The Top 10 Things to Know Before Your First Trip to Israel

Planning a trip to Israel can definitely be intimidating–I know from experience! It’s a bucket list trip for so many, which means you really want to do it right the first time. But if you’re here, that means you’re on the right track and doing your research! Here are the top 10 things you need to know before your first trip to Israel… You know, so you can pretend it’s not your first time!

Update: We have a podcast! The Israel Travel Podcast is now live on Apple Podcasts and Spotify!

10. The official language is Hebrew.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to speak or read Hebrew to visit, but learning a few words can help! Shalom, as you may know, means “hello,” “goodbye,” and “peace.” (Much like aloha in Hawaiian!) But perhaps even more importantly, toda means “thank you!” You’ll use that one a lot.

Interestingly, Hebrew was actually a dead language for around 1500 years, used only in Jewish prayers and liturgy. It was revived by a Jewish man named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He and his wife taught their two children Hebrew as their first language, so they became the first native speakers in literally 1500 years. Everyone who speaks it now is able to because of the Ben-Yehuda family.

Find the restaurants where the name and menu are in Hebrew! (Don’t worry, this place also had a menu in English for me!)
Also helpful: Words to Learn in the Local Language Wherever You Go

9. The currency is the shekel (ILS).

The New Israeli Shekel (sometimes written “sheqel”) is the official currency, and you will certainly want to get some ILS out of an ATM when you arrive (inside the airport if you can). Some of my tour guides would accept USD when I didn’t have enough ILS on me, but don’t count on it. Many businesses accepted credit cards, but some were cash only, so be sure you have some on-hand.

When I visited in spring 2023, the exchange rate was about 3.3 ILS to 1 USD. Check the XE app for the most up-to-date exchange rate. And fair warning: Israel is one of the more expensive countries I’ve visited!

More here: The Ultimate Guide to Travel and Your Money

8. Crossing into Jordan is possible, but not easy.

There are three ways to legally cross into Jordan. The first is to fly on Royal Jordanian Airlines about 30 seconds from Tel Aviv (TLV) to Amman (AMM). Okay, it’s really scheduled for 50 minutes; the point is it’s short! This is actually the fastest and easiest way to cross the border.

You can cross by land in only three places. To the north, near the Sea of Galilee, there is the Sheikh Hussein Crossing. Just west of Jericho, you can cross at the King Hussein Bridge. And to the south, there is the Wadi Araba Crossing, which goes between the Red Sea resort towns of Eilat in Israel and Aqaba in Jordan.

Note: You will need a visa to visit Jordan, so click here for the most up-to-date information on how to do that. And just so you know, you are definitely not allowed to cross the Jordan River or Dead Sea to go between Israel and Jordan. There will be border police!

You can see Jordan from across the Jordan River, but you can’t swim over!
Find out more: Why You Need to Go to Israel with Elevation Journeys

7. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are night-and-day different.

How can two cities in a small country like Israel be so different? Basically, Jerusalem is conservative, and in Tel Aviv, just about anything goes! You’ll find the most conservative, religious people in Jerusalem. They dress modestly, they pray often, they don’t have a wild nightlife.

By contrast, you’ll find full acceptance of gay and lesbian lifestyles in Tel Aviv. People will be walking around in bikinis on and around Tel Aviv’s beaches. Men and women will wear whatever they want. The city is known for its nightlife. You can find religious people and religious sites here, but you might be surprised at just how liberal Tel Aviv is compared to Jerusalem and the rest of Israel!

Tel Aviv is a vibrant, modern city!
Read next: 5 Things to Know Before You Visit Tel Aviv-Jaffa

6. The hummus is unbelievable.

I’m a big fan of hummus. My husband makes his own (just how I like it, of course), I order it anywhere it’s on the menu, and I’ve tried it all over the world, including several countries in the Middle East and along the Mediterranean. I know good hummus.

