As the capital of Israel – and a towering city in the grander Middle East – Jerusalem is frequently the subject of news headlines and political debates. But it too seldom gets its due as a fascinating historical and cultural destination – a location enriched by the art, culture, and food of both native Israelites and the country’s former occupying nations. For an exciting look at the Jerusalem of today, join us on a journey to the Holy Land…
A brief history of Jerusalem
With a documented history stretching back more than 5,000 years, it’s hard to quickly summarize the story of this pivotal city. But here we go…
The first settlements in the area we now know as Jerusalem were built in about 3,500 BCE. Little is known about the settlements’ history over the next couple of millennia, but by 1,500 BCE, they became vassals to the Ancient Egyptians. When Egyptian regional power disintegrated in about 1,000 BCE, King David took control of the ersatz city and united Israel – previously the disparate kingdoms of Judah and Israel. It was at this point that Jewish worship was centralized in Jerusalem and temples were built to honor the Jewish god Yahweh.
Later centuries, however, would prove troublesome for Jerusalemites. Internal skirmishes; sieges from outside forces (notably the Assyrians); and conquest by the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans left the city feeling somewhat confused about its identity and ever in a struggle to retain hold of its religious traditions.
When Rome’s power gave way to Muslim caliphates in the 6th century CE, Jerusalem experienced a renewed tolerance of their religious practices – while the caliphs built mosques and holy sites, such as the Dome of the Rock, that paid homage to the prophet Mohammed.
In more recent centuries, Christian missionaries flocked to Jerusalem to establish churches and centers of worship, while several world powers laid claim to the city in quick succession – including the Ottomans, the Brits, and the Jordanians. It was only after the Six-Day War of 1967 that Israel declared the entire city of Jerusalem under its control.
The Jerusalem that has developed since the 1960s is impressive – even though sectarian and national tensions still exist. The marks of history are abundant (and increasingly well preserved) while culture is flourishing, notably in the realms of art, dining, and entertainment. Suffice it to say, 21st-century Jerusalem is a city not just for older generations, but also for the intellectually curious, the young, and the energetic.
Given ongoing conflicts in the region, safety should be a top priority when traveling to Jerusalem. Check the U.S. State Department website for up-to-date safety warnings and note what parts of the city and country to avoid. That said, local crime is low compared to many western cities, so while you should always protect your belongings, theft is a lesser concern.
The local currency in Jerusalem is the Shekel. Be sure to get some before you head out on your trip as many smaller boutiques/shops do not accept credit cards. Still, there are places that do accept cards (like major hotels) so make sure you have one you can use abroad.
Lastly, while the native languages of Israel are Hebrew and Arabic, most people in the city – especially in popular tourist spots – will speak enough English to help you get by. Learn a few key phrases in Hebrew if you can, and remember that both Hebrew and Arabic are written right to left (not left to right).
How to get there and get around
If you’re coming from the U.S., you won’t be flying into Jerusalem. Likely, you’ll fly into Ben Gurion Airport, about 30 miles outside of the city. This is a very modern airport with all the amenities you’d find in the U.S.; it serves major carriers like American Airlines, Delta, and United.
Renting a car is the way to go if you intend on spending a lot of time traveling to sites outside the city (rates start at about $10/day). Just keep in mind that there could be hefty fees for insurance – and this is often excluded from quotes offered by third-party vendors. If your goal is to explore Jerusalem itself, however, public transportation or taxis are recommended.
To make public transportation use easy, be sure to get a Rav Kav card – this will allow you to preload money for treks around the city via lightrail or bus.
Where to stay
As with most major cities, the best spot to stay for access to major sites, dining, and shopping is downtown. There is an abundance of hotels right outside the Wailing Wall (Western Wall), and prices scale to fit most budgets ($50-300+/night). Naturally, we have a few favorites:
For five-star fabulousness, there’s nothing better than the Mamilla Hotel on Shlomo ha-Melekh Street. We’re absolutely in love with the design and architecture here – a stone-washed, Old World core meets the chic and shiny new demonstrated in abundant glass, vibrant colors, and plush furniture. Room amenities are modern and luxe, without a doubt: in-room coffee, WiFi, turndown service, and Bvlgari amenities make your stay a little extra special. For gorgeous views and masterfully mixed drinks, head to the rooftop bar – you can see the Old City lit up at your feet. Prices run $500+/night.
