I can’t recall the last time I was as scared to visit a place as I was to visit Israel. I put it off for years, even though so many people love and recommend it. If you have reservations like I did, here are some of the best reasons to brush those off and visit Israel.
1. The wonderful food
I’m not sure why Israeli cuisine is not more celebrated around the world, but the world is missing out. A stroll through the markets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is a culinary experience, where you’ll find flaky pastries and desserts from Israel and all over the Middle East. You can have shakshuka at all hours of the day, and hummus and falafel are part of every meal. The food is just spicy enough to have a kick without being irritating. Israeli salad is refreshing and the perfect palate cleanser so you can go in on a plate of oxtail and couscous. You should visit Israel if you love halloumi in your salad and eggplant in your sandwiches. I can’t imagine a more vegan and vegetarian-friendly destination in the world.
2. The hospitality of the people
Israelis are tough as nails and can be very fiery if provoked, but they’re a small country and they take a lot of pride in their home. For tourists, this means they’re thrilled to see you and will do everything in their power to be accommodating and helpful. This year as Eurovision hosts, the city of Tel Aviv organized Shabbat dinners tourists could sign up for at a local family home, where foreigners could feel welcome and included in their sacred Friday evening tradition.
Sometimes when you travel, you have to look around to ask the least threatening person around for help or directions. In Israel, the people approach you and ask if you need help getting anywhere. My girlfriend’s friends not only took us out for drinks and dinner, they sent us home with a care package of some of their favorite Israeli junk food. You really don’t find hospitality like that everywhere.
3. The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is one of those places I didn’t realize I needed to see so badly until I was there. I went to Israel largely for other reasons, but swimming in the Dead Sea really blew me away because I can’t actually swim. The sensation of effortlessly floating is truly incredible. And my skin has never felt better than after rubbing off Dead Sea mud off my entire body. It’s trite to say that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience especially because I hope to repeat it. It was fabulous.
Palestine is unique in that it is fully encircled by Israel. Though this is not the only country in the world fully encircled by another country, it is certainly one of the only ones whose existence as a country is disputed altogether. You won’t need to go through passport control, but you do need to go in and out of a heavily guarded checkpoint to get in and out of the West Bank, where Palestinians live. It’s kind of a fascinating experience in part because how different life is there from the rest of Israel but also because of how much misinformation exists about the area from both the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian sides. If you’re like me, you want to see it for yourself instead of believing anyone’s side of the story.
Places like Bethlehem on Palestinian territory are hugely important places if you’re Christian, or if you love provocative and humorous art since Banksy has turned the Israeli-Palestinian border wall into a giant canvas.
Whether you’re religious or not, it’s quite an experience to be in the birthplace of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths. If you are religious in any way, the experience is absolutely not-to-be-missed. The level of catharsis and emotion at several of the holy sites in Israel is palpable. The devotion that these religions inspire is a sight to behold, and being in heart of it all is certainly a moving. As a non-religious person, it’s fascinating to see how these groups coexist in their daily life in cities like Jerusalem – albeit a very precarious coexistence – all fighting for claim to the same sites and symbols each with their slightly different versions of faith. Leaving a prayer on the Western Wall is an important rite of passage for anyone passing through. Whether you think this is a direct line to God or a glorified wishing well, that’s up to you.
6. The progressiveness of Tel Aviv
Perhaps most astounding because of its proximity to the nexus of religion, Tel Aviv is one of the most liberal and gay-friendly places in the world. I thought Miami Beach and Mykonos were gay, but Tel Aviv is G-A-Y. Acceptance and pride in individual differences, sexual and otherwise, is a pervasive part of the local culture. It’s like a city that celebrates Pride weekend all the time. If you happen to fall anywhere left of straight on the spectrum of sexuality, you’ll find a home in Tel Aviv.
7. The nightlife
I’m not sure if it’s the constant threat of conflict that makes Israelis love to party like it’s their last day on earth, but the nightlife is lit. From neighborhood dive bars to dance clubs, there are watering holes full of people any day of the week until the wee hours. Even Jerusalem has bars open until 5 am. The nightlife is stratified from the kind that starts in the middle of the day, to the Happy Hour bars, to the standard nightlife clubs, to the after-party places that don’t get good until 2 am. If you came to party, Israel will not disappoint.
8. Its natural beauty
Though it’s a small country, its natural offerings run the gamut from the lush mountains of Galilee to large swaths of desert like the Negev and Judean desert. This means there are a ton of outdoor activities and a diverse scenery to enjoy all over the country. All of this is dotted by gorgeous gardens and greenery that make even driving on the highway a beautiful experience. And let’s not forget the beaches. From Mediterranean coast to the Dead Sea coast, Israel doesn’t skimp on sandy spots to lay out and catch some sun.
9. The street art
Cities like London and Berlin get all the glory for having an intense street art presence, but Jaffa and Florentin in Tel Aviv are absolutely brimming with interesting murals and paintings all over their buildings. You’ll find a ton of art among the warehouses and along the beaches. And don’t even get me started on the street art in Bethlehem. Led by Banksy, who has at least a dozen pieces scattered around the city and the Israeli-Palestinian border wall, Bethlehem has to be the coolest street art neighborhood in the Middle East. By comparison, the Berlin Wall isn’t even all that.
10. It’s safer than you think it is
Israelis have dealt with foreign and domestic aggression since it was founded. It has security measures you can’t even imagine. They’re so strict about who flies into the country that it would be damn near impossible for a terrorist to hijack a plane. Security in crowded public areas like train stations and malls is designed to immediately detect and prevent weapons or hazardous materials from entering. The country also has an air defense system called the Iron Dome that intercepts and destroys any incoming missiles targeting populated areas.
But perhaps more relevant to your visit, you’ll never feel safer in a souk than you will in the outdoor markets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where you can buy clothes, food, and even furniture. These bazaars are chock full of shopping goodness with none of the harassment you might experience at similar places around the world.