Explore the best of Jerusalem in 3 days.
To Jews, Yerushalayim – “the holy city” – is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the direction of all prayer. The groom pronounces at the close of the wedding ceremony “If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten,” and every Passover meal concludes with the words “Next Year in Jerusalem”.
To Christians, Jerusalem is the setting of the last week in the life of Jesus, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Burial and the Resurrection, dotted with churches and rich with spiritual narrative. To Moslems, Al Kuds – “the holy” – is the destination of the Prophet Muhammad’s “Night Journey”, wherein he ascended to heaven to receive instruction from Allah before returning to Mecca. The spot that marks that journey is the third holiest site in Islam, and the oldest fully surviving religious shrine on the face of the earth.
And to 3.5 million visitors a year, it is destination that a traveler cannot forego, and likely will return to again and again. While it’s nearly impossible to get enough of Jerusalem, let’s try to fit the highlights into a three-day package. In this itinerary, we’ll assume that the traveler is walking or taking public transportation, but if you have a private car, the day to use it would be Day #2.
Hold on to your hats: This is a day with a great deal of walking and truckloads of history, archaeology and religious exploration. You’ll finish the day mentally and physically exhausted, but almost certainly fascinated and hungry for more.
Grab a cab to the Mount of Olives overlook in front of the Seven Arches Hotel. This stunning view of the Old City provides the backdrop for a 5,000 year history lesson. After some amazing photo ops and a camel ride if you’re interested, begin walking down via the Dominus Flevit Church, and at the bottom of the hill, stop at the Garden of Gethsemane, next to the Church of All Nations.
Continue walking along the Eastern Wall of the Old City, stopping at one of the overlooks looking west towards the 2,000 year old bmonumental graves called Absalom’s Pillar and The Grave of Zechariah in the valley below. After you’ve rounded the southeastern corner of the Old City from the outside, enter the Old City via the Dung Gate or detour down the hill to the City of David, the remains of the village first conquered and established as a capital by King David 3,000 years ago. The special treat for the adventurous is the underground walk through the 2,700 year old water conduit called Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Be warned: it’s a long downhill climb to reach it, and what goes down, must ultimately come up, disoriented and wet.
Temple Mount and the Western Wall
If you didn’t bother with The City of David, you will now be entering the Old City through the Dung Gate, the lowest of the eight gates to this medieval walled city. Walking straight ahead, the Temple Mount (to Jews) or Haram a Sharif (to Moslems) looms above. Fifty meters north is the entrance to the Western Wall plaza open 24/7. Adjoining it, a separate entrance leads to the ascent to the Temple Mount/Haram a Sharif, whose opening hours for tourists are much more unpredictable and capricious. It’s worth asking when you get there so that you can plan a potential ascent.
If the Mount happens to be open when you get there, go there first, since the Western Wall is available any time. After visiting the Western Wall, pop over to the Western Wall Tunnel Tour ticket office. This underground tour of the foundation of Herod’s monumental edifice is usually booked up far in advance, but there is often an opening for one or two people at some later point in the day, and it’s worth the visit. If you can’t get a place on one of the Tunnel Tours, (or even if you can), check out the Davidson Centre, back near the Dung Gate, an archaeological park revealing the original street level and grand staircase leading to the Temple.
The Jewish and Christian Quarters
At this point you have two options, the Jewish Quarter, or the Christian Quarter, though if you’re thorough, you can backtrack and do both, since the Old City is only one square kilometer. In either case, it will be time to start looking for a spot to eat. A legendary Hummus place is Abu Shukri’s, on the Via Dolorosa. It is the Middle Eastern version of the soup shop from Seinfeld. Zero atmosphere, belligerent service, but delicious, homemade hummus. If you take the Jewish Quarter route, a row of shops offering anything from pizza, to bagels, to shwarma and falafel are readily available, but seating is often hard to come by. Take your lunch to Hurva Square and sit in the shade at the foot of the legendary Hurva Synagogue.
If you manage to get a spot on the Tunnel Tour, know that it ends at the start of the Via Dolorosa, a series of churches and prayer sites representing the last steps of Jesus culminating in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The nearby Church of the Redeemer is the Lutheran response to their more ancient neighbors, and from there it is a short walk back to the Arab Shuk. Feel free to shop, but remember to haggle. The shuk cuts a straight line eastward to the Jaffa Gate from which one can return on foot, by cab, by bus or by light rail to anywhere in the city.
If you chose the Jewish Quarter option, walk out the southwestern exit of the Western Wall Plaza, and ascend the steps, remembering periodically to stop (you’ll need the break anyway) and notice the beautiful view of the sacred compound. Of interest to archaeology buffs are The Burnt House and the Herodian Quarter, both underground remnants of Roman-Era Jerusalem. After (or instead of) your archaeological side-bars, proceed to the Cardo, the Roman Era “Main Street” that has become an upscale art and Judaica shopping arcade.
