Over the past few years, Jerusalem has been my home away from home.
I came here four years ago for an internship at the Israel Museum in the collections database. From that moment onwards, I was smitten.
In 2019, when I finished my degree in Montreal, I packed up my belongings and headed for the Holy City. There, I would be working on earning a masters in Jewish Studies at Hebrew University. Growing up as a conservative Jew in Richmond, Virginia, I would hear continually stories about the Jerusalem of Gold, the holiest city on earth, and the homeland of the Jewish people.
I was determined to spend as much time there as possible.
Over the past two years, I’ve cultivated a deeper appreciation and understanding of a city I spent a good portion of my life building up in my mind. Let me tell you: the reality is so much more astounding then anything the human mind is capable of imagining.
An Introduction to Jerusalem
The first time I laid eyes on Jerusalem, it reminded me of the White City of Gondar from Lord of the Rings.
The entire city was built into the mountains, with every building made of the same white limestone; there were endless alleyways to explore. Jerusalem is an ancient city with a past that’s both unveiled and enigmatic.
The earliest known signs of human settlement in the area date back for thousands of years and since then, nations and empires have called this little piece of the world their own, leaving traces of their time there.
The large grand family mansions of the Talpiot and Baka neighbourhoods tell a story of Israel’s Palestinian history. Neighbourhoods with younger vibes have popped up in the last few years, like Rechavia and Nachlaot, whose inhabitants mainly include students and hippies.
Despite being one of the smallest nations in the world, Israel’s population is one of the most diverse, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Holy City. Jerusalem is a cornerstone of belief in all three branches of monotheism: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Divide all of these into their individual sects and orders and then multiply it by the number of nations around the world who practice any one of the variations.
What you are left with is one of the most famous and popular cities in the world. You’ll find nationalities from hemispheres you never expected. The medley of returning diaspora Jews from both East and West, Arab Muslims and Christians from across the Middle East, Palestinian families, Irish Catholics, Russians, a large Fillapino community, Francophones, Latinos; the list of variations is endless. Often times you’ll here at least four or five different languages on the street in a given day.
Jerusalem is also recognized as an international food destination as well as an icon in the world of art and culture. Its culinary roots are a mix of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food styles with a few surprising twists.
Start your morning with a Shakshuka breakfast, sample the coffee at Machne Yehuda market, then add a fresh slice of Knafe for a little something sweet. If you’re looking to have an amazing restaurant experience, right in the middle of Jerusalem is one of the best restaurants in the world, featuring the innovative and delicious creations of not one but two Michelin star Chefs.
Keep in mind that Jerusalem is a kosher city and is strictly Shabbat observant except in one or two select areas. Shops and public places of commerce start to close down Friday afternoon and open late Saturday night. For this reason I would highly advise planning your visit to Jerusalem from the middle of the week or earlier and leave just before Shabbat on Friday. The following itinerary adheres to this guideline.
Start With a Visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Your journey begins on the Via Dolorosa.
Follow the Stations of the Cross all the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Originally built to recognize the tomb of Christ in 1009, this holy site has been destroyed and re-modelled many times over the centuries.
The entire Church itself can be thought of as one giant reliquary, decorated in all the fineries of the world. The walls strewn with frescos and mosaics of scenes from the life of Christ composed in real gold and outlined with precious gems.
The Stone of Unction or the Stone of Anointing, the slab where Jesus was placed after he was taken down from the cross lays right at the entrance to the Church.
Many Christian pilgrims can be seen fervently kissing and prayer over the stone. In the main chapel space is the tomb, covered by a large finely crafted mausoleum.
The line to enter the tomb rivals Disneyland so it is best to show up as early as possible so that you can enjoy your visit, hence why it is the first stop on the itinerary.
Lunch at the Austrian Hospice
Just a six-minute walk from the church is where you’ll venture for lunch. And not just any lunch, but a schnitzel, roasted potatoes, and apple strudel lunch at Café Triest in the Austrian Hospice.
Built in 1854, this hospice is the oldest operating Christian pilgrimage house in Jerusalem, with intricate mosaic tile flooring, high vaulted painted ceilings, and finely polished wooden furniture.
Enjoy your lunch in the Viennese-style Kaiserstuberl, and have an after-lunch espresso in the hospice gardens, the largest freely accessible green space in the Old City.
