Admittedly, we were a little bit hesitant at first about visiting Jerusalem. Despite knowing there were so many fascinating things to see and do in Jerusalem, we believe that spending travel money is, in a way, like voting, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict had us both conflicted.
So, although we both really wanted to see Jerusalem, we just didn’t want our dollars being mixed into this ugly situation. But then we got the opportunity to do a house sit in East Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives. A one-eyed cat needing love, how could we say no?
So, here it is – our list of top things to do in Jerusalem.
Wander The Streets And Alleys Of Jerusalem’s Old City
Its fascinating just wandering the street, alleys, and markets of Jerusalem’s Old City. Home to some of the world’s most historic and revered sites – think Temple Mount, the Wailing Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This relatively tiny area of just 0.9 square kilometres is shared by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Armenians, pilgrims, tourists alike. It’s chaotic, it’s crowded, and it’s charming.
Visit on a Friday to observe the Muslims pouring out of the temple, followed by the Franciscan Monks walking the Via Dolorosa and then the start of the Jewish Shabbat! Watching the goings-on in old Jerusalem is an anthropologist’s dream!
Walking Through The Mount of Olives
The Mount of Olives is a mountain ridge just east of Jerusalem’s old city. It’s named after the olive groves that used to cover its slopes.
The Mount of Olives attracts many Christian pilgrims as, according to the bible, many key events in Jesus’ life took place here – for example, Jesus’ ascension to heaven apparently took place here.
Whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s an interesting walk down from the top of the Mount of Olives to the Old City. There are some great viewpoints overlooking Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock. Along the way, you’ll see cool churches, spooky tombs, hymn singing tour groups, black-smoke belching buses, and feral cats.
For a more detailed guide on what to see on the Mount of Olives, please see here.
If you’re planning to walk through the Mount of Olives, then you should consider popping into the Augusta Victoria. The Augusta Victoria is both a hospital and a church. The Bell Tower at 50 metres high is a significant landmark on Jerusalem’s skyline (and meant we could always find our way back to our house sit!)
The building, built between 1907 and 1910, was named after Empress Augusta Victoria, the wife of German Kaiser Wilhelm II. During the Second World War, the British converted it into a hospital.
The Via Dolorosa is a processional route that takes place in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is said to be the path that Jesus walked on his way to his crucifixion. The course starts from the former Antonia Fortress and ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — a distance of around 600 metres.
Along the route, there are fourteen Stations of the Cross. Each station focuses on specific events that lead to the crucifixion, beginning with Jesus’ condemnation.
Every Friday at 3 pm, a group of Franciscan monks walk the Via Dolorosa starting from the First Station, close to Lions Gate. Anyone can join in the procession – some even carry a large cross to mimic Jesus’ walk to the crucifixion. It gets hectic, especially when you pass through the souvenir markets, and the procession gets all caught up with the vendors and other tourists.
For more details on what to see at the various Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, please click on the link above.
Church Of The Holy Sepulchre
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. The church contains two of Christianity’s holiest sites: the site where Jesus was believed to have been crucified and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he is said to have been buried, then resurrected.
It’s a beautiful church to visit but does get incredibly crowded with extremely long queues to see the tomb. To avoid the lines, arrive early – the church opens at 05:00 or after 18:00 when the pilgrim tours have left.
For more information on visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, please see here.
The Garden Tomb
Not far from the Old City is a peaceful garden which features the Garden Tomb. Some Christians believe Jesus wasn’t crucified at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as told on the Via Dolorosa, but was buried and resurrected here.
According to the Bible, Jesus was crucified in a place named the Skull or Golgotha in Aramaic. During the mid-19th century, several Christian scholars decided that the rocky slope, which overlooks the small Arab bus station, marked the place of the crucifixion. The reasons cited were it’s close proximity to a main city gate, the area was once where executions were held and its physical resemblance to a skull.
Neither Jonathan nor me were able to see the resemblance of a skull in the hill – apparently, the ‘nose’ of the skull fell off four years ago – but with a bit of imagination, you could sort of make out a skull shape when staring at the hill from the local bus station. Which conveniently for us, was where we took the 275 bus back to our house sit in the Mount of Olives.
