A Personal Travel Guide To Israel: Jerusalem – The Holy City

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By Douglas E. Duckett

A Personal Travel Guide To Israel – Find all the chapters here

Jerusalem—The Holy City
Suggested Time:  6 to 7 nights

Why did I allocate so much time to Jerusalem?  Because Jerusalem is the heart and soul of Israel and the Jewish people, and perhaps the most emotionally and spiritually (as well as politically) charged place on Earth.  The ancients thought that Jerusalem was the center of the world, the “navel of the world,” or the very “foundation stone of creation.” From my standpoint, that’s about right.  For me, Jerusalem is quite simply the most remarkable city in the world.

Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan after the 1948 War for Independence, and the Old City, with all its holy sites, was held by Jordan and barred to Jews for 19 years.  Like Berlin in the Cold War, Jerusalem was a bitterly divided city with walls and barbed wire at its heart. In the Six-Day War, Israel captured the Old City together with the West Bank and reunited the city, annexing the eastern part, an action not recognized by most of the world.  The city is still often referred to by its parts: The New City (West Jerusalem, Jewish); the Old City (the small, walled, ancient city); and East Jerusalem (the modern, mostly Arab section to the east). Whatever its legal and diplomatic status, to a large degree, Jerusalem remains culturally and politically divided and, of course, deeply contested.  Safety is really not an issue, though. While I feel less comfortable walking around the Old City at night, and you should always keep your wits about you, don’t be intimidated by the crowds and the frequently chaotic feel. I have walked all over the Old City on every trip and never had problems. Given recurring tensions, however, I would recommend avoiding the Damascus Gate area and the Muslim Quarter around Friday prayer time.  That’s it—otherwise, you’re fine.

Tickets for Jerusalem, Bethlehem & Dead Sea: Roundtrip from Jerusalem

To make this complex city even more confusing, the Old City has four traditional quarters.  They are the Christian Quarter (northwest), the Muslim Quarter (northeast), the Armenian Quarter (southeast), and the Jewish Quarter (southwest).  Each quarter has a distinct character, though there are no fixed divisions or markers and there is some diversity of population in each of the quarters.

I have long stayed at the Three Arches Hotel in the Jerusalem International YMCA, 26 King David Street, P.O. Box 294, Jerusalem 91002 Israel, tel. (02) 569-2692; https://www.ymca3arches.com.  This is not like staying in a YMCA in the United States; this is not transient housing or a hostel.  It is in a beautiful stone building (pictured at right), built by the British in 1931 and designed by the same architect who did the Empire State Building in New York City.  The location cannot be beat: directly across the street from the King David Hotel (Israel’s most prestigious hotel) and a 15-minute walk from the Old City. While the YMCA Hotel had declined in the 2000s, this remarkable institution is truly coming back under recent leadership, particularly the hotel and restaurant director Raed Leil.  There is work yet to do, to be sure—but the direction of the place is very positive.  Brett can be picky, but even though it was the most basic place we stayed on that trip, he really loved it—simple but clean accommodations, great service, excellent breakfasts, and tons of character!  If you need your hotel to be upscale or near-perfect, this may not be the place for you. But I remain in love with the place and frankly can’t imagine staying anywhere else. And in a major, new benefit, the YMCA just opened a new and hugely expanded sports center, which is as nice as any I have seen at home—and it’s yours to use as a hotel guest at no extra charge.  The photo to the left shows what a plus that is!

My loyalty to the YMCA primarily stems from its mission, however.  The staff includes Jews, Christian Arabs, and Muslim Arabs, and the programming is interfaith for all three faiths, including the world-renowned Jewish-Arab preschool program that I mentioned earlier in this guide.  At breakfast, it is a real treat to watch the parade of parents (mostly daddies, actually) escorting their adorable kids into the preschool; it is one of the real perks of the place! People from all over the world and many Israelis stay there as well.  The Jerusalem International YMCA is in the New City on King David Street, but only a 10-15-minute walk from the Jaffa Gate into the Old City. You can get more information about the YMCA and its hotel at www.jerusalemymca.org.  I note, though, that the YMCA restaurant is not kosher for visitors needing that.  For more hotel information, price inquiries, or registration, e-mail y3arches@netvision.net.il.  If this is your choice, you need to book directly here; Regent Tours does not work with the YMCA.

But in the interest of giving you a range of hotel choices, there are two boutique hotels that have generally received very good reviews on TripAdvisor, though I have no direct experience with either of them: The Harmony Hotel at 6 Yoel Salomon Street in the Ben-Yehuda district (www.atlas.co.il/harmony-hotel-jerusalem); and the Dan Boutique Hotel in the German Colony area (www.danhotels.com/JerusalemHotels/DanBoutiqueJerusalemHotel) at 31 Hebron Road.   The Harmony’s location is ideal, right off of the Ben-Yehuda street mall area, but prices have gone way up, so it is no longer the real deal that it once was.  The Arthur Hotel is a newer Atlas Hotel entry and I hear good things; it may be more reasonably priced than its sister hotel The Harmony.  Another choice is the Prima Royale Hotel not far from the YMCA, but again I have never stayed there, though most reports have been positive.  The Eldan Hotel next door to the YMCA is a clean, modern, and reasonable option, and if you book it with your rental car, you can get a price break.  But the hotel doesn’t have much character. If you want to splurge and spoil yourself, of course, there is always the option of the historic and very opulent King David Hotel across the street from the YMCA or its newer competitor, the David Citadel Hotel just down the street.  Other good choices in the central city area (truly the best place to say) include the Dan Panorama and the Inbal Hotel, both well established and fine hotels.  If you really want a classic, different experience, check out the Mount Zion Hotel overlooking the Valley of Gehinnom and the Old City, located not far from the German Colony on Derech Hebron Street, tel. (02) 568-9555; www.mountzion.co.il.  The Mount Zion really does have extraordinary character; I may try it for a different experience on a future trip.

You can find other options on TripAdvisor as well.  I would also recommend that you discuss these and other possible Jerusalem alternatives with Regent Tours, which probably can get you a significant price break.

There are less expensive, guesthouse options in the New City as well.  On my 2012 trip, I stayed at St. Andrew’s Scottish Guest House, known to Jerusalemites as “the Scotty.”  Located at 1 David Remez Street off King David Street, south of the YMCA and King David Hotel—tell the cab driver you are going to “the St. Andrew’s Scottish Church,” or he may not know it.    Tel. (02) 673-2401, website www.scotsguesthouse.com, e-mail info@scotsguesthouse.com.  It is basic but has charm, and I liked it.  Warning—there is no elevator, and walking up to the third floor every day after a whole day of walking the city got a little old.  Breakfasts were good but not spectacular. The staff is very helpful, especially the wonderfully warm Jakoub who will bid you “Welcome!!” about a dozen times a day.  And the view of the southern parts of the Old City is breathtaking! The most affordable option for budget travelers may be the Abraham Hostel, located in the New City at 67 Ha-Nevi’im Street on Davidka Square, tel. (02) 650-2200; https://abrahamhostels.com/jerusalem; info@abrahamhostels.com.  In addition to a very well regarded, reasonably priced place to stay, offering the chance to meet other travelers from around the world, the Abraham Hostel is renowned for the tours it offers, for guests and non-guests alike.  For a Jewish guesthouse, consider Bet Shmu’el at the Jerusalem campus of the Hebrew Union College (the Reform seminary based in my city of Cincinnati, I’m proud to say) on Eliyahu Shama’a Street off King David Street, next to the David Citadel Hotel, tel. (02) 620-3455; (02) 620-3456, https://www.beitshmuel.co.il/Accommodation.

Finally, while I generally recommend that people stay in the center city area in the New City, some prefer to stay in the Old City for its atmosphere and centrality to the holy sites.  Be aware, though, that some people feel uncomfortable walking in the Old City at night, not because it is dangerous but because it is simply mostly empty and a little spooky. While the “old city” section is often the happening place in European cities, the Old City of Jerusalem truly shuts down at night.  But if you do want the Old City experience, I recommend the Lutheran Guest House that is connected to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Christian Quarter on St. Mark’s Road, tel. (02) 626-6888.  See the website at http://luth-guesthouse-jerusalem.com for more information.  It is a clean, lovely, and well-run property that has been recently renovated, close to the Jaffa Gate for easy access to the New City.  For other options, The Austrian Hospice in the Muslim Quarter is another lovely building with clean rooms, but I would find walking in that area at night quite daunting, particularly given the tensions sometimes present in the Muslim Quarter.  Some people like staying at the Christ Church Guest House, an Anglican institution just inside the Jaffa Gate, but I am very much opposed to their historic mission of evangelizing Jews.  (Again, my guide—my opinions!)

