Updated post: 29/06/2019 | June 2019
It was love at first sight. The year was 1987, and I was on a bus from Jericho when we stopped on the Mount of Olives. Laid out before us was the Old City of Jerusalem. Its limestone walls glowed in the late afternoon sunlight, the call to prayer from multiple mosques, each one slightly out-of-sync with the next, echoing across the Kidron Valley.
I have returned many times since then and to help others make the best of their first time to this unique city, I am sharing my list of the best things to do in Jerusalem. The focal point is the Old City, 0.35 square miles of hallowed ground to Jews, Muslims and Christians. However, there are also “must-see” sites outside the Old City’s walls.
What these sights have in common is that they are significant in some way, be it historical, cultural or just photogenic. Read, digest but most of all be inspired to book that trip.
The best 17 things to do in Jerusalem
In no particular order or ranking, here is a sneak preview of the 17 best things to do in Jerusalem.
- Climb the Mount of Olives
- Walk Jerusalem’s Old City walls
- Walk the Via Dolorosa
- Post a prayer at the Western Wall
- Go underground into Jerusalem’s past: Western Wall Tunnel tour
- Explore the Jewish Quarter of the Old City
- Visit Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif)
- Explore the Christian Quarter of the Old City
- Soak up the religious fervour at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
- Visit the Muristan
- Go shopping in Jerusalem’s Old City
- Never forget: Visit Yad Vashem
- Visit the Israel Museum
- Go shopping in Mahane Yehuda Market
- Wade through Hezekiah’s Tunnel
- Visit the Garden Tomb
- Eat and drink in a landmark Jerusalem hotel
At the end of this article, you will find some tips on how to prioritise your time in Jerusalem and on where to stay.
1. Climb the Mount of Olives
Climb the Mount of Olives for panoramic views and a slice of biblical history.
The promenade of the Seven Arches Hotel at the top of the Mount of Olives offers an unrivalled vista of the Old City. Winding your way down to Derekh Yerikho, you are tripping over churches and biblical sites. The Church of All Nations with its glistening golden mosaics, nestled amongst the ancient olive trees at Gethsemane. The Russian Orthodox church of St Mary Magdalene, picture-perfect with its seven gilded onion domes, each topped by a tall cross. The small but perfectly formed Church of Dominus Flevit built in the shape of a teardrop.
And that’s not all. According to biblical prophecy, the Mount of Olives will be the place of Christ’s second coming. To get to the front of the queue, it has been a popular burial site and over 150,000 people have been laid to rest amongst the olive trees on its slopes.
Tips for climbing the Mount of Olives
- Ascending the Mount of Olives on foot can be tough going. Make it easy on yourself; catch a bus to the top and walk down.
- Check opening times of churches before you set off. Some only open in the morning or close for lunch.
2. Walk Jerusalem’s Old City walls
Get your bearings in the Old City by doing the Ramparts Walk, a satisfying 1 km stroll on top of the Old City’s 16th century Ottoman walls.
The second of my top 17 things to do in Jerusalem are two walks for the price of one admission ticket. The north walk takes you from Jaffa Gate to Lion’s Gate via, New, Damascus and Herod’s gates; the south walk is from Jaffa Gate to Dung Gate via Zion Gate. You are not able to do a complete circuit as the section alongside Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif is closed for security reasons. Peer over the Old City’s rooftops into no-go areas like the cloistered Armenian compound, and get a bird’s eye view of the Mount of Olives and Mount Zion.
Tips for doing the Ramparts’ Walk
- The best views are on the stretch from Jaffa Gate to Damascus Gate
- If you wish to explore the Old City at ground level while already up on the ramparts, there are places along the ramparts where you can descend to ground level. However, re-entry is only possible at the start of both walks.
- As there is no shade, the walk can be brutally hot. Bring a sunhat and water.
3. Walk the Via Dolorosa
Connect to Jerusalem’s past by walking the Via Dolorosa (The Way of Sorrows), the route which many Christians believe Jesus took carrying the cross to his crucifixion.
