Exploring Jerusalem – Things to See and Do.
It can be a challenge when your first visit to a City is both achingly short and has a particular focus. In my case, I travelled to Jerusalem for last year’s Marathon and my short visit was dominated by learning more about that event, then wandering around the streets watching the runners taking part in not just one race but a whole series of events. I was far more drawn in by the Marathon than I’d anticipated and instead of playing hookey ended up getting quite involved. Read more about the Jerusalem Marathon and find out about how to take part yourself in the 2020 Jerusalem Marathon here. The end result was that I spent less time exploring the city and more time following the Marathon and the associated races. It’s impossible to visit Jerusalem though and miss just how important an historic and cultural centre it is. I’m sharing a few of my own favourite sights here – and, because I was really aware how much I hadn’t covered, I’ve asked some of my colleagues to contribute their own ideas about what makes Jerusalem special for them.
Table of Contents
The Tower of David
Of course, the entire Old City is somewhere to explore, where you can spend days if not weeks uncovering yet more special places to visit. My first stop though was the Tower of David which is also known as the Jerusalem Citadel. It’s right by the Jaffa Gate, one of the main entrances into the Old City and is unmissable.
Apart from housing a museum which tells the story of Jerusalem, the origin of the building itself dates back to around 150BCE and then to Herod I, who added three towers to the fortifications in 37-34BCE with the intention of defending the city and safeguarding his own royal palace on Mount Zion. Parts of the towers still remain today, though much of the structure was destroyed and rebuilt when the crusaders were banished from Jerusalem by Muslim forces in the 13th century.
What remains today provides visitors with spectacular views across Jerusalem. And, the Tower of David Museum opened in 1989, provides a fascinating insight into the complex history of Jerusalem.
If like me, you are fascinated by the food culture of Israel, Mahane Yehuda is a must-visit destination. A marketplace or ‘shuk’, you’ll find all kinds of foodstuff together with stalls selling clothes, shoes, housewares, textiles and souvenirs.
It’s popular with locals and tourists alike. You’ll find queues of people buying rather wonderful stone-ground tahini, spices and herbs of all sorts and fresh-baked goods. There are plenty of street food stalls too and you can enjoy a meal of traditional Israeli food together with fresh juices, coffee and more.
In the evenings the market comes alive as a nightlife centre, with restaurants, bars and live music.
The Jerusalem Winery.
Just outside the city centre is the Jerusalem Vineyard Winery. I went along to their tasting room, housed in the Montefiore Windmill, to find out more. One of the best-known landmarks of the Jerusalem skyline, the windmill was built by Sir Moses Montefiore, a British Jewish banker and philanthropist, in 1857 to provide a livelihood for the poor. It was intended as part of a program to enable the Jews of Palestine to become self-supporting and Montefiore invested in other enterprises including a printing press and textile factory, together with agricultural colonies. It has survived by chance – after Jewish Haganah fighters used it as an observation post during the 1948 blockade of Jerusalem the British authorities ordered that it should be blown up. But, the unit tasked with destroying it came from Ramsgate – the home of Montefiore and when they spotted their hometown, they took a liberal interpretation of their orders and only blew up the observation post rather than the entire structure. Today, in addition to providing a tasting room for the Jerusalem Vineyard Winery, there’s a museum there telling the life of Montefiore.
The winery itself was founded in 1848 by Yona Mendelson and the Shor family and was originally located in Jerusalem’s Old City. Part of the original winery was renamed the Shimshon Winery and was purchased by businessman Ofer Guetta in 2006. Today it’s the only remaining winery in Jerusalem and produces three million bottles of wine, sacramental wine and grape juice making it the sixth-largest winery in Israel.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
In the heart of the Old City in the Christian Quarter is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. An ancient building, it was originally the site of a temple built out of a cave after the first Jewish Roman War in around 135 CE.
That remained until the early 4th century when Constantine the Great converted to Christianity. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built over two holy sites – the traditional site of Calvary and the site where it was believed Jesus had been buried. Consecrated on 13 September 335, it was partly destroyed by fire, earthquake and war – and reconstructed in the 11th Century.
It’s a fascinating place to visit, not least because it is a site which is governed by what is known as The Status Quo – an understanding between religious communities about certain shared religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In the case of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it is evident in the very mixed communities visiting and praying at the church which is called also called the Church of the Resurrection or Church of the Anastasis by Eastern Christians.
Like most people visiting Jerusalem for the first time, I went to see the Western Wall or Wailing Wall, which is considered holy due to its connection to the Temple Mount. It is is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray, though the Foundation Stone, which is in the centre of the Dome of the Rock lies behind it and at sunset on the Shabbat, it is packed with Jewish worshippers
Bella from Passport & Pixels explains.
Dome of the Rock
The Dome of the Rock is the most iconic sight in the whole of Israel. Look at any photo of Jerusalem’s skyline and you’ll see it, its gold-plated roof shining bright amongst the sandy-coloured rooftops. It’s no wonder that it’s one of the most photographed buildings on earth, and Lonely Planet called it ‘the crown jewel of Jerusalem’s architectural heritage’.
