The shofar sounds echo out from the Western Wall, as nearby, Muslim prayer calls and church bells reverberate through the air. Just a mere 25 minute walk away, vendors shout produce prices at local shoppers who haggle their way through the Mahane Yehuda Market. Smells of coffee, spices, and candles waft through the tiny streets of the thrumming market. This is the essence of Jerusalem, and our Jerusalem City Guide will help you navigate this complex metropolis.
Stick around long enough and you’ll experience the market transforming into a festive party, with produce booths and cheese stalls packing up for the day, giving way to the watering holes and cocktail bars who welcome patrons late into the night. Religious ‘Yeshiva’ students sit amongst hipsters, drinking pints of craft beer and enjoying the lively atmosphere of the market.
This is Jerusalem, Israel’s revered capital city. She is filled with diversity, history, art, shopping, and mouth-watering Middle Eastern food. Controversy and tension are palpable but so too is her raw beauty and spirituality. The city is made up of complex layers, of immigrants from around the world, and of stereotypes and contradictions which run rampant.
With so much to see and do, one could easily spend weeks discovering its profound history and making sense of its confounding culture. But, with just a day or two, you’ll manage to get a sense for this multifaceted city by wandering the winding ancient streets of the Old City, exploring quaint neighborhoods, and devouring Jerusalem’s famous gooey and ever-so-chocolatey rugalach Marzipan bakery. Follow our Jerusalem City Guide and you will quickly see why people have been paying homage to this historic city for thousands of years.
Travel Around Jerusalem
Jerusalem is a big city to tackle. It is twice as big as cosmopolitan Tel Aviv. That being said, the city is very easy to navigate. Major tourist attractions are located in close proximity to one another, making it possible to explore the capital by foot.
Jerusalem also has an excellent public transportation system and the bus and light rail are never far away. Jerusalem’s connected public transportation makes anywhere you need to go accessible and easy to reach. If you’re not comfortable navigating the city on your own, a tour is the perfect way to touch on all the major sites.
The Old City
The Old City of Jerusalem is the city’s beating heart and the biggest attraction in all of Israel. The Old City may not stretch for more than a kilometer, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in importance. The Old City houses Jerusalem’s most significant historical and religious sites in Israel. The area draws millions of tourists and pilgrims yearly, who come to taste a piece of history and pay homage to the sacred sites of their religion. The Old City is holy to three of the world’s major religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Jerusalem’s Old City is divided into four quarters; the Jewish Quarter, Christian Quarter, Muslim Quarter, and Armenian Quarter. Each quarter offers a different experience and its own unique atmosphere. It’s easy to get lost among the narrow streets and alleys of the Old City.
Exploring the Old City with a tour group is invaluable, if not to learn about all of the sites’ amazing history, then at least for not winding up walking in circles all day!
You’ll likely enter the Old City through the busy Jaffa Gate. You’ll immediately feel the adrenaline rush as you take in the scenery around you. From here, you will first come across the Christian Quarter. The Christian Quarter contains the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Via Dolorosa. Although the path is just 600 meters long, it’s the most popular pilgrimage site for Christian groups in the world.
The Muslim Quarter is full of shops and tiny eateries, alongside sights like the Ecce Homo Basilica, the Dome of the Rock, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The streets of the Muslim Quarter are busy and crowded with vendors selling juice, candy, and all sort of bric-a-brac. You’ll stumble upon kids playing in the streets and men relaxing, smoking nargila in cafes.
The Jewish Quarter houses the Western Wall, also known as the ‘kotel’ or wailing wall. Here you will find hundreds of religious people praying at all hours. Walking around the tiny passages of the Jewish Quarter, you’ll observe Ultra-Orthodox Jewish families going about their daily lives, with children playing outside and orthodox men scurrying to and from prayers and Torah studies.
The Armenian Quarter is the smallest of the four quarters. It houses the Citadel, also known as the Tower of David, the Cathedral of St. James, and Armenian Patriarchate.
A great way to start your tour of the Old City is by walking on the city ramparts. The UNESCO heritage walls will bestow upon you amazing views of the entire Old City from above. Even if you aren’t religious, Jerusalem’s Old City is fascinating to visit. If not for its awe-inspiring history, then the cultural experience is worth it in and of itself.
If history and relgion aren’t your scene, allow our Jerusalem City Guide to transport you to Downtown Jerusalem, the modern heart of the city and starkly different from the ancient Old City. It offers a variety of things to do, from restaurants to shopping and bars where you can have a drink and watch the local life unfold.
Ben Yehuda is a pedestrian street full of street musicians, cafes, and souvenir shops. Although the area is a bit cliche and touristy, it is worth a stroll and is centrally located.
Downtown Jerusalem also includes Nahalat Shiva, a quaint cobblestone street with plenty of art and Judaica stores and the vibrant Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem’s beating heart.
Machane Yehuda Market
No Jerusalem city guide would be complete without mentioning a staple of Jerusalem life and its culinary epicenter, Machane Yehuda. This market brings together a diverse group of people who come to shop at its 250 vendors. Its lively atmosphere is contagious, especially on Thursdays and Fridays when locals flock to buy food for the sabbath. Party-goers fill the markets in the evening, celebrating in one of many bars that pop up after the sun goes down.
Although the stalls may not look like much, they house some of the city’s best local cuisine. Whether you are in the mood for people-, buying souvenirs or spices, or scoring the best shawarma in pita, this is the place you’ll want to head to. There are also plenty of mouthwatering sit-down eateries in the side streets surrounding the main market, including the fan-favorite Azura and the chef restaurant, Machaneyuda.
Joining a tour is one of the best ways to discover the market. You’ll learn all about local ingredients and how to incorporate them into your own cooking at home.
Jerusalem contains a number of fantastic museums that are well worth visiting. The Israel Museum is the biggest museum in the Middle East. The museum displays various collections of archaeological artifacts, paintings, and sculptures. The museum’s highlight is the Shrine of the Book complex where you can see the Dead Sea Scrolls, thought to be the most ancient manuscripts in the world.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, is an absolute must when in Jerusalem, although be prepared that is an emotional experience. It’s the biggest Holocaust memorial in the world, dedicated to all who lost their lives in the Holocaust.
Jerusalem may be renowned for its history and sacred religious sites, but it also has a fantastic food scene. Quite the haven for foodies, you’ll find an array of local eateries, food stalls, contemporary restaurants and a myriad of bars. Many of the restaurants are located in the Old City, downtown Jerusalem, and Machane Yehuda.
Most of Jerusalem’s best hotels are located within the Old City Walls and around the Machane Yehuda Market and Zion Square. With many featuring the classic Jerusalem stone, they are a site for sore eyes and there are many options for high quality, conveniently located hotels to relax after a long day of exploring the city or touring the country.
This Jerusalem City Guide only scratches the surface of what this complex city has to offer. Be sure to spend a couple days in Jerusalem to discover the intricacies of the Holy City for yourself.