48 Hours In: Jerusalem, Israel

To find out what Christmas is really about there's nowhere better to go than the Israeli city's holy sites - and, of course, the neighbouring town of Bethlehem. Jeremy Head reports


WHY GO NOW?

Forget the tinsel and the turkey. To find out what Christmas is really about, a visit to the holy sites in Jerusalem - and the neighbouring town of Bethlehem - is a must. Travel here is now relatively trouble-free, although you will have to deal with checkpoints to cross between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

TOUCH DOWN

The nearest international airport is Ben Gurion Tel Aviv, served from Heathrow and Stansted by El Al (020-7957 4100; www.elal.co.il), and from Heathrow by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). From Ben Gurion airport, a taxi to Jerusalem costs around 160 new shekels (£20). Bus route 947 departs from the airport every 30 minutes, with singles costing 20 new shekels (£2.50), journey time one hour (00 972 3 694 8888; www.egged.co.il/eng).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Within the old walled city of Jerusalem, you will find many of the world's most significant religious sites for Christians, Jews and Muslims. The city is split into quarters: Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian. Each has its own identity. Just west of the old city lies the Garden of Gethsemane, and rising steeply above it, the Mount of Olives. Bethlehem lies a 20-minute drive south.

CHECK IN

The American Colony (00 972 2627 9777; www.americancolony.com) is Jerusalem's most celebrated hotel. Its leafy courtyard with tinkling fountain is a favourite with foreign journalists. With its classic Arabian architecture, the hotel is a refined though quite pricey retreat from the busy city. Doubles from $290 (£170) including breakfast. For a bigger pool and expansive views, the Mount Zion Hotel (00 972 2568 9555; www.mountzion.co.il) also offers top-end comfort. Doubles from $155 (£85) including breakfast.

Cheaper options include the Jerusalem Hotel (00 972 2628 3282; www.jrshotel.com) just outside the Damascus Gate, handy for sightseeing, where doubles cost $120 (£67) including breakfast.

If you want to stay within the old city, try the homely Knight's Palace (00 972 2628 2537; kp@actcom.co.il). This guest house is part of a 19th-century seminary; doubles from $80 (£44) including breakfast.

TAKE A VIEW

At the Jaffa Gate, you will find Jerusalem's helpful tourist information centre (00 972 2 627 1422; www.infotour.co.il); open Sunday-Thursday 9am-4.30pm, Friday until 1pm). Just before the gate, stone steps on the right lead up to the ticket booth for the ramparts.

The walls were completed by Sultan Suleiman the Great over 400 years ago, and they still completely enclose old Jerusalem. From the walls, the alleys of the old city and all its minarets and towers are spread out below. You will also get distant views of the Mount of Olives.

Walk north around the Christian Quarter, across the Damascus Gate into the Muslim quarter. Pause here to go shopping, or continue to The Lion's Gate (also called St Stephen's Gate).

WINDOW SHOPPING

Step through the mighty Damascus Gate of the old city and you find yourself in a time warp of Eastern exoticism. The main Al Wad street is a hubbub of ancient shops and cafés. So, forget sightseeing for a while and just soak up the atmosphere. Turn right down Souk Khan ez-Zeit (Beit Ha Bad), the city's most colourful shopping street. Here you'll find spices, coffee, leather goods, gold and carpets. The souk leads on to Al-Attarin (Shuk ha-Basamim), which is good for fabrics and carpets. The narrow streets can feel a little close at times. The way to deal with it is to slow down and, if someone offers you a coffee inside their shop, take it. There's no obligation to buy and it's a great way to chat to locals. Expect to bargain.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Fast food was invented in the Middle East. Choose freshly fried falafel if you're a vegetarian, or else a juicy kebab. There are plenty of places around Muristan, just next to the souks, a pleasant square with an ornate fountain. Try the shady roof terrace at Papa Andreas. It is self-service and the views are splendid. Souk al-Lahmin, the meat market, also has simple restaurants serving excellent kebabs.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The Via Dolorosa is the route that Christ took carrying the cross on his shoulders before his crucifixion. You can retrace his final steps along the 14 Stations of the Cross from the courtyard of the Omariye College. Buy a pamphlet describing the route from any of the shops nearby. Along the route are the places where Jesus stumbled, where he met Mary, and where Simon of Cyrene was made to help him carry the cross. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre contains Golgotha, the place of his crucifixion and his tomb.

