When you think of Israel, one of the first few things to come to mind is probably religious. Hosting holy grounds for many religions (including important sites for Jews, Muslims, Christians, and also Baha’is), Israel is a major pilgrimage and worship destination.
Maybe when you think of Israel, you think of politics. Israel is also famous (or more accurately perhaps, “infamous”) for the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflict, as the rightful ownership of land is questioned, as are Israel’s practices for maintaining that control.
Or maybe, when you picture Israel, you see a desert. Perhaps you imagine sand punctuated by camels, and the bucket list wonder called the Dead Sea – that often photographed body of water that allows bathers to float without even trying, easily balancing newspapers and books while relaxing with their legs up.
When I decided to visit Israel, I thought of all three. And while, all three are facets of the country, they are by no means the whole picture. I was surprised by its complexity and variety, and by seven things in particular.
The 7 Most Surprising Aspects of Israel
The food is AMAZING
Israeli food is fresh, flavorful, and generally healthy. Best known for hummus, falafel, and more salads than you can imagine, it is a foodie heaven for vegetarians like me (and vegans).
The salads in Israel put other salads to shame. They’re so good that Israelis even eat them for breakfast, a habit I’ve since adopted. Most are unique in the way that the vegetables are chopped – teeny teeny tiny! Tabbouleh (couscous, tomato, onion, parsley, and seasoning) is ubiquitous, but mixed vegetable salads of all sort are common. A popular non-chopped salad is fatoush, which features “croutons” made of fried pita.
Traditional Israeli food is also extremely wallet-friendly. It’s $5 for a kilo of hummus, 20 pitas, and vegetables – more than enough to feed 5 people or more.
The landscape is varied and beautiful
The Dead Sea is awesome, for sure, and the deserts are stunning. But Israel also features beautiful port cities (like Haifa above), rolling farmlands, world-class beaches, and even lakes and waterfalls.
Israel is becoming a major diving attraction, especially to the resort city of Eilat, which is located on the Red Sea. Famed for its amazing biodiversity, dolphins and huge schools colorful fish are regular sightings.
(almost) Everyone speaks English in Israel
Israel has three languages, Hebrew, Arabic, and English, and all signs are in all three.
Students in Israeli schools start learning English around the age of 9, and university degrees require fluency in English for graduation.
Almost everyone in the 20- to 30-something age range speaks fluent English, and many older people as well.
Visa-stamp collectors won’t like it
A huge myth has been circulating that visiting Israel will prevent you from entering other Middle Eastern countries, as you can be turned away for having an Israeli visa stamp in your passport.
While an Israeli visa stamp MIGHT in fact keep you from going to other countries in the Middle East, it actually doesn’t matter. Because they don’t exist. Upon entering Israel, you get a visa card, not a visa stamp. Your passport is never stamped or altered.
It is true that in most cases Israelis cannot visit most Islamic countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, as these nations do not recognize the existence of Israel.
It is extremely safe
I have to admit, I was worried, as the media makes Israel look like a war zone, with conflicts and rockets everywhere. But never once did I feel unsafe, or any different that I have in any other country. I was told that the danger is contained within the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Aside from the national security concerns, I also felt really safe as a woman, even when alone. The prevalence of English makes it easy to get around, to ask questions, and to make friends. Every Israeli I met was extremely friendly and helpful, and totally eager to share their Israel, one that is quite different from than what is shown on TV.
Israel is not just for Jews
I am not Jewish, and I must confess my ignorance about almost anything Judaism-related. Even though my degree is in religion, I focused on Southeast Asian studies, and almost entirely excluded Judeo-Christian classes. From what I had read and heard about Israel, I thought it was a country for Jews.
While Israel is a Jewish state, it is also a standout of religious freedom in the Middle East. Religious sites for all religions are protected and preserved, and freedom of belief is upheld.
In fact, Israel is a haven for religious minorities that are persecuted in the rest of the Middle East, including Baha’is and the Druze. The Baha’is have built their international headquarters and one of their most sacred sites in Haifa, known locally as the Baha’i Gardens.
One word: WINE
Israeli is making waves in the wine community for excellence at great prices. A $17 bottle of wine from Israel ranks with $150 bottles from other regions. Boutique vineyards are quickly making names for themselves.
Most of the Israeli vineyards are located in Golan Heights, a northern region of Israel known for a more pastoral feel and tight knit farming communities. Many vineyards place an emphasis on sustainable practices and show remarkable respect and appreciation for the land, and the small scale allows for greater attention to detail. Some of the wineries are even all-natural and sulfites-free.
While Israel does have deserts and the Dead Sea, along with magnificent religious sites, and troubled politics, the nation is so much more than that.
These are only 7 of the surprises Israel has to offer – so many more await your visit.