You’re about to visit the Holy Land for the first time. You're excited! You’re filled with anticipation! You might be asking questions like, What will it be like? Who will we meet? What will we see?
Visiting Israel as a Christian is life-changing. When you read about the land of Israel in the Bible, it’s filled with ancient lessons and even a sense of mystery. But what is modern Israel like? What should you know about the region, land and culture before your adventure to the Holy Land?
Here are 10 things you should know about Israel before you visit:
Despite many stereotypes, the land of Israel is so much more than a desert! While Israel is about the size of New Jersey, it is home to six geographical regions — each with unique climates and landscapes. To the West lies the fertile Coastal Plain along the Mediterranean Sea, home to major cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa. To the East, the country rises into the central highlands, including the city of Jerusalem. To the North, the hilly region of Galilee is home to the Sea of Galilee. Farther North, the Golan Heights offers rugged terrain and mountains along the Syrian border. In the South, the Negev Desert is characterized by its arid landscapes and unique geological formations. Even farther South, Israel’s access to the Red Sea in the resort city of Eilat provides clear blue waters, coral reefs and colorful mountains.
Hebrew is the official language of Israel.
Hebrew is the primary language of the Jewish people and has an incredible history. It was considered a dead language for about 2,000 years! In the late 1800s, a movement began to revive the Hebrew language as a modern tongue to be used in daily life.
Many Israelis speak multiple languages like English or Arabic. According to this 2011 study, 49% of Israelis under 20 said Hebrew is their native language. 18% said Arabic, 15% said Russian, 2% said English and 14% said other languages. The Arab population in the region speaks Arabic as a first language, but many speak English and Hebrew as well.
Here are some helpful Hebrew words to know:
Toda: Thank you
Slicha (slee-ha): Sorry/Excuse me
Israel is a Jewish nation, but its population is diverse for a few reasons. The Jewish people, while Jewish, are also ethnically European, Middle Eastern, African, Asian, Latin and more. With immigration laws that encourage Aliyah — returning to the Jewish homeland and becoming a citizen — Israel attracts Jews from all over the world.
The Jewish people are often categorized into four major groups. Ashkenazi Jews are of European descent. Sephardic Jews are originally from the Iberian peninsula, now the region of Spain and Portugal, and North Africa such as Morocco. Mizrahi Jews are of Middle Eastern descent and are from the Levantine region and further into West Asia. Lastly, Ethiopian Jews from the Beta Israel community in Ethiopia.
Israel is considered to have two main population groups, Arabs and Jews. As of 2023, Israel’s population was 73.5% Jewish and 21% Arab, with the remaining 5.5% categorized as “other.” While there are many Mizrahi Jews that are of Middle Eastern descent, the 21% here refers to those identifying as Muslim-Arabs, Christian-Arabs and non-religious Arabs.
Refugees and asylum seekers have also found a home — or at least a temporary home — in Israel. Currently, about 25,500 asylum seekers are living in Israel, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan. In the past, Israel has also welcomed refugees from both Syria and Lebanon.
The land of Israel is the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity, and it holds great significance in the Islamic faith. These three religions are the Abrahamic Religions and they each believe Jerusalem is a place of great spiritual and religious importance. These three religions also share in common a few other sites in the region such as The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
While Israel is a Jewish state, it is also home to many Muslims, Christians, and other religious groups such as the Druze and Baha’i. The State of Israel officially recognizes the five Abrahamic Religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Druzeism and the Bahá’í. As of 2011, the Israeli population identified as 75.4% Jewish, 16.9% Muslim, 2.1% Christian, 1.7% Druze and 4.0% as “other” which includes the Baha’i.
It is important to understand that within Judaism and Christianity, there are many sects and denominations represented throughout Israel. Each group may dress differently than the other and observe particular rules and practices outlined by their specific sect or denomination. Within Judaism, there are three main branches, Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative. Among the Christians in Israel, you will find Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Protestants. And each of these groups can be split into many more sub-sects!
Israel is often represented in the news as a dangerous place with conflict everywhere you go. However, it is actually quite safe to visit Israel as a tourist. In 2019, Israel had 4.5 million tourist entries!
Tourists typically visit Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Negev desert, Nazareth and the Dead Sea. These locations tend to be relatively safe for visitors — as long as you take standard international travel precautions and stay aware of your surroundings. The majority of incidents you hear about in the news take place in areas international tourists wouldn’t typically visit.
As with any international travel, be sure to check your nation’s travel advisory for Israel. It is also a great idea to go on an organized tour. They will be best equipped to handle security and logistics for your group for the duration of your stay.
As a Jewish nation, Israel practices Shabbat, or Sabbath, every Saturday. Shabbat is a religious tradition originating from when God set aside the seventh day of Creation to rest (Genesis 2:2-3). In Exodus 20:8-11 God commanded the Israelites to observe and keep the Sabbath holy. Today, thousands of years later, the nation of Israel collectively observes the Sabbath. While religious Jews follow strict practices on Shabbat, many non-religious Israelis also take advantage of this day of rest.
Shabbat starts at sunset on Friday and goes to sunset on Saturday. Public transportation shuts down and Israeli restaurants and shops will close for the 24-hour period. You may even notice things start to wind down as early as Friday afternoon!
While you can still find restaurants and shops open in Arab neighborhoods and towns, Jerusalem in particular becomes a place of rest for 24 hours. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of this day off amidst the hustle and bustle of life in Israel!
Israel is a land rich in history. An effort has been made to preserve that history and make it accessible to the public. There are over 230 museums in Israel, making it the most museums per capita in the world! Some of the most popular museums to visit in Jerusalem are Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial, the Bible Lands Museum and The Israel Museum. You can find museums all over the country ranging from art and design to religion and technology.
If you’ve ever been to Israel this is probably not a surprise, but falafel is the most consumed food in Israel! Falafel are deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas and spices. While popular all over the Middle East, it is considered to be the national food of Israel. You can find falafel as street food, part of mezze — the Mediterranean appetizer course, or even as a main dish. Falafel is served plain, in pita bread, with hummus or labneh — a yogurt-like cheese dish. Make sure to stop at a falafel street vendor and try some for yourself!
You will most likely notice a lot of cats in Israel. There are 2 million of them!! In the 1900s cats were brought in by the British to combat a rat infestation. However, the cats were left unsupervised and became a whole new problem! In Israel, there is an average of one cat for every 5.4 people. That’s a lot of cats! While some are cute and fluffy, sadly many are sickly, malnourished and carriers of disease. You’d be wise to avoid touching them unless you can disinfect your hands immediately.
Israel is home to the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea! The Dead Sea, or the Salt Sea, is a salt lake situated on Israel’s southwestern border. Not only is the Dead Sea the lowest point on Earth, it is also one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world! The water is so salty you can’t actually swim in it — you just float!
The lake's surface is about 435 meters (about 1,427 ft) below sea level and the salinity rate is 34.2%. For comparison, the Mediterranean’s salinity rate is only 3.5%. The Dead Sea is rich in minerals that are used for skincare and spa treatments. Israelis and tourists alike go to Dead Sea resorts to float in the salty water and apply mineral-rich mud masks to their skin from the mud that lines the shores.
Israel is a place where ancient history meets modernity and beautiful landscapes inspire wonder. Are you ready? It's time for you to Discover the Holy Land!