Judaism's most holy site is the Wailing or Western Wall. Men and women have separate sections, and men need to put on a free skullcap or kippa. You will see people pushing little slips of paper with prayers written on them into the cracks in the wall.

AN APERITIF

Get a cab to the Seven Arches Hotel, up on the Mount of Olives. Not the prettiest hotel in town, but what it lacks in architectural grace it makes up for with great views of the old city from its terrace. The perfect place to sit with a cool Maccabee beer, and gaze across several millennia of history as the sun sets.

DINNER WITH THE LOCALS

Take your passport and head across to Bethlehem; the border checkpoint now stays open all night. Getting there presents something of a challenge: you can pick up a mini-bus taxi from outside the Damascus Gate to the checkpoint. They run at least half-hourly and usually have a sign in English stating the destination. It's best to ask someone and they can point you in the right direction. The fare is 5 new shekels (60p). You have to get out at the Israeli Army checkpoint and walk through the gap in the 9m-high concrete security wall that now cuts off Bethlehem entirely from Jerusalem. Pick up a cab on the other side; it will cost about another 25 new shekels (£3.20) to Shepherd's Valley Tourist Village (00 972 2277 3875) which is, despite the name, ideal for meeting locals (they tend to call it Al Khema, meaning "the tent"). Recline on carpets in a Bedouin tent and enjoy Palestinian dishes such as fokara, a slow-cooked lamb casserole and maybe a puff of scented tobacco from a narghile.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Head up the Mount of Olives for morning views across the city. With another trip to Bethlehem later, it may be worth hiring a car and driver for the day; expect to pay around $150 (£83). Otherwise, take a cab.

Look at the Mosque of the Ascension, where Christ is said to have ascended to heaven, then stroll down the hill to the Chapel of Dominus Flevit on the right; it has some of the prettiest gardens in the city.

Continue to the Garden of Gethsemane, with its ancient olive trees, where Christ prayed the night before he was crucified.

TAKE A RIDE

... across to Bethlehem (see Dining with the Locals for details of the crossing) and visit the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square. This is, according to tradition, where the stable stood where Christ was born. It's a suitably simple building, and the contrast with the razzmatazz of festivities back home makes it all the more special. Next to the altar, down a winding staircase of marble, is the cave where Christ was born. The birthplace is marked with a silver star on the floor; just nearby is the nook where the manger stood. Open daily 8am-7pm; admission free.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Enjoy a relaxed lunch at Abu Shanab on Manger Street (00 972 2274 2895). The proprietor, Sameer, personally selects the best cuts of lamb with which to make his kebabs. Start with a tableful of traditional Middle Eastern mezze. Wash it all down with a glass of the local firewater, arak.

TAKE A HIKE

From the bus station behind Manger Square, hop on bus 47 or jump in a cab (5 new shekels/60p) and walk off lunch in the Shepherds' Fields - where the angels visited the shepherds to proclaim Christ's birth. At Syar el Ghanam there's a Franciscan church built over the remains of a Byzantine monastery. The beautiful light inside, filtering through the cupola, is intended to replicate the light that shone around the shepherds. There are several sites associated with the shepherds. You can also visit the Greek Orthodox site, with its ancient mosaics, in the eastern part of the town.

ICING ON THE CAKE

One of the Muslim world's most holy sites, Temple Mount (Haram Al Sharif) (16) stretches across a swathe of Jerusalem's old town and contains the golden Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. It's an exotic complex of domes, minarets and arches. Visits are restricted for non-Muslims. You can wander around the courtyard. But to step into the buildings to see the exquisite ancient interiors, thick with elaborate carpets and awash with gold leaf, beautiful mosaics, intricate carvings and fine stained glass, you will need to plan in advance: get a local tour operator such as Net Tours (00 972 2532 8720; www.netours.com) or contact the Waqf Office directly (00 972 2628 1222) to organise a tour several weeks beforehand.

Additional research by Verity Burns and Petra Greenhalgh

PROMOTED VIDEO
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind'

News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
football

News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album