I hadn’t planned to go to Israel during Chanukah two years ago, it just sort of happened. I knew that I was targeting the first weekend in December for a short trip somewhere, since it was a holiday weekend in Milan. After asking around a bit, I couldn’t find a single friend who was available to travel – most people already had plans.
Then, on a whim, I checked on flight prices to Israel. I have some family there, and since it’s only a 4-hour direct flight from Milan to Tel Aviv, they had been asking me when I’d visit ever since I moved to Europe.
It seemed like the next option to try, just to see. Then up pops EasyJet, one of the European discount carriers, with a fare of €68. Round trip. For direct flights in both directions.
Obviously I took this as a sign, and I booked my flights immediately. Only after that did I realize that my visit would coincide with the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. I was busy with university coursework during Chanukah the year I lived in Israel, so experiencing the fun of Chanukah there as a tourist for the first time was a welcome surprise.
Here’s why Israel is a great destination to visit during Chanukah:
Chanukah is known as the ‘Festival of Lights’ and just as you might expect, the whole country is decorated in lights during the 8-day celebration. It is a beautiful time of year for a visit, with everywhere from small towns to big cities lit up at night, like you might expect to see in other places for Christmas. You may also get the chance to progressively light Chanukah candles during the eight nights, a special tradition to share even if you aren’t Jewish.
I promise you, I ate lots of latkes during my Chanukah in Israel. They are traditional potato pancakes that are cooked in oil to commemorate the miracle of the holiday, when a small amount of oil lasted unexpectedly for eight nights.
In Israel, I devoured home-cooked latkes at several friends’ and family’s houses, grabbed a few when out for other meals at regular restaurants serving it as a menu special, and snagged a few more when I went to Chanukah parties around Tel Aviv.
What didn’t I do? Photograph any of the ones I ate during my trip! So here’s a shot of latke-making in the US with my family from last year to give you an idea of what to expect:
Doughnuts as far as the eye can see is the view that will greet you walking into any bakery during the holiday of Chanukah, and this seemed to be the most-consumed Chanukah food. Doughnuts are known in Hebrew as sufganiyot, and you’ll hear that word quite a lot during a holiday visit. Like latkes, they are a traditional festive food because they are fried in oil, commemorating the Chanukah miracle.
Practically, sufganiyot for Chanukah are an excuse for bakeries to take their sweets to the next level, with all sorts of crazy flavor combinations you won’t see at other times of the year. From elaborate decorations to injectable “shots” of doughnut filling, it is a foodie dream to explore all of the different doughnut varieties available. And the good news is, you have 8 nights to do it!
TIP! Jewish holidays go by the lunar calendar, so during the nights of Chanukah you’ll find doughnuts overflowing out of bakeries across the country. On Day 8 of Chanukah, following the eighth night, it’s back to the regular bakery offerings – so get your fix of specialty doughnuts before then!
Other Winter Specialties
In addition to the two traditional Chanukah foods you’ll find in abundance – latkes and sufganiyot – there are also some other winter culinary specialties that if you visit for Chanukah, you’ll get to enjoy just by being there in the right season for it.
Top of that list for me is the Krem Bo, a dessert that comes individually wrapped, and is only available during the winter time. It consists of a circular graham cookie base, a marshmallow-like meringue mixture piled high on top, with a thin coating of chocolate around everything but the bottom.
Since it’s covered in chocolate, it would melt in Israel’s hot climate at other times of year, so is only available during winter. Most convenience stores and markets will have it in one or more flavors – if you don’t see it, just ask!
Another cold weather favorite is the aromatic, creamy Arabic beverage known as sachlav, which will be served at outdoor stands piping hot just like hot chocolate or mulled wine in other parts of the world. Head to the nearest market – or just keep your eyes open around town – and you’ll definitely find a vendor to sample this specialty.
No Special Religious Restrictions
A lot of Jewish holidays are of great religious importance, and observant Jews will treat it like the Sabbath, not using their phones or computers or even turning on lights around the house. The benefit of Chanukah is that it is a relatively minor holiday not subject to the same restrictions.
So other than the typically one Sabbath that will fall over the 8 days of Chanukah, you can cook latkes with your religious friends and family with abandon, which I especially savored this trip since I have extended family members who are observant who I otherwise would not have been able to spend as much time cooking and celebrating with.
TIP! Even if you won’t be hanging out with any religious Jews when you go, there won’t be any special closures of public buses or businesses for Chanukah to worry about and track along with your itinerary.
Israelis are always looking for a sibah l’msibah, a reason to party! While Israelis might be traveling at the end of December to spend New Year’s somewhere special, people are typically around through the rest of the month, and celebrate accordingly.
I spent most of my Chanukah in the coastal city of Tel Aviv. It has a bustling nightlife during a regular week, which goes into overdrive for the Chanukah celebrations. There were multiple parties happening across the city on any given night, from low-key gatherings to late-night clubbing on the beach. Get a special taste of festivities across the country by coming during Chanukah!
Great Travel Deals
Late in the year, there is a jump in prices in late November with increased American tourism around when Thanksgiving falls and again between Christmas and New Year’s Day as many people everywhere have work holidays during that time. The typical timing of Chanukah in early-mid December positions it between those other holidays, and I was delighted to find great deals for travel during that period.
Not only did I get possibly my best flight deal ever traveling to Tel Aviv from Milan for cheaper than a domestic train ticket, but other tourist amenities were also cheaper after I arrived. Spending Friday night in Jerusalem was a no-brainer after finding availability at a decent hotel in the center of town for just $60/night, so my budget went just that extra bit farther and I was able to see more throughout the entire trip.
What holiday celebrations have you enjoyed on the road? Have you ever visited Israel during Chanukah? Anything else you want to know before you go? Let me know in the Comments!
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