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Israel Guide 101

Recommendations and Advice:


1. Always carry some form of picture ID on you - you can be asked to produce it anywhere and anytime

2. I assume you are flying El Al? Do not be alarmed when you are very thoroughly questioned by security upon departure of the USA and on your return, when you leave Israel. It can be intimidating, but they are just doing their job to ensure utter security. You will probably be charmed by Ben Gurion Airport - it is tiny. When you step off the plane (you descend stairs - this is not like US airports when you walk off the plane and directly into the airport via a tunnel), you walk to the arrivals hall, go through passport control, walk about five steps to the luggage conveyer belt and another five steps and you are out the airport!

3. Be prepared to be searched every time you enter a public establishment e.g. Mall - this includes your person and anything you are carrying with you. If you are driving into a Mall in a private car, you will be stopped and asked to open your trunk. It too will be searched. Do not be surprised to see armed guards at practically every restaurant and if you ever go on a public bus, you will see them there too.

4. Each time you take a taxi (mo-neat in Hebrew), always ask the drivers to put on the meter (moneh). Israeli taxi drivers enjoy ripping off ignorant Americans - your only protection is to meter your ride. Another good idea is, if you know where you are traveling to, ask a hotel employee what the ride should cost - that will also prevent you from being ripped off. Also note a peculiarity of the Israel experience: it is NOT uncommon for a taxi driver to pick up additional passengers while you are still en route to your destination! Also note the difference between a taxi and a sherut. The latter is a very convenient means of intercity travel (especially if you intend avoiding public busses). A sherut is a minivan cab which holds approximately 7 passengers. You can find sheruts at all Tachanah Mercazits (Central Bus Stations) - just ask. They are a little more expensive than busses but a LOT cheaper than private taxi.

5. Israelis will gladly accept dollars - especially taxi drivers - but I don't recommend you use anything other than shekels. It is approximately 5 shekels (NIS is the shortened form) to the dollar. There are ATM machines - in Hebrew. If you were taking traveler's checks, I would counsel against exchanging them at hotels or the airport where the commission is high.

6. If you plan on renting a car - you need to be aware that the average Israeli is a kamikaze driver. Bear in mind that nearly every adult Israeli (bar the Haredi population) has spent 2-3 years in the army and most of these people have experienced war or armed combat. The ethos in Israel is definitely "survival of the fittest" and this is evident, especially on the road, where I think Israelis often forget they are in vehicles and not in tanks. Most street signs are in Hebrew and English, and the main roads are in good condition. Just be highly vigilant, carry maps at all times as you don't want to end up in some "unsafe" area. Remember Israel is smaller than New Jersey, so it's not difficult to end up in unsavory places. Do not get offended if you experience regular honking on the road, in addition to road rage, patience is in very short supply.

7. Unlike the Far East - eating at street vendors is usually safe and usually extremely delicious. Israeli food is fabulous! Usually the shabbier a place looks, the tastier the food is! But more about food later…

8. If you are in Jerusalem over a Shabbat - remember that much of the city shuts down. Taxis continue to run, many restaurants are open, but banks and public places, including Malls, are closed. Most places that are closed on Shabbat, close around 2PM on Friday. Avoid driving through religious neighborhoods on Shabbat - you are likely to get stoned or have dirty diapers flung at you (I am not kidding!). Unlike Jerusalem, most of Tel Aviv is not affected by Shabbat. I recommend you buy the Jerusalem Post on a Friday as it contains listings of special events, movies etc…it is the equivalent of our Sunday newspaper.

9. Drinking tap water in Israel is pretty safe - but bottled water is probably a better idea to avoid stomach upsets.

10. It goes without saying that you need to be very vigilant when you travel through Israel. NEVER leave any bags or parcels unattended even for a minute, and if you happen to see an unattended bag, notify the police immediately.

11. Public telephones work on a phone card system. You can buy "telecards" in many places for different denominations.

Sites you have to visit:

1. Jerusalem

Jerusalem is the most unique city in the world and the true soul of Israel. I highly recommend you spend as much time there as possible.

