What should I know about visiting Israel?
November 28, 2018 8:16 AM   Subscribe

Somewhere in the whirlwind, I signed up to spend a week at a scientific workshop in Israel. And that week is next week - yikes! I'm a pretty experienced international traveler, but I've never been to Israel and I've had no time to do my usual research. What should I know? If you've visited, what took you by surprise, and what did you wish you'd brought or looked up or done beforehand?

A couple of asides: I usually buy local SIM cards ahead of time, but Amazon's selection for Israel seems terrible, so I'm resigned to buying at Tel Aviv airport after arrival. (At 4 AM, though?) And I'm brown, but I trust that they will profile me into the correct (non-threatening) bin - is this something to worry about? The hosts are arranging my stay, and I'm spending most of my time in meetings, but they're also taking us from Rehovot to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea over the weekend.
posted by RedOrGreen to Travel & Transportation around Israel (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The shops at TLV are open 24/7. It's awesome.

Brownness has nothing to do with it; they'll ask you questions about where you're going and the purpose of your trip and who you're staying with; just tell them.

DM me if you want the names of some excellent guides. I've travelled to Israel many times and still found that with a carefully chosen professional guide I got 100x more out of visits even to sites I'd been to previously. Maybe I can recommend a quick read or two if you tell me what you're interested in (archaeology? food? architecture? etc.) Have fun!!
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:03 AM on November 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yes, I think the most surprising thing for me was the interview at the airport before flying/moving places and how intense it was. It was more questions than usual, I thought. But you'll be fine.

Lots of checkpoints when traveling, and lots of soldiers with guns everywhere (though, sadly, if you're American, that probably isn't too out of the ordinary). But it's great -- you're going to enjoy yourself!
posted by knownassociate at 9:05 AM on November 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

What surprised me was not the entry interview (which admittedly is a bit more detailed than US immigration, for example), but that on one occasion on exit at Ben Gurion Airport, five security officers started scrutinising my passport, which was used but not broken, ostensibly to make sure it wasn't tampered with. They took ten minutes and felt like it had become a judgment call whether I was using a valid passport or not, which seemed a bit weird, when everything can be verified electronically. They eventually let me through, but still. Or, in short, there's more than tight security happening there, it's also partly a demonstration of how tight their security is. Which, regarding circumstance, is probably fine.
posted by Namlit at 9:12 AM on November 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

If they stamp your passport, you will likely be unable to get a visa for many other countries, such as Algeria.
posted by os tuberoes at 9:12 AM on November 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

If they stamp your passport, you will likely be unable to get a visa for many other countries, such as Algeria.

They haven't stamped passports for years, to make it easier for people to travel to Arab countries afterward and get visas-- it's no longer relevant.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 9:31 AM on November 28, 2018 [13 favorites]

Yeah, the security procedures at the airport can be astoundingly thorough but felt fair to me (and I got the five-star treatment, ie pretty well the highest threat level despite being a Canadian of Eastern European extraction) -- I felt like I was being examined by security professionals, not like I was just standing in an endless line or subject to the arbitrary whims of a cranky mall cop like in many US airports. Just make sure you leave enough time; it took me about three hours on departure.

I really liked Tel Aviv; if you can swing down to Jaffa/Yafo/Yaffa it had a lovely historic feel. Closer to the centre, there's a world heritage set of Bauhaus buildings in and around Dizengoff Square if you're interested in architecture. (It's sometimes called the White City)

Obviously there are a lot of closures for the sabbath on Friday night/Saturday. I don't know if you have a Western religious tradition, but if not, it's helpful to read up a little on history before visiting Jerusalem. I'm a long-lapsed Catholic, but it's pretty remarkable to see things like the mosaic of the anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and then realize that it's not just an arbitrary religious image like you see in any church, it's an image of something that's supposed to have happened right over there on the other side of the room. Knowing to look for things like the immovable ladder made my visit more rich.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:38 AM on November 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

I went to Israel back in the late 90s when I was was 15. My best friend had moved there so my parents flew me there for 2 weeks. I was well travelled for a teenager, having been all through Europe, the US, Canada, and various tropical locations, but this was the first time I did some proper travelling without my parents.

That was the best trip I had ever taken, and it still hasn't been topped.

