From the sky, Jerusalem is a mass of white stone dwellings, spread over hilltops, with the walled Old City as a center point. Despite the city's buildings all being made from the same stone, (this is according to a planning law), the diversity from area to area is huge, with each neighborhood being its own little world. Within a matter of kilometers you can switch from the history and intensity of the Old City, to the cosmopolitan buzz of downtown, from the hubbub of a souk to the peacefulness of a panoramic look-out point, from hearing Arabic on Salah Al-Din Street to Hebrew in Malha Mall, from the religiosity of
The walled Old City is the center of Jerusalem (but sometimes feels like the center of the world), with Jewish West Jerusalem on its one side and Arab East Jerusalem on its other. It's a wonderful place to get lost in by day and to marvel at its fairytale-like beauty when it is floodlit at night. A walk around the
The Temple Mount is the location where it is said that Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son. Later, the First and Second Temples were built on this site, and it is believed that this is also the location from where the Islamic prophet Mohammed went to heaven. The gleaming gold-topped
The only remaining wall of the Temple provides the border between the Temple Mount and
Another must-see area is West Jerusalem's
The adjacent areas of Nahlaot and
Bordering the other side of the Temple Mount is the
For people watching in East Jerusalem, the
The differences in language, sights, and sounds between East and West Jerusalem will make you think you have arrived in a new country.
Outside the Old City
One kilometer outside the walls of the ancient city (exit from Lion's Gate), more religious sites and wonderful views can be taken in from atop the Mount of Olives, home to the spectacular
For fun, try the Russian Compund at night (West Jerusalem's bar area) and the touristy Ben Yehuda Street, Zion Square and surrounding alleyways, which have a lively mix of cafes, restaurants and specialty stores.
To get a feel for what hip locals like to do at night, go to the German Colony's Emek Refaim Street - a strip of eateries a couple of kilometers South of the Old City, with outdoor tables and specialty stores or the industrial zone of Talpiot (a few kilometers further south along the same road), which houses some of the city's dance clubs.
Joseph and Mary may have had a hard time finding accommodation in neighboring Bethlehem, but with more than 8000 hotel rooms to choose from, Jerusalem has plenty of accommodations today and more to offer than any other city in Israel.
In a recent survey, Jerusalem was ranked the world's sixth most expensive city for business travelers to stay in. A room in the presidential suite in the historic King David Hotel may cost hundreds of dollars per night, but, at the other end of the scale, it is only ILS20 to sleep on a mattress on a rooftop hostel in the Old City.
On the subject of budget travel, for those on a shoestring, the Old City is the place. Not only are dorm beds cheap, but you get the chance to linger a while in this fascinating place and soak up its history and bustle.
You could stay in Casa Nova, Custodia di Terra Santa, a 100 year-old Franciscan pilgrim's hospice in the Old City. It is worth noting that there will be a curfew in lodgings for pilgrims, and unmarried couples may not be able to room together. Religious Jewish travelers will be spoiled for choice as most of the major hotels are both Kosher and Shabbat observant, and some, like the King Solomon, are Glatt Kosher. Jewish travelers who want to explore their roots can stay for free in St. Mark's Heritage House, a dorm in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City that provides seminars and meals in the homes of observant families to participants.
Hostels, such as the Tabasco Tea Rooms, are in the winding alleys of the souk. Guests in the Lutheran Hospice will sleep in a vaulted Crusader cellar, and the view from the roof of the Petra Hotel & Hostel is so awe-inspiring that non-guests pay to climb the rickety stairs to look out over the domes, crosses and stones of the Old City. For less than the price of a box of muesli, travelers can have a mattress on the roof and wake up to an Old City sunrise and the sounds of church peals and the muezzin calling worshippers to prayers.
The historic King David Hotel in West Jerusalem is a historic landmark. The British army used it as a base during the British Mandate period, and in 1946 the Jewish Underground movement blew up its south wing. Today, it is a favorite of diplomats, heads of state and celebrities. Afternoon tea on its marble terrace has a distinctly colonial feel.
The Jerusalem Hotel Association has 35 hotels on its books, which it recommends for business and upscale leisure travelers. Of architectural note is the YMCA Three Arches Hotel, possibly the most opulent YMCA in the world, which was built by the man who designed New York's Empire State Building. The David Citadel Hotel, which is an airy blend of Jerusalem stone and marble, is a competitor for the same big-name clientele, with recent guests including Hilary Clinton and Madeleine Albright.
