Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

Israel: Insider’s Guide

Joe Yudin | October 6, 2014

The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Israel: Joe Yudin of Touring Israel.

Trusted Travel Expert
Joe Yudin

After graduating from Boston University, Joe moved to Israel and was drafted by the Israeli Defense Forces, where he served as a paratrooper. He then received a master’s degree in the Land of Israel Studies program at the University of Haifa—he’s currently working toward a PhD in the same field—and he and his family now live on a kibbutz in northern Israel. But he gained his travel chops by working as a guide, and, based on everything he learned about what sophisticated travelers to Israel really want, he founded Touring Israel. Joe takes great pleasure in helping travelers understand the country’s complicated politics and history by introducing them to locals from varied backgrounds, including Muslim and Jewish journalists, politicians, even an expert on the Tel Aviv fashion scene. He likes to keep his itineraries delightfully unconventional—under his care, you might camp in a Bedouin tent, bike through the Negev desert, or take part in the excavation of 5,000-year-old ruins—and he handpicks the most charismatic guides, who often have advanced degrees. His itineraries might cost more than others, but it’s because his guides are the savviest and most well-connected, so they command high fees (beware of unlicensed guides driving unlicensed, uninsured vehicles, which is not just illegal but unsafe). And when you book a guide or vehicle with Joe, you have them for the entire day–no nickel-and-diming for overtime or extra mileage. For travelers skittish about traveling in the region, Joe and his team are on hand 24/7 to field questions and make any necessary last-minute changes to travel plans. Joe was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.

Trips start at $700 per day for two travelers.
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Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The new Norman Tel Aviv, a restored 1920s Bauhaus residence that now holds 50 rooms and suites. I can help you secure a higher-floor room; they have the best views of the city and quick access to the rooftop pool.

Restaurants the locals love
In Tel Aviv: Suzanna, a French-style bistro in the stylish Neve Tzedek neighborhood, has some of the city’s best food and a balcony set beneath the canopies of giant ancient ficus trees. At night, take a seat on the rooftop to see the city lights. At Puaa, a homey café hidden on a cobblestone alleyway off the middle of the Old Jaffa flea market, vegetarians go crazy for the majadera, a rice-and-lentil dish made with flavorful blends of herbs, onions, raisins, walnuts, and yogurt. Puaa’s seafood dishes are also delightful.

In Afula (northern Israel): You won’t find one tourist at Ahuza, way off the beaten path in the Jezreel Valley, but lots of Israelis come for aromatic and colorful salads, toasted garlic pita, fresh flatbread-style lafa, and the best barbecue in Israel. Try the lamb shashlick, goose liver, or duck; the guy speaking English in the corner is probably me.

Meal worth the splurge
In the town of Acre, Uri Buri is a famous, unfussy, and relatively inexpensive Israeli seafood restaurant in a fourteenth-century building next to the city’s ancient sea walls. Here’s what you have to do to be wowed: Sit down and order whatever Uri recommends that day, from ceviche to salmon to pumpkin soup to calamari pasta. They’ll keep the food coming until you say stop (and charge you per dish).

Must-have dish
Meshawasha. An Arabic dish made of hummus, tahini, garlic, lemon, and spices and eaten with pita bread, this is best tried in Arabic restaurants in Abu Ghosh, Akko, or Gush Halav.

Prime picnic spot
Just above the Church of Saint Peter at the center of Old Jaffa, the Gan HaPisga (Summit Garden) is the highest natural point in the Tel Aviv–Jaffa municipal boundaries. The grassy park contains ruins, monuments, sculptures, and views of Tel Aviv, Jaffa, the Mediterranean, and Andromeda’s Rock.

What to See and Do

Inside Tower of David, Jerusalem, Israel. Photo by Noam Chen.

Inside the Tower of David, Jerusalem. Photo by Noam Chen.

Don’t miss
Spending at least a few days in Tel Aviv. Often overlooked as a tourist destination because it lacks Jerusalem’s historical clout, Tel Aviv is one of the world’s most vibrant, exciting cities. A visit gives you a taste of modern Israel—lots of energy, dynamic nightlife, and a mix of Israeli and international cuisine—along with a look at Jaffa, one of the oldest port cities.

The Caves at Beit Guvrin. Many people drive 40 minutes from Jerusalem to “dig for a day” and sift for treasure in Beit Guvrin’s network of B.C.-era caves. What they don’t do is take time to explore the rest of the national park, which contains incredible ancient ruins, wall paintings, stone carvings, olive presses, granaries, dwellings, water cisterns, tombs, and more—all underground in chambers that are refreshingly cool, particularly in summer.

Don’t bother
Eilat, a popular beach resort for locals, is in desperate need of an overhaul. Tacky and expensive—with awful and just-okay hotels—it’s only worth visiting if you’re en route to Southern Jordan (Petra) or interested in a wondrous diving experience in the Red Sea. But if you want a beach destination, Tel Aviv runs rings around Eilat.

Cheap thrill
Dig for a day. For $35 you can spend two to four hours underground, digging out an ancient settlement from the time of the Maccabees (second to first centuries B.C.). You’ll find all kinds of artifacts from the period of the Hanukah Wars against the ancient Greeks: certainly pottery shards and maybe even oil lamps, wine jugs, jewelry, and coins. When you’re done, an archaeologist will take you spelunking (cave crawling) through some of the unexcavated caves.

Bragging rights
Tucking into a gourmet lunch on the rim of the Mitzpeh Ramon crater in the Negev Desert. I’ll set you up with a personal chef who hitches a mobile kitchen to his off-road vehicle and plates a lunch of garlicky hummus, hyssop-tinged goat cheese, grilled steak, and herby salads galore. It’s only served in the most picturesque locations possible: The chef can also set up on the banks of the Jordan River, in the middle of a secluded forest on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, or at the top of a dormant volcano in the Golan Heights.

How to spend a Saturday
Since most things are closed on Saturdays for Sabbath, it’s the ideal day to hit the beach in Tel Aviv (or anywhere on the coast) or take a day-trip to the Dead Sea or a national park (like the archeological site of Masada, or Caesarea, built by Herod the Great around 25 to 13 B.C.). Or you could wander through the Arab markets in Acre, Hafia, and Nazareth, all of which are open on Saturdays.

Perfect souvenirs
In Tzfat: The Canaan Gallery weaves Jewish talits, or prayer shawls, by hand using ancient looms. At the 500-year-old house turned factory in the old city of Tzfat (also known as Safed), you can see the centuries-old production process for yourself.

In Jerusalem, Nazareth, or Bethlehem: You can buy hand-carved olivewood nativities in tourist shops along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, near the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, and at the market beside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Contact Joe

Best Times to Go

October and November. Israel’s weather is like northern California’s, and fall is gorgeous: sunny and mild in most of the country. November, the beginning of the rainy season, is relatively crowdless (unlike October, which sees many Jewish and Christian travelers visiting for Sukkot). Millions of birds stop in Israel in November, on their way from Eurasia to Africa; the Hula Valley Bird Festival celebrates this awesome migration.

March to May. Spring, like fall, is warm and bright in most of the country—although it can be rainy in March.

Mid-January to early March. As long as you don’t mind highs in the 50s and a little rain, this is the time to avoid crowds and get great deals. In Jerusalem and other high-altitude destinations like Safed and the Golan Heights, it can be chilly (in the 40s and low 50s in January in Jerusalem) with occasional light snow. But if you’re going somewhere like Eilat on the Red Sea in the south, winter weather is lovely—especially when you compare it to the sweaty days of summer.

Worst Times to Go

Any Jewish holiday. Avoid Passover (usually in early April, around Easter) and Sukkot (usually in early October) at all costs: You’ll battle crowds and pay peak-season rates on hotels with overnight minimums. With Jews from abroad visiting family and Israelis on vacation, tourists are everywhere.

Mid-December to early January. Another very busy time.

July and August. If you don’t like the heat, you won’t like these balmy months. But the beaches and bars in Tel Aviv and along the coast are absolutely bursting with energy in the summer.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Thinking that Galilee and Golan can be done as a day trip from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. There’s too much to see in the north of the country. Plan to spend one day working your way north (stopping for sights along the way) and at least two days touring before heading back to the center.

Word of Warning

Make sure taxi drivers turn their meters on and follow a reasonable route. A driver will always give you a price and try to drive away; tell him to put the meter on and that you’ll need a receipt. (If he refuses, get out.) Then track his route on GPS. If you think you’re being swindled, take a photo of the license plate or the driver’s name (on a sign inside the taxi) and report him.

Must-Have App

Get Taxi helps you find and book a licensed cab from your phone.

Tipping Tip

Do as you would in America and tip everyone 10 to 20 percent: waiters, taxi drivers, bellboys, housekeepers, room service, tour guides, the guy who washes your hair at the salon.

Airport Intel

I can arrange VIP assistance to get you picked up or delivered to your plane at Ben Gurion International Airport in the quickest way possible. Someone will deposit your luggage, whisk you past security-screening lines, and help with baggage inspection and passport control.

Don’t Forget to Pack

Water shoes. They’re weirdly essential, whether you’re hiking through a stream to a waterfall oasis, walking along an ancient underground aqueduct, or stepping from the Dead Sea’s rocky shores onto the salt-crystal sea floor.


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