Exploring the Old City of Jerusalem

After 10 days of exploring the rest of Israel, we spent almost a week at our final destination: Jerusalem.  Known as the “Jewel of Israel”, it didn’t disappoint.  Many people come here on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Even for the non-religious (like us), there is so much to see in and around Old City of Jerusalem.

Please see our other articles on Israel here.

The City of Jerusalem

Our first day in the Old City, we took the 4+ hour Holy City walking tour with Sandemans New Jerusalem.  The “free” tours that are so popular now, were available but, at only 2 hours in duration, we didn’t think that was nearly long enough to adequately explore the area.  With the Holy City tour we were able to actually go onto Temple Mount and into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with a trained guide rather than just seeing them from a distance.

Part of what makes Jerusalem such a fascinating city is the diversity, incorporating sacred sites for Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.  This gives the city a unique feel, although has also led to the continuing struggles.

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View of the town walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, from just outside the Jaffa Gate

Temple Mount

Temple Mount is one of the most prominent attractions when visiting Jerusalem.  Unfortunately for non-Muslim visitors, it’s not exactly straightforward.  Despite Temple Mount being holy to all three major religions, it is under Muslim control.

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View of Jerusalem and Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives

This means that visiting hours for non-Muslims are very restricted.  And the rule of thumb dress code of covering legs and shoulders everywhere within Jerusalem is not strict enough here – women must also fully cover their arms to enter.  Anyone not sufficiently covered either will be denied entry or will have to purchase cover-ups for NIS25 each.

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Courtyard of Temple Mount, Jerusalem

Temple Mount has two highlights, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most important site in Islam, and the Dome of the Rock.  Unfortunately, due to ongoing disagreements between religious factions in Jerusalem, non-Muslims are barred from entering either site.  The Dome of the Rock, where Muhammed is believed to have ascended to heaven in Islam, and the location of the Foundation Stone in Judaism and Christianity, is still beautiful to look at from the outside and any view with the golden dome in it is an iconic view of Jerusalem.

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Ruins outside the walls of Temple Mount with the Al-Aqsa Mosque

 

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Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go inside to see the Foundation Stone

Outside Temple Mount is the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall).  Portions of the other three walls are also visible, but the Western Wall is the wall closest to the original temple on the Mount, and therefore is an important place to pray in Judaism.  Believers can be seen pressed against the wall, and even leaving little notes and prayers in the cracks.  The notes are removed a couple of times a year, but are treated as Holy scripture and saved, never destroyed.

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View of the Western Wall. Sides are separated between men and women, but with the women’s side being much smaller with way more chairs

 

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Notes stuck into the cracks of the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem

To understand a bit more of the history, and appreciate the full scale of Temple Mount and the walls, we took the Western Wall Tunnels tour.  Over the centuries, the city of Jerusalem built on top of itself, meaning the portions of the walls visible now are only the top portions.  Descending into the tunnels gives you a view down to the original base of the walls and allows visitors to walk on some of the stone streets that actually existed 2,000 years ago.

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The Western Wall Tunnels Museum, takes you below the existing square to see how deep the actual walls go

Tracing the Final Days of Jesus

Many Christians come to Jerusalem to follow in the final steps of Jesus.  Near the northern exit of Temple Mount is the start of the Via Dolorosa and the 14 Stations of the Cross.  This path is followed by everyone from regular tourists like us to pilgrims, and is filled with tour groups most of the day.  If you ever needed to buy a souvenir crown of thorns, this is your place.

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View of the Via Dolorosa, following the path of Jesus to his crucifixion

The Via Dolorosa starts off on relatively quiet streets then proceeds through market streets towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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The 5th Station of the Cross, on the Via Dolorosa

The Church itself is obscured by buildings for most of the walk, but as you get closer, you can sense the crowds of people descending on this one religious site.  The Church is actually divided into sections, with each section controlled by a different Christian denomination.  The rivalries are so bad that a Muslim family, the Nuseibeh family, actually hold the keys to the church.  A member of the family has opened the church doors each morning and locked them again every night since the 11th century.

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9th Station of the Cross, and a view of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the background

On entering the Church, a narrow stairway on the right proceeds to Stations 10-12, including the spots where Jesus is believed to have been nailed to the cross and the rock of Golgotha where he was crucified.  A line of believers wait patiently, some singing hymns, for a chance to reach through a hole in the floor under the alter to touch the actual rock.  This line can easily take up to an hour, so we didn’t bother.

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Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

 

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The Altar above the Rock of Golgotha, the 12th Station of the Cross. Pilgrims were waiting in long lines to reach through a hole in the alter to touch the rock

Descending back down to the main level you will find Station 13, the Stone of Anointing where Jesus’ body is believed to have been prepared for burial.  In the middle of the day, when the crowds are the biggest, the stone will be covered with people praying and rubbing personal belongings (e.g., photographs, handkerchiefs) over the stone to absorb its energy.

