Backpacking Israel is a truly unforgettable experience. It’s where the ancient meets the modern, the East greets the West and the world’s three major religions collide. It is a juxtaposition of cool beaches, barren deserts, ancient fortress’ and modern skyscrapers.
Israel is a nation of giant killers and as such likes to punch above its weight. Despite its small stature and population of just 8 million, the nation leads the way in terms of science, technology and cultural advancements and continues to be a dominant player in world politics.
Firstly, Israel is small, very small, stretching just 20,000 km from top to bottom. Its small size combined with efficient road links means that you can get across the entire country by car in just 7 hours. For the weekender, this means that you can easily pack both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem into a 3 or 4 day trip and for the backpacker this means that if you plan correctly you can pack all of the popular tourist sights into even a 2 week trip.
Personally though, if possible, I would set aside a month for backpacking Israel so that you can spend some time in a Kibbutz and leave plenty of spare rest days so you can recover from being up all night partying in Tel Aviv. Be warned though, however long you stay you will probably want to stay for longer (even if your wallet is itching to get away…).
The modern state of Israel was created in 1948. It has since expanded beyond its initial boundaries after capturing additional territories in each of the war’s with its neighbours.
However, the full history of the nation of Israel goes back some 3000 years to the days of the Old Testament and Abraham. The land itself has at various times been occupied by the Egyptians, Romans, the Ottomans and even the British; this means that there is history at every turn in the form of ruins, fortress’ and red letter boxes.
The official language of Israel is Hebrew. This is spoken primarily by its 8 million Jewish residents and intermittently by Palestinians in the occupied territories although their first language is Arabic.
English is however very widely spoken and Israelis in particular tend to speak it extremely well making backpacking Israel fairly easy. The prominence of English does though, substantially reduce when you get into the towns and villages of the West Bank.
As ever though, it pays to show willing by learning a few simple phrases in each language.
Israel is the world’s only Jewish state although constitutionally it is completely secular. This means that travellers are free to eat pork (which is widely available) work on the Sabbath and walk around with their foreskins fully intact. Most modern Israeli’s are actually only nominally Jewish.
There are however Orthodox and Hasidic neighbourhoods in many towns and cities and it is very important to respect the sensibilities of these areas by covering heads, shoulders and knees as appropriate. To the Western visitor the customs and behaviors of some of these peoples may sometimes seem unusual or even rude.
Sabbath is widely observed and from Friday evening to Saturday evening and with the exception of Tel Aviv most business’ close down and transport grinds to a complete halt. My advice is to try and get back to Tel Aviv for Sabbath or alternatively head to the West Bank whose Muslim majorities do not observe the Sabbath. If you need to travel on the Sabbath then arrange any transport in advance.
Backpacking Israel is aided by an efficient public transport system. The bus and train system in Israel is excellent and connects most of the country very well. The only exceptions are on Sabbath and in the never reaches of the country such as Golan Heights in the north and the Negev desert in the south.
The main entry point to Israel is Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv which services flights to most major destinations. The airport is one stop away on the train from HaHagana central bus and train station station.
Busses leave from Tel Aviv HaHagana to Jerusalem every 30 minutes and take another 30 minutes (16NIS). The Dead Sea, Haifa and much of the country can also be reached from here relatively easily. There are however no busses or trains to the West Bank from the bus or train station.
In addition to the public transport system, taxis are plentiful and reliable but can be expensive. Sheruts are shared taxis which run from various points and depart once full. These are very useful for getting around on a Sabbath and in getting into the West Bank. In Israel the sheruts are air conditioned people carriers and in the West Bank rickety, hot old vans!
Hitchhiking is very common in Israel. To communicate that you are looking for a ride simply stand by the roadside and point your thumb towards the road.
The currency in Israel is the New Israeli Shekel (just Shekels or NIS for short). Shekel’s come in coin’s of 1, 2, 5 & 10 and notes of 20, 50, 100 & 200. They are then subdivided into 100 Agora although in reality you will be hard pressed to find anything that costs less than a few Shekels so the Agora are a bit of a pain. ATM’s are widely available and all major credit cards are very widely accepted. The currency is difficult to obtain or change outside of the country and my advice is to bring some US dollars in with them and change any Shekels back to US dollars before you leave as you may otherwise struggle to get rid of them once back home.
Exchange Rate (October 2016) = $1 = 3.79NIS.