Surprisingly, none of Jerusalem's upscale accommodation lies within the Old City. The nearest you will get is the Dan Panorama, whose glass facade looks onto the bricks of the Old City Walls across the street. However, hotels such as the Sheraton, the King Solomon, and the Regency are located on or near Mt. Scopus.
For the Millennium, two new upscale hotels were built on the borders of East and West Jerusalem. These are Novotel and the Olive Tree Hotel. The latter is a theme hotel, popular with tour groups and pilgrims, where the staff dress up in ancient Middle Eastern costumes and the floors of the hotel are named after the gates of Jerusalem.
Another cluster of hotels, popular with both tour groups and business travelers, is in the Givat Ram area. This location is close to the International Conference Center, government offices, the Givat Ram branch of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Central Bus Station. The Knesset Towers, Renaissance, and Crowne Plaza are all here. This area, which is at the entrance to Jerusalem, is criss-crossed with major roads and is a little removed from the heart of the city.
In East Jerusalem, the American Colony Hotel, a favorite with journalists and aid workers, is the palace of a former pasha and has an elegance of times gone by.
For those seeking a cheaper stay, there are many smaller hotels in both East Jerusalem and in the roads around Ben Yehuda Street and Zion Square in West Jerusalem. And who says you have to stay in a hotel? The Home Association of Accommodation in Jerusalem has Internet listings of 51 bed and breakfasts in locations ranging from Ein Kerem to the Old City. The Christian Information Centre has a list of churches that have lodgings attached.
To avoid Joseph and Mary's predicament you may want to reserve ahead of time if your visit coincides with a major religious holiday.
Israel's plentiful range of home-grown fruits and vegetables means that Jerusalem has wonderful salads, fresh juices, and vegetarian dishes to offer. Menus draw heavily on local ingredients such as pine nuts, eggplant, mint, chickpeas, tomato, cucumber, avocados, figs, and Bulgarian cheese (Israel's answer to feta).
Vegetarians will find Jerusalem an easy city to eat out in, thanks to Jewish dietary laws that do not allow milk and meat dishes to be served in the same restaurant. Look out for Kosher dairy restaurants, which will have no meat on their menu, such as Yerushalayim haKatana, but might serve fish, and the juice bars that line the roads and alleys of the downtown area. For pure vegetarian food try the canteen style Village Green in the center of town.
Jerusalem has an eclectic range of food to offer due to its standing as an international city, a city on the crossroads between North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East–a city which is home to both Arab and Jewish cultures. Israel's Jewish immigrants come from all corners of the globe, leading to a lively culinary mix. Jewish food is more than smoked salmon bagels (available at the Holy Bagel) and chopped liver. It is malouweh from Yemen (a deep fried dough served with tomato relish), spicy couscous stews from Morocco, on the menu at Darna, as well as the chicken matzo-ball soup and gefilte fish of Eastern Europe, served by places such as Marvad Haksamim in the Hechal Shlomo synagogue. At ILS130 a head, the King David is probably the priciest option.
The city's favorite snacks are falafel (deep fried balls made from crushed chick peas) and shwarma (slices of lamb) – both of which are served in pita bread along with hummus, tehina, salads, chips, pickles and spicy sauce. In West Jerusalem, head to the alleys of the Mahane Yehuda market for a cheap and authentic falafel experience.
Things happen late in Israel, and many restaurants do not get busy until 9p or later. The biggest concentration of eateries in West Jerusalem is in the pedestrians' area around Zion Square and Ben Yehuda Street, including the charming alleyways of Nahalat Shiva and Yoel Solomon. As this is a popular tourist area there are cuisines here from all around the world: bagel stands, creperies, South American steakhouses such as Pampas or El Gaucho, and Far Eastern food, be it sushi at Sakura or kimchee at Korea House, to name a few.
During Shabbat (just before sundown on Friday to the appearance of the first three stars on Saturday night) many eateries in West Jerusalem will be closed. However, non-Kosher establishments are open as well as the plethora of restaurants in East Jerusalem and the Old City (bar the Jewish Quarter), so you won't go hungry.
Sahlab is a delicious Arab drink made from the roots of orchids, which is served warm with a nutmeg and shredded coconut topping. Another popular local delicacy is the boureka – puff pastry with a savory filling, such as mashed potato, spinach, mushrooms, or white cheese. The Arabesque Restaurant is the place to go to get all of the traditional Middle Eastern cuisine as well as selections from various countries all over Central and Eastern Europe. Val's Brasserie Lounge is located in the American Colony Hotel and offers a relaxing experience and dishes from around the world.
