My Incredible Week Visiting Israel

Introduction: An Amazing Week In Israel With My Parents
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My Incredible Week Visiting Israel
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It’s not often that I write about destinations, though since I spent a week on the ground in Israel I wanted to briefly share my thoughts. This is easily one of the most incredible trips I’ve taken, and I’m so fortunate to have been able to share the experience with both of my parents. You never know how many more opportunities you’ll have to travel with loved ones, so this is a memory I’ll always cherish.

So here are some general thoughts, in no particular order:

Israel is a hot topic

Before I talk too much about our time on the ground, I’ve already had several people email and message me urging not to write about Israel. I understand a lot of people have a lot of strong opinions on Israel, and just as I’ve had good things to say about the UAE, etc., (and I’ve been called a lot of names for that), I have a lot of positive things to say about Israel. So I understand most of you won’t agree with all of my opinions, and that’s fine.

I let my mom plan the entire time on the ground

I ended up taking this trip with my mom because it has always been her dream to visit Israel. She was really excited about the planning process, and for my own sanity I encouraged her to take charge of that, while I’d take charge of the flights and hotels. She spent hours a day planning the trip for our time leading up to our departure, and I knew it wouldn’t end well if I tried to meddle.

What this also meant is that I did a lot more sightseeing than I’d traditionally do. I’m lucky to be able to work from anywhere in the world, though the flip side of that is that I also work just about every day. Go figure my mom scheduled us for about 12 hours of sightseeing per day. So I’m very proud of what we saw, though I was way behind on work by the end of the trip.

What I didn’t connect with in Israel

When I was in Israel I quickly discovered that a vast majority of the tourists there were visiting for religious reasons (primarily Christians and Jews). For the record, I’m agnostic (or something) while my mom is Christian. Since I left the planning to her, we spent the first three days in Israel touring all kinds of religious sites.

I respect that this is incredibly meaningful to some people, though as a skeptic and someone who isn’t religious, there were some things I struggled with a bit. “Hmmmmm, so is there actually evidence that Jesus walked through this field, or…?”

So I did all the religious sites with my mom for the first few days, and I was drained and frustrated by the end of it. I understand religion is important to many people, but the amount of pushing and shoving and crowded spaces and crying was all a bit much for me.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s worth seeing the highlights. For example, I found the Western Wall to be moving. It’s just that to me there’s a diminishing marginal return on seeing some of the more obscure sights.

Why Israel is incredible

While the religious sites weren’t really my cup of tea, the next three days we toured the historic sites of Israel. While Israel is popular with religious tourists, the next three days made me realize how underrated of a destination Israel is for those who just want to see an all around incredible country. Seriously, I thought I understood Israel’s “situation” pretty well before my visit, but after touring the country I feel like I have such a better understanding of the geopolitics, etc.

Israel is a stunningly gorgeous country. Even though it’s a tiny country, the amount and variety of natural beauty was nothing short of breathtaking. What’s even more amazing is the amount of history every corner of the country has. It’s one thing to be able to see a beautiful mountain or the desert or the sea, but I was blown away by the combination of history and natural beauty.

From Masada…

To the Dead Sea…

To Wadi Qelt…

To Jaffa…

To Golan Heights and the border with Syria…

To a Kibbutz (which impressed me a lot more than I was expecting)..

To Jerusalem’s Old City…

To Palestine…

The crazy part is that we did so much sightseeing around the country that we ended up having only one evening to explore Tel Aviv, which was a shame, since I think the city in and of itself is worth a visit.

From the restaurants to the bars to the general energy of the city to the most amazing food stall place I’ve ever seen, I was sad I didn’t have more time in the city.

The people & the food

The food in Israel was probably among the best I’ve had anywhere in the world. My biggest regret with this trip is that we didn’t have more time to visit restaurants, given how much touring we did. However, the food I did have was exceptionally good across the board.

Then there’s the people of Israel. It’s tough to put exactly into words what makes Israelis special. They’re not like Fijians or Balinese, in the sense that they’re not outwardly the friendliest people on earth. However, there’s something collectively inspiring about everyone I spoke to in Israel. I just felt like they had such a positive approach to life, were easygoing, etc. I don’t know, it’s tough to put into words.

