Updated post: 18/11/18 | November 2018
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 and thought that I would share my list of the Top 10 things to do in Jerusalem as a first-time visitor 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. In no particular order, let’s explore!
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.
- 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 the 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 16thcentury Ottoman walls.
Number 2 of my Top 10 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.
- 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 are 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.
- Try to walk the Via Dolorosa early morning before tour groups arrive in their droves.
4. Post a prayer at the 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.
- 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
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
- This one place where you will need to reserve ahead (I did it before leaving the UK for Israel)
6. Visit Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif)
Tread on hallowed ground for the three monotheistic religions.
One 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.
- 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.
7. 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.
- 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.
8. 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 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.
- 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?
9. 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 a 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.
- The Garden Tomb is closed on Sundays. It is 400 meters from Damascus Gate, straight up Nablus Road.
10. 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 19thcentury 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.
Do you want to explore a bit further afield? If so, check out my suggestions for easy and great day trips from Jerusalem.
Have you shared any of these experiences? Or do you have other suggestions for things to do in Jerusalem?
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