Faith, it's a fascinating place

The immense attraction of Jerusalem extends far beyond its religious significance, to architecture, politics and some great shopping
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The Independent Travel

Jerusalem is known for its religious significance, but its non-religious side is no less amazing. Of course, because of its immense importance in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the Holy City has a special place in the hearts of people around the world. This is where Jesus brought his ministry, entering on Palm Sunday and crucified a week later. It's also the city to which the Prophet Mohammed flew from Mecca upon his winged steed al-Burak, to begin his ascent to heaven; not to mention the site of Solomon's Temple, the place for which the Jews, through all the centuries of exile and persecution, cried their ancient hope: "Next year in Jerusalem."

Jerusalem is known for its religious significance, but its non-religious side is no less amazing. Of course, because of its immense importance in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the Holy City has a special place in the hearts of people around the world. This is where Jesus brought his ministry, entering on Palm Sunday and crucified a week later. It's also the city to which the Prophet Mohammed flew from Mecca upon his winged steed al-Burak, to begin his ascent to heaven; not to mention the site of Solomon's Temple, the place for which the Jews, through all the centuries of exile and persecution, cried their ancient hope: "Next year in Jerusalem."

But it's also a real place, a modern town seething with life. Its buildings, though endlessly different in style due to the myriad of ages in which they were built and the scores of empires that commissioned them, are all faced in the local white limestone, which gives it a strange harmony for a place so polarised. Riven by the Israeli-Palestinian divide that runs right through its heart, it's a city where in seconds you can walk from one culture straight into another: from the West with its glitzy shops and pedestrian arcades into a Middle Eastern world of minarets and veils.

The city's ancient, holy side is what most tourists come here for, but it is the modern vitality and the political tensions that leave the biggest impression. For those with faith, a visit here is the trip of a lifetime, but in fact you don't need to be religious in any way to enjoy this historic, contentious and endlessly fascinating city.

When to go

If you are a believer, the obvious time to visit is for festivals commemorating events which took place here. Foremost among those is Easter. During Holy Week, you can follow the Via Dolorosa, walking the path that Jesus is thought to have followed on his way from judgement to crucifixion.

At Christmas too, Jerusalem is easily taken in on a single visit with neighbouring Bethlehem, where you can join the crowds thronging Manger Square to celebrate Jesus's birth.

For Jews, the big time to come here is Passover in the spring, or the Jewish New Year in the Autumn, both with variable dates against the Western calendar. For secular visitors, however, Christmas, Easter and the Jewish festivals are precisely the times to avoid: hotels get full, prices rise, and the Old City's narrow streets are even more crowded than usual.

Climate-wise, spring and autumn are the best times to come, since it can get very hot here in summer - well over 80°F/30°C. However, due to its altitude, the city is always a few degrees cooler than Israel's coastal plane and decidedly nippy in winter, usually seeing snow at least once a year.

Getting there

The easiest way to get here is to fly in to Israel's Ben-Gurion airport, 30 miles west and supposedly serving Tel Aviv, though in fact it is nearly as close to Jerusalem. From there, you can take either a private taxi, or a bus, or a shared, fixed-route "service taxi", a minibus in fact, which will get you into town in 45 minutes or so. Ben-Gurion is served by British Airways (www.britishairways.com; tel: 0345 222111) from Heathrow and Gatwick, and by El Al (www.elal.com; tel: 0171-957 4100) from Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester. Between them, they offer at least two flights a day from London, and two a week from Manchester.

Scheduled flights start at around £235 return off-season including taxes from London, about £50 more from Manchester. Sample fares (excluding taxes) are: British Airways from London in January-February 2000 for £199 return; El Al's cheapest quoted fare from London for £208 return, and from Manchester for £248. Airport taxes total £33.70, fluctuating according to value of the pound against the shekel.

There are also cheaper charter flights at certain times of the year, especially in summer. For cheap flight deals, the best people to try are AMG Travel (tel: 0181-458 2666) and WST (tel: 0171-224 0504).

Where to stay

Jerusalem has some excellent places to stay at all levels of the market. The King David Hotel, in King David Street in Jewish West Jerusalem (book through Dan Hotels on 0800 731 2789), is the most famous of all, super de luxe with wonderful service and brilliant views of the Old City, its guest list is a veritable Who's Who of monarchs, statespeople and celebrities.

Across town in Arab East Jerusalem, the American Colony, off the Nablus Road (tel: 0800 960239), was once a pasha's palace, exquisite, refined and oozing with style, favoured by diplomats and old Jerusalem hands, a place much loved by those in the know.

For those not on expense accounts, however, a rather better deal is provided by the Jerusalem Hotel, also off the Nablus Road, just north of the Old City (tel: 0800 328 2393), friendly, homely and done out in classic Arab style, with a proprietor who's a mine of information on Jerusalem past and present. Its main disadvantage is that it's a small place and so popular that it needs to be booked well ahead.

More modern in style, the Jerusalem Inn Hotel at 7 Horkanos Street in the heart of downtown West Jerusalem (tel: 00272 2 625 2757), and its sister establishment, the Jerusalem Inn Guest House nearby at 6 HaHistadrut, are bright, breezy, excellent value and done out in cheerful decor with pine furniture. Finally, for those on a tighter budget, the Petra Hotel at 1 David Street, just inside the Old City's Jaffa Gate (tel: 00272 2 628 6618) is a meeting place for all sorts of travellers, and right in the heart of things, with high-ceilinged private rooms, communal dorms, kitchen facilities and the best rooftop view in town.

