As the plane hurtled towards the runway of Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, I looked out the window and saw nothing but scorched grass and ugly high rise buildings. I was travelling alone, to a country I knew next to nothing about, to see a ‘friend’ I had met only once before. And I thought I had made a pretty big mistake.
My perception of Israel and the Palestinian Territories pre-visit was probably a lot like yours is right now – the one-time Holy Land that nowadays is in news headlines for all the wrong reasons. Or in other words; unsafe. Let me assure you; Israel and the Palestinian Territories may be a complicated place, but it’s also one of the friendliest, safest and most fun destinations I’ve ever been. Where else can you float on the waters of the Dead Sea, take in the sights and sounds of multiple religious cultures on one street corner, and ride a camel through the desert all in one day?
Here’s my advice if you’re travelling to Israel as a solo female:
Prepare for bag searches… everywhere
No matter how you look at it, Israel is an anomaly in the Middle East. It has plenty of enemies and as such, security is tight wherever you go. This is especially true in the big cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, when crossing into any Palestinian territory and especially in airports. Not only will you see soldiers with guns literally everywhere, when you enter any public building you’ll be subjected to a mandatory bag search. So leave sharp items like tweezers and nail files in your suitcase, not your day bag, and remember there’s absolutely no reason to be scared. It’s all there to keep you safe, and strict security means there’s rarely any violence in any tourist haunts.
Be yourself, and be friendly
In some other Middle Eastern countries, solo female travellers are advised not to engage in friendly conversation because politeness can be misinterpreted as flirtation. This isn’t something you need to worry about in Israel and the Palestinian Territories – it’s much more ‘Westernised’ than its neighbours. Wearing shorts in hot weather is perfectly fine, as is smiling at the locals and striking up a conversation with anyone who smiles back. The people are very welcoming and very direct, so if you ignore their greetings you’ll either get some confused stares or be told just how rude your behaviour is! As with anywhere else in the world there may be one or two bad eggs in the bunch, but if you exercise some common sense you’ll be a-okay.
Follow etiquette at religious sites
The only real exception to the ‘wear what you want, do what you want’ rule is at religious landmarks. Men and women are completely segregated at Jewish sites like the Western Wall. If a strict dress code is required (such as women wearing long skirts or covering their hair), the necessary garments will usually be provided to you – but you should stick with modest clothing either way. In ultra-orthodox churches or neighbourhoods like Mea Shearim, physical contact with men – even a handshake – is considered inappropriate. Don’t be offended if ultra-orthodox men are reluctant to speak to you, either. Arab cultural norms paint a similar picture; it’s uncommon for women to walk the streets alone or without a man, and tight clothing or showing skin will attract negative attention. Wear long, loose sleeves and pants (or better yet, a long skirt) and if in doubt, pair up with a buddy or two.
When it comes to male attention, be direct
The men here (the single ones, at least) tend to be a little flirtatious. So if you’re minding your own business at a cafe or bar, it won’t be long before one of them swaggers over to try his luck. Again this is absolutely nothing to worry about – they’re usually just curious and in search of some fun. However, they may be a touch more persistent than you’re used to. If you’re not interested, the best approach is an Israeli-style one; be direct! Tell them straight out that you would rather be left alone, and they’ll back off with no questions asked. The vast majority of men you’ll meet are as respectful as they are persistent, so they’ll walk away if you tell them that’s what you want.
If in doubt, join a tour
While Israel and the Palestinian Territories is safe for most travellers most of the time, there is always a risk (however small) of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict heating up. If you’re flying solo, getting around when that happens becomes challenging at best and dangerous at worst. Joining a group tour doesn’t just eliminate this issue – it also offers expert insight into this crazy, beautiful and complex country that’s just not possible with independent travel.
To get to the heart of Israel and the Palestinian Territories and make a host of new friends along the way, check out our small group tours in the region now.
Feature image by April Wong.