There’s a shop you pass through as you exit the Garden Tomb selling religious kitsch such as Mary Magdalene perfumes and King of Kings eau de toilette.
The Garden Tomb is open every Monday to Friday from 08:00 to 19:00 and Saturday from 08:00 to 18:00. The garden is closed on Sundays.
The Western Wall aka The Wailing Wall aka The Kotel
Probably the first thing you think of when you think of Jerusalem is the Western Wall or Wailing Wall.
The Western Wall is the most religious site in the world for the Jewish people. Located in Jerusalem’s Old City, it is the western support wall of Temple Mount.
Thousands of people of the Jewish faith visit the wall every year to visit and recite prayers. The prayers are either spoken or written down and placed in the cracks of the wall. It’s now also possible to send your prayer by email!
For more details on visiting the Western Wall, please see here.
Temple Mount And The Dome Of The Rock
Temple Mount is one of the world’s most important religious sites. The golden dome on the Dome of the Rock, located in Temple Mount, is a significant landmark on Jerusalem’s skyline and can be seen from all over the city.
Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock, but during certain hours can enter and explore the Temple Mount area.
For more details on visiting hours and how to visit and what to see at Temple Mount, please see here.
The Tower of David Museum
The Tower of David Museum, near the Jaffa Gate, is located in the medieval citadel known as the Tower of David.
The museum presents the story of Jerusalem from the second millennium BCE to the present day. It was quite interesting, and they did acknowledge Palestine!
From the towers of the citadel, you get a 360-degree view of Jerusalem – both the Old City and the modern.
For a different aspect of Jerusalem’s Old City, you should take a stroll along the Ramparts Walk. It’s a fun way to see the city, looking down at the hustle and bustle of the streets below.
The Ramparts Walk is divided into two parts as you can’t actually walk around the entire city. The cost is NIS20 and includes both walks. The ticket is valid for two days, so you don’t have to walk it all in one day, although the two trails in total are less than three kilometres long.
The northside walk is the longer of the two walks. It starts from the Jaffa Gate on the western side of the city to the Lions Gate on the eastern side. The shorter southside walk begins at the Tower of David near the Jaffa Gate and ends near Dung and Zion Gates in the south.
Tickets for the Ramparts Walk are on sale next door to the Tourist Information Centre.
Note there is no shade up on the Ramparts, and a lot of steps.
Mahane Yehuda Market
We love exploring local markets whenever we travel. The smells, the sounds, the colours, – it’s a smorgasbord for the senses, and Mahane Yehuda Market is no exception.
The partially covered market has more than 250 vendors. It’s a great place to sample different kinds of foods from halva, kanafeh, falafel, to name but a few. On Thursdays and Fridays, the marketplace is packed with shoppers getting ready for Shabbat until the sounding of the bugle on a Friday afternoon that signifies the market will close for the Sabbath.
In recent years, the Mahane Yehuda market has emerged as a cool night spot with loads of bars, restaurants, and live music.
Mamilla Mall, also known as Alrov Mamilla Avenue, is an upscale shopping street and open-air mall in the new part of Jerusalem. It’s just northwest of the Jaffa Gate. It’s a 610-metre pedestrian promenade with 140 fancy stores, cafes, and restaurants. Although we didn’t go shopping, it was a pleasant short cut from the Old City to the restaurants near Jaffa Street. There were always some entertaining street performers and artwork along the route.
If, like us, you become fascinated about the history and culture of the places you’re visiting, there’s a fantastic bookshop in East Jerusalem. It’s got an excellent range of books on the Israeli-Palestine conflict and stories about Palestine. It’s also Palestine’s first bookshop-cafe.
If you use Google Maps for directions, it will send you to the original Educational Bookshop, but if you don’t read Arabic, it’s not much use. The more foreigner-friendly version of the Educational Bookshop is just across the road.
Where To Find The Best Food in Jerusalem
As we were housesitting and dutifully taking care of someone’s cat, we didn’t eat out as often as we usually do when we travel. Plus, Israel is not a particularly cheap destination, and I tend to panic a bit about the travel budgets.
