Jerusalem has many holy sites. But what you need to know is that in between the holy sites there are quite a few non-holy people who may try to scam you.
With that being said, Jerusalem is safe. Your chances of being mugged are very low.
Here are the places to be aware of.
Scam point #1 – Mount of Olives lookout
Many tours, especially group tours, start the day at the top of the Mount of Olives: my Jerusalem booklet does too.
You have the sun behind you, the magnificent Old City of Jerusalem in front of you, and a whole load of scam artists all around you.
In short, I’ll just say, this is not the place to buy that fake Rolex watch you have always wanted…
My tip: Make sure you keep your wallet close. If you want to change a lens on your camera, then go to a corner to do it or enter the cemetery and do it there.
Scam point #2 – Outside Gethsemane
From the lookout, most travelers continue to Gethsemane. Outside the church there are some very aggressive sellers. It’s their right to be aggressive – but it is also your right not to buy.
My tip here is simple: If you feel pressured, then take it as a sign you shouldn’t buy anything from them. Ask what the price is before you touch the object. Don’t pick anything up in your hands.
Scam point #3 – Via Dolorosa
The next place you should be aware of is the Via Dolorosa. There are dozens of shops along the Via Dolorosa, and most of them are perfectly respectable merchants who are just trying to make a living. But among them, there are some very aggressive sellers.
Remember: Compare the prices from one shop to another and never put up with unpleasant behavior.
Scam point #4 – Restaurant tricks
There are some restaurants that like to play a dirty trick on customers. In restaurants you should always ask for the menu.
If you get a menu without the prices listed, it’s a very bad sign. If they don’t let you know what the prices are, then you should be suspicious: don’t even order a cup of coffee. They will charge you 10 bucks for it.
There is another thing they do.
They give you a menu, and you see a falafel or shawarma, and the price is reasonable. And you order, but then they bring you the falafel plate, which is much more expensive. Now in many restaurants in Israel you can buy a falafel in a pita or on a plate, which is a bit more expensive. It is very common.
But in some of the restaurants here they charge a ridiculous price for the falafel plate without asking you.
My tip for you here: Say that you want the falafel for $7 and not the plate for $25.
Scam point #5 – Stairs leading to the Western Wall
On your way to the Western Wall from the Jewish quarter you will come across people wanting to tie a red string around your wrist and bless you.
And then they will ask you for money. If you want to donate money, great. I am all for it. But I don’t like people pressuring other people to donate money and I don’t know who the money goes to.
My tip for you here: Don’t accept the red string and just keep walking.
Scam point #6 – Jaffa Gate
The last place I want to show you is where most tourists who aren’t doing a tour start their day: Jaffa Gate.
I wouldn’t change money here (DO NOT USE THE ATMS HERE) or use the services of any of the illegal guides (who will just take you to their uncles’ shops and pressure you to buy jewelry) or use any taxis.
Jaffa Gate is the main gateway into the city so there are plenty of honest shops and the great tip-based tours start from here. But in general, be aware.
Scammers and Jerusalem
Scammers are not a new thing. They were here from the moment Jerusalem became Jerusalem.
Mark Twain wrote about most of what I’ve outlined here 150 years ago. The best-selling of Twain’s work during his lifetime was the travel book “The Innocents Abroad”, which he wrote while he was here in 1867.
His book, which I must say wasn’t particularly politically correct, describes Jerusalem better than any modern travel guide.
But there is another point to be made here: How can it be that the holiest places – the place where the Jewish temples stood, where Jesus was resurrected, where Muhammed ascended to heaven to negotiate with God about how many prayers a Muslim ought to pray – these places that are so important to billions of people, are also the places where you have someone trying to rip you off and sell you a falafel for $25?
The answer is that the highest and the lowest are two sides of the same coin.
Think about it: the Jewish temples stood where Abraham almost sacrificed his son, and where Jesus suffered on the cross, next to thieves, humiliated, mocked by the masses.
Sacrifice, humiliation, blood, holiness, faith… These are all very closely related. In the Old City of Jerusalem are the holiest sites and just outside Jaffa Gate is the valley, or “gay” in Hebrew, where they sacrificed children. Guy Ben Hinom, Gehenom, hell.
It is no coincidence that the stairway to heaven and hell are so close to each other.
In my Jerusalem app you will find all my tours as videos, as well as all my tips, recommended restaurants and yes… all the places where you should be extra careful.
If you encounter any problems in the old city, you can always ask for help at the official tourist information in Jaffa Gate.