I strongly recommend that you don’t bother with a rental car in Jerusalem; it is a bewildering and difficult city to drive in and even worse to park in!  Just return your rental car when you arrive in the city and take cabs, buses, or the new light rail inside the city, which is wonderful! Finding a cab on the street will be safe and fine, but for trips within the city, always insist on using the meter and get out if they will not turn it on!  One easy way to do that is to ask for a receipt (kabbalah) when you get in; the driver cannot generate a receipt without using the meter.  I had fewer fights on this issue recently, but it still happens. Avoid the cabs that gather in front of the King David Hotel!  They are sharks who consistently try to charge grossly inflated, flat rates, while claiming ridiculous things like “I don’t have a meter.”  Walk down the street a little bit to the David Citadel Hotel; for some reason, the taxi drivers there are more honest, even though it’s just as upscale of a hotel.  You can also use the Gett taxi app, which is so easy and avoids the meter issue altogether.  If you catch a cab at the Jaffa Gate, be aware that your driver may be Arab and less familiar with destinations in the western parts of the New City.  With GPS programs, that is less of an issue.

Some Israeli Jewish cab drivers may also be reluctant to go to parts of East Jerusalem (for example, the Mount of Olives), particularly at night or on Fridays, and they cannot by law drive into areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, such as Bethlehem or Jericho.  You can easily catch Arab cabs or buses near the Damascus Gate to access those areas if needed. In fact, Arab cab drivers will constantly ask if they can take you to Bethlehem; saying “no” repeatedly can get wearying.

Jerusalem is endlessly fascinating.  Without exaggeration, you could spend weeks in this city and not run out of things to see and do.  But since you don’t likely have that much time, I offer these suggestions for day-to-day itineraries.

Days One and Two

Wander through the Old City, preferably on a walking tour of the Four Quarters.  Your best bet may be the free Four Quarters walking tours offered by Sandeman’s every day starting at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.; see www.newjerusalemtours.com for more information.  The guides are not paid, however, so please plan to tip at least ₪50 per person.  Another option is to hire one of my favorite guides from the now defunct Zion Walking Tours; he is an Armenian Jerusalemite named Aram Khatchadourian, who can take you into the Armenian Quarter, which is usually inaccessible to outsiders except for a few areas because it’s largely residential, along with a more traditional tour of the rest of the Old City.  You can reach him at (050) 335-1859 (cell) or (02) 626-4537 (home). Any guide can give a Four Quarters walking tour, however.

Touring with Madeleine Lavine or Eyal Amos Reuven

You should consider hiring a good private guide to see all that this amazing city has to offer, and I have two strong recommendation on that score.  The first and a longtime favorite is Madeleine Lavine, who served on the YMCA staff before taking up full-time guiding.  (Pictured at right.) She is knowledgeable, very pleasant, professional, and has a delightful, dry sense of humor that shows her roots in Leeds, England.  Madeleine offers a wide range of tours; even though I have been to Jerusalem seventeen times and explored seemingly everywhere, she consistently shows me aspects of the city that are new to me.  She also offers individual or group Four Quarters tours, tours of the Mount of Olives and the Old City, and just about anything you can imagine. Madeleine is also licensed to drive people around the country as well.  Madeleine is my top recommendation for a tour guide for Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, and I cannot speak highly enough of her.  You can reach her at madl@smile.net.il, or (054) 450-4098 (cell) or (02) 678-0058 (home).  You can also learn more about her work by reading her blog at www.touringwithmadeleine.blogspot.com. Another terrific option for a guide is Eyal Amos Reuven (eyal@travelingjerusalem.com; tel. (050) 866-3484); he based in the city as well.  I toured with Eyal (pictured with me at left) for two full days on my most recent trip, focused on the military history of the city (1948 and 1967) and a detailed look at the archeological remains from the Second Temple period.  He is brilliant and as a new guide tends to be more available than his more senior colleagues. I just love spending time with him, and this man knows his stuff! There are other guides who enjoy good reputations, and still others, including some who are recommended on TripAdvisor, whom I have met and frankly would avoid.  Feel free to e-mail me privately for more information on others. But you’re in good hands with Madeleine or Eyal.

Whether with a guide or on your own, key sites in the Old City include the Arab Market on David Street inside the Jaffa Gate, and Burnt House and Herodian House, the remains of the homes of wealthy priestly families burned when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem at the end of the Great Revolt in 70 C.E.  Of course, you will want to see the Western Wall and Temple Mount (which Muslims call al-Haram al-Sharif, the “Noble Sanctuary”), pictured at left.  The hours for non-Muslim tourists to visit Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif vary at this writing but are generally 9:00-11:00 a.m. and some hours in the early afternoon as well.  It is not open to non-Muslims on Fridays, the Muslim prayer day, or on Shabbat. The Dome of the Rock shrine atop Temple Mount is the most beautiful thing made by human hands I have ever seen.  When you go onto Temple Mount, you will have to pass strict Israeli security, but remember that the Islamic religious trust (the Waqf) has jurisdiction on the Mount itself.  Unfortunately, non-Muslims are not permitted inside either the Dome of the Rock or Al-Aqsa Mosque.  The closure stems from the conflicts of 2000; it is purely political and very unfortunate, and recent (and false) claims that the Israelis are trying to change the “status quo” on Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif have made tensions even worse.  It’s a tense place and conditions can change day to day.

There is one, possible way to get into Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock.  Sam Salem, who worked for years at the UN headquarters for Middle East operations in Jerusalem, now leads tour groups, and through his connections, he can take occasionally small groups of non-Muslim visitors along with VIP tours into the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.  Such visits are limited to once or twice a month and are never guaranteed, but tell him you found him through my guide, and he may be able to do this for you—no promises!  Remember that the Waqf (Islamic Trust) that controls Temple Mount may cancel access to those holy sites at any time without notice, even if Sam had prior approval for a tour, and that is a risk any visitor must assume.  You can reach Sam at (054) 482-8207 or at guide.holy@gmail.com.  Note:  Inside these Muslim holy places, one cannot visibly pray or engage in any act of non-Muslim worship or devotion—to do so will create a major incident and could jeopardize Sam’s access permanently. Sam also offers tours of the Old City of Jerusalem, Jericho, Bethlehem, Herodian, and Hebron.  I have used Sam to tour Temple Mount, including the insides of the Muslim shrines (see the photo on right from inside the Dome of the Rock!), as well as Bethlehem and Hebron. Sam is about the sweetest, kindest man you can imagine.  Full disclosure:  Sam is not licensed as a guide in Israel.  While this is a matter of considerable controversy on the TripAdvisor forum, I have decided that this is irrelevant to me when it comes to touring sites outside the Green Line (pre-1967 Israel), though I don’t use him within Israel proper.  I find Sam delightful to tour with and have received nothing but positive comments from others who have used him. You can obviously decide for yourself as an adult. Some on TripAdvisor have questioned whether he has liability insurance when driving paying passengers; Sam insists he is insured to transport passengers, and I trust him. You can ask yourself if concerned.

Remember that the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif is holy to more people than any other place on Earth, and it is very contentious.  It is a tense place, but if it is not safe to go up, the security authorities won’t allow you to go. This small hilltop is charged with religious emotion, history, and political struggles.  But don’t miss it—one of the most amazing places on Earth.

Other group touring options:

While we’re on the topic of guides and group tours, I will share contact information for several companies that offer group tours, either walking tours or via vehicles, both for Jerusalem and the country as a whole.  I thank a TripAdvisor user who goes by “DC Suburbanite” for this excellent list! I can’t personally endorse any companies other than the Western Wall Tunnel Tours (discussed below). But contact information for some tour providers is listed below:

Bein Harim Daily Tours (offers both an economy class and a business class)

Phone: (03) 546-8870

Website:  www.beinharim.co.il/English.html

E-mail: info@beinharim.co.il

David Tours

Phone: (02) 627-1179

Website:  www.davidstours.com (note the “s” in the address)

E-mail:  dtours@zahav.net.il

Egged Tours (this is the omnipresent Israeli bus company)

Phone: (03) 920-3998 or (03) 920-3919

Website:  www.egged.co.il/eng (click on tourism at top of page then select “Line 99 bus tour” or “Tours around Holy Land”)

E-mail:  limord@eggedtours.co.il

Eshet

Phone: (03) 693-7777 (only if you book hotel through them).

