Jerusalem. It had been on our list to visit for so many years. The history. The culture. The origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Thinking about the people who walked the steps in the old city thousands of years ago filled us with wonder.
In more recent times, the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis has given us pause. We always wanted to do this trip in a way that would respect the issues, cultures, and history. We took a dual narrative tour with Mejdi Tours. We had two guides — one Palestinian and one Jewish — and were able to delve deeply into the issues and challenges.
Jerusalem is one of those places that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. Most people come for the highlights, and we will be listing many of them below. We also spent two additional days soaking in the atmosphere, walking the streets, exploring the old city, and experiencing life in Jerusalem.
Inside The Old City
When we arrived in East Jerusalem, we immediately saw the walls of the city. It took our breaths away. We had to go there immediately to experience it. There is so much to do in the Old City.
1. Experience The Western Wall (Wailing Wall)
The Western Wall is considered by religious Jews to be the original site of King Solomon’s Holy Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.). It was later rebuilt by King Herod and subsequently destroyed again. Today, what is left is the retaining wall that borders the western side of Temple Mount.
As you gaze upon the wall, you will see hundreds of Jewish men and women, fervently rocking and praying. Many insert notes into the cracks of the stones. The men and women are separated by a partition. You may even catch a bar mitzvah ceremony if you come on a Thursday.
Pro Tip: Modest dress is required. There are loaner scarves to cover your shoulders and knees if you should come unprepared. If you arrive at the wrong time, there will be a very long line to get through the metal detectors.
2. Descend Underneath To The Western Wall Tunnels
We were very lucky to book a tour of the tunnels underneath the Western Wall with Kotel Tours. In the mid-19th century, British archaeologists discovered tunnels and arches that supported a bridge leading from the city to Temple Mount. The wall extends several feet below the current ground level. You can touch some of the original limestone used to build the temple in 19 B.C. on the tour.
Pro Tip: The tunnels are only accessible on a guided tour.
3. Admire The Beautiful Temple Mount
The Dome Of The Rock And Aqsa Mosque
Designated as a UNESCO Heritage site, Temple Mount is the most hotly contested religious site in the world. It is sometimes closed due to unrest.
The Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, and the Al Aqsa Mosque are all part of the Temple Mount. The iconic golden Dome covering the Islamic shrine can be seen from almost every rooftop in East Jerusalem. The shrine marks that spot where Muhammad ascended to heaven. It was built over the area of the older Jewish temples.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque sits at the other end of the Dome on Temple Mount. Like the temples and shrine, the mosque was destroyed and rebuilt over five historical periods.
Pro Tips: Only Muslims are allowed to go inside the Dome and the Mosque. Others can walk around the outside. Make sure to dress appropriately.
4. Follow The Route Of The Via Dolorosa
Religious pilgrims come to Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorosa, tracing the steps that were thought to have been taken by Jesus carrying his cross as he was led to be crucified. There are 14 Stations of the Cross, with the first located just after you enter at Lion’s Gate.
Pro Tip: Go early in the morning as many worshippers converge upon this walk, making it hard to navigate the stations due to the narrow and sometimes steep walkways. Follow the medallions that mark the stations along the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
5. Take A Moment At The Church Of The Holy Sepulchre
Located in the Christian Quarter of the old city, the church is said to have been built on the site where Jesus was crucified, laid to rest, and then rose from the dead. The last four stations of the cross are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Pro Tip: Arrive early or you may encounter long lines of people waiting to enter.
6. Walk The Walls At The Tower Of David Museum
Near the Jaffa Gate is the Tower of David. We had fun climbing up onto the ramparts and exploring the ancient citadel. The walls circling what was the Old City back in the 16th century were restored by Suleiman the Ottoman. There is a light show in the evening.