Backpacking Israel is expensive and comparable to European cities such as London and Paris. A hostel will cost you at least 50NIS per night for a dorm and a meal in a restaurant plus drink will rarely come in under 50NIS. The West Bank is considerably cheaper but doesn’t have the same accommodation options or nightlife.
Bartering is advisable in market places and Souks on any unpriced item.
High speed Wi-Fi is available throughout the country including on trains and inter city busses. It is also advisable to pick up a pre-paid SIM card loaded with call time and data. I paid around $10 for a weeks unlimited use. SIM cards can be obtained easily and readily.
Speaking of markets, one of the treats in store for the traveller backpacking Israel is the rich culinary delights that await you. Israeli cuisine is pretty broad really mixing middle eastern, European and american influences. The national dish is undoubtedly hummus which comes in all manner of variations and is generally served with delicious filling bread. Falafel is another favourite and an abundance of olives and salads make Israel a great destination for vegetarians.
For the carnivores amongst us, there are chicken schnitzel’s and delicious shwarma’s available on pretty much ever street. Also be sure to try Shakshuka which is a delightful egg and tomato based breakfast staple.
The political situation in Israel has been fraught ever since its inception. The state has difficult relations with its neighbours and there is some international criticism of its continued occupation of the West Bank and blockading of Gaza.
If you decide to talk politics with anybody in Israel or the West Bank remember that passions can sometimes run very high. In my experience the people in both areas are very happy to discuss their experiences and this is an invaluable source of insight; my advice however is to ask lots of questions, listen intently but perhaps save your own opinions.
Despite what the news stories suggest, day to day life in much of Israel is peaceful and the country feels like any other modern, western state. There are however a lot of soldiers deployed, particularly in Jerusalem, and you will quickly become accustomed to seeing armed personnel patrolling bus stations, metro carriages and even off duty soldiers carrying their firearms with them.
National Service is compulsory for Israeli citizens (although “refuse-nic” numbers are apparently increasing) which generally takes the form of 3 years of military service (2 for women).
When I was there in August 2016 there were no major incidents although the security situation can however change at very short notice. There are regular attacks on soldiers, occasional attacks on civilians and intermittent rocket attacks launched from within Gaza. However I must stress that Israel remains very safe for sensible tourists.
In Israel you will have to pass through army checkpoints. Expect to be searched when entering bus and train stations and if you go into the West Bank there will be a number of checkpoints both on the road and within the cities themselves. Most of the soldiers operating the checkpoints are perfectly pleasant (at least to tourists) and will not give you any trouble. Remember, they are doing their job and you should cooperate with them in any way.
Whilst Israel is a very safe country for travellers, you still need to make sure you obtain full travel insurance in case of theft, cancellation or illness.
VISA and Getting In and Out
Most Western passport holders are entitled to a 3 month Tourist Visa on entry (no fee) and I was granted mine without any problems whatsoever. However a number of other visitors have reported different experiences such as been granted shorter Visa’s and been subjected to serious questioning at the airport before entry was permitted.
Anybody with an Iranian, Lebanese or Syrian stamp (in fact, a stamp from any Muslim country including Morocco and Indonesia) on their passport may be subject to questioning about their connections in these countries and the purpose of their visit to Israel. I have however not heard of tourists been refused entry purely because of this.
On the other hand, you will never be allowed into Iran, Lebanon or Syria if they ascertain that you have ever been to Israel. Thankfully though there is no longer any such thing as an Israeli passport stamp as Israeli immigration recognised the problems this was causing for travellers. Instead a “blue card” is issued which you are supposed to carry with you at all times; you will almost certainly be asked to provide this at some point.
I have also heard about people been denied entry for not having an outbound flight. Whilst I had no problems it may be worth taking whatever steps you need to ensure against this whether that means actually booking one, making a fake booking or simply bringing a bank statement to show you have money to pay your way out of the country.
There are now 3 x open land borders with Jordan and 1 with Egypt down by the Red Sea. Some travellers advise that these crossings can sometimes be fraught owing to unhelpful immigration staff on both sides and long queues. I crossed the border at Eilat and was through in 15 minutes although some travellers have been questioned for hours at a time. At the land crossings you may also wish to make it very clear that you do not want an Israeli stamp as, contrary to official guidance, staff here intermittently seem to issue them.
Where To Go
Now that the formalities are out of the way let’s look at the best destinations for backpacking Israel.
Tel Aviv, or the white city, is nothing short of intoxicating. Aesthetically, it’s mash up of gorgeous Mediterranean beaches, bauhaus architecture, wide, hip boulevards and imposing skyscrapers. Tel Aviv is in many ways the life pulse of Israel and it is a heady, 24 city where the party never quite stops and where you can grab breakfast or 2am or 2pm.
