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