This is a not-to-miss spot for some incredible photos overlooking the city
Head to Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall
The Temple Mount is thought to be the navel of the world, the starting point of all creation and God’s contact point with humanity.
The site was originally the ground on which Solomon’s Temple stood and was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. After that, the Temple was rebuilt by King Herod but again destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The outer western retaining wall of Herod’s Temple is now Judaism’s holiest site, the Wailing Wall, or the Kotel in Hebrew.
Before you approach the wall it is required that you ritually wash yourself and once you have finished praying back away from the Wall without turning your back. This is a sign of respect. You can even take a tour underneath the wall to see the huge boulders that comprise its base. In the late 7th century during Islamic rule was the Dome of the Rock constructed with the addition of the Al-Aqsa Mosque completed in 705 A.D.
There are certain hours that visitors have access to the Temple Mount, and non-Muslims are not allowed into the Dome of the Rock. You are also not allowed to bring in any religious object such as a cross or prayer book.
Come prepared with your passport in hand and check the security situation before your visit. In fact, I would highly recommend booking a tour guide for both of these major sites. Not only do the Temple Mount and Kotel both have packed histories, but it is also a place with an extraordinary amount of rules and regulations.
It takes a professional’s touch to really immerse one fully and respectfully in the experience.
The City of David
Just down the hill from the Western Wall in the town of Silwan lies the City of David Archaeological Park.
The narrative that the City of David tells is one of triumph and conquest in the classic layered form of Jerusalem history. What you can see on the surface many scholars believe was the biblical city of David and his son Solomon, but this is just a small portion of what the City of David holds.
Under the ground, there are several large structures all dating from various periods in Jerusalem’s history. Lying just along the Siloam valley is Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a 533-meter long hand carved water tunnel built during a time of war with Assyrian armies to transport water into the city.
You can take a tour of this tunnel and trust me it is not for the faint of heart nor the claustrophobic. Most of the time you are in knee-deep water whilst crouching. However it is absolutely astounding to be in a tunnel that was built blindly from one end to the other by human hands.
You can also visit the giant fortification system and water tower remains dating from the Middle Bronze Age Canaanite settlement. Did I happen to mention that this giant water tower is also located underneath the City of David?
Dinner at Ishtabach
After your day of running around and climbing Jerusalem’s hills I recommend taking your evening easy and head to Machne Yehuda to feast at any one the numerous restaurants located on the outskirts of the market.
On the top of the list should be checking out Ishtabach on Beit Ya’akov Street for some shamburak. This savory Kurdish-Syrian pastry comes with your choice of meat or vegan filling including: siske (long roasted ribs), brisket, asado, chorizo, chicken, cheek meat, tongue, and finally sweet potato and black bean.
It’s a great place to split a couple options amongst your table. Order the potato wedges served with lemon garlic tahini on the side, or their shuk salad. You will not be disappointed.
Art and Eggs at Hansen House
Wake up and head to Café Ofaimme at the Hansen House and Cultural Arts Centre.
What is now one of Jerusalem premier centres for art, music, and food was originally a leprosy hospital opened in 1887 and operable until 2000. The architecture and layout of the compound has since increased with the addition of galleries, bars, cafes, restaurants, and a beautiful garden.
Spend your morning enjoying breakfast at Café Ofaimme and then peruse the gallery spaces that feature installation, media, as well as technological art. The café serves local egg dishes, pastries, sandwich options, lighter meals, tea infusions, coffee, and granola to name a few of the options.
The Museum of Islamic Art
From breakfast, your next destination is down Dubnov Street to the Museum of Islamic Art.
Since 1974, this museum has been dedicated to collecting the cultural and archaeological artefacts of Islamic culture from the 7th to the 19th centuries from across the Arab world. Their permanent collection consists of fine textiles, documents, metal, glass, and luxury items such as rugs, fine coffee and tea sets, all of which reflect the grand and esteemed history of Islamic culture.
The current exhibition is called Al-Andalus: In the Far West and focuses on Andalusian Spanish Islamic art from the Middle Ages. Past exhibitions have dealt with contemporary graphic art, ancient embroidery styles, Druze and Bedouin photo journals and more.
This museum is a crucial piece of your Israeli art and culture adventure.
