Fine art, ancient artefacts and rare historical documents: Jerusalem is home to a whole range of museums that are bound to fascinate and educate all who set foot in them. For those curious about biblical archaeology or modern Israeli history, or simply looking to soak up some world-class culture, these fascinating institutions are not to be missed.
With more than 200 museums, Israel has the world’s highest number of cultural institutions per capita. A criss-cross of ancient streets and thousands of years of history, Jerusalem’s museums hold extensive collections of modern European and Israeli art, as well as ancient findings that were pivotal to the development of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Any Jerusalem museum tour should start at the Israel Museum, Israel’s largest and, arguably, best cultural institution. Ranked among the world’s top museums, the Israel Museum exhibits nearly 500,000 objects and is home to the world’s most extensive collection of archaeological artefacts connected to the Holy Land. One of the highlights is the Shrine of the Book, which contains the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical manuscripts in existence. Other exhibits include a selection of rare and ancient Jewish manuscripts, including one of the oldest surviving illuminated Passover prayer books, known as the ‘Bird’s Head Haggadah’, and a wing dedicated to modern art, including masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin and Claes Oldenburg. The Israeli Museum is located in the central Givat Ram neighbourhood. Children, senior citizens and students are eligible for discounted entrance rates.
Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem is situated on the western edge of the city, on Mount Herzl. Opened in 1953, this sprawling museum is the biggest institution in the world aimed at commemorating the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their allies during World War II. In addition, it honours non-Jews who risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbours during the same period in what is called the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. Yad Vashem’s indoor galleries and outdoor monuments offer a chilling and memorable view of Jewish history, exploring what happened, why it happened and how the same horrors can be avoided in the future. It presents interactive displays and survivor testimonies along with a wide range of documents, photographs, artworks and films. Welcoming a million visitors each year, Yad Vashem is one of the most-visited tourist sites in Israel and has no admission fee.
Featuring one of the world’s most extensive collections of Islamic art and antique timepieces, the Museum for Islamic Art has created a bridge between Israel’s Muslim and Jewish communities. Located in the south-central Jerusalem neighbourhood of Katamon, the museum displays Islamic pottery, textiles, jewellery and contemporary art from different dynasties ranging from the first Umayyad caliphs to the late Ottoman period. On permanent display is one of the world’s largest collections of rare antique watches originating from Europe and Turkey. Among its treasures are items from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and India, as well as the Iranian Harari Hoard, a rare collection of intricate 12th-century silver vessels decorated with inscriptions and arabesques. The museum was established in 1974 by Vera Bryce Salomons in memory of her professor Leo Aryeh Mayer, who had been a scholar of Islamic art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and much of the permanent collection is from his personal collection.
Located on the ‘seam’ between East and West Jerusalem, on what was once the border between Israel and Jordan when the city was divided, the Museum on the Seam is an independent institution that defines itself as a ‘sociopolitical contemporary art museum’. A Christian Arab architect named Andoni Baramki constructed the building in 1932 and the museum was founded in 1999 with a focus on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, regional gender norms and issues of geography. The museum explores these topics through rotating temporary exhibits. Examples of recent shows include an exhibition examining the philosophical and moral implications of the Hiroshima bombing in 1945, and a group exhibit looking at women’s liberation and equality in the 21st century. Consistently ranked among Israel’s top museums, the Museum on the Seam has drawn some of the world’s leading artists in recent years such as Anselm Kiefer, Sophie Calle and Jenny Holzer. It is open only on weekdays.
For an entirely different experience away from the city’s history and antiquity, the Bloomfield Science Museum is an interactive educational institution that makes science fun for the whole family. Located near the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the Givat Ram neighbourhood, this popular establishment features colourful hands-on exhibits that are great for children and young adults. The popular permanent displays include a show on mind-boggling optical illusions and a section explaining how electricity works and how it can be created in different ways. Everything inside the Bloomfield Science Museum is designed to be touched and to make learning as fun as possible. The museum is closed on Sundays, offers special discounts for family admission fees and is free for children under the age of five.
The Bible Lands Museum is dedicated to documenting the history of ancient civilisations in the Near East with a unique collection of ancient Egyptian, Philistine, Aramaean, Hittite, Canaanite and Phoenician artefacts. The permanent displays showcase rare items pertaining to the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians some 2,500 years ago, and Roman marble statues and Etruscan tombs from the 7th century BC. Also not to be missed is a collection of ancient Greek ceramics found in Israel dating back 4,000 years, and a room filled with stunning frescoes from Pompeii before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. With an impressive 21 galleries and thousands of artefacts to see, visitors can spend hours, if not days, learning about regional antiquity here.
What better place to get a deep understanding of Jerusalem’s rich past than at the Tower of David Museum, an ancient citadel steeped in the city’s history? Located in the Old City near the Jaffa Gate, the fortress that is visible today dates back to the Mameluke and Ottoman periods, but was actually built on older fortifications going as far back as 2,500 years. The Tower of David Museum is specifically dedicated to presenting Jerusalem’s history and its significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims through the ages via multimedia exhibitions. From the top of the citadel, you can also catch breathtaking views of the city. In a bid to bring the ancient past to life, the museum also hosts temporary contemporary art exhibitions and puts on light shows known as ‘Night Spectaculars’.
The Museum of the Underground Prisoners is a somber and controversial historical institution located in Jerusalem’s Downtown Triangle, in an area known as the Russian Compound. In the late 19th century, the building served as a hostel for Christian pilgrims, but it was transformed into a prison during the British Mandate. Hundreds of Jewish and Arab criminals or political prisoners were incarcerated there before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Today, visitors can learn about some of the darker aspects of Israeli history, touring the detention areas, prisoner cells and execution chambers. Guided tours are available in English, though it’s best to book these in advance. The museum is open from Sundays through Thursdays and costs 15 Israeli shekels (around £3) per person, cash or cheque only. Please note that the building is not entirely wheelchair accessible.
Explore the origins of Christianity at this hidden gem in the Old City. It’s concealed behind a stone wall close to the Monastery of the Flagellation, the site where Jesus was said to have been flogged by Roman soldiers 2,000 years ago. The Terra Sancta Museum features a newly restored archaeological wing that reopened to the public in 2018. On show are incredibly rare antiquities from the time when Jesus is said to have lived, including a Byzantine cistern, an ancient coin minted by Jews revolting against the Romans in 66 AD, tools used by Jerusalem’s inhabitants centuries ago and coffins marked with crosses. Another curious item is a pair of engraved ivory gaming dice, probably used to play backgammon during the same period. The Custody of the Holy Land, founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1217, has been instrumental in collecting the artefacts displayed at the museum today. Admission fees are payable in cash only, and visitors should dress modestly, as the museum is located on a holy Christian site.
Formerly known as the Palestine Archaeological Museum (PAM), the Rockefeller Museum is situated in an eye-catching white limestone building in East Jerusalem near Herod’s Gate. The museum houses an impressive collection of archaeological items found in excavations conducted in Mandatory Palestine during the early 20th century, with some of the most prized items being the 8th-century wooden panels from the Al-Aqsa Mosque and 12th-century marble lintels from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Also on display is one of the Lachish Letters, rare ancient Hebrew inscriptions from 2,500 years ago which were found on clay pottery shards and provide a glimpse into how the ancient Israelites lived during the reign of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. Other highlights include Roman-era antiquities and early Christian inscriptions. The castle-like edifice of the Rockefeller Museum itself is an architectural masterpiece designed by British architect Austen Harrison. It was built in the 1930s and integrates Eastern and Western-inspired design. Entrance to the Rockefeller Museum is free, but it is closed on Tuesdays and Fridays.