More modest – and affordable – accommodations can be found at Harmony Hotel on Yo’el Moshe Salomon Street. Each room, simply adorned, features the occasional touch of whimsy – like zebra-print chairs – but overall, is a perfectly comfortable stay for anyone mostly interested in spending their trip out and about in the city. Bonuses: the free happy hour for guests, and a lobby that’s so perfectly designed for lounging we’ve been known to spend several hours there reading up on Jerusalem history. Prices run about $180+/night.
You can certainly opt for something less expensive than the hotels above, but when you dip below $100/night, you start to face questionable quality. If you need something in this price range, we recommend Paamonim Studios on King George Street. Prices start at $70/night or so (sometimes cheaper, if they’re running a deal) and get you a simple room with a bed – plus a few amenities like free WiFi and onsite breakfast.
What to see/do
There are certainly plenty of things to keep you busy in Jerusalem, but we always recommend starting with a tour of major historic and religious sites.
First up is a tour of the Old City and its many landmarks. Start with a trip to the Wailing Wall (also known as the Western Wall), which you can get to by taking Jaffa Street into the Old City complex. Many visitors will be gathered here to worship, so be respectful as you take in this millennia-old landmark. Also, be sure to walk the tunnels underneath so you can see the fascinating makeup of the rocks – a physical nod to the layers of history and influence that gave the wall its current form.
Next, visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Jesus was purportedly crucified. The church itself dates back to the 4th century CE and is currently shared by major Christian denominations, all of whom revere this as the site of Christ’s death. Inside, you’ll find various chapels, tombs, and altars memorializing Christ’s sacrifice.
If you have time, it’s also worth visiting the Mount of the Olives just east of the Old City, which years ago become a Jewish necropolis; and the Garden Tomb north of the city where Jesus was thought to have been buried.
For something outside religious history, consider visiting a few of the city’s exceptional museums. The Museum for Islamic Art is a breathtaking tribute to Muslim artists who chronicled their community’s growth and development through jewelry, rugs, and statuary, and other pieces. If you’ve got kids in tow, they’ll likely appreciate the Bloomfield Science Museum, a destination for uncovering the science behind basic principles of physics – like how the level works and why humans can’t fly (darn).
Lastly, for a break from all the sightseeing, take a jaunt down the retail triangle of Jaffa-Ben Yehuda-Hillel Streets by the Wailing Wall. You’ll find plenty of souvenirs, clothes, jewelry, and more to tempt you as you round out your exploration of Jerusalem.
Where to eat
There’s no question that Jerusalem holds its own among the culinary capitals of the world. There are certainly plenty of local stops – showcasing falafel, hummus, couscous, and shakshuka, among other staples – but there are also exceptional steakhouses, Italian enotecas, French-inspired bistros, and fusion concepts.
For high-end local cuisine – with a twist – nothing beats Eucalyptus. Yes, you’ll find falafel on the menu, but not exactly the classic version; a recent menu sported Fish Falafel with coconut cream, for example. You’ll also find delectable curiosities like beef-stuffed Eggplant, Seared Mallard, and almond cream-spiked Artichoke Soup. All of it is delicious.
Another of our go-tos: Nocturno Restobar, where you can get a toasted Gouda Croissant in the same order as a seitan strip-studded Shawarma. This spot is a delight for breakfast and lunch – and the prices are very reasonable.
Admittedly, however, the best way to enjoy the culinary diversity of Jerusalem is to spend an afternoon/evening on a progressive dinner. Start with some wine at a local wine cellar, then wend your way through the city enjoying appetizers – preferably accompanied by great views – dinner, and dessert. When you can, go local and independent – that’s where the magic always happens. And if you need a recommendation, ask your hotel’s concierge or a local tour guide.