My top highlights to see and do in the city of Jerusalem, Israel.
Jerusalem was one of my absolute favourite cities to visit. Sacred to the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Jerusalem has a rich history steeped in culture and conflict.
Exploring the Old City
The Old City should be first on the list, as the holiest sites of each religion are all located within. The entrance is Jaffa Gate, and from here, there are signs everywhere leading you to the specific religious sites. I also enjoyed walking through the markets in the Old City, as vendors tried to hawk Hamsa décor and pretty painted plateware.
The Old City is divided into quarters; Muslim, Christian, Armenian, Jewish and Moroccan. Personally I didn’t think there were any major differences between each quarter except for extra tourist shops catering to each religion. Even then, negligible difference. I would say you can find some form souvenir representing each religion in 90% of the shops.
I would highly suggest joining a tour. There is a free tip-based walking tour, but I joined the four-hour long in-depth tour since I wanted to truly understand what this city is all about. I went with Sandeman’s Tour and thoroughly enjoyed it. Outside of being knowledgeable, the guide also let us in on what living in Jerusalem was really like. Spoiler alert: Jerusalem is not as dangerous as the media makes it out to be.
Temple Mount is governed by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, and has been for a long while. This site is home to the gold-gilded Dome of the Rock, which Muslims believe was where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Undoubtedly the iconic, Instagram-pretty spot of the Old City, the beautifully-tiled octagonal shrine stood out the against the earth tones of the Old City.
Located just opposite the Dome, is Al-Aqsa Mosque. Though it appears less flashy than the Dome, this mosque is the third holiest site in Islam. Both sites are currently off-limits to non-Muslims, but you can admire it from the outside.
Interestingly, this is also a sacred site for Jews, who believe that the rock within the Dome is the Foundation Stone. Jews are allowed to visit the Dome, but will have to be escorted by Israeli security and a Muslim Waqf representative. No religious text or artifacts are allowed in and they are not allowed to pray… Even a movement of the mouth can be considered a crime. On my visit there, I witnessed a group being escorted. According to our guide, someone in the group was probably getting married, and they were here to seek blessing.
But then… you wonder why there isn’t an outright ban (not that I agree) because clearly the group were there to do some sort of praying. It all boils down to politics. The Islamic Waqf presides over the Temple Mount, and has been allowed to do so since 1187 to keep the status quo. Strangely enough, status quo is what keeps the peace in this controversial little city.
Visiting Temple Mount
Visiting Temple Mount is strictly regulated now, so keep track of the opening hours and visiting times. Temple Mount is closed to visitors on Fridays and Saturdays.
Sunday to Thursday in Winter: 7.30am to 10.30am, 12.30pm to 1.30pm.
Sunday to Thursday in Summer: 8.30am to 11.30am, 1.30pm to 2.30pm.
Modest dress is required here. Ladies need to be modestly dressed – this just means long pants or skirt that covers the ankles, with a loose top that covers the elbows. If you’re deemed underdressed, they give out sarongs at the entrance. Note that figure-hugging pants do not get a pass. Men should don long pants and shirt that covers the shoulders.
The Western Wall
Otherwise known as the Wailing Wall, this site is the second holiest place in Judaism. The most sacred, being the one within Dome of the Rock. The Western Wall is the remaining part of the temple. This is where Jews are allowed to pray.
The wall is divided into two designated areas separating males and females. Anyone is welcomed to write down a prayer or a well-meaning wish, and pop this along the crevices of the walls. Didn’t prepare one? No problem. There’s a booth right at the entrance with papers and pens for this exact purpose. The walls are cleared of the slips of papers every couple of weeks and buried in the nearby Mount of Olives.
The Via Dolorosa is a street of connecting lanes within the Old City of Jerusalem, believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. The streets are marked with the stations of the crucifixion. Christians on pilgrimage would typically follow the path. On our trip, we encountered several groups of Christians who would stop at the stations and sing hymns.
Church of Holy Sepulchre
This church is said to be the most sacred in Christianity as it was where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. However… we didn’t get to visit the church… because it was closed.