Did I feel safe visiting Israel?

As a tourist I felt incredibly safe. Two things were most obvious as a tourist:

  • There’s very little petty crime, so it’s safe to walk just about anywhere anytime
  • Since joining the military is compulsory, it’s insane the number of people you see walking around, sitting in restaurants, sitting in parks, etc., with machine guns; at first it was a bit jarring, but I pretty quickly got used to it

But yes, as a tourist I felt incredibly safe. Your mileage may vary.

Our amazing tour guide

For our last three days in Israel my mom had hired a tour guide. I don’t know how she found him, but she did a damn good job. I’m not really a people person, so it’s not often that I wholeheartedly recommend someone. However, I can’t say enough positive things about our guide, Michel Kahn.

There are great tour guides, and then there are all around great people who are just fun to be around, and he was both. Michel was incredible on so many levels:

  • He pushed us so hard to see more, and I appreciate that; there were times where I wanted to just go back to the hotel, but he told us “no, you have to see ________ still.”
  • The way he treated my parents, and in particular the way he balanced all of our sightseeing desires, was nothing short of a miracle; he has the patience of a saint
  • His scheduling was incredible; on our last day we had reservations at different places at 9AM, 11AM, 1PM, and 3PM, and somehow we showed up at each place within five minutes of the start time, despite us never feeling rush
  • There are tour guides who endlessly share facts that and don’t have a sense of when people are interested in hearing things or not, but Michel tailored his commentary perfectly
  • Michel is hilarious

So if you’re in Israel, do yourself a favor and hire Michel. I’ve never in my life had a tour guide I’d recommend so much. You can visit his Facebook page and email him at followmichel@gmail.com. He’ll pick you up at your hotel in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and show you around all day. Give him a general sense of what you want and let him handle the rest, because he really exceeded our expectations. If you do use him, please send him my regards and gratitude for how well he took care of us (hopefully it’s obvious, but I’m not being paid anything for saying this — I just really liked him).

Bottom line

This was an indescribably special trip for my family. This is a memory I’ll never forget having with my parents, and I’m even more excited to return to Israel now and see more of Tel Aviv, etc. However, as I was told before I visited, Israel is really a country where you have to get out of the big cities. Between the amazing historical sites, great food, etc., Israel has to be one of the most underrated tourist destinations out there. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Comments

  1. It is interesting talking to friends who go to Israel for work due to the tech scene there. Almost all are amazed at what they find. There is the history and great food which is surprising. But visiting Tel Aviv most don’t expect to find a first world city more comparable to Toronto or Rome than anything in the Middle East.

  2. So happy you were able to build memories traveling with your parents. Nobody can take that from you. Israel is on my priority list of places to visit. Not surprised at all about the food. That part of the world is really special in the ingredients they use and the meals they put together.

  3. Good for you Lucky…we could have told you how amazing it was but sometimes you have to see for yourself.

    Please address the diversity of the people you saw and met if you would?

  4. @Lucky. Just ignore the haters. I am sad to see that whatever you write about, some (intolerant) people have very negative comments about that. We visited Israel too, and I agree with everything you said. It is an amazing country and you really start understanding people there if you visit Israel. But I also find most countries I visited fascinating. Connecting with people in a foreign country is always a treat for me and my family. Keep up the good work! I read your blog every day several times a day.

  5. Did you just list Palestine as something to see /in Israel/? I have nothing against you visiting either country, but that’s a little extreme.

  6. I visited Israel in 2007. It was amazing and there were very few tourists then. Tel Aviv reminded me very much of Antalya, which is on the coast of Turkish Mediterranean Riviera. Great and friendly people. Amazing food, including all those falafel stands. One thing I couldn’t stop noticing was how beautiful the women and how handsome the men were!

