Our insider’s guide to Jerusalem in Israel
Jerusalem’s history and culture makes it an extraordinary city to explore. Our Asia + the Middle East expert, Venetia Stanley, gives her advice on how best to spend 48 hours here
Central to understanding not only Israel as a country but also Zionism, the Jewish diaspora and three major world religions, Jerusalem exceeded my expectations and confounded all my preconceptions. Part Israel, part Palestinian West Bank, all paradox. I have been fortunate enough to visit many world cities but cannot think of one that comes close to matching Jerusalem for its vast history and heritage. It is because of this that we work only with the most accomplished guides who have the knowledge and experience to bring this highly complex and hugely rewarding place to life by taking our clients to secret corners, while offering their personal perspectives and astute assessments on life here. It could be said that this comparatively small Eastern Mediterranean city is more historically charged than anywhere else on the planet.
Home to three major world religions, Jerusalem is a true melting pot of cultures, languages, religions and traditions, and arriving in the Old City through one of its ancient gates can swiftly deliver sensory overload for first-time visitors. It provides a context and setting for the exploration of Israel further afield. This is why we craft our trips to begin here. Understanding why this city is so pivotal to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the three religions that all trace their origins back to Abraham, is integral to getting the most out of any trip to this Middle Eastern country. From history and culture, food markets and world-class restaurants to museums and meetings with local families, there is an enormous amount to explore and do. While we typically recommend two full days here, if you have the time, three would be better. With all of our trips, everything is entirely bespoke and flexible, depending on your specific interests and preferences.
The best way to get to grips with the ancient city of Jerusalem is to arrive as bright and early as possible at one of the eight great and ages-old gates of the Old City with your private guide. In doing so, you will avoid the crowds and navigate, expertly led, the colourful labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys that criss-cross the various ‘quarters’ that make up the Old City. Your guide will effortlessly and tactfully gauge and calibrate the tour to any religious persuasions or interests that you may have, and gear the morning accordingly. I met my guide, David, at the Damascus Gate, and under his apparently effortless direction, we began to weave our way through the maze of alleyways passing a multitude of street vendors and huge numbers of Muslims making their way to prayers in the great mosque. The mosque sits in the shadow of the Dome of The Rock – not generally accessible to anyone but Muslims – and the Western (or ‘Wailing’) Wall, accessible on its main length only to men. David explained the significance of each quarter, Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Palestinian – the latter now largely obliterated to create the vast, open space that provides access to the Wailing Wall. We were also shown small underground crypts in the Christian Quarter, as well as the extensive length of underground tunnels that lie below the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter. We can set up private access to some of these sites for clients who would like to experience Jerusalem with no other tourists around. The Dome of the Rock is usually accessible only to practising Muslims over the age of 50. However, with advance notice, we can organise for our clients to visit this monument and speak to the resident Imam.
The opportunities for ‘pit stops’ are endless but one that I would recommend would be in the Arab Quarter at Rimon for its traditionally brewed coffee at one of the oldest stalls in Jerusalem. This café has a brilliant view over the nearby food market and is as simple as it is authentic. Over the years, it has become a meeting place for both Arabs and Jews, reflected by the choice of items on the menu, including freshly brewed Arabian coffee, chilled Israeli Maccabee beer and pungent Arak from Ramallah in Palestine.
For lunch today, local hummus at Lina is highly recommended. A tight and unassuming space, it serves up piles of warm pittas fresh from the oven to accompany the best hummus you will ever eat anywhere alongside a colourful array of pickles. Packed with locals, I immediately understood why insiders say this is the hummus restaurant in the Old City! Given its small size, we always pre-book tables in advance for our guests.
After lunch, before continuing to the Mount of Olives, our guide navigated us through some small alleyways and up to the impressive and modern Hurva Synagogue, situated in the Jewish Quarter and built following the wholesale destruction of the area in 1947 immediately following the withdrawal of the British. A high balcony runs around the base of the Dome providing panoramic views over the Old City, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of The Holy Sepulchre and, in the distance outside the city walls, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane and the huge Jewish Cemetery that dominates the distant hillside.
Afterwards, we continued to the Mount of Olives with its sweeping views back over the Old City. Central to the events that marked the last week of Jesus’ life, the Mount of Olives and nearby Garden of Gethsemane are not to be missed. Even now, after more than two millennia, they still radiate an extraordinary atmosphere of calm and a palpable sense of place and presence.
For dinner, my preferred spot would, undoubtedly, be Machneyuda. This small but buzzy restaurant has acquired a well-deserved reputation for serving up wonderful and authentic local dishes in a truly lively atmosphere. Booking in advance is essential, so we always arrange this for our clients.
The Yad Vashem The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, while physically and emotionally draining, is definitely worth going to. Located on the western slope of Mount Herzl, our guide explained that it is known locally as the Mount of Remembrance. After the Western Wall, Yad Vashem is the second most visited site in Israel today, and it is easy to see why. The architecture is unusual, striking and highly effective. It comprises a long triangular, concrete structure lit from above and accessed through cleverly designed gardens commemorating the many gentiles, including Oskar Schindler, who assisted Jews during the Holocaust. A series of exhibition spaces lead the visitor on a journey through the entire story, incorporating along the way, many video recordings giving first-hand accounts by survivors. As dignified and eloquent as they are moving and horrifying, they are not to be missed. While disturbing and unsettling, I would nevertheless highly recommend this most extraordinary memorial.
For the afternoon and a totally uplifting experience, I highly recommend a visit to the lively and buzzing Machane Yehuda Market, with our favourite foodie specialist and ex-chef Elisa. I spent a wonderful afternoon with Elisa and gained from her a fascinating insight into the immigrant food culture in Jerusalem today. We tried many delicious things – from Iraqi soup and Israeli tahini to Arabic sweetmeats and the freshest of falafel. Elisa was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm by every stall owner, all of whom clearly know and respect her as the culinary expert she is, and we were allowed behind the scenes in the bread shop to see how Arabic bread is made and to sample loaves fresh out of the oven. We were also greeted by the owner of an arak stall who welcomed us in and explained the process of making this traditional Levantine spirit before allowing us to sample his wares.
Finish your day at the Hasadna Culinary Workshop, which is a really lovely and vibrant restaurant in an old warehouse that is jam-packed full of locals all sharing the most delicious small plates. All of the produce is fresh and local, cooked with amazing Middle Eastern spices and flavours, and presented beautifully. The atmosphere is great fun for drinks pre or post dinner, too.
If you can build in an extra day or two in Jerusalem, there is plenty we can do to keep you busy. From the astonishing Masada National Park and its ancient clifftop citadel – accessed by cable car – in the morning, followed by an afternoon hiking at Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, there is something for everyone. Alternatively, spend a day unwinding in the mineral-rich waters of the Dead Sea, which, at 423m below sea level, is the lowest accessible point on earth. All of these are easily accessible from Jerusalem by car and the journey there and back offers an opportunity to see and understand both the geography of the West Bank and the encampments of the Bedouin. You will also be able to observe the farming practices on the Banks of the River Jordan – notably the great date palm plantations that dominate the region, where one single date palm will generate US$1,000 during its lifespan.