Why Visit Jerusalem? A City of Both Religious Calling and Contemporary Culture, Perfect for the Independent Traveller

 

A visit to Jerusalem may not appear to be the usual city of choice for a traveller with no religious calling, yet it is a city whose cultural rejuvenation is attracting those wanting to look beyond its theological persona. The city is cryptic yet captivating, firmly cementing itself as a fun, contemporary space whilst retaining the ancient, spiritual hold that it’s mostly known for.

It’s exactly this uniqueness that makes Jerusalem one of my favourite areas of Israel (I admit that I became more of a Jerusalemite than a Tel Avivian) and travelling here really is different to what you initially expect it to be.

Wanting to explore the history and old architecture, the Old City was firmly on my radar before arriving and when there, was a place with such magnetism that I often found myself heading back over and over with no aim except to lose myself within it. Yet my nights spent dining in the old market, wandering amongst the local neighbourhoods and frequenting the entertainment area, soon confirmed that you must look outside of the Old City walls to experience the charm of Jerusalem in its entirety.

Old City, Jerusalem, Israel

Jerusalem’s New City

Jerusalem New City, Israel

The New City is easily navigable, with plenty of quaint suburbs to wander within and a city centre that’s full of life. My base was the fun and bustling traveller hub of the Abraham Hostel, located right in the heart of town next to the Davidka Square stop of the Jerusalem Light Rail (tram), although it was more fun to explore on foot (the tram being a useful addition to your itinerary should you want to get to the far reaches of the Yad Vasham Holocaust museum at one end and the Central Bus station at the other).

Jerusalem Jaffa Street, Israel

Already armed with all the details on the hostel’s catalogue of activities including the bar crawl, cooking class, the Sunday night open mic session, the Friday night Shabbat dinner and everything else in between that’s making Jerusalem more vibrant for travellers and locals alike, I asked one of the staff members to note on a map what local spots and neighbourhoods I should check out to uncover even more of modern-day Jerusalem.

Mahaneh Yehuda Market

When I first arrived, my bus driver insisted on telling me about the Maheneh Yehuda Market with great enthusiasm, and locals never lie about great food. By day the atmosphere is electric as you wander through stalls of sweets, fresh fruit and vegetables, breads, nuts, pastries, meats and so much more. You swerve to dodge the trays, the carts and the locals whose hands are full of bags teeming with local produce. Your head turns at the sound of every market vendor call, the banter of hasty transaction, and the lure of fresh juice bars and snack shops, before you emerge out into the light and calm of the residential streets that surround it, your purse a few shekels lighter.

Maheneh Yehuda Market

At night, the market is an edgy hangout for the cool kids of the city. Vendor stalls are turned into seating areas, chairs and tables are laid out and restaurants, pop-up shops and bars come into full force. This might well be a place you spend a LOT of time in.

Maheneh Yehuda Market

Mahaneh Yehuda & Mea She-arim Neighbourhoods

In all honesty, I’m just nosy, and while there is nothing much to see in Mahaneh Yehuda, I just liked looking at people’s houses and having some down time in quiet spaces, pretending that I lived there and knew where I was going. Even when I was caught out by a local who asked me that busted tourist line: “Are you lost? Where do you want to go?” I liked it. It meant there was more chance of engaging in conversation.

Jerusalem neighbourhood, Israel

But Mahaneh Yehuda is next to the Mea She-arim Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood and, lets face it, most of us are pretty much fascinated about this closed and almost unknown ultra-religious culture. It’s here where you will see the 18th century dress code that was custom in Eastern Europe but which still remains to this day. You will see the bearded men, dressed in their black coats and hats, standing on the street doing nothing much except chatting to each other (the majority do not work, instead days are spent in prayer reading the Torah) and the women with their smart wigs, headscarves and conservative black skirts and dresses, pushing strollers and doing their daily shop.