But the Dome is not just an iconic building, it’s seriously important. This is probably the holiest of all holy places in the entire world, venerated by Jews and Muslims alike. As the name suggests, the Dome contains a sacred stone, which Jews believe is where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac before God stopped him, and Muslims think is where Mohammed made his ascent to heaven.
The Dome sits inside the Temple Mount, a walled area of Jerusalem’s Old City that also contains several other key sights including the Scales of Souls and Al Asqa Mosque. Only Muslims are allowed to enter the Dome itself, but visitors of other faiths are allowed into the Temple Mount area, though access is restricted to three hours in the morning and one hour in the afternoon, and a modest dress code is strictly enforced. It’s worth the effort though: this is one of the world’s most important religious sites, and a trip to Jerusalem is simply not complete without it.
Rachel from Rachel’s Ruminations recommends a tunnel tour along the Western Wall, something I didn’t have time to do.
Western Wall Tunnel Tour
Looking at the Western Wall in the centre of the Old City of Jerusalem, you probably wouldn’t imagine how much bigger it is than what you can see. In fact, it extends 17 meters below the ground and more than half a kilometre to either side.
Originally built as a retaining wall for the Temple Mount, the wall is all that remains of the Second Temple, the holiest place in the world for Jews. Above it, on the hill it supports, is a Muslim holy place: Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
By taking a tunnel tour, you can see the underground section of the wall. While learning about the history and construction of the wall, the group walks down a narrow tunnel, turning to follow the length of the wall. The building stones that make up these lower levels are truly gigantic: some weigh over 500 tons. Further on, the tour passes through a prayer space and the remains of a Roman marketplace, then into what was originally an aqueduct, before eventually emerging in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. This spot is near the Via Dolorosa, central to Christian belief. It is nowhere in Jerusalem clearer that, in this holy city, religions live quite literally on top of each other.
Read more about the tunnel tour on Rachel’s Ruminations.
Meanwhile, Elaine & David from Show them the Globe suggest a trip to Yad Vashem
Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
Yad Vashem is a collection of museums, monuments and sculptures representing the official tribute of Israel to the 6 million Jewish Holocaust victims. A visit to Yad Vashem is a moving and humbling experience and it is one of the most interesting things to do in Jerusalem. Yad Vashem uses photos, letters, art and film to document the Holocaust in its exhibits.
The Hall of Names is one of the most prominent: its dome contains 600 photographs and the names of millions of victims. It is surrounded by a collection of Pages of Testimony with biographies submitted by friends and family with the intention of personalising the victims. The Hall of Remembrance houses an eternal flame burning poignantly over the ashes of the victims. An avenue lined with over 2,000 trees honours those who helped the Jewish, known as the Righteous Among the Nations. There’s also a heartbreaking children’s memorial, Yad Layeled, paying tribute to the 1.5 million children who perished.
One of the main intentions of the museum is to ensure that visitors always remember the tragedies of the past and never allow them to be repeated. Almost 1 million people make the difficult visit to the museum every year and it is an essential inclusion on any Jerusalem itinerary.
Finally, Patrick Muntzinger from the German Backpacker Travel Blog suggests a trip just outside the Old City
The Mount of Olives
The Mount of Olives is located just outside of the old town and certainly one of the most famous places to visit in Jerusalem. This is the spot where you’ll get the famous panorama of the city, with a great view of the Dome of the Rock as well as the old city walls. Besides that, you also find some of the famous biblical sites on the Mount of Olives. High on top of the mountain, you can visit the Church of the Ascension, built on the spot where Jesus apparently ascended to heaven. When you walk down the small road along the Jewish cemetery, you’ll see the Garden of Gethsemane – the place where (according to the bible) Jesus went to pray the night before his arrest.
The olive trees are so old that some of them might have already been there 2000 years ago. Just a few meters away, you find another holy spot – the tomb of the Virgin Mary. No matter if you’re religious or not, it’s fascinating to see all these famous sites and you’ll feel like you’re walking through the bible. In order to reach the top of the mountain, you can take a local bus or (even easier) you walk – it’s right outside of the city centre.
Jerusalem is somewhere which deserves more time! I feel as if I barely touched the surface and there’s much more to explore, especially in terms of food and drink. The Marathon itself proved to be a very special event, but it’s only one of a series of calendar dates throughout the year. I’m looking forward to finding out more – and next time to staying for longer!
The 10th Jerusalem Marathon will be held on March 20th 2020. For registration, further information about the various races for 2020, accommodation and the accompanying events for next year, check the website https://jerusalem-marathon.com
I stayed at the David Citadel Hotel, a stunning hotel in the city centre, overlooking the Old City wall.
I was a guest of the Israel Ministry of Tourism
I flew to Israel from London Heathrow with El Al Airline
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