Jerusalem fits a microcosm of the whole world into less than 50 square miles. Black-hatted Jews in long trench coats walk the streets of religious neighborhoods in hot desert weather; Israeli Arabs reverently approach the Dome of the Rock to offer prayers; devout Christians make pilgrimages to the places Jesus once inhabited; and immigrants from America, Ethiopia and the former Soviet republics form their own enclaves throughout the city’s seven hills. Remnants of disparate historical eras are piled, one on top of the other, in an archaeologist’s dream world — ancient sites meet Roman ruins alongside reminders of modern Israel’s tumultuous past. And, in the midst of these holy and historic areas, Israelis go to work, shop, eat out and hang out like citizens of any other city.
Most visitors come to Jerusalem to see the religious sites of the Old City. Hectic, don’t-waste-a-minute tours rush visitors to the Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and then on to Bethlehem or one of Israel’s famous museums (the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial or Israel Museum, home to the Dead Sea Scrolls). And, of course, a stop at a market or souvenir shop is a must. Jerusalem is a large city and if you don’t allow yourself enough time here (ideally, at least three days), you will likely feel overwhelmed — it’s simply impossible to see everything at a leisurely pace in just a day.
Highlights for first-timers include the holy places of three important religions, such as the remains of the Jewish Second Temple, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and the spot where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Beyond the big-name sites, you can also enjoy the shops and cafe culture at the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall, haggling in the “Shuk” or visiting a number of first-rate museums. Out-of-town excursions include the beachside playground and cultural capital that is Tel Aviv, the dramatic yet melancholy ruins at Masada and the resorts by the Dead Sea.
One final note — even as travelers eagerly flock to the Holy Land, many continue to be concerned about safety. Yes, terrorist attacks do occur in Israel. But, because of this, security measures are extensive and effective. Armed guards are plentiful, and your bags will be searched. Buses are as safe as in any modern nation. Don’t let fear prevent you from enjoying this incredible city, which truly can offer something for everyone. Just put on your most comfortable walking shoes, charge the camera batteries, and be prepared to be wowed by a city that has rightly claimed more than its fair share of space in the history books.
If you’ve never been to Jerusalem, you must visit the Old City — home to ancient holy sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The walled city is entered through various gates and is split into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Arab and Armenian. If you’re not on a tour, prepare to get lost in the warren of stone streets — the city is confusing, even with a map. “Free” guided tours are available from the Jaffa Gate (for more information on these tours visit NewJerusalemTours.com). If you’re approached by someone wishing to serve as your guide, a firm “no, thank you” will suffice; if you do accept the offer, a tip will most likely be expected at the end of the tour.
The holiest sites include the Western Wall (also called the Kotel or Wailing Wall), which is the only remaining structure left from the Jewish Second Temple; the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, once the location of the Temple’s Holy of Holies and believed by Muslims to be the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven; the Via Dolorosa, a street thought by many Christians to be the site of the Stations of the Cross; and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the sites where the cross was erected and where Jesus was buried and resurrected. (Some Christians think the Garden Tomb, located outside the Old City on Conrad Schick Street, is a possible site for the burial and resurrection of Jesus; the site is open for tours and worship services.)
Note that tourists who are not Muslims cannot enter the Dome of the Rock and — though rules tend to vary — often cannot access the Temple Mount at all.
If you can, get tickets ahead of time (or ask your guide to do it) for the Western Wall Tunnels, which take you under the Muslim Quarter between the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. The Jewish Quarter houses the Cardo, the remains of a Roman thoroughfare, and the twin archeological museums of the Wohl Archeological Museum and Burnt House, as well as kosher restaurants and Judaica shops. If you enjoy shopping and haggling over prices, the Christian Quarter is where you’ll find markets that sell everything from religious items and souvenirs to food, T-shirts and rugs. At the Jaffa Gate, between the Christian and Armenian Quarters, the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem explores 4,000 years of Jerusalem’s history. Just outside the Old City is Dormition Abbey, occupying the sites where tradition says that Mary spent her last night and Jesus held the Last Supper.
Across from and above the Old City, the Mount of Olives is also a religiously important site, mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. It’s currently home to several churches. Jesus often gave teachings there, and Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, God will raise the dead from the hillside. (Hence, a very prominent Jewish cemetery is located on the slopes.) The Mount of Olives is also the site of the Garden of Gethsemane (where Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion), Church of Maria Magdalene and Dominus Flevit Church.
At the base of the Mount of Olives, the Kidron Valley houses a series of tombs carved out of the hillside. A peaceful atmosphere surrounds the tombs of Zechariah, the Hezir sons and Absalom, among others.
Yad Vashem is Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial and museum. The sprawling complex on Har Hazikaron includes a history museum and art museum, as well as memorial and commemorative sites, such as the Children’s Memorial and the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, which honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. If you’re not on a tour or in a cab, take a public bus to the Mount Herzl bus stop, where free shuttles will take you into the Yad Vashem campus.
Art and archaeology of the Holy Land are the hallmarks of the Israel Museum, the country’s largest cultural institution. There, the Shrine of the Book contains the Dead Sea Scrolls — the oldest biblical manuscripts ever found (2nd century B.C. to 1st century A.D.) — as well as medieval manuscripts. The 20-acre campus also houses a Second Temple-era model of Jerusalem, an art and sculpture garden and a substantial amount of contemporary art, including pieces on hot political topics.
Christian tourists flock to Bethlehem, which is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, as well as King David. It’s just a short cab ride outside of Jerusalem. Located in the central Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest Christian churches and is built around the Grotto of the Nativity, the site of Jesus’ birth. Other pilgrimage sites include the Milk Grotto, where the Holy Family sought refuge during the Slaughter of the Innocents, and a cave where St. Jerome translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin. Note that Bethlehem is part of the West Bank Palestinian Territories, and you must cross a checkpoint to go from Jerusalem to the West Bank. Take your passport. Israeli buses and taxis cannot pass through the checkpoint, so you’ll need to get out and pick up Palestinian transportation on the other side. See day trips to Bethlehem from Viator.
Located on the Mediterranean, Tel Aviv is Israel’s cultural center, full of galleries and art museums, distinct architecture, and buzzing nightclubs. Come for a day at the beach, or stroll among the waterfront restaurants and shops at the revitalized Tel Aviv Port. You won’t find any ancient history here — for that, you’ll need to go to Old Jaffa, once a separate city and now part of Tel Aviv. In its maze of winding streets, you’ll find the 1906 Clock Tower and the popular Flea Market.
Although it’s a long day-trip from Jerusalem, a visit to Masada and the Dead Sea is worth it if you have the time. At Masada, visit the fortress built by Herod in the first century B.C. During the Jewish revolt against the Romans in first century A.D., Jewish rebels and zealots took over the fortress and held out against the Romans for three years before committing suicide, rather than being captured. A cable car takes you to the top. (There are also stairs, but the ascent is not recommended for visitors arriving midday when the desert sun is quite hot.) The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth at 1,276 feet below sea level. The sea water is so salty that bathers can’t help but float easily, and the mud near the sea has an array of therapeutic benefits. Part of the fun is slathering your travel companions with mud, then taking a dip in the Dead Sea. Don’t miss the nearby oasis of Ein Gedi with its nature reserves, botanical gardens and health spas. See day trips to Masada from Viator.
A good choice for families with young children, the 62-acre Biblical Zoo is home to a wide range of animals with a special focus on creatures indigenous to Israel and species named in the Bible. Kids can pet animals in the Children’s Zoo, climb on fantastical creations in the Noah’s Ark Sculpture Garden and watch nature come to life in the 3-D theater. A zoo train ride circles the park.
Israeli cuisine is a hodgepodge of many cultures, incorporating Arab, Eastern European, Yemenite, North African, Balkan and Iraqi dishes. Salads, including the aptly named Israeli salad — a dish of diced cucumbers and tomatoes — are popular. You can’t go wrong with falafel (chickpea fritters), hummus (chickpea paste) or shwarma (shaved-meat sandwiches). Plenty of cheap and quick falafel places can be found in the Ben Yehuda area (Melech Hafelafel and Pinati get rave reviews) or around Mahane Yehuda.
