One of the things I love so much about travel is that it forces you to constantly be learning. On every trip I take, I learn new things about myself and the world. Traveling in Israel was certainly no exception.
Before I left for Israel I kept coming back to this one question: What am I most excited about? And to be honest, I just couldn’t think of an answer. Not that I wasn’t excited at all, it was just that Israel was a country that I knew little about. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if the culture would be challenging, if the food would be weird, if people would accept me as an American, if I would be able to communicate well…
Traveling in Israel taught me just how little I knew about this country. It’s unlike any place I have traveled before. Israel is special. Every day, Israel brought new surprises that added to its charm. Here are the things that surprised me the most about traveling in Israel.
It’s more than just a desert
Before visiting, I had this idea that Israel was just one big desert. I mean, I knew that Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were cities, I just thought that they would be a small concentration of buildings surrounded by hot, sandy desert. It turns out this isn’t the case at all! There are mountains, and palm trees, lakes and many cities throughout Israel. For a country that only takes about 6 hours to drive across at its longest point, Israel sure has a lot of scenic diversity!
But the desert is pretty cool
As surprising as all that scenic diversity was, I’ve got to say that the desert in Israel is pretty darn cool to see. I was expecting flat, sandy, barren lands. Instead, I got hills, sandstone rocks, and plenty of interesting attractions hidden within the desert. It was such a cool contrast from the city atmospheres of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem!
Looking out over the Judaean Desert
The weather varies throughout the country
Along with the changing scenery and topography comes changes in weather. Mornings in the Northern parts of the country and in Jerusalem felt cold in January, making me glad I had packed a lightweight winter coat. Temperatures in the desert and near the Dead Sea were warm in the sunlight and had us taking off our warm layers. And in the South, it was warm enough to wear flip-flops and snorkel in the Red Sea! I was not expecting such a weather variation while traveling in Israel! But I was very glad I had packed accordingly…
Enjoying the warm weather and the Red Sea
Eating out is expensive, but worth it
I had read that Israel was a more expensive place to visit. Many likened it to the prices of travel in Western Europe. While I was fine with the higher accommodation prices, I found it difficult to really eat cheaply in Israel. We had to do a good amount of research before mealtimes to find the cheaper spots, as most restaurants charge about $20USD or more, per entree. We found it was best to eat local foods like falafel and shwarma if we wanted to save our money.
That being said, we never had a meal that was disappointing. I didn’t expect much from the culinary scene in Israel. But every place we ate had delicious and satisfying food!
My very first taste of falafel! So, so good.
It’s much less conservative than its neighbors
As a country in the Middle East, I had expected Israel to be pretty conservative. I only packed clothing that would cover my shoulders and not show any chest. But I was nervous when it came to packing a swimsuit- how much skin is too much skin? After searching this matter online, I learned that Israel is much less conservative than its neighbors. Bikinis are fine on public beaches, and you can wear shorts and tank tops. You may draw a bit more attention to yourself, but it’s not altogether frowned upon. And like most countries, you’ll want to cover up at the religious sites.
Floating in the Dead Sea in my bikini
Israeli hummus is delicious
I’ll be completely honest here- Hummus has been one of those things that I really want to like, but just don’t. I’ve tried it time and time again but I just can’t make myself enjoy it…until Israel. They must do something magical and different to the hummus over there. I was nervous biting into my first falafel pita, knowing there was hummus inside. But I was so happy to discover that the dirt-flavored hummus that’s served in the US was not the same as what was smeared inside my pita. It was warm, a bit salty, and had almost a chicken-y flavor. From then on, I got excited when there was hummus served!
Delicious Israeli hummus
Commercialization vs. Preservation
This was a big one for me, and something that my husband and I discussed quite a bit while traveling in Israel. As a Christian, I was really excited to see some of the sites from Jesus’ life. I was expecting these holy places to feel…well, holy. Instead, they were crowded, dark, somber places that you often had to pay an entry fee for. The commercialization of these places was a bit disappointing, but at the same time, I know it’s difficult to keep these places intact without these kinds of preservation efforts.
Crowds outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
It’s totally driveable
When it comes to driving in another country, I always like to err on the side of caution. I wasn’t sure what the driving would be like in Israel, and it if was something my husband and I would want to tackle. As our plane was coming in for landing in Tel Aviv, I remember watching the traffic on the highways and thinking “Hmm, these roads don’t look too bad at all!” After spending some time traveling in Israel, we decided it was definitely a driveable place and we spent our last day driving around in a rental car, hitting up some more off the beaten path destinations! Israel driving does require you to be a little more aggressive and attentive to the few road signs, but overall it’s not much different than driving in the US.
Israeli rental car selfie!
The beaches are stunning
When I say “stunning beaches,” I’m sure that Israel is not a place that comes to mind. I was pleasantly surprised that the country’s coastline has such lovely beaches. The southern city of Eilat is a popular beach vacation spot in Israel and we were definitely not disappointed by our time at the Coral Beach Reserve there. Even in Tel Aviv, along the Mediterranean coast, the beaches are expansive and have great amenities.
The Coral Beach Reserve in Eilat
Sunset at Jerusalem Beach in Tel Aviv
There are many hidden gems
There are many places within Israel that are special and significant. It’s not hard to fill up your itinerary with these places like Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Nazareth, the Jordan River, etc. But Israel also has its fair share of hidden gems. There are plenty of places that are off the beaten path, where you won’t find many tourists. I was totally enchanted by this secret spot that had been called “Israel’s most beautiful park.” The crystal clear water, the bright green grass, and the surprisingly warm waterfalls made this stop one of my favorites in Israel.
My little Israeli secret spot.
Message me on Facebook if you want to know where it is 😉
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Israel. Having started the trip with little expectation, every new discovery in Israel made me enjoy my time more and more. If you’re thinking about visiting Israel, or if you’re just not sure what to expect, let me assure you: Traveling in Israel will definitely surprise you!