Things to Do and See in Bethlehem, Palestine

The Mar Saba is a monastery carved into a cliff overlooking the Kidron Valley
The Mar Saba is a monastery carved into a cliff overlooking the Kidron Valley | © Ruslan Kalnitsky / Alamy Stock Photo
Sofia Sims

Copy Editor

Pulsing Bethlehem is no longer the little town of Christmas carol lyrics, but holy sites of angels, mangers and Biblical figures are still at the heart of this Palestinian city, 10km from Jerusalem. Whether you’re a pilgrim or not, this culturally significant destination should be on your bucket list. We’ve rounded up the best things to see and do for you.

1. Kiss the silver star in the Church of the Nativity

Church

© Dmytrii Minishev / Alamy Stock Photo
The site of this basilica is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ. A church was first built here by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, followed by rebuilds and renewals throughout the ages. You can still see the mosaics from the original church, as well as terraced gardens and Latin, Greek Orthodox and Armenian convents reflecting the diversity of Palestine. Some pilgrims kiss the 14-pointed silver star inside the grotto, which represents the spot where Jesus was born.

2. Gaze up at the Mar Saba Monastery

Monastery

Palestine, West Bank, Bethlehem Governorate, Al-Ubeidiya. Mar Saba monastery, built into the cliffs of the Kidron Valley in the Judean Desert.
© Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The Mar Saba monastery resembles an Indiana Jones-style kingdom, carved into a cliff overlooking the Kidron Valley. This Greek Orthodox settlement is occupied by 15 monks, and, so, unfortunately, women are only permitted to enter the Women’s Tower, while men can take a full guided tour. However, the true wonder of the site lies not within the walls but in the exterior setting of the monastery – especially at sunset, when long shadows are cast throughout the canyon.

3. Learn about Palestinian olive oil at the Al Bad Museum

Museum

In the Al-Najajreh Quarter, you’ll find a museum dedicated to an industry that’s 5,000 years old: Palestinian stone-pressed olive oil. The 19th-century equipment on display has been restored to its original glory – minus the donkeys that would have been used to rotate the circular stone and crush the olives. Other exhibits explain how olive oil was not just for cooking, but a resource used in lamps, medicine, soap and cosmetics among many other things.

4. Visit the Milk Grotto

Historical Landmark

Milk Grotto church of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, Palestine, Israel
© master2 / Alamy Stock Photo
At the Milk Grotto, you’ll find Muslims and Christians alike praying to Mother Mary. The widespread appeal of this location is down to the tale that Mary spilled some milk here while nursing baby Jesus, which turned the grotto’s stone white. A devotion to Mary is said to help with health problems, especially those related to infertility. Sit and say your own prayers after following the tunnel linking the grotto to a modern chapel dedicated to Mary.

5. Get to know Palestine's history at the Old Bethlehem Museum

Museum

The Old Bethlehem Museum is located in a typical 19th-century Palestinian home, which features three rooms recreated in a traditional style. In addition to this setting are displays of native costumes, images of early 20th-century Palestine and a 10-minute video from the area showing footage from 1918. Upstairs is an embroidery centre, where crafts by the Bethlehem Arab Women’s Union are available to buy.

6. See where angels appeared at the Shepherd's Field

Church

Bethlehem Shepherds Field Church. Palestine. Israel
© master2 / Alamy Stock Photo

As the place said to be where angels appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, it’s no wonder the Shepherds’ Field has an ethereal quality. The chapel here is reminiscent of a cave-like shelter, just like the ones the shepherds of the Bible used to rest in on the first Christmas Eve before the angels arrived. The gentle grassy hills help transport you back two millennia to the shepherds’ famously humble lifestyle.

7. Walk around the ancient Solomon's Pools

Historical Landmark

These three ancient reservoirs, southwest of Bethlehem, were named after King Solomon. Between 118 and 179m (387–587ft) long and 8 to 16m (26–52ft) deep, they provided an essential water source to the desert town of Herodium and the city of Jerusalem. You can also see the remains of a British pump station that was later added.

8. Attend mass at the Chapel of St Catherine

Church

Reflection inside St Catherine Church , Bethlehem, Israel
© Rudolf Ivanka / Alamy Stock Photo

Part of the complex of the Church of the Nativity is this 1347 chapel, which takes its name from St Catherine of Alexandria. It is believed that this is the place where the saint’s future martyrdom was prophesied by Jesus Christ. A highlight is the stained-glass window depicting the nativity scene, above the main altar – but the church is most famous for its Christmas Eve Mass, which is broadcast around the world.

9. Visit Rachel's Tomb

Historical Landmark

Bethlehem, a view of Rachels Tomb (1995)
© Hanan Isachar / Alamy Stock Photo
In the Genesis 35:19 section of the Bible, Jacob “set a pillar” upon the grave of his wife who had died during childbirth. This is said to be the tomb you see today, draped in a velvet cloth and surrounded by eleven stones – one for each of Jacob’s sons, excluding Benjamin, the couple’s youngest. The maternal figure of Rachel is of great importance in the Jewish faith, making the atmosphere here poignant.

10. Experience local culture at the Palestinian Heritage Center

Museum

All the products for sale at the Palestinian Heritage Center – including clothing, jewellery, embroidery and homeware – are handmade by Palestinian women, with the profits going to local families in need. The centre also contains a museum of Palestinian culture, featuring a traditional living room, furnished Bedouin tent and a chance for souvenir photographs dressed up in folk outfits. As a celebration of Palestinian heritage, it helps create cultural awareness for future generations.

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