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Jerusalem is an ancient city that balances its fascinating past with its inspiring present. With an abundance of historical and cultural attractions within a compact area, it’s best explored on foot.
Hike along ancient ruins, explore some of the holiest sites of the Abrahamic faiths and experience one-of-a-kind Middle Eastern nightlife in Jerusalem. With all-night rock concerts and an annual marathon that attracts people from around the globe, Jerusalem offers far more than just old-fashioned sightseeing.
Jerusalem is Israel’s most populous city and remains holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. The high walls of the Old City date back more than 3,000 years, and the current walls are composed primarily of sections restored by Turkish ruler Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. The Ramparts Walk is the path on top of the walls that used to serve as military fortifications and is now considered the best way to view the Old City’s four neighbourhoods: the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters.
Two different routes are available: one section of the Ramparts Walk leads from Jaffa Gate to Zion Gate and ends at Dung Gate and the entrance to the plaza, which is where the Western Wall – the holiest site at which Jews are permitted to pray – is located. This section provides rooftop views over the Jewish and Armenian quarters and the hills that surround the city.
The other section of the walk leads from Damascus Gate to Lion’s Gate, overlooking the Muslim and Christian quarters. At the end of each section there are stairs leading to the Old City’s cafés and eateries. Alternatively, head to the Muslim Quarter’s shuk (market) for traditional Arab treats from any of the many takeaway shops and coffee kiosks.
Pro tip: Don’t forget to carry water with you – the Ramparts Walk has no shaded areas – and wear comfortable walking shoes. The recommended time to visit is during the cooler months of spring or autumn, or in the morning hours during the heat of the summer.
Although the Via Dolorosa has attracted Christian pilgrims since the fourth century, the stone pedestrian route is still one of the best ways to visit the Old City’s churches and chapels. Follow the route with a tour, or by walking the Via Dolorosa alone, to understand the important role Jerusalem plays in the Christian faith. Among the must-see stops along the route are: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Convent of the Sisters of Zion, a Roman Catholic convent near the Via Dolorosa and the Ecce Homo Arch, believed by some to be the site where Jesus, sentenced to be crucified, was presented to the crowds by Pontius Pilate.
Pro tip: Time your visit to coincide with one of the traditional Friday afternoon processions along the Stations of the Cross to see re-enactments of events that bring the Christian Quarter’s history to life.
One of the most popular attractions in Jerusalem is the Western Wall Plaza in the Old City, which is busy at every hour of the day with people of all faiths praying, meditating or simply taking in this wondrous, ancient site. Many write a wish or a prayer on a piece of paper and leave it in one of the cracks of the wall. This is a spiritual and cathartic experience that can help them to refocus on what is important in their lives.
After leaving the Western Wall, venture into the Muslim Quarter to sip some tea and smoke a hookah in the Arab shuk. This open-air bazaar is also a great place to buy souvenirs, from ornate shawls to handmade leather sandals. From the Muslim Quarter or Jewish Quarter, head back towards the Christian quarter to visit the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or on to the Armenian Quarter for St Mark’s Chapel and St James Cathedral, among many other religious sites.
Pro tip: Modest dress for men and women is a must at the Western Wall, and all other holy sites, so take something to cover shoulders and bare legs upon arrival.
The work week in Israel runs from Sunday to Thursday, so the Friday night revelry that is enjoyed in the rest of the world takes place on a Thursday night. The central outdoor market, the Machane Yehuda shuk, is one of the best places to experience Jerusalem’s nightlife. The shuk became a top nightlife destination back in 2011 after event producer Kobi Frig hosted a wild impromptu Purim holiday party here, which sparked the idea for the weekly ‘Balabasta’ festival in the market during the summer months. The festival features live music, street performances and partying until the early hours. The Balabasta spirit remains alive on Thursday nights with live music and DJs outside the Freddy Lemon bar. Sip cocktails on tap at Hashchena and try kosher takes on popular street food at Crave.
Pro tip: Take a stroll through the markets rows of closed stalls and check out the graffiti-style portraits of world leaders, spiritual figures and pop-culture icons spray-painted on the shutters by Israeli street art legend Solomon Souza, the grandson of famous Indian abstract painter F N Souza.
Over the years, the municipality has introduced new ways to experience classic Jerusalem attractions, among them the Jerusalem Light Festival, which, in 2019, takes place at nightfall from 1 to 31 July. The annual festival features state-of-the-art light installations across the Old City and attracts tens of thousands of visitors who stroll through the Old City’s Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian quarters to see light art projected onto the ancient stone structures.
Some of the installations are three-dimensional; others include the added elements of sound and music. The 2018 festival featured work by celebrated Chinese artist Feng Jiacheng and Antonin Fourneau’s ‘water light graffiti’, which used large LED screens that lit up when touched. In 2019, the festival will celebrate its 10th anniversary.
Pro tip: Enter the Old City from Jaffa Gate, and from there choose a starting point in any one of the four quarters of the ancient walled city.
Whether you’re running the full 42.2 kilometres (26 miles), jogging the five-kilometre (three-mile) fun run, or cheering on participants, the Jerusalem Marathon, an annual event held in March, is one of the most exciting events in the city. The race attracts top runners from around the world, dedicated hobbyists and droves of locals who line the streets to encourage the participants. The streets along the route are closed to cars, providing a great opportunity to stroll through the Muslim and Jewish neighbourhoods.
Pro tip: Stake out a spot near the race’s finish line in Sacher Garden, where you can enjoy a picnic on the grassy hills and cheer on the runners as they complete the race.
Although Sultan’s Pool was used in ancient times as a reservoir to bring water into Jerusalem’s Old City, its dry bed is now the site of rock concerts and music raves during the summer months. The views from Sultan’s Pool are amazing, especially at dusk, with the Old City’s stone walls on one side and the lush Valley of Hinnom on the other. When night falls, concerts in the pool swing into action with impressive light shows.
Pro tip: During Jerusalem’s annual Hutzot Hayotzer festival in August, Sultan’s Pool hosts an arts and crafts fair, dance performances and concerts by local artists.
Not far from the Western Wall and open to the public, the City of David National Park offers tours through the very same tunnels that were used to transport water from the Gihon Spring to the Temple Mount in biblical times.
Pro tip: The cool tunnels on this tour are a great option during Jerusalem’s steamy summer months. Bring water-resistant shoes and a flashlight, as portions of the tour wind through darkened passages in which water reaches just above the knee.