After traveling around Israel for a while, I think it might be impossible to describe the place. It’s quirky place with incredible sights, super friendly people, a surprisingly large amount of things to do, and excruciatingly hot weather. Most/all of us know many people travel to Israel for religious reasons so it wasn’t surprising when we saw people carrying large crosses in the Old City of Jerusalem, watching groups of “Israel by Birthright” scurry from one religious sight to another, or made way for the flocks of American high schoolers in Jewish Camp learning about Judaism on top of Mt. Masada after a sunrise hike. We expected it. There were three things we did not expect and they have little to do with religion: natural sights, the intense security, and the people we met. I’m not going to spend much time with the religious side of Israel, information is readily found online and pretty much matches our experiences at the sights we visited. Instead, I’m going to write about the three things we found surprising because we didn’t have a clue and the information online doesn’t really doesn’t do it justice. I like to think of this as the side of Israel that is either ignored or not actively shared.
There’s a massive amount of things to visit in Israel. Israel has the honor, or maybe curse, of being very important to a handful of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, & Islam) and has been very important for many empires (Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, etc.) going back 6,000+yrs. There are so many different ruins, relics, and important historical spots that pretty much 2/3rds of the world’s population could find something in Israel to tie back to their own heritage; it’s mindboggling so many important places are in such a small area. It probably has a lot to do with the different groups of people trying to kill each other in the area for millennia.
We were surprised by Israel’s natural beauty. We were expecting to see dry/arid/desert countryside and were pleasantly surprised to find forests, fields, and intensive agriculture in many places. We enjoyed some of the local produce like grapes and peaches while being shocked that these items actually grew in Israel. The Dead Sea area was strangely pretty and floating in the Dead Sea was like swimming in a hug. There are many outdoor activities to do in Israel: there are a lot of big hills/small mountains, hiking trails, caves, a few waterfalls, gardens, and lookouts in Israel’s 500, yes 500, parks. It seems people are traveling to Israel to see the religious sights and skip the natural wonders because either there were few people around or we had the places to ourselves. Israel is beautiful and has a lot to offer for people who want to drive around in the countryside and skip big cities altogether, we really enjoyed the natural beauty of Israel!
We were very surprised by security in Israel and the general security environment we encountered. Yes, we knew Israel took security seriously but this was next level. Our first indication things were different came when we tried to get on our flight in Athens. Before we could even get to the check-in counter we were questioned at length by Israeli security staff about our visit to Israel. They asked questions in different ways to see if they’d get similar answers and the most surprising question “yes, you answered you’re going to Israel for tourism, but why?” How do we even answer that!? It’s like they were role-playing a five year old who kept asking “but why?”. All of our personal belongings were removed from our bags and thoroughly inspected. It took an hour before we even made it to the regular security everyone has to go through!
The relics of modern wars gone by are easily found in Israel. While stopping to look over the Sea of Galilee, I noticed signs indicating a nearby minefield. On our way towards the Golan Heights, we passed military installations and drove along even more minefields sectioned off by barbed wire. All of this pales in comparison to our night in Majdal Shams on the Syrian border where we could Syria from our bedroom window. Our awesome Airbnb host, Bahjat, mentioned he sometimes can hear sounds of fighting in Syria. That night, as Jacquelyn and I were trying to go to sleep we could hear pop-pop-pop-pop, boom… boom… boom… of gunfire and explosions. In the morning we said to Bahjat, “we heard some noises…” to which he quickly replied, “SEE!? I said you could hear!”. It was very odd to fall asleep to the sounds of war and Bahjat seemed eerily calm with a war raging nearby. Even touring around Jerusalem it was clear the area was prepared for the worst: the emergency siren sounded when we on a tour and we were herded out of the open towards the walls / cover. We found out a while later it was a test but it was still a surreal experience. We visited an observation deck to look over the Old City of Jerusalem and the man who sold us our tickets had a machine gun. I asked him if the reason why he needed a gun was because tourists get out of line and he just chuckled followed by a serious: “It’s for terrorists. Sounds like tourists but different.”. At least they have a sense of humor about their current environment?
Even though the people of Israel appear to be prepared for war at a moments notice they are still very friendly and welcoming. We seemed meet curious individuals and get dinner invites wherever we went. The best experience was when we were in Majdal Shams and learned all about the Druze and living in the Golan Heights. As Bahjat was showing us around we came across his friend at a family BBQ in a park and we were invited to join. It was a remarkable experience simply because we had no idea who Druze were before we arrived and we had no idea Majdal Shams was so interesting. We thought Majdal Shams was simply a place to sleep during our journey through the north of Israel only to get quite the education and meet lots of friendly people. The rest of our Airbnb hosts would bring us local food to try and always made sure we were happy; it was awesome!
Speaking of local food, there are no Starbucks, no Dunkin Donuts, and McDonalds has outrageously expensive hamburgers because the burgers have to be char grilled and kosher in order to be competitive. Both Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts tried selling in Israel but gave up when they found out that Israeli’s don’t much care for the taste of Starbucks coffee and generally only eat a special type of donut around Hanukah. We heard from multiple people how food they eat overseas, like apples, gyros, etc., are all garbage compared to what they can eat in Israel. Who knew Israeli’s were so particular about food and drinks!? Seriously, the food is awesome.
Really the only downsides were the costs and the heat. Things are expensive in Israel and it felt like the sun was constantly trying to make-out with us. That said, we really enjoyed Israel, there’s a lot to love. We’d definitely come back!
Enjoy the photos!