6 misconceptions about traveling to Israel
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Israel is an incredibly complicated little country, often in the news and not always for the right reasons. But until you visit, you may well find these misconceptions stuck in your head.
But before you go, here are some notions to dispel before you get there.
1. It's one big desert
For a country the size of Wales or New Jersey, the landscape is incredibly diverse. The classic image of camels roaming through an endless barren desert does exist, but the rest may surprise you.
In the very north of the country in winter, Mount Hermon provides the slopes for Israel's ski resort.
A little farther south in the Galil area, you will find rolling grassy hills, lakes, waterfalls and forests. A favorite northern park of mine to explore is the Yehudiya Forest Nature Reserve, where you will find various hikes that include wading and swimming through water, perfect for cooling off in the middle of a hot day.
Read more: Jerusalem’s 10 best-kept secrets
The main metropolitan area hugs the eastern end of the Mediterranean sea centered around Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv truly is an international city and about as far away from the desert stereotype as you can get.
Deep in the south of the country, nestled on the Red Sea, is Eilat. Big resort hotels line the coast and you can sunbathe, swim with dolphins and scuba dive on coral reefs at the same time that someone is skiing at the other end of the country.
Jerusalem is awash with history and surrounded by forests with millions of trees. Many have been planted thanks to the efforts of the Jewish National Fund, established in 1901, and today, it still plants three million trees every year.
Even in the desert, oases can be found. The pioneers of modern Israel set out to make the desert bloom and technology was created to grow crops in the aridest of landscapes. Rows of greenhouses or date palms line up in the wilderness.
There are also natural oases. My favorite hike in the country is to the Ein Akev spring. In the middle of the Negev desert, take a long hard hike and be rewarded with a dip in Ein Akev's deep cool waters. Head there in the springtime and you'll be blown away by the abundance of wildflowers that take over the usually barren landscape.
2. It's a war zone
Whilst Israel has had its fair share of conflict over the years, this is not a daily reality.
Wandering down the streets of Tel Aviv, even in times when there have been conflicts on the northern border, it really is business as usual. Like with any country, it's wise to avoid any conflict zones. But generally speaking, the majority of the country — especially the tourist hot spots — are not affected.
3. You'll only eat hummus and falafel
The hummus and falafel you'll find in Israel are some of the best in the world. Israelis will actually fight over who they award the best hummus title to. For me, Abu Hassan in Jaffa is the hands-down winner. Order the masabacha, a fresh, warm half-mashed hummus that you'll dream of for years afterward.
Read more: 8 things every traveler should do in Israel
Food in Israel goes way beyond the Middle Eastern classics. The staples like shawarma in lafa (think kebabs in a huge fluffy wrap) are incredible everywhere you go, but the food scene is also so diverse, particularly in Tel Aviv. My favorite chef in Israel is Eyal Shani who has a number of hot spots and spearheaded the revolution in modern Israeli cuisine. Head to his restaurant HaSalon for a treat night, or Romano, another Shani outpost above the ultracool “Teder” bar, for a more laid back but equally delicious experience.
People from all over the world live in Israel, so the food scene is eclectic -- you will also find world-class sushi, seafood and Thai food.
4. Everyone is Jewish
The religious makeup of Israel is a surprise to some. According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, Jews make up 74.2% of the population. Muslims constitute 17.8%, Christians 2% and Druze 1.6%. In many places in Israel, such as Haifa, different religions and races all live together in harmony.
5. Everyone is religious
In 2015, a survey determined that 65% of Israelis said they are "not religious" or "convinced atheists." There is a huge spectrum of religious observance in Israel, from the staunchly atheist to the fundamental ultraorthodox who abide by rules set hundreds or thousands of years ago. But there is everything in between.
Alongside varied levels of observance, there are a lot of cultural differences even within one religion. There are Sephardi Jews descended from those expelled from Spain during the Inquisition which began in the 1400s, Ashkenazi Jews who came from Europe, Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews and many, many more. Each group has wildly varying traditions, foods and cultures, and the mix is fascinating to experience.
6. Passport stamps will be a nightmare
Firstly, you will not be automatically turned away at the Israeli border for having stamps from other Arab or Muslim countries. However, these sort of stamps might mean you are subjected to additional questioning. Conversely, evidence of a visit to Israel will prohibit entry into countries such as Lebanon and Syria, but countries such as the UAE, Egypt and Jordan will have no issue with Israeli stamps.
The good news is that Israel no longer stamps passports. Instead, you're given a small paper entry ticket. Remember to keep this as you'll need it to avoid paying VAT on hotel stays, as tourists are exempt. You will also receive an exit ticket, but these are not attached to your passport.
One thing to be aware of is that if you decide to cross a land border into Israel from Egypt or Jordan, the Egyptian or Jordanian authorities are likely to stamp your passport at the border. Whilst there will be no corresponding exit or entry stamp from Israel, to anyone looking for it, it will be obvious you have been. On my visit to Lebanon, the immigration officer checked every single page in my passport and had there been and entry or exit stamp to Taba or Aqaba, it would set off alarm bells and I would have likely been refused entry.
Israel is an incredibly diverse and complex country, with many layers to peel away. Throw away your misconceptions because you will be surprised -- and head to the land of milk and honey to explore this fascinating place.