The chances are you will begin your Israeli adventure in TA. There are a number of fine hostels in the city situated around Levantine including Abrahams which is a few blocks from the main Rothschild Bouelvard as is the Little Tel Aviv which does a great Sabat dinner every Friday. If you want to stay in Jaffa (and near to the beach) there is the excellent Milk & Honey and The Clock. If you want the experience of living like a local then there are plenty off cool, airy and spacious apartments up on Air B N B and you can save $35 of you first booking by signing up through this link right here!
Tel Aviv is Israel’s cultural capital and prominent venues include the Museum of Modern Art and the Beit Hatfutsot & Eretz Israel which tell the story of Jewish culture. The sea front stretches some 10km from Old Jaffa and there are loads of different beaches catering for everybody from the LGBT, posers, right through to the Orthodox Jews. Old Jaffa is also a great place to take an evening stroll where you can see the old buildings and some Egyptian ruins. It also makes a great spot from where to watch the sunset.
You also absolutely have to take a stroll through Carmel Market market where you can sample olives and barter for souvenirs.
Tel Aviv is absolutely buzzing with restaurants, bars and clubs and socialising is a massive part of the culture here. The city has a young, hip crowd with a seemingly never ending supply of energy (and money) that gets them out several nights of the week.
There are loads of eateries and bars along Rothschild and Allenby. Most of these places are a bit expensive, mainstream and soulless for my tastes although Kuli Amla is cool and Club Radio has an eclectic-hipster vibe on a weekend. Florentine is more of an alternative neighborhood and the city also has a few legendarily hedonistic nightclubs.
Note that drinks in clubs can easily set you back 25 NIS and that the staff will expect a tip on top of that!
Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, the holiest city on earth and some even say the very centre of the universe. The premier attractions have to be its religious and historical sights of which there are far too many to mention here. Head to the Old City via any one of the gates to be instantly transported back in time. The streets and buildings have changed a bit but one can easily get the feel of how it must have felt to stroll through these streets in the time of the crusaders and even Jesus before them.
The Old City is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock. and there are plenty of walking tours which are well worth joining to get some background and perspective on the city. East of the Old City is the Mount of Olives (great for sunrise or sunset if that’s too early for you), Mount Zion and the Garden of Gethsemane. Strolling through the souks is also amazing .
Just outside of the Old City is the, erm, New City where you can find shops, malls and the Israeli Government buildings. There are outdoor concerts dotted around here most summer nights.
Another place well worth visiting is the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and Mount Herzl cemetery both of which are conveniently situated along Jerusalem’s metro.
There is accommodation in both the old and new cities. In the new city, Abrahams and (my personal pick), Post boast spacious rooms and modern facilities but the digs in the old city are far more atmospheric (check out Citadel) and offer the chance to sleep on the roof which is not to be missed; if you are lucky you even can watch rockets explode in the sky although it does get cold so bring a thick blanket.
If you want the experience of living like a local then there are a number of offerings, along with quite a few family run BnB’s, up on Air B N B and you can save $35 of you first booking by signing up through this link right here!
Whilst not the 24/7 party behemoth of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem is still a great place for a night on the tiles and the bars are lively until at least midnight on most nights. Head to the Mahane Yehuda (The Shuk) which after dark is packed with micro bars. The clientele are largely very sociable.
Haifa is Israel’s third largest city, hub of Industry and capital of the North. Haifa can easily be reached by train from Tel Aviv (90 minutes) and makes a decent base from which to explore Acre and even Galilee.
Haifa is built into the elevation of Mount Carmel and traces its origins back 3000 years. It was a one time refuge of the prophet Elijah (the only dude in history to escape death) and is now home to the lush Baha i Gardens which is a focal point for the obscure Iranian Baha i faith.
If you get thirsty whilst in Haifa there is both an Irish and a Scottish pub. Say I sent you.
Acre is an atmospheric crusader city along Israel’s coast. The city rose to prominence in 10th Century when it became the gateway to the Holy Land for countless pilgrims, knights and merchants.
The old walls and crusader halls are amazingly preserved and make an excellent day’s exploration. You can buy a combination ticket which allows you access to all of the cities attractions although in my personal view the art galleries are far from essential viewing. Acre can be toured in half a day and there isn’t too much else to detain the traveller. Best get back on the train to either Haifa (1 hour) or Tel Aviv (2 hours) to stay the night.
