If you’re planning a visit to Jerusalem, then this post is for you!
This post will help you plan your time in Jerusalem, one of the most interesting cities in the world.
Day one – Mount of Olives and the Old City
If the weather is good, i.e. not too hot or too cold, I would start with the most important sites – those located on the Mount of Olives and in the Old City. If the weather is miserable, I’d recommend visiting museums and underground sights or even, if it is a particularly cold and rainy day in Jerusalem, taking a day trip to the Judaean Desert. More about those options below.
Mount of Olives
You can reach the Mount of Olives on foot by passing through the Lions’ Gate and then climbing the mountain (it is quite steep), or by taking a taxi. There is no decent public transportation to the top of Mount of Olives from the city center. The best place to start is the Chapel of the Ascension where, according to tradition, Jesus ascended to heaven. Many of the sights on the Mount of Olives are connected to Christianity: the Church of the Pater Noster, Dominus Flevit, the Church of Gethsemane and others.
There are two main reasons for this: first, Jesus lived the last week of his life on the Mount of Olives, and second, Christianity tends to commemorate events connected to the life of Jesus by building churches, which is something that can’t be said of Judaism and Islam. But the sights on the Mount of Olives are not only of interest to practising Christians.
Beyond their religious importance, they afford magnificent views, as the mountain is higher than the Old City. Another significant location is the Jewish cemetery, one of the most important Jewish cemeteries in the world, since Jews have been buried here for around three thousand years.
Allow yourself 2-3 hours to see the main sights. Unlike the Old City, which is close to the center, meaning you can easily visit it more than once, the vast majority of travelers only visit the sights on the Mount of Olives once. There are almost no places to eat between visiting the various points of interest. On a hot day (or indeed always) make sure you have a bottle of water with you.
From the foot of the Mount of Olives, where you will found the Church of Gethsemane and the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, it is about a 10-minute walk to the Lions’ Gate, from which you can enter the Old City.
The Old City
This is the most interesting square kilometer in the world. Hard as it is to imagine, until 170 years ago Jerusalem was limited to the borders of what we today call the Old City. There are four quarters in the Old City; in some spots it is clear when you move from one quarter to the other, and in others it is less so.
The Muslim Quarter
If you enter from the Lions’ Gate and continue straight down the main road, you will notice the presence of round metal plates on the walls. These plates mark the stations of the Via Dolorosa: the path that Jesus walked from where he was judged to where he was crucified (today located inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre).
The first seven stations of the Via Dolorosa are in the Muslim Quarter. In front of station three is the Austrian Hospice, a European island in the middle of the Muslim Quarter, and from its rooftop you can enjoy views of the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. If you don’t have time to go up to Temple Mount (more about that coming up), this is the closest you’ll be able to get. It’s also a good place to stop for a coffee, complete with portraits of Kaiser Franz Josef looking down at you from the walls.
The Jewish Quarter
The heart of the Jewish Quarter is the Wailing Wall, a small stretch of the retaining wall that supports the Temple Mount. If you want to see it all you will need to enter the Western Wall Tunnel, a very impressive underground archeological complex. You are supposed to register in advance but you can always ask at the entrance if you can possibly enter.
Not far from the Wailing Wall is the Dung Gate, and if you exit the walls and cross the road you will see the entrance to another archeological site: the City of David. This is where Jerusalem began 3000-4000 years ago (yes, the ancient city of Jerusalem lies outside the Old City walls… Welcome to Jerusalem!). A large part of it lies underground and you can even walk along some ancient underground paths, some of which are submerged with water. You can also explore the archeological exhibition at the Davidson Center, located next to the Wailing Wall.
The Christian Quarter
In the middle of the Christian Quarter is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. First built in the 4th century, this church is where, according to tradition, Jesus was crucified and buried. As with most of the sights in Jerusalem, the church, being one of the most important and interesting churches in the world, can be very crowded and noisy. In order to understand what you are looking at, I’d recommend taking a tour or purchasing my Jerusalem booklet. The booklets are only sold outside Israel, so order now and come prepared! Or download as a PDF or EPUB (e-book).
The Armenian Quarter
The Armenian Quarter is the smallest quarter and is mainly centered around St James’ Cathedral. The church is only open from 3-3.30pm on every day except Sunday. I recommend heading there to listen to the prayers.
From the Armenian Quarter you can head out through the Zion Gate to visit the sights on Mount Zion: the Room of the Last Supper, the Tomb of David (which is a synagogue) and the Abbey of the Dormition, where Mary fell asleep. From here you can walk, inside or outside the walls, to Jaffa Gate and from there walk or take the tram (the closest stop is City Hall) to your hotel or hostel.
Jewish sites that can be integrated into this day – Hurva Synagogue, Rambam Synagogue, and the Four Sephardic Synagogues.
