How is walking in the streets of such a complex city? The desire to see Jerusalem came suddenly, so I just went for it! Two weeks of vacation, a round trip to Jordan and a return flight from Tel Aviv, are the perfect ingredients to take two birds with one stone.
First trip to Jerusalem
Any doubt? Not at all. Any worry? Maybe. The political situation in Israel is known to be fluid and the atmosphere can change at any moment. However