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What to expect on a tour to Israel

Kieran Meeke / 17 July 2017

Israel, with sites sacred to three of the world’s great religions, is also a land of cities both ancient and modern. Add sunshine, and Mediterranean beaches – not to mention such marvels of nature as the Dead Sea – and few countries can pack so much variety into so small an area.

Western Wall and Dome of the Rock in the old city of Jerusalem, Israel.
A trip to Jerusalem would't be complete without a viit to the famous Western Wall and Dome on the Rock.

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The People of Israel

Three-quarters of the 8.5 million population of Israel are Jews with the majority of the remainder being Arab.

Some 70 per cent of the Jewish population were born in Israel, and they are split almost 50:50 between those of European and Arab/Central Asian descent.

Centuries of persecution has left Jewish society with understandable concerns of being exploited and this can often manifest itself in an apparent reserve, even rudeness.

They would consider themselves direct, honest with their opinions and with a great sense of equality. A shop assistant is there to help you with their expertise, not be subservient to you or tell you to “have a nice day”.

If you have a bad meal in a restaurant, you can complain about it at once and give the owner a chance to fix it. That’s the usual Israeli way. We British often say “It’s fine” then tell our friends afterwards how awful it was. Which is ruder?

Learn to be assertive and you’ll have a much better time in Israel when accosted by a pushy shopkeeper or a would-be guide.

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Must-see sights of Israel

Jerusalem’s Old City is divided into the Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim Quarters. It holds sites sacred to each of the three great religions. Walking the Ramparts of the 200-year-old city wall will give you a great overview.

The Western Wall, known as the Kotel in Hebrew, is one of the holiest sites in Judaism as the closest to the former Jewish Temple built some 2,000 years ago. 

It is part of a massive retaining wall that helped flatten the site of the Temple Mount.

Anyone can visit – there is a security check and men and women are separated – and it is traditional to leave a prayer note in one of the crevices.

The millions of notes are cleaned out regularly, before Pesach (Passover) and Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), and buried in the Mount of Olives. The Kotel is closed on major Jewish holidays.

Towering over the Western Wall Plaza is the Dome of the Rock, open only to Muslims, but sacred to Jews. Others can tour the area and see the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Sunni Islam.

Israel's major biblical sites

Jerusalem’s major Biblical sites include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane and Garden Tomb, all of which need no introduction.

The Israel Museum and Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center are both powerful places to visit.

If time allows, you might also explore the historic Hezekiah's Tunnels and the colourful Mahane Yehuda Market.

Masada is of great significance to Jewish history, even if the story of this mountaintop fortress is now somewhat disputed. 

However a climb before sunrise (you can also take the cable car) still delivers a powerful spiritual experience for anyone who hears how nearly 1,000 Jews died here in 73 AD rather than submit to Roman rule. 

The palace of Herod the Great is fascinating in itself and enjoys dramatic views of the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth and almost ten times saltier than our oceans. The high buoyancy makes for a good photo op but be aware the salt will make any cuts sting (and see the warning above about swimming). 

The mud has therapeutic properties and many spas have sprung up along the shore to treat skin complaints. Few visitors leave Israel without some Dead Sea mudpacks.

Nazareth is where Jesus is thought to have spent his childhood and has a number of important religious sites. Chief among these is the Church of the Annunciation, the largest Catholic church in the Middle East, built on the spot where Mary is said to have been visited by the angel Gabriel.

Known as the “Arab capital of Israel”, Nazareth is frequently included on tours that take in nearby Megiddo National Park (Armageddon), Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee.

Tel Aviv and beyond

Tel Aviv is called the “White City” in recognition of the thousands of Bauhaus buildings built in the 1930s and 40s by Jewish architects fleeing Nazi Germany.

It’s a cosmopolitan place, very different to any other city in the Middle East, and a beach resort where you might hear any language under the sun. 

Walk the Tayelet seafront to see the hedonistic side of the city, or the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for a taste of its rich cultural life.

The Palmach Museum is a must-see to learn more about the violent birth of Israel.

The Arab port town of Jaffa (Yafo) is closely linked to Tel Aviv and the two provide an optimistic vision for Israel’s future. Jaffa’s Old City is very walkable and full of interesting shops and good restaurants.

Eilat has become a holiday destination for its sunshine, beaches and coral reefs, popular with divers. Non-divers can explore some underwater delights at the city’s aquarium, Coral World

The desert around Eilat is also fascinating and includes sights such as the Red Canyon, whose sandstone has been carved out by water over the millennia. 

It’s tough hiking to explore it all but shorter walks are available and photographers will love the palette of colours.

Israel Language & Culture

Israel has two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic, but English is widely spoken as it is taught as a second language in schools.

Israel is unique in having a culture that revolves around the Hebrew faith, with Saturday recognised at the official day of rest.

Hebrew is officially supported by the government and its literature is encouraged with events such as the annual Hebrew Book Week.

Music borrows influences from around the world, with classical music perhaps its best-known export in the form of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and musicians such as Daniel Barenboim or Itzhak Perlman (who played the theme song for “Schindler’s List”).

The country claims more museums per head than any country on the world and places such as the Design Museum Holon [] are world class.

Food & Drink in Israel

With a strong farming tradition, food in Israel is rich in variety. Heavy meals are avoided in the hot climate and variety substitutes for quantity.

The quintessential Israeli street food is falafel, spicy fried balls of chickpea in pitta bread, served with a tasty salad. This is only one of the many Middle Eastern dishes here you may be already familiar with, from shwarma kebabs to baklava.

Breakfast might consist of shakshooka, a dish of fried tomato, onions and peppers into which several eggs are cracked at the end to cook.

A typical lunch would be pitta and dips such as hummus and tahini, and shnitzel – fried chicken cutlet – served with potato or rice and salad.

The evening meal is lighter, taken late when it’s cooler, with dishes such as cheese and scrambled eggs, with bread and salad, hummus, raw veg and pickles. It’s an important family meal, more about talking and sharing than eating.

Israelis love to drink coffee at any time of the day, and a fresh fruit shake or mint lemonade is also popular. Mint tea comes from the Arab tradition and is also refreshing in the heat.

The country makes its own wine, with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay (for sparkling wines) being the most successful grape varieties.

The disputed Golan Heights adds the cool of altitude to the sunshine of the climate, and still produces some of the best wines.

There are a number of good local beer brands, with an emerging craft brewery scene and even a kosher beer available.

Health & Safety

No one needs told that there is a risk of violence in Israel but tough security measures mean you are unlikely to encounter a problem. However, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and all border areas are best avoided outside guided tours.

It is unwise to enter some highly unorthodox areas if you are not Jewish as you may meet an angry reception, especially if dressed inappropriately.

Bring a cap (for men) and a shawl (for women) to cover up before entering any holy places. They are also wise precautions against too much sun, a real problem in summer months.

The maze-like passageways of Old Jerusalem can be confusing, so stick close to your guide. If you are on your own, self-appointed “guides” might become verbally aggressive if you refuse their help. 

Ignore them and they’ll go away. Ask a shopkeeper or police officer for directions if needed instead.

It’s a myth you can’t drown in the Dead Sea. You can’t sink, which is not the same thing and can create problems if you try to swim on your front. 

Buoyant legs send your face into the saltwater, which is unpleasant and even dangerous if you swallow too much. Stay on your back and at a depth where you can stand up easily and you’ll be fine.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.