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.
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.
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; email@example.com). 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).
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.
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.
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