I’m hoping to convince you to travel to Israel, and I know that’s a tall order. It’s often thought of as the bully of the Middle East, and it’s not spoken of kindly in the West. But as many seasoned travelers will tell you, experiencing a country first hand can help you sort through the media onslaught back home. Yes, Israel is the most controversial intersection for the world’s largest monotheistic religions, but for cultural enthusiasts, it’s an historic, anthropological, artistic and technological centre to be explored. This tiny Middle Eastern country is very close to my heart, because I grew up with an Israeli in my home. I experienced the culture, language, food and yes, politics, first hand. And once I was old enough to appreciate this complicated part of the world, I spent a month road-tripping across the country.
1. It’s safer than you think
Looking at a map of the Middle East, coupled with the latest headlines, “safe” is probably the last word you would use to describe this part of the world. However, all the things that make Israel “bad” in the west, also keep it safe. Since building a highly controversial wall between themselves and both the Gaza Strip and West Bank in 2002, Israel has seen a 97% decline in terrorism the following year. During my visit, there was certainly a heightened awareness regarding personal safety, but it’s important to feel that, rather than wandering around with a sense of naivety.
2. It’s an all season destination
Israel’s arid climate makes it the perfect all year round destination. I spent my first time there in the dead of winter. I spent Christmas traipsing around in jeans and a t-shirt and New Year’s bobbing about the Dead Sea in a bikini. The summers can be a bit toasty, with temperatures soaring to the high nineties, but you’re just a stone’s throw from the refreshing coast. If you’re watching your pennies, avoid Christmas and New Years, and consider early fall or spring time for decent airfares.
3. It’s Culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse
We often forget Israel’s humble roots. Not merely it’s religious roots, but the creation of what it is today. It was meant to be a safe haven for Jews of all ethnicities (notice how I’ve separated Judaism from ethnicity – Jewish is not a race!) Nigerians, Hungarians, Poles, Germans, Brazilians, Canadians, Israel feels like the United Nations. Take a wander down the ancient cobble-stoned streets of Jerusalem and you’ll hear a multitude of languages spoken (more than 83 in fact), and see a mosaic of ethnicities of varying religious representations including Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Because of Israel’s unique blend of antiquity and modernity, everyone here has a fascinating story to tell if you’re willing to listen.
4. It’s religiously iconic
The Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock, Western Wall, al-Aqsa Mosque, Mount of Olives, whether you practice a religion or not, this is the Holy Land. As an atheist, it was captivating to watch people of all ages and religious backgrounds amass at the foot of a 2,000 year old wall.
Looking up to their heavens above, placing their hand upon the ancient stone, standing in whispered silence as they converse with a higher being. You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the voices of 100 Christian Ghanians carry over the ruins of an 800 year old fortress in honour of lives lost during the Crusades. You should travel to Israel because it’s an animated version of the Biblical era, played out and interpreted on an ancient storyboard, by real life characters.
5. The history is anything but boring
Much like Greece, Turkey, Iran, Israel’s history is long, complicated, rich and fascinating. Dating back far before biblical times, to the creation of the modern state of Israel after Hitler tried to eradicate the Jews in Europe, all the way up to today and its terse relationship with the Palestinians, it’s almost overwhelming.
My travels took me from the precarious path up the great Masada stronghold, to Roman ruins in Caesarea, through the narrow stairwells of a Syrian fortress in the Golan Heights through the gut wrenching halls of Yad Vashem.
Those who travel to Israel to soak up archaeological ruins and hear stories of harrowing conquerers and World War heroes, I promise you won’t be disappointed!
6. The food is to die for
Remember how I mentioned how culturally diverse this country is – You know what happens to the culinary scene when that happens, it morphs into something awesome! Lebanese, meets Syrian, meets Greek, meets Mediterranean, meets everything else! For Israeli families, lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Everyone will descend upon one home, and feast on everything from humus (of course), couscous, za’atar, shakshouka and whatever else is on the menu. The best falafel I’ve had to this day is still in Haifa, and you haven’t lived until you’ve tried Israeli gelato, fresh from a local kibbutz.
7. It’s geographically stunning
For a country that’s only 2.5 times the size of Rhode Island, it’s wildly diverse, geographically speaking.
From lush, green valleys in the northern Galilee region, to the vastness of the Negev Desert in the south. And in the east, the lowest (and saltiest) point on earth, the Dead Sea.
And of course, to the west, the Mediterranean Sea beckons sun worshippers, party goers and would be socialites.
If you need more reasons to travel to Israel, I can give you about 100, but let’s start with this! With the Shekel hovering around 3.7 for every $1 CAD, we can add this to our list of top budget friendly destinations for the Canadian traveller! Now is the time to see parts of the world we may not have otherwise considered, and I hope Israel makes it onto your bucketlist!