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Jerusalem; The holy city for three Abrahamic monotheistic religions, the source of contention for the Middle East, the city with divine presence and the city with the most dangerous tourist traps.
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I’m not religious but I grew up in a Muslim environment and fully aware of the importance of Jerusalem. I chose the city as my celebration point for my 50th country (just a reason to celebrate, I don’t care about the count really). What I didn’t know was that my dates fell within Yom Kippur (A Jewish holiday for repentance and fasting). Everything was shut down including public transport and I was told to stock up on food and supplies and everyone looked at me like I was conned by someone with offers of a fully functional Jerusalem. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
During Yom Kippur, there are no tourist buses and other public transport to brings hordes of tourists into Jerusalem which means a few of us staying here actually got the whole city to ourselves. It was the best day of my 3-day stay and I got a chance to be up close to a lot of places which are usually packed with long queues like the tomb of Jesus in the Church of Holy Sepulchre. Food was also available in the Muslim Quarter and I managed to see the two Mosques as well without much interruption.
Now, you might be wondering why I called Jerusalem to be a big tourist trap. It is because of the religious shop set throughout the city. The historical fact is that the city has been razed to the ground so many times nothing remains from the actual times from Jesus’s death to the times of Solomon and Al Aqaba mosque is also very new. I have seen people kissing stones and buying stuff in the hopes they would be taking some of the holiness with them. I am not saying it is a fraud because at some level it is a matter of faith and if they feel like they could relate to it, it brings hope and calm but I am not in favour of not knowing the facts.
Where to stay
I stayed near the walls of the Old City but not inside because it is ridiculously expensive to stay in the old city and the hotels are pretty meh for that price. The old city is also very touristy and I wanted to experience some of the modern-day Jerusalem. I got an Airbnb near the Damascus gate which worked out really well. It is also quite convenient if you want to take public transport.
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How safe is Jerusalem?
This is dependent on when you visit. Tensions are heightened during religious holidays and there’s a risk of violence during these days but it is not every holiday either. I was there during Yom Kippur and it was perfectly peaceful. You should be vigilant and check the news during your visit in case of skirmishes.
Another thing that made me uncomfortable was the heavily armed security/police/army people. Standing in groups, sometimes with loaded guns, batons and a thousand other things at their backs, it just doesn’t let you settle down and enjoy your surroundings. They are also not the friendliest people (Understandably) which didn’t help either.
Tip: Most people prefer to stay in Tel Aviv but it is better to go around from Jerusalem because of its location.
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The people of Jerusalem
Jerusalem has a very mixed population and I didn’t get exactly the warmest of welcomes in the Jewish quarters but people were much nicer on the Arab side. I did get a few looks visiting the markets but no one was explicitly disrespectful or provided a cause for concern. I met a few people online who were very friendly but this depends on who you are, where you come from and what you look like.
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How many days for Jerusalem
A lot of people book a day trip for Jerusalem which I think is really unfair. I spend 2 and a half days here and it was enough to see most of the places easily and enjoy the city itself. 2-3 days is an appropriate time and I definitely do not recommend a half-day type trip, it won’t be worth it with many other tourists and queues.
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When is the best time to visit Jerusalem?
Jerusalem is hot, hot, hot! Spring or late summer is the best time. I visited at the beginning of October and it was still quite hot during the day but it became really nice in the evenings with the breeze. No matter how hot the day was, the evenings were cool and breezy which I absolutely loved especially the evening I spent watching the sunset from Mount of Olives.
All Things Jerusalem
Mahane Yehuda Market
The market is not far from the Old City (about 20 mins walk) and it is the must-visit. It has fresh produce shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. In the evenings it turns into a makeshift party area with lots of quirky bars. It also has some amazing dessert places and the Challah bread here is to die for. (It is traditional braided bread eaten during Shabbat dinners). I also went there for brunch on the day I was leaving and had amazing Shakshuka. The market also has amazing fruits and there are a lot of places to eat around the market too. Perfect socialising spot in Jerusalem.
The 8 Doors to Old City
The old city has 8 famous doors:
Zion Gate – Zion is the oldest name of Jerusalem and closest to King David’s tomb.
Dung Gate – Named because it was used to take the trash away in old times and closest to the Western Wall.
Golden Gate – The most revered gate, it is not opened because it is believed Messiah will come and open it in time.
Lion’s Gate – The gate with Lions on each side and closest to Via Dolorosa (Jesus’s processional route to crucifixion).
Damascus Gate – The biggest gate to the old city and the busiest one. It is named after the place where the rulers of Jerusalem once came from.
Jaffa Gate – The gate aligned with the port of Jaffa in older times. It is also the start of the Free Walking Tour. (about that later)
Herod’s Gate – Closest to the Old City markets and also called Flower Gate.
New Gate – This is the only gate not part of 16th-century Ottoman design, nothing special either.
Free Walking Tour of Jerusalem
There is a free walking tour available that takes you through the Old City of Jerusalem and usually, I am a fan of these but Jerusalem was an exception. Overall the useful information was much lesser than the historical inaccuracies and biased commentary. The guide also got pissed when people asked questions about the current relations. I’d not suggest it instead look for other paid tours and hopefully, with time, there will be a more balanced tour that’s more about the city and its history instead of religious divides.
The Four Quarters of Old City
Jerusalem is divided into four quarters; Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. The Armenian Quarter is also Christian but they have a staunchly independent presence to mainstream Christianity.
Despite the names, there are no real divides between the four quarters and a lot of times you don’t even realise which quarter you are in until you reach a landmark. Local population is also spread out.
The most modern of the four quarters. It has some cute squares The most notable places I saw were:
- The Wailing Wall or The Western Wall
- Hurva synagogue and the Gold Menorah
- The Cardo from Roman times (The old street going through the centre of the city)
- The old walls of the city before the Ottoman walls were built.
You can visit the Western Wall at any time but keep in mind this is a religious site and you should dress accordingly. Access to tunnels is restricted during some religious holidays. It was quite an electric atmosphere during Yom Kippur and also special because everyone wears white.
Tip: If you are a non-Muslim, the bridge that leads to the Dome of the Rock goes through here and it is open only during specific times, make sure you visit accordingly.
The biggest part of the Old city with bustling markets and the best part was seeing the shops selling Muslim prayers paraphernalia with Christian rosary beads, crosses of each denomination and menorahs all. The streets are narrow and busy and the food here was amazing especially in smaller streets. (Check the stories for recommendations above).
If you are a Muslim you can enter the platform on which Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosques stand at any time. I was even asked to recite some verses from Quran to prove (I was scared I might have forgotten them by now haha!). The visiting route is also different as I mentioned before if you’re not Muslim.
Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa both are beautiful inside and out and examples of gorgeous Turkish Ottoman Architecture, absolutely loved the visit.
Fun Fact: The Jewish people actually do not set foot on the platform because the Holy of the Holies resides there at all times and human presence will contaminate the place. Some of the Orthodox Jewish circles’ creation of Israel was a mistake because the Kingdom of David was supposed to come into being when Messiah arrives, rebuilds the temple of Solomon and establishes the Kingdom of Israel.
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The Muslim Quarter is also host to the small Western Wall or Kotel which is considered more holy because it is closer to the Holy of Holies. It is another exposed area of the Western Wall.
This Quarter is host to The Church of Holy Sepulchre, the holiest place for Christians worldwide where Jesus was crucified and buried before his resurrection. The church is divided amongst 6 different denominations and it is a Hodgepodge of architecture and styles. A small movement of objects has led to bitter fights in the past. It is definitely worth a visit though.
Walking around the old city, regardless of quarters is a fun experience, the narrow alleyways giving way to smaller and bigger alleys with small squares, small restaurants, cafes, people walking around with hopes and wishes bustling towards their relevant places of worship. I think this is what Jerusalem offered more than the actual buildings and the stories so often told. I realised how tricky it is to have faith in this age and how walking around in this city I felt free of all that. It was a weirdly cathartic experience.
Fun Fact: Jesus was a relatively unknown figure in his time and he was considered a trouble maker in Rome. There was no mention of this new religion at his time (well he was Jewish himself) and the punishment he got was reserved for petty crime; crucifixion. A lot of the details of his crucifixion are very dubious because the earliest written records after his death were 30-60 years later. Do you remember in full vivid detail what happened 30 years ago?
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Outside the Old City Walls
There’s plenty to see outside the city walls but I chose the 4 most relevant experiences
The Room of Last Supper and King David’s Tomb
Located on Mount Zion you can easily get to them from Jaffa Gate from Jewish Quarters. Both places are significant historically but as a visiting space nothing special in there.
The Garden Tomb
From Damascus Gate, you can get to this place which is established and maintained by an English charity. It is the second contender of the place where Jesus was crucified and buried and if you let your imagination run really wild you might even see the Golgotha (skull) in the surrounding mountains and their explanation helps you tie the knots together. Regardless, it is a fantastic place to sit and relax in the shade away from the bustle of the old town in with the flowers and plants. They run free tours every few minutes which you can join, it is not a massive place but quite a beautiful garden.
The Garden of Gethsemane
The garden with Olive trees with the Church of All Nations is another beautiful place at the foot of Mount of Olives. According to legend, this is the place where Jesus went through his dark agony on his last night before the crucifixion and he was arrested in these gardens. The church is built to capture the mood with darker lighting. You can almost feel the agony a person must feel knowing they are on the run and will be caught soon.
The Mount of Olives
The best place to see the sunset over Jerusalem. This is the place where Jesus ascended to Heaven. The hike up is not too bad but make sure you arrive in time to get a spot to see the sunset. Another must-do in my opinion. There are some other spots on the way but honestly, with the number of landmarks I got desensitised pretty quickly and the human connections feels a lot more relevant than the religious one.
Jerusalem was an unforgettable experience; one I wouldn’t repeat but cherish for sure. I am ever so glad I visited the city with the appropriate attention and enjoyed it fully. Do let me know what you guys think about Jerusalem.
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