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You don’t have to be a religious pilgrim to travel to Jerusalem. You’ll feel its magnetism in the holy old and the new – here’s where to experience it all.
The desire to travel 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 contemporary space whilst retaining the ancient, spiritual hold that it’s mostly known for.
It’s exactly this uniqueness that makes visiting Jerusalem different from what you initially expected it to be.
- Why Travel to Jerusalem?
- Before You Go to Jerusalem
- Things to Do in Jerusalem in the New City
- What to Do in Jerusalem in the Old City
- Jerusalem Tours
- Where to Stay in Jerusalem
- Getting to Jerusalem
- Further Information and Reading on Jerusalem
- Put Jerusalem on the List – Pin It!
Why Travel to Jerusalem?
While everyone knows about Jerusalem in some form, you can’t really understand its meaning as the spiritual centre 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.
Like most travellers going to Jerusalem, the Old City history and architecture was at the top of my list and when there, it 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 of the New City, soon confirmed that you must look outside of the old Jerusalem to experience the charm of the city in its entirety.
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.
Before You Go to Jerusalem
Jerusalem is often in the media spotlight, especially when tensions flare in an ongoing Israel and Palestine conflict, which has for centuries been a distinctly complex subject, and for which there is no easy resolution. With various fractions, options, tensions, groups, call to arms, human rights groups labelling the situation as a ‘form of Apartheid’ and with the continuing illegal building of settlements, this region remains one of the most divisive in the world.
However, day-to-day life continues and Jerusalem tourism continues to thrive as many seek out the sites and stories of one of the most historical cities on earth. For me, while I do not support the actions of the Israeli government and the brutal overstep of military power, I do not believe in boycotting local businesses and people who remain independent of these decisions. Aside from the extremist factions, many ordinary people want peace.
Is it Safe to Visit Jerusalem?
Generally, it is safe to visit Jerusalem, and you will see there are extra security measures in place in the centre of the city, and more so around the Old City of Jerusalem, where people of different faiths live together but which still remains a contested area in light of internal politics.
As is the region of East Jerusalem, viewed by Palestinians as the capital of Palestine and often at the heart of the Jerusalem skirmishing you hear about in the news.
May 2021: Jerusalem was at the centre of civil unrest between Palestinians and Israeli police, with subsequent violence and increased tensions leading to armed conflict and airstrikes. International airlines also suspended flights.
Like anywhere, always keep your wits about you, and be aware of any political changes where it would be wise to stay away from demonstrations and be informed of any changes to travel such as road and airport closures.
For example, when President Trump’s announced recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, the British Foreign Office (FCO) advised against all travel to the Old City of Jerusalem over a three-day period due to the call for mass protests across the West Bank and including East Jerusalem.
Overall, I never once felt like I was unsafe in Jerusalem and I travelled from one end of Israel to the other leaving and entering the city many times over. Jerusalem safety tips mostly come down to be prepared for any changes and open your mind for a way of travelling that may way change your preconceived notions.
- Local people were welcoming and are always willing to help.
- Be sensitive to your environment when and if you talk about politics. It’s difficult to understand and easy to offend.
- Don’t be put off when you see armed members of the Israel Defense Forces in Jerusalem city and beyond. The majority of these young people are on National Service and while at first glance it can feel intimidating, you will soon see it is a normal part of everyday life here.
- Use Google Translate or the Morfix Hebrew translation app if you need further help, or even just to practice a few Hebrew phrases. In Hebrew, “Thank you” is “Toda” and it goes a long way.
READ MORE: Is It Safe to Visit Israel and The West Bank During Conflict?
Things to Do in Jerusalem in the New City
The New City of Jerusalem (West Jerusalem) 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). It meant being able to stay in the modern side of the city while being in easy walking distance to the Old City for the perfect sightseeing combination.
What to see in Jerusalem is very much dependent on your interests, whether that be more about visiting historic sites or indulging in the culinary food scene. So while the catalogue of activities in new Jerusalem includes a bar crawl, cooking class and Friday night Shabbat dinner that is showcasing a vibrant side for travellers and locals alike, I put together this list of local spots and neighbourhoods for those wanting to uncover more of daily life in the city’s modern fringes.
Shop at Mahaneh Yehuda Market
When I first arrived, my bus driver insisted on telling me about the Maheneh Yehuda Market on Agripas Street 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, fresh loaves of bread, 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. It’s no wonder it is one of the main attractions in Jerusalem and a beautiful window into local living.
