Best things to do in Jerusalem
Find out more about those top places in Jerusalem
As one of the world’s most contested cities, Jerusalem polarizes opinion across the globe. However, delve beneath the city’s tumultuous politics and visitors will find a hidden gem of interlinked Muslim, Jewish and Christian histories. Towering over the city is one of the world’s most disputed pieces of land, known to Muslims as The Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount. Today, the hilltop site is home to two of Islam’s most revered buildings – the dazzlingly blue Dome of the Rock and the more austere Al Aqsa Mosque. For Jews, the site is sacred, as it is believed to have been the site of the First and Second Temples. The only legacy of these temples extant is the Western Wall, which has been transformed into Judaism’s most revered religious shrine. Jerusalem is not all about religion though with the Mahane Yehude Market selling the best Middle Eastern produce and East Jerusalem fast becoming a hot spot for challenging art galleries.
Sitting astride the area known by Muslims as Al Haram Ash Sharif and by Jews as Temple Mount is the dazzling Dome of the Rock, which is likely the world’s most iconic Islamic place of worship. Bedecked in turquoise tiles and capped with a golden dome that can be seen across Jerusalem, the mosque shelters a slab of rock that Jews believe was where Abraham sacrificed his son and Islamic tradition suggests that Prophet Muhammad ascended to the heavens. While non-Muslim visitors are not allowed inside the Dome, guided tours of its exterior reveal its complex history.
Jerusalem’s holiest Jewish site is the Western Wall, which is the last remaining part of what once was the vast Second Temple. The wall has been a site of pilgrimage since the Ottoman era and today the atmosphere is usually electric with Jews from across the world traveling there to pray. For the best experience, take a guided tour of the remarkable complex and guides will be able to inform you of the various Jewish traditions associated with it.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is the most important Christian place of worship in Jerusalem, is believed to be built atop the site where Jesus was nailed to the cross and rose from the dead. While Emperor Constantine erected the original structure some three centuries after the crucifixion, what you see today was largely built during the era of the Crusades. Visitors of all faiths are welcome but respectful dress is a must.
Israel’s most poignant memorial and museum to the Holocaust is Yad Vashem. Spread over a vast site, the complex houses the Holocaust Museum that details the events that led up to what Jews call the Shoah and the Nazi atrocities that were committed thereafter. Other highlights include the Hall of Names, which lists the names of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, the Hall of Remembrance, which contains the eternal flame, and the haunting Cattle Car Memorial – an original train car utilized by the Nazis to transport Jews to extermination camps.
In a city full of contested archaeological sites, the City of David is clearly the most controversial. Dating to the Canaanite period of the 2nd millennia BC, the area is believed to be the oldest in all of Jerusalem with highlights including the Royal Quarter, which was once an aristocratic home, and the partially flooded Hezekiah’s Tunnel that ends at the iconic Pool of Sioloam. The reason for the site’s divisiveness is that it stretches into area’s that are internationally recognized as Palestinian.
Centered on Mahane Yuda Street and Etz Chayim Street, this vast food market is Jerusalem’s beating heart. Stalls selling a remarkable array of spices, meats, herbs and sweet treats, including halva, are no less than a mouth-watering sensory overload that are best explored as part of a guided food tour. For the ultimate experience tour the area’s atmospheric alleyways and bustling food halls on Thursday and Friday during the pre-Shabbat rush.
One of the holiest sites in Christianity is Jerusalem’s Tomb of the Virgin Mary. The cavernous tomb is one of the city’s most atmospheric spots with candle-blackened walls, a plethora of religious art and the numerous lanterns strung from the ceiling. The present tomb dates from the Crusader era but the site’s history goes back to at least the 5th century.
For those hoping to gain a better understanding of Jerusalem’s complex cultural and historical situation a visit to the Palestinian Heritage Museum is a must. Providing a detailed look at the history of the Palestinian nation from the medieval Islamic caliphates to the creation of Israel and its present position within a Jewish state, the museum is a harrowing but ultimately rewarding experience.