But here are some places we most enjoyed.
Ben Sira Hummus Bar
Well, you can’t visit Jerusalem and not have hummus and trust me, we ate a lot of hummus. Our favourite was at the Ben Sira Hummus Bar, located at Ben Sira Street no 3. The hummus with wild mushrooms was to die for!
Strudel at the Austrian Hospice on Via Dolorosa
Ok, so apple strudel may not be the first thing you think of when visiting Jerusalem; however, the Austrian Pilgrim Hospice, the oldest Christian guesthouse in the Holy City, serves up a great strudel. And it’s a little oasis in the craziness that is Jerusalem’s old city.
Jaffar Sweets in the Old City
For a more authentic sweet, and very popular with the locals (always a good sign!) head to Jaffar Sweets on Khan Al-Zeit Street. It’s not too far from Damascus Gate. Come here to try Knafeh.
Knafeh is made from unripened cheese that’s been baked in phyllo dough before being soaked in syrup. Very weird and wonderful, and definitely an acquired taste, but you have to try it.
Our Favourite Coffee in Jerusalem
Head to the quirky Bassem Gallery on Via Dolorosa. It’s very close to the Austrian Hospice.
Head to Walia Ibex on Jaffa Street for delicious Ethiopian food
When we heard that there was a sizeable Ethiopian community in Jerusalem, we knew there had to be a good restaurant here, and there was. Great food, great prices, and probably the cheapest beer in Jerusalem.
Actually, the whole area around Jaffa Street is a great place to head for all sorts of bars and restaurants, as is Mahane Yahuda Market.
Day Trips From Jerusalem
There are several fun day trips from Jerusalem. Here are our favourites.
Bethlehem is an easy day trip from Jerusalem. It’s only around ten kilometres from Jerusalem. You can join a tour, but it’s also straightforward to do independently. Regular buses depart from the large Arab bus terminal close to Damascus Gate. Note that if you have been travelling around Israel using a Rav-Kav card, it won’t work on the Arab buses. As of November 2019, the price for a bus ticket was NIS7 and payable in cash only.
What to See in Bethlehem
There’s plenty to see and do in the little town of Bethlehem. With the last bus back to Jerusalem at 19:30, you may even want to consider staying for a night or two. As we were house sitting in East Jerusalem, we had to return. Taxis are available for a later return, but the taxi drivers are a little bit aggressive and rather expensive.
So what to see? There’s the Separation Wall that marks the border between Palestine and Israel. Depressing, eye-opening, and thought-provoking. Plenty of interesting street art, and do be sure to keep an eye out for Banksy’s art.
Of course, no trip to Bethlehem would be complete without visiting the Church of the Nativity, Grotto of the Nativity, Chapel of the Milk Grotto, and Manger Square. Touristy? Yes, but you have to do it.
For more information on visiting Bethlehem, take a look here.
Another easy day trip from Jerusalem is a visit to Masada. Many people visit as part of a tour, but it’s incredibly straightforward to get there on a bus from Jerusalem’s Central Station. We actually caught the bus nearer to our base in East Jerusalem, but it was pretty full. Well, we found seats eventually when we convinced other travellers to move their backpacks from available seats. So, we would recommend you taking the bus from the central station to secure a place and do please make room for your fellow passengers.
So what is Masada? Masada is an ancient fortress, located high on a flat plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. You can walk up to the fortress or opt to take the cable car. It’s an enjoyable day out. Bear in mind, if visiting in summer, do wear a hat and sunscreen as there’s very little shade.
Ok, admittedly, I enjoyed Ein Karem more than Jonathan. It’s a lovely little village with some very nice restaurants and walking trails. We enjoyed a lovely lunch at the Fairuz Lebanese Restaurant.
The reason people come to visit Ein Karem is to see Mary’s Spring. This is where apparently the Virgin Mary quenched her thirst before meeting Elizabeth. I have to admit, this site is somewhat underwhelming.