· Old City - an absolute must! I highly recommend you do a walking tour of the four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. It's a great way to get an overview of the Old City, hear the history, and see each quarter's highlights. These tours operate from the Jaffa Gate of the Old City. This tour also affords you the opportunity of then returning to a particular area of the Old City that you found particularly interesting. Obvious places not to be missed in the Old City are the Western Wall (the excavations tour is also worthwhile); the Via Delarosa; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; The Dome of the Rock. If you find yourself in the Old City around lunchtime, head to the Armenian Quarter, there are some great little restaurants there - especially The Armenian Tavern (http://www.dinnersite.co.il/jerusalem/armenian.htm) . In addition to the Quarters tour there are also rooftop tours (pretty good) and walks around the circumference of the Old City walls (not so great). If you plan on walking through the Arab Market (shuk) - as a man it is totally safe for you - just expect to be harassed if you show interest in purchasing something and then walk away. Also expect to be ripped off - the merchants are extremely clued up, and can spot an American friar (Israeli slang for sucker) a mile away!

· New City/Downtown - there is a pedestrian mall called Ben Yehuda - it has many stores, restaurants and take-out (e.g. MacDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut). It's a great place to hang out and people watch. Ben Yehuda intersects with King George Street and Jaffa Street - the main downtown thoroughfares. If you walk south along Jaffa street, you eventually get to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City (10 minute walk). An absolute MUST to visit is the Machane Yehuda Shuk (Jewish Market) on the other end of Jaffa Street. It's a fascinating place, full of amazing sights and sounds and very interesting people. You can pick up a delicious meal in the area around the shuk. Also, indulge in the Israeli past time of garinim spitting (spitting sunflower seeds) - the shuk is the best place to sample the delicious assortment of Israeli nuts. I recommend garinim (salted), pumpkin seeds, and botnim Amerikayim (American nuts - they are peanuts with a hard shell). If you're craving chocolate and wish to sample Israeli fare - try Rosemary or Pesek Tman.

· Other areas to visit in Jerusalem - Outside the Old City Walls is the first neighborhood of Jerusalem called Mishkanot Sha'ananim - Yemin Moshe. From there it's an easy walk to the Cinemateque - home of the artsy/foreign movies. It is also near some cool nightclubs and restaurants - a good place to go for the evening. Another great place to visit is the German Colony - also an easy walk from the Cinemateque. The main street in the German Colony is called Emek Refaim (the Valley of Ghosts) - it is home to some great restaurants and coffee places, another artsy cinema (Smadar), stores and beautiful old Arab-style homes. Not far from the German Colony is a wonderful promenade with a breathtaking view of Jerusalem - it is called the Haas Promenade or The Tayellet. There is also a restaurant at that site. For another breathtaking view of Jerusalem, head to The Mount of Olives, in East Jerusalem.

· You must visit the Ultra Orthodox enclave of Meah Sharim!

· I don't know if you want to take in the Holocaust Museum - Yad Vashem - it is a very moving experience. It is also near Har Hertzl, the military cemetery, which is open to the public. A little further up the road from Yad Vashem is the charming village of Ein Kerem. Again, well worth a visit - it is home to various churches, some great restaurants and forested walks. It is home to both Jews and Arabs - many of whom are artists or bohemian types.

· You can visit the Israeli parliament (Knesset) and the Israel Museum (both located near to each other) - but it would be last on my Jerusalem priority list.

· The nightspot area of Jerusalem is called The Russian Compound - it has many great clubs, bars and restaurants.

· Another great place to visit is the Arab Israeli neighborhood of Abu Ghosh - it's about 20 minutes outside Jerusalem. It has some fabulous restaurants (all on the main street of Hashalom) - great to visit in the evening.

· Forty minutes from Jerusalem is Bethlehem - also worth a visit. Make it a day trip as there is little by way of overnight accommodation there.