7. Have Tea In The Arab Quarter
We loved wandering the maze that house the souks (markets) in the Arab Quarter. There are dozens of Palestinian shops specializing in spices, nuts, candies, clothes, and even household items. If tea is not your preferred beverage, try the popular pomegranate juice. Have lunch at one of local places for the best Palestinian kebabs and falafel in Israel. Have a cup of tea and maybe even try a sheesha smoke pipe (sometimes called hookah).
Pro Tip: If you are in Jerusalem on a Saturday, most of the city will be closed to observe the Jewish Sabbath. The Arab quarter, while closed on Friday afternoon, is open on Saturday.
8. Walk Through The Jewish Quarter
Like the Arab quarter, the small and hilly Jewish Quarter has synagogues (Hurva), cafes, restaurants, and museums. We enjoyed visiting the Hurva Synagogue and learning about its history. As we were wandering, we stumbled upon King David’s Tomb and the Cenacle, which some people believe was the location of the Last Supper.
9. Take A Step Back Into Roman History At The Cardo
Experience Roman history in the Cardo, the main thoroughfare used during the Roman time. It runs from the Damascus Gate to the Zion Gate. You won’t miss the Roman columns and the mosaics depicting scenes from the Byzantine period.
10. Visit The Armenian Quarter
Located in the southwestern quadrant of the old city, you will find the Armenian Quarter, established in the fourth century A.D. Dotted with Armenian restaurants, monasteries, and churches, it is the smallest quarter.
11. Shop In The Christian Quarter
Situated in the northwestern corner of the old city, the Christian quarter is built around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Wander and browse for antiques in the shops and stop for ceramic souvenirs.
Sites Just Outside of The Old City
12. Wade Through Hezekiah’s Tunnel In The City Of David
The City of David is an archaeological site just outside the Old City walls. Explore King Hezekiah Tunnel, which is still carrying water (bring a bathing suit and water shoes — the tunnel has knee-deep water).
Pro Tip: You can opt to explore Warren’s Shaft, which was a dry tunnel, instead. This is what we did.
13. Take Time To See The Mount of Olives
The Mount of Olives is an important location for Christians and Jews. According to the New Testament, Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives. It has one of the best views overlooking the Old City.
14. Garden Of Gethsemane
Located near the entrance of The Lions’ Gate, the Garden of Gethsemane is said to be the place where Jesus was arrested before his crucifixion. While there, stop by the Church of All Nations. The tomb of the Virgin Mary is across the street.
Sites in Other Parts of Jerusalem (Outside Of East Jerusalem)
15. Pay Tribute To The Holocaust At Yad Vashem
Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, is a memorial to all who were lost in the Holocaust. It is impossible to understand Israel without letting in the horror of Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews. The Children’s Memorial made us weep. The museum is staggering and a deeply emotional experience. Make sure to spend some time acknowledging the Righteous Among the Nations — people who risked their lives to save Jews.
Pro Tip: Leave some quiet time for processing after Yad Vashem.
16. Israel Museum
The Dead Sea Scrolls are housed at the Israel Museum in the Shrine of the Book, a unique white dome that was specially built as a repository for the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is a model of Old Jerusalem as well as a sculpture garden and art galleries.
17. Go To The Mahane Yehuda Market Twice
A busy working market during the day, this is a place you can go for typical Israeli food. In the evenings, it is very lively. When the market stalls are closed for Shabbat and the gates are down, you will find portraits of men and women, Jewish and Palestinian, young and old adorning the lowered gates.
More Tips For Visiting Jerusalem
Much of the city shuts down after sundown for Shabbat, including all public transport. Palestinian businesses are closed on Friday evenings but open on Saturdays.
There are many steps that go up and down the ancient limestone paved roads of Old Jerusalem. We recommend wearing good supportive walking shoes.
Explore the local restaurants inside the city walls and you will be rewarded with wonderful meals and experiences. Make sure to bring cash — many of the shops do not take credit cards.
If you take a tour, you’ll see many of the highlights. Leave some time after your tour to explore on your own, get lost, and become enchanted by Jerusalem.
For more inspiration, consider