Walking this pilgrimage path, so important to Christians for centuries, can be a contemplative experience as well as being another great way to get acquainted with the Old City. The route comprises 14 Stations of the Cross, eight of which have their roots in the Gospels; the remainder is rooted in tradition. A small plaque with the number of the station in Roman numerals marks each station. Pay attention though; these plaques are easy to miss!
The Via Dolorosa starts in the courtyard of the Umariya Elementary School near Lions’ Gate in the Muslim Quarter. It winds its way through the Old City’s narrow streets, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter.
Tip for the Via Dolorosa
- Try to walk the Via Dolorosa early morning before tour groups arrive in their droves.
4. Post a prayer at the Western Wall
Get a direct line to Heaven at the beating heart of Jerusalem.
Close on 500m long and 60m high, the Western Wall originally formed part of a supporting wall for the Temple Mount, built as part of the expansion of the Second Temple by Herod the Great in 19AD. It is important to Jewish people because of its connection to the Temple Mount and its proximity to the room where the Ten Commandments were kept, the Holy of Holies. The Wall is the closest place to the Holy of Holies where Jews are able to pray. Also, Jewish tradition maintains that the third, and final, temple will be built on Temple Mount
It is an extraordinary place to visit. There are Jewish men wearing fringed prayer shawls bowing repeatedly to the wall, prayer books in hand. Women from all around the world gather, many bent over in deep prayer, their foreheads resting on the wall. Other women place their hands on the wall, their eyes closed in prayer. Groups of soldiers are sworn into the IDF. Joyous Bar Mitzvah celebrations abound.
Stuffing a prayer in the wall is not restricted to Jewish visitors. Make sure that you write your wish or prayer on a scrap of paper and tuck it into the cracks in the wall as visitors have done for years. Each of these scraps of paper represents someone’s prayers of adoration, gratitude or desperation. You never know … your wish may be fulfilled.
Tips for visiting the Western Wall
- Remember that the Western Wall is the holiest sites in Jerusalem and you should dress appropriately. For women, this means covering your legs and arms.
- Try to visit at different times of the day. The Wall is at its liveliest during the day but the atmosphere at night is something special.
5. Go underground into Jerusalem’s past: Western Wall Tunnel tour
For a different perspective on the Western Wall, take a tour of its tunnels.
The Western Wall tunnel tour starts at the Western Wall prayer area and ends up in Via Dolorosa (near Station 1), passing along the side of Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif and under present day houses. The tour takes around 80 minutes
Tip for the Western Wall Tunnel tour
- This one place where you will need to reserve ahead (I did it before leaving the UK for Israel)
6. Explore the Jewish Quarter of the Old City
For a serene Old City experience
Visiting the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is a Marmite experience. Frustrated with the relative chaos of the Christian and Muslim Quarters, some welcome the more pristine and calm Jewish Quarter. Others, including myself, find it a wee bit sanitised.
The Jewish Quarter owes its scrubbed appearance to a rebuilding programme following its part-destruction in the 1948 war. As well as being home to the Western Wall, it also boasts the Cardo, built by the Romans after they sacked Jerusalem. Today the Cardo offers a more high-end shopping experience than that of the Christian Quarter.
7. Visit Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif)
Tread on hallowed ground for the three monotheistic religions.
Another of my favourite things to do in Jerusalem is to visit the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif) is a 36-acre open plaza of ancient paving stones and cypress trees looming above the Western Wall. The area contains about 100 different structures including monumental Ummayad mosques and minarets, Herodian walls and gates, and arches and fountains from different time periods.
