Jerusalem is an extraordinary city and easily one of the most engaging cities I’ve ever visited. Thousands of years of tribal turbulence and religious fervour have shaped the city physically and psychologically, and continue to have relevance to the present day.
A trip to Jerusalem is an absolute must for anyone interested in history, religion, and politics. But everyone will appreciate the other aspects of Jerusalem, whether it be the architecture, the food or the people. Here I will outline some Jerusalem travel tips so you can get the most out of your visit.
Is Jerusalem safe to visit? As a solo female traveller I found Jerusalem to be exceptionally safe in terms of petty crime. I didn’t even see anti-social behaviour. There is a heavily-armed high security presence, particularly in the Old City and especially near Damascus Gate.
As I come from a country with a predominantly unarmed police force it took me a day or two to adjust to the vista of ubiquitous weapons. Israel is the only country in the world which has compulsory military service for both men and women and these young cadets also carry weapons when in military uniform.
As for the bigger picture, Jerusalem is a political tinderbox so ultimately you would be best advised to follow the travel advice of your own government.
History: Researching the history of Jerusalem is a must. Have some idea what made Jerusalem the city it is. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s BBC documentary is excellent for understanding the city’s ancient history.
This page on History.com gives a brief outline of Jerusalem’s modern history. For 20th Century history, get familiar with events such as the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the 1949 Armistice and the Green Line, the 1967 Six-Day War and the Oslo Accords of the 1990s.
Sights: Research the sights in advance. As there is so much to see in Jerusalem prioritise the sights you really want to visit. Check out my posts on the Holy Sites of Jerusalem and other Jerusalem must-see sites.
Do a walking tour: If you’ve done no research on Jerusalem then a walking tour will be the perfect crash course in several thousand years of history. If you are an expert on the subject then it will be interesting to hear how Jerusalem’s story is presented.
Language: Most signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English. As millions of pilgrims descend on Jerusalem every year, the city is well used to catering for international travellers. Every local I met could speak some English.
Shabbat: All public buildings, services and the majority of private run establishments close for the Jewish holy day of rest which starts at sundown on Friday evening and runs until approximately sundown on Saturday evening. However, it’s business as usual for the non-kosher establishments in the Christian and Muslim Quarters of the Old City. Private taxis are the only transport option on Shabbat.
Chat to the locals: As I mentioned in my Jerusalem must-see sights post, the willingness of people to share their story was a memorable part of the trip. Despite the high-security presence, Jerusalem was one of the chattiest cities I’ve travelled to. International media focuses on Jerusalem’s political and religious divide but rarely do we hear the personal stories. For me, that was a precious memory.
Budget: I found Jerusalem and Israel in general to be expensive for accommodation, eating out, shopping and particularly for cosmetics and sunscreen. Public transport was good value, though.
Prepare for the altitude and cold nights. Jerusalem sits at an altitude of over 2,000 feet. This elevated altitude meant cold nights during my visit in November although the daylight temperature hovered in the low twenties of the Celsius scale.
GETTING TO JERUSALEM
Jerusalem is a transport hub for buses but, as the Central Bus Station can be a little confusing, research the number of the relevant bus in advance. Like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station in the west of the city is a multi-story structure with a shopping centre attached.
The Arab Bus Station near Damascus Gate serves destinations in the West Bank. The etiquette here is just say the name of your destination to someone and they’ll point you in the right direction!
Bus 485 is a direct bus from Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem Central Bus Station.
When I visited Ramallah in the West Bank by public bus, I had to pass through Qalandiya checkpoint. This checkpoint is discussed in detail in this Times of Israel article.
GETTING AROUND JERUSALEM
Jerusalem has an excellent light rail system (JLR) very similar to Dublin’s Luas. One of the most important Jerusalem travel tips I can give you is to choose accommodation near a JLR station.
Traffic in Jerusalem is heavy especially at rush hours.
Jerusalem is built on a series of hills so is suited to cyclists who want to give their thighs a good work out.
Check out this Lonely Planet guide to getting around Jerusalem.