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Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

At 6 p.m. on May 31, 2023 I was airborne and headed from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. After about half a day of traveling, and a stop in Brussels International Airport, I landed in Israel to begin my journey.

I would recommend taking a direct flight if possible to make your travel day easier, but nonetheless, I had finally arrived in Israel with 39 other individuals as part of a Birthright trip. Birthright allows young jewish adults, ages 18-26, to take an all-expenses paid trip to Israel for 10 days.

The trip explores many of Israel’s iconic cities, including Jerusalem, the Old City, the Golan Heights and Tel Aviv. Participants are given many opportunities to further connect to their heritage and Jewish identity. 

My experience on Birthright was truly transformative. I was able to take advantage of many unique experiences amongst people with whom I shared similar values to.

In hopes that many others will have the opportunity to experience Israel like I did, this guide details many of the countries highlights in terms of food, travel, cities and itinerary suggestions. This guide is based on my individual experience, and there is no wrong way to discover Israel!

Psst… Here are some tips for staying hydrated this summer

The Golan Heights

My Birthright trip began in the Golan Heights. You can start anywhere, but I really liked starting in the north and moving south over the ten day trip.

The Golan Heights was the most active and adventurous portion of our trip. We drove about two and a half hours from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv to a Kibbutz in the north of the country.

A kibbutz is an agrarian community in Israel where all inhabitants contribute to the settlement through farming, opening a shop, or maintaining the quality of life for all inhabitants. Kibbutzim are unique to Israel, and I definitely recommend touring one.

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

While in the north of Israel, my group went on ATVs in Dishon and drove up a beautiful mountain. We used the company Tractoron  and had a great time.

The staff was helpful and hospitable. A quick tip: when someone offers you coffee in Israel, and you are a coffee fan, definitely try some (even if you are at the top of a mountain and it is 90 degrees). 

Additionally, in the Golan Heights, we had the opportunity to explore different waterways. We took a hike through the Banias Nature Reserve, home to the the largest waterfall in the country. We also went rafting in the Jordan River followed by a delicious dinner at Iskandar Restaurant

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

While in the north of Israel, another important city to visit is Tzfat (also spelt Safed). Tzfat is often referred to as a city of air, as it is atop a mountain. This city is unique because it is the center of Kabbalah practices and mystical theories.

If you have the opportunity to hear from a Kabbalah expert or artist, make sure to take advantage of it. This was part of my trip and I felt it was a very interesting and impactful experience. Plus, the art is beautiful and there are items for sale to take home with you.

Tzfat is a city of magic rich history, beautiful cobblestone alleyways, and the best falafel sandwich you can find in all of IsraelTake some time to browse the beautiful and authentic jewelry while you’re there! 

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is a lively city with picturesque beaches, vibrant nightlife, and bustling markets. When we arrived in Tel Aviv, a group of Israeli soldiers joined our trip.

The soldiers were between 18-22 years old and were able to provide a unique perspective on their experiences in Israel. In my opinion, this is the best aspect of the birthright trip! They helped us find the best restaurants, boutiques and hidden gems throughout the city. 

While in Tel Aviv, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon on the beach. This was my first time swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, and the clear blue water left me dumbfounded. 

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

In addition to the beach, my group had two opportunities to explore Carmel Market. Carmel Market, also called the Shuk Hacarmel, is Tel Aviv’s largest market. Tourists and locals alike flock to Carmel Market to buy fresh fruits, veggies, spices, nuts, candy and so much more.

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

I felt very overwhelmed by the wide array of dining options at Carmel Market. If you are going to listen to anything I tell you, try Panda Pita. I had it both days for lunch in Tel Aviv and am already planning my trip back for more! I had the eggplant filet pita both days, but all of the menu options are delicious.

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

In any shuk you visit, get a few different foods to share with friends or family. By doing this I was able to try so many new foods including bourekas, baklava and knafeh

Tel Aviv is full of vibrant neighborhoods. One in particular we visited was Florentin. This artsy neighborhood had graffiti and lots of unique spots to take pictures.