All three Abrahamic faiths – Jews, Christians and Muslims – regard it as the location of Mount Moriah, where Abraham prepared to offer his son Isaac (or Ishmael in the Muslim tradition) to God. It was here that Solomon built the first Jewish temple. For Christians, Herod’s Temple was the site of several events in the life of Jesus. To Sunni Muslims, Temple Mount is Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and is Islam’s third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina. Muslims believe to the gold-roofed Dome of the Rock — one of Jerusalem’s most recognisable landmarks — covers the rock from which Muhammad visited heaven during his Night Journey in the 7th century.
Tips for visiting Temple Mount
- Plan ahead! The area is only open four hours a day, Monday – Thursday. Queues can be long. Check online for current opening times. As this area can be a flashpoint for unrest, for security reasons it can close without warning
- Dress modestly. On one visit I was severely scolded for allowing my shawl to slip off my shoulders!
- Sadly, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock.
8. Explore the Christian Quarter of the Old City
To explore important Christian sites
Entering the Old City by Jaffa Gate, this is the first area of the Old City that you will come across. Unsurprisingly, its beating heart is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Tip for visiting the Christian Quarter
- Time your visit to the Christian Quarter on Shabbat (Friday afternoon and Saturday) when other parts of the city close down. It is also a useful standby for food during Shabbat.
9. Soak up the religious fervour at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Walk past parades of shuffling pilgrims and through clouds of incense at one of Christianity’s most revered sites
Compared with the dazzling Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre looks unremarkable. Its sombre appearance, and the gloomy passageways and stairways connecting its chapels and altars, reflect its claim to fame as the site of biblical Calvary, the site of Jesus’s crucifixion.
On a quick visit, this is a difficult place to love. But its rewards come with taking a little longer to wander slowly around its frankincense-laden vestibules and chambers. The shafts of light illuminating the Rotunda containing the Holy Sepulchre. Pilgrims visibly weeping in devotion as they kneel to kiss the Stone of Unction on which Jesus’s body was said to be laid and anointed after his crucifixion. The devotion of Christian visitors – for many this will be a long-awaited experience – lifts this site above its architectural gloominess.
Tips for visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
- The Church of the Holy Sepulchre gets VERY crowded. Try to come early morning or just before it shuts for a more serene experience.
- As it is a religious site dress modestly.
10. Visit the Muristan
For an atmospheric lunch spot
This is one of my favourite areas of the Old City.
Occupying the block south of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Muristan was the headquarters of the Crusader Knights of St John, the Hospitallers. Although little survived redevelopment at the end of the 19th Century, this complex of streets and shops is a relaxed and picturesque place to grab a coffee or a bite to eat. Try to bag a seat in the upstairs terrace of one of the restaurants overlooking the main square
11. Go shopping in Jerusalem’s Old City
Whilst this may not be the most relaxing shopping experience, it certainly isn’t dull. Whether it’s decorative china, olive wood carvings or herbs and spices you are after, this is the place to come.
12. Never forget: Visit Yad Vashem
Remember those who perished in the Holocaust.
Established in 1953, Yad Vashem is a powerful memorial to the six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. This 45-acre campus comprises indoor museums and outdoor monuments, exhibitions, memorial sites, gardens and sculptures.
It is difficult not to be profoundly moved as those who perished are remembered by focusing on relatable parts of their humanity – their letters, their photos, belongings and communities. Perhaps the most sobering area is the Children’s Memorial. Honouring each tiny soul who was lost in the Holocaust, this hollowed-out cavern has a single candle reflected in a series of mirrors commemorating the 1.5 million children killed. Never forget.
Tips for visiting Yad Vashem
- The easiest way to get to Yad Vashem is by the Light Rail Train service, exiting at the final stop (Mount Herzl station).
- If you have the time, why not combine this with a visit to the delightful village of Ein Kerem?
13. Visit the Israel Museum
To provide a historical road map of Israel
If you are spending some time in Israel, pay a visit to the Israel Museum early in your trip if you can. Its world-class collection is all you need to provide historical context for the journey ahead.
The star of this particular show is the pot-shaped Shrine of the Book, housing some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s also worth stopping by the enormous 1:50 model of Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple period.