  7. Your trip sounds amazing! It’s so nice you got to experience all of that with your parents. I lived in Malcha, Jerusalem for a couple years about decade ago. I didn’t know much about Israel beforehand, growing up in New York, but I’ve never fell more In love with a place than I did with Israel. I love the culture, it’s so different than other middle eastern countries I’ve lived in and it’s a beautiful place. Eveyone should see it!

  8. Great report, and it definitely inspires me to go there. Im not religious either and never felt the desire to go but youve somehow turned it around for me.

    You didnt talk enough about what you did in Palestine (and did Michel take you there)?

    P.S. “hopefully it’s obvious, but I’m not being paid anything for saying this” — Well, these days, with all the credit card (and other) selling, it’s important that this gets said

  9. I wasn’t expecting your reasons when I saw it coming up.

    Nice and interesting personal review. Thanks for the refreshing take, if that’s the right word.

    I guess Israel is just so ridiculously politicized and linked to religion. You’ve made me think outside the stereotype, or the surface I suppose. Now I want to go and I thought I would never do so. Not for safety reasons, I’m just very much against the religio-nut craziness, and certain politics. Maybe I was showing prejudice also!

  10. How unfortunate you were not impressed with the religious sites of this part of the world, which literally hundreds of millions of people of various faiths revere as sacred. It strikes me as somewhat disingenuous and perhaps even somewhat closed-minded, given your positive reviews of other traditions (receiving a blessing from a Buddhist monk, for example).

  11. where are the haters? Did someone remove a lot of comments? Why the mentioning of haters here?

    But in a honest sense, it all depends on who cares what. For example, as a Chinese I have no problem with Israel. However when Lucky mentioning Balinese as an example of most friendly people, my eyes rolled. If you know the history of massacre done by those same friendly people, you may have a different view. Look at movies like “The act of killing” “The Look of Silence” etc. For westerner, you might not care that much and take the face value of a nice grandpa who might talking about the good times of killing and raping during his youth after a few drinks.

  12. You didn’t really put Palestine under Israel. Oh wait. Jesus lucky. And you’re wondering why you get “hate” comments?

  13. @Peter , what? So someone have to appreciate religious sites otherwise disingenuous and closed-minded. I mean talking about close-minded…

    It is one thing to appreciate temples or churches that have a lot of historical and artistic values, another thing to have any interest in a road ” Jesus walked”. Why should someone don’t believe it actually happened should show the least interest?

  14. Lucky writes a 1,500 word post fawning over everything Israel and the haters still excoriate him for saying the word “Palestine”

    Sad!

  15. I didn’t know Israel was underrated. Everyone I know wants to go there someday. I do spend several hours at church per week though. LOL

  16. This Zionist Jew has no problem that lucky mentioned “Palestine” is his post. He’s not trying to make a political statement, he’s just referencing that, as a tourist, traveling to Bethlehem or Jericho is indeed the same as visiting another country. I would think anyone spending a week in Israel (at least those who are Christian) would want to see Bethlehem and it is certainly worth exploring the West Bank to get a little persoective on the conflict at hand.

    We can save our debate on the peace process for the numerous other avenues out there. But yes, from a tourist perspective, Lucky visited Palestine.

  17. So pleased that you had a good time. Even as a long-time and very frequent Israel visitor, it can still be a really tricky country to navigate, esp if you’re a polite European or North American and not used to a bit of shouting or haggling.

  18. I’d like to know how much Michel Kahn charges per day. His Facebook page gives no clue, and the links from there all lead to “this domain isn’t connected to a website yet”. Very much a factor in deciding whether not to go to Israel myself, as I’m pretty sure I’d want a guide. It would be a waste of both his and our time to have each of us, who may be only vaguely interested in hiring him, all email him to ask.

  19. I did the same trip. Also with my mom and let her do all the planning. I agree about everything. People food scenery all amazing. Sightseeing was a drain and I could hve skipper much of it. The geopolitics are interesting. Eveyone is so tough on Israel. They are a kind country. They fought for the land when the Palestinians ABANDONED it! No other country in the world would be as hospitable as Israel is

  20. Still no haters. 🙂

    I visited Lebanon a few years ago, and was struck by its natural beauty, its history (almost literally, there’s something ancient around every corner) and the incredible food. It’s such a shame that the two countries can’t coexist in peace. Imagine that all were peaceful and you could drive from Beirut to Tel Aviv – it would be a vacation paradise.

