Three of the world’s key faiths meet in Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world. Yet there is more to the city than Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites. Beyond the millennia-old maze of lanes and the bustle of the Old City’s souqs, you can explore the contemporary art galleries and buzzy dining scene of Downtown, as well as world-class attractions such as Yad Vashem further afield, while East Jerusalem shines a spotlight on the future of the region.
What’s the vibe?
Clamorous, gritty and a profound assault on all the senses (in a good way), Jerusalem is a joy to explore if you’re a solo traveller. Whether you’re perusing the city’s ancient and holy sights, bargaining for traditional Palestinian embroidery, Dead Sea products of Bedouin-woven rugs at the markets, people-watching over a beer at the Mahane Yehuda Market or taking a sobering tour of Yad Vashem, the city will suck you in.
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A Jerusalem solo trip overview
Allow at least four days to make the most of your solo trip to Jerusalem. You’ll need at least a day to explore the maze-like Old City, the Temple Mount and other highlights; another day to explore East Jerusalem’s spread-out Palestinian and other cultural attractions; ample time to eat your way around Downtown’s Mahane Yehuda Market and check out the ‘hood’s art galleries, and at least half a day to take in the Holocaust memorial museum of Yad Vashem. The best times of year to visit Jerusalem are April to May and September to November, when the weather is mild and the city is relatively crowd-free. Check when various religious festivals are happening, in case you want to attend/avoid them.
Keen to join a small-group tour instead? Culture Trip’s week-long The Holy Land: See Jerusalem Through the Eyes of Locals takes in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea and more, in the company of a Local Insider.
Where to stay in Jerusalem as a solo traveller
Jerusalem is a patchwork of lively neighbourhoods, each with a distinctive character. Those of particular interest to visitors range from the bustling Palestinian Muslim communities in the east half of the city and the millennia-old lanes of the Old City to the contemporary, multilingual German Colony and Downtown Jerusalem with its galleries, markets and cafes.
Surrounded by mighty stone walls, this is the millennia-old heart of the city, where life in the warren-like lanes seems removed from the very modern traffic snarls outside its gates. Compact and a joy to wander around, the Old City is divided into Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters, and is home to some of the world’s most iconic religious sights: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where Jesus is believed to have been crucified), the Western Wall (Judaism’s holiest site), and the Temple Mount’s Al-Aqsa Mosque (3rd-holiest site in Islam). Besides bargaining at the souks and eating some of the world’s best hummus at Abu Shukri, it’s well worth overnighting in one of the handful of hotels and guesthouses here for a particularly atmospheric stay.
A short walk from the Old City, and composed of car-free streets branching off the main Ben Yehuda drag, Downtown Jerusalem is all sun-bleached plazas and courtyard cafes. Alleyways are dotted with art studios, jewellery shops, bars and independent boutiques, and there’s ample accommodation for all budgets. The Mahane Yehuda Market is a must for those travelling alone in Israel and wanting to experience the epitome of Jerusalem’s casual dining scene. Yalla Basta and Joel Haber offer excellent food tours centred on the famous market.
According to the faithful, when the Messiah returns on Judgement Day, the redemption of the dead will begin on the Mount of Olives, where tens of thousands are seeing out eternity. Several significant tombs and churches flanking the Mount are part of the attraction of this spread-out, hilly neighbourhood that’s largely composed of Palestinian Muslim communities. Delve into Palestinian culture at the Palestinian Heritage Museum and don’t miss the politically edgy contemporary art at the Museum on the Seam (‘seam’ being the border between East and West Jerusalem).
German Colony & around
If you’re doing Jerusalem solo and would like a respite from the buzz of Downtown and the Old City, this tree-lined, upscale and cosmopolitan ‘hood is just the ticket, provided your budget stretches to the city’s upscale hotels. There’s a distinctly European vibe to the multilingual German Colony, settled by the German Templer Society in the mid-19th century. Since the sights – from the LA Mayer Museum for Islamic Art to Mishkenot Sha’anim, with its wonderful views of the Old City – are rather spread out, put your best walking shoes on or be prepared to take taxis.