Jerusalem’s Municipal Government walking tours

Saturday mornings at 10:00 a.m., at 32 Jaffa Street near Russian compound

Phone: (02) 531-4600, (02) 531-4106

E-mail:  jereng@jerusalem.muni.il

Knesset Tours

English language tours on Sunday and Thursday

Phone: (02) 675-3420 or (02) 675-3416

Website:  www.knesset.gov.il

E-mail:  feedback@knesset.gov.il

Ofakim

Phone: (03) 761-0610

Website:  www.ofakim.co.il (Hebrew and Russian only)

Abraham Tours

Website:  www.abrahamtours.com

Authentic Israel
Phone: (03) 630-6306; from U.S (202) 248-1260 or (800) 600-5194

Website:  www.authenticisrael.com – click on “Daily Tours” and then “Bus Tours”

E-mail:  info@authenticisrael.com

Western Wall Tunnel Tours

Phone: (02) 627-1333

Website:  english.thekotel.org/content.asp?id=226

E-mail:  contact-english@thekotel.org

United Tours

Phone: (02) 625-2187, (03) 616-2656, (03) 693-3412

Website:  www.inisrael.com/united

Sandeman Tours

Website:  www.newjerusalemtours.com

Day Three

By rental car, travel to Masada on the shore of the Dead Sea.  (Numerous companies, including United and Egged, also offer small guided tours via vans, and Abraham Tours offers less expensive transportation-only group trips with no guide. Given that you don’t need a tour guide for Masada, that’s a good option.)  Masada is stunning, beautiful, and simply unforgettable. Masada or “Metzada”, which means “fortress” in Hebrew, was a flat mountaintop fortified by the Maccabees following their revolt against the Greeks in 165 B.C.E. (the Chanukah story), and King Herod later chose this mountain as the site for his fortified winter palace.  But it is best known as the last holdout of nearly a thousand Jewish defenders after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The Zealots held off the Tenth Roman Legion for more than a year, but eventually after the Romans breached the walls, all but six took their own lives rather than face slaughter or “live” as Roman slaves. New Israeli soldiers often climb Masada to take an oath that “Masada shall not fall again.”  You can be a purist and hike to the top via the Snake Path (moderately strenuous, takes about an hour, and the word “snake” refers to the path’s shape, not the presence of slithering reptiles). Or you can take the cable car. The view is unforgettable, and if you close your eyes, you can almost hear the final, defiant speech of Jewish commander Eleazar ben-Yair to his doomed followers. Like most visitors, I find Masada haunting.  

PLEASE NOTE: The Dead Sea is some 423 meters (1,388 feet) below sea level (the lowest point on Earth) and is hot year around—take lots of water and sun protection with you, including hats.  If you’re going to hike, start very early, particularly in the warmer months.  In the summer, it will be a brutal experience by mid-morning. Be sure to force water—up to a liter every hour or two.  Do not wait until you are thirsty; by then, it is too late to catch up. Because of rapid evaporation, you will be unaware of how much water you are losing through sweat.  Not to be gross, but if your urine is deep yellow, you’re dehydrating and need to drink more!

In 2006, I hiked to the top of Masada at sunrise, accompanied by an amazing guide from the neighboring kibbutz at Ein Gedi (see below).  He is known by one and all as Zabu.  Zabu is up in years, has a long, gray beard, and actually looks a little like a gnome.  Don’t underestimate him based on age or size; that man hiked Masada in sandals in 50 minutes flat without a break (except to check on me)!  He worked on some of the original excavations of the site in the 1960s and will give you wonderful insights on what you are seeing. Note, though, that Zabu’s take on the Masada story is not traditional, and he will give you grist for thought that does not fit the common heroic mythology—he sees the Zealots who made Masada their final stand as religious extremists who brought disaster upon the Jewish people.  (He is not alone; the legacy of Masada is now the subject of a broader debate within Israeli society.) But more than that, Zabu is simply a local institution. He has lived on the kibbutz since the early 1960s, he never stops, and just mentioning his name to a fellow kibbutznik brings a smile and a story! Zabu is an Israeli experience in his own right. After the paid tour, he walked my friend Louis and me around the kibbutz and asked how long we had known each other.  When I explained we had been friends since our undergraduate and law school days (dating back 30 years at that point), he actually blessed us and made us promise to remain friends for life. It was quite moving. You can reach Zabu on his cell at (052) 387-5022, or through his son Danny at dlevyim@netvision.net.il.  I know I say this about everyone I refer to, but truly do say “shalom” (and give him a hug) for me.  I love this man, as everyone seems to.

After Masada, you can then drive to Ein Gedi, an oasis on the Dead Sea with its own beach and spa where you can experience the mineral baths and the mud baths, both of which are reputed to be good for the skin, and then go in the Dead Sea to float.  The water is about 30% minerals and it is impossible to sink. Note: Take foot gear (more than flip flops) out with you that you can wear into the water or you’ll cut your feet, and whatever you do, do not try to swim or put your head in the water!  If that ultra-brackish water gets in your eyes, nose, or mouth, you’ll feel like you’re going to die.  Just sit gently backwards in it and bob. It really is cool, and yes, that is me bobbing in the water with the foolish “look, ma, no hands!” pose.  I note that young children are sometimes spooked by the unexpected buoyancy, and when spooked, children tend to flail, with disastrous results both for their eyes and those of others nearby.  So, I’d skip this experience with younger kids; I’ve seen them screaming as lifeguards try to flush out their eyes. By the way, Ein Gedi’s “spa” is basic, but it was good enough for me for a quick dip, which is all I ever do.  Several the Dead Sea “beaches” have closed because of the serious sinkhole problem; another option on the northern end is the Kalia Beach. Check for confirmation when you travel.

If you want to stay at the Dead Sea for a night, there are a host of luxury hotels from which to choose, particularly in the Ein Bokek area further to the south.  (Note: Ein Bokek hotels and beaches appear unaffected by the sinkhole problem.) Doing so would probably allow you to cut one day off your Jerusalem itinerary, since you would have already visited Masada and the Dead Sea. Of course, you can stay in the luxury spa hotels in Ein Bokek if that is what you are looking for.  But if you want a real Dead Sea experience in an ancient oasis now settled by a modern kibbutz, check out the guesthouse at Kibbutz Ein Gedi.  The kibbutz guest house offers very nice, if basic, accommodations.  (The highest-level rooms are arugot rooms, but the Desert-level rooms are fine and less expensive; don’t go below that level, because the other rooms will be very basic and dormitory-like.)  Staying here gives you a tiny taste of kibbutz life; for example, you will eat in a dining hall, which gives you a chance to interact with kibbutzniks on some level.  Ein Gedi is an ancient oasis mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, most famously as the place where the young David hid from the wrathful King Saul, and the kibbutz has a world-renowned botanical garden.  Be sure to hike up the Wadi David with its lovely, small waterfall, and visit the ancient synagogue excavated nearby.  Even if you don’t use him to tour Masada, be sure to meet Zabu while visiting Ein Gedi.  Just ask after him; everyone knows him.  They call him “Saba Zabu” (“Grandpa Zabu.”)  Can you tell I love this man? So do they, even the young kibbutz members.

After the Dead Sea, I also recommend a stop at Qumran, the community (probably the ancient Essenes) where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  It’s an interesting site, particularly with a recent (and relatively well done, only semi-cheesy) interpretive film, and it’s right on your way back to Jerusalem.  The community at Qumran hid their scrolls in the caves above the settlement as the Romans marched through on their way to destroy Jerusalem in the Great Revolt. But they never came back to retrieve them, and they lay in the caves until a Bedouin shepherd tossed a stone into a cave and heard pottery shattering.  Where did they go? Were they part of the group that perished at Masada? History echoes in haunting ways on a day like this. It’s quite special.

