Backpacking Israel and the Palestinian Territories: Top experiences
- Exploring Jewish, Muslim, and Christian history packed into one square kilometer in Jerusalem’s Old City
- Dancing the night away in Tel Aviv’s hottest clubs
- Getting the Palestinian side of the story in a street-side cafe in Bethlehem
- Discovering Tel Aviv’s underground activist scene at a film screening or gallery opening
Jump to the list of posts from Israel and the Palestinian Territories, or read on for the destination overview.
Israel Itinerary Ideas
You can travel Israel and the Palestinian Territories on a short trip. The country is compact and easy to get around.
A one week Israel itinerary could start with exploring the Old City of Jerusalem. Take a day trip to Bethlehem (in the PT). Once you’ve had enough of the politics and history, head over to Tel Aviv for a few days of beach revelry and all-night parties. Finally, spend a day at the Dead Sea, floating in the salt water at the lowest point on Earth.
If you have a bit more time, head north to Haifa to see the legendary gardens and nearby historic sites. Stop by Nazareth for a close look at Arab Israeli culture and great food on your way back to Tel Aviv.
With three weeks to a month, you could tack on some exploration of the southern desert. Do a hike in the protected area of Makhtesh Ramon and watch the sunrise at Masada. If you’re overlanding to Egypt, finish your tour in Eilat with some snorkeling or diving in the Red Sea.
Israel weather and when to visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Spring and fall are the ideal times to visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The weather is warm enough for beach time and outdoor activities, but still cool enough to be tolerable for hiking. You may occasionally get some rain.
Northern Israel gets chilly in the winter, but most of the country is comfortable year-round. It’s a bit of a stretch to sunbathe on Tel Aviv’s beaches in January, but not by much.
Given that Israel and the Palestinian Territories are at the center of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, public holidays and big celebrations are regular occurrences. These can be fun. But they can also mean the cities are extremely crowded with domestic tourists and international pilgrims. Passover is a particularly busy time.
Language in Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Israel and the Palestinian Territories are extremely diverse, and that includes linguistically.
Most Israelis speak Hebrew, and this is the most common language you’ll encounter on signs and restaurant menus. Many people speak it as a second language, so don’t worry if your accent isn’t perfect — you’ll blend right in.
The large Arab population in Israel and the PT speaks Palestinian Arabic in addition to Hebrew. This is a unique dialect to the territories (and the Palestinian diaspora), but it’s fairly similar to Egyptian Arabic.
Israel’s huge migrant population means many locals also speak another European or African language. With many Ethiopian Jews now residing in Israel, Amharic is quite common. You’re likely to hear Eastern European languages, Spanish, and French as well.
While you’re backpacking Israel, unless you speak Hebrew fluently, you’ll probably communicate mostly in English. Nearly all the locals speak decent English. You’ll have no problem using it everywhere, even in off-the-beaten-path places. Still, a basic effort to communicate in Hebrew will be appreciated.
Budget for backpacking Israel and the Palestinian Territories
I have good news and bad news if you’re trying to visit Israel on a budget.
The good news is, there isn’t much to spend money on while backpacking Israel besides food and shelter. Most activities are free.
The bad news is, food and shelter are expensive.
I was seriously pinching pennies and CouchSurfing, and I still couldn’t get costs lower than $20/day. You’ll be a lot more comfortable if you have $50 a day to spend. (Learn more about visiting expensive places on low budgets in this post.)
Dorm bed in a hostel: 75 shekels
Street-stall meal of falafel or sabich: 15 shekels
Cup of tea: 8 shekels
Historical site admission: Generally free!
Bus ticket from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv: 18 shekels
Taxi from Checkpoint 300 to Bethlehem: 20 shekels
Visiting the beaches at the Dead Sea or in Tel Aviv: Free!
Israel visa requirements
Israel and the Palestinian Territories are theoretically easy to visit for most Western tourists. But the difference between what is required and your actual experience entering the country could be huge.
