I had just returned from a trip to the West Bank, on the mission to discover yet another new city. No wind was going in Jerusalem, temperatures were above 30°C, and I was still wearing the long dress I was gifted by my Bedouin couchsurfing hosts. In a bar, I ordered some fresh lemonade and got changed.
The bartender asked me how I liked Jerusalem so far.
“Well, it seems really great for the two minutes I’ve been here.”
His surprised glance at me quickly changed into a warm smile, and he poured three shots for him, a friend of his sitting next to me, and me. We cheered to my surely-awesome-time-to-come in Jerusalem, and I tasted Arak for the first time, a typical strong but tasty anise liquor. Before I left, I was invited to the party for the end of Sukkot the next day.
And as if I didn’t experience a sufficient amount of hospitality yet, when I went to pay my small lunch at the next restaurant where I had met some friends, the very old, friendly looking man gazed mysteriously at me and put his finger to his lips.
“No no dear, it’s on the house, it’s our secret”.
… and gave me a wink. He had such a genuine and decently kind appearance, that I gratefully accepted.
Jerusalem… A city called by many names, may it be “ir Ha-Kodesh”, “al-Quds” or “Terra Sancta” – The Holy City. Among the world’s oldest cities, lively Jerusalem hosts several important sacred places of three world religions, all having their own space behind its walls. My first impression was nothing but amazement! And I didn’t even have a clue yet of what kind of things to do in Jerusalem there were… Now let’s go breathe some history!
Discover Jerusalem – Diversity at its best
Jerusalem – a city so diverse, it would make any western executive board jealous. Inhabited by various groups; Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Christians, more or less secular, countless ethnicities, all with their respective typical kitchen, and markets to roam for some kitsch and must-haves. Stroll along a big party street just to find yourself in an orthodox area the next moment. One step will take you into that high-end shopping mall, and another will lead you past thousands of years old ruins. Outside the city center you’ll be surrounded by wide dry desert on one, and mountains and forests and caves on the other side.
You’ll find the city can be separated into four parts – the Arab East Jerusalem, the modern, rather commercial Jewish West Jerusalem, Me’a Shearim, home to ultra-orthodox Jews, and the Old City. Behind whose walls lie the Jewish, the Armenian, the Christian and the Muslim Quarter.
Things to do in Jerusalem – Discover the Holy City
Many secrets lie behind Jerusalem’s bounds, most of them all in walking distance within the Old City and closeby. So let’s start a happy adventure day with things to do in Jerusalem!
Imagine a warm sunny morning, the smell of fresh Arabic coffee, distant church bells ringing, the streets crowded by people with shopping bags full of fresh fruits and veggies from a nearby market. We’re at the city’s outer wall, destroyed and rebuilt many times, basically a time machine varying with stones from one to 2000 years of age. Entering the old town through Jaffa Gate, a curious mind might wonder – what’s that big gap doing there, next to the gate? Basically inviting any potential enemy to just join for dinner? Well – it’s been the Germans, of course. People looked at the tiny entrance of Jaffa Gate in horror when receiving the announcement of emperor Wilhelm II.’s arrival – and were like “naaaah that big guy can’t go through here”. They ended up filling the ditch around the opposite church, and the emperor and his people and fancy cars were able to enter in a more dramatic way. Yep. We’re such modest folks.
On the way, we passed bikes that produced light or electricity or music, very inviting looking pillows made of stone, and the impressive outer wall that. Standing there, looking at it, it is impossible to imagine this amount of time… and we feel oh so big with our everyday problems? Well.
Now you’ll find yourself walking narrow cobbled streets, somehow all looking alike, and yet with a certain difference between each of them. Enter the Christian quarter, follow the busy alleys flanked by busy market stalls and small shops, and visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – Jesus is said to have been buried and resurrected here. Although definitely a must-see, this place often is overcrowded by tourists. The church is covered in sparkling mosaics and displays, looking over the many people who stand in line, waiting to kiss the stone. Many years ago, people of different origins argued about the composition of the church. And when they were unable to come to an agreement, everything was left just the way it was. Even the ladder underneath the right window at the outside wall. That ever since has to be replaced whenever weather conditions or similar is damaging it.
Let’s now follow Via Dolorosa (“way of suffering”), where Jesus is said to have made his way to his crucifixion. Walking along the Stations of the Cross and taking in the history is pretty impressive even when you’re not religious. Today, vendors seeking your attention, taking turns with old stone buildings rising on each side, give the street a rather busy touch. You’ll pass the Austrian Hospice, that back in the ages was the first guesthouse for pilgrims, mainly for Austrians and followers of the Habsburg monarchy. It’s worth to take a look inside, grab a coffee in the Viennese café and enjoy the wide views over crowded streets from the rooftop terrace.
To escape the hustle and bustle a little – there will always be too many things to do in Jerusalem, but a break is well earned -, we’ll leave the Old City for a second and check out Damascus Gate. Gaze along the impressive outer wall once more, with its two flanking towers. For a typical Israel experience, definitely grab some Falafel and hummus around!