Day Four

Tour the western parts of the New City.  I highly recommend at least a half day at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial.  It is terrifying and moving, and very well done.  The new historical museum truly does justice to the story of the murder of six million European Jews.  Be sure to see the Children’s Memorial, the most evocative memorial to grief and loss that I have ever experienced.  The first time I went through, I was in tears and my knees were shaking, but I was grateful for this remembrance of the one and a half million children murdered in the Holocaust.  Another evocative site very close to Yad Vashem is Mount Herzl, the national cemetery of the State of Israel, much like that country’s Arlington.  Here are buried such giants as Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir as well as hundreds of Israel’s fallen soldiers and other heroes.  This is best toured with a guide. Seeing both would be a full (and emotional) day. If you only see one of those sites, after that you can go to the Israel Museum, known as the national museum of the Jewish people.  It is best known for housing the Dead Sea Scrolls in the famous Shrine of the Book (pictured at right), but it has a world-renowned archaeological wing, an excellent collection of Judaica through the ages (including four historic synagogues reconstructed in the museum), and an excellent modern art and impressionist collection.  See https://www.imj.org.il/en.  The Israel Museum is also the home of a famous model of First Century Jerusalem that really helps you picture the city in the time of Herod’s Second Temple. Check on line or call for the times of free docent tours, particularly of the archeology wing, which really brings this stunning collection to life. The Bible Lands Museum next door is worth seeing as well, if you have the time; www.blmj.org/en/.  You can also tour the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament.  Overall, the building is generally unremarkable unless you are interested in Israeli politics (which makes ours look tame, by the way), but there are spectacular murals in the Knesset reception hall painted by Marc Chagall, depicting themes from Jewish history.  You need to arrange the Knesset visit in advance because of security screening.  Note: A new policy bars jeans, tank tops, open-toed shoes, or revealing clothing while visiting the Knesset.  The lawyer in me suggests that you visit the Israel Supreme Court nearby, an architecturally interesting building (much more so than the Knesset), pictured at left.  You can take a free tour in English at 12:00 noon Sunday through Thursday but must make a prior reservation at (02) 675-9612 or -9613.

You may want to spread this over two days, since Yad Vashem can take most of a day and can be emotionally exhausting.  To do that and another site on the same day will make for a fast-paced and long day.

Day Five

Explore some more in the Old City.  If you’re interested, go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter.  Be aware, though, that many North American and Western European Christians find this church to be very foreign and even bewildering and, as a result, they are often disappointed.  Six ancient sects share the church today, some of which you may never have heard of. The squabbles among clergy over the use of the church are legendary, sometimes even erupting into fistfights.  It is cramped, sprawling, noisy, sometimes smelly (too many people, too little bathing, and too much incense), but fascinating. This is worth touring with a guide, as it’s pretty bewildering on your own.  I’ve been many times and still get lost. Also, see this remarkable site explaining the church in detail: www.generationword.com/jerusalem101/52-holy-sepulcher.html.  If possible, ask your guide to show you the Chapel of St. Vartan with its “Lord, we have arrived” graffito in the subterranean grottos from the First or Second Centuries.  It is below the Armenian section and is not open to the public, but you might get lucky if your guide (such as Aram Khatchadourian) has good Armenian Orthodox contacts. If you get in, you are very fortunate, and please give a donation of ₪20-30 to the priest who lets you in.  Also, don’t miss a quiet and moving part of the church, the Ethiopian Coptic quarters on the roof.  (Access it by going up the stairs, just outside the church to the right of the main entrance.)  In the small chapel below the roof, you will see a painting of the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from which both Ethiopian Copts and Ethiopian Jews trace their origins.  This is the most peaceful part of the church, and the stately and dignified Ethiopian monks seem happier than most to answer your questions and show you around. Leave them a contribution, as they are the decided underdogs in this chaotic place.

Finally, while the Edicule is the traditional (and always crowded) tomb of Christ, have your guide show you the small Syrian chapel opposite the Coptic chapel off the rotunda. There you will find a true Jewish burial cave from the Second Temple period. This will give you a sense of how Jesus was buried and why many scholars believe that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher actually is the most likely site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Western Wall Tunnel tour starts at the Western Wall and follows a tunnel underground and along the unexposed part of the Western Wall, and it shows much more of the remains of Herod’s Temple complex.  It emerges in the Muslim Quarter. You must arrange this in advance through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. For more information about the Western Wall tunnel tours, including how to reserve a spot, see http://english.thekotel.org.  To make reservations, call 972-2-627-1333 from outside Israel or 1-59-951-5888 inside the country.  The web site also offers live streaming video of the Western Wall, also known as the Kotel (in Hebrew, “ha-kotel ha-ma’aravi”).  For Christians, please note that most Jews don’t use the term “The Wailing Wall,” and while it is not a slur, many find that term mildly offensive or at least off-putting.  Jews have come home; they aren’t “wailing” anymore. It’s not respectful usage.

The picture at the right is my best man Louis and I at the Kotel on the last day of our trip in 2006.  I am the shorter one on the right, in the hat. I offer some notes about visiting the Western Wall, which for me at least is an emotional highpoint of any visit to Jerusalem:

Men and women pray in different areas that are strictly segregated, in accordance with Orthodox Jewish practice.  I don’t like it, but that is how it is. The limitation on women’s roles at the site is a deeply controversial issue in some quarters, accepted in others.  A new, egalitarian prayer area had been promised in the area of Robinson’s Arch in the more southern part of the Western Wall—but now the government has backed away, the latest chapter in Israel’s contentious religio-political infighting.

If you are male, ultra-Orthodox Jews may ask you to pray with them or to don tefillin (leather boxes containing Scripture worn at morning prayer, but not on Shabbat or most holidays).  Of course, that might be of interest to you if you are Jewish. It is not an option if you are not. If you’re non-Jewish, just tell them that, and that will end the issue. If you are Jewish and still not interested, just say you would like to pray alone, but you may have to be persistent to the point of bluntness.  The prayer requests can be relentless to the point of being irritating.

Men will have to wear head-coverings (a kippa or any other hat), even if not Jewish.  There are free kippot available, but truly any head covering, including a ball cap, will suffice.

On Shabbat, do not take photographs, use your cell phone, or smoke cigarettes in the prayer area of the Wall.  Be respectful here.

Shopping

While I am not much of a shopper on Israel trips, Madeleine Lavine showed me an extraordinary photography shop called Elia Photo Service in the Christian Quarter at 14 Al-Khanka Street.  The owner, an Armenian named Elie Kahvedjian, is the grandson of an extraordinary photographer who took black-and-white photographs of life in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel in the period of the mid-1920s through the 1960s.  Check out https://www.eliaphoto.com/ for a sample of his beautiful work; I was transfixed by these photographs and purchased a stunning photograph of the Old City from the Mount of Olives in 1924.  It’s worth a visit.

Brett and I love original art, and on our most recent visit, we discovered a wonderful artist and art teacher in the neighborhood of Yemin Moshe named Pnina Frank; her studio is located at 9 Yemin Moshe Street.  She is such a kind and interesting person. For information and samples of her work, see www.pninafrank.com; tel. (052) 891-1642, e-mail pninart@gmail.com.  Brett bought one of her paintings of a Jerusalem vista—and we just love it!

Then there is my favorite shop and shopkeeper in all Jerusalem, Yousef Natsheh of the Josef Natsheh Emporium at 30 Christian Quarter Street; tel. (02) 627-4537, cell (052) 238-6465.  Yousef (pictured with me at left; he is on the right) is from an old Hebron family, and he is warm, welcoming, and doesn’t pressure you to buy.  Stop and have some tea or coffee with him, and if that is all you do, it will be fine. He will show you things, but takes “no, thanks” for an answer, and he is quite a special man.  My guide and friend Madeleine Lavine calls him “my mate,” and often stops in after long days of touring just to visit with this kind soul; he has become my good friend as well.  But beyond that, he has amazing textiles, carpets, and scarfs, and I have purchased three woven table runners of a material called “Suzani.” People rave about them!  Another place for upscale textiles and designs is Maro Sandrouni, an artistic designer at 27 St. George Street; tel. (02) 627-7177, cell (054) 584-9034; msandrouni@bezeqint.net.  