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.
Explore the Secular and Orthodox Jewish Jerusalem Neighbourhoods
Mahaneh Yehuda Secular Jewish Neighbourhood
While there is nothing much to see in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda neighbourhood, I just liked looking at people’s houses built in Jerusalem stone and having some downtime 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.
Mea She-arim Orthodox Jewish Neighbourhood
Adjacent to Mahaneh Yehuda, the Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea She-arim is one of the oldest Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem city. This is where the majority of the Hasidic community live, whose very traditional ultra-orthodox Jewish values are closed and seen as an ultra-religious culture. A microcosm of Jerusalem, this neighbourhood has a different atmosphere to the rest.
Full of narrow alleyways, quiet streets and religious institutional buildings, 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 since the majority do not work, instead days are spent in prayer reading the Torah. You will rarely see the women, although if you do they will see them dressed in their conservative wigs, headscarves, black skirts and dresses, pushing strollers and doing their daily shop.
It is also where you can find the largest Synagogue in Jerusalem, although you will not be able to enter.
In reality, the Orthodox Jewish community does not 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, pushed and have things thrown at me, although this never happened. I did get stared at an awful lot and felt uncomfortable on my own, which is why I decided to leave.
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.
Visit Jaffa Road in Jerusalem and See 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.
What to Do in Jerusalem in the Old City
Of all the places to visit in Jerusalem, the Old City is at its very core. Seen as holding the history of the world, it has 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 centre to all three monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Despite its complexities, this one-square-kilometre walled area bestows an air of magic and mystery; the ancient lure and labyrinth layout being just how you always imagined.
Explore 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.
Whether you watch the Jews praying at the Western (Wailing) Wall or singing in the 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.
Visit Temple Mount – The Symbol of Jerusalem
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.
Find Jerusalem’s Viewing Platforms and 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.
The view from the Mount of Olives is labelled 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.
No trip to Jerusalem is complete without finding ways to really understand it and know where to find its historical and cultural highlights. 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.
I have one rule for Jerusalem’s 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.
Cultural Experiences and Day Tours in Jerusalem
The following experiences and cultural Jerusalem trips can be booked via the Abraham tours website or at the travel desk inside the Abraham hostel:
- Culinary experience tasting local foods on a Mahane Yehuda Market tour.
- Take a Mount of Olives tour, see the major churches, the Mosque of Ascension,Mary’s Tomb and visit the world’s oldest Jewish cemetery.
- Join the only tour which explores Jerusalem’s nightlife on a Jerusalem pub crawl.
- Meet members of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and better understand their culture.
- Journey back in time by 4,000 years and enter the secret underground tunnel system on a City of David Tour.
- The street-art tour in Jerusalem tells stories about the tensions between secular and religious Jews, Muslims and Christians and more.
- Consider a sunrise biking tour around all of Jerusalem’s 8 gates and see the city from angles other transport can’t get you to.
Day Trips from Jerusalem
A visit to Jerusalem is often taken as a day trip from Tel Aviv, but if you find yourself based in Jerusalem for longer, there are plenty of experiences to be had to explore the wider city and neighbouring areas of Israel. The following are some of the best Abraham tour day trips from Jerusalem which can be booked here.
Masada at Sunrise, Ein Gedi & Dead Sea Tour from Jerusalem
- READ MORE: The Natural Wonders of Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea – Adventure in Southern Israel
See both perspectives and narratives of the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Hebron Dual Narrative Tour
Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee including Mount Tabor, the Jordan River and Capernaum
- Best of the West Bank that takes you to Bethlehem, the ancient city of Jerich and the modern city of Ramallah
Best Israel Tours with Jerusalem Included
Looking to visit Jerusalem as part of a small group? For many, independent travel to Israel can be daunting, so I recommend the G Adventures Israel tour which covers the country’s highlights in an 8-day trip that starts in Tel Aviv and ends in Jerusalem. That means being in the traveller hubs of the big cities on either side of your visit while enjoying everything in between, including Haifa, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee in the north and Masada, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem, with like-minded travellers.
You can view the itinerary for this adventure, look at G Adventures reviews from previous passengers and find all the details on how to book on the Israel Explorer trip page.
Where to Stay in Jerusalem
Hostels in Jerusalem
Budget accommodation in Israel is widespread, most notably via a Hostel network with around 40 quality-assured independent hostels across the country, with many of those in Jerusalem.
