Israel is a beautiful country, one that is extremely welcoming to tourists and visitors of all kinds. With a huge percentage of the population speaking multiple languages, a developed tourism industry that minimizes hassle, and a friendly population, a tourist in Israel never needs to feel lost or confused!
However, there are a few things you need to be mindful of. Like every other country on the planet, Israel has its own ways of doing things that might seem a little surprising if you’re from another culture. Below are seven things you should be aware of when traveling to the Holy Land!
Sharing a plate is normal!
Israeli’s love their food! Dining in Israel isn’t just about getting enough calories in your system to sustain you through the day, it’s a total social experience. When you order in an Israeli restaurant, you’ll typically be ordering a main dish that will be shared by everyone at the table. Many foods are designed to be shared either by having members of the table dip slices of bread into them or portioned up and distributed to everyone evenly. If you’ve ever eaten at an Indian or Dim Sum restaurant the experience is very similar.
So be mindful of what you pick off a menu and be aware that if you order a main dish just for yourself, you may get a few odd looks. This might sound intimidating, but really this is good news for you and your travel mates, as you’ll be able to sample multiple dishes every meal! Order a couple of dishes to split and you’ll enjoy a wider variety than you ever could alone!
Tipping is encouraged
Speaking of meal times, always be good to your waiters and hosts. It is common for waitstaff at Israeli restaurants to receive either no hourly wage or such a meager pittance it might as well be nothing. These workers rely on tips for almost all of their income, so stiffing someone in Israel isn’t just poor form, it hurts their ability to care for themselves and their families! A typical 15% gratuity should be enough to stay on everyone’s good side.
This also goes for cabbies, bagmen, room service, and any other service personnel. Israel has a rich tipping culture and these transactions are what makes the country go around.
Coming from a province or state where public smoking has been all but eliminated for decades now, a trip to Israel can seem like a trip back in time in some respects. Although the Knesset recently passed stronger anti-smoking laws to discourage public smoking, it is still fairly common to see someone taking a quick puff in a nightclub, bar, or in the outside seating area at a café. Technically these actions are prohibited, but enforcement is often lax (especially in night life hotspots such as Tel Aviv) and plenty of people still bend the rules.
One time you won’t see much smoking, however, is on Saturday. Smoking is prohibited on Shabbat and the social stigma surrounding it is stronger than police enforcement of no-smoking areas! It’s considered bad taste to be caught smoking on Shabbat so if you are a smoker, be aware of that and try to smoke in private on the weekend to avoid offending anyone!
Feel free to haggle (in the right places)
Something that may excite some (and petrify others) is the idea of haggling over prices. Those of us who enjoy making deals and scouting out bargains will be thrilled to know that with outdoor vendors and market stalls, haggling isn’t just accepted, it’s encouraged! When you go someplace like the Jaffa flea market, the sticker price is more of a "suggestion” than anything else and those with a gift for gab can find some amazing deals. If you’re not particularly fond of haggling, it’s recommended you team up with someone who is if you go shopping at a market, so you don’t wind up with an empty pocket book.
Of course, this only applies to markets where that behavior is expected. Try haggling in an Israeli supermarket, convenience store, or hotel, and you can expect it to go as well as trying to haggle down the price at your local Walmart.
Different beaches for everyone
If you’re visiting during the hot months, a trip to the beach to cool off might be an excellent choice! Israel boasts a number of incredible, beautiful beaches, but it pays to do your homework before you head to one. Beaches in Israel tend to cater to specific groups of people. Some beaches are family friendly, while others attract a rowdier crowd. Some are popular with specific religions, while others are purely secular.
If all of this sounds complicated or intimidating, don’t worry. Which beaches are for which crowds isn’t a big secret or anything. Ask any local which beach is right for you and you should have no problems finding one where you’ll have a great time!
Expect to see some security
As we discussed in a recent blog, security is something they take seriously in Israel. You can expect to see a slightly heavier (and more well armed) police and military presence on the streets while visiting. But remember, that doesn’t mean it isn’t safe or you have to worry about an incident sparking off at any moment. Military service is compulsory for all young adults so there is an abundance of fatigue clad young men and women putting in hours by guarding all kinds of places and establishing a presence.
As long as you stay away from direct conflict zones and act with a modicum of common sense, your trip to Israel should be safe and pleasant. Just prepare for the culture shock of seeing the occasional uniformed 18-year-old carrying a rifle.
Be respectful of different religions and observances
Israel is home to a diverse and beautiful population. While modern areas like Tel Aviv feel just like Toronto or any other major city, there are some cultural sensitivities you should keep in mind. For example, Orthodox Jews have major prohibitions regarding contact with members of the opposite sex. This can manifest in people from the opposite gender giving you a wide berth like there is an invisible wall around you. Don’t take offense, this is just them trying to avoid accidental touching.
This is something you should also keep in mind as you visit historical and religious landmarks. If you are going to be visiting places like the Wailing Wall or the Birthplace of Jesus, be sure to dress appropriately for the occasion. You don’t need to be in a full suit or Sunday dress or anything. As long as you are dressed modestly and respectfully, you shouldn’t have any problems.
Never be afraid to ask questions!
If you’re ever unsure about something, just ask! Israeli’s appreciate forthrightness, and it’s better to just ask about something than to try and suss out the answer yourself. Israel is a lively, friendly country and as long as you approach people with a smile and respect they’ll do everything they can to make sure you have a great time!