Another nice place to shop—and to help a worthwhile program in the process—is the gift shop at Yad La-Kashish, 14 Shivtei Israel Street, tel. (02) 628-7829 or 628-9737, www.lifeline.org.il.  This organization is designed to provide meaningful work to elderly and needy residents of Jerusalem, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and South America.  You can see the workshop where the artisans work, and the gift shop offers their hand-made items at very reasonable costs, including cards, wall-hangings, mezuzot, and other Judaica.  

Many people touring the Old City are interested in souvenirs, particularly religious items, and the shuk (Arab market) is full of them.  You need to bargain (start about half of the listed price), and the shuk can be very overwhelming to those not used to it. I suggest that you go see Henry or his brother Jack at Rex, a jewelry and souvenir shop just inside the Jaffa Gate on the left side just after you enter the market at 3 David Street, tel. (02) 628-4865, www.rexjewelers.com, e-mail rex_s@netvision.net.il.  These guys will let you shop without hassle or intimidation, and I know and trust them.  Tell them I sent you—but still feel free to ask for their best price. As a note, outside of the Arab market, bargaining is not the norm and the listed price is the price.

If you are looking for a licensed antiquities dealer, particularly ancient coins with certificates of authenticity, check out Mishirky Antiquities run by Zak Samer at 24 Christian Quarter Road, tel. (054) 635-3357; www.oldcityjerusalemgifts.com; e-mail zakshop24@gmail.com.  His shop is very close to Josef’s Emporium, and for not a lot of money, I delighted some children from our church at home with coins from figures mentioned in the Bible.  Be clear about what you want to spend, but Zak is honest and fair.

For fine Judaica, your best bet is the shops along King David Street and in the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall area.  You can find everything from antiques to brilliant, modern interpretations of traditional Jewish objects and art. This area costs more, of course, and unlike the market, prices will be fixed unless you’re buying a lot.  The Mamilla Mall area between the Jaffa Gate and the New City, spanning the Valley of Gehinnom, has vastly expanded shopping options near the Old City—this is a very upscale locale.  For more information on shopping options, search the Israel forum on TripAdvisor for “shopping,” and you will find whole threads of suggestions on that topic.

For the other days, possibilities include:

You can also walk around and see some of the other gates into the Old City—there are seven altogether.  The Damascus Gate and the Lion’s Gate are the most elaborate and interesting.  The New Gate is from 1889.  That’s Jerusalem!

The Mount of Olives.  This site will be of interest to both Christians and Jews.  For Jews, it is the site of the massive Jewish Cemetery, with graves going back to Second Temple times, and even modern luminaries such as former Prime Minister Menachem Begin are buried there.  For Christians, the Mount of Olives marks both the beginning of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as well as the site of his anguish, betrayal, and arrest following the Last Supper, and according to at least one Gospel, his subsequent ascension into heaven.  Several churches commemorate these events, but the main ones to see are Dominus Flevit (“the Lord wept”) higher on the hill and the Church of All Nations at Gethsemane farther down.  The latter is a modern church, quite spectacular, and the olive grove and quiet garden outside is the probable site of ancient Gethsemane, which means “place of the oil press” in Hebrew.  It is one of the most peaceful, moving places in Israel for Christians, much more spiritually affecting for me than more famous sites such as the Holy Sepulcher. Just try to time your visit to miss the tour bus crowds!  Finally, if you can get into the breathtaking Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene, that is a special treat, but its hours are quite limited, Tuesday and Thursday, 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Note:  Sam Salem (p. 56) has connections in the church and may be able to get you in outside of these times, so consider that when touring with him.  But check out the gorgeous, gilded onion domes on left, which are perhaps the most stunning visual when looking at the Mount of Olives!

By the way, a great resource on Jerusalem’s array of Christian churches is Aviva Bar-Am’s book, Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem (Avha Press Jerusalem, 1998).  She is a renowned travel writer and former correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.  You can pick it up in Jerusalem or on www.israel-catalog.com, and used copies are available on Amazon.

The City of David.  These excavations are found on the Ophel Ridge, which extends south from the current Temple Mount (ancient Mount Moriah) down into the present-day Arab village of Silwan.  This was the original Jerusalem, conquered by King David about the year 1000 B.C.E. to become the capital of his united kingdom. After David’s death, of course, his son Solomon built the First Temple on Mount Moriah, on land which David had purchased.  God denied David the privilege of building the Temple himself because he was a “man of blood” and had sinned through his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the arranged killing of her husband Uriah. Recent excavations have exposed a nearly 4,000-year-old Canaanite tunnel that was used to bring water from the Gihon spring into the walled city; it was probably through this tunnel that David’s men infiltrated to conquer the Jebusite city.  Now you can walk all the way through it to the Pool of Siloam (“Shiloach,” in Hebrew), and you can also walk (or wade, rather) through the tunnel dug by King Hezekiah centuries later to provide a constant source of water within the city walls in preparation for the anticipated Assyrian siege, a project which is actually recorded in the Bible. The City of David is an extraordinary site where biblical stories come alive, and it is indeed where it all began, as you will be constantly reminded.  You should go with an individual or group tour; unless you know what you are doing, wandering around the modern-day village of Silwan could be unwise because of political tensions, and you won’t know what you are looking at in any event. The City of David (Ir David) Foundation offers English-speaking tours, but you should know that this group has an intensely nationalistic agenda, with which you may or may not be comfortable. You can get more information about the Foundation and the tours that are offered from their website at http://www.cityofdavid.org.il/en/The-Ir-David-Foundation or call (02) 626-2341.  The City of Jerusalem also offers tours on the weekends during part of the year, and other groups may offer tours paired with other sites, such as Mount Zion.  Any private guide can also take you through the City of David, however—you do not have to use Ir David.

By the way, while you are exploring the City of David, consider stopping at a lovely little shop called Pool of Siloam Antiquities, tel. (02) 656-3368, cell (052) 409-0413.  Its owner Abraham Siam is an authorized deal in antiquities (and a great fellow).  He offers a range of gifts for sale, including ancient coins with certificates of authenticity.  His prices are fair and his work trustworthy. Since the true Pool of Siloam has been found in a new location further down, much of his business has dried up (pardon the pun) as the crowds go elsewhere, but he is really worth a visit.  I bought my then ten-year-old nephew a coin from the reign of King Herod Agrippa (c. 42 C.E.), and this was a big hit!

Interested in some hands-on archeology?  You can visit the “rescue dig” at Emek Tzurim at the base of Mount Scopus near the “boundary” with the Mount of Olives, east of the Old City.  Several years ago, the Waqf (the Islamic Trust which controls the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif) opened a new exit to the underground mosque on Temple Mount in the area (mis)called “Solomon’s Stables.” In doing so, the Waqf illegally excavated under Temple Mount and dumped some 80 truckloads of debris into the Kidron Valley.  This was an archeological atrocity (and completely illegal), as archeologists can only date artifacts based on their location in layers of soil. And this was from under the surface of Temple Mount, where archeological excavations are prohibited but where the soil presumably contains the remains of two Jewish Temples not to mention vital Crusader, Byzantine, and, yes, Muslim history!  Anyway, the City of David Foundation is working on sifting through the dumped material to rescue what they can, and you can participate. Volunteers dump out buckets of debris onto a mesh grid, and sort through looking for items. In every bucket we searched, we found shards of pottery, bits of mosaic, bone, and ancient glass—and some volunteers have made quite important finds. It’s really fascinating and would be a great activity for kids as well.  You can make reservations to participate in this through The City of David Foundation at *6033 (free phone in Israel), or 972-2-626-2341 from abroad, or see this website for more information: www.cityofdavid.org.il/en/tours/mount-olives/temple-mount-sifting-project.  It is very inexpensive—₪20 for adults and ₪16 for children for up to an hour and a half.  Staff from the dig will give you an introductory talk and oversee the work.

The Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem is a fascinating reminder of British rule under the mandate and has as well a renowned collection of archeological artifacts.  Now part of the Israel Museum, this museum was custodian of most of the Dead Sea Scrolls for a long time, and to me it feels like the “museum that time forgot,” with a decidedly 1930s British feel.  It even has an old-fashioned card catalogue!

 

Stroll the Ben-Yehuda Street Mall in the New City near downtown.  The area offers lots of restaurants, shops, and people watching.  You may see armed civil guards in the area; don’t worry unless the Israelis look worried.  Other streets to walk around on include Yoel Salomon and Hillel Street, both off of Ben Yehuda.  This is where the younger folks hang out, by the way, meaning I don’t much fit in at this point. 😊 The Harmony and Arthur Hotels are located in this area, and it’s a 10-minute walk from the YMCA or the King David, Eldan, or David Citadel Hotels.