Following the signs around the edge of the church brings you to the line for the Holy Tomb, where Jesus is believed to have been buried and was resurrected.  This line can last anywhere up to 8 hours.  According to our guide, the Church opens at 6am, so anyone really wanting to see the Tomb or touch the Rock of Golgotha should arrive before 9am to beat the tour groups who descend on the area later in the day.

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The Holy Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Lines can be up to 8 hours long

Mount of Olives

The Mount of Olives is a hill east of the Old City of Jerusalem.  It is important again to believers in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, as the location where the Messiah will come on Judgement Day.  At the base, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is believed to have prayed with his disciples the day before his crucifixion.  Nearby is the Tomb of Mary. 

Climbing to the top (there are stairs, but they are long and steep) brings you to the Church of the Ascension.  Despite being a rather unassuming church, this is believed to be the spot where Jesus ascended to heaven.  It’s also believed by some to be the spot where the apocalypse will start.  So yeah, that’s a bit of a downer.  But until that happens, there is a great viewpoint near the church, out over Jerusalem.

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On the Mount of Olives, looking back over Jerusalem and Temple Mount

Just be careful – we’ve heard and read stories of tourists being harassed by angry locals (even so far as having stones thrown at them) on the Mount of Olives, although we thankfully didn’t have any issues.

Elsewhere Near the Old City

Near the Zion Gate are two important religious spots, including the Room of the Last Supper and King David’s Tomb.  Both are easy to access, although there will be many tour groups coming and going.

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The Room of the Last Supper, Jerusalem. Table for 13 please?

 

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The Tomb of King David, Jerusalem

Nearby, in the Catholic Cementary, is the grave of Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,200 Jews during the holocaust, and is best known from the movie by Steven Spielberg.

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Oskar Schindler’s grave

Yad Vashem

We both have an interest in WWII history, and a key part of that history is the holocaust.  We’ve visited holocaust memorials in Washington D.C. and elsewhere, and earlier in this trip we visited Auschwitz while staying in Krakow. 

Yad Vashem is a large complex of memorials, surrounding a fantastic but sobering museum.  Entrance is free, although there are 2 hour guided tours available for NIS32 each.  Audio guides are also available.  We found the tour and guides were unnecessary, as signage is excellent.  Unfortunately, there are so many tour groups in the museum that the biggest issue is not getting stuck in the crowds.

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The Yad Vashem holocaust memorial

 

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Cattle car at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial

Mahane Yehuda (Market)

While the Old City is full of vendors hawking souvenirs, for a more authentic market experience you need to head a 20 minute walk west (also on the tram line) to Mahane Yehuda.  Everything is available here, although it is primarily a food market with fresh produce, meat, and baked goods.  We didn’t find it particularly cheap, but it’s definitely more fun than just going to a supermarket.

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Food market in Jerusalem

Summing it up…

Jerusalem is a really cool city. There is so much to see from a historical perspective, that it is definitely worth several days. Make sure you have at least 2-3 days to explore the city and surrounding areas (as outlined above). Add in a couple of other days if you want to take day trips elsewhere in the country of into the West Bank.  Better yet, take a few days to stay in another part of the country to get a different perspective.

Practical Information

  • As with most of the country, everything shuts down from mid-Friday afternoon until Saturday night for Shabbat. This goes doubly-so for Jerusalem. Make sure you stock up on food (if you self cater) or make plans for a day trip to leave the city on Saturday.  Otherwise you may find everything closed. Note that everything is open in the West Bank, so this is a great time to take a day trip to Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, or Jericho
  • As we have in other cities, we highly recommend the Sandeman walking tours. In Jerusalem, the Holy City tour is great (although for a set price rather than “tips”).  The only downside is our group was 35 people strong.  That size was unwieldy in the narrow streets of the Old City.  A 2nd guide would have been appreciated since we were all paying €28 each for the tour
  • Israel is expensive. Value for money is much worse than almost anywhere else we went on this trip.  Just be prepared
  • For whatever reason, transfers between the main international airport (Ben Gurion) and Jerusalem are very limited. There are public buses , but not direct and therefore not convenient.  There are shared shuttles leaving from the same Central Bus Station, but they don’t run on any schedule.  If you’re the first on, you’ll be waiting a while until the bus fills up.  A scheduled shared shuttle, run by Nesher is also available, and does hotel pick-ups.  However, despite what their website says, they don’t run hourly.  They don’t allow you to pre-book more than 24 hours in advance, and then only by phone.  And on top of that, we generally found them to be rude and unhelpful.  Conversely, there are regular trains from the airport into Tel Aviv and on to Haifa. 
  • The military presence around the city (and country) can be off-putting.  We just tried to not think about it too much
  • Many signs, menus etc. are only in Hebrew.  This made it a bit more difficult getting around on our own, but not impossible.  Most locals speak at least some english

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