Israel had always been a place of intrigue for me, and not always for good reasons. This tiny country is often in the news, and I wanted to understand the political issues but my curiosity also came from what I had heard about the nature and landscapes.
However, Jerusalem specifically had never been on my radar. Despite my fascination with religion (*cough* A* in RE GCSE *cough*), I hadn’t given any thoughts to visiting the famous holy sites. But when I heard that TBEX would be hosting their next travel blogging conference there, I knew I had to discover this ancient place.
What I wasn’t expecting was how many layers there are to Jerusalem. With a mixture of Jewish, Muslim and Christian people, understanding and tolerance are a huge part of why the city works. I lost count of the number of times I heard locals talk about the obsession with the status quo. The city also has a thriving nightlife, fantastic food and a modern, easy-to-use transport system.
Sandemans Walking Tour This walking tour of Jerusalem’s old city is free, fun, and you will learn a lot. A knowledgable guide will take you on a stroll through the four quarters – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian, while exploring the history, culture and stories that emerge. You’ll find out about why there are red British style post boxes, what made residents expand outside of the old city walls, and how come the Armenians get their own quarter when they are Christians too.
The real climax is stopping at a spot overlooking the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and all of Jerusalem. There were about 30 young Jewish boys singing Hebrew songs a little way from the Western Wall during my tour, which apparently happens a lot and feels very godly.
My advice would be take the tour (guides earn their living from tips so be kind!) but then make some time on your own to go back to parts you want to look further at. The tour doesn’t take you inside the buildings, and you’ll want to have a glance into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Get lost down side streets and observe local life in each quarter.
Mehane Yehuda Market
The Mehane Yehuda market offers something for everyone, with fresh produce to buy for cooking to trendy bars and cafes.
Visit before it opens to see the vibrant street art that adorns the metal shutters, come at lunch time to try hummus, felafel and some halva, or be there in the evening for lively bars that are pumping out music, and be sure to sample an arak shot.
I could have spent days in the Israel Museum, but a 2 hour evening tour got my appetite for more information going. This enormous hub had several different buildings and a big outdoor area, incorporating archaeology, art, Jewish life and the Bible. The archaeologist guide talked us through the model version of Jerusalem, the finding of the first biblical scrolls by the Dead Sea, and the discovery of the first recorded pet dog from 4,000 years ago. Most impressive was the world’s smallest bible, written using nano technology on a page the size of a sugar grain.
There were clever bits of design in the museum. Walking outside, you see a large, unusually shaped fountain. Inside the fountain, the biblical scrolls are housed. It is revealed that the shape of the fountain represents the jars in which the scrolls were found, and the gates to the room mimic the scrolls themselves.
The Israel Museum is a fascinating peek at the historical artefacts that date back thousands for years and gives some insight into lives of the time. Then you are brought back to the modern day with some edgy art pieces, such as the giant sculpture of a Sudanese man prompting visitors to contemplate Israel’s stance on refugees.
Sunrise Cycling Tour
The sunrise cycling tour is a really special way to start one of your days in Jerusalem. Setting off at 4.30am from Abrahams Hostel, you will navigate around the streets and hills of the city in darkness. The shutters are down at the market, there are no cars around making for easy pedalling, and all is quiet. As you move around the town, the guide will stop the group every now and then to talk about the city. The tour takes in many of the same landmarks of the Old City as the walking tour, but there are different focusses, different tidbits of information. Besides, seeing it in the early morning and on two wheels makes all the difference.
What you really are there for, is that beautiful moment when the sky changes and then sun emerges from the horizon. For this, you stand on top of Zion Gate, and the guide had the genius idea of bringing a camp stove and coffee up to the top. In the cold morning air, seeing that magical event that happens every single day but we rarely make time for, will bring a smile to your face.
These are my top picks from the short time I spent exploring Jerusalem, but there is plenty more to see. There are churches, synagogues and mosques, and I would be really interested to check out the holocaust memorial museum.
All just another excuse to return to Jerusalem, eh?