This September, I spent a whole week exploring Israel and challenging my own misconceptions about the country. Not being necessarily in tune with my own spirituality, I certainly didn't expect to become as enamored with the ‘Holy Land' so quickly, let alone arrive at the conclusion that it might be my new favorite fall & winter sun escape. In this article, I will give you six reasons why it's Israel, not Europe or Cancun, you should be packing for next.
Piece of advice? You'll want to make room in your luggage for some swimming trunks.
Israel has surely developed a reputation over the years as a pilgrimage site and a regional capital for religious tourism, but as I've realized, perhaps a bit later than most have, it can also be an incredibly fun destination for young travelers keen on braving the world now that free movement has been reinstated.
I do apologize for my tardiness and for buying into the idea that thrill-seekers have no business here, but as the saying goes… Better late than never!
1. Incredible Weather Well Into The Shoulder Season
It has year-round warmer weather, even in the fall.
The first thing that struck me as surprising arriving in Israel was certainly the weather. I don't know why I expected it to be moderately cold – after all, we were well into the fall season, but it somehow slipped my mind I was flying back into my favorite beach hotspot in the world: the Mediterranean Sea.
If the Mappa mundi is not your forte, I can totally understand. As I imagined myself, Israel was an arid wasteland tucked away in the hinterlands of Western Asia, cut off from major waterways and just very dry. This couldn't be further from the truth, and while the average American may not be entirely aware of this, Israel has a coast straddling the Eastern Mediterranean.
This means it has year-round warmer weather, even in the fall, when temperatures still average 30 degrees daily on beaches, particularly in Tel Aviv, the country's financial center and the most liberal Middle Eastern city. Summer may be the most highly sought-after season, but I have been to the Medi during every season, and personally, the best time to go for a dip is actually late September to early November.
In Israel, for instance, the waters are still surprisingly warm from the sweltering summer months, without the unpleasantness of the summer sun constantly on your back, and there are far fewer crowds. In Tel Aviv, the beaches were only moderately busy, and there were lounges galore for some sea-gazing.
While there are countless swimming spots in and around Tel Aviv, these would rank among the very best:
- Hilton Beach, where a diverse crowd of LGBTQ+ people and allies gathers
- Gordon Beach, located in a central area directly facing the landmark Sheraton Hotel
- Geula/Jerusalem Beach, a family-friendly beach popular for swimming sports
Temperatures usually drop below 18 °C (≈ 64 °F) in the low season, and Israel does see the occasional snowfall at higher peaks, so I wouldn't particularly recommend swimming then, but even after winter has crept in, sunshine hours are still plentiful, and the country boasts a temperate climate. With light fleece or tank-top weather, Israel is never unpleasant to visit.
2. Israel Is An Accepting Country
‘This is a multi-ethnic, multi-faith country where personal liberties are safeguarded.'
@vinigoesglobal Is Tel Aviv on your bucket list? 😍 #israel #travel #viral #trending #middleeast #visitisrael #telaviv #explore #jaffa #oldjaffa #summer #summervibes #feelthismoment ♬ Feel This Moment (Riddler & Reid Stefan Club Mix) – Pitbull
The Middle East, in general, doesn't have a strong record of upholding human and minorities' rights – as advocates for a free, just world, we won't turn a blind eye to what's happening in Iran right now – but Israel quickly stood out to me as a place where the strictest of religious curbs (mostly) do not apply, especially to the short-term visitor.
Yes, it is the Jewish homeland, and liberalism is bound by certain restraints. The odd Orthodox passerby wearing the customary black suit unfazed by the heat and sporting an impossibly large hat is not a strange sight, and you'll notice Israel does observe certain Bible laws to the hilt, with Judaism forming an integral part of the Israeli upbringing and large swathes of the country shutting down completely for sabbath – I would advise you not to plan on traveling during this period.
To that effect, Israel is not traditionally secular, but it is accepting.
Its citizens are allowed to follow whichever branch of Judaism they feel closest to, or they may be Christians, practicing Muslims, or atheists. This is a multi-ethnic, multi-faith country where personal liberties are safeguarded, in spite of the Judaism enshrined in its Constitution.
As a gay tourist who's traveled an ultra-conservative, Orthodox Christian Eastern Europe extensively, I'm all too familiar with disapproving looks (and even harassment).
In a global city like Tel Aviv, I hardly ever felt judged or stared at with contempt for wearing pro-equality tees. As a matter of fact, rainbow flags are displayed proudly on shop fronts over the entire extension of one of Tel Aviv's liveliest streets, Allenby, and gay couples holding hands don't shy away from the light.