  21. Two things.

    Lucky I’d love your day by day itinerary if it’s not too personal.

    Second.

    All the Palestine people getting upset. If you go to Rome and say you must visit the Vatican or go to Nice and visit Monaco or go to Barcelona and visit Andorra or go to South Africa and visit Lesotho isn’t it all the same? Everyone needs to chill.

  22. Such a splendid post! Such a magnificent country!

    I really enjoy the study of biblical archeology (even though I am a devoted atheist) so I love poking my nose into all the dark corners of the historic, religious sites. I also love ogling all the gorgeous men in Tel Aviv. It’s a shame Ben didn’t have the opportunity to spend more time in this marvelous city.

    It’s a true pity that Ben did not write a similar post about his sightseeing in another fascinating country, Uzbekistan.

  23. @Julia

    Yours is a revisionist view of history.

    The Palestinians weren’t driven out. The Israelis welcomed and encouraged the Palestinians to stay and be apart of the new nation. Unfortunately, the Palestinians responded by vowing to massacre the Israelis.

  24. I find the irony of those avoiding religious sites/countries/etc. due to lack of open-mindedness amusing.

    @Andy – glad you realize your own bias!

  25. Other top guides in Israel charged about $500USD per day (back in 2012). I expect Michael charges about the same, give or take.

  26. To those asking how much Michel charges, let me email him and ask. The reason I’m not sure is because my mom booked through a service that hooked them up with Michel, and presumably they take some sort of a commission, and he charges less when you book directly through him. I’ll report back.

    In general $500 per day sounds about right. Before I visited Israel I thought that sounded expensive, but after doing research that seems to be the norm. Israel isn’t a cheap country, and that price includes being driven everywhere, entrance to everything, etc. Some days we drove hundreds of kilometers and were on the road for 12 hours. When you break down how much that is per hour, how much you’d otherwise pay for entrance to things, transportation, etc., I thought it was a very fair price, especially for someone as good as Michel.

  27. Woah! Just realized Michel was our tour guide a well last year! Great guy but yeah VERY thorough and pushy on seeing everything. He knew everything about everything. I thought the olive caves he took us too were neat and there was no one else there.

  28. If I had known you were here I would have shown you around myself!

    I read your blog all the time, really learning a great deal that helps with my frequent travel for work.

    Let me know when you’re coming back!

  29. Even though you typically don’t review destinations, this was a nice read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and some pictures.

  30. For someone who has seen this place evolve from a dirt poor outpost surrounded by genocidal enemies into an amazing destination (unfortunately still surrounded by genocidal enemies,) I can truly say that my eyes welled up with tears of joy when I realized you did pick up on the magic of this place. I have traveled back and forth for almost 50 years, and you would be even more amazed if you had see what we have seen happen in 5 decades against all odds.
    Thank you.

  31. Yes Israel is a beautiful country. But go visit palestine one day and look at what type of shit lives they live because of the Israeli treatment towards them and then try having fun when you visit Israel knowing the pain they suffer!

  32. It’s incredibly irresponsible to have posted about Israel without mentioning the recent actions of the Trump administration, to say nothing of how you seem to disregard “Palestine” as a lackadaisical day trip!

  33. Good on you Lucky for (1) visiting (2) with your parents (3) for a full week and (4) for writing freely without succumbing to the haters.
    And since you only had time for a night in Tel Aviv – methinks it’s time for a return visit soon! So many new airlines flying in as demonstrated by your Cathay Pacific photo at TLV airport!!!
    Great stuff Lucky!

  34. @ Imperator

    It’s one thing to note that history is subjective depending on the historian’s perspective, but another to call another person’s history revisionist while providing your own revisionism as the “truth”.

  35. Incredible post, Lucky! I LOVE Israel and hope to go back next year.

    What made me happy about your review is that you liked Israel even though you’re not religious at all, since most people visit to see the religious sites. Truly shows how spectacular Israel is.

