Bethlehem is best known as the setting for the Christmas story, but this ancient city is also home to modern, vibrant culture, great (and ethical) shopping and good food
Bethlehem is perhaps best known for its role in the Christmas story, but is also home to a wide range of other attractions, including historical and archaeological sites, modern art and culture, and superb workshops where you can buy traditional Palestinian crafts. And, despite the troubles which have beset it during decades of the conflict, Bethlehem is a safe and welcoming destination for travellers.
For many visitors to Bethlehem, the sites associated with the birth of Christ are the first port of call. The Church of the Nativity on Manger Square in the centre of the city, where a tiny underground chapel is said to be the actual site of the manger in which Christ lay as a baby. This is a grand, decorated church scented with strong incense smoke and with separate sections managed by Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant clergy; as well as its religious significance, it is also home to impressive Byzantine mosaics, murals and silverwork.
Just round the corner is the Milk Grotto (on Milk Grotto Street), a chapel associated with one of the Virgin Mary's miracles, while down the hill in Beit Sahour ('the place of the watchers' – named after the shepherds from the Nativity tale) are archaeological remains believed by some to be the site of the Biblical shepherds' fields. The centre of Bethlehem's Islamic religious practice is the elegant Mosque of Omar, immediately across Manger Square from the Nativity Church. It was built in the 19th century and is regarded as a symbol of the religious co-existence for which the city is famous.
For visitors looking for more up-to-date culture, the Peace Centre on Manger Square itself, just across from the Church of the Nativity, and Dar Annadwa International Centre on Paul IV Street (+970 2 2770047; www.annadwa.org), both host exhibitions of photography, art and crafts, and sometimes also put on concerts ranging from traditional Palestinian oud music and debke dancing to rebellious rap from big regional names like DAM. The Separation Wall which cuts the West Bank off from Israel is also a surprisingly good place to see vibrant modern art, with giant murals and even cartoons by British street artist Banksy.
And for travellers interested in learning more of the gritty reality of Palestinian life, the Ibdaa Centre (by the entrance to Deheishe Refugee Camp, Hebron Road; www.dheisheh-ibdaa.net) on the road south towards Hebron has a café where visitors can meet with third and fourth generation refugees, hear about their lives and see the murals with which they express their longing for the villages their grandparents fled from.
Fair trade shopping
Ibdaa is one of the many places in Bethlehem where visitors can shop for the beautiful, intricate embroidery work made by the city's women. A women's co-operative there ensures that the work – and its proceeds – are divided up fairly. In Bethlehem's close sister city of Beit Sahour, Holy Land Handicrafts (Shepherds' Fields, Beit Sahour; 00972 2277 3087; www.holyland-handicraft.org), a fair trade organisation backed by British ethical trade initiatives, helps to preserve the traditional local craft of olive wood carving. Its large gallery-shop sells everything from camel keyrings to large statues.
Where to eat and drink
Bethlehem is also a great place to eat. For a lunch on the hoof, the felafel stands on the corner of Manger Square offer some of the best you'll ever eat – fat golden rounds of crushed chickpeas with steaming, fragrant insides green with parsley. You can sit in the cool, cave-like restaurant and eat them from a plate with fuul and hummus, or take them away in pitta sandwiches. For a traditional multi-course Arabic evening meal of mezze followed by kebab or grilled fish, head down to the Citadel in Beit Sahour's old city (Citadel Street; 02-277-5725). Or, if you've had enough of traditional food, the Grand Hotel is home to the Mariachi restaurant, a surprisingly decent take on Mexican, which does great guacamole (just of Paul VI Street, Bethlehem; +972-2-274-1440; www.grandhotelbethlehem.com). Depending on your choice of dressings and salads, a felafel lunch can be had for £1-£2, while a generous evening meal out with a drink won't set you back more than £10, and, if you're on a budget, can be a lot less if you stay away from fish (usually the most expensive dish) and alcoholic drinks.
Its religiously diverse population means that Bethlehem is also one of the few cities in the West Bank where alcoholic drinks are widely served, including the excellent Taybeh beer (brewed under German purity laws in a village near Ramallah, a little further north in the West Bank) and Cremisan wine, from the vineyards on the outskirts of Bethlehem run by an order of monks.
Where to stay in Bethlehem
There is an increasingly good range of hotel accommodation in Bethlehem, ranging from the splendid Jacir Palace Intercontinental, part of the Intercontinental chain, via clean, respectable mid-range examples such as the well-situated Paradise Hotel, through to hostels aimed at budget travellers, such as Beit Sahour's Arab Women's Union. Even the latter are clean and often quiet, and serve generous buffet breakfasts.
Budget travellers wanting something a bit out of the ordinary can also try the small guesthouse at Bustan Qaraaqa ('the tortoise garden'), a volunteer-run permaculture farm on the edge of Beit Sahour (Old City). For those wanting to maximise the time they spend meeting local people – or even learning Arabic – the Beit Sahour-based Alternative Tourism Group (Star Street, Beit Sahour) organises stays with local families who can provide comfortable rooms, breakfast and dinner, as well as real taste of daily Palestinian life (see Bethlehem Homestays).
Rates for accommodation range from around 50-80 Israeli shekels (£10-£15 per person) for B&B at the AWU or a homestay, through US$45 (£30, single) to $US70 (£50, double) for bed & breakfast in mid-range hotels such as the Paradise, to US$90 (£60) for a single to $100+ (£70) for a double at the splendid Jacir Palace.
For those preferring to visit Bethlehem on short day-trips, the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG) also organises day tours, collecting visitors from Jerusalem, visiting major historical, cultural and political sites and returning them in the evening. ATG currently only accepts payment in cash, but travellers wanting to pay in advance by credit card can book via Tours in English (03-721-9540; mobile 054-693-4433; www.toursinenglish.com).