2. Tel Aviv

Because I lived in Jerusalem, I am not as familiar with Tel Aviv. I would recommend walking around Dizzengoff Streets (fancy stores and restaurants and a mall by the same name). Far more trendy is Shenkin Street - sort of the bohemian area of the city. Unlike Jerusalem, there is little charm in Tel Aviv - beautiful beachfront condos are often situated next to rundown slums. Very strange. If you enjoy museums, visit The Diaspora Museum - history of Jewish culture. I would also visit Shuk HaCarmel - the Carmel Market which sells everything from fruit and veggies to clothes and nick-knacks. There is also a fabulous arts and crafts market called Nachalat Binyamin which sells very original and arty items (it is not on every day - I think only on Fridays and Mondays). There is of course the Tel Aviv beachfront - a beautiful promenade. If you want a special gastronomic experience, make sure you visit Yot Vatar - a dairy restaurant run by a kibbutz - try their amazing fruit shakes.

Definitely take a ride to Old Jaffa (15 minutes away) - it's a charming place - many artists reside there (you can stop into their galleries), and Arabs and Jews live together. It also has a great view of the Tel Aviv coast. Jaffa has a great market called Shuk HaPishPishim (literally Flea Market) which sells antiques, furniture, and bric-a-brac. Head there for an evening - it has fabulous restaurants - especially fish eateries - check out Beni Hadayag (Benny the Fisherman) restaurant.

3. Other places

· You can't go to Israel without visiting the Dead Sea and Masada - it's a short drive from Jerusalem (about an hour or so). I hope it's not too cold for you to take a float in the Dead Sea. Remember not to swallow any of the water! Take a mud bath!
· Haifa in the north is a fascinating working class city with interesting sights such as the Bahai Gardens. The northern areas of Israel (Tiberius, area around the Kinneret, Safed, Nazareth, Beit Shean, Rosh Hanikra) are beautiful and extremely worthwhile visiting. If your time is limited, I would elect to go North (verdant countryside) rather than South (arid desert) with the exception of the Dead Sea and Masada. I wouldn't bother to go to Eilat - for me it does not depict Israel, it is like any European seaside resort - but if you want a vacation and warmer weather, then by all means head to Eilat. It is a four to five hour drive from Jerusalem.

4. And finally…a word about the food!

· Israel's milk products - particularly the cheese and yogurts are excellent! Most Israeli hotel breakfasts will overflow with these items and the typical Israeli salad - tomatoes and cucumbers chopped in small pieces with a smattering of olive oil.

· The tastiest Israeli food usually comes in pita bread. There are two kinds of pita in Israel - "regular" and "laffa". The latter is thick dough (like a tortilla) which is filled with different contents and rolled up. Of course you find falafel and shwarma everywhere you go - but far tastier is what is known as "shippudim ala aish" (literally, on the fire). You can choose from chicken, duck, beef, liver, young chicken on skewers, which is roasted on an open fire, and then inserted in pita and laffa. You then add Israeli salad, fries (chips in Hebrew), and choose from various sauces including hummus, tehina or charif (charif is very hot chilli sauce, but most delicious. It comes in two varieties, in red or green). There is nothing on this earth more delicious than "shippudim ala aish" - it is the food I continually crave here in America! It is also healthy and very reasonably priced.

· It is well worth going in search of Yemenite and Morrocan restaurants. I particularly recommend Marvad Haksamim (17 King George, in downtown Jerusalem) for Yemenite and Darna (3 Horkanus Street, Jerusalem - right near the Russian Compound) for Moroccan. The former is very reasonable, the latter is more expensive. Check out http://www.dinnersite.co.il/jerusalem/d/darna.htm

· Tipping in Israel is about 10% and in some places there is an extra charge for having an onsite security guard.

· Throughout Israel and Tel Aviv are cafes called Aroma. They are open 24/7 and have great coffee/hot chocolate and amazing sandwiches!

· If you want to see listings of all the restaurants in Israel - visit http://www.dinnersite.co.il/israel.htm