Jerusalem is a city that, I think, defies description. How you choose to try and describe it completely depends on the point of view you bring with you. Ancient, storied, troubled, and revered; the city is a gathering of cultures, treasure seekers, religious zealots and pilgrims of every type. That statement is true even today.
In this overview of a couple days in Jerusalem, I am intentionally not covering the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They will be touched on separately in the next post.
I think I’m like most people in the world when I say that I’ve always wanted to go to Jerusalem. I’m not religious in any particular way, so a draw toward the holy land isn’t what modern social media would call spiritual. If I’m honest, I think it’s the blood soaked sands. So much history has happened, and is still happening, in such a confined area that it has a draw on me to go there and see for myself.
I am happy to report that the city and its surroundings were everything and much more than I hoped to experience. The city is truly amazing. Even with all of the problems that swirl around it, and the heavy policing presence, the city has a calming factor that is hard to explain. I had an incredible experience exploring the narrow alleyways and congested streets, never once feeling (overly) uncomfortable or out of place.
Where I Stayed.
I found a hotel on booking.com outside the city walls that allowed me easy access to both the city gates and the local tram system. The Christmas Hotel was a nicer experience than what I had paid for online, and much less expensive than the over-priced hotels inside the city walls.
It was a lovely little hotel inside an old stone building, across from a church, on a quiet side street. I walked from the hotel down into the city and also across to the Mount of Olives, never feeling insecure in my travels. (I should say once again, I have a pretty good level of situational awareness when it comes to traveling, you should never work outside your comfort area just because someone else says it’s okay.)
The hotel was great. The staff was great, as was the breakfast! I liked staying there a lot. (I’m not affiliated with either the hotel or booking.com. I’m just passing along info.)
The Layout of the City.
The city is a warren of overstuffed small alleys and congested narrow streets broken infrequently by congested open areas. Most of the open areas holding a major historical item of interest (church, mosque, or the like).
Where the city is broken down into quarters, they are really only of use to the locals. For tourists, you are going to find countless orientation signs when you enter though any of the gates that lead you off toward whatever. You’re going to end up following the signs most of the time. It’s okay, that’s why their up there.
Most all the navigational signs lead you in toward a particular religious site or out toward a gate. All the gates are named. You definitely need to know what gate you enter, as walking around the outside of the walls when you exit the wrong gate isn’t a real option.
If you’re really in doubt, ask one of the Israeli security forces. They know the place better than anyone.
The city of Jerusalem is one of the most completely walled cities that I have been in while traveling. It gives a much more palpable experience than any of the half reconstructed European walled cities I’ve been in. When you walk around it, you can literally feel what it was like to be living here in earlier times.
Congestion Inside the Walls.
The Corona Virus travel hiatus aside, Jerusalem is a congested place. The old walled city of Jerusalem is even more congested than the rest.
Where the modern city of Jerusalem is much more than the what you see in pictures of city walls and old stone buildings, what almost everybody goes to see is inside and adjacent to the walls of the old city.
Since the area of the old city is fixed by the ramparts and gates of antiquity, it gives no room for the ever-increasing number of people to expand out in to. The small streets and alleyways are almost constantly congested with people (both local and tourist). The open areas and cafes are also nearly always full. There are definitely more people inside the city walls than the area will hold.
The big three holy sites are the same. Waves of people come and go, more coming than going. There are basically always multiple people around you. It’s life inside the walled city. But, if you take a deep breathe and pause, an opening will always appear to let you see what you want to see or to take a picture. Everyone is doing the same thing, so just pause and breath. It will help you immensely!
New Jerusalem City.
There is a large area of Jerusalem that isn’t the old walled city or the Mount of Olives area. The city is an expanding, modern place. It has all of the layers of government and infrastructure that any city has.
That being said, there isn’t much out there that a traveler is going to get excited about, especially if you’re on a religious journey of any kind. The one thing I would solidly recommend is a trip across town to The Holocaust History Museum.
The museum is an easy tram ride away from the old city area. The museum is deep, and moving. You will leave there will a profoundly different view of things. It is absolutely worth your time and effort to visit.
Getting Around Town.
Getting into Jerusalem is easy. Take the bus from about anywhere in Israel. You’ll need a Rav Cav card to utilize public transportation, which is easy to obtain.
Getting around Jerusalem is pretty much the same. There is a tram system that runs through the middle of the city. There is also a bus system to get you around. There are cabs and such, but everybody seems to go after public transport.
I used the bus to get to/from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I used the tram inside Jerusalem, or I walked. You can walk pretty comfortably around the old city area. The tram is timely and clean. I never used the local bus, as I couldn’t figure out the bus system routes and timetable.
Some of the Other Holy Sites.
You go in the Jaffa Gate, past the alley shops and on to the t-shirts sellers, and then on to an open square. In the triangular shaped square (I know, it’s a paradox) there is a huge church.
The church is a cathedral or Basilica or church of some variety (I’m honestly not sure what it is, or it’s name for that matter) which has a large tower with a spire. Seriously, you won’t be able to miss it. And where the church is nice in a spartan kind of way, the view from the tower is what you go in for.
From the observation ring at the top of the tower you get a 360-degree view of the old city. A good look-see allows you to get bearings and decide on landmarks before getting lost in the warren of congested alleyways.
The church also has a subterranean section which allows you to view ancient building foundations. It’s all a good starting point for what’s to come.
The Mount of Olives seems like a daunting walk when you look at it from the ramparts, but it’s really not. The religious sites start right at the bottom of the hill, and meander their way up the hillside. It’s an easy walk from one site to the next. As long as you rest a little bit at each site, you’re good to go.
That being said, the grade going up the Mount is steep. Wear good shoes and drink ample water. Otherwise, enjoy your time.
Some of the numerous things to see and experience are the many cemeteries, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Mary’s Tomb, along with a host of churches and shrines.
The Via Dolorosa is believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. It’s the path that hosts the stations of the cross, which are identified across the city by identifying numbers set into the walls at each location.
The route is extremely popular with tour groups who stop at each of the stations and generally cause chaos for everyone else trying to walk around the city.
Even though biblical scholars seem to have agreed upon the idea that this route isn’t the real route Jesus took, the tour guides don’t seem to care. Just give them a minute and they’ll move on. Once they’re gone you’ll have a minute or two to take each place in before another tour group comes along. Just smile, and accept that it is the way it is.
Jerusalem was everything that I wanted it to be. It was old. It was religious. It was chaotic. It was a simmering cauldron of cultures, not completely coexisting. It was exotic smells. It was exotic tastes. It was (almost) overwhelming in its complexity.
I have to say that I took way more away from the experience than I had initially planned on. That, for me, is the truest sense of what travel is all about. The city is simply magical.
Now, stop listening to me, and go explore for yourself. Get out there. See the world!