Tips for visiting the Israel Museum
- The Israel Museum is located in Jerusalem on 11 Ruppin Boulevard, Hakyria, near the Knesset (Israeli Parliament). It is open Sunday – Friday.
- It is served by bus lines 7, 9, 14, 35 and 66
- Adult ticket price NIS 54 (15 USD)
14. Go shopping in Mahane Yehuda Market
For the best place to go food shopping
When I first visited Mahane Yehuda Market in 1989, it was just a place where Jerusalemites stocked up on their groceries. Between then and now it has been transformed into a trendy dining area with some of the city’s hippest bars and restaurants.
The fresh fruit and veg are still there but now so much more.
Tips for visiting Mahane Yehuda Market
- You will find Mahane Yehuda Market in the New City at the end of Jaffa Road. Although it is an easy walk from the Old City, it is also served by the Light Rail.
15. Wade through Hezekiah’s Tunnel
In the interests of complete transparency, I confess that I have never walked through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. I visited it with friends some years ago but a fear of enclosed spaces held me back. That and an enclosed space with rushing water.
Connecting the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam, this 500-meter tunnel is widely held to have been constructed by King Hezekiah to provide the people of the City of David with fresh water during a prolonged siege by the Assyrians.
Tips for visiting Hezekiah’s Tunnel
- As water can reach knee-height, wear waterproof footwear and clothes that you don’t mind getting wet. Bring a torch.
- It takes 20 – 40 minutes to walk through the tunnel, depending on how busy it is.
- Hezekiah’s Tunnel is located within the City of David. To reach it, head downhill for the Dung Gate and take the road to the right.
- The entrance fee to the City of David is NIS 29
16. The Garden Tomb
Ponder life away from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem.
Away from the din of Nablus Road is this olive tree-lined garden, considered by some to be the site of the sepulchre of Joseph of Arimathea, and possibly the place where Jesus was resurrected. Although these claims are hotly disputed, in stark contrast to the frantic nature of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb is an oasis of tranquillity. Sit in a shady spot and read or ponder life.
Tip for visiting the Garden Tomb
- The Garden Tomb is closed on Sundays. It is 400 meters from Damascus Gate, straight up Nablus Road.
- Entrance is free
17. Eat and drink in a landmark Jerusalem hotel
Venture into East Jerusalem to drink and dine in the American colony hotel
About 15 minutes’ walk from the Garden Tomb is the American Colony Hotel. Built in the 19th century by Ottoman Pasha Rabbah Daoud Amin Effendi al-Husseini, who lived there with his harem of four wives, this landmark hotel has welcomed many film stars, diplomats, politicians and foreign correspondents. Its famous guests include Robert De Niro, Natalie Portman, Lawrence of Arabia, Christiane Amanpour, Bob Dylan, Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev and John le Carré to name but a few.
Take it easy in its courtyard, shaded by mulberry trees whilst you sip on their delicious homemade lemonade with mint. A perfect Jerusalem pit-stop.
Where to stay in Jerusalem
Over the years I have stayed in many places in Jerusalem, mostly hostels and guesthouses in the Old City. Of these, I can recommend the Lutheran Guesthouse on St Mark St in the Christian Quarter.
On my most recent visit, I stayed at the fabulous mid-range Harmony Hotel, 15 minutes’ walk from Jaffa Gate. The daily happy hour was a real treat!
How much time do you need to visit Jerusalem
How long is a piece of string? Seriously, I have visited Jerusalem six times and there are still things that I would like to see.
If you need to narrow down what to fit into a typical three-day break, start with the Mount of Olives, the Ramparts Walk, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Temple Mount, Western Wall and Yad Vashem. And see how you go from there.
However, the most important thing to do in Jerusalem is to soak up the atmosphere of this very special city.
Further reading for your trip to Israel
Do you want to explore a bit further afield?
If so, check out my suggestions for easy and great day trips from Jerusalem.