Israel: the country of your dreams. The perfect intersection of human history, vibrant Middle Eastern culture, sunshine, and parties, and of course, food. And now, you’re ready to visit for the first time. Located in the space where Asia, Europe and Africa meet, this small country has a big history, and was once known as the center of the world. Israel has it all: from ice-cold waterfalls to vast deserts; thousand year old ruins to world-renowned modern art. In a country so rich with things to do, you might be asking yourself: where do I start?
We’ve put this handy visitor’s guide to tell you all you need to know for your first visit to Israel, the land of milk and honey.
1) Getting Here & Getting Around
Israel’s main international airport is Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV), which operates hundreds of flights daily. Ben Gurion Airport is situated about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Once you arrive, it’s easiest to book an airport transfer to take you anywhere you need to go. You can also enter Israel via land borders with Egypt and Jordan.
Once you arrive, you might be wondering where is the best place to stay in order to see all of the country. The good news is that Israel is very small, and you can explore most of the country in day trips from the central locations of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There are hotels in both cities for every budget and day trips which leave from both cities.
Read more about getting around Israel
2) Israel’s Historic and Religious Sites
Some of the most important religious sites to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism can be found in Israel. No visit is complete without taking in some of these must-see historic locations.
The Old City of Jerusalem
While it may just be a one-kilometer area in the center of Jerusalem, The Old City is a microcosm of holiness. It contains 4 distinct quarters where Jewish, Christian, and Muslim pilgrims come from all over the world – and from inside Israel – to appreciate these world-renowned religious landmarks. Whether this is your first, second, or twentieth visit to Israel, the city is a must-visit; and with so much to see, the best way to take in the wonder of Jerusalem is with a guided tour. There are multiple options:
- Join a walking tour of Jerusalem’s Old City
- Visit the Old City and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum
- Pair your Jerusalem tour with other landmarks nearby, such as Bethlehem and the Dead Sea
- For visitors looking to delve deeper into the Jewish history of Jerusalem and Israel, consider joining this Underground Jerusalem and City of David day tour, to learn about the historic Jewish capital; see more Jewish Israel tour packages
- Or see all Jerusalem Tours
Masada is one of the greatest archaeological sites in Israel. It’s an ancient fortress from the Herodian rule of Israel, and actually contains ruins of King Herod’s palace. It’s well worth a visit on any trip to Israel, not least because you can pair it with a trip to the Dead Sea, which Masada overlooks.
Visit Masada and the Dead Sea
As the biblical birthplace of Jesus, the Palestinian city of Bethlehem makes for an illuminating afternoon during any visit to Israel. Though it’s only a few kilometers from Jerusalem, since Bethlehem is in the West Bank it’s easiest to get to the city on a private tour. There are multiple ways to visit this iconic location during your first trip to Israel:
- Jerusalem, Dead Sea, Bethlehem Tour
- Bethlehem, Jericho, Jordan River Tour
- Jerusalem and Bethlehem Tour
- Or see all Bethlehem Tours
For many Christians, coming to Israel for the first time is the culmination of a lifelong dream. Israel is home to many more important Christian pilgrimage sites, like Capernaum, the River Jordan, and Nazareth. If this is you, make sure you see all of these incredible places on your first trip to Israel: consider a Christian Holy Land Package Tour.
3) Breathtaking Nature
The nature in Israel is truly unique. At the top of the country in the North, you’ll find mountains, lush fields, and even snow. Just a few hours away is the vast Negev Desert in the south. Camping is a popular pastime, especially at the Sea of Galilee, which is not only an important historical tourist destination, but Israel’s main source of water.
The most incredible nature site in Israel is by far the Dead Sea, which is actually the lowest point on earth. The small sea is famous for its exfoliating sands, making for the most natural spa experience in the world – you can’t leave Israel without crossing this one off your bucket list. Check out all these ways to visit the Dead Sea during your trip to Israel.
Israel lies on the mediterranean sea, with a long coastline with beach towns all along the coast, from Ashkelon in the south to Nahariya in the north- with the most famous beach city, Tel Aviv, right in the middle. All these cities are connected by Israel’s railway line, making it easy to explore the coast. Read more about all the best beaches in Israel.
