Israel is definitely one of the most interesting vacations I’ve ever taken. It has a whole lot to offer that should put it at the top of anyone’s bucket list. But there are some important things to know when planning travel to Israel to make your trip go as smoothly as possible. Some of these things are impossible to foresee and that might throw a major wrench in your plans if you don’t account for them. These are the most important tips to know when visiting Israel.
Israeli immigration questioning is no joke
Either when you’re departing from your home airport or when you arrive in Israel, you may be questioned more heavily than you have ever been when crossing international borders. Israel’s security is second-to-none, so they want specific details of who you are and what you’re doing in their country. You don’t have to worry about it if you have nothing to hide, but be prepared for some probing questions. You can find a whole run-down of my Israeli immigration security experience here.
Transportation is extremely limited during Shabbat
As a tourist, this is going to be the most important thing for you to know. Since Israel is a Jewish nation, it adheres to Jewish traditions such as the observance of Shabbat. This means that from Friday afternoon to Saturday night, public transportation will be suspended because Jewish doctrine forbids activities like working or driving. This is true for transportation within cities and between cities, so you might want to limit your own travel during this time. You probably don’t want to pick Saturday to take a day trip to Haifa. It’s still possible to get a cab, with the downside that it’ll be more expensive.
Closings during Shabbat
You’ll find Israeli cities are fairly dead during Shabbat. Most shops, restaurants, bars, and the street markets close up shop on Friday afternoon. Many re-open for at least an hour on Saturday night, sometimes even offering late-night hours. So what are you supposed to do from Friday until then? Have no fear. Eateries catering to tourists will be open during Shabbat. If you can’t find anything around you, head to popular tourist streets or to large hotels.
If you happen to know someone locally, you might snag yourself an invite to Shabbat dinner on Friday, where you can take part in the local tradition. If you’re in Jerusalem, the Old City will remain open. After all, for Arabs and Christians, it’s business as usual. On Saturday, it’s customary for people to go to the beach or go for walks, which if you ask me, is the correct way to spend a Saturday.
The week runs from Sunday to Thursday
If you find yourself needing services like a post office, library, or a doctor, you might be thrown by regular office hours. In Israel, the week starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday. On Thursday nights, the start of the weekend, you might experience the kind of nightlife you would normally see on Friday around the world.
You’ll see the army everywhere
In Israel, two to three years of military service is mandatory after the age of 18 for both men and women. That’s why you’ll be seeing a ton of people in army green carrying semi-automatic rifles all over the place. They’re all doing their service, and they just want to go get some food from the corner market just like you. The casual way in which they lug around their weapons is almost comical. But if you’re worried, rest assured knowing that if anyone wanted to harm you, there are at least a dozen trained military service members around you at all times.
There are constant security checks
You’ll probably have a nicer time in Israel if you’re not carrying around large bags. Before you enter any train stations, bus terminals, malls or other large public places, you might have to go through metal detectors or pass your bags through scanners. These will be especially busy during rush hour. So I suggest you plan public transportation use to avoid long lines getting into a train station. It’s a buzzkill, and if you’re already where you need to be, it’s easy to avoid.
What to do if you ever hear sirens
Though this is largely irrelevant unless you’re traveling to Israel during active conflict, it’s probably best you know in advance what happens when sirens go off. Israel has an extensive security system to ensure its citizens and visitors are safe. This includes a state-of-the-art missile intercepting technology that would make it basically impossible for any projectile to reach a populated area. So emergency response is simply designed to keep you safe from any falling fragments of intercepted rockets.
Typically, when you hear a siren, you should go into a shelter or building with no windows within 90 seconds. If you happen to be completely out in the open, you should get on the floor and cover your head. When the siren stops, you’ll hear a loud bang (which is the sound of an incoming projectile getting destroyed in midair). Then you wait 10 minutes for any falling shrapnel to fall, and you can return to whatever you were doing. You can see a video of such an incident here. Obviously some people take it more seriously than others.
Though this didn’t happen while we were there, I wouldn’t want to get caught in Tel Aviv with a siren going off without knowing the reason why and the proper procedure. So heads up!