 

If you want to delve more into Zionist history, the Museum of Underground Prisoners at the old Jerusalem Central Prison from the British Mandate period might be of interest.  Here, prisoners from the pre-State Jewish undergrounds (Haganah, Etzel/Irgun, and Lehi/Stern Gang) were held, and the museum has very interesting tales to tell from the difficult and violent birth of Israel.  The museum and prison are located at 1 Mishol Ha-G’vura Street, Russian Compound, tel. (02) 623-3166.

The Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem.  This is an excellent look at the extraordinary history of this city.  It is in the (misnamed) Tower of David just inside the Jaffa Gate. This really helps put what you will see or have seen of Jerusalem in historical context.  The site is actually a citadel from Herodian times, still plenty old! But it is nowhere near David’s city, which lies outside the present Old City walls. Still, it is one of the best museums in the city.  Some nights it offers a spectacular light show that you might enjoy—ask for details.

The Russian Compound.  In the 1800s, various European nations and Americans tried to gain significant holdings in Jerusalem—in fact, guide Madeleine Lavine (p. 55-56) offers a fascinating “Europe in Jerusalem” tour that explores this history.  As part of that, you can tour the holdings of the Russian Orthodox Church along the Street of the Prophets.  Some interesting sites along the way include Bet Sergei, the guesthouse for visiting Russian royalty (now housing the Ministry of Agriculture), and Bet Ticho, a museum housed in the home of two famous Jerusalemites, eye surgeon Avraham Ticho and his painter wife, Anna Ticho.  Bet Ticho has a delightful café called Anna that alone makes it worth a stop (see p. 13), located at 9 Ha-Rav Kook Street, tel. (02) 624-5068 or 624-4186. Be sure to see as well the nearby, circular-shaped Ethiopian Church and tour it if you can with one of the gentle and kind priests who serve there.  Built in 1893 by Emperor Johannes I, it is an island of peaceful reflection in this busy city.  Be sure to notice the Lions of Judah on the lintel over the entrance—and remember that this community traces its origins to the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, as do the Ethiopian Jews.

Bethlehem—only about 12 km south of Jerusalem, if you are so inclined.  Sam Salem offers tours of Bethlehem, where he is from originally, and he can transport you there as well.  His contact information is on p. 56. Bethlehem is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and for that reason Jewish Israeli tour guides cannot get you all the way in (except for a limited number with special permits), and certainly no Jewish cab drivers can do so.  You can go in with an Arab taxi driver from the Old City or take an Arab bus from the Damascus Gate area. If you take that route, you could also use a Palestinian guide in the city. While in the city, you can have lunch on Manger Square at the Peace Center Restaurant, across from the Church of the Nativity.  The food is great, the bathrooms spotless, and the view of Manger Square is terrific—especially from the outside terrace area.  Tel. (02) 275-8122 and (059) 518-7622. Another option that Sam can set you up with is the Central Restaurant operated by George Nassar, tel. (02) 274-4004 or (052) 548-4478.  It is open for dinner or lunch by arrangement, and the food is incredible (and overwhelming, in a good way)!

Day trip to Jericho and Hisham’s Palace (now under administration of the Palestinian Authority).  You could go on your own via Arab drivers or taxis, but Sam Salem takes people there as well, and I have heard very good reports on his visits to those places.  Jericho is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

Herodian and Mar Saba.  Sam Salem took me to Herodian, Herod the Great’s massive summer fortress south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  Herod, the master builder, had this hill topped with an artificial, conical summit and a magnificent palace, and it made the small mountain look like a volcano, which it still does today.  The national park there is quite impressive, and in 2007, Herod’s tomb was found on the site! The tomb was relocated to the Israel Museum for an amazing exhibit on Herod; I believe that parts of it have been put permanent exhibition back at Herodian now that the exhibit has closed.  Afterwards, we visited Mar Saba (pictured at right), a Greek Orthodox monastery built into the cliffs of the Wadi Kidron.  It is quiet, spectacular, and very peaceful. It is one of Sam’s favorite places.

Talpiot and the Hill of Evil Counsel.  This hillside south of Jerusalem was the seat of the British High Commissioner for Palestine during the Mandate period, and his spectacular headquarters, known as Government House, now serves as the United Nations headquarters for the entire Middle East.  While that building is not open for public touring, the grounds, the promenade, and the overlook are, and offer breathtaking views of the entire city of Jerusalem. The terrifically evocative name listed above comes from the legend that Caiaphas the High Priest had his home here, and that Judas plotted the betrayal of Jesus on this site (and that Jesus’s first trial, at least according to some gospel accounts, was also here).  This cannot be accurate historically, as the High Priest’s home would never have been outside the city walls, but the name has stuck, at least in common Western or Christian usage. Jews usually just call the region Talpiot, and it is seen as a very desirable neighborhood. It’s also a prime shopping district.

The National Library of Israel.  I know, a library?  Seriously?! Yes, seriously—my tour guide friend Eyal Amos Reuven used to work here, and he gave me a tour.  This is the national library of the Jewish people, and its most stunning feature is one of the largest stained-glass windows in the world.  The panels are to be read left to right, unlike Hebrew, because most of the world’s languages read that way.  The blue panel on the left, with colors of peace and calm, show the promise stated in the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah that in later days all the peoples of the world will ascend God’s holy mountain. The words appear in many languages, echoing that promise.  The middle panel, in colors of red and blood, shows how the world has gone terribly wrong. Even the Moon is cleft in two, and the diagram in the center, representing Kabbalistic understandings of God, shows that even the Deity is strained and fractured. At the bottom is the scroll of Isaiah, looking like the walls of Jerusalem and echoing the promise of the first panel, but even that has fractures.  The final panel shows the coming of peace and reconciliation. The machinery of war is broken into pieces and in its stead are tools of life and growth. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war any more.” In a moving note, in the very lower left, the artist inserted a very small memorial candle because his wife died two months before the work was completed. This stained-glass window is entirely illuminated by natural sunlight. And in the morning, when the Sun hits the windows, apparently the candle shines forth most brilliantly as a memorial of the artist’s beloved wife.

For a Palestinian Arab perspective on the history of Jerusalem, I recommend the Wujoud Cultural Center and Museum on the left side David Street as you enter it from the Jaffa Gate.  This organization is intended to support the lives and work of Palestinian women and has a small museum dedicated to showing the life of Palestinian Jerusalemites in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  It is located in a building six centuries old from the Mamluk era, and you must make reservations to visit, tel. (02) 626-0916; website http://fairtourism.info/packages/arab-orthodox-society/. The organization has a frankly one-sided, Palestinian perspective, and for what it is worth, I think this Greek Orthodox-sponsored institution downplays the role that radical Islamist pressure plays in making the lives of Christians here hard.  But it was still worth a stop to get a different view of this city, which I see as a complex—and beautiful—mosaic of communities and cultures.

Jerusalem can present sensory and emotional overload.  Want to find a quiet moment of sacred beauty and spiritual reflection, away from all the noise, bustle, and stress?  Each day at 3:00 p.m. (except for Sunday) the Armenian Cathedral of St. James in the Armenian Quarter, which is not usually open to outsiders beyond the courtyard, opens its doors for a thirty-minute prayer service.  The inside is stunning, filled with silver lamps suspended from the high ceiling, each donated by a different Armenian community. Many of these communities were wiped out by the Ottoman Turks in the Armenian Genocide during World War I; the lamps thus make a haunting memorial of those destroyed communities.  An Armenian priest in his black vestments and hood says some prayers in the ancient Armenian liturgy, and then the young seminarians file in, in striking black robes with a single, cobalt blue stole draped over the left shoulder. Two at a time, they start singing antiphonal plainchant which echoes through the sanctuary, until suddenly all of them join in from the sides.  I had met a lovely Texas couple at the YMCA in 2017, and they came with me. At the moment that the sanctuary flooded with song, our eyes flew open in wonder and flooded with tears. It was one of my most beautiful moments in all of my visits to Jerusalem—a chance to hear the holiness of another tradition. Such a privilege!

