This historic holy city where Easter originated…
Despite not being religious, I couldn’t not come all the way to Israel and not see Jerusalem. Like many, I had grown up with the story of the bible and how Easter came about.
However my first trip to Israel was to Tel Aviv for a friends birthday – who had already seen these places but was very happy for me to go and explore. So I decided on a group tour rather than DIY. Not my usual style but on a short time frame, going on my own and not having time to get lost or miss landmarks this was a great option. There’s loads to choose from – all very similar but Get my Guide is a good one. And my top tip is if you are at all nervous on your own – book through a hotel concierges – means if there’s any problem you can call them and they who can help you. 💙 (doesn’t even have to be one you are staying at!)
My second trip I was desperate to revisit. This wasn’t a seen it / don’t need to go back, quite the opposite. I’m not religious as I don’t believe in rules around how to believe but energy I get. And I found this city and in particular the church was like having a healing. But again did a tour – this time with a private guide – Yoav Biller. Fully recommend this if you have the budget. I found the quarters very confusing and easily can get lost and this meant we could tailor to what we wanted to see most.
So first thing to note is clothing if you are planning to visit the old city is its a Holy City so make sure you have clothes that can cover legs and shoulders depending where you want to go. And good shoes for walking. You are on your feet, over cobbles through markets. The second thing to note is it is a few degrees cooler than Tel Aviv as it is mountainous. So layers are key!
My first tour started early (one reason I don’t usually do tours). Easy meeting point outside my hotel and right on cue, picked up in a little mini bus. We were then driven to just outside the city to switch buses. (They pick up all their tours for the day then organise who goes in which bus rather than multiple pick ups from the same hotels for different tours) A bit of a faff but all highly organised and friendly. I was struck by how many young solo travellers there are.
Our first stop is a toilet stop at the Elvis Diner. 🤷♀️ Yes, that’s right. No idea why other than maybe an arrangement they have with tour companies!? But hey if you are an Elvis fan you’ll love it.
Then FINALLY we were on our way to Jerusalem. We stop again, this time at the Mount of Scopus (which is part of the ridge mountains which includes the Mount of Olives). It’s also a famous look out point, part of the Tabachnik Garden where the Hebrew university was built. With incredible views over the old and new city from Temple Mount to the Dome of Rock. It was beyond breathtaking.
There’s also a handy map so you actually know what you are looking at if you don’t have a helpful guide!
When you enter the gates to the old city you are taken aback to be in this historic city – whatever your beliefs or not are! A great first place to start is at the Christian Information Center as it has a cafe rooftop with sensational views.
Next I would recommend the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. If you are religious then this will be a big deal and if not you may be surprised how you feel inside. The church was build on 3 sites. The crucifixion, where the body was laid out and where he was buried.
I was not prepared for how moving this place would be. Or how busy! The burial site/ tomb is enclosed within the church and the queues can be hours long. So if this is important to you, do a tour learn where everything is easily then go back early morning when it opens. One girl in the tour stayed to queue but meant she missed so much after it.
On my first trip we were taken to a souvenir shop first to get gifts to lay on the stone in the church – where Jesus was laid out. Many people believe that this stone is blessed. So people want to buy jewellery to lay it on the stone for either themselves or for gifts. I actually thought this was brilliant idea (love a present ✔️ have religious friends ✔️ but then discovered these shops are massive rip off so I would recommend take your own jewellery or gifts with you. So for my second trip that’s what I did! The stone is directly opposite the entrance so you wont miss it if on a DIY explore.
Next I would recommend a tour that takes you round the city on the ‘Via Dolorosa’ which is the processional route Jesus was believed to have taken as he carried the cross to his crucifixion.
Theres a 14 stations along this route. Each marked with signs. This is where a guide was invaluable as he explained what each station meant. What was supposed to have happened at them. (The final few are in the church so some people like to do this first and end up at the church) You can of course find a wealth of guide information on line, in books but they don’t answer question – which we had a lot of!
At station 5 Jesus is believed to have had one of the three stumbles and placed his hand on the wall to steady himself.
There are plenty of stalls and market shops and drink stops along the route – less able to stop in a tour but there if needed.
One thing to note that our guide warned us of was a scam that involves being approached and given a present … this didn’t actually happen to me but he warned us to simply refuse and say no thank you, if you take it then they say you stole it.
During this time, we also we walked through the different quarters: Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian. All living in peace side by side. Each quarter felt noticeably different as you effortlessly moved between them. That is except the Armenian quarter which had armed police preventing anyone in. I learnt you can enter but at very specific times.
We then moved to the ‘Wailing’ or ‘Western‘ wall which you have to enter through a security check to get in and out.
The first thing to note is to be respectful – this is a ‘working’ prayer site and whilst attracting huge numbers of tourists who do intend on praying, this is also where many citizens will be seen especially at Shabbat. So no smoking, drinking, eating or,at Shabbat, taking photos. Legs and shoulders should be covered if wishing to pray at the wall (and men’s heads)
The second thing is that the wall is divided into two: male and female. It is the Jewish male duty to pray so they have a much larger section. Some of which you can’t see unless you enter (which only men can)
Many people come to stand and pray but many come to place a message to god in the wall via a note on a piece of paper. There are stands with pieces of paper and pens you can borrow if you didn’t bring one with you. The notes are collected every couple of months and buried under the mount of Olives as the Jewish law forbids prayer notes to be thrown away. But if you can’t get there to leave one – they will do it for you via their website!
Don’t underestimate even if you aren’t religious how exhausting these few hours can be. So much information, so many emotions and so much to see. So before it’s over we head to lunch at the Golden Panoramic City Restaurant – which by a total fluke was also a rooftop! Wouldn’t recommend the food but the views I would!
For food on my second trip we headed to Abu Kamel – this was where having a private guide paid off! As I’d never have found it! Famous for its humous, local vibe and very much a pit stop to refuel – it was incredible local food!
I’ve now done 2 half day tours and I think next time a whole day is needed as there’s also some great rooftops to do and need more time to soak that atmosphere in. It’s a weird sense of calm despite this busy bustling vibrant city.
If you have time I would really recommend a trip to Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Its a little drive from the old city but one of the most moving museums I have been too. It is confronting but is done really well. We allowed 3 hours there as its a huge site and you can also book a private guide.