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Jerusalem is quite simply one of the most incredible cities in the world. Thousands of years of turmoil, religion and culture have shaped the city like no other I’ve experienced.
Given the fact that Jerusalem is the juncture of the three major monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), the major sites in Jerusalem concern those faiths. The city’s extensive history means a plethora of other sites to see.
In this post I’ll detail the top things to do in Jerusalem. The post is divided into two parts:
- Holy sites
- Historical sites
For practical information on the city, check out my Jerusalem Travel Tips post. For travel information pertaining to the wider Holy Land region check out my Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory Travel Guide post.
Note: The East and West Jerusalem I refer to here are the parts of Jerusalem on either side of the 1949 Armistice Green Line which resulted in Jerusalem’s division between Jordan and the new State of Israel.
HOLY SITES IN JERUSALEM
The list below is not meant to favour one faith over another. Jerusalem is laden with churches, mosques and synagogues, and to visit all would have taken weeks.
On the advice of locals and the feedback of visiting pilgrims, the below listed sites are considered the top holy sites in Jerusalem.
Dome of the Rock
Jerusalem’s, and possibly the Middle East’s, most iconic building is the Dome of the Rock with its glistening gold-plated roof and its predominantly blue mosaic exterior. The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque form part of the complex known as Al-Haram ash-Sharif to Muslims and Temple Mount to Jews.
Built in the 7th Century CE, the Dome of the Rock is situated on the site where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven.
In Judaism, the Dome of the Rock is said to be the site where Adam was created out of dust and Abraham was set to sacrifice his son Isaac. The Jewish faith also believes that the Temple Mount complex was the site of the First and Second Temples, both of which pre-date the Christian and Muslim eras.
Access to the Al-Haram ash-Sharif/Temple Mount complex for non-Muslims is via the raised wooden pathway at the Western Wall, the lengthy queue for which starts near the Old City’s Dung Gate. Admission hours for non-Muslims is limited to a short early morning and midday window. I arrived 1.5 hours ahead of opening time and there was already a sizeable queue ahead of me.
Modest dress is required and certain religious objects are not permitted. Entry is free but includes airport-like security plus questions regarding your motives for visiting and your religious beliefs. It’s well worth the wait and the effort.
The Western Wall is the remaining wall of the Second Temple and is sacred to the Jewish people as a place of prayer and pilgrimage. In front of the wall is a large plaza where people gather to pray. Prayers and petitions are written on notes which are placed into crevices in the wall. The prayer area is divided into male and female sections, the larger of which is the male section.
Access to the Western Wall is via a number of entry points in the Old City which have metal detector security. Unlike the Al-Haram ash-Sharif/Temple Mount complex there are no restrictions regarding entry and it is opened all day, every day to everyone for free. Modest dress is required and no photography is allowed on Shabbat (Sabbath – Friday evening to Saturday evening).
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most sacred churches in Christianity. Located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the Hill of Calvary site, the place where Jesus was nailed to the Cross, died, was buried and resurrected. The church is also the site of the four final Stations of the Cross.
Access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is free and open to everyone, but modest dress is required. During the day it becomes very busy with pilgrimage groups so I recommend arriving there before 8am.
Via Dolorosa is the route which Jesus is believed to have travelled on his way to Calvary. Along this route are the Stations of the Cross, the 14 points where significant events happened prior to his crucifixion. All Stations are located in Jerusalem’s Old City so quite close to each other. Each Station is signified by roman numerals on a dark-brown sign.
This route is a mini-pilgrimage for Christians and I have written a separate post detailing the Via Dolorosa.
Mount of Olives
The Mount of Olives is widely mentioned in the Bible, most notably as the site where Jesus is believed to have ascended into heaven. It also contains the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world.
Garden of Gethsemane
Located at the foot of the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane is where Judas betrayed Jesus. Nowadays, it is a grove of olives beside the Church of All Nations.
HISTORICAL SITES IN JERUSALEM
Jerusalem’s Old City is home to most of the main religious sites listed above but is also an ancient warren of cobbled and marbled streets. Several thousand years of history converge resulting in the most architecturally-diverse square kilometre you’ll ever meander around. It is an absolute delight to get lost in and is one of the top things to do in Jerusalem.
The Old City is located on Jerusalem’s east side and is encased by fortress-like walls. Within these walls, the Old City is divided into four quarters: Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim.
Seven gates lead into the Old City: Jaffa, New, Damascus, Herod’s, Lions (St. Stephen’s), Dung and Zion. From what I could see, Jaffa and Damascus Gates appeared to be the busiest. Damascus Gate had by-far the heaviest security presence.
As for shopping, the Muslim Quarter appeared to have the highest concentration of outlets. Anything you could possibly need for your trip and anything you could possibly give as a present can be bought here. Even if you refrain from purchasing, the walk through the streets is an experience and a treat for the senses, encouraging you to make a purchase anyway!
Street food vendors are dotted around the Old City but sit-down restaurants are plentiful, particularly near Jaffa Gate. During Shabbat, restaurants in the Muslim and Christian Quarters remain open.
Also known as Jaffa Street, this is the main artery route of West Jerusalem and is an excellent thoroughfare for shopping and dining. The efficient Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR) system runs along Jaffa Road so there is no excuse not to visit. In fact, the convenience of the JLR was the reason I chose the stay at the western end of Jaffa Road.
Mahane Yehuda market
Along Jaffa Road one can find Mahane Yehuda market, a place which appears on most lists of things to do in Jerusalem. This bustling and fascinating market sells all sorts of foods and consists of two streets (one covered, one uncovered) with each vendor specialising in a food type.
Mahane Yehuda market closes at sundown with pop-up cafes and bars taking the place of the stalls at night. Mahane Yehuda market closes on Friday evening for Shabbat.
Oskar Schindler’s grave
Exiting the Old City via Zion Gate, I made my way to the Christian Cemetery on Mount Zion. The cemetery is composed of tiers to accommodate the slope of the hill.
Oskar Schindler’s grave is located towards the centre of the lower tier with an enviable view of West Jerusalem. A modest grave, placed on it were a number of small stones which is a Jewish custom of respect. This is a profoundly peaceful place, and I stayed longer than anticipated.
Jerusalem’s YMCA Three Arches Hotel has been described as an oasis of calm and co-existence by guests on some reviews. I discovered the site when it was listed as my Bethlehem tour meeting point and decided to return to dine.
The internal and external architecture of the hotel is stunning and the core value of respect is very evident. This hotel is a microcosm of everything that is great about Jerusalem and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
King David Hotel
Up the road from the YMCA lies the 5-star King David Hotel, a landmark hotel with historical significance. Construction on the hotel began in 1929 during the British Mandate of Palestine with the hotel becoming the accommodation of choice for visiting dignitaries.
The British authorities were based in the hotel when the Irgun paramilitary group detonated a bomb killing 91 people in 1946. The hotel continues to host dignitaries and celebrity guests.
Jerusalem is a city which left me in utter awe for all the right reasons. The sense of history is immense and the architecture is truly impressive. People were so willing to tell their story regardless of their gender, race or religion. And I was privileged to hear those stories.
Jerusalem is best known as a centre of religious pilgrimage but even the most secular of visitors will be enthralled with what the city has to offer. There are thousands of years of history and stories in the city and I’m confident everyone will find a site or a story there which will resonate with them regardless of their beliefs.