Orthodox Jew neighbourhood, Jerusalem, Israel

In reality, they don’t really want you hanging around and signs in the neighbourhood dictate to not come here in big groups, as well as outlining how you should dress and behave in a conservative manner. An Israeli friend told me that I might be spat at and pushed and although this never happened, I did get stared at an awful lot, which is why I decided to leave despite my fascination.

Nahla’ot

The Nahla’ot neighbourhood is the other side of Mahaneh Yehuda Market and using the main road of Agrippas as my marker to find my way out, I ventured into the narrow and winding streets here that make up this really pretty neighbourhood of neat buildings, stone archways, gated courtyards and tiny stairwells. The city may be made predominately from the same ‘Jerusalem Stone’, but this isn’t at all bland. In fact, it makes it even more beautiful.

Nahla’ot neighbourhood, Jerusalem, Israel

Jerusalem Neighbourhood, Israel

Jaffa Road & New City Life

Jaffa Road runs through the heart of the New City, connecting everything together. In some parts picturesque and arty, it is great to stroll down and cut off into the shopping and dining areas hidden behind it. In the evening, the streets around Zion Square sound with the buzz of bars and local hangouts, where you can sip on local Goldstar beer and people watch for hours.

Jaffa Street, Jerusalem, Israel

Jerusalem’s Old City

Old City, Jerusalem, Israel

The Old City is seen as holding the history of the world, having been fought over and conquered by various groups of people for thousands of years, and is as admired as it is contested for being the holy center to all three monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Yet it is this setup which bestows upon it an air of magic and mystery; it’s ancient lure and labyrinth layout being just how you always imagined.

Old City, Jerusalem, Israel

Old City, Jerusalem, Israel

Visit all Quarters of the Old City

A walled city of stone structures, flanked in the sun’s golden hues, make up a maze of pathways that cut this ancient stronghold into the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters, and knowledge of the complex and delicate history is not always necessary to appreciate the architecture, ancient relics and charged atmospheres here.

Armenian Quarter, Old City Jerusalem, Israel

Whether you watch the Jews praying at the Western (Wailing) Wall or singing in cause of a celebration; silently observe Christians in prayer at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre while standing amidst the clang of the church bells; or look on as Muslims make their way to the Mosque as the call to prayer reverberates around you, you don’t have to be spiritual to be moved and taken in by the religious spectacles that blend together in this small space, whilst simmering in division beneath the surface.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Old City Jerusalem, Israel

Western Wall, Wailing Wall, Old City Jerusalem, Israel

Head to Temple Mount

A disputed holy site, where once sat a Jewish temple thousands of years ago and now a mosque, Temple Mount is an unmissable part of your exploration in the Old City. Only open for a small window each day for non-muslims (at the gate to the right as you face the Western Wall between the hours of 07:30 – 10:00 and 12:30 – 13:30 in the winter and 07:30 – 11:00 + 13:30 – 14:30 in the summer) hundreds venture up here to view what has become an infamous symbol of Jerusalem – the gold dome which covers the slab of rock sacred to both the Jewish faith as the foundation stone of the world and the Muslim faith as the point where Mohammed ascended to heaven to join Allah.

Dome of the Rock, Temple Mount, Old City Jerusalem, Israel

See the Old City From Up High

Jerusalem’s Old City is not only mesmerising as you meander through it, but also breathtaking when you see it from afar.

Old City, Jerusalem, Israel, rooftop view

The view from the Mount of Olives is labeled as the most spectacular, The Austrian Hospice in the Muslim Quarter has one of the best rooftop lookouts, and the Armon Hanatziv Promenade close to the German Colony is more of a local spot, best viewed at sunset as the magical sounds of church bells or calls to prayer scatter across the land.

View of Jerusalem, Old City Jerusalem, Israel

Revel in Getting Lost

A great introduction to the old city, for both the history and general navigation, is the free walking tour from Sandemans and the Old City tour with Abraham Tours. After that, I have one rule for the Old City when you head back on your own, and that is to not really plan a route – getting lost is a good thing and trying too hard to work your way around the labyrinth of narrow streets, hidden alleys and bustling bazaars will just get you frustrated. You will always eventually come back onto one of the main streets that lead to you the main gates or to one of the infamous religious sites, or stumble upon a direction sign. Ditch the map and lose yourself in this old world.