Many Arab eateries, such as Pasha's, will provide a nargillah (water pipe with flavored tobacco) for relaxing after a meal. Israel is known for its light, healthy breakfasts and a visit to a breakfast buffet at a five-star hotel is recommended. The staples of an Israeli breakfast are a large range of cheeses and salad vegetables. In keeping with five-star tradition, there will also be omelets, crepes, smoked salmon, cheesecake, and fresh fruit. Guests can help themselves as many times as they like, and lunch afterwards is rarely necessary!
Inside the Old City, there are many places to grab a takeaway falafel or shwarma. Some other options for eating in this area are the charming Armenia Taverna or the more casual Bagel Bite. Also in the Old City is the always delicious and gourmet Michael Andrew. Abu Shakri in the Arab quarter provides good Middle Eastern food–for those wishing to eat their falafel sitting down. Try labana, a white cheese, and foul – a bean dish seasoned with lemon juice.
In Jerusalem, nightlife is modest compared to the bright lights, big city, trance and dance culture of brasher Tel Aviv. A Jerusalem evening out is likely to involve food, a coffee shop, and promenading around, enjoying both the fairytale-like atmosphere of the city at night and the hive of human activity.
For listings of all events in English, buy the Friday edition of either the Jerusalem Post or Ha'aretz-Herald Tribune International. There are often lectures, workshops or performances geared specifically towards English speakers. Also look out for Israeli folk dance events. There are possibilities to both watch a show and to participate in a class.
The municipality has invested USD2.5 million in illuminating the walls of the Old City, plus some 50 other buildings of note including churches, museums, the Western Wall Plaza and other key sites. A walk around Jerusalem at night is recommended to take in the magic (and highly recommended if you want a romantic evening). To view Jerusalem at its twinkling best, try standing at the bridge by the Cinematheque or on the Haas Promenade (Tayelet).
Music and Performance
The alleys off Zion Square, such as Yoel Salomon, are peppered with coffee and dessert places - and the odd bar. Tmol Shilshom, a literary café in this area, is a charming place for coffee and cake. The premises are the former home of Israeli writer S.Y. Agnon. There are frequent readings (in both Hebrew and English) and English poetry slams.
Talpiot, a few kilometers further south out of town, is the city's industrial zone and is home to the dance clubs Ha'atasiya and Campus, as well as the live music venue, the Yellow Submarine. Clubs do not get going until around midnight, as Israelis rarely go out before 10p. The DJs keep on playing until dawn.
Ticho House has a cheese, wine and jazz evening every Tuesday and the Bible Lands Museum has a cheese and wine recital on Saturday nights. Churches, such as Dormition Abbey and the Church of the Redeemer, give concerts. Classical music lovers should check the schedule at the Jerusalem Theatre and the International Convention Centre.
Jerusalem has two wonderful art-house cinemas, the Cinematheque which has two screens and a very good café-restaurant, and the Smadar - a one screen cinema with a popular café attached. For mainstream releases, go to the mall, which has eight screens and a large food court.
Films are also frequently shown outdoors at Liberty Bell Park. A trip to the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive is well-worth it for those looking to learn more about Jewish history as captured on film.
In the summer months, Jerusalem hops from one festival to another - providing all sorts of atmospheres and cultural experiences, (many of them free). Late May is the start of the Israel Festival, three weeks of some of the best national and international performing arts acts. Many of the performances are centered around the Jerusalem Theatre, with plentiful free concerts in the theater's plaza or foyer.
July plays host to the Jerusalem International Film Festival, which, in the past, has screened 150 different films over ten days. There are free public events, (such as mass screenings in the park). Tickets for the screenings are very reasonably priced, with the added bonus that some films include lectures, meetings with the director and premiere parties on the lawn.
In August, the park area around the Sultan's Pool, is transformed into a microcosm of the world. Inca palaces and Nepalese temples shoot up for the two-week long International Arts and Crafts Fair. There are pavilions representing all manner of countries, as well as international food stands and more than 150 artists selling jewelry and craft items. The biggest pull of the evening are the concerts given by some of Israel's hottest contemporary performers. Sit back in the grass, with a lapful of international munchies, bask in the moonlight, gaze up at the floodlit walls of the Old City a few meters away, and let Israeli pop work its magic.