4) Delicious Middle Eastern Cuisine
Much like the rest of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Israeli cuisine is savory, well spiced, and bursting with flavor. Tap water is safe to drink in Israel, making it easy to stay hydrated. While there’s a few things that make food a little different in Israel than in the rest of the world (feta is known as Bulgarian cheese; you’ll find shawarma easier than you’ll find burgers; and if you’re desperate for an iced coffee in the Israeli heat, make sure to ask for a cold coffee!), everyone that comes to this region leaves with a full stomach. Join this Tel Aviv food tour to get a taste of the best of Israeli cuisine.
By far, Israel’s most popular dish is hummus. There are even whole restaurants dedicated to the dish, where fresh hummus is served hot with toppings and a never ending supply of fluffy pita. Though many of us would love to survive on hummus alone, there’s a wide variety of cuisine in this melting-pot country.
Read more about food and restaurants in Israel
Wine is one of Israel’s biggest exports, with countless wineries all over the country. You can find bottles at every price point in Israeli restaurants, bars, and grocery stores. For your first visit to Israel, take advantage of the region by visiting a winery with your group or some friends!
Many first time visitors are shocked to find out that Israel is actually one of the most vegan-friendly countries in the world, even earning a nickname as the Vegan Nation – around 5% of Israelis are vegan. Thanks to Jewish food norms, many restaurants here either serve only meat or dairy, and there’s usually multiple vegan options in both kinds of restaurants. For vegetarians, a great hack to your trip in Israel is to only eat in dairy restaurants, so you’ll never have to even ask if there’s meat in your dish. To see the best of Tel Aviv’s vegan cuisine, join a vegan food tour.
Like most countries in the region, Israel has outdoor food markets in every city. These markets are referred to as a shuk in Hebrew (or souq in Arabic). The two most popular shuk’s in the country are Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda Market, and Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. The best way to experience the shuk like a local is on a market tour.
5) Israeli lifestyle
Tel Aviv is the cultural heart of Israel. In contrast to the rest of the country, it’s a liberal and metropolitan city. See things to do in this Tel Aviv bucket list, and book a walking tour of the city so you can check them off.
Israeli people are generally very friendly and outgoing, and love to host visitors and tourists. Don’t be surprised if a local strikes up a conversation with you during your stay or even invites you to visit their kibbutz! We recommend you go with the flow, or zorem as they say in Israel, with locals.
In Israel, army service is mandatory, so don’t be alarmed when you see soldiers in uniform on the streets. Despite media coverage, in general Israel is a very safe country to visit. You can learn more in depth about the security situation in Israel here.
People take their work-life balance very seriously in Israel. Most Israelis, religious or not, slow down during the Jewish sabbath (Shabbat), which lasts from Friday night to Saturday night, and spend the day in relaxation mode. Almost all stores and public transportation shuts down during Shabbat. Read more about how to navigate Shabbat in Israel and the top things to do at the weekend during your trip.
6) Israel’s borders
Though it’s not possible to visit all of Israel’s neighboring countries, there are many safe ways to make the most of your time in the Middle East by seeing more than just Israel. Not many first time, or even returning, visitors realize that Tel Aviv is only a few hours drive from Petra, one of the seven wonders of the world. One of the top things you can do during your stay is to spend a day or two over the border on a trip to Petra and Jordan. See all options for adding a Jordan excursion to your Israel trip.
Many cities in the West Bank like Bethlehem, which we previously mentioned, as well as Jericho, are easily accessible to tourists in Israel via guided tours.
Another neighboring country you can visit from Israel is Egypt! Israel and Egypt share a desert, and you easily travel to the Sinai peninsula from Eilat, Israel’s most southern city. Check out all Egypt tours from Israel.
TL;DR: on your first trip to Israel, you should visit Jerusalem, soak up some of Israel’s beautiful nature, explore Tel Aviv, and hop over to Petra. Consider a package tour of Israel or joining a day tour of any of these incredible locations to make the most of your stay. And don’t worry- there’ll be much more left to see when you come back!