Perhaps that doesn't apply to the whole country – I know the competing tourist hubs of Jerusalem and Nazareth have historically leaned on conservative customs – but if you're hoping to find the most accepting community in Western Asia, gay-friendly saunas, beaches, and the usual quirky bar, Tel Aviv's where it's at.
Psst: I've heard Eilat, in Southern Israel, is just as liberal.
3. The Contrast Between Modern And Ancient Is Striking
‘Coming from the city, I certainly felt like a fish out of water in my summery Ibiza attire.‘
Few countries have such a striking contrast between modern and ancient as Israel does.
You might know it as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, and numerous other biblical characters that have been in our collective Westernized Christian imagery since children, but it is so much more than that. For starters, Tel Aviv is a 21st-century concrete jungle in every sense of the word, featuring clusters of skyscrapers and palm tree-lined seafront promenades.
Trailing the Mediterranean path, Eilat is a popular resort city boasting crystal clear waters and a vibrant social scene. Even Mitzpe Ramon, a small municipality nestled deep in the Negev desert, has seen record development in recent decades, hosting boutique hotels, other niches, luxury resorts, and a pluricultural scene.
Israel is a nation built upon the stones stacked up by its Jewish forefathers several millennia ago, and that's why it's so fascinating. A short one-hour drive southwest of Tel Aviv, you'll hit Jerusalem, the ancient, heavily contested city serving as a core for the Jewish State. Although you'll find your trendy shopping centers, McDonald's, and Starbucks here, Jerusalem couldn't be farther from Tel Aviv in essence.
@vinigoesglobal Some Jeru love for you 😍 #jerusalem #israel #holycity #beautiful #travelinspo #inspiration #religion #history #visitisrael ♬ Desert Rose – Sting
For once, it will be much harder to spot a rainbow flag hanging from a balcony here, let alone sky-high apartment blocks, a clear sign of the population's more conservative world views. Moreover, compared to Tel's unblemished Bauhaus white, Jerusalem is an ocher queen, with limestone houses and centuries-old monuments dominating the wall-encircled cityscape.
Its Old Town is an intricate maze of narrow alleyways, bazaars where fresh produce and souvenirs can be purchased, and secret Mediterranean-style gardens hide in plain sight. There's no dress code to be observed here, but coming from the ‘city', I certainly felt like a fish out of water in my summery Ibiza attire.
Orthodox black suits seem to be the go-to ‘uniform' for Jerusalem locals, who certainly came across as deeply pious compared to other non-practicing fellow Israelis I had met. Everyone seemed certain where they were headed, siddur in hand, be it their morning or afternoon prayer or other unmissable commitments. I may have felt somewhat exposed and ‘foreign', but they never did pay me any mind.
Here, tourists are the onlookers in awe: Jerusalemites are but a part of the city's complex ecosystem and structure. Having seen both sides of Israel within a short period of time, I had a hard time coming to terms with these contrasting identities that all form a single sovereign state and are not mutually exclusive.
The coolness and modernity of Tel Aviv and its heterogeneous crowds are as much quintessential Israel as Jerusalem's atmospheric reservedness is.
@vinigoesglobal Don’t to bookmark this for your trip to Jerusalem! 😍 #israel #jerusalem #travel #traveltips #trending #trendingnow #summer #traveltiktok #bucketlist #middleeast ♬ I Got Summer On My Mind – ronixd
However, even if you're not religious, the ‘older' Israel makes for an unforgettable vacation. Jerusalem is a glorious vision, what with its ethnic quarters, Roman citadels, colonnaded streets, stunning belfries towering over the hustle and bustle of the winding passageways below, and of course, the Western Wall running along Temple Mount, atop which the golden dome sits majestically.
Other must-see ancient parts of Israel include:
- Masada, a mountaintop fortress established in the 1st century B.C. central to the Jewish faith, boasting breathtaking views of the desert and the Dead Sea
- Avdat, a well-preserved Nabataean settlement with a distinct Greco-Roman character, dating back to the 3rd century B.C.
- Caesarea Maritima, once one of the most important trading ports of the Mediterranean, is now an archaeological site close to the town of Caesarea in north-central Israel
- Nimrod Fortress, an impressive historic castle overlooking the Golan Heights, in close proximity to Syria
4. You Can't Beat That Floating Feeling
‘Simply relax and lie on your back: the Dead Sea will do its thing.'
The Dead Sea is a permanent feature on the bucket list of every traveler to Israel, and I can understand why. Like me, I suppose you would love to, one day, reproduce the classic, once-in-a-lifetime ‘floating' shot, reclining on the warm waters as you read a book and bask in the desert sun.
What many don't know is the Dead Sea is a vast body of water, and you have a bunch of options to consider here planning your séjour.