On the day of visit (27 February 2018), the doors had been closed for a couple of days already. According to our guide, the priests closed the church to protest the mayor’s decision to tax businesses connected to the institution. Not the church itself and its donations; but other money-making businesses the church organises, such as hotels, restaurants or real estate. Pity.
Anyway, see that ladder perched against the second window? That is the infamous Immovable Ladder. It is also known as the status quo ladder. The church is cared for by six denominations of Christianity, and no part of the church can be altered or changed without consent of all six sectors. This ladder symbolised this agreement. Monks have embroiled themselves in violent fist fights when the ladder was moved a teensy bit as it was interpreted as violation of the status quo.
Get slightly away from the touristy markets at the Old City, and make your way to Mahane Yehuda instead. This is a popular market for locals and tourists alike, with a more traditional feel than your typical supermarkets. This market has rows upon rows of stalls selling fresh produce, fresh meat, baked items like halva and pastries, spices and my favourites – nuts. I loved shopping for nuts here and I bought a few bags home as souvenirs.
There are a lot of restaurants located within the market as well as the surrounding areas. I had my first taste of sabich here, and I tested a bunch from different shops – I never had a bad one. To the uninitiated, the sabich is basically a version of the falafel pita, except with aubergines and boiled eggs. A delicious vegetarian snack. Speaking of which, yes, you can also find a lot of falafels stands here.
For very good coffee, hunt down Roasters. I only chanced upon it on the last day of my visit, which was a huge pity.
Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum
I highly recommend everyone to pay a visit to Yad Vashem Holocause Museum. I left visiting this as my last stop before I left for the airport, because I knew it was going to be depressing. What I failed to realise was how depressing it was. I thought I knew all there is to know about WWII and the Holocaust. I’ve read up tons about it, watched documentaries and the slew of Holocaust-centred movies out there, but nothing could have prepared me for this place.
The moment I entered this museum, I felt that lump at the back of my throat as I walk through real belongings and photographs of persecuted Jews. It became… real. One of the more heart-wrenching parts was at the Dachau Ghetto exhibit, which highlighted the lack of food hitting the starving children the hardest. Part of the exhibit was a monitor which flashed photos of the dying children on screen – they do not censor death here. That took me a little aback, and I completely broke down. I’ve never felt so mad and helpless before, and questioned humanity that so damn hard in my life. Luckily the museum had many chairs and quiet corners, so I could sit myself down, and just sob myself back to calmness.
As depressing as this place was, I think everyone should pay a visit to this place. There’s grave importance in remembering how a very civilised country could carry out the extremely senseless culling of innocent millions. And how millions more stood by and did absolutely nothing, and some even encouraged this atrocity. All this went down not some 70 years ago – this is a terrifying thought.
The museum was also very beautifully and thoughtfully curated. It is one of the more educational museums that I’ve been to, since it follows a specific timeline that lets you absorb information effortlessly. I spent about 2.5 hours here, but I would have loved to spend more time just exploring the museum grounds. There were trees planted in the lush garden exterior of the museum to honour ‘The Righteous’. The Righteous Among Nations are non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Visiting Yad Vashem
The museum is free to enter.
I rented an audio guide, but you can experience the museum just as well since the exhibits were all accompanied by well-written information. A warning that extremely solemn music supplemented the audio guide… and now I can’t listen to any random atmospheric orchestra music with violins without muttering “people freaking sucks.” Mildly kidding, but I did think about the Holocaust a lot even weeks after I was back home.
Getting here: Yad Vashem is located on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. The museum can be easily reached via the city’s light rail train system. Alight at Mount Herzl stop and follow the signs to walk to the museum – which took me an easy 10 minutes. There is also a free shuttle service for those who’d rather not walk.
I only had a full day and a half in Jerusalem. I would have loved to go on a tour to explore the underground tunnel system of the city of Jerusalem. It would have been an exciting archaeological adventure, but alas. If I ever make it back to Jerusalem, I know for sure this would be my first go-to.
Another historically religious site is the Mount of Olives, located just on the outskirts of the Old City.