A Tribe Like No Other: A Guide to Travelling in Israel

When you tell people you’re going to Israel, the usual reaction is either “Oh wow!” or “Israel? Why?” – I always prefer the second response.

I’d always wanted to go to Israel as I’d heard and read so much about it. When I finally did, what I discovered there implanted Israel firmly in my heart and close to my top favourite country in the world. Since then I’ve been back three times whilst trying to convince as many people as I can, to visit.

It’s very hard to describe Israel without lapsing into the kind of travel writing that’s beautiful and poetic but also vague and romantic. I didn’t think the latter style would be right and I didn’t to fall over my words describing a place with such directness, immediacy and impatience.  It feels almost electric here. Everyone seems to be living their life to the full, engaged with each other and their surroundings, their purpose and passion. It’s like no place I’ve ever been… but why? The unique situation of the country probably has a big part to play, as Israel’s citizens, Jewish or not, are bound together by several common themes.

Firstly, the country is relatively young. Although many Israeli’s are Israeli born, their grandparents or parents played a part in building and shaping the country they live in today – maybe by emigrating from abroad, or escaping there after the Holocaust; making their own link to the birth and shaping of their country very close and very tangible.

There is a shared purpose and goal; the survival of their country – despite hugely differing political views of how it should be achieved.

Due to conscription, a majority of citizens have served in the army. This means that unlike many other countries, there is an understanding between the civilian population and the army of what life in the army is like. Conflict isn’t something that only professional army experience, instead, the country go through it as a whole instead of civilians being totally disconnected or as commenting bystanders. Youths of varied economic means and backgrounds all go through the powerful shared experience of training side by side in what becomes a very levelling and bonding experience – solidifying their sense of self and their role in the community and country as a whole, whilst not alienating them from the general populace (as US or UK soldiers can find when returning home from deployment).

This seems to have created a very strong sense of community and a remarkable lack of apathy in the population, maybe contributing to the low crime rate compared to other countries world wide. People seem to have opinions, conflicting or not, on just about everything. They each have a strong sense of responsibility to the community and notion that they have a part in simultaneously protecting and contributing to it. They feel like a valued part of a greater whole. A tribe.

In most large, modern societies who are cut off from conflict, this is a way of living and feeling that’s extremely difficult to achieve as we become so disconnected from each other and any truly meaningful purpose or sense of community. Israeli society therefore seems at once very familiar, yet also incredibly different from our own.

In a country so varied in culture and terrain I didn’t have time to write an epic saga, however I didn’t want to encapsulate the experience with a veil of my own evocative descriptions. I’ve simply included some of the favourite places we visited on our trip.

The Negev Desert

The Negev isn’t a vast, sandy Arabian Nights style desert. It’s rocky and dry with craggy hills of layered rock that rise out of the craterous land. You may witness the occasional camel wandering along, alone or led by a bedouin and plenty of signs warning to avoid them on the roads (they’re faster than you think!).

We were staying at a small wine vineyard in the middle of the desert called Boker Valley Farm. After driving for an hour or so, we escaped Tel Aviv soon enough and welcomed the quiet, dry roads. We finally arrived at the farm in the late afternoon, just as the sun was beginning its descent behind the hills, giving us a beautiful example of the famous desert sunsets. We were shown to our air conditioned cabin (very welcome in the heat) which had a path that led from the door to a bubbling jacuzzi hidden inside a bamboo hut.

I really wanted to get a photo of the sunset and the tipi’s which were part of the campsite next door, which had suddenly transported us from Israel to the unexplored plains of Native America. I had a craving to be riding a horse, bareback into the sunset (luckily for the horses, this craving wasn’t fulfilled).

This is me “relaxing” aka trying to look nonchalantly cool, watching the sunset

 

Desert Walk in Ein Advat

After visiting the well known tourist spot of Ben Gurion’s grave, we drove down the hillside to Ein Advat – a spring in the middle of the dessert that serves as an oasis for wildlife, most notably the wild Ibex, who are curious enough to get close, but not close enough to touch! Israel’s are very conscious of limiting water usage, so you are forbidden from touching or bathing in the springs or water to ensure there’s no detrimental effects to the animals who depend on it for survival, like this guy…

The sun beat down as we walked through the parched valley, admiring the gnarled dried out trees and following the stream through winding, curving yellow sand and rock formations shaped by the great ancient rivers that once passed through here. It’s a fairly short hike but challenging enough for us in the heat. I was glad we hadn’t forgotten to bring the bottle of water from the car. We soon reached a long pool tapering off into a cave in the rock and if we hadn’t been forbidden, as green as it was, we probably would have jumped in.

