Israel country guide: Everything you need to know before you go

A stark mix of ancient spiritual landmarks, modern party cities, rich culture and heartbreaking conflict, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank is a complex region to explore

Lauren Keith
Wednesday 31 August 2022 16:54 BST
Old town and port of Jaffa, Tel Aviv city, Israel
Old town and port of Jaffa, Tel Aviv city, Israel (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Israel and the Palestinian Territories cover an area that’s only a bit larger than Wales, but this small slice of land is some of the most sacred on the planet – and the most contested. As the location of holy sites for the world’s three major religions, this place has lured travellers like a magnet for millennia. It has been a crossroads of culture and commerce since time immemorial, but Israel and the Palestinian Territories also pack in an astonishing array of landscapes, including coastline on two different seas, two famous lakes, roasting rural deserts and even snow-capped mountains.

Travel restrictions and entry requirements

Israel has lifted most of its Covid-19 restrictions. Travellers arriving in Israel must fill out an Israel Entry Form before departure but no longer have to show proof of vaccination or wear a mask on the plane, and taking a Covid-19 test is not required. The Israeli government asks that travellers who do not feel well during their first 10 days after arrival take a PCR test. Visitors must have a health insurance policy that includes coverage for the treatment of Covid-19. The government does not currently mandate wearing a mask in indoor spaces, but previous rules may be reimposed depending on Covid case rates. Some businesses might still require masks.

Best time to go

Like other destinations in the Middle East, Israel and the Palestinian Territories are best visited in spring and autumn, which are marked by balmy but comfortable weather. Temperatures soar in the summer (May-September), making it a great time to head to the beach – but this time of year can mean sweat-drenched sightseeing in the cities. Winters are relatively mild. Snow falls in northern areas and at higher altitudes, including in Jerusalem, but at Israel’s southern tip, you can still take a winter dip in the Red Sea.

Crowds – and costs – surge around religious holidays. Because the Jewish and Islamic calendars are based on lunar cycles, holiday dates shift slightly every year in the Gregorian calendar. Visiting during a holiday can have a huge effect on your stay: on some Jewish holidays, restaurants, supermarkets and even border crossings close, while during Ramadan, businesses in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian West Bank and Arab areas of Israel close for the day but reopen after sunset.

The weekly Shabbat – the Jewish day of rest that takes place from Friday evening to Saturday night – might also affect travel plans. In observant and Orthodox Jewish areas, including parts of West Jerusalem, many shops and restaurants close and public transport ceases for those 25 hours. Shabbat is more relaxed and life carries on more or less normally in large cities such as Tel Aviv and tourist zones like the Dead Sea. As a weekly Jewish observance, Shabbat does not have much effect in predominantly Christian and Muslim areas, such as Nazareth, the West Bank and Akko.

Top cities and regions

Tel Aviv

Unabashedly hedonistic Tel Aviv is Israel’s party capital, and the city gives every visitor something to celebrate. The sun-soaked seaside stretches along the coast for kilometres, drawing in beach bums, matkot (paddle ball) players, rollerbladers zipping along the promenade and kitesurfers showboating on the water. The city’s culinary scene, focused on fresh, locally sourced ingredients, continues to astound with creative takes on Middle Eastern and international cuisine, and Tel Aviv has been named one of the world’s best cities for vegans multiple years in a row. Hip rooftop hangouts tower above hole-in-the-wall craft beer bars that have taken up residence street-art-filled alleys. Tel Aviv’s distinct whitewashed Bauhaus architecture has also earned it a Unesco listing, and history runs deep in the historic Arab neighbourhood of Jaffa, home to one of the oldest harbours in the world.


Jerusalem is Tel Aviv’s much more buttoned-up sibling, a place of intense passion, deeply held convictions and heartbreaking division. Spirituality radiates from the Old City’s four quarters, home to Temple Mount (Al Haram ash-Sharif), the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre –major holy sites for Muslims, Jews and Christians. Outside the Ottoman-era Old City walls, Jerusalem moves at a more modern clip, but is still firmly rooted in tradition. By day, Machane Yehuda appears at first glance to be a standard fruit, veg and spice market, but after dark, it moonlights as one of Jerusalem’s coolest nightlife spots, with wooden tables and happy drinkers spilling out into the market’s narrow pathways.

Dead Sea

The Dead Sea fills the planet’s lowest point with hypersaline water that’s 10 times saltier than the ocean. The area’s unique geography is said to have curative properties, from the oxygen-rich atmosphere found 430.5 metres below sea level to the mineral-dense mud that you can scoop up from the lakebed and lather on your skin. Active types can hike up the nearby mesa of Masada, where Jews took a final stand against Roman rule in 73AD. This historic hilltop is a favourite trek for early birds catching the sunrise.


Bethlehem might be a bit bigger than the “little town” you imagined from the Christmas carol, and pilgrims continue to congregate here, especially around Easter and for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. But even the non-religious will be enchanted by Bethlehem’s busy market, winding limestone alleys and ancient churches built by various Christian denominations. Travellers also now come to Bethlehem to see the street art painted on the 9m-high, Israeli-built concrete separation wall that divides Israel from the Palestinian West Bank. Banksy has been adding work to the wall since 2005, and the artist even opened the Walled Off Hotel directly across the street from the barrier, which boasts of having the “worst view in the world”.

