This is a long one, so feel free to skip to what interests you most.
Passports and Visas
I have to start by saying that due to political and religious conflicts in the region and beyond, holders of some passports may not be granted access into the country. This also means that Israelis aren’t allowed to travel to certain countries. You can check whether you’ll require a pre arranged visa here.
If you are a UK, US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Irish passport holder you can travel to Israel as a tourist free of charge. You will be issued a paper tourist visa valid for 3-months on your arrival. Your passport won’t be stamped, as this could make it impossible to enter Egypt and some other countries in the future.
However, this rule doesn’t seem to hold the other way. On my last visit I have been able to enter the country with an UEA stamp in my passport, even though this is one of the countries which Israelis can’t usually enter.
Before you book your flights remember that Israel is on a different work schedule. The workweek starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday. Due to weekly celebrations of Shabbat everything shuts down on Friday afternoon (think 2 pm as a rule of thumb). And by everything I mean public transport, most shops with the exception of few convenience stores and many restaurants. Most normal activity resumes on Saturday evening, but not all. If you are outside of a big city during this time, plan as if everything were closed.
This also means that if you fly to Ben Gurion Airport on a Friday evening or Saturday, you may be forced to pay for a taxi to reach your accommodation. It will cost around £40 or more to get to Tel Aviv by taxi, while a bus costs around 10 NIS (£2.22) and the train is around 22 NIS (£5). If you are starting your tour of Israel at a location different from Tel Aviv, you can check the bus & train times and price ahead of time. See here for BUSES and here for TRAINS.
Picking the right season
So far I have visited Israel during winter months – Dec, Feb, April. The temperature has been between 13-20 degrees depending on the month. This is off-season and it’s the perfect weather for training and sightseeing. The prices are lower as well. If you go in the summer you’ll have a more sweaty experience because it gets really hot.
If you’re coming to Israel to combine a decent amount of training with exploring the country the best place to start will be Tel Aviv.
There are many BJJ gyms in the city centre. Most of them don’t care about your affiliation and are happy to train with new people. Make sure to message them beforehand – the timetable isn’t always available in English.
In Tel Aviv I trained with Glam Team lead by Mordi Glam. Mordi is still an active competitor and won a silver medal at the Euros this year in the master 6 division!
Before I actually met him, I assumed someone had a sense of humour in naming their fabulous team :D
Find them here.
Training with the National Team at MMA Israel
I first visited this club when I was staying with my friend who lived in Netanya at the time. Netanya is a small city north of Tel Aviv, but you can easily travel here by train (30 min, 27 NIS roughly £7 both ways) or bus (avoid, it’s easy to get lost!).
The BJJ section of the team is lead by Amir Boaron who has been slowly growing it for years now. They routinely invite BJJ champions to teach seminars, have many full time athletes and compete a lot. Expect great training and people.
Man athletes in this gym are very committed to BJJ. The best example is an 18-year-old purple belt girl who commutes 8 hours every day from the other end of the country to train at the best gym. If you think it’s hard for you…
Find them here.
When you’re ready to move on from Tel Aviv, the next step is Jerusalem. Here, check out Atos Jerusalem. If you’re not affiliated with Atos you may need to rent their kit for the no gi class, but I avoided it in the gi class.
Don’t let this initial barrier deter you though, because once on the mat everybody was very friendly, technical and the coach made the effort to teach the class in both English and Hebrew just for me.
Find them here.
This is a cheap gym chain that can be found across Israel. I am mentioning it because the last session in BJJ gyms takes place on Friday morning and they remain shut until Sunday. If the weather is bad or you are just craving exercise a one off pass to these is 50 NIS (£10) and they are open on Saturdays!
Sightseeing & Activities
While in Tel Aviv it’s worth visiting the beaches, the Caramel Market, Lewinsky Market (much more low key and local), the area around Dizengoff centre, Jaffa old town, and many more. When you land in Israel, make sure to get one of these tourist maps of Tel Aviv with the interesting areas marked in yellow.
For me, the best way to explore the city was by walking around all these areas and other places I found interesting. I’m more into seeing how locals live, what they eat and what they think rather than into museums. If that’s you too, enjoy your walk!
Tel Aviv is also good for surfing – just head to one of the beaches and you’ll find multiple surfing schools.
Spending a few days in Tel Aviv is also the perfect opportunity to explore the country as you can access many tourist sites from the city. (You can also do this from other locations.)
The Dead Sea – doesn’t need introduction. You can book a trip or take a bus there (bus website linked above).
Ein Gedi – one of Israel’s beautiful national parks.
Masada – a historic military fortress. Trips to Masada usually involve getting there before sunrise and watching it from here.
Shabbat Dinner – many hostels offer you the chance to join them for a secular (!) Friday night dinner. This is a great opportunity to try traditional food, socialise with other travellers and party afterwards. You don’t need to be a guest to attend. Pre-book at hostel reception and turn up in the evening.
Jerusalem doesn’t need an introduction either.
Eilat – my trip to Eilat fell through this year (thanks to valentine’s weekend prices), but I’m still planning on going there next time. This Red Sea resort town not only allows you to enjoy some beach time, but it also allows easy access to the Negev desert area.
Kids with Machine Guns
Don’t be surprised to see teenagers in army uniforms walking around shopping centres with their rifles. In Israel it is compulsory to serve in the army for 2 years on finishing school (ages 18-19). Depending on which division you’ll be assigned to, you may need to carry weapons. If asked nicely, the soldiers don’t mind taking pictures with you.
Nobody I asked was able to explain the intricacies of what makes a food kosher. The best-known rule is that dairy and meat can’t be combined, but there are many more.
There is no requirement for restaurants to be kosher, but many places seemingly try to conform to this standard even if they don’t obtain certificates from their local rabbinates. See if you can find cheeseburgers anywhere :D
You’ll find tons of delicious delicacies all over the country, but if I could only try two things in Israel I’d eat this:
- Mashawsha Hummus – the best hummus I have ever had. Based in Tel Aviv city centre.
- Sabich – Warm pitta bread filled with fried aubergine, boiled egg, pickles, tahini and pomegranate seeds. I don’t like aubergine, but this one is so crispy that it just melts in your mouth as you eat it.
- Everybody speaks Hebrew, many people speak Arabic, but everybody speaks English well too.
- The currency is new Israeli shekels (NIS or ₪). It’s good to take out some cash to use in places like outdoor markets and intercity buses, but most places accept cards.
- The cost of living in Israel is similar to the UK. This means that you can make it cheap or expensive depending on the amount of planning you want to put into your holiday.
- Buy an Israeli sim card. A prepaid monthly one costs 60 NIS and will get you unlimited calls and texts, but more importantly 30 GB of data, which you will need when getting around. Wifi tends to be shitty in most places.
- Download Moovit – this app covers Israeli public transport. Many bus stops don’t have stop names written in English, so even if you can read Hebrew a bit, you will struggle. Google Maps don’t work very well when it comes to bus times and routes here. Remember that the more buses you take the more expensive it will be, so make sure to pick direct connections.
- In Tel Aviv, buy a RavKav card to travel on city buses. On intercity buses you’ll need cash.
I hope this helps and if you do go to Israel let me know what you thought!