What to see and do

Jerusalem's top sights are in the Old City, a walled labyrinth at the city's heart that is divided into four historic quarters - Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian. The Old City's streets are a sight in themselves, studded with ancient remains, classic architecture and hectic bustling markets. The Via Dolorosa, the supposed path along which Jesus carried the cross, leads through the Muslim Quarter to end at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, thought to be the site of the crucifixion, and considered the holiest site in Christendom.

Judaism's holiest site, the Wailing Wall, which lies not far away, is in fact a lot more spectacular, with its permanent bevy of swaying, praying figures in the vast plaza that faces it. Atop the wall is Temple Mount, once the site of Solomon's Temple, and now host to Jerusalem's most famous landmark, Islam's third holiest site, and the most magnificent piece of Islamic architecture anywhere in the world: the Dome of the Rock, an octagonal jewel of blue-tiled symmetry topped with a golden dome. Inside, you can see the rock where God tested Abraham by ordering him to sacrifice his son, and from which, many years later, Mohammed ascended to heaven.

Outside the Old City, the most impressive of Israel and Palestine's archeological finds can be seen in two museums: the Rockefeller Museum, just outside the walls on the east side of town, and the Israel Museum at Givat Ram, a bus ride from the Old City in suburban West Jerusalem, whose collections also include paintings, historical synagogue interiors, and the world-famous Dead Sea scrolls.

Beyond Givat Ram, at Mount Herzl on the western edge of town, is Yad Vashem, Israel's monument to the victims of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem is a sobering rather than a pleasurable place to visit, but it is an education and an act of homage that most visitors feel duty-bound to make, and it casts much light on the feelings of Israeli Jews towards their state.

Food and drink

Jerusalem is not a gourmet's paradise, but it does have some excellent eating-places. Starting with the simplest dish, Abu Shukri at 63 al-Wad Road in the Old City purveys Jerusalem's most renowned plate of hummus (chickpea and sesame paste), a tasty, cheap and filling breakfast, or a fine snack at any time of day. The best example of the city's other favourite snack food, falafel (fried chickpea balls), can be tasted at HaTimani, 48 HaNeviim in downtown West Jerusalem.

For something more substantial, most of central West Jerusalem's restaurants offer a bargain lunchtime "business menu", but an even better bargain lunch can be found at Quick Lunch, 25 al-Zahra in central East Jerusalem. The Pie Shop in an alley between 9 and 11 Yoel Salomon Street serves a selection of pies sweet and savoury, with fine, filling portions, while Spaghettim nearby at 8 Rabbi Akiva Street, offers pasta with a choice of over 50 sauces, traditional and trendy.

Another favourite is Abu Shanab Pizzeria at 35 Latin Patriarchate Road in the Old City, whose low-priced pizzas can be washed down with a cold bottle of Taybeh beer, an excellent pilsner produced by Palestine's only microbrewery. Across the street, Rendez Vous is an immaculate little café offering great Turkish coffee and wonderful home-made kubbe (tasty minced lamb in a bulghur-wheat jacket deep-fried).

For a more refined meal, the Philadelphia at 9 al-Zahra in central East Jerusalem is the top location to sample traditional Middle Eastern grills and starters, digested with the aid of an aromatic, cardamom-spiced Turkish coffee and the house's own pistachio baklava.

On the west side of town, Eucalyptus, at 4 Safra Square, opposite 19 Jaffa Road near the Old City's north-west corner, is an innovative modern restaurant serving an assortment of interesting variations on traditional Middle Eastern food, as well as recreations of dishes eaten in biblical times. Their most interesting starter is an assortment of stuffed leaves including vine, cyclamen, Jerusalem sage and mallow - the latter eaten not only in ancient times, but more recently during Israel's 1948 War of Independence when Jewish West Jerusalem found itself under siege by Arab forces, and its inhabitants were obliged to check out the eating potential of the local vegetation.

Out of town

The obvious excursion from Jerusalem is to Bethlehem, a mere seven miles south of Jerusalem, and easily reached by private taxi or shared "service taxi". The highlight of any visit here is of course the Church of the Nativity, built above the very birthplace of Jesus, which you can see in the grotto beneath the church. Aside from this though, Bethlehem is a charming and laid-back little town, whose streets are well worth a wander. Apart from the Church of the Nativity, things to see here include the Milk Grotto where the Holy Family hid from the slaughter of the innocents, and a town museum run by a women's collective, whose members will show you round a fascinating little exhibition on traditional Palestinian homemaking.

Further information

The Israeli Government Tourist Office in Britain is at UK House, 180 Oxford Street (entrance round the corner in Titchfield Street - tel: 0171-299 1111), and the staff there are very helpful and friendly. In Jerusalem itself, the main tourist information office is at 3 Safra Square, in front of City Hall in downtown West Jerusalem (tel: 00272 2 625 8844), though information on anything Christian or Palestinian is better sought at the Christian Information Centre in Omar Ibn al-Khattab Square, just inside the Old City's Jaffa Gate (tel: 00272 2 627 2692). The Jerusalem section of the Israeli Tourism Ministry's excellent site can be found at www.infotour.co.il/TourismArea/2912.html

Daniel Jacobs wrote the 'Rough Guide to Jerusalem'

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