1. The country was so much more beautiful than I ever would have believed. Much more varied and dynamic and rich. I sincerely found it to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.
2. My poor little Atlantic Canadian body was much MUCH more sensitive to dehyration than I thought. Heat stroke is not fun. Drink way way WAY more than you think. [NOTE: My visit was in August]
3. Haifa is a wonderful city!! And the Baha'i Gardens are phenomenally gorgeous. GO TO HAIFA!
4. Despite it being a country at war, I never felt unsafe. I felt way less safe in New Orleans than I did in Israel. It was 20 years ago and a lot has happened during that time, so this may not still be the case, but back then it all felt very welcoming and safe.
5. Weird, I but remember the yoghurt being really good.

I didn't travel with a guide, but rather my friend and her family.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:21 AM on November 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you're coming from the US you should be aware that fake smiles don't exist in Israel. People in service industries are not going to smile at you, but it's not because they're being rude. Similarly for other meaningless courtesies we're used to in the States; asking your supermarket cashier how her day is going would be the act of a crazy person.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 2:09 PM on November 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you have stamps from Islamic countries in your passport, be prepared for a bad time during entry.
posted by killdevil at 3:16 PM on November 28, 2018

Something to note is that we're in winter/the rainy season here, so pack for that. These days, rainfall is usually in bursts of heavy downpours with lulls in between. In many cities, the infrastructure has not adapted to the rain patterns, so there can be really poor drainage / minor flooding even on busy streets after a downpour. This generally doesn't disrupt vehicular traffic that much but can make walking pretty unpleasant.
posted by lullaby at 11:10 AM on November 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'll be heading to Israel for my 3rd work trip in as many years. I've found it to be generally pretty pleasant. I had a day for tourism in Jerusalem on my first trip and my company organized a personal tour guide for the Old City and it was really great. "Old" there generally means... originally old. My coworkers were all very keen to make sure I enjoyed myself and to explain anything I didn't seem to understand (including a country(city?)-wide emergency air strike training exercise) and discussions of religion and politics were very much on the table and quite open to a degree that truly surprised me. I find that I am never properly hydrated in Jerusalem. It's a desert and the cups are so small and inadequate. My time in Tel Aviv has been more limited but I spent part of the day there with my boss who lives here and comes from an old Tel Aviv family and I enjoyed that very much. I found it quite different from Jerusalem but only an hour away. The country is geographically very very small compared to what I am used to in the western USA.

Leave lots and lots of time on departure at the airport and it helps to know the names of the people you meet with and where you've been or will go so you can answer the direct questions very specifically. The first time I left we gave ourselves 3 hours and spent 2.5 of them in a single line, not because it was that long or because we took up so much scrutiny but it seemed everyone else did. On my second visit I gave myself 4 hours and was through in... 30 minutes. Go figure. I expect I was now in some kind of database and since I was there for the same purpose perhaps that shortcut much of it.
posted by marylynn at 2:27 PM on November 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for the great suggestions - I had a pretty fantastic trip. Just as a wrap up to some of the items in this thread:
  • The Tel Aviv airport did have a couple of stores selling SIM cards. I got myself a data-only SIM, but got much more than I needed, and paid a bit more for it than if I'd ordered ahead from a service like SIM to Israel. No biggie.
  • On my way out, it really helped that my hosts had me pre-cleared through security - the initial cross-examination at the airport entrance was still a significantly deeper one than I'd experienced before, but they sitckered my passport with a 7(?)-digit number starting with "1" which let me sail through the rest of it. (I'm told that higher values of that number are progressively worse.) Because of that, I didn't need the 4 hours I'd left myself at the airport - 2 hours would have been fine - but I was happier with the time in reserve.
  • Our meeting kept me pretty busy but I did get to do a two day tour through Jerusalem and the Dead Sea and Masada - and that was fantastic. Jerusalem in particular, with the sheer weight of history... Didn't get to see much of Tel Aviv, but on my way out to the airport, I did figure out that it is DEAD on a Sunday night after midnight. Even bars that were nominally open were empty and cleaning up.
  • Driving through the West Bank and into the desert on our way to Masada - I wasn't prepared for how much empty space there is. I was expecting a much more crowded country, but it was wide open and diverse and oh so beautiful. PuppetMcSockerson said above: "The country was so much more beautiful than I ever would have believed. Much more varied and dynamic and rich."
  • The food. Oh, the food.
Thank you all again for the excellent advice and suggestions in the thread!
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:45 PM on December 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

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