Want a break from all the history and religion?  Check out the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, a delightful island of protected nature near the Knesset.  The programs for Israeli schoolchildren are extensive and fun to watch, and the managers are passionate about protecting the birds of this region as well as migratory birds.  Tel. (02) 653-7374 or (052) 386-9488; https://natureisrael.org/JBO; jbo@inter.net.il.  

It’s a real (and common) mistake to treat Jerusalem (and Israel in general) as a busy checklist of things to do and see.  Take a break, park yourself in a café just inside the Jaffa Gate for an hour or so, and just people watch. You’ll see the world go by; I don’t think there is anywhere on Earth with more diversity that here.  A good spot for that is Samara Restaurant, 23 Jaffa Gate, tel. (02) 628-2050.  No reservation needed (or likely taken); just have a glass of wine or a beer (Taybeh Palestinian beer is great!) and watch.  Another option across from the Tower of David Museum (and more coffee-oriented) is Café Café.

For another break, tour the wine country of the Judean Hills, particularly with my favorite guide Madeleine Lavine.  There are many wineries, but I most recommend Ella Valley Vineyards in the stunning Judean Hills—the scenery alone is worth the tour.  But the wines here are excellent, and marketing manager Nevet Nitsan was delightful to meet.  See www.ellavalley.com for more information.  From the US, one can order their wine from importer Victor Kosher Wines in Hollywood, Florida; contact Florence@victorwines.com.  The Ella (or Elah) Valley is where David made his stand against Goliath.  By the way, not too far from there is Bet Guvrin, with its well-known “Dig for a Day” program.  Whether or not that is your cup of tea, there are spectacular excavations and the amazing Bell Caves, where ancient miners would punch a hole through hard crust and then excavate massive caves in the shape of bells from the softer, chalk-like rock beneath.  If you haven’t had too much wine, all of this is worth a stop!

Hebron—one of Judaism’s four holy cities, this ancient town is sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike as the burial place of the Biblical (and Qur’anic) patriarchs Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah.  (Rachel’s tomb is in Bethlehem.) Hebron is one of the largest Palestinian cities in what is now known as the West Bank (or Judea, to nationalist Israelis), but there was a Jewish community here for centuries, most of whom were murdered or driven out in the Arab Revolt of 1929.  In the 1948 War for Independence, this city fell under Jordanian control and it was barred to Jews altogether. With Israeli control since 1967, right-wing settlers set up settlements in downtown Hebron in the 1970s and later founded a nearby Jewish suburb called Kiryat Arba, reviving an ancient name.  The result is a seething stew of religion and politics that has at times exploded in violence. Until the last few years, I would have called it too tense to visit comfortably (Jewish settler groups offered tours in armored buses), but in on two recent trips, I went there with Sam Salem and really enjoyed the visit.  Check on local conditions during your visit to see if it is a good time to go.

The Cave of the Machpelah (or Cave of the Patriarchs), known to Muslims as the Sanctuary of Abraham or the Ibrahimi Mosque, is shared (uneasily) by Jews and Muslims on a rotational basis; this is the site of those sacred biblical tombs, revered by all three Abrahamic faiths.  The building (at right) is a Herodian structure from the Second Temple period, with echoes of the Temple’s own architecture and design, making it interesting for another reason altogether.  The cave was also where in 1994 Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an American-born physician and Israeli settler, brutally murdered 29 Palestinian Muslim men at prayer, nearly derailing the peace process and horrifying the world, including all decent Israelis.  Like the Passover Massacre of 2002, where a Palestinian suicide-bomber murdered 30 members of Jewish families at a Passover Seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya, these horrible events show how “religious” extremists will murder people and try to kill the very hope of peace in the name of an evil perversion of faith.  This should be a site where all people who call Abraham their father can worship in peace. God willing, one day it will be. As noted above, Hebron has been a focal point of disturbances at times, so I do not recommend that you visit Hebron on your own—go with a guide or a tour. I also suggest you avoid the right-wing Jewish settler tours from the Hebron community or the Palestinian “alternative” tours (such as Green Olive), both of which offer one-sided political indoctrination with their tours, in my view.  Instead, I recommend Sam Salem who, while Palestinian, brings a balanced and respectful approach to the visit reflecting the perspectives of all three faith communities. There are Jewish guides who would also do a great job, with similar balance—but check carefully if you want to avoid political lectures.  Another great option is Abraham Hostel’s dual perspective tours of Hebron, where you will hear from Palestinian and Jewish resident guides.   See http://abrahamtours.com.  

Under pressure from militant Jewish settlers and the IDF trying to keep peace between them and Palestinian militants, the shopkeepers and merchants of Hebron have suffered a great deal economically.  Hebron is renowned particularly for its glass-making, and any guide can show you some good shopping options. But I really loved one that Sam Salem took me to: Abed’s Shop, also known as The Checkpoint Shop, so nicknamed for its proximity to an IDF checkpoint on Shahada Street, which separates Jewish settlers returning from worship at the Machpelah from the Palestinian vendors on the Arab main street.  Abed Elmuhtaseb owns the last Palestinian shop to stay open on this street; if he closes (and he was offered a rumored million dollars to sell out), the street will likely be closed to Palestinians altogether.  It is easily found opposite the Gutnick Centre in the square just down the hill from the Ibrahimi Mosque (close to the Tomb of the Patriarchs), and is only meters from the checkpoint; locals actually call it “Abed’s Checkpoint” because it’s so close.  Abed and his son Mohammed (who speaks excellent English) sell good quality glass, embroidery, pottery, and (very) cold drinks. Sitting outside on plastic chairs enjoying Abed’s mint-tea (and jokes) is perhaps the best people watching spot in Hebron.  Also note that Abed’s wife occasionally cooks makloubeh for guests, and Sam Salem can arrange this.  Each person can pay about ₪50-60 for a meal.  Abed’s cell phone is (059) 923-2785. We purchased some lovely vases and decorative tile work, the prices were reasonable with a great selection, and they ship.  Expect to bargain. Please stop in and spend some time and money. You’ll get some memorable keepsakes, and these folks will get business they very much need to survive—they depend on international visitors.  Look, this is not about taking sides in the complex religious and political conflicts that tear at this holy but divided city. Both sides have made terrible blunders here, and many who live here have suffered terribly.  There is grief and blame enough to go around. It is about helping good people who are caught in the metaphorical crossfire.

Finally, as always, I have some restaurant recommendations in Jerusalem.  The restaurant scene in Jerusalem is a far cry from my unremarkable dining experiences in early visits—one can eat very well indeed in this city now!

One of the loveliest, hideaway cafés and bookstores in the city is Tmol Shilshom at 5 Yoel Solomon Street, in the courtyard upstairs behind this address, tel. (02) 623-2758, http://www.tmol-shilshom.co.il/en/home-page/, e-mail at info@tmol-shilshom.co.il.  It is a gathering place for Jerusalemites of all kinds—it is both a popular gathering place for gay people, and a favored first-date site for Orthodox Jewish couples!  That kind of diversity in Jerusalem is sadly rare. The bookstore used to have bookmarks from all over the world pinned up on the wall. In a late 1990s visit, I was stunned to notice a bookmark from a local bookstore in Cincinnati pinned right over my husband’s head!  There are also readings, concerts, and other events here, and you can check on what is happening during your visit at the web site above. The restaurant is kosher, the food is excellent, and the atmosphere unique.  It is one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Say “shalom” to owner David Ehrlich for me!

A terrific and innovate upscale choice is Eucalyptus at 14 Hativat Yirushalayim, tel. (02) 624-4331, www.the-eucalyptus.com/welcome, e-mail info@the-eucalyptus.com.  Under the stewardship of renowned Israeli chef-owner Moshe Basson, the restaurant features ingredients from the Land of Israel, often from the biblical era, prepared in fresh and inspired ways.  The atmosphere is fun and festive, and the food impeccable. Some orders may result in a big show coming out of the kitchen! And just so you know, the tasting menu is wonderful—but huge!  If you go that route, get the smallest one. This is my current favorite for an upscale night out—it is a special place for a special meal (we celebrated my friend Gina’s birthday there on my 2012 trip).  Be sure to take the address and phone number with you and tell the taxi driver that the restaurant is below Jaffa Gate in the Artists’ Quarter, a development of shops and apartments—it can be tricky to find.  Eucalyptus is kosher and, of course, closed on Friday evening.

