Latest update: 8 August 2022
Trying to understand Jerusalem in a few hours is an absolutely impossible task. However, I’m on a day trip from Tel Aviv, and with a bit of effort, I manage to cram in the highlights of Jerusalem’s old city.
Both Israel and Palestine claim Jerusalem as their (future) capital. Politics and religion are complex here and go hand in hand. Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike regard Jerusalem as an important city within their faith. The situation is nearly incomprehensible in the many books and articles that have been written about it, so let alone in a few sentences in this blog. As a visitor, the mixed culture is visible but inscrutable. I see the churches, the mosques, the skullcaps, the veils, and, as souvenirs, statues of Mary, crosses, and the seven-armed Jewish candlestick. I hear the different languages. And I’m clearly an outsider.
Tip! I visit Jerusalem on my own, but I can imagine you want more background information. Explore your options with Get Your Guide.
Tourist and religious attraction
Secretly I find the old city of Jerusalem very commercial. The narrow streets are crammed with souvenirs. I imagine myself in a market in Turkey. Probably naively, I find it a strange contrast to the religious character of the city.
The old town is surrounded by city walls and split into four parts, although they seem to overlap here and there. There is a Muslim part, a Jewish part, a Christian part, and an Armenian Christian part. To the Jews, Jerusalem is where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, and David erected an altar on the Temple Mount. For Christians, this is the place where Jesus spent the last years of his life, and for Muslims, Mohammed made his heavenly journey here. So enough history to be found to last you a lifetime.
Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem
Via Dolorosa is the road that Jesus walked to be crucified. The route runs from the Lion’s Gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A stretch of 600 meters, which Jesus covered while carrying a cross. There are several important places on this route. You have to pay attention to discover them all in the crowds. Often a group of tourists staring at a wall is a good indication that you’ve found an important spot. For example, many people want to touch the spot on the wall where Jesus placed his hand to lean and rest for a while.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is said to be the place where Jesus was crucified, buried, and where he resurrected. Most people seem to come to visit the tomb. Expect a severe queue. The marble stone on which Jesus was embalmed also attracts many people who touch, polish and kiss the stone. I decide that the crowds are too big and skip it to discover other parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The stairs lead to beautiful underground areas that have a nice cool temperature. Quite a pleasant change from the oppressive heat in the city.
The Temple Mount
At the Temple Mount, the three largest religions in Jerusalem come incredibly close. But what is a sacred place for so many people is also a place of unrest and riots. Tensions are apparent from the many guards overseeing the gates of the surrounding wall. I accidentally end up at the wrong entrance gate with my friends. Only Muslims are allowed through this one. We can only enter through the Moghrabi, where our bags are quickly checked.
The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem
Once you enter, on the left is the famous Wailing Wall. The Jews pray here and put pleading notes in the wall. The men and women do this separately, although there is some contact. Boys have their bar mitzvahs here. When a boy turns thirteen, he is considered of age religiously. He is then allowed to read a part of the Torah himself for the first time. This is done under the watchful eye of partying men. The ladies stand on chairs and benches on the other side, singing and whooping over the makeshift fence. That’s how they participate and interact with the festivities. As a tourist you can watch this whole spectacle and if you want you can also leave a note in the wailing wall yourself. The men get a yarmulke (the wind keeps blowing off, hold it tight!), and the ladies can just walk on.
The Dome of the Rock
At the rear is the entrance to the Dome of the Rock. Here is another security check, and as soon as you have walked down the corridor, the women’s clothes get inspected. You are offered a shawl or trousers to cover yourself if you’re considered too exposed. I must say that I opt for long pants everywhere in Jerusalem anyway. That feels better to me in a city where religion plays a significant role.
We are lucky that we can still visit the Dome of the Rock. In the summer, non-Muslims are only allowed to visit the dome between 8.30 and 11.30 am and between 1.30 pm and 2.30 pm. So we have exactly ten minutes to take pictures of the beautiful building. The guards quickly shoo us away after. And guess what… Then we CAN leave the site through the Muslim gate. I can’t comprehend the logic.
Tip! The Tower of David also has opening hours. Usually, you can enter until 4:30 pm. So make sure to check in advance.
Hookah smoking: social activity
Smoking a hookah with a cup of sweet tea is a great way to interact with the locals. We choose a small cafe just outside the walls of the Temple Mount. It takes some time, but people’s curiosity wins. Small children come to look at those weird Western people, a veiled lady observes us carefully and tries some sentences in English.
Wandering around Jerusalem
And beyond these highlights, Jerusalem is also an exciting city to wander through its narrow streets. In the old part, you will come across buildings with religious significance that you can visit. So I inadvertently end up in the place where Jesus was imprisoned. So be curious and sneak in everywhere you can!
To Jerusalem from Tel Aviv
From Tel Aviv, we take the bus 480 to Jerusalem. The bus ride takes about an hour and costs 16 Shekels (less than 4 euros). You can buy a ticket on the bus itself. At the bus station in Jerusalem, it is a bit of a search for the exit. Once you have found it, you can buy a ticket for the tram at the machine in front of the exit. It will take you to the old town. We spent about five hours in Jerusalem, including lunch and a drink. That is enough for the main highlights but far too little time to experience the city. If you want to stay a little longer, check out the options at Booking.com
More Israel inspiration?
Useful links for your Israel trip
- Travel guides. I recommend buying DIY Tel Aviv. It doesn’t have pretty pictures, but it does have insider tips. Nice to have next to your travel guide with beautiful pictures. Buy it at Amazon.
- Flights. Compare all your options! Transavia normally has good deals, but definitely check out Momondo, Skyscanner, and Kiwi.
- Transportation. Book bus trips, trains, and more in Israel via Busbud, Omio, or 12Go.
- Accommodation. All-time favorite: Booking.com. Book hostels via Hostelworld.
- Money. Your bank cards may not get accepted everywhere. You could opt for a Revolut card as an additional card when you travel.
- Activities. You book the best tours and activities with GetYourGuide and Viator. Reserve a ‘free’ walking tour at Freetour.com or GuruWalk, and for bike tours, try Baja Bikes.
- Attractions and museums. Get a 5% discount on museums and attractions via Tiqets with the discount code KIMOPREIS22
- Car rental. My go-to car rental companies are EasyTerra and Sunny Cars as they have all-inclusive / worry-free offers.
- Travel gear. Buy your gear at Bever or Decathlon, or simply at Bol.com.
- Package deals. Rather go on a catered trip? You have plenty of options. These are some for the Dutch among us: ANWB vakanties, Sawadee, Tui, D-reizen or Vakantie Discounter?
Or, what about a yoga retreat in Israel?
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First published: July 2018. Updated since.