On our way back, we met an Australian man called Alex who insisted we visit the Beresheet Hotel at the Mitzpe Ramon crater, 20 minutes drive away… so we did.

Mitzpe Ramon and Beresheet

The Beresheet Hotel is a stunning luxury hotel perched on the side of the enormous Mitzpe Ramon crater. It’s the kind of hotel my grandma would exclaim “oy vey!” at – and she’s not easily impressed.

The crater has been made by natural erosion rather than impact, and it’s breathtaking in its vastness. Since we’re not wealthy enough to hire out a room or private villa here spur of the moment (and also because everything was already booked up far in advance) we just shared a tasty pizza and a couple of beers out on the hotel decking and then went for a dip in the pool. I’m not sure we were really allowed to do the latter, but it was cocktail hour and there were plenty of free sun beds to choose from, so, whatevs. It was also around 28 degrees C and the infinity pool was beckoning…

Masada

We got up at 4am to drive to the foot of Masada for the sunset climb. Masada is a huge mountain of rock in the desert with a ancient fortress ruin around 2500 years old perched on its top, overlooking the dead sea. The climb has to be done before sunrise as it’s far too hot to scale once the sun is out in force, unless you’re a lizard. You don’t actually have to climb up or down as there is a cable car, but I think it’s a more rewarding experience to climb up if you can.

We finally arrived at the top after our long schlepp feeling sweaty and accomplished but slightly nauseous, (due to me being unfit, not the altitude as Masada is only 85 meters above sea level!). After finding a secluded place to sit down, we were rewarded with the sun rising out of the Dead Sea in a giant glowing orange ball of light, like a glorious fizzing berocca in a slow-mo reverse drop. The Dead Sea glowed silver and the purple landscape turned to yellow.

After watching the sunset, our rumbling stomachs reminded us how hungry we were so we got some cookies out to snaffle. Suddenly there was a loud “SQUALK”… and then another one, and another! We glanced down at the cute little birds that had been chirping sweetly at us earlier. They had seen our food and changed their call to sound something like “GIMMIETHECOOKIEYOUBASTARDS!”. I’m never argumentative that early in the morning so we threw a piece down.

The birds took the cookie pieces in their beaks and started to flick their heads, bashing the cookies in a “booyakasha” motion against the rocks and then gobbling up the crumbs. Amazing!

The Dead Sea

I have no pictures of this because I am accident prone, and there’s no way I’m taking my mobile down to a electronics corroding salty paradise…

The Dead Sea is the lowest place on the entire planet. It’s close to Masada, so it only took us a few minutes to get down to somewhere we could go for a float. The beaches in most places have a very fine, white sand and the sea is blue, clear and shimmering in the sun. It’s all so bright with the sky reflecting from the water and the the salt in the sand joining in, you feel almost snow blind without sunglasses.

Everyone knows the Dead Sea is salty, right? That’s why it’s dead. It’s also not actually a sea but a huge salty lake. If want to go in to swim, you need to find a spot where there’s a lifeguard post (you wouldn’t think you could drown in the Dead Sea but it has happened) and showers so you can wash the salt off yourself as soon as you come out. If you don’t you’ll get very sunburned and probably very stingy!

I must have warned Jackson a million times (definitely to the point of nagging) that he should not get the Dead Sea water in his eyes at all costs. He seemed to hear my warnings… however, one of the very first things he did after entering the sea was slather a load of it through his long curly locks and…

let it drip into his eyes.

Him: “OMG ouch it’s in my eyes!” Me: “Yes, well, what did I freaking tell you?!”

Yes, it’s goddamn salty. It’s so salty that it’s almost impossible to swim in. When you try to stand up you are bobbed backwards and forwards like a bop bag. The best thing to do is to  just allow yourself to gently float in it. Floating in the dead sea is an amazing and otherworldly experience. Your body is buoyed out of the water so well, you could almost sit up and read a book. The water is warm and clear and you can float around on your stomach exploring the giant salt crystal chunks lying on the lake bed – no one minds if you take some home with you as it’s regularly mined out to sell and becomes saltier every year as the water slowly evaporates.

Tip:  If you go in for a swim, you need to find a spot where there are outdoor showers on the beach so you can wash the salt off yourself as soon as you come out.

Tip: Some beaches have a sandy bottom under your feet which protects you from the hard crusted salt at the lake’s bottom. If there’s no sandy bottom, you may want to wade in wearing some protective footwear to avoid being stabbed by the salt stalagmites (non waterproof fabric will be permeated and need vigorous washing to stop it going stiff and corroding).

Tip: Get some mud from one of the spa’s or hotels by the beach and slather yourself in it before letting it dry and washing it off in the Dead Sea (NOT YOUR FACE though, wash that in the outdoor showers!).