The Archibald C. Harte International Restaurant at the Jerusalem YMCA, 26 King David Street is back as a contender, with good food and drink with excellent service at a reasonable price, and the seating on the terrace across from the King David Hotel, with its views of the gorgeous YMCA Tower and palm trees swaying in the breeze—well, it makes my heart full to bursting just to think about it.  Tel. (02) 569-2692; not kosher.

Angelica’s is a very fine, kosher restaurant practically next door to the YMCA, at 4 George Washington, tel. (02) 623-0056,  https://www.angelicarest.com.  This is an outstanding restaurant, quite upscale, with excellent food, wine, and service.

Another good place close to the YMCA and King David Hotel is the Olive and Fish, a kosher fish and meat restaurant at 2 Jabotinsky Street not far off King David Street, tel. (02) 566-5020, oliveandfish@gmail.com.  It offers tasty food at reasonable prices and is very popular.

Looking for coffee?  Coffee shops have sprung up everywhere in Israel it seems, and my favorite chain is Café Aroma, found nearly everywhere but including in the Ben Yehuda District.  I am pleased to say that Starbucks failed in Israel—give an Israeli shop a try, and enjoy some fine coffee with your wi-fi or book!

Piccolino is located in the Ben-Yehuda district at 12 Yoel Moshe Salomon Street, tel. (02) 624-4186; e-mail at nava@piccolino.co.il; www.piccolino.co.il.  It is a kosher fish and dairy restaurant, and the dishes were excellent.  I recommend it.

There are dozens of wonderful places to eat in Jerusalem’s amazing Mehane Yehuda market, an open-air collection of stalls selling everything imaginable and giving visitors a real flavor of Israeli life.  There are cafés, restaurants, pizza, hummus, and falafel stalls, and great wine shops. But a recent innovation is a very fun experience, what is being called After Market on Saturday evenings after the end of Shabbat, when many restaurants and bars in the market open for late night partying crowds.  We discovered this as the guest of Eyal Amos Reuven before he was a guide (he was “guiding” even then!), and what a delightful time!

Speaking of the Mahane Yehuda market area, Jacko’s Street in the Mahane Yehuda market is a wonderful, kosher choice.  I loved this place! 74 Agrippas Street, tel. (02) 581-7178.  Eyal Amos Reuven also took me to Ishtebach, a much less formal place with counter seating and a few tables, offering a stuffed Kurdish pastry that you can fill with everything from brisket to Syrian kebobs to chorizo.  Yum—it was a fantastic, informal option! Ishtebach is located at 1 Shikma Street, tel. (02) 623-2997. For more information, https://theculturetrip.com/middle-east/israel/articles/ishtabach-a-restaurant-that-feels-like-home/.  There are many other dining options in the market, a booming scene.

Not far from there, on a recent visit I tried Link at 3 Ha-Ma’alot Street, tel. (02) 625-3446; www.2eat.co.il/eng/link/.  It’s an easy walk from the center city hotels.  I had the sea bream (Denis fish in Hebrew) and a way-too-large Arab salad of chopped vegetables, croutons, and tahini sauce.  Yum! It’s not kosher if you need that. The restaurant also had decent cocktails, not always a strong point in Israeli restaurants.  It’s a very popular place on weekends (open for Shabbat), so book a reservation.

The German Colony area of Jerusalem, not far south of the King David Street area with its many hotels, is a delightful neighborhood to explore.  There are quite a few restaurants in that area. But the best bet in that area is Jerusalem’s First Station, a whole complex of new shops, galleries, restaurants, and entertainment venues built around the old Ottoman-era train station.  It’s amazing—and really shatters Jerusalem’s old image as Tel Aviv’s dowdy older sister! My favorite restaurant there is Ha-Sadna, the Culinary Workshop, located at 28 Hebron Road, tel. (02) 567-2265; www.hasadna.rest-e.co.il.  I loved this place—felt like a funky, Manhattan eatery!  (Not kosher.) Brett really enjoyed it too, though—as is common at fun, funky places—the music was a tad loud for our tastes.

Te’enim (Figs) in the Zionist Confederation House behind the King David is an inexpensive, charming vegetarian place, small with a spectacular view of the Old City, particularly when the walls are floodlit at night. It is located at 12 Emile Botta Street (well back from the street down a path), Yemin Moshe, Tel. (02) 625-1967, http://www.gojerusalem.com/items/643/Teenim-Restaurant/.  We had a TripAdvisor dinner in a private room there and were not disappointed.  If Patrick is there that night, tell him—you guessed it!—“shalom” for me (his wife is delightful too!).  As a vegetarian place, Te’enim is kosher. Look for the sign off on the right side of Emile Botta as you face the Old City walls, and then follow the path; the sign is small and easy to miss.

I mentioned Bet Ticho in the touring section, but I have to mention a new dining option, the Anna Restaurant at Bet Ticho, which offers terrific food at a reasonable price in a lovely, art gallery setting.  The restaurant has been moved upstairs (I’ll miss the outdoor setting of its predecessor), and it is located at 9 Ha-Rav Kook Street off the Street of the Prophets, tel. (02) 624-4186.  It just reopened to good reviews after a renovation, and I hope to try it again on a future visit.

A beautiful rooftop restaurant with stunning views of the Old City can be found at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center’s Wine & Cheese Restaurant.  This is far more than a wine and cheese place; the menu is extensive.  This restaurant in the Vatican-owned complex is open daily, including Shabbat, and of course is not kosher.  I really enjoyed my meal there, with beautiful views of the Old City. Tel. (02) 627-9177; www.notredamecenter.org.  

If you are interested in experiencing North African cuisine, you might try Darna, a well-known (and fairly expensive) Moroccan restaurant.  Darna is located at 3 Horkanos Street, tel. (02) 624-5406, e-mail: il@darna.co.il; see website at https://darna.co.il/en/.

Want to try the best hummus and falafel in the Old City?  Just asking this question will set off a war, but I will assert author’s privilege and tell you to go to Lina’s Restaurant in the Christian Quarter, 42 Al Khanka Street near the intersection with Via Dolorosa, tel. (02) 627-7230.  Many swear by Abu Shukri, and the food is indeed good, but I found the service indifferent and even unfriendly (maybe to non-Palestinians?).  Lina’s is great, they smile at you, and Madeleine the guide loves it, which seals the deal for me. We bought lunch there and took it to have lunch at the Josef Natsheh Emporium—a perfect combination!  Ask Yousef when you stop by; maybe he will let you do the same.  You buy lunch; he’ll give you some coffee or mint tea. But get your hummus fix here!

My Favorite Place in the Old City

I have given you a lot of options, but I end with a true favorite.  You will be walking a lot in the Old City, and there are a hundred places to stop for a drink and a bite to eat within those walls.  But above them all, I recommend an Armenian restaurant and lounge called Bulghourji at 6 Armenian Patriarchate Road, tel. (02) 628-2072 or (052) 628-2080, e-mail bulghourji@hotmail.com.  After you come in the Jaffa Gate, turn right past the Tower of David and the post office and police station, and continue down the Armenian Patriarchate Road.   You will pass the Armenian Tavern on your left (also reputed to be a good place, but this is not where I am sending you). This place is a little further on the right, with yellow shutters.  The owner Naro is such a wonderful man; a lot of Jerusalemites just call it “Naro’s Place.”  You will see he runs a great restaurant, and the staff is terrific as well. Have a sandwich, some hummus with fresh pita to die for, or a delicious Armenian pizza.  Drink some Taybeh (Palestinian) beer, wine, or refreshing lemonade with mint. Want a real kick? Try some arak, the Middle Eastern, anise-based liquor that is like Greek ouzo.  Naro has a lovely, open courtyard in back and has opened a “VIP club” (lounge) downstairs. In a city full of great restaurants, I often eat there more than once, and that tells you something about the lovely, warm atmosphere Naro has created.  And the bathrooms are sparking clean, some of the best in the Old City! That is an unbeatable combo.

That wraps up my personal guide.  I do hope that you found it helpful.  Now that you have read it, I would be happy to try to answer any other questions you may have.  Happy and safe travels to you, or as Israelis would say, “nesiya tova!” (Bon voyage!)

Douglas E. Duckett

Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

Labatt@fuse.net

©2004-2019 Douglas E. Duckett, All rights reserved.

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