Protestant sites that can be integrated into this day – Augusta Victoria on the Mount of Olives, Church of the Redeemer in the Old City, and the Garden Tomb (a few minutes’ walk from Damascus Gate). Note that most of Jerusalem’s churches belong to the Catholic and Orthodox denominations.
Day two – the Old City and the New City
Temple Mount (the Old City)
I recommend starting your second day early in the morning and visiting the Temple Mount. Non-Muslims can only go up through one entrance, located between the Wailing Wall and the Dung Gate (you will see the wooden bridge). The Temple Mount is open every day except Friday from 7.30-11am and from 1.30–2.30pm in summer, and from 7.30-10.30am and 12.30–1.30pm in winter (ask at your hotel to be sure; also closed on Muslim holidays. Make sure you dress modestly; no knives or religious books allowed). On the Temple Mount there are two monumental buildings: the Dome of the Rock, the most iconic building in Jerusalem, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
After your visit to the Temple Mount you can either visit sites included in yesterday’s itinerary or head out to the New City (western part). Shuk (Market) Machne Yehuda is a great place to have lunch. A short walking distance from the market you will come upon Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, or you could just take a stroll around the small alleys of Nachlaot. A short bus ride (or a 40-minute walk) will take you to Givat Ram.
Givat Ram – the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) and the Israel Museum
Givat Ram is a neighborhood where many of the national institutions are located, among them the Supreme Court, the Bank of Israel, the National Library, one of the campuses of the Hebrew University, and two sites that are relevant to travelers – the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) and the Israel Museum, the most important museum in Israel.
You can look at the Knesset from the outside or register in advance for a tour on Sundays and Thursdays (there are free tours in different languages). The tour covers the history of the building, its impressive artwork and the work of the Israeli parliament.
Next to the Knesset stands Israel’s most impressive museum, the Israel Museum. Here you can see the Shrine of the Book, some of the oldest parts of the Bible that have ever been found, the largest and by far the most important collection of Israel’s archeological finds, an extensive collection of European art and a whole wing concerned with Jewish life and culture.
If you are interested in the Bible and feel like visiting another museum, you can cross the parking lot and enter the Bible Lands Museum, which exhibits archeological artefacts from peoples and cultures mentioned in the Bible.
The Israel Museum has a café and restaurant but other than that there is nowhere to eat within the Givat Ram complex. There is a cinema city mall five minutes’ walk away or alternatively take a bus back to the city center.
Day 3 –More Sites in Jerusalem or a Day Tour to the Judaean Desert, Ein Karem, Mount Herzl, and Yad Vashem
On your third day in Jerusalem, once you’ve seen the most important sights, you have two main options: visiting more places in Jerusalem or heading off on a day tour into the Judaean Desert. A day in Tel Aviv is also an option, the city lying just an hour away.
Mount Herzl, which is also the name of the last stop on the light rail, is home to a number of important sights. If you want to understand the Israeli DNA, you need to visit this place. It is named after Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who is also buried at the top of the mountain. Former prime ministers and presidents of the state are also laid to rest on the mountain. Down the slopes of the mountain is Israel’s largest military cemetery, as well as Yad Vashem, the official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
From the light rail station at Yad Vashem, you can either walk or take the bus to Ein Karem, a quiet village on the outskirts of the city. There are two important churches in this neighborhood: the Church of the Visitation and the Church of St John the Baptist. There are also lots of pleasant little spots where you can sit back and relax after the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem with children
Too much archeology, religion and history is not easy, not for adults, and certainly not for children. Luckily, Jerusalem has more to offer than just holy sites. I’ll be writing a post about this, but for now the main attractions for children include:
* The Bloomfield Science Museum – An excellent interactive museum. This is a veritable scientific playground, where even small children get to enjoy the power of science.
* Jerusalem Biblical Zoo – The most-visited paying sight in Israel, and with good reason. The focus lies on the animals that once lived in Israel and those that are mentioned in the Bible.
* The Israel Museum has a large wing dedicated to children. It was the first museum in Israel to have a focus on children’s education through play. It also has a large collection of toys, books and dolls. Other than that, they have temporary exhibitions and programs for children.
Day Tour to the Judaean Desert
Since I really love the desert I usually recommend spending at least one night here, but if you come in summer, when it’s extremely hot, or if it’s very cold in Jerusalem and you want some sun, or if you’re just short of time, you have the option of taking a day tour from Jerusalem. The main sights in the Judaean Desert are the Dead Sea, Masada and Ein Gedi. A private guide with a car is always the best option but you can also get yourself there on public transportation, rent a car or join a tour from Jerusalem. I recommend Abraham Tours. For more information about the Judaean desert, check out this post with all the relevant information.
See you in Israel!