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First of all, let's debunk an old myth: in spite of its name, Israel's iconic site is a lake, not a sea. It is full to the brim with salt and spans the Jordan Rift Valley, where the Israeli domain meets Jordan's borders. 430 meters below sea level, it is the lowest point in the entire world, and it's precisely the saltiness of its misty waters and their higher density compared to fresh water that results in the floating effect.
When it comes to arranging your visit, you can either go for a float – notice I didn't say dip, but I'll get to that in a bit – as part of a day tour (there are numerous tour buses leaving for popular Dead Sea beaches, like Kalia, with Tel Aviv or Jerusalem as departure points) or stay on the salty banks in the so-called resort stretch, which resembles Cancun's famous, overdeveloped Hotel Zone.
I opted for the latter, checking into the Prima Oasis Spa Hotel, which directly faces the lake and it's within short walking distance of a shopping center and multiple dining spots. Without a doubt, staying in a Desert Sea resort was the best way to take in the beauty and fully appreciate this natural gem without feeling rushed by a tour guide.
Now, caution is urged: the Dead Sea is not a place for swimmers.
As the hotel concierge warned us, naivety has led many tourists to be rushed to Emergency Care after submerging their heads or even swallowing the water: it is 34% salt, about nine times more salinity than the ocean. In other words, getting it in your eyes, nose, or mouth will, at the very least, burn, and in a worst-case scenario, depending on the level of exposure, it may result in an overnight in the nearest hospital.
That being said, the Dead Sea is perfectly safe for floating. The Prima Oasis Hotel will gladly supply you with fresh towels for your incursion, and the staff are able to answer all your questions pertaining to the lake. As long as you tread the water carefully (the mud in the basin can be quite slippery), simply relax and lie on your back: the Dead Sea will do its thing, and you'll float effortlessly.
Just make sure you:
- Use sunscreen
- Don't rub your eyes while bathing in the Dead Sea
- Don't swim – the lake is for floating
- Prepare for feeling a sting or slight discomfort if you're suffering from any micro cuts or minor unhealed wounds – this is perfectly normal, and the salt and other mineral qualities will probably help it heal faster
- Limit the amount of time you spend in the water, particularly in sections of the resort stretch where shade isn't easily available
After ticking this off the list, you can return to the coziness of your air-conditioned hotel to experience a relaxing deep-tissue massage, or a Dead Sea-mud treatment, offered for an additional fee at the Prima Oasis Spa. Having spent an entire hour wading in the rich, healing, salty lake and later enveloped in the warm, slick mud known to smooth out the deepest of wrinkles, I felt completely reinvigorated and ready for my next round of adventures.
5. It Has The Most Developed Desert In The World
‘Even at its most inhospitable, Israel still offers vacationers a host of world-class attractions.‘
The territory of Israel has long developed a reputation as the ‘Land of Creation' due to its association with the Bible and status as holy in all three Abrahamic religions, but I will go ahead and make a further claim, and I do ask that Costa Rica-loving Americans excuse me: it is the indisputable Land of Adventure.
Encompassing the Negev and Judean wastelands, it is a nation packed with open-air landmarks and blood-tinged desert sunrises that are sure to make a grown man cry. After spending two full days traveling Negev and Judea, I came to the conclusion these are some of the most developed deserts in the world.
@vinigoesglobal I’m in love 😍 #visitisrael #israel #travel #sunrise #beautiful #inspiration #explore ♬ original sound – Vini | Travel Blogger
Even at its most inhospitable, Israel still offers vacationers a host of world-class attractions and reasonably-priced hotels, especially close to Mitzpe Ramon, its largest city, outdoor activities, and other unique experiences. Short on time and in want of exploring the area thoroughly, I opted for a jeep tour of the world's largest erosion crater with Alen Gafny from Negevland.
As Mr. Gafny explained amid the jolting of the jeep as we descended into said crater, which carries the imposing name Ramon, this phenomenon is unique to Israel. It resembles an impact site, though its indentations are only nature-made, and it is home to a plethora of wildlife, including mountain goats, jackals, wolves, and whatnot.
In addition, it is dotted with distinctive maroon, orange, and yellow-colored geological forms, and though I'm certainly no geology expert myself, even I was mesmerized by the sheer natural beauty around me. Of course, having a knowledgeable guide who knows the Crater like the back of his hand and who's been at the forefront of the region's promotional efforts proved essential.
If you're a lover of the outdoors, these other desert activities may be of interest to you:
- Rappelling down the side of the crater;
- Visiting a Bedouin camp**
- Camping in the desert;
- Practicing outdoor yoga;
- Going on a helicopter tour, taking in privileged views of the site and surrounding mountains, and more.
