Tel Aviv was my first experience traveling in the Middle East and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was warm weather, great food, and a ton of history. I visited in late May 2017 for 4 days and I’ve documented some of my experiences and favorite places to eat as a mini travel guide of sorts. It’s no Lonely Planet, but we all have to start somewhere.
Getting to & from the airport
The Ben Gurion Airport (named for the founder and first Prime Minister of Israel) is beautiful, modern and comfortable. A taxi ride from the airport to the city center isn’t cheap, about $40-50 USD. If you can figure out where you need to go and you’re not in a rush, you can also take the train and a bus which costs about $6. I did this on the way back using my best friend, Google Maps. You basically need to make your way to the HaHagana Railway Station and then from there, there are trains that go directly to the airport, or buses to the city center, depending on which way you are going.
At the airport, you will not receive a stamp in your passport and this is because of the issues that may arise if you try to visit certain Middle Eastern countries in the future (some countries have denied entry to those that have an Israeli stamp in their passport). Instead of a passport stamp you will receive a slip of paper that you must keep with your passport for the duration of your trip. This is standard practice at the airport as of early 2013.
The agents at passport control will ask you a ton of questions both coming and going, but are generally pleasant.
In restaurants and cafes the minimum is 10% and that is what they expect regardless of how crappy the service is (which was sometimes the case). They will ask you how much you want to leave before they swipe your card which was definitely a bit awkward. Taxi drivers do not expect tips.
Bring your ATM or Euros to exchange. This probably goes without saying, but at first, for some reason we decided to try and get by just using our credit cards. However, this is difficult because most taxis do not take cards. You will also want cash for the smaller stores/souvenir shops. Uber exists here, but we found that there weren’t many drivers and it can be difficult to find one especially later at night. And when you do find one, he might just leave you in the middle of nowhere because the restaurant that TripAdvisor said was open on Fridays was actually closed.
The Israeli currency is the shekel and at the time of this trip (late May 2017) the exchange rate was roughly 3.5 shekels per USD (35 shekels is approximately $10 USD, or 9 euros).
Things to Do
1. Tour of Jerusalem
Whether you are religious or not, Jerusalem is a must see. This city is considered holy for Christians, Muslims and Jews. It is broken up into different quarters – the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter and the Muslim Quarter. Jersualem is home to the Western Wall which is the holiest site where Jews can pray. However, the holiest site in Judaism is actually behind it, at the Temple Mount, which is also the third holiest site for Sunni Muslims (the first being in Mecca, and the second being in Medina), but where Jews are not allowed to pray. In the Christian Quarter, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre contains the two holiest sites in Christianity: where Jesus was crucified and where his empty tomb is.
The streets of the Old City are packed with tourists, tour groups, and shops selling everything from raw chicken to t-shirts with your favorite sports teams printed on them in both English and Hebrew.
The easiest way to visit Jerusalem is to join a tour – there are several to choose from and some of them bundle visiting Dead Sea or other sights within the same tour.
2. Float in the Dead Sea
I had to experience floating in it for myself. It’s almost hard to believe you can float in it until you actually do it. I was mostly curious to see how the water felt, if it felt “thicker” than other water due to the salt content. But it really just felt like regular water. You definitely don’t want to get it in your eyes though, they have signs warning against it. There are several beaches where you can access the Dead Sea, our tour group took us to Kalia Beach which is home to the lowest bar in the world at 420 meters (1378 feet) below sea level.
Dead Sea Tips
- Tip #1: Don’t forget to bring cheap flip flops/sandals and sunscreen
I made this mistake and had to purchase both once we arrived at the Dead Sea. I didn’t want to ruin my good sandals with the Dead Sea salt water. Surprisingly, the sunscreen was more expensive than the Homer Simpson flip flops I bought. Originally I bought the flip flops with the intention of wearing them in the water, but found it was easier without them, although you do need to be careful because the rocks are slippery. They were definitely needed on the hot sand though.
- Tip #2: Don’t shave the day of
I made this mistake too and my legs were stinging.
- Tip #3: Bring a friend, or make a friend from your tour and ask them to take pictures of you
This goes without saying. You will definitely want to document this experience!
3. Go To The Beach
Spend a few hours at one of the beaches in Tel Aviv, you can either rent a chair and umbrella for cheap or find a spot at one of the restaurants on the beach, where you can sit in low chairs in the sand under an umbrella and enjoy a glass (or bottle) of wine.
4. Go out to a Club
To be honest I’m not sure what the name of the club we went to was called, but it was in the Tel Aviv Port and it was outdoors which was awesome. There was a small cover charge to get in, but the music was good and it wasn’t overly crowded, just crowded enough. The dress code for Tel Aviv clubbing is overall super casual which I love because heels make my feet hurt and I’d rather dance in my Chucks any day.
Saved the best for last, eating! Here are some of my favorite restaurants from the trip.
Cafe Shneor – Pinsker St 20, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel
Had an amazing breakfast here one morning. Scrambled eggs with various small side dishes. The small salads are one of my favorite things about eating in Israel.
The Old Man and the Sea – Retsif ha-Aliya ha-Shniya St 101, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel
This was our second choice for dinner after Itzik Hagadol turned out to be closed. After being abandoned by our Uber driver, we used our offline Google Maps to make our way here. We had to wait a few minutes for a table and then once we sat down they immediately served us a variety of fresh salads and bread. For dinner I ordered chicken and it was just alright. Given that it is a seafood restaurant I should have probably gone with the fish. The salads and the free lemonade were delicious.
Yavne – Yavne St 31, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel
The menu at this bar/restaurant was a little cryptic with items such as “a very red meat, grilled on a citrus wood” or “thin steak floating on hard headed greens” without further explanations. However, the servers were more than happy to explain, and the food was very good, great flavors.
Falafel Gabai – Bograshov 25, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel