Jerusalem is probably one of the most well-known cities of the world. Everybody knows it from the news and perhaps the bible, but how is Jerusalem for real? Jerusalem’s Old City has a long and fascinating history of more than four centuries, many wars have been fought over the holy ground. To me, Jerusalem forms a big contrast with modern Tel Aviv, both visually and in terms of atmosphere. In this article I will share the ten things I would recommend to see in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Jerusalem may not be on everybody’s bucket list, but for those interested in religion, history and culture, to see for real how the lives of local Jews and Muslims intertwine, I would say: do not be scared and go visit Jerusalem yourself, you will not regret it.
Jaffa Gate is one of the most important gates that provide access to Jerusalem’s Old City wall. The centuries’ old gate forms a great starting point to explore the Old City, many walking tours start from here. Jaffa Gate is named after Jaffa Port, an ancient port just south of Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem’s Old City is divided into five areas: Christian Quarter, Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Armenian Quarter and Temple Mount. There are eight gates of which seven are open to provide access to the Old City: New Gate, Damascus Gate, Herod’s Gate, Lion’s Gate, Golden Gate (closed), Dung Gate, Zion Gate and Jaffa Gate.
Tower of David
Right next to Jaffa Gate is the Tower of David, also known as the Jerusalem Citadel. The medieval citadel is an archeological site which nowadays serves as a museum that tells the story of Jerusalem’s history of over 4000 years. The Phasael Tower Observatory offers a panoramic 360-degree view over Jerusalem’s Old City and its surroundings. Four times a week at 20:00h there is a so-called Night Experience light show at the Tower of David. Book in advance to avoid disappointment.
- Museum admission: 40 NIS
- Night Experience: 65 NIS
- Two-in-one combination ticket: 80 NIS
- Open: Sat-Thu 09:00h – 16:00h (Aug till 17:00h), Fri till 14:00h
Old City Bazar
When you exit the Tower of David, go left and then right into David Street, where the real Old City starts with Arab shops selling all kinds of souvenirs, fresh juices, etc. to the bypassing tourists and locals. When I walked in here for the first time around 07:30h it was still very peaceful as all shops were still closed – silence before the storm! Once the shops open up, it is full of activity here, even on Shabbat until at least 21:00h. You can get here for example ceramics, leather sandals, belts and bags, camel cuddly toys, kippah or yarmulke, mezuzah, jewelry, etc. Don’t forget to bargain!!
The Western Wall is what remains of the Second Jewish Temple that was there from 516 BCE until Roman legions under Titus retook and destroyed it in August 70 CE. Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque nowadays stand on the ground where the Second Jewish Temple once stood, the Temple Mount. The Jews would love to see those mosques replaced by a Third Jewish Temple one day. The Western Wall, also known as Wailing Wall or Kotel, is a holy site where religious Jewish men and women come to pray in different sections, especially on Friday evening when Shabbat starts. Impressive to see.
Jewish men must pray at least three times a day, women 1 or 2 per day, depending on the source. Orthodox Jews add a 4th prayer on holidays and Shabbat, and a 5th prayer on Yom Kippur. Their prayers are either spoken, sang or written down and placed in the cracks of the wall. While praying, Jews tend to sway back and forth, which is known as shuckling, like flame of a candle, when Jews try to connect their souls with the Torah, the first 5 out of 24 books of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).
Shabbat = Social
Next to praying, Shabbat is also an important social event for Jews. It certainly means family time but also time to show off and strengthen your social status at the Western Wall. The wealth is obvious with those wearing fur hats for example, group of men standing together talking, rushing through the streets of the Old City.
Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest, which starts at sunset Friday evening and ends at sunset on Saturday evening. During Shabbat, Jews do not work, not have sex, not use their cell phones or laptops, etc. Even Jewish websites are put offline during Shabbat.
The Western Wall is open 24 hours and heavily secured. There is even a live cam which enables people to see the wall from all over the world. Especially on Friday evening when Shabbat starts, Jews rush to the Western Wall, men alone, in groups and families. On Jewish Sabbath and holidays, you are requested not to use any electronic devices, amplification systems and taking pictures at this site. Access the Western Wall from either Dung Gate or the Western Wall Plaza (walk through the Old City Bazar via David St and Sha’ar ha-Shalshelet St). There is a 3rd access point at the entrance of the Western Wall Tunnels, where you can take a guided underground tour (35 NIS), open Sun-Thu 07:20h until late at night, Fri 07:20h – 12:00h.
Dome of the Rock @ Temple Mount
When you face the Western Wall, there is a wooden bridge at your right hand side. This wooden bridge leads to the Morocco Gate, into the Temple Mount. This is the only way non-Muslims can access the Dome of the Rock! Dome of the Rock, also known as Qubbat al-Sakhrah, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the two mosques on the Temple Mount, just behind the Western Wall.
Women must make sure to cover shoulders and legs, meaning pants, skirts and dresses should be ankle length, otherwise the security may send you away. No tripods or Jewish religious signs are allowed either. Non-Muslims are excluded from going inside the Dome of the Rock. A controversial place yet pretty to see. The way out is via Ablution Gate, close to Morocco Gate. Opening hours Temple Mount:
- Winter (27.10.2019 – 27.03.2020): Sun-Thu 07:00h-10:30h and 12:30h-13:30h
- Summer (28.03.2020 – 26.10.2020): Sun-Thu 08:30h-11:30h and 13:30h-14:30h
- Closed on Fridays, Saturdays and national holidays, sometimes also on other days/times
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
This church is known for Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection, and is one of the most important pilgrimage sites of Christianity since the 4th Century. Once you enter the church, you can feel the intense atmosphere hanging around here. People kneeling, wiping and crying over the Stone of Unction, on which Christ’s body was said to be laid and anointed after his crucifixion. People standing in a circle while lighting candles.
A funnel of crowds at the so-called Rotunda underneath the impressive Angel’s Chapel, trying to get into the Holy Sepulchre Tomb with Jesus’ empty tomb. Monks and nuns singing their prayers in front of the altar. Gorgeous frescos and chandeliers at the Chapel of St. Helena. Probably the most intense church I have ever seen, at places very crowded but sometimes not at all, definitely worth a visit but would not advise with small children. Open Oct-Mar 04:00h-19:00h and Apr-Sep 5:00h-21:00h.
Via Dolorosa, also known as The Way of the Cross, is a famous processional route in Jerusalem’s Old City, the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. The Via Dolorosa is no more than half a mile, less than 1 kilometer. The last five out of fourteen stations are located inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre mentioned above. Some pilgrims take their experience of Jesus suffering a step further by carrying a wooden cross along the Via Dolorosa by themselves. The route is established by tradition and religion rather than archaeological evidence.
Austrian Pilgrim Hospice
This guesthouse for pilgrims was founded by the Archbishop of Vienna in 1854, to whom the institution still belongs today. With its address Via Dolorosa 37, the Austrian Hospice is located right in the heart of the vibrant Cold City of Jerusalem. Besides delicious chocolate cake available at its Viennese coffee shop inside, the panoramic Schwester Bernadette Terrasse rooftop makes this place worth a visit for ordinary travelers like me, especially at sunset. Make sure you get there at least 35-40 min before the scheduled sunset of Jerusalem, as the sun will set behind the nearby buildings a bit earlier. Admission fee rooftop: 5 NIS.
Mount of Olives
Officially not located inside the Old City of Jerusalem, but right next to it so if you are visiting anyway, it would make sense to visit the Mount of Olives as well, or at least have a look from the ground on the east side of the Temple Mount walls. Mount is actually a big word here; the Mount of Olives is rather a hill with a huge Jewish Cemetery and Zecharias’ Tomb than a mountain.
At the foot of the Mount of Olives you can visit the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus gathered with his disciples before guards captured him for crucifixion. If you are brave enough and have the time to walk up the Mount of Olives, you will be rewarded with a nice view of Jerusalem’s Old City, also at sunset.
Church of All Nations & Church of Mary Magdalene
On the Mount of Olives there are two churches that stand out:
- Church of All Nations
- Church of Mary Magdalene
The Church of All Nations, which is also known as the Church or Basilica of the Agony, is a Roman Catholic Church, with its remarkable façade of mosaic, statues, columns and arches. It is right behind the Garden of Gethsemane. The Church of Mary Magdalene is a hard to miss blue/white Russian Orthodox Church with golden roof domes, which was built in 1886 to honor the mother of Tsar Alexander III.
Best places for sunset view in Jerusalem are: Israel Museum, Austrian Hospice, Tower of David and the Mount of Olives.
Beyond Jerusalem Old City
Where to stay in Jerusalem
I would highly recommend to stay in Jerusalem within walking distance from the Old City, in the north of Jerusalem’s City Center. In or near the triangle of Ben Youda St, King George St and Jaffa St is great because its proximity of Jaffa Gate (15 min walk), lots of shops and restaurants around, and with tram line 1 to Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem Yitzhak Navon (Central Station) and Yad Vashem. Moreover when staying in Jerusalem during Shabbat, when no public transport is available.
My recommendation would be to stay at Ibis Styles Jerusalem City Center at Ben Youda St, open since November 2018. Comfortable rooms with air-conditioning, bar with happy hour, breakfast, bicycle rental, luggage storage, etc. Basically all you need plus some nice styling and great location.
Should you be a backpacker and/or be on a tight budget, then your place to be is Abraham Hostel Jerusalem, who also organize lots of great tours and activities such as Hummus Cooking Class and Shabbat Dinner.
How to get there & around
Most likely you will fly to Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV), or otherwise Eilat J. Hozman International Airport (ETH) in the southeast of Israel. To find suitable flights, check availability and prices, use Skyscanner. We flew direct from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (AMS) to Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) with Transavia in just over 4 hours. Time to watch your favorite TV series!
Outbound security at Schiphol Amsterdam Airport (AMS) was as usual, as if we were traveling to Seville or Prague instead of Tel Aviv. Because we flew early in the morning, there were fortunately no lines at security and customs at Schiphol. No questioning from Israeli security staff either, which I somehow expected based on other stories, but no need to be there three hours before departure, at least not when flying with Transavia from Schiphol. Upon arrival in Tel Aviv, everything went pretty smoothly with security. Just make sure you know where you are going and what is your travel plan?
For flights out of Tel Aviv back home I would suggest to arrive 2-3 hours before departure. Outbound airport security is thorough and time consuming at Ben Gurion airport. First you get questioning from Israeli customs, especially about passport stamps from Muslim countries (in my case Malaysia and Turkey); they want to know all about them. Then you have to stand in line with the airline’s luggage check-in desk, as online check-in is often not available for outbound flights from Tel Aviv. After that comes security check and customs.
Rav Kav card
Public transport is cheap and pretty good in Israel, especially the train. Purchase a green/purple Rav Kav card at the Public Transport Information Desk in the arrivals hall on the Ground floor of Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport. There is also a machine in case the desk is closed. You pay a deposit of 5 NIS for the card itself, plus the money you want to put on it. For 8 days I put 100 NIS on it, but for sure I did not use it all. You can use the Rav Kav card for public transportation such as train, tram in Jerusalem, bus, etc. The bus to Bethlehem should be paid cash.
Train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
It is pretty easy to reach Jerusalem by train from Tel Aviv. The train ride from Ben Gurion airport to Jerusalem Yitzhak Navon (Central Station) is direct, takes about 30 min and costs 23.50 NIS (± EUR 6). Yitzhak Navon station has convenient blue luggage lockers for 20 or 30 NIS per day (depending on size).
From Jerusalem Yitzhak Navon (Central Station), named after the 5th President of Israel, you can easily take the tram line 1. After 3 or 4 stops you can get off at Yafo Center for Ibis Styles Jerusalem City Center or one stop earlier at Hadavidka for those who stay at Abraham Hostel Jerusalem, both are on close walking distance from the tram stop. And for both the tram and the train you use the Rav Kav card; simply swipe upon entry.
Jerusalem Yitzhak Navon (Central Station) is open Sunday-Thursday, 6:00 AM – 8:00 PM, closed on Fridays and Saturdays! If you have to travel between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on a Friday or Saturday, the cheapest way is to take the shared shuttle service called sherut by Nesher for 67 NIS per person. A taxi ride between Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport and Jerusalem costs at least EUR 70 + night or Shabbat surcharge.
Lots of walking
Besides the tram you will mostly walk in Jerusalem, not rarely I walked more than 20 km a day. Make sure you bring proper walking shoes and/or sandals, depending on the season. If you go in November like me, or later in winter, for sure bring a light jacket, leggings for under skirts or dresses, long pants, socks, etc. because at night it gets pretty chilly in Jerusalem, also compared to Tel Aviv.
Due to the rich historical, cultural and religious history of Jerusalem, a guided tour can be really of added value as you will hear and see stuff you otherwise would not. To be honest I could not stand the (tone of) voice of a female guide I had of Sandemans New Europe Tours, but that was a first! There are also day tours available from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but personally I would find that too short.
