Bewitched by Jerusalem's Old City
- Recommended for:
- Activity, Cultural, Budget
Wander the winding streets, sample delicious food, and discover the inspiring sights and sounds of one of the oldest cities in the world
The Old City of Jerusalem is an intense, magical place; less than a square kilometre of dusty, ancient walled city where cultures and faiths collide. Served by seven gates, it is split into four uneven quarters: the Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter, Jewish Quarter and Armenian Quarter - each with their own distinct character. Walk the labyrinthine alleyways and stumble across hidden churches, haggle with enthusiastic vendors in the souks and feel tingles down your spine as you hear the haunting sound of the adhan (call to prayer). You will easily fall under the city's spell.
Via Dolorosa and Church of the Holy Sepulchre
From near the Lion Gate (in the Muslim Quarter) follow the Via Dolorosa or ‘Way of the Cross’ (the route taken by Christ), to Calvary, the site of the crucifixion. The slightly tacky souvenir shops that have sprung up along the way make it tricky to picture it as it would have been, but it’s still an absorbing walk. All fourteen Stations of the Cross - each signifying an event in the Gospel story - can be difficult to spot (some are marked by churches, others just a plaque on the wall), but each one is individually fascinating.
The last five Stations of the Cross are located within The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter (entrance is free). The site of Calvary is an unnecessarily glittery affair, marked by altars dripping in silver and gold which seem in stark contrast to the rest of the vast stone church. Tourists patiently queue for entry to Jesus’ tomb (located in the rotunda), but the church is open from 5am-8pm so if you want to experience this sacred place minus the many tour groups then visit in the early morning or late evening.
The Muslim quarter is the largest and most Middle Eastern in feel, with amazing Islamic architecture. A holiday isn’t complete without a bit of retail therapy and the souks don’t disappoint – just make sure you haggle! Souk Khan al-Zeit and the central souks are chaotic, claustrophobic market streets full of vibrant colours and exotic aromas. The throngs of tourists make it one of the busiest areas in the Old City, but there is an energy here that buzzes through the crowded lanes. Mind the locals with wheelbarrows, who hurtle through the alleys and don’t stop for tourists.
The shopkeepers will hassle you (one offered to buy my fellow traveller for $1000 and a donkey), but politely tell them to leave you alone, and they will. Always make sure you cover your knees and shoulders – you will receive much less unwanted attention.
In a country so fraught with tensions, everyone was wonderfully open and friendly to us; Mohammed, our Palestinian taxi driver, stopped at his favourite café to buy us deliciously strong Arabic coffee, while a lovely Israeli man took the time to carefully direct us to our hostel.
The Jewish Quarter houses the awe-inspiring Western Wall (free entrance), one of the religion’s most sacred sites. You are permitted to approach the wall (except on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath – sundown Friday to sundown Saturday) and see the hundreds of tiny written prayers that are pushed into every possible crevice. Photographs are permitted (again, not on Shabbat), but standing there among such intense emotion, we soon realised that snapping away is an unacceptable intrusion.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to visit the site during Shabbat you will see hundreds of Orthodox Jews gather to socialise and pray. Hang back and absorb the atmosphere; it’s a truly humbling experience.
While you can walk between quarters with ease, there is - unsurprisingly - a constant military presence throughout the city, and security is even higher at the Western Wall during Shabbat. You never get used to seeing young boys brandishing machine guns almost bigger than they are, yet at no time did we feel remotely threatened or unsafe.
Covering almost a fifth of the city, Temple Mount is home to the famous Dome of the Rock, built to hold the rock where Abraham intended to sacrifice his son. Often mistaken for a mosque, it is a dazzling building, and its iconic golden dome and impressive blue and white mosaics are visible throughout much of the city. Non-Muslims must enter Temple Mount through Moor’s Gate (near the Western Wall) but we found that the strict entry times (sun-thurs 7.30-10.30am and 12.20-1.30pm) are often subject to change.
Just outside the Old City and off the beaten tourist trail is peaceful Mount Zion (reached through the Zion Gate). It is certainly worth sparing a few hours to explore what is on offer here. Mount Zion encloses the Dormition Abbey, believed to be the site of Mary’s death, and the Coenaculum, the room where the Last Supper allegedly took place.
The Chamber of the Holocaust is a small, heart wrenching display of original photographs and authentic relics (including uniforms from Auschwitz and objects made from Torah scrolls) that are horrifying, fascinating and deeply moving in equal measure (sun-thurs 9am-3.45pm, or fri 1.30pm; 12NIS; +972 2671 5105; www.holocaustchamber.org).
Venture deeper into Mount Zion and you will discover a quiet protestant cemetery which is home to Oskar Schindler’s grave; a modest stone that would be unremarkable save for the dozens of rocks still regularly placed upon it by Jewish visitors.
Where to stay
We opted for the Citadel Hostel (20 St Mark’s Road), an old stone house in the quieter Armenian Quarter. It is basic and a bit cramped, but what it lacks in home comforts it makes up for in charm. Its best feature is the roof terrace (where more adventurous guests can sleep for 55NIS), that offers superb views of The Dome of the Rock and Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It’s also a great place to watch sunset over the Old City.
Where to eat
There are numerous cafes and street stalls dotted throughout the Old City which offer tasty, quality food at friendly prices (usually under 70NIS for a meal). We mainly stuck to the freshly cooked falafel, pitta bread and hummus. On the one night we visited a restaurant, we picked Pizzaria Basti (70 Al-Wad in the Muslim Quarter) for some cheap pizza. The food was reasonable and the service friendly, but it didn’t beat the delicious Middle Eastern cuisine.
How to get there
From Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport take a sherut (shared taxi) from outside the arrivals hall. These cost around 50NIS (remember to confirm with the driver) and will drop you nearly anywhere in Jerusalem.