You will receive a paper entry permit on arrival that should grant you 90 days in the country for free. This is supposed to be in lieu of a passport stamp. When you cross by land, officers may stamp your passport anyway. And they’ll almost always give you less than 90 days.
Unless you are an Israeli citizen, you may also enter the Palestinian Territories on your Israeli visa. (In fact, if you cross from Jordan at the King Hussein Bridge you will enter the PT first. Make sure your entry permit allows you to continue to Israel.) Israeli citizens are barred from entering the Palestinian Territories.
Unfortunately, what sounds like a painless process in theory can be miserable in practice. Israeli border security is extremely tight and ruthless. You are likely to face extensive questioning at the border, including the details of where you’re staying, who you know in Israel, and even your politics. I was pulled into a room and questioned for nearly an hour crossing from Jordan. The officer questioning me repeatedly told me he didn’t believe me when I told him I was staying with friends. If the officer thinks you look Arab or are of Arab descent, you may face even further scrutiny.
If you leave Israel to visit the Palestinian Territories, your passport will not be checked. But it will be checked when you re-enter Israel. So even if you’re just going on a day trip to Bethlehem, you must carry your passport. The border guards at Checkpoint 300 are particularly awful and may even search your belongings.
Remember that an Israeli stamp in your passport will prevent you from entering many other Middle Eastern and North African countries. When you enter these countries, your passport will not only be checked for Israeli stamps, but also for stamps of neighboring countries at their borders with Israel. (I.e. if you have a stamp from Taba in Egypt, the border guards will know you crossed from Eilat in Israel, even if you don’t have an Israeli stamp.)
While Israeli border guards may not stamp your passport, you probably won’t be able to convince Jordanian or Egyptian authorities not to. In short, don’t count on being able to travel to the countries that refuse entry to visitors of Israel on the same passport you used to enter Israel. For more details on the problems with the Israeli stamp, check out this guide.
Accommodation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Accommodation is likely to be your biggest barrier to backpacking Israel on a budget. The cheapest dorms are in the $20 range. Small guesthouses catering to backpackers don’t really exist, so the next level of luxury up is mid-range guesthouses that are in the $50 range.
I Couchsurfed the entire time I was backpacking Israel and the Palestinian Territories. My hosts were all fantastic. I had no trouble finding people to stay with on less than a week’s notice.
I also slept in a bus station one night in Eilat. It generally seemed safe, but the security officers were clearly not pleased that I was there. I spent most of the night terrified they were going to kick me out (they never did).
Food in Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Israeli and Palestinian food is pretty much the same as their neighbors’ at the low end of the budget spectrum. Lots of hummus, falafel and shwarma. You’ll pay under $3 for a falafel sandwich.
A personal favorite of mine was the sabich — a sandwich of eggplant, boiled egg, salad, pickles, and a delicious spicy sauce in a pita. Sabich Frishman in Tel Aviv is the best place to try it.
In Jerusalem, the cheapest meals are in East Jerusalem and in the market in the new city. In Tel Aviv, the area around the bus station has lots of food stalls, or eat out of the bakeries. And in Bethlehem, the roads leading to Checkpoint 300 have street vendors.
Restaurants aren’t cheap when backpacking Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Expect to pay about the same as you would in the U.S. or Europe. You should tip at least 15% in sit-down restaurants unless the service is atrocious.
One of the best experiences in Israel is being invited to a Shabbat dinner with a local family. There is usually copious amounts of food, including at least three courses plus dessert. Be sure to ask questions if you’re not sure how to engage with the traditions, which vary significantly among different families.
Drinks in Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Israelis and Palestinians are big fans of both coffee and tea. When traveling around Israel and the PT, you’ll find everything from curb-side tea huts to swanky third-wave coffee shops. Generally Jerusalem is more tea-centric, while Tel Aviv has a robust fancy coffee scene.
Locals also enjoy fruit juices, particularly fresh squeezed orange and pomegranate juices. They’re very refreshing at the beach on a hot day.
You can get beer and wine everywhere, even in predominantly Muslim areas, without a hassle. Beer is expensive — as much as 10 shekels at many bars. Wine is better value, and much of it is locally produced.
