The Best Things to do in Jerusalem Old City (and what you need to know before you go!)
Successful travel should be more than just taking a trip, it should take you on a journey. The most memorable and revealing being those that end up being very different to the one you thought you were embarking on. When the expected pivots around you and becomes a surprising and enlightening revelation that creates a lasting memory. My trip to Jerusalem was such an experience for me and my friends, family and followers.
When I first told them I was going to Jerusalem to take part in the TBEX International travel blogger conference there, the universal reaction was the same: “is it safe and should you really be going there?”. Politics and religious differences swirl around and cloud perceptions of the place. Few, including me I realised, really understood the complexity and passions around Jerusalem. However, I decided I wanted to go and see it for myself. As soon as I started to post the images I was taking of this 5,000-year old city, the reaction and debate from afar changed as fast as my appreciation was on the ground. The significance of the city, with its remarkable buildings and unique religious sites, overtook the discussion of politics to become one of appreciation of the role that Jerusalem played and has for three major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
I started my visit with a city tour of the Old City with Sandemans New Europe, which gave me a valuable overview of where the essential sites in the city where. They offer free and paid-for tours and so I recommend looking at these if you are visiting as they provided me with a fantastic introduction and review of the history. Over the coming days I then went back to spend more leisurely time exploring them armed with the knowledge and (essentially) how to get about – as the city is a tight web of narrow streets and alleys and easy to get lost in.
I learnt seven key things about Jerusalem while there which helped me to better understand this complex city, which I share below along with the seven sights that I believe every visitor (or person intrigued by the place) should know about and see.
My Seven Must-know things about Jerusalem
- It’s VERY Old! Jerusalem is one of the ten oldest permanently inhabited cities in the world. It was established about 5,000 years ago but development really started 3,000 years ago when King David united 12 diverse tribes into one nation (Kingdom of Israel) with the capital as Jerusalem.
- Three religions have their holiest sites here in the Old City. Jerusalem plays a central role and is significant for three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
- For Jews, the holiest place is now the Western Wall (sometimes called the “Wailing Wall”). It is the only remaining part of the very holy temples built on the Mount. They had been built on the spot where God tested the Abraham, according to Genesis, and were the most important Temples in Judaism.
- For Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre rests over the sites where Jesus was crucified and then buried.
- For Muslims, on the Mount is the third most holy place in Islam (after Mecca and Medina) where Muhammad ascended to heaven. On the site is the gold-covered Dome of the Rock (Al Aqsa Mosque).
- Disputed and fought over for thousands of years. The city has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. In the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jerusalem was divided with the Western half of the city becoming part of the then newly formed state of Israel, and the eastern half, along with the Old City, occupied by Jordan. East Jerusalem was captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, and has remained in their control since then.
- Jerusalem is claimed as Capital City by both the Israelis and Palestinians. East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, remains controversial and both claim it as their rightful capital. it is the biggest city with Israel and all the major government operations are there including the Knesset (Parliament) and official residences of the President and Prime Minister. However, its status is not recognised by the international community and so none of them have their embassies there.
- Old city had four quarters (although not all the same size!). There are four quarters (districts) in the Old City which are the Muslim (about 30,000 people), the Jewish and Christian (with around 3,000 residents each) and the Armenian which has only around 600 people living in it.
- Iconic sites are everywhere around the city. The Old City is just one square mile and surrounded by vast ancient ramparts with eight gates. It is manageable to explore. It will take some time though as there are so many important and historically and religiously significant sites to see and explore. The key ones I illustrate and describe below.
My Seven Must-see Sights in Old Town Jerusalem
#1 Jaffa Gate (and area)
One of the eight gates around the Ramparts that surround the old city, Jaffa Gate is one of the main entrances used by visitors as the Tourist Information Centre is just inside the entrance. It is also where many of the tours leave from, and where you buy tickets for the Ramparts.
#2 Walking round the South and North Ramparts
Thousands of years old, these vast walls surround the city. You cannot walk all the way around the city and have to enter the North and South Ramparts separately. While you can exit the ramparts at many of the other gates you can only enter them here. I recommend walking around them as you get a great view of the city and quarters, as well as learn about the history (including where the Jordanian Army guarded the city during their occupation from 1948 until the Seven-Day war in 1967).
#3 Western Wall
The holiest site for the Jewish community that is still standing. It is the only part of the Temple structure destroyed by the Romans when they tried to crush Judaism and expelled the community from Jerusalem.
#4 Dome of the Rock
The holiest place in Jerusalem for Muslims. Built on the mount, where the original holy Jewish temples were built, it marks where Mohammad rose to heaven. It is the third most holy place in Islam in the world.
#5 Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Built over the sites where Jesus was crucified and then buried, this sprawling Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a complex place. Control of the church is divided by area among a number of Christian religions which leads to arguments about upkeep and costs. Inside are important areas like the Stone of Anointing, which is where his body was supposedly anointed before burial, and the Tomb of Jesus built over where he was buried.
#6 Tower of David (and Light Spectacular)
A vast fortress over 2,500 years old that was added to and developed over centuries to create an impressive and solid complex. In addition to a museum telling the history of Jerusalem, there is a stunning light show at night. It lasts 45 minutes and tells the story of the city from its founding through music and projections across all the walls inside the courtyards. It is stunning and calling it just a “light show” underplays how clever and engaging it is.
#7 Mount of Olives
This hill overlooking Jerusalem is important for all religions as it is where the saviour will arrive (or return based on your beliefs). In addition to numerous different religious buildings and a huge Jewish cemetery.
While the politics of the city is complex and a source of conflict, it is an intriguing place to visit. Its history stretches over 5,000 years and the Old City has been the site of major religious events and stories. Around every corner there is something to amaze and engage. I found my time here enthralling and fascinating. Although the Old City is small, there is so much crammed into the narrow lanes and quarters it takes days to really appreciate. I am so glad I visited and started to better understand its importance, role and significance.
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