The Israel Museum/Shrine of the Book
The last museum stop on your agenda for today is The Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book.
This institution is one of the world’s most renowned centres of art housing a diverse collection of objects from across the globe. Visit the Rockefeller Archaeology wing and view the world’s oldest burial, dating back 100,000 years, and a rather large pair of prehistoric bulls horns.
Other permanent exhibitions include Birth, Life, and Death in Judaism, a miniature model of Second Temple Jerusalem, and the Shrine of the Book Complex.
The entire complex houses the oldest known copy of the Bible, dating sometime in between the 3rd and 1st centuries. Most scholars believe these texts to be the ancient library of a sect of ultra pious Jews living in Qumran during the Jewish Revolt against Rome. The scrolls tell the story of Second Temple Jewish life and provide us with a historical window into the potential inspiration behind some of Christianity’s early ideas about the messianic apocalypse.
Dinner at Machneyuda Restaurant
When you’re buying your tickets to Israel, don’t forget to call and make a reservation at Machneyuda Restaurant.
Started by two of Israel’s most internationally revered culinary masters, Chef Assaf Granit and Chef Uri Navon, there is typically a two-month waiting list for this food. However, this is a not to miss staple dining location that creates dishes only using local produce from the Shuk and a selection of the finest wine the city has to offer.
On top of the food, you simply cannot beat the joyous environment. Later into the night, the restaurant morphs into one large party with people drinking with strangers and staff well after the kitchen has closed.
Jazz at Birman
If you’re still standing at this point, continue your evening with some live music at Birman Bar and Jazz café.
This is a not-to-miss local joint right off Ben Yehuda Street on Dorot Rishonim. Often, you can find the best Jazz musicians in Israel, both undiscovered and professional, jamming with one another into the night.
Usually there are no less than five musical instruments composing an ensemble with rotations happening about every hour between the musicians so the flow of music never stops.
This is one of those neighbourhood spots where you’ll make friends with strangers and if you can tickle the ivories or pump an accordion, feel free to approach the musicians and ask to jump in on the action.
Friday morning at Shuk Machne Yehuda
For your last day in Jerusalem take it easy and recuperate from the previous night of mass consumption of food and beverage.
Shuk Machne Yehuda’s most vibrant time is on Friday morning with people buying their groceries and Challah loaves for Shabbat dinner, shopping for gifts, or just visiting with friends sipping coffee at Roasters Café.
Head to the market early for some of the tastiest local breakfast and coffee options and don’t forget to buy some flaky phyllo bourekas to snack on later for the ride back to Tel Aviv. Or some Halva: a delicious dessert made from sesame seed paste and mixed with a variety of ingredients like pistachios and chocolate.
Shopping on Jaffa
Spend the remainder of your available afternoon getting in some shopping in the City Centre.
Machne Yehuda empties right out onto Jaffa Street, which offers up an endless variety of local clothing boutiques, antique, fabric, and rug stores, and the all too important hookah shops.
Also, don’t neglect the side streets just off Jaffa and in the surrounding area like Yoel Moshe Solomon, Hillel, and Queen Shlomziyon Streets. This is where you can find some of the best thrift boutiques in Jerusalem.
If you have a taste for high end and name brand fashion then make your way to the end of Jaffa to Mamilla, an open-air upscale mall right beside the Old City.
If you have never heard of Ahava Dead Sea Skin products you should definitely visit the store in Mamilla and pick up some of this amazing Israeli skin care made from the nutrient rich waters of the Dead Sea.
Catch a Sherut back to Tel Aviv
By this time you should be returning to your hotel or Airbnb to pack up and head back to Tel Aviv ending your trip in the Holy City.
The last bus back to Tel Aviv is usually around 16:00 from the Central Bus Station but there are also shared taxis called Sheruts which run all through Shabbat making it an easy way to travel back and forth between cities.
The pick up spot for Sheruts in Jerusalem is near Zion Square at the corner of HaNevi’im and Monbaz. Bring cash!
There is no place on earth like Jerusalem. The city and its inhabitants have changed and evolved over the years astounding the world with its history and culture. Say the name Jerusalem anywhere and you’d by hard pressed to find a person that doesn’t know it in some capacity. One could spend a lifetime here and still be surprised. Consider this guide a scratch on the surface to one of the most complex, beautiful, and engaging cities in history.