Jerusalem

Jerusalem is probably the most famous of all cities in the Middle East. It holds the most ancient holy Jewish historic sites as well as various holy sites for Muslims and Christians.

The Old City is a walled maze of cobbled streets, markets, shops, restaurants, holy buildings and squares split into four quarters; the Armenian, Muslim, Jewish and Christian.

The Jewish Quarter is populated by Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish families, Torah schools (Yeshivas) and students from around the world, all getting on with daily life in the narrow alleys. The alleyways become wider as you get closer to the site of the Western Wall where Secular and Orthadox Jews come in their hundreds every hour of the day, to pray. Anyone is welcome to visit the wall, no matter the religion (as long as you’re wearing fairly modest clothing). Many people like to place a prayer on a fold of paper in a crack on the wall. This site is revered by Jews and it’s not uncommon to see people praying at the wall in tears. Some have waited their entire lives to visit and pray at the wall and it can be an emotional experience even for those who aren’t expecting it.

Tip: When walking away from the wall, it’s respectful to walk backwards and slowly, facing the wall, until you’re around 20 paces back.

The Western Wall is the site of the first Jewish Temple, built by King Solomon in 833 BCE. It’s the Jewish religion’s most holy site, and only a small part of it is visible as the main Western Wall we know today. The majority of it lies underground, visible in part by venturing into the Western Wall Tunnels via the plaza next to the wall, which offer an amazing insight into how large it was when it was rebuilt for the second time (the Babylonians destroyed it the first time and the Romans again in 69CE). Still – no one knows how the enormous stone slabs of rock were put in place to form the foundations.

The Dome of the Rock glimmers gold in the sun above the Western Wall, a beautiful view from the steps above. It’s possible to visit the grounds of the site but not to enter unless you’re Muslim. It’s worth seeing up close though if you can as it’s one of the most iconic buildings in Jerusalem.

The Muslim quarter is busier with all kinds of vendors selling everything you can imagine. Delicious smells, colourful wares and every day groceries are bought by locals and tourists alike. Just as in the Jewish Quarter, people are going about their everyday business despite how bursting with tourists it seems. Children, families, old men, all conducting their lives in one of the oldest, busiest, contested and most intense cities in the world.

The Christian Quarter is the home of many holy Christian sites, but most famously, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is where Jesus is supposed to have been killed and buried. Here you’ll see nuns, priests and pilgrims from all over the world clamouring to see the holy sites. As there are so many different Christian sects, different parts of this area are controlled by different groups meaning there are sometimes disputes. The disputes are such an issue that the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are actually entrusted to one of the oldest Muslim family clans of the area in order to keep the peace!

The Armenian quarter is home to around 2500 Armenians, an ancient community of the area who’ve been in the area for over 2000 years.

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is one of the most vibrant cities in the world. It’s like all the coolest, most cultured parts of Europe mixed with the laid back attitude of California. Tel Aviv is famous for it’s food, energetic night life, fine sandy beaches and good looking residents.

Groups of secular young adults gather in Tel Aviv’s trendy bars, drinking, eating and talking well into the night. Fitness fanatics play frizby and bat ball on the sand, contributing to an incredible cacophony of pings and pongs that fills the air.

A typical experience at a Tel Aviv night life spot goes something like this. You sit at the bar or on a table and order drinks either from the bartender or a waitress, as well as generously sized tasty morsels like falafel, chopped liver pate and challah, dips, breads, pickles etc. Then you get regular (free) shots forced upon you by the bar staff, accompanied by a large cheers to everyone around. The atmosphere is always riotous, especially at Port Sa’id and any of its sister bars and restaurants. This extends to most Tel Avivian night life, with people dancing on tables and chairs in clubs by the end of the night and staff partying along instead of telling you to get down. The small stuff isn’t sweated and it makes western culture seem incredibly stuffy in comparison.

Exploring Tel Aviv you’ll find wide boulevard style streets packed with shops, restaurants and squares as well as smaller, low rise, cobbled streets and alleys, with every other building a fashionable cafe or independent restaurant, bars or boutiques. The city is open 24/7 (unless it’s Friday, due to Shabbat which starts on Friday evening and continues into Saturday evening). This means Thursday or Sunday is the best time to go out when in the city – so try a mid week break rather than a weekend one!

Old Jaffa is the most southern and oldest part of Tel Aviv. It’s walls, stairs and alleys snake around the clock tower in the central square and continue down to Jaffa Port. Some of the best restaurants in Tel Aviv are here, with art galleries, theatres (sometimes you’ll get to witness a bit of open air theatre in the big courtyards) and beautifully restored old buildings. Occasionally you’ll walk alongside a crumbling wall or small ruined building, delicately and romantically attached to the restored building right next door like a decrepit lover.

