48 Hours: Jerusalem

Every step you take in this holy city reveals an aspect of its tangled history.

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

You're unlikely to make midnight mass tonight. However, for the Greek Orthodox (who follow the Julian calendar), Christmas falls 13 days later: many Jerusalem churches celebrate midnight mass on 6 January. Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, continues to 28 December, with candle-lighting ceremonies and bakeries selling sufganiyot (festive doughnuts).

From 12 to 18 January, the Freedom Film Festival is showing protest cinema from Syria, Egypt, Algeria and beyond at the Yabous Cultural Centre (1), Al Zahra Street (00 972 2626 1045; yabous.org).

Touch down

Jerusalem is 50km south-east of Tel Aviv airport, which has flights on El Al (020-7121 1400; elal.co.uk) from Heathrow and Luton; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Luton; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Manchester.

Sheruts (shared taxis) shuttle to Jerusalem for 58 Israeli shekels (NIS58, about £10). Run by Nesher (00 972 2625 7227; neshertours.co.il), they take about an hour. Private taxis are about NIS300 (£50). The more scenic train ride (NIS22/ £3.70) threads through the hills to Jerusalem Malha station (2) – take a train to Tel Aviv HaHagana station and change (rail.co.il). It takes two and a quarter hours.

Get your bearings

A holy city in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Jerusalem is nominally the "eternal, indivisible" capital of Israel, and is also claimed as the capital of a future Palestinian state. No borders exist within the city, though divisions of language and culture are sharp.

Jerusalem's most recognisable building is the golden Dome of the Rock (3), a seventh-century Islamic shrine within the walled Old City. It sits on a high platform known as Haram Al Sharif or Temple Mount, by Islam's third most-revered mosque, Al Aqsa (4). Below is the Western Wall (5), Judaism's holiest site. Just steps away stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (6), Christianity's most venerated site.

Of the Old City's eight gates, Damascus Gate (7) is the main exit to East Jerusalem, the Arabic-speaking, Palestinian part of town, centred on the shops and cafés of Salah Ed-Din Street. Jaffa Gate (8) accesses Hebrew-speaking West Jerusalem, focused on the shopping artery of Jaffa Road.

Check in

For Old City atmosphere, the 19th-century Austrian Hospice (9), at 37 Via Dolorosa (00 972 2626 5800; austrianhospice. com), is unbeatable. Dorms €24 per person, doubles €114, both with breakfast. Outside the walls, at budget level opt for Abraham Hostel (10), 67 HaNeviim Street (00 972 2650 2200; abrahamhostel.com), amid West Jerusalem's bustle. Dorms from NIS72 (£12), doubles NIS270 (£45), breakfast extra.

The Jerusalem Hotel (11) on Nablus Road (0800 328 2393; jrshotel.com) offers outstanding character. Doubles from US$190 (£127), room only. At the top end, aim for West Jerusalem's Mamilla Hotel (12), 11 King Solomon St (00 972 2548 2222; mamillahotel.com; doubles with breakfast from US$310/£207), or for historic charm go to East Jerusalem's American Colony (13), 1 Louis Vincent St (00 972 2627 9777; americancolony.com); doubles with breakfast from US$380 (£253).

Day one

Take a hike

Jerusalem's crenellated walls were completed in 1541 under Suleiman the Magnificent and stand an average of 12 metres high. Pass through at Jaffa gate (8), knocked through by the Ottomans in 1898 to allow Kaiser Wilhelm's entourage to enter.

Once inside, head across Omar bin Al-Khattab Square (14), overlooked by the circular Tower of David (actually a 17th-century minaret) to the stone-flagged David Street. This is the start of Jerusalem's covered souks, stepped downhill – the further down you go, the less touristy it becomes. In the cool gloom ahead lurk alleyways given over to spices, textiles and freshly-butchered meat.

Turn right at the bottom to walk beside the Byzantine-era Cardo into the Jewish Quarter, largely destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948 and rebuilt by Israel after 1967.

Past Hurva Square, alleyways lead out to the 19-metre-high Western Wall (5) (open 24 hours; free; thekotel.org), built in about 20BC to buttress the Second Temple on the platform above. Anyone may approach: men (who will be handed a skullcap) pray to the left, women to the right. Nearby, beside Dung Gate (15), Batei Mahse Street hugs the walls past Zion Gate (16) and through the quiet Armenian Quarter.