Kosher restaurants are prevalent in Jerusalem, and these establishments adhere to Jewish dietary laws. Kosher eateries are designated either as meat restaurants (where no dairy products are served) or dairy restaurants (where no meat is served, though fish is acceptable). Wherever you go, look for signs advertising “business lunches” — they’re a great deal because you get dinner-sized portions at lunchtime prices.
Editor’s Note: Many restaurants close for the Sabbath (from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday); if you’re in town then, check ahead to be sure your restaurant of choice will be open. If you have trouble finding somewhere to eat during this time period, ask for recommendations at your hotel.
Ticho House is a draw not only for its food, but also for its location. Just blocks from the busy Ben Yehuda Mall, the restaurant is situated in the peaceful gardens and interior of a 19th-century home, which now also houses a small museum. The kosher (dairy) restaurant offers an enormous menu of fish, pasta, blintzes, sandwiches, omelets and salads, along with a kids’ menu. Specialties include onion soup served in bread bowls and “Anna’s Strudel,” and the fresh bread and lemonade mixed with fresh mint should not be missed. You can print out a discount coupon online. Concerts take place there on select evenings and Friday mornings.
Mingle with Jerusalem’s “who’s who” at Caffit in the yuppified German Colony neighborhood. The kosher dairy cuisine tends toward the Italian, but you’ll also find Continental and local dishes and flavors. Get your fill of green, eating enormous salads in the restaurant’s garden terrace. Or try soup in a bread bowl, pasta, crepes, vegetable pies or the Jewish staple of bagels topped with lox. Aid your digestion with a walk around the tree-lined neighborhood, filled with beautiful homes, boutiques and fabulous people-watching opportunities.
Serious foodies will love the eclectic, inventive offerings at Chakra, on King George Street. The chef draws on Israeli, European and Asian flavors to cook up dishes like crispy gnocchi shrimp, white sea fish sashimi with wasabi and ginger, and entrecote kebab on fire-grilled eggplant with tahini. Menus change regularly based on what’s in season. Reservations are highly recommended.
Set in an alley near Ben Yehuda, Tmol Shilshom is a hangout for artists and the literary set — not to mention others looking for delectable kosher dairy cuisine at this bookstore cafe. Appropriately, it’s named after the novel by Israeli Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon. Order up a salad, savory filo pastry, fish dish, cheesecake or hot drink (like sachlav, a sweet Middle Eastern drink made with warm milk and orchids), and settle down with a book or two to peruse. The cafe hosts readings, discussions and musical events.
Meat-lovers can get a taste of Argentina in a kosher setting at El Gaucho steakhouse. Dig into your choice of grilled meats (veal, chicken or several types of steak), skewers or burgers — sorry, no cheese here. For lunch, go big with a three-course meal (appetizer, salad and main), or get a sandwich or schnitzel with fries.
Shopping in Jerusalem
Judaica, from chintzy souvenirs to fine art, can be found in the Jewish Quarter and the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall. You’ll find everything from Hanukkah menorahs (nine-branched candelabras) and Seder plates for Passover to educational children’s toys, jewelry, kipot (skull caps) and Jewish-themed art. Colorful Jerusalem candles and skin products, featuring mud from the Dead Sea, make great gifts for the non-religious folks on your gift list. In Bethlehem, look for olive wood carvings and mother-of-pearl handicrafts, many with Christian religious designs.
Keep in mind that stores may be closed for the Jewish Sabbath, observed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Head downtown to the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall for shopping and cafe culture. The midrachov (pedestrian mall) is formed by the triangular intersection of Ben Yehuda Street, King George Street and Jaffa Road. Cafes, touristy shops and fast food joints (everything from American chains to falafel sellers) attract locals and visitors alike. Have a wander, or enjoy the buskers. Don’t worry — everyone speaks English there, even though the street is named after the man who revived Hebrew as a spoken language.
For a true taste of Israel, head to Mahane Yehuda Marketplace, affectionately known as “the Shuk,” one of the largest and busiest open-air markets in Israel. Vendors sell all kinds of foods, and the market is a melting pot of shoppers, representing a host of nationalities, religions and demographics. Come here to immerse yourself in the sights and smells, or grab a quick lunch of falafel with some rugelach (rolled-up cookies, typical of Eastern European Jews) for dessert.