Walking along the beachfront path towards Old Jaffa, one of the nicest sites are big Arab Muslim families sitting barbecuing in the evening light on the grass overlooking the beaches at the fringes of Jaffa as their children play, cycle and ride hover boards around the pavements, cajoled and encouraged by their parents. Family is obviously an important part of Israeli life and this is a one of the myriad, tangible ways it’s woven into everyday activities.

Tip: If you’ve hired a car in Tel Aviv, get a hotel with a car park as it’s expensive and almost frustrating trying to get parking in the city otherwise.

Tip: Drivers are assertive (to put it politely) and will happily and insistently pull out in front of you, side on and behind you with less than two inches between your cars.

Commonly asked questions about holidaying in Israel

What kind of clothes do you wear on holiday in Israel?

Although Israel is in the Middle East, it’s not at all necessary to change how you would normally dress on holiday in a hot country.

The one exception is Jerusalem. Although you can wear whatever you want (you wouldn’t get in trouble wandering around in shorts and a vest top) you’ll probably be visiting some holy sites whilst you’re there so you wouldn’t want to feel out of place. There are also some more conservative neighbourhoods that you may wander through whilst exploring.

If I was visiting the old city in Jerusalem, I’d wear a dress or skirt to just below the knee with a thin shawl or sarong to wrap over my shoulders whenever I needed it. Beyond that, you really don’t need to worry.

In Tel Aviv and most other cities in Israel, you could easily be in London, Miami, Paris or Barcelona and will regularly see thongs on the beaches and tiny dresses and shorts in the city. Israeli’s are a pretty good looking bunch and many of them prefer not to hide this under lots of clothes!

Is Israel all desert?

The hills leading up to Jerusalem

No! Although Israel has a lot of desert, it’s actually got an enormously varied terrain, especially considering it’s such a small country. From lush green forests, farmland and hills in the north to the beaches, gardens and metropolitan cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Forests in the Galilee

Is Israel dangerous?

Because whenever we see Israel in the news it’s usually because of some conflict in the region, it’s easy to assume that it might feel like a dangerous place to visit. This is not the reality of how it feels to be there. The conflict you see on the news is usually restricted to very small, specific areas that you wouldn’t generally visit as a tourist.

Israel feels like any other European city, although (in my opinion) much safer. This is maybe because it’s hard to commit crime in cities that are full of armed police ex-army, previous conscripts and thousands of citizens fiercely protective of their country and with a very strong sense of community. If anyone swiped your bag or phone in the street, they’d probably get chased down in seconds. There aren’t any dodgy areas in any Israeli city that you wouldn’t want to walk through at night like there are in London or pretty much any other city in Europe or the USA. You feel just as safe walking around at night as you would in the day and street crime is extremely rare.

Is everyone in Israel Jewish?

Although there is a large practicing Jewish population, there are several number of different sects. There are Arab Christians, Muslims, Druze, European Christians as well as people of different faiths and ethnicities from every continent. When visiting Israel you will see all these people taking an active and varied part in daily life in the city.

What’s the food like in Israel?

As expected, yes Israeli’s do love hummus and bagels but there’s way WAY more to the cuisine than that. You can get incredible food from all over the world in Israel so it’s a great destination for foodies. In Tel Aviv especially, there’s a hugely respected food and restaurant culture with internationally recognised restaurants and chefs all over the city.

Hotels and Restaurant Recommendations

Some of these are mine, some are pilfered from knowledgable friends and locals:

Negev

Boker Valley Farm. A very quiet area but great to get away from it all. Cabins with air con & amenities, a shallow outdoor bathing pool, jacuzzi and amazing breakfast.

Beresheet. A luxury hotel on the edge of the Mitzpe Ramon crater. Rooms or private villas with their own pool available, several restaurants and bars on site.

Jerusalem

Mamilla hotel and rooftop restaurant. Luxury hotel with rooftop dining experience enjoying views over the Jerusalem rooftops.

Tel Aviv

Abu Hassan –  hummus open for lunch only its really basic, order the MASABACHA. There is another branch on Shivtei Yisrael street in Jaffa.

Abraxas North – Something out of the ordinary, best is to sit at the bar for great atmosphere. 40 Lilenbloom street.

Port Said. Port Said and Abraxas North and are owned by the same team. Port Said has a buzzing atmosphere and is open on Thurs/Fri night serving late night food and drinks. It serves very authentic Israeli food –  You cannot book though –  5 Har Sinai St.

Le Shuk – 92 Dizingoff (Israeli fusion food)

Abu Hassan – best houmous in tel aviv! 2 HaBarzel Street

Cafe Noir – best schnitzel place! 43 Ahad Haam Street

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