    It is a shame that it’s underrated. I just wish their terrorist neighbors would learn to live in peace with Israel, but I hope one day that will happen. SO happy you loved it.

  36. @schar When Muslims flood your country in mass numbers and then demand a nation of their own, and take half of your land whilst not being even close to half of their population. I will expect you to support them. The Arabs are not in any way in the right in this situation, but it is Israel who are the terrorists here. Stop acting like people who are keeping civilians in Gaza from getting basic building supplies are innocent. Both sides are to blame. As for who has more blame, that discussion won’t help bring peace. I think the Israelis. You think the Palestinians. We can disagree and still respect the two nations. I think Ben should have locked comments on this post.

  37. @ The Value Traveler, would you have visited apartheid South Africa in, say 1975-85? Despite the virtually worldwide cultural and economic boycott, and the global arms embargo? I wouldn’t have.

    Travel does not solve everything and is not always appropriate. “Understanding” is not what is needed in the face of active oppression backed up by violence.

  38. Don’t let the naysayers get you down. Your thoughts about your experiencs replicate what I have heard so many say about Israel and it’s vibrancy. I look forward to going to going there next year. As for other places in the region, I would care to go only with an organised and secure group.

  39. The comments are hilarious. Some people all ruffled up about “Palestine” and “Israel.” The point of his post is not meant to be political, but some imbeciles insist on being offended. So, here’s something that’s sure to anger some sensitive souls: Palestine doesn’t exist as its own country. It’s that simple. The United Nations recognizes Israel as a Member State, but not Palestine.

  40. Thanks for the outstanding review. Having been in Israel four times I felt your comments were right on. I am looking forward to my return.

  41. “The United Nations recognizes Israel as a Member State, but not Palestine.”

    Well, not really. Palestine is not a sovereign state yet, so it cannot be recognized as such by the UN. But the UN originally planned for two states there, so it’s not that the current situation is precisely how it had all been planned. Neither the wars against Israel, nor its subsequent occupation of foreign territories, were planned, but this doesn’t mean that this situation must stay forever. It’s also quite not fair to say that “Palestine doesn’t exist”, as it’s quite clear that its population has nothing to do with the culture, symbols, tradition, language and history of the state currently ruling over it.

  42. @speedbird Not looking to argue here, I just will suggest you pick up a history book or visit a museum to see that the land of Israel has existed for over 3000 years, so, yes you are in the wrong when you claim Israel “stole” someone’s land. On top of that, terrorists have been trying to fight Israel for years, and the only way to survive is to retaliate, and Israel literally fights for survival. So, again, I disagree when you claim Israel to be the real terrorists here. Last time I checked it was the muslims firing rockets and blowing themselves up, not Israelis.

  43. “To those asking how much Michel charges, let me email him and ask”

    10 days later and still waiting. Or did you decide that the ‘probably around’ $500 a day would suffice? Maybe based on the raves from you and some of the commenters here he could feel he could charge more. Or maybe that $500 is for guides booked thru agencies, and booking directly with him is less. It would be nice to know for sure. 😉

  44. I stumbled upon this by chance and was delighted to read your enthusiastic review. By chance I was guiding a non-religious couple of tourists (one nominally Armenian, one nominally Jewish) in Jerusalem yesterday. We visited the City of David, which blew them away, as we travelled back through 3000 years in time, the Western Wall, of course, and the Holy Sepulchre – on Christmas Day! So much history within such a small area. Thank you for hopefully inspiring others to come and experience all of this. One small point to reassure your readers – as I did with my tourists yesterday. You may indeed see many fierce looking weapons being carried around but you can relax. They are never loaded. Safety of the public is paramount and so the risk of a soldier/policeman to his own life should he need to defend himself in a hurry takes a back seat to the safety of others. No bullet can accidentally be released! It also means that in a perceived emergency the gun-holder must take a precious few seconds to load which gives him time to think and assess the situation, rather than (heaven forbid) shooting first and thinking later.

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