While everyone knows about Jerusalem in some form, you can’t really understand its meaning as the spiritual center of the world until you stand within it, transfixed and transported in time, before landing with a bump to the vivacity of its modern-day culture and coolness.

Not only does Jerusalem attract religious pilgrims, but its overall magnetism forms part of the attraction for any traveller, where you will soon see that a single visit doesn’t warrant enough time to grasp its beauty and mystery completely. It’s why I’m heading back to explore some more, starting with this comprehensive guide to everything in Jerusalem from Tourist Israel, which has made me realise that my second time probably won’t be my last either!

 

Comments

  1. says

    I totally want to visit Jerusalem even though I’m not religious. It’s probably one of the uniquest cities on earth and there seems so much to discover. It’s definitely on my list and I hope to visit it in the nearer future :)

  2. a Jerusalemite says

    Hi Becki,

    I enjoyed reading your post about Jerusalem. There are so many beautiful areas in west Jerusalem (”
    new city”) that tourists are unaware of and it’s a shame. I used to hae a website with such recommendations once. It’s no longer online, but here are more beautiful placed you can visit outside the old city walls:

    1. The Yemin Moshe and Mishkaot Sha’ananim neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are located right west to the old city, and you can see the Yemin Moshe windmil from Jaffa gate. These were the first Jewish neighborhoods outside the old city walls. They were built in the 19th century and today there are beautiful places with beautiful houses and gardens and great views o the old city walls.

    Near these neighbordoods there is the Jerusalem cinemateque which is also a very coll place to visit with a program in English and great films. It’s open on “Shabbat”, and has a nice restaurant with a great view on the old city.

    2. Not far from there is the German colony neighborhood which is a very nice neighborhood with beautiful houses, some were built by the German Templars in the 19t century with a very unique architecture.
    The main street in this neighborhood is “Emek Refaim” – a cool, full of live little street with good coffee shops and stores.

    2. Between Yemin Moshe and the German Colony there is the renovated “First station” compound. It used to be the fist Ottoman train station in Jerusalem, built in the 19th century. It’s now renovated as a cool place to hang out – lots of restaurants, coffee shops etc. – and it’s open on Shabbat.

    3. So many other beautiful places outside the walls, and close to the city center – the Talbia and Rehavia neighborhoods, the Valley of the cross etc. etc.

    Maybe I should reactiated my website to give tourists more info :)

  3. says

    Nice overview of Jerusalem! I’d also highly recommend visiting the Musrara neighborhood – it’s a funny little neighborhood between the East & West, just near Damascus Gate. It was a kind of no-man’s-land for a long time because of the way international boundaries had been drawn up, but now artists and longtime locals who live in the area have turned it into an open-air art gallery promoting peace and coexistence. There used to be a free walking tour, called the Muslala Art Tour every Saturday but I’m not sure if it still runs regularly (I took the tour in January 2013). In the neighborhood is also the Museum on the Seam which I highly recommend visiting.

  4. says

    Jerusalem is one of those old world cities I’m dying to see. Did you end up with any fun souvenirs from the markets? Looks like they’re selling snow suits! lol

  5. says

    Fascinating! Jerusalem certainly seems to have a lot of character – so rich in history, and the architecture looks unique. Beautiful :)

  6. says

    So much interesting history here! I’d love to get lost in the old quarter and peek through the gates into the quiet courtyards. I’m a little nosy too :-)

  7. says

    The markets there look wonderful! I hope I get the chance to wander them sometime, eat some of the great food, and do a little shopping.

  8. says

    I totally love Jerusalem, it’s one of the places where I heard the word “allegedly” in almost every single corner. This is where the Virgin Mary is buried…allegedly. This is where Peter refused Jesus…allegedly. This is where Judas hanged himself..allegedly. Hahaha, good times :D

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>