While we were on the tour, after a couple of hours of curious roaming, my couchsurfing friend and I sat down at a quiet corner overlooking Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives. The latter is a little further from the Old City, but check it out if you’ve got time. Basically, it’s a hill of graves, and while enjoying an immensely refreshing beer in the setting sun, we were wondering when all those zombies might eventually rise …
Then it was time to eventually climb Temple Mount – one of the most disputed holy places in the world. According to Islam, Mohammed began his heavenwards journey from the rock you’ll find inside the Dome of the Rock, while Jewish tradition proclaims the world was founded just on that rock. Closeby, there also is the al-Aqsa Mosque, being the third most important mosque of Islam after Mekka and Medina.
Next on the list is the Wailing Wall, being one of the most significant historic sights in Judaism. Each year, numerous pilgrims make their way to the Wall to pray, writing their words on small pieces of paper, placing them between the cracks of the stones. Standing here, it doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe in – you’ll easily recognize the significance of this place.
How about a little more space now, after all this learning and discovering? What many people don’t know is that there is basically a second city over the roofs of the Old City! You’re able to walk over most of the roofs, thus cutting short some of the busy alleys “downstairs”, and observe some tremendous views from up here.
The day is coming to an end, while hungry tummys are growling for attention. Do grab some food from one of the various markets, it’s a whole love affair you can have with the variety of dishes here, really. Try the Arab dessert Knafeh, something sweet and yummy (no clue what it actually is though). But gluing your teeth together, this will complete your literally breathtaking impression of Jerusalem – and leave a satisfied smile on your lips.
Now, what’s going on at night?
You might have been to Mahane Yehuda Market during the day already, happily roaming the narrow alleys flanked by various goods from spices to cheese and meat to liquors and toys. At night, this will become a whole different place, closed doors and gates of those shops are covered in impressive graffiti of famous Israeli and Jewish figures, from every direction music will float towards your ears, and all the fresh local beer will give you a hard time deciding which one to try first. In case you want to go out during Shabbat, head towards Abraham’s hostel – it will be one of the few but cool and crowded places that are still open. And don’t forget to check out the rooftop terrace!
Discover Jerusalem off the beaten path
Got some extra time in your carry on? Then I’d recommend to step outside the city center for a while and check out Lifta – an abandoned Arabic village. I don’t wanna get into politics right now (that would make a whole new post), but if you’re interested in local history and issues, check out this page.
Lifta allows amazing views and a little adventurous climbing up the house ruins (climbing? With my back then still injured foot? Ooops). My guide and I chilled there for a while, talking this and that, especially the upcoming mountainbiking trip (we both had no clue :D). We explored an ancient water system going about 100 m into the hill, and it was just absolute pitch black dark, so quiet it almost hurt the ears, just us walking through knee-deep water and the phone flashlight in front of us…
Things to have in mind when visiting Jerusalem
Rather trivial but good to have in mind: Two steps in Jerusalem will already make you stumble upon something historic. Better don’t wear flipflops doing so. Strolling Arabic bazaars, up and down narrow cobbled alleys, along tiny shops with brightly colored Christian souvenirs, passing yummy food and packed squares and hidden gems and breathing the scent of the Orient – better take some good walking shoes for that.
No matter which part of town you go, show your respect to the different religions and their sacred sites by dressing modestly. As a woman it’ll also make you feel more comfortable – after all no one really fancies to be shouted after for a too short skirt.
Then, please have in mind – Jerusalem has rarely been an absolutely safe and peaceful place. Regularly check the current situation and, in case of any warnings, keep your distance to the indicated as well as heavily guarded places. As a usual precaution, you’ll find security checks in front of any bigger sights.
But let’s also look on brighter sides. If you’re a catlover, you’ll find paradise in Jerusalem (if you’re not or tend to paranoia, well, skip this paragraph). These true leaders of the city outshine any government, religion and citizenship. Present at all times while operating from the background. Literally EVERYWHERE. It might look like sunbathing, while actually overlooking every one of your steps, protecting this or that sight, invade garden and beaches and markets. Wherever you turn, you realize you’re being watched. So far, they seem peaceful…
Things to do in Jerusalem – When best to do them
From late March to early June as well as late September to early December – so just before and after summer -, you’ll find the most comfortable conditions. Peak season is summer despite its sweltering temperatures, but the best deals (along with rather unstable weather) are found in winter.
You want to cross-check with Jewish holidays as well as have the effects of Shabbat in mind. Most public facilities including markets, museums and the whole (Jewish run) public transport will be closed down during bigger holidays like Yom Kippur or Sukkot. There are always alternatives, e.g. the Arabic cabs called Sherut, that are however also more expensive, and also room rates will be higher in general.
Ready to breathe history?
So my dear adventurous friend on a mission of endless discovery! Have you been to Jerusalem yet? What were your experiences? Would you go or has it become too much of a tourist hotspot for your taste?
Pin the love!