Updated post: 18/11/18 | November 2018
Although it might be difficult to tear yourself away from the golden domes and incense-perfused churches of Jerusalem, there are some great destinations that are easily visited within a few hours’ drive. So if you want to swap the headiness of the Old City for an exploration of the West Bank, a picturesque village, a majestic symbol of Jewish resistance or a relaxing float in the Dead Sea, here are my choices of day trips from Jerusalem.
For an easy visit to the West Bank and to check out an important Christian site.
If you would like to visit the West Bank, Bethlehem is the easiest option. Just 9km south of Jerusalem and easily accessible by bus, it is celebrated as the birthplace of Jesus. Not so much a “little town” but more of a small city, Bethlehem is home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities in the Middle East, although their numbers have dwindled in recent years.
The main draw is the Church of the Nativity on the appropriately-named Manger Street, marking the site of Jesus’s birth. This fortress-like church is not particularly attractive and may disappoint you. However, there are fragments of well-preserved 5th Century mosaic floors, and the church has a solemn atmosphere with whiffs of incense filling its cavernous interior.
In contrast to the oppressiveness of the Church of the Nativity, the light and airy St Catherine’s Church has achieved fame as the site from which Midnight Mass is broadcast. You can reach it via steps from the north of the Church of the Nativity. Also, don’t miss The Grotto of the Nativity, the site of the manager where Jesus is believed to have been born, accessible from the south side of the altar.
Tips for visiting Bethlehem
- Bethlehem is considered a safe place for tourists to visit. However, check the situation in the West Bank before you travel. Note that escalations in violence the Gaza Strip do not mean that trips to other Palestinian cities are unsafe.
- The best way to get there is to take bus #21 (blue in colour) from the Arab bus station in Sultan Suliman St., just across from the Old City’s by Damascus Gate. The journey takes around 30 – 40 minutes and goes via the village of Beit-Jalla. Tourists are supposed to remain on the bus while Palestinians must usually exit the bus and line up outside. Although soldiers might enter the bus to check your passport, particularly when heading back into Jerusalem, this is fairly painless.
- Alternatively, Egged bus #234 leaves from the corner of Sultan Suliman St. and Hanev’im St. But note that the final stop is the main entrance to Bethlehem (checkpoint 300) and you will have to take either a taxi or a Palestinian bus to get inside Bethlehem itself.
- There is also a shuttle bus service that leaves the David Citadel Hotel for downtown Bethlehem at 15:30, making the return journey at 17:30. It costs 15 USD each way. Although convenient, this is not particularly cheap and will not give you much time to explore Bethlehem.
- Remember to dress modestly when visiting these religious sites.
- As Arab buses run on Shabbat (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset) and Jewish holidays, Bethlehem is a good option for these days when transport options are limited.
For a respite from Jerusalem with the opportunity for short hikes in a national park
The peaceful village of Ein Kerem, just 30 minutes from the centre of Jerusalem, is a great option for a half-day trip. Regarded by Christian tradition to be the birthplace of John the Baptist, it is a beautiful spot. Wander its alleys and streets, go for an easy hike in the nearby National Park or visit one of the several churches.
Tips for visiting Ein Kerem
- To reach Ein Kerem take the Light Rail Train service to Mount Herzl (final stop) and then pick up bus #28
- If you have time, why not combine this with a visit to Yad Vashem?
To visit a symbol of Jewish nationalism and sacrifice set in the desolate landscape of the Judean desert.
“Masada shall not fall again”
So goes the oath of allegiance sworn by newly enlisted Israeli soldiers. Rising 400m above the Dead Sea, this clifftop plateau and its tenacious defence by Jewish rebels has achieved almost mythical status, symbolising heroism and sacrifice.
Built as a fortified complex by Herod the Great from 40 to 4 BC, Masada became the last rebel stronghold after the Romans crushed the Judean uprising, destroying the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD. 967 Jewish defenders held off 8,000 Roman legionnaires during a three-year siege.
Using Jewish slave labour, the Roman built a giant ramp up the side of the cliff and dragged battering rams up it. In 73AD, Eleazer Ben Yair, the rebels’ commander, gathered his people and instructed them that death was preferred to slavery. Each man burned his possessions, bade farewell to his loved ones and then put them to death. Ten men were chosen by a lottery to execute the others and then to take his own life.
When the Roman soldiers burst in the following morning, they were met by a deathly silence. The only survivors were two women and five children, living witnesses to the story of Masada. Although some historians have cast doubt on the so-called myth of Masada, claiming it to be exaggerated or incorrect, it remains a symbol of pride and nationalism for Israel.
What is beyond doubt is that Masada is a fantastic day trip from Jerusalem. Take the winding path or the cable car up to its plateau and explore the impressive ruins, including Herod’s private palace, whilst looking over the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea.
Tips for visiting Masada
- It is best to set off early. The bus journey from Jerusalem takes around 1:30 mins. Take bus #444 from the central bus station.
- It can be brutally hot with little shade. Bring plenty of sunscreen, water and a hat.
- If you fancy climbing Masada, there are two paths that you can take. The shorter but steeper Rampart Path takes around 20 minutes. The Snake Path is broader and easier and takes around 45 mins.
- Allow around 2 – 3 hours for your visit.
For that quintessential Israeli Instagram image of you reading The Jerusalem Post whilst afloat, head to the Dead Sea.
Sitting between Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, at 400 m below sea level, the Dead Sea is not really a sea but a very, very salty lake. Visit the oasis of Ein Gedi for an opportunity to bathe in the Dead Sea, as well as to explore its springs, streams, flora and fauna. Also, don’t miss the opportunity to slather yourself in therapeutic Dead Sea mud.
Tips for visiting Ein Gedi
- To get to Ein Gedi, take bus #444 or #486 from the central bus station. The journey should take you 1:15 mins.
- If you have the time and set out early, it makes sense to combine this with visiting Masada, another 15 minutes or so along the same bus route.
- For an extra cost, you can take an organised tour to combine visiting the Dead Sea with other attractions. On one visit, I did a great tour with Green Olive Tours, which also took in Jericho and Qumran
- The high salt content of the water can make your skin sting like crazy. Watch out for those open cuts and scrapes – cover them with a waterproof plaster before leaving – and don’t shave before visiting.