A visit to Jerusalem may not appear to be the usual city of choice for a traveller with no religious calling, yet it is a city whose cultural rejuvenation is attracting those wanting to look beyond its theological persona. The city is cryptic yet captivating, firmly cementing itself as a fun, contemporary space whilst retaining the ancient, spiritual hold that it’s mostly known for.
It’s exactly this uniqueness that makes Jerusalem one of my favourite areas of Israel (I admit that I became more of a Jerusalemite than a Tel Avivian) and travelling here really is different to what you initially expect it to be.
Wanting to explore the history and old architecture, the Old City was firmly on my radar before arriving and when there, was a place with such magnetism that I often found myself heading back over and over with no aim except to lose myself within it. Yet my nights spent dining in the old market, wandering amongst the local neighbourhoods and frequenting the entertainment area, soon confirmed that you must look outside of the Old City walls to experience the charm of Jerusalem in its entirety.
Jerusalem’s New City
The New City is easily navigable, with plenty of quaint suburbs to wander within and a city centre that’s full of life. My base was the fun and bustling traveller hub of the Abraham Hostel, located right in the heart of town next to the Davidka Square stop of the Jerusalem Light Rail (tram), although it was more fun to explore on foot (the tram being a useful addition to your itinerary should you want to get to the far reaches of the Yad Vasham Holocaust museum at one end and the Central Bus station at the other).
Already armed with all the details on the hostel’s catalogue of activities including the bar crawl, cooking class, the Sunday night open mic session, the Friday night Shabbat dinner and everything else in between that’s making Jerusalem more vibrant for travellers and locals alike, I asked one of the staff members to note on a map what local spots and neighbourhoods I should check out to uncover even more of modern-day Jerusalem.
Mahaneh Yehuda Market
When I first arrived, my bus driver insisted on telling me about the Maheneh Yehuda Market with great enthusiasm, and locals never lie about great food. By day the atmosphere is electric as you wander through stalls of sweets, fresh fruit and vegetables, breads, nuts, pastries, meats and so much more. You swerve to dodge the trays, the carts and the locals whose hands are full of bags teeming with local produce. Your head turns at the sound of every market vendor call, the banter of hasty transaction, and the lure of fresh juice bars and snack shops, before you emerge out into the light and calm of the residential streets that surround it, your purse a few shekels lighter.
At night, the market is an edgy hangout for the cool kids of the city. Vendor stalls are turned into seating areas, chairs and tables are laid out and restaurants, pop-up shops and bars come into full force. This might well be a place you spend a LOT of time in.
Mahaneh Yehuda & Mea She-arim Neighbourhoods
In all honesty, I’m just nosy, and while there is nothing much to see in Mahaneh Yehuda, I just liked looking at people’s houses and having some down time in quiet spaces, pretending that I lived there and knew where I was going. Even when I was caught out by a local who asked me that busted tourist line: “Are you lost? Where do you want to go?” I liked it. It meant there was more chance of engaging in conversation.
But Mahaneh Yehuda is next to the Mea She-arim Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood and, lets face it, most of us are pretty much fascinated about this closed and almost unknown ultra-religious culture. It’s here where you will see the 18th century dress code that was custom in Eastern Europe but which still remains to this day. You will see the bearded men, dressed in their black coats and hats, standing on the street doing nothing much except chatting to each other (the majority do not work, instead days are spent in prayer reading the Torah) and the women with their smart wigs, headscarves and conservative black skirts and dresses, pushing strollers and doing their daily shop.
In reality, they don’t really want you hanging around and signs in the neighbourhood dictate to not come here in big groups, as well as outlining how you should dress and behave in a conservative manner. An Israeli friend told me that I might be spat at and pushed and although this never happened, I did get stared at an awful lot, which is why I decided to leave despite my fascination.
The Nahla’ot neighbourhood is the other side of Mahaneh Yehuda Market and using the main road of Agrippas as my marker to find my way out, I ventured into the narrow and winding streets here that make up this really pretty neighbourhood of neat buildings, stone archways, gated courtyards and tiny stairwells. The city may be made predominately from the same ‘Jerusalem Stone’, but this isn’t at all bland. In fact, it makes it even more beautiful.
Jaffa Road & New City Life
Jaffa Road runs through the heart of the New City, connecting everything together. In some parts picturesque and arty, it is great to stroll down and cut off into the shopping and dining areas hidden behind it. In the evening, the streets around Zion Square sound with the buzz of bars and local hangouts, where you can sip on local Goldstar beer and people watch for hours.
Jerusalem’s Old City
The Old City is seen as holding the history of the world, having been fought over and conquered by various groups of people for thousands of years, and is as admired as it is contested for being the holy center to all three monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Yet it is this setup which bestows upon it an air of magic and mystery; it’s ancient lure and labyrinth layout being just how you always imagined.
Visit all Quarters of the Old City
A walled city of stone structures, flanked in the sun’s golden hues, make up a maze of pathways that cut this ancient stronghold into the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters, and knowledge of the complex and delicate history is not always necessary to appreciate the architecture, ancient relics and charged atmospheres here.
Whether you watch the Jews praying at the Western (Wailing) Wall or singing in cause of a celebration; silently observe Christians in prayer at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre while standing amidst the clang of the church bells; or look on as Muslims make their way to the Mosque as the call to prayer reverberates around you, you don’t have to be spiritual to be moved and taken in by the religious spectacles that blend together in this small space, whilst simmering in division beneath the surface.
Head to Temple Mount
A disputed holy site, where once sat a Jewish temple thousands of years ago and now a mosque, Temple Mount is an unmissable part of your exploration in the Old City. Only open for a small window each day for non-muslims (at the gate to the right as you face the Western Wall between the hours of 07:30 – 10:00 and 12:30 – 13:30 in the winter and 07:30 – 11:00 + 13:30 – 14:30 in the summer) hundreds venture up here to view what has become an infamous symbol of Jerusalem – the gold dome which covers the slab of rock sacred to both the Jewish faith as the foundation stone of the world and the Muslim faith as the point where Mohammed ascended to heaven to join Allah.
See the Old City From Up High
Jerusalem’s Old City is not only mesmerising as you meander through it, but also breathtaking when you see it from afar.
The view from the Mount of Olives is labeled as the most spectacular, The Austrian Hospice in the Muslim Quarter has one of the best rooftop lookouts, and the Armon Hanatziv Promenade close to the German Colony is more of a local spot, best viewed at sunset as the magical sounds of church bells or calls to prayer scatter across the land.
Revel in Getting Lost
A great introduction to the old city, for both the history and general navigation, is the free walking tour from Sandemans and the Old City tour with Abraham Tours. After that, I have one rule for the Old City when you head back on your own, and that is to not really plan a route – getting lost is a good thing and trying too hard to work your way around the labyrinth of narrow streets, hidden alleys and bustling bazaars will just get you frustrated. You will always eventually come back onto one of the main streets that lead to you the main gates or to one of the infamous religious sites, or stumble upon a direction sign. Ditch the map and lose yourself in this old world.
While everyone knows about Jerusalem in some form, you can’t really understand its meaning as the spiritual center of the world until you stand within it, transfixed and transported in time, before landing with a bump to the vivacity of its modern-day culture and coolness.
Not only does Jerusalem attract religious pilgrims, but its overall magnetism forms part of the attraction for any traveller, where you will soon see that a single visit doesn’t warrant enough time to grasp its beauty and mystery completely. It’s why I’m heading back to explore some more, starting with this comprehensive guide to everything in Jerusalem from Tourist Israel, which has made me realise that my second time probably won’t be my last either!