Best under-the-radar destinations

The Negev and the Red Sea

Have you really been to the Middle East if you haven’t seen the desert? The Negev, Israel’s southern desert that covers the bottom half of the country, feels surprisingly off the grid even though it’s just a couple hours’ drive from both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This desert is home to some seriously cool natural and geological features, from the “Grand Canyon of Israel” at Makhtesh Ramon – the world’s largest erosion cirque – to the beautiful water-sculpted Red Canyon and an oasis-like desert gorge with still pools and waterfalls at En Avdat National Park. Farther south still, Israel has just 11km of coastline along the Red Sea, but these waters have some of the planet’s best opportunities for diving and snorkelling. The Red Sea is a hotspot for biodiversity and has hundreds of endemic species found nowhere else.

Akko (Acre)

Though it doesn’t have instant name recognition now, Akko is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements. Much of the architecture visible today comes from the Crusaders and the Ottomans, and plenty of historic sites both above and below ground, including the vaulted Knights’ Halls and the underground Templars’ Tunnel, promise to keep you occupied for hours. Don’t miss a stroll along the city’s seafront stone walls and a bartering session in the bazaar before scrubbing away the dust of the past with a trip to Ghattas Turkish Bathhouse, located in a sumptuously restored Ottoman-era stone structure.


Night owls and budget travellers should leave time for a pitstop in Ramallah, the West Bank’s best spot for bars and nightlife. Drinkers will find a surprising selection of watering holes in town, as well as a couple of breweries in nearby villages. Taybeh Brewing Company even puts on its own Oktoberfest. But it’s not all about the late nights: Ramallah is the de facto West Bank capital and its intellectual heart with a diverse cultural calendar. History buffs and politicos will want to visit the Yasser Arafat Museum, which details the Palestinian leader’s life and includes his original office where he was under siege from Israel’s military for nearly three years.

Best things to do

Graze your way through markets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

Once you’ve experienced the depth of history in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, ruminate over your sightseeing adventures at the cities’ incredible markets. In Tel Aviv, Carmel Market and Levinsky Market are international smorgasbords of treats from the Balkans, Turkey, Syria and beyond. Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda Market is a delight at any time of day. Vendors hawk spices, olives, cheese, fish and meat while the sun’s up, and after some of the stall shutters come down in the evenings, pint-sized bars come to life. Although you can explore the markets on your own, going on a foodie tour with the likes of Yalla Basta provides an in-depth taste and behind-the-scenes access.

Take a hike

The varied range of landscapes here mean exploring by foot is hugely rewarding. Hikers can set off for one day or many along a growing number of long-distance trails, including the country-spanning Israel National Trail, which runs from the Lebanese border to Eilat. The Jesus Trail around Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee takes in important Christian sites. In the West Bank, walkers can follow a section of the Abraham Path between Nablus and Hebron – it’s hoped that one day this trail will link up and span the Middle East from Egypt’s Sinai across the West Bank, Jordan, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Spot Roman ruins

So many civilisations have left their mark on this part of the eastern Mediterranean, and one of the most famous empires of all was no exception. Not content to remain in Europe, the ancient Romans pushed east to extend their empire, declaring new provinces and constructing monumental cities. Between Haifa and Tel Aviv lies the Herod-founded Caesarea, once a major port city that still has an impressive 10,000-seat amphitheatre, some mosaic-covered floors and a huge hippodrome in its stunning seaside location. Inland at the intersection of two valleys is Beit She’an, a member of the affluent Decapolis league of cities. It offered all the classic trappings for the empire’s well-to-do, such as column-lined cobblestone streets, social bathhouses and theatres.

Getting around

Train lines link up major cities, with stations in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Akko and Be’er Sheva, as well as at Ben Gurion Airport. A high-speed train operates between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel and the Palestinian West Bank have an extensive – and separate – network of bus services and shared taxis that run between cities and towns. Hiring a car opens up trips to the countryside, but parking in the cities can be a hassle, and the local driving style can be aggressive. In the West Bank, many travellers opt to hire a driver for the day to see spread-out sights. Public transport in Israel shuts down every week on Shabbat.

How to get there

Israel’s main international airport is Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv. Budget flights also land in the Red Sea coastal town of Eilat. Israel has four land border crossings, one with Egypt and three with Jordan. Some cruises around the eastern Mediterranean include Israel, docking in Ashdod and Haifa.

The Palestinian Territories do not have an airport. Visiting the West Bank requires passing through an Israeli checkpoint on foot, on a bus or in a car. Israeli citizens – including Israeli-run taxis and buses – cannot enter Area A, which is under Palestinian administrative and police control. To reach the West Bank by public transport, take an Arab bus from East Jerusalem or an Israeli bus or taxi to the checkpoint, walk through the checkpoint and then find a Palestinian bus or taxi on the other side. 

Money-saving tip

You’ll find an excellent range of budget accommodation options, from wild camping on the beach or near nature reserves to staying in pilgrim hostels or sleeping at lovely rural kibbutzim – Israeli socialist communes usually built between the 1950s and 1970s that have opened their doors as guesthouses with a communal ethos.


Will my passport be stamped?

Having an Israeli stamp in your passport means you are unable to visit some countries in the Middle East. Instead of a passport stamp, Israel usually provides a loose business-card-sized entry card for arrivals into Ben Gurion Airport. However, passports are sometimes stamped at land border crossings, and entry to some Arab countries has been denied because of exit stamps from Egypt or Jordan, indicators that you’ve visited Israel.

What time zone is it in?

The same time zone as eastern Europe: GMT+2. Summertime adds one hour to the clocks from the end of March to the end of October.

What currency do I need?

Israeli new shekels are used in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

What language is spoken?

Hebrew and Arabic. English is also widely spoken.

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