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

I also suggest adding Jaffa to your itinerary! Jaffa’s Flea Market (Shuk Hapishpishim) is a main tourist attraction with specialty art and many boutiques and cafes. There’s plenty of neighborhoods in Tel Aviv to explore!

Between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

This portion of the trip was the most touristy. From Tel Aviv we set forth toward Sderot where I had the best hummus I have ever had. This city was a halfway point between Tel Aviv and the Gaza Strip. 

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

One of my favorite parts of Birthright was touring a kibbutz right near the Gaza Strip.

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

While there, my group was able to visit the Path to Peace art installation, and add stones with our hopes and dreams to the already decorated walls. I felt completely safe throughout my entire trip, including during this stop at this kibbutz by the border. 

We had the opportunity to partake in Bedouin hospitality that evening. We fed camels, learned about the Bedouin way of life and enjoyed a traditional feast. This is the perfect place to visit before heading toward Masada, and is included in all Birthright trips.

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

The next morning of Birthright began bright and early at about 3:30 a.m. as we headed to hike Masada at sunrise. Masada is breathtaking, with beautiful views and lots of history. As you can see in the picture, we did not make sunrise, which proves that anytime you go to Masada is amazing!

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

There are many different paths up Masada. We took the Roman Ramp, which only took about fifteen minutes and consisted of stairs. There are other options, including a cable car that takes you to the top. All participants on your trip will have the opportunity to make it to the top! 

Unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to take pictures at the Dead Sea since I was floating, but it was a unique experience!

A quick disclaimer is that at many parts of the Dead Sea, there is no mud. You have to purchase the mud at a nearby shop if you would like to use it. I did not know this prior, so I hope this helps as you plan your visit to the Dead Sea!

Jerusalem and the Old City

If you’re a history buff, Jerusalem is the place for you. I liked that Jerusalem was the culmination of our trip, but starting in Jerusalem is also an impactful way to begin the experience.

We stayed at a hotel outside of Jerusalem, and had to take a bus into the city each time we went. For easier transportation, I recommend staying in/close to Jerusalem so you can walk more.

We celebrated Shabbat in Jerusalem with a Kabbalat Shabbat, which is a joyous celebration that welcomes the new week. If you have the opportunity to visit the Western Wall, also called the Kotel, on Shabbat, definitely do so!

In Jerusalem, we explored Mahane Yehuda Market, visited the Old City, and went to the Western Wall. In Mahane Yehuda Market, I recommend getting rugalah to take home from Marzipan Bakery, but any rugalah you buy from a street stand will be just as incredible.

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

The most interesting dish I tried on my trip was from Jachnun Bar in Mahane Yehuda Market. The stand serves a dish that combines a pancake and phyllo dough pastry stuffed with lots of spices, herbs and veggies (sounds heavenly, I know).

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

Additionally, in Jerusalem, we had the opportunity to visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s largest Holocaust Memorial.

It is important to understand that visiting Yad Vashem is an emotional experience for people of all ages; nonetheless, I felt that it was the most impactful site on my trip and believe that all people visiting Israel should spend some time here. 

Also in Jerusalem, I would recommend allocating a good amount of time to explore the Old City. It is full of fascinating sites and historic mementos. The Old City is home of the Western Wall.

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

Israel 101: A First Visit Guide

Remember to write a note with your hopes and aspirations to add into the wall when you visit there, and have your family members and/or friends write notes to give to you before heading to Israel. Therefore, when you put in your note at the Western Wall, you can add theirs too.

Also, after spending time in front of the wall, walk away from it backward, and do not turn your back toward the wall until you are at least halfway back. I am not sure the exact reason for this, but I will not be the one to mess with luck!

After my ten days in Israel, I was already thinking about my next trip back. I hope the advice and tips in this article provide a starting point for planning a trip to Israel or inspire someone to look into Birthright!

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