What to do in Jerusalem as a solo traveller
Temple Mount/ Al-Haram Ash Sharif
The Old City’s (and Jerusalem’s) holiest site is also the most contentious. Palm- and cypress-studded Temple Mount is accessed via an entrance near the Western Wall (where you’ll see religious Jews at prayer), and is centred on the wonderfully photogenic, gold-cupola-topped Dome of the Rock. Non-Muslims may not enter, but there’s nothing to stop you from admiring its graceful archways and striking blue mosaics. Nearby is the Mamluk-era Al Aqsa Mosque (also off-limits to Muslims), allegedly visited by the Prophet Mohammed on his way to heaven.
This poignant memorial to the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust is well worth the light-rail trip from Downtown Jerusalem. Inside a striking, prism-shaped concrete bunker, powerful multimedia presentations (including survivor testimonials) tell the story of European Jewry. Behind the Hall of Remembrance, where an eternal flame watches over the final resting place of death-camp victims, there’s the hope-inducing Garden of the Righteous Among Nations that honours those who risked their lives to save Jews in WWII.
Mahane Yehuda Market
Take your taste buds on a whirlwind round-the-world tour at Jerusalem’s most famous market in Downtown. Made up of a grid of narrow streets, the market is lined with speciality shops, stalls and restaurants, where you can feast on anything from Yemenite remedy drinks and Iraqi stuffed vine leaves to sushi, sublime hummus and other Middle Eastern classics. Join a local food tour, or take your time wandering around so as not to miss out on foodie highlights, such as shamburak (Kurdish pastries) at Ishtabach, Persian- and Moroccan-style soups at Ochlim B’shuk, 100 varieties of tahini-based sweets at Kingdom of Halva, and sugarcane and citron juice served by Etrog Man.
Palestinian Heritage Museum & Museum on the Seam (MOIS)
Located within the American Colony complex in the predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem, the Palestinian Heritage Museum lets you delve into ancient and contemporary Palestinian culture; you’ll also learn about the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre and the historic displacement of formerly Arab villages. While you’re here, head for the ‘seam’: the boundary between East and West Jerusalem since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. MOIS, an edgy Palestinian art gallery, explores the themes of identity, faith and conflict through paintings, multi-media installations and more.
Eating and drinking in Jerusalem
Jerusalem’s dining scene, scattered across its most popular neighbourhoods, runs the gamut from street stalls serving falafel, sabich (pita bread stuffed with fried aubergine and tahini), shawarma and bourekas (baked stuffed pastries) and hole-in-the-wall joints cooking up in hummus and other traditional Middle Eastern staples to restaurants with globe-spanning menus, influenced by migration to Israel from all over the world, as well as cutting-edge fine dining and fusion cuisine. Some restaurants are kosher (and therefore closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays).
With the exception of the Old City, which is as dry as a desert, and East Jerusalem, where you’re limited to hotel bars, the city is no slouch when it comes to nightlife, either, with craft beer, cocktail and even dedicated whisky bars clustered around the Mahane Yehuda Market area in Downtown.
Stay safe, stay happy
While shopping at any of Jerusalem’s markets, bargaining is a must. Decide how much you’re willing to spend on a souvenir, keep your cool and play the game with a smile. Although taxis are metered, taxi drivers have been known to rip off tourists. Steer clear of demonstrations, and be aware that tensions over access to the holy sites in Old Jerusalem occasionally spill over into riots.
Getting around in Jerusalem as a solo traveller
Jerusalem’s Old City is wonderfully walkable, while the outlying neighbourhoods are well-covered with a network of trams and buses. Buy a reusable Rav-Kav card from any bus driver and recharge the card at ticket machines by tram stops. Metered taxis fill any gaps.
Israelis will tell you that if you get two locals in a room, you get 10 different opinions. Israeli politics is a minefield, so unless you’re good friends with the person, or are actively encouraged to express your views, it’s best to steer clear of opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dressing modestly is an absolute must at all religious sites, as well as in ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods such as Me’a She’arim, and the Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem. Shoulders and knees must be covered; if you’re a female traveller, long trousers are okay in Christian and Muslim areas, but in ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods, only a long skirt will do. Avoid driving into ultra-Orthodox parts of Jerusalem on Shabbat (from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday). During the month of Ramadan, don’t eat or drink in Muslim neighbourhoods during daylight hours.
Travelling alone in Israel doesn’t mean you have to be lonely. Join Culture Trip’s seven-day Israel adventure to experience Jerusalem from the perspective of Jewish and Arab locals and other country highlights as part of a small group of culturally curious, like-minded travellers.
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