Rent a car
Another way to get around Israel is by renting a car, for example from Tel Aviv to visit Jerusalem and/or to visit the Dead Sea area for a couple of days. My cousin recently did so with a couple of friends and also a girl I met on the bus to Bethlehem did so and they all really liked the flexibility and freedom of it. Jerusalem has several garages around the Old City where you can park your car.
Personally, when it comes to car rental I am a big fan of Sunny Cars, an all-inclusive, worry free rental concept with affordable, fair prices, great service and no unpleasant surprises upon pick up or drop off. Ideal, I use them all the time! Make sure you will bring your international driver’s license.
If you decide to rent a car in Israel, you may want to get a newer one than this old ride
Shabbat in Jerusalem
I would definitely not discourage being in Jerusalem during Shabbat, it is a unique experience. It was actually a lot more alive than I ever thought it could be. Even the shops at the Old City Bazar are open until 21:00h or something on Friday night as the shops are run by Arabs and apparently they are allowed to stay open. Sure, the regular shops and the market close early afternoon and most restaurants close for about 24 hours. However, Christian sights like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for example can still be visited Friday afternoon. The Tower of David opens up again Saturday morning at 09:00h already. There is still stuff to do and see, so do not be put off by that idea of being ‘stuck in Jerusalem’ during Shabbat. Some tips:
- Make sure you have accommodation on walking distance of the Old City as public transportation will not be available during Shabbat.
- Avoid having to leave the city on Friday or Saturday on your own by public transport. Plan for example that half-day trip to Bethlehem by bus on another day. Avoid travel between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on Friday or Saturday, transport possibilities are limited and pricier.
- Take a guided Shabbat Experience Tour or go to the Western Wall yourself around sunset to see what is going on there and to see how Jews start Shabbat with prayers at the wall.
- Arrange Shabbat dinner at for example Abraham Hostel Jerusalem (50 NIS) or try to get a spot at a homebased Shabbat dinner with a local family via Eatwith (starting at EUR 64 per person).Very few restaurants are open during Shabbat and national holidays in Jerusalem, but you may want to check Primitivo Wine Bar at King George St (see map below).
- The Saturday of the Sabbat is a perfect day to do a day trip out of the city, for example a Day Trip to Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea.
Contrary, I would recommend to avoid traveling to Israel during national holidays. Those tend to last several days up to a week in Israel. Shabbat only lasts 24 hours or so, so that is doable, but if not much is possible for multiple days it becomes counter-productive, annoying and may involve higher costs as well. So better check those national holidays before planning your Israel trip.
Whether you like it or not, safety is always something to keep in mind when traveling to Israel. As a female traveling alone to/in/around Jerusalem, I never felt unsafe. However, you must always make sure to check and follow the official travel advice from your Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If you ignore a negative travel advice and still decide to go, your tourist travel insurance will not pay out anything or help in case something happens to you. Better safe than sorry!
Living in The Netherlands? Woon je in Nederland?
For Dutch people I would recommend – next to a good travel insurance – also to book their trip via a trade association ANVR travel agent. The benefit is that you will be covered by the unique Dutch Calamity Fund and the Dutch Travel Refund Guarantee Fund (SGR). When the official travel advise changes to negative, or the safety situation is such that you no longer wish to go, a professional travel agent can quickly take care and arrange everything for you. I booked my Israel trip via Jennie Visser Travel Counsellor, phone +316-51075713, firstname.lastname@example.org. Everything is tailor-made, exactly how you want it, within your budget and with excellent service. Recommended!
Voor Nederlanders zou ik naast een goede reisverzekering zeker aanraden om hun reis naar Israël te boeken via een ANVR aangesloten reisbureau. Het voordeel is dat je dan gedekt door het unieke Calamiteitenfonds en SGR. Wanneer het officiële reisadvies voor Israël vanuit het Nederlandse Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken omslaat naar negatief, of de veiligheidssituatie dermate verandert waardoor je niet meer wilt gaan, kan een professioneel reisbureau snel schakelen en alles voor je regelen. Ik boekte mijn Israël reis via Jennie Visser Travel Counsellor, telefoon 06-51075713, email@example.com. Alles wordt op maat gemaakt, precies zoals jij het wilt, binnen jouw budget en met uitstekende service. Aanrader!
This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and is smartphone friendly. You can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. You can (un)select categories/areas to customize the map to your needs. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.
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I hope this article was helpful for you. Have you ever been to Israel? What keeps you from visiting Jerusalem? Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.