Activities you can do in Israel and the Palestinian Territories
You don’t have to break the bank to get a lot out of backpacking Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Whether you’re coming for history, culture, beaches, hiking, nightlife, or all of the above, you can find plenty of free activities.
Most of Jerusalem’s historical sites, churches and markets are free. You can pick up self-guided walking tour maps from many tourist shops. The one pricey activity here is the Israel Museum, at 57 shekels for adults.
Haifa’s famous gardens are free as well, while most of the Roman ruins charge small admission fees (Beit She’an charges 23 shekels, for instance).
While Israel has quite a few spectacular private beaches, the public beaches in Tel Aviv and along the Dead Sea will do the trick and are free. Tel Aviv has some particularly stunning stretches of coast.
Tel Aviv has a fascinating counter-culture scene, with underground political movie screenings, concerts, art shows, etc. that are usually free. Local friends can help you find them. There’s also fantastic nightlife that doesn’t cost anything. You’ll need some clothes that don’t look like you’ve been hand-washing them in hostel sinks for six months.
Independent hiking is possible in the Negev. You need to be completely self-sufficient on transportation to/from trail heads. Some people hitch, but I was told repeatedly and very emphatically by two of my Couchsurfing hosts that hitching is not recommended. Safety can also be a serious concern for anyone not accustomed to desert hiking — daytime temperatures are extreme, there is no shade, and you’re a long way from reliable water sources.
Transportation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Public transportation works well when backpacking Israel. Distances aren’t painfully long. The buses leave on time. On major routes they won’t sell more tickets than they have seats, and they don’t stop mid-route. Ticket prices are usually about $3 per hour.
In more remote areas and in the Palestinian Territories, there are also minibuses. These work much better than those in neighboring countries. They stick to a schedule (ish).
Note that it’s not always super-easy to get between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. For instance, traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the bus will only take you to Checkpoint 300. You’ll have to get off and pick up new transport on the other side (or just walk). Be sure to leave plenty of time for onward transport, as security checks can take awhile, especially when re-entering Israel.
Pretty much all transportation stops at sundown on Friday and doesn’t resume until Sunday morning (to celebrate the Sabbath).
Safety while backpacking Israel and the PT
Despite what you hear in the news, backpacking through Israel and the Palestinian Territories is quite safe.
Jerusalem is a bit hectic and the Old City is very crowded, so keep an eye on your wallet.
There is some (minor) threat of political violence flaring up while you’re backpacking Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Don’t travel to disputed regions, avoid large demonstrations, and keep your ear to the ground, but you’d have to be pretty unlucky for it to put you at risk.
The biggest hassle is overzealous security agents/border guards. Don’t joke around about it, because they take their jobs a little too seriously and you could find yourself in a multi-hour interrogation situation.
You are very likely to witness Israelis’ obsessive attitudes toward security. Something as simple as a gum wrapper dropped in the street can trigger an entire bomb squad shutting down the road for hours. (I saw it happen.) You’ll often have to show ID to a security guard with a machine gun just to enter a shop or use a public restroom. Unless you’re in a conflict zone, this is mostly just paranoia.
Also, keep in mind that religion, politics, and ethnicity play an outsize role in peoples’ lives here. People may ask you for your opinion, but I always found it better to listen to their side before deciding how to engage.
Israel travel advice for women alone
Backpacking Israel and the Palestinian Territories as a solo woman is easy, safe and comfortable. Israeli women go to bars and clubs, walk around alone, and lie on the beach in bikinis, so you should have no trouble doing the same.
As a general rule, Jerusalem and most rural areas are pretty conservative, while in Tel Aviv no one will care what you wear or whether you’re traveling with a partner.
When visiting religious sites, you will have to cover up. You can usually get away with long pants, but you’ll need to wear a long skirt at a handful of sites (typically Jewish holy sites). Carry a shawl or scarf in your day pack in case you need to cover your head or shoulders in a pinch.
Ready to get started? Check out the posts from Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Like this Israel travel guide? Pin it!