But I didn’t know great hummus. Wow, y’all! I have no idea how they make it so smooth, so flavorful, or so amazing, but I know they do. Even if you’re not a fan of hummus in real life, try it in Israel!

A whole meal of hummus and pita? Yes, please!
More here: The Most Exotic Foods I’ve Ever Eaten

5. It gets chilly in the winter!

If you’re like most people who don’t live in the Middle East, you probably think the Middle East is always and only oppressively hot. It’s not true! Many places in the Middle East experience a true winter, and some significant temperature variations throughout the year. Israel is one of these places.

It’s not likely to snow on you, but you will definitely want a warm jacket and long pants for the late fall, winter, and early spring months. You’ll need all the breathable fabrics and sun protection in summer, though. Check the forecast before you pack, just to be sure you’ll have what you need!

Even in spring, I was glad I had a jacket with me!
Keep reading: What to Pack for Israel and the Holy Land

4. You don’t know what’s going on with Israel and Palestine.

I like to be able to pull together the pertinent information very succinctly, and give you the important facts in an easy to understand way. That is not possible with the Israeli-Palestinian situation. I can tell you one thing for sure, though: If you’re not Palestinian, not Israeli, or not studying the situation for a living, you don’t need to voice any kind of opinion you have to anyone. This is a place and time to listen, not to be heard.

Read on: 5 Things to Know Before You Visit the West Bank

3. Bethlehem, Jericho, and Jesus’ Baptismal Site are all in the West Bank.

Why is it important to talk about Palestine in this blog post anyway? Well, because if Biblical sites are on your “must-do” list, you’ll go into the West Bank of Palestine for these big ones! Every Christian wants to go to Bethlehem at a very minimum, so if you’re a Christian, you will most likely be crossing the border into the West Bank during your trip. It’s not hard, and no one will give you a hard time if you have any passport other than an Israeli one. Just do be sure to bring your passport with you!

Church of the Shepherds’ Field in Bethlehem.
More here: What to Know Before You Visit Bethlehem

2. Jerusalem is a holy city for Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Jerusalem is unique for many reasons, including the fact that it’s so important to the world’s three major religions. The Old City and the Temple Mount are two of the most hotly disputed places in the world, and at the same time are also major tourist attractions for millions of people every year, from all around the world.

Be respectful, even if (or especially if) you feel disrespected here. Most likely, however, you’ll have a life-changing, faith-elevating experience. Take it in for yourself, but also keep your mind open to learn about religions different from yours.

View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.
(Coming soon) Read next: 5 Things to Know Before You Visit Jerusalem

1. Jewish, Muslim, and Christians holidays effect all things.

Before you even start booking flights and getting your heart set on dates for your Israel and Palestine trip, you are going to want to do a little Googling. Why? Ever-changing holidays! Holidays can be very busy in Israel, so if you’re hoping to avoid crowds, you’ll want to avoid major holidays.

Jewish Holidays

Jewish holidays effect trips and visitors to Israel most. Why? Because there are so many of them, the majority of people in Israel are Jewish, and the dates change because the Jewish calendar is different from the traditional calendar!

The ones to look up before your trip and be most mindful of are Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Passover, Purim, and Israel’s Independence Day. One thing you’ll definitely experience? Shabbat, which happens every Friday night through Saturday!

Muslim Holidays

Visitors will also be effected by Muslim holidays. You may know about Ramadan, but what you may not know is that non-Muslims are not allowed into the Temple Mount for the last 10 days of Ramadan (I didn’t know this until my first trip… which happened to be within those last 10 days!). Ramadan moves 11 days earlier each year, so Google the dates for the year you plan to go.

Christian Holidays

Traditional Christmas always falls on the same day–December 25–but traditional Easter changes from year to year. Do a quick Google search to find out when it will be the year you plan to visit. And remember that some Christians around the world celebrate Orthodox Easter and Orthodox Christmas as well.

Google the holidays before you!
Read on: How to Prepare for Your First Trip to Israel and Palestine

Want more? Check out my dedicated Israel and Palestine Page!

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