Walking north on the Cardo you’ll eventually hook up with the Arab Shuk, and can head out the Jaffa Gate towards West Jerusalem or, if you still have energy, wander over to the Holy Sepulcher, before making your way back to the Jaffa Gate.
This day will be less physically taxing, but equally content-rich. Begin your day at the Israel Museum, which can be reached by bus or cab. It is not a single museum but a campus, including an Archaeology Museum, an Art Museum, a Judaica Wing and a world-class sculpture garden.
If you manage to finish with the Israel Museum by lunch time, you may want to save time and grab a bite at the museum snack bar or just have a hot dog at the stand outside. If it already 2:00pm or later, grab a cab to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. If it’s earlier, however, walk north up the road, past the Knesset, Israel’s house of parliament, making sure to stop for a view of the building and of the giant Menorah sculpture. Continuing north for five minutes, your destination is Israel’s Supreme Court, a prize-winning architectural masterpiece. Feel free to sit in on a session. Otherwise, walk up Rabin Boulevard to the Light Rail station at the corner of Herzl Boulevard and Kiryat Moshe Street. Jerusalem’s Light Rail is cheap, comfortable and convenient, and from its last stop it is a lovely 10-minute downhill walk to Yad Vashem.
At Yad Vashem, it is worth speaking to the docents at the information center. The historical museum is unparalleled, and one can spend a whole day there, but make sure to leave time for the other monuments. The Children’s Memorial is particularly moving, and for those of European Jewish ancestry the Valley of the Communities is also special, but the number of sub-museums, monuments, displays, and educational exhibits is staggering. One could spend weeks there and not take it all in. It is important to leave Yad Vashem for the end of a day. You’ll need time for contemplation.
Start your day at Machaneh Yehuda, the open air market where many locals do their shopping for everything from baked goods, to wine, to inexpensive clothes. Grab a fresh pastry for your breakfast and some wine and cheese or pita and salami for lunch later on. Cross Agrippas Street and explore the 19th century neighborhood of Nachlaot with its pedestrian walkways and pocket parks. Meander south through Nachlaot exiting onto Bezalel Street. Walk East on Bezalel Street, and perhaps stop at the Bezalel Art Institute. Continue East on Bezalel Street as it becomes Ben Yehuda Street.
When Ben Yehudah crosses King George Street (the British colonialists left a few street names to remember them by) it becomes a pedestrian mall, broad, open, airy, filled with shops, cafes, and often buskers of one sort or another. It’s a leisurely downhill stroll and ends at Zion Square, but from there look for the right turn onto the southern alleyway called Yoel Moshe Solomon Street, a petite version of Ben Yehudah. Walk to its end and take a left onto Hillel Street which further downhill becomes Ben Sira Street.
Now, for the first time in half a day, you will see cars again, as you reach the intersection of Mamilla Mall and King David Street. You will also, for the first time in several hours have a bit of uphill walking to do. King David Street (so many kings, so little time) is “hotel row”, with the magnificently refurbished Palace Hotel (Waldorf Astoria) on your right, the Citadel on your left and further up the hill the Old Money Hotel of Colonial Palestine, the venerable King David Hotel itself.
Montefiore’s Windmill Viewing Platform
On your way up the hill, note Beit Shmuel, the World Center for Reform Judaism, and do not miss, (and perhaps take a look inside) the Jerusalem YMCA, possibly the most beautiful YMCA in the world. At the end of King David Street, take a left onto Bloomfield Street, which leads you to Montefiore’s Windmill. From the platform in front of Montefiore’s Windmill, there are wonderful views of the walls of the Old City, Mount Zion across the Valley, and the Palestinian villages beyond the notorious Separation Wall. From here, take a walk through the lovely neighborhood of Yemin Moshe, one of the first neighborhoods outside the Old City Walls.
As you meander through Yemin Moshe, try to walk down a few steps each block north, until you have made your way out the north-western corner of the neighborhood. You should emerge just above Teddy Park, named after Teddy Kollek, the legendary mayor of Jerusalem. Climb up and out of Teddy Park towards the Jaffa Gate looming above. At this point, you may think you’ve wandered through the Old City already on Day 1 but there are many, many ways to enjoy this ancient walled city and one of them is walking atop of the walls themselves.
Jaffa Gate and the City Ramparts
For a small fee, payable at the tourist information office just inside the Jaffa Gate you can walk on top of the city ramparts from the Jaffa Gate to the Zion Gate a quarter of the way around the city. Signs posted along the route give you a sense of what you’re looking at, and what role various defensive structures played in the city’s long history. Descend at the Zion Gate and visit the sites of Mount Zion, including the Room of the Last Supper, the Tomb of King David and Dormition Abbey. At this point, you can walk down to the Dung Gate for another bvisit to the Western Wall and a cab or a bus back to your lodgings for a well-deserved rest.