Take Christian Quarter Road to the Crusader-built Church of the Holy Sepulchre (6) (daily 5am–8pm; free; holysepulchre.com), site of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection and the culmination of the Via Dolorosa – the route Jesus followed while carrying the cross. It's a dim, incense-heavy place, crammed with pilgrims queuing to get into the small marble chamber at its centre holding Christ's tomb.

Behind the church, narrow Souk Khan Al Zeit, the Muslim Quarter's main shopping street, bamboozles with commerce and activity. Let the promenading crowds carry you forwards to leave the Old City at grand Damascus Gate (7).

Lunch on the run

Grab a table at Abu Shukri (17), 63 Al Wad Road (daily 8am-4.30pm; 00 972 2627 1538) to sample some of Jerusalem's finest: hummus, served with crispy falafel balls, fresh bread and salad, for under NIS35 (£6) per head.

A walk in the park

Across the deep Kidron Valley in East Jerusalem rises the Mount of Olives, mentioned frequently in the New Testament and dotted with landmark churches. Stroll and meditate amid wildflowers and ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane (18), which spreads around the 20th-century Church of All Nations (19) (daily 8am-11.30am; again 2pm-5pm), built where Jesus received Judas's kiss of betrayal.

Take a view

At sunset, head up to the summit of the Mount of Olives, to the west-facing viewpoint (20) by the Seven Arches Hotel, to watch the sun sinking behind the holy city.

Dine with the locals

By nightfall the Old City has emptied: culinary excellence lies elsewhere. Tucked away in West Jerusalem's old train station compound, HaChatzer (21), 7 Bethlehem Road (00 972 2671 9922), offers delicious Israeli-Mediterranean cooking in intimate bistro-style surroundings. Middle Eastern influences show in the signature dish – an artfully presented mezze platter with Moroccan bread (NIS60/£10).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to the mosque

Get up early to visit the most beautiful Islamic building in the world, the Dome of the Rock (3). Non-Muslims may enter only via the Magharba Gate (22) (Sun-Thu 7.30-10.30am and 1.30-2.30pm; noblesanctuary.com), which leads onto the Haram Al Sharif. This paved plaza dotted with monuments, shrines and fountains was formerly the site of the Jewish Temple of Solomon (destroyed in 586BC) and Second Temple (destroyed in AD70).

At its centre the golden dome, 20 metres in diameter, seemingly floats above an octagonal enclosure clad in dazzling green and blue Iznik tiles. This is not a mosque, but a shrine built in AD691 over the rock on which Abraham intended to sacrifice his son (Isaac in Genesis; presumed to be Ishmael in the Quran) and from which Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Across the plaza, Al Aqsa Mosque (4) was rebuilt in the 11th century and can hold 5,000 worshippers. Its lofty interior is supported by 45 columns and includes an exquisite pulpit of carved wood. This was installed in 2007 as a replica of Saladin's original, built in 1187 but destroyed by an arsonist in 1969.

Out to brunch

Mahane Yehuda is West Jerusalem's souk (shuk in Hebrew), a madhouse of stalls selling everything from peanuts to persimmons. Hunt the alleyways for Ima (23), 189 Agrippas Street (00 972 2624 6860; imarestaurant.com), a stone-vaulted den serving Kurdish home cooking. Try the signature kubbeh soup – meat dumplings in a red beet broth (NIS35/£6).

Take a ride

Buy a tram ticket (price NIS6.40/£1) from a street-side kiosk. Jump on a tram – there's only one line, running from Damascus Gate (7) and along Jaffa Road.

A short walk from the Mount Herzl stop at the western terminus, amid forested hills on the city's outskirts, lies Israel's Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem (24) (yadvashem.org) – sobering, moving, disturbing but unmissable. It opens Sun-Wed 9am-5pm, Thurs 9am-8pm, Fri 9am-2pm, free.

Cultural afternoon

Hurry to catch the headline-grabbing show "WestEnd" at the Museum on the Seam (25), 4 Hel Handasa Street (Sun-Thu 10am-5pm, Fri 10am-2pm; mots.org.il), focusing on depictions of power from around the Arab world, Israel, Iran and beyond.

This contemporary art museum devoted to Jerusalem's challenging socio-political reality stands on the "seam", the former border between Israel and Jordan. Admission is NIS25 (£4). Ends 19 January.

Icing on the cake

In the heart of the Old City, off David Street, an anonymous metal staircase (26) gives access to spectacular rooftop walks, used principally by Jewish settlers to avoid passing through the Muslim Quarter, but open to all. The lofty views of Jerusalem's steeples, domes and minarets are breathtaking – moonlight on the Dome of the Rock could melt the hardest of secular hearts.

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