There’s also the Visitation Church and the Church of St John the Baptist, which is the birthplace of John the Baptist. This Church was being renovated when we visited, but there were loads of cats! Yay!
Don’t necessarily visit for the Christian sites, but visit for the fresh air and peaceful environment, and you’ll enjoy Ein Karem.
Easy to get to from Jerusalem. Just stay on Tram no 1 until the end of the line then hop on to bus no 28.
Taking A Tour From Jerusalem
If you prefer to join a tour, we have heard that Green Olive Tours were excellent, although we didn’t experience them firsthand. They particularly appealed to us as they worked with both Israeli and Palestine guides so you’d get a better understanding of the Israel / Palestine conflict. If you have travelled with Green Olive Tours, please do let us know what it was like.
How To Get To Jerusalem From Tel Aviv Airport
There’s a new high-speed train from Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) to Jerusalem – Yitzhak Navon. The train departs every 30 minutes, starting around 06:30 until around midnight. The journey time takes around 20 minutes.
The ticket price (as at November 2019) was NIS17.
Note that no trains run on Fridays and don’t operate again until Saturday evenings. Admittedly, it’s not the most scenic train journey we have ever done, but it’s efficient and, at times, rather ear-popping.
Jerusalem – Yitzhak Navon Station is right by Jerusalem Central Bus Station and the trams, so easy to get around from there. If you’re planning on travelling a lot on public transportation, it may be worth considering getting a RavKav card.
Note that the Rav-Kav card does not work on the Arab Buses.
For up to date information on schedules and train fares, please check here https://www.rail.co.il/en/.
Getting to Jerusalem By Bus
Bus 485 bus departs every hour from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem. The shuttle bus from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem runs every hour except during Shabbat. The last bus service is at 14:00 on Friday and the first service after Shabbat is at 19:00 on Saturday.
Journey time by bus to Jerusalem from Tev Aviv takes around one hour. The cost is NIS16.
By Shared Taxi (Sherut)
A sherut is a shared taxi and is a very popular way of travelling around Israel and from Ben Gurion Airport. As we arrived during Shabbat, we took a shared taxi. A sherut is a minibus that takes around ten passengers. They can be found on Level G outside Arrivals.
Journey time from the airport to Jerusalem takes around one hour and costs NIS67. The drivers also accept US dollars.
When we walked outside the airport terminal, we were immediately greeted by the sherut driver, but from bad experiences in other countries, we never go with taxi drivers who come up to us. Usually means major rip-off. So we ignored him and walked to the sherut taxi departure point, and there he was again. ‘Ah, so you do want me, get in, we are ready to leave!’ Moral of the story – guess not all taxi drivers try to take advantage of newbies!!
Private taxi from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem costs around NIS250.
Top Tips For Arriving / Departing Ben Gurion Airport
Don’t buy a Sim Card at the airport. It is literally twice the price that you will pay once you are outside the airport. At the airport, they were asking $50. Outside $25!
Left Luggage Prices at Ben Gurion Airport Are Outrageous
When it was time to leave Israel, we had a few hours before our flight, so planned on leaving our luggage in the left luggage at the terminal before heading into Tel Aviv. Once we recovered from the shock of the price, we headed into town with our baggage and spent the money we had saved on a fab last meal!
Getting Through Security at Ben Gurion Airport
Do allow extra time for checking in – at least three hours before your flight, as you have to pass through a pre-security check. We had our heard all sorts of horror stories, but maybe because we look such a boringly normal couple, we were only asked the usual question, ‘Did you pack this bag yourself?’
Security asked the young guy in front of us with tattoos and dreadlocks a lot more questions than us.
At the first security check, a bar code sticker is placed on your passport. The first digit indicates which security line you will be directed to.
Number 1 is usually reserved for diplomats, VIPS, etc. Those starting with numbers 2 and 3 will pass through regular security.
Those with numbers 4 and 5 indicate a more substantial check; your bags will be opened and thoroughly checked. Number 6 – good luck!
We were lucky, we got number 2 and passed through security quickly.
ATMs are available at the Ben Gurion airport.
We hope you enjoyed our guide. Did we miss anything out? Please let us know in the comments below!