*By far one of my favorite experiences in Israel: the views are so clear at night, and the insightful comments on the night-sky panorama offered by the cosmologist, coupled with the complementary fire-toasted marshmallows, make it all worthwhile.
**Bedouin are nomad peoples of Palestinian heritage who wander the desert. They routinely set up camps in strategic locations and have opened up to tourism in recent years. They are exceptionally welcoming to foreigners and will go out of their way to make sure you feel comfortable during your short stay. In order to visit a Bedouin village, you should contact a local guide or licensed tour company, preferably one that promotes sustainable tourism and has developed a close partnership with Bedouins.
Pro tip? If you're extending your stay in the area for longer than a couple of days, I can recommend a prime location to base yourself: between the city of Arad and the fort of Masada lies the Kfar Hanokdim retreat, a ‘leading desert tourism site' ranking high on Trip Advisor that allows guests to experience the ‘desert way of life', including staying in Bedouin-style tents and riding on camel back.
6. Best For Last… Food Is Criminally Good
‘Food here can be always be a touch more flavorful.'
Food is a huge part of what makes a country great. I can't tell you the number of countries I would rush back to in a split second based solely on the richness of their local dishes, though revisiting my own travels, I tend to reminisce the most about my time in the East Mediterranean: the post-Yugoslav Balkans, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and now Israel.
With all the freshly caught fish soaked in lemon, the ripeness of the vibrant-colored fruit, the wide assortment of pastries, and all the crunchy marinated salads, the Medi holds the key to my heart, and I knew that belonging to this diverse sub-group, Israel wouldn't be any different. But then again, food here can always be a touch more flavorful.
Whether it's the kosher meat, cooked in accordance with the traditional laws of Israel, or the strong Arab influences seen in the market areas, where the ambrosial odor of the spice-drenched kebabs permeates the air, Israel is heaven for foodies. I strongly encourage you to read up on some of my favorite restaurants in Tel Aviv in this article – you might be in for a surprise in the end.
Israel Is Open For Tourism
Being based in and having had most of my travels mostly restricted to Europe, I felt it was finally time to look Eastward. As a History enthusiast craving some good weather, Israel seemed like the next natural step: it's steeped in Ancient History, and if you've read any of my previous articles, you know I'm all for deep cultural expeditions, and it sits on the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, meaning it's much warmer than my comfort zone of Paris.
Additionally, it has removed all entry requirements relating to the Covid pandemic. Despite the fact I am triple-vaccinated myself and have been granted unrestricted access in most countries I visited over the last couple of years, not undergoing health checks upon landing or being subject to thorough checks is always a nice touch.
Having my heart set on the Middle East, Israel's relaxed approach to Covid was, in truth, one of the reasons I chose to holiday here in the first place. After all, some of its neighbors, with the Dubai Emirate to name one example, still impose strict border rules. Traveling to Israel this fall or winter, all the documentation you will need is a valid U.S. passport*:
- No vaccine certificates are needed
- No pre-departure tests are required, irrespective of immunization record
- No post-arrival testing applies
- No State-issued quarantine measures are in place
- Even the Israel Entry Form has been discontinued
*If you're not a U.S. passport holder/other visa-exempt foreign national, visa restrictions may apply
Some travelers have also been wary of visiting due to the fact that a handful of Arab countries routinely refuse entry to tourists with a travel history to Israel. Luckily, Israeli border officers have long ceased stamping passports for immigration control, and it's like you've never been. Instead, you're handed a little blue paper that serves as an entry permit.
@vinigoesglobal Wow! 😦 #israel #travel #middleeast #telaviv #jaffa #visitisrael #explore ♬ love nwantinti (ah ah ah) – CKay
As soon as I landed in Ben Gurion Airport on a hot mid-September evening, coming from an already chilly Northern Europe and equipped with a double-layered jacket I couldn't wait to get rid of, I was greeted with smiles and a friendly, talkative border control officer (we all know border crossings can be quite stressful at times), I knew I had made a sound decision.
Of course, that was just the start of it, and I saw myself falling deeper in love with Israel – and the Israeli peoples – at every bite, daily enthusiastic shalom, Bazaar stroll, and sweeping desert views I could have sworn were a mirage had I not taken enough pictures for posterity.
A self-proclaimed nihilistic deeply skeptical of the Holy, who's seen his fair share of world wonders at age 25, I'm not afraid to concede even I wasn't immune to Israel's perennial, bordering-on-ethereal charm.
We did the research for this article while being guests in Israel with The Israeli Ministry of Tourism, which we thank for hosting us. Our ideas, opinions, and recommendations remain our own.
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Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.