers such services and prepare to negotiate for a fair price. As a rule, trips between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem should run no more than $38 to $40.
Eldan Rent-a-Car (972-3-565-4545 or 800-938-5000; www.eldan.co.il) is Israel's largest car rental agency, with branches located in major cities and at Ben Gurion Airport. Take note: Only the airport branch is open on the Sabbath (Friday afternoon and all-day Saturday).
Most violence is confined to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but terrorist attacks have happened in Israel proper—and doubtless will again. There's little one can do to prepare for or avoid an attack, except to use common sense: Be mindful of bags without obvious owners, stay alert in crowded places, and if you're unfamiliar with East Jerusalem or the Old City, avoid traveling there at night. You'll appreciate the noticeable security presence nationwide. This means bag-checks at the entrances to most public places (malls, cinemas, restaurants), armed guards on some public buses, and frequent requests for picture ID (carry a photo of your passport at all times). Never leave bags unaccompanied—they may be mistaken for bombs and quickly destroyed. Although exploring the cities' large open-air markets is one of the pleasures of visiting Israel, they theoretically could be targeted for terrorist attacks.
NEED TO KNOW
Language: Hebrew, Arabic
Capital City: Jerusalem
Population: 6.8 million
Area: 8,000 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 972
Electricity: 230V, 50 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Israel New Shekels = $0.27 US Calculate Other Amounts
Israel does not require a visa for citizens of the United States. A valid passport is sufficient for a three-month stay.
GOOD TO KNOW
Books and Movies
Read the Bible for tales of war and peace in the desert. The names may have changed, but the substance is still the same.
Like the people of Israel themselves, the cuisine of Israel is defined by the combination of Oriental and Western flavors. Most of the country's restaurants are kosher, thus conforming to Jewish dietary laws. Milk, cream, or cheese may not be served together with meat in the same meal, which means most restaurants serve either milk or meat, but not both. Pork and shellfish are banned in most locales, but it is possible to find them in nonkosher restaurants. There has been a recent interest in European-style fine dining, but don't expect Michelin-starred fare. And if you love a nice steak, don't try to find one here. Part of the process of making meat kosher is soaking and salting it to remove blood—and, in effect, the flavor as well—from delicate cuts. Instead, try the slow-cooked beef, which can be excellent.
Israel is the holy land of bargains. Amid the labyrinthine streets of Old Jerusalem's Muslim quarter, visitors can bargain for all manner of traditional and contemporary products. You can easily find deals on inlaid furniture, semiprecious stones, ceramics, embroidery, and holy books. Diamonds, glassware, wines, Judaica, and religious articles are mostly only available in Jewish areas. The salts from the Dead Sea yield phenomenal skin-care products. Tourists who buy leather goods at shops listed by the Ministry of Tourism and pay for them in foreign currency are exempt from VAT and receive a 25 percent discount on leather goods if these are delivered to them at the port of departure.
A value-added tax (VAT) of 17.5 percent is added to every purchase in Israel, but tourists may get a refund at the airport or by mail. A 15 percent service charge is added to restaurant and hotel bills by law, and no other tipping is necessary.
Spring: Purim; Passover; Israel Independence Day
Summer: Shavu'ot; Tisha B'Av
Autumn: Sukkot; Rosh Hashanah; Yom Kippur; Shemini Atzeret