Although located a mere nine kilometres (5.6 miles) from Jerusalem, Bethlehem is often missed by travellers in the region, yet the city is easily accessible, safe and fascinating and will infinitely enrich any traveller’s itinerary. Beyond the important religious sites, Bethlehem is home to a rich and lively social and cultural scene, as well as bearing symbolic political significance, lying just beyond the imposing Israeli separation wall.
For foreigners, accessing Bethlehem is mostly hassle-free; however, be sure to bring your passport and Israeli visa slip with you. From Jerusalem, take the 234 Egged bus from the corner of Sultan Suleiman St. and Hanev’im St. near Damascus Gate, which will take you to Checkpoint 300, the entry point to the West Bank closest to Bethlehem. Tickets cost seven NIS, and the journey shouldn’t last more than 40 minutes.
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Morning – politics, art and Banksy
Go through the checkpoint on foot and keep on walking, past the Caritas hospital, until you reach the Walled Off Hotel, an art space, museum and hotel controversially opened earlier this year by Banksy. Have a coffee downstairs while taking in ‘the worst view in the world’, namely the eight-metre-high (26 feet) separation barrier plastered with powerful murals and messages of both hope and despair. Then wander through the compact but informative museum downstairs to get a brief overview of the wall and current issues affecting Palestine, all before exploring the gallery space upstairs that exhibits art by Palestinian contemporary artists.
Head further down Caritas Street to the Palestinian Heritage Centre to check out their collections of photography, traditional art, costume and jewellery, as well as authentic Palestinian-made crafts and wares. Handmade embroidered products, postcards and posters are available to purchase in their large gift shop, and all of their handicrafts are fair trade and made by women from local villages.
Lunch – Afteem
From the Heritage Centre, take a taxi to Manger Square, which should cost around 20 shekels. Feast on bowls of creamy hummus, warming masabaha and golden falafel at Afteem, renowned for its traditional and budget-friendly Palestinian dishes.
Afternoon – Nativity Church & the Old City
After a replenishing lunch, head across Manger Square to the Church of the Nativity to see the very spot where people believe Jesus was born, and the cave where Mary, Joseph and the shepherds were thought to have gathered at the nativity. See a more detailed guide to the church here.
For those keen for more religious sites, the beautiful Church of St. Catherine, famous for its annual midnight mass service, sits just across from the Nativity Church. A minute’s walk away lies the Chapel of the Milk Grotto, believed to be where the holy family hid during King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. A small but stunning chapel, legend has it that Mary spilt a drop of her milk on the church floor while nursing baby Jesus, thus turning the rock milk-white as it appears today and establishing it as a shrine of fertility, visited by pilgrims from across the globe.
Afterwards, head down Star Street through the beautiful Old City to the Bethlehem Icon Centre, a painting school which aims to renew the art of icon painting in the area. The visitor centre exhibits students’ work and is open Monday through Saturday from 9.30 am – 4.30 pm. Nearby on Fawagreh Street lies the al-Bad Museum, containing artefacts of olive oil production, the cornerstone of the Palestinian economy for much of history.
Dinner – Hosh Jasmin
In the late afternoon, take a taxi to catch the sunset at Hosh Jasmin in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala. This tiny alfresco restaurant and farm, a champion of slow food and farm-to-fork eating, serves mouth-watering traditional cuisine made from the farm’s produce, as well as wine and beer from local Palestinian producers. Perched on top of the stunning Battir Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the restaurant looks out over rolling hills of vines and olive groves, and the sunset views are unbeatable.
The 231 bus runs from Bab al-Zakak in Bethlehem, via Beit Jala, to Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem. Buses go every 15 minutes, seven days a week, and tickets cost seven shekels. The last bus is at 7.50 pm.
Consider staying longer for more time to explore the city and its surrounds. The following days can be spent visiting the stunning Mar Saba Monastery, Solomon’s Pools, Shepherd’s Fields or simply relaxing in one of the city’s buzzing bars and cafés. Bethlehem also provides a great base for accessing other West Bank destinations, such as Hebron, Ramallah, Jericho and the Dead Sea.
The Ibdaa Guesthouse, located in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem, is a great budget option for travellers, with clean and comfortable dormitory and private rooms available. The Ibdaa Centre is a hub of social, cultural and educational activities for the children and youth of the camp, and visitors may have the chance to catch a theatrical performance or a traditional dabkeh dance recital. Ibdaa also runs alternative tours of Bethlehem and the West Bank, which are not to be missed.
For those tempted to splash out, look no further than the Hosh al-Syrian Guesthouse, a boutique hotel located in a beautifully restored 19th-century building in the Old City.
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