I’ve known and worked with Abraham hostels for many years and highly recommend them. The Abraham Jerusalem hostel has 40 dorm rooms and 40 private rooms, a beautiful large common room with lounge space, a huge guest kitchen, a bar and other facilities such as great internet and laundry.
Not only that but it is a hub where people from the city come in to enjoy the events on offers such as Live Music, Quiz Night and a Pub Crawl, Shabbat Dinner, weekly travel lectures, language lessons and the extensive daily tour offering of Abraham Tours throughout Israel, Jordan and Egypt.
Book your stay at Abraham hostel in Jerusalem here.
Getting to Jerusalem
There is no airport in Jerusalem and instead, travellers to Israel will enter via Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. From here you can transfer to Jerusalem in around one hour.
- For transfers from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem, the 485 shuttle bus takes you from the airport to various stops in Jerusalem city centre, including the Jerusalem Central Bus Station. These. buses run every day, except on Shabbat (Saturday).
- Many accommodations may have shuttle options that arrange drop off and picks up at accommodations in the city and can be one of the most cost-effective options for getting between the airport and the city.
- If staying at Abraham Hostel a shuttle service is available as part of your booking for a small extra cost.
Further Information and Reading on Jerusalem
- The Lonely Planet Israel & the Palestinian Territories Travel Guide was last updated in 2018 and is a great resource to use to plan your trip. There is also an LP pocket travel guide to Jerusalem & Tel Aviv if you are only city-hopping on your trip.
- For further information on where to go in Jerusalem and other highlights, check out the dedicated online Tourist Israel guide – which I partnered with during my time in the city to help produce this Jerusalem travel blog.
- Recommended books on the history of Israel and the modern-day conflict include:
- Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn tries to compact the complex history into an easier-to-digest format
- A Line in the Sand details the struggles between Europe, Britain and France for power in the Middle East and what events led to the modern-day conflict and division.
Put Jerusalem on the List – Pin It!
This is a beautiful article besides the fact it mentions apartheid. Israel is by no means an apartheid state. Arabic is an official language, Israeli Arabs have the same rights as the Jewish Israelis and they also have representation in the Israeli Parliament. The health system in Israel is full with Arabic doctors, our universities are full with Israeli Arabs who can get higher education with huge discounts and in some cases even for free using a full scholarship funded by the governmet. Israeli Arabs can set foot wherever they want all across the country with no restrictions. Funnily, Jewish Israelis cannot set foot in some parts of the country as it is unsafe for Jews to be there.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but an apartheid state looks nothing like this. I suggest to think hard before you wrtie such things, without knowing all the facts. I invite you not just to have a short tour or two here – try to really live here and then tell me if Israel is an apartheid state.
Peace, love and truth.
As I mentioned, it is the human rights groups who have highlighted the situation as a form of/version of Apartheid giving the forms of discrimination, separation and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Like many of the other fragments of thought, it will always ignite discussion. I am in no position to give a definitive answer. I am highlighting all the means of discussion, controversy, and loaded opinion that make understanding this not at all easy, especially when doing prior background reading before a visit.
Your comment here is welcomed as we all try and understand each others’ viewpoints. In the same way that we all want to see peace.
Hi Becki, I ‘m really curious and interested in this country. With so much culture and history to learn. Is it advisable to travel solo or much better with a tour group?
It’s a personal choice about how you want to visit Israel. Some feel better in the company of a group because of pre-conceptions; because of crossing check-points; or because they simply don’t feel comfortable moving around the country on their own, and don’t know where to start with the organisation. My recommendation for a group tour would be the G Adventures Israel Explorer which is an 8-day trip that covers the highlights: https://goo.gl/vvyXLF
I work with them, travel with them and can vouch for the cultural insights garnered from having a local with you all the way.
I travelled around Israel solo, using Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth and the Negev desert as bases and taking adventure and culture day trips from those. There’s even a hostel in the desert! There are options all over as it has a good traveller network set up. The Israel bus system also connects to key towns and cities nationwide, although the full-day trips get you to a lot of little corners and places you couldn’t get to easily on your own. Plus, you are in a small group scenario to go explore. It’s a win-win either way you choose 🙂
Backpacker Becki says
I think there’s possibly more stories from Jerusalem than any other place in the world. If only walls could talk, eh?