Nazareth & Galilee
These names will be immediately familiar to anybody who was raised on a weekly Sunday fix of the New Testament. The region’s status as “The Jesus Trail” remains its biggest (and only?) draw for visitors.
Nazareth can be reached by bus from from Haifa in just 45 minutes. The town is small and peaceful and there is isn’t really a great deal going on. There are 2 very different churches both of which claim to be the sight of the Annunciation (for the benefit of you hell bound heathens, that’s where the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to tell she was gonna have a Baby Jesus). Both are worth visiting; try to gatecrash the Orthodox one during 6 o’ clock mass as the musical oration is captivating even though it is in Greek and you probably won’t understand a word.
The Nazarene highlights can be seen in a matter of hours. The city does though make a decent base for exploring wider Galilee.
Other Galilee sights include the impressive Roman ruins as Caesarea as well as Capernaum which is Jesus’ old home where he lived and worked before commencing his ministry. There is yet another church and some Roman pillars.
Galilee is not as well connected as Israel’s cities and you will need to plan your route more carefully. Busses do leave from Nazareth, heading along the banks of the Sea of Galilee stopping at Tiberias, Caesarea and Capernaum but they are not particularly fast so your best bet is to rent a car, hire a taxi for the day, join a tour or hitchhike.
The Golan Heights was captured from Syria following the 1967, Six day war of and it is easy to see why Israel is in no rush to give it back. As the name suggests, the elevation makes an excellent, strategic military position and there are army bases (Israeli and UN) dotted throughout the region.
In the summer the region is lush and green and in the winter months receives enough snowfall to support a burgeoning skiing culture. Because of its elevation, (2000+ metres at Mount Hermons peak which is monolithic for Israel) the heights now boasts some excellent vineyards many of which are Kosher.
Highlights of the heights include the Banyas Waterfall and the Nimrod fortress. You can also visit the Syrian border. This proved to be one of the most surreal experiences of my life as I stood watching bombs explode in the distant valley below whilst children played and a coffee shop served up hot latte’s.
Getting around the heights is very difficult if you don’t have private transport. There are holiday homes and cabins dotted throughout the region.
Eilat & Negev Desert
The Negev Desert is relatively isolated for Israeli standards although getting out here will still only take 2 hours on public transport from Jerusalem (direct bus 446 to the main administrative centre of Beersheba). The desert is real adventure territory ideal for trekking and camping and there is also a spectacular natural crater (Makhtesh Ramon) who’s like only occurs in the Negev. The crater can be explored by basing yourself in the little town of Mitzpe Ramon (90 minutes from Beersheba or 2 hours from Eilat). The town is small but still had quite a bit going on with a few cool cafes and bars. I recommend the Greenbacker Hostel and be sure to track down the Starman of the Negev for a night sky tour (40 Shekels).
The desert is still inhabited by nomadic and semi-nomadic Bedouin tribes people.
Set on the edge of the Negev is Eilat. Eilat is is Israel‘s southernmost city perched at the northern tip of the Red Sea. Humble in stature Eilat is essentially a holiday resort where Israelis come to relax and snorkel in the red sea although its prominence has declined ever since Israeli’s were permitted entry into nearby Egypt. Eilat is best reached by way of the direct bus, through the desert, from Beersheba which takes around 3 hours. Eilat is also the land border with Jordan.
The Dead Sea
Ever seen the picture of the guy sat upright floating in the water whilst reading a copy of The Times? Yeah, well that could be you (if you can find a copy of The Times in Israel that is). The high salt content of the sea makes it impossible to sink and also, apparently lends the water some near mystical properties of rejuvenation.
The Dead Sea stretches 605km and forms a natural border between Israel and Jordan and you may even pick up a Jordanian phone network whilst bathing. There are a number of places to access the water including a bafflingly popular, busy and tacky resort at Neve Zohar.
However there is far more to the Dead Sea than this. The journey here from Jerusalem takes in some truly stunning scenery which can only be described as, well biblical. There are a number of prominent stops along the route including the ancient clifftop Masada Fortress (get here early as they close the trail after midday) and Ein Gedi; the lowest point on earth where you can also visit the Dead Sea scroll museum.
Busses depart for The Dead Sea every 30 minutes from Jerusalem Central Station and stop off at all of the points of interest so you can pretty much hop on and hop off. It should also be pretty easy to hitchhike out here here .
The region is below sea level so there is no breeze whatsoever. Consequently it gets very hot down here so bring pretty of sun cream, water and hat or turban to stave off sun stroke.
The West Bank
Your backpacking Israel experience is not complete without a visit to the West Bank. The West Bank refers to the Israeli occupied Palestinian territories which have been under martial law since the 1967 six day war. The West Bank has not been formally annexed by Israel and essentially remains an independent country generally referred to as Palestine.
It is illegal for Israeli’s to enter the West Bank although there is no problem with tourists doing this. You will however have to cross checkpoints so be sure to bring your passport and Israeli blue card with you.
The West Bank is best accessed from Jerusalem. There are Palestinian busses and Sherut’s running from near Damascus Gate (the Arab neighbourhood) running very regularly even on Sabbath.
The mythic birthplace of Jesus Christ is not exactly the pretty, sleepy little town the nativity hymns suggest it to be. Rather Bethlehem is now something of a busy, noisy and kinda tense little city.
Bethlehem receives a lot of pilgrims here to visit the Church of the Nativity (the place of Jesus’ birth) although what is for me, far more striking is the 26 foot high separation wall which cuts the city in two. Ask any cab driver to take you to see the Banksy’s. You can also buy spray paint and add your own message or image to the wall all under the watchful eye of the Israeli soldiers manning the watchtowers.
There are pretty good dining and accommodation options in Bethlehem making it one of the best places to stay in the West Bank.
The ancient city of Jericho is famous for an Old Testament battle and is where Christ was tempted by Satan. The “Mount of Temptation” is very imposing and an impressive monastery has been carved into it which you learn more about here.. There is also an archaeological site you can visit which is essentially a series of pits dug into the ground which are probably very exciting to learned scholars but will leave most visitors positively underwhelmed.
The town of Jericho is now in quite a sorry state and unemployment is high. Away from the ancient and biblical sites Jericho does not receive many visitors and you can expect to be something of a curiosity; prepare to be asked to pose for countless photographs with bemused locals!
Jericho is below sea level and as such gets very hot and stuffy around midday. Plan accordingly.
Ramallah is the current, de facto political capital of Palestine and as such is an essential destination for anybody wishing to gain an insight into the region’s political situation. The city is significantly more prosperous and liberal than other Palestinian towns and as such may be a good base for travellers exploring the West Bank although it is very possible to see Ramallah in a day trip from Jerusalem.
The most notable sight here is the tomb of former PLA leader Yasser Arafat.
Hebron is at the forefront of the Israel/Palestine conflict and in some ways epitomizes the entire issue. Hebron is a now the site of what many term “illegal” Israeli settlements although Israel refutes that the settlements are illegal.
In response to a number of high profile assassinations the town is also subject to a heavy military presence and there are numerous army bases and checkpoints, severe restrictions on movement and curfews.
The city is a holy site for both Jews and Muslims as the tomb of Abraham over which has been built a synagogue and mosque in one. Whilst somewhat edgy, Hebron is in my view essential visiting for anybody wanting to get a handle on the conflict and see the darker side of life here up close.
Hebron can be reached by direct (bullet proof) bus from Jerusalem. Abraham tours run a fantastic “Dual Narrative” tour where you spend half a day with a Jewish settler guide and half a day with a Palestinian guide. Note that passions do run high.
The term Kibbutz comes from the Hebrew for “gathering” and refers to an agricultural commune/collective. The initial Kibbutz’s established in Israel where initially inspired by the Russian Jews after the Bolshevik revolution and they got a new lease of life in the 60’s and 70’s as an international army of hippy dreamers descended on them. Modern Kibbutz’s are mostly now run as private enterprises and many workers can expect to receive a wage. There are 256 Kibbutz in Israel today including 16 religious ones many of which can be contacted via Workaway or HelpEx.
Visiting and spending time working on a Kibbutz remains another definite experience for travellers backpacking Israel. Please note that any form of work, either paid or voluntarily, is not permitted under the standard tourist Visa. When you arrive at immigration it is better not to mention that you intend on working on or even visiting a Kibbutz in order to avoid potential complications.
If you have at least one Jewish Grandparent, then you are entitled to a once in a lifetime free trip to Israel under “Birthright”. The scheme is funded by the Israeli government as a way of showing Jews from around the world their heritage. Trips last around 10 days although you are free to extend it at your own cost.
Well I think that’s it! As I said, backpacking Israel is a fantastic experience which is guaranteed to awe, surprise and challenge you. Check your pre-conceptions at the border, keep an open mind and prepare to vowed by Israel’s irresistible combination of history, natural beauty, hedonism and hummus!