Israeli has two seasons: winter (late Oct to mid-Mar), which is cool to cold and when the rains occur, and summer (Apr–Oct), which is warm to hot and virtually rain-free. Winter in Israel starts with showers in October and advances to periodic heavy rainfall from November to March. Swimming is out in the Mediterranean during this time, except during occasional heat waves, although at times you can swim in Eilat and the Dead Sea in the winter. The Israeli winter doesn’t normally involve snow, except for on Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights.
During February and the beginning of March, the entire country turns green from the winter rains, and wildflower displays in the Galilee and Golan regions are truly spectacular. By late March, the flowers and the green fade. In the months that follow, the heat gathers intensity, reaching its peak in July and August. By September
Israel also experiences hot, dry desert winds at the beginning and end of the summer, although a hamsin can occur anytime from March to November. A hamsin (or sharav) heat wave means you must cut back on rushing around: Plan to be in air-conditioned museums, in the shadowy depths of a bazaar, or in the water during midday, and make sure you increase your water intake.
In winter, cold rain systems move in from the north. Because they are prevented from continuing south by the constant tropical highs over Africa, these storms can stall over Israel for days until they rain themselves out. Lots of warm socks, layered clothes (including a fleece liner), and a good raincoat and portable umbrella are necessary.
Israel “officially” operates on two separate systems for determining day, month, and year: the Jewish calendar, dating from some 5,750 years ago, and the Gregorian calendar, used in most countries. Recognized, but “unofficial,” are even more calendars, such as the Julian (Julius Caesar) calendar, which runs 13 days behind the Gregorian; and the Muslim era, which counts the years from a.d. 622, when the Prophet Muhammad led the Hegira from Mecca to Medina. These calendars disagree not only about dates but also about whether time is measured by the sun, the moon, or a combination of the two and when the year should start and end. (We know of at least three Christmases in Israel.)
The Weekly Holiday Schedule
Israel is a confusing place when it comes to the weekly holiday schedule. Jews stop work at midafternoon on Friday; some Muslims stop at sundown on Thursday (although many shops remain open on Fri); most Christians are off all day on Sunday. In Tel Aviv, no buses run from late Friday afternoon until Saturday after sundown, although small private minibuses cover some of the main routes. In Jerusalem, buses run only in the Arab neighborhoods on Saturday; in Haifa, there’s partial bus service on Saturday. In Eilat, there is no public transport on Shabbat. Throughout the country, some shops open just as others are closing for a holiday.
On Saturday, almost all shops throughout the country are closed (except in Israel’s Arab communities, including cafes and Arab or Christian establishments in Jerusalem’s Old City), as are nearly all transportation stops (only Haifa has limited municipal bus service at this time, and only taxis or small sherut companies operate in or between cities). Gas stations are mostly open on Shabbat, because few are located in religious neighborhoods. Most admission-free museums are ordinarily open for part of Shabbat; entrance tickets, when required, must sometimes be bought from private-duty guards outside the museum entrance. Precise hours for the duration of Shabbat, which vary according to the time of sunset, are listed in the Friday “Jerusalem Post.”
There is a growing list of exceptions: In Tel Aviv, many restaurants, cafes, discos, and theaters close on Friday afternoon for a few hours but reopen on Friday night; Haifa has always had a quiet alternative Friday nightlife; and in Jerusalem, a number of cinemas and nonkosher restaurants remain open; recently the pub area around Jerusalem’s Russian Compound has begun to boom, and Friday nights are busy.
Most Israelis are not Sabbath-observant and love to travel on their day off, so if you drive on Saturday, you’ll find the roads to beaches and parks quite busy. About the only people who will try to stop you are the ultrareligious Jews. Many streets in religious areas are blocked with boulders; most ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, have official permission to close their streets to traffic. Don’t even think of trying to drive in such areas—you can be stoned and your vehicle damaged, and you will have no help from the police.
If awards were given for having the maximum number of holidays a year, Israel would win. Israeli holidays will affect your visit in several important ways. First, hotels and campsites fill to capacity, and rates rise by as much as 20 percent. Next, transportation and restaurant service may be curtailed or completely suspended, and places of entertainment may be closed. On the other hand, a holiday is a special occasion, and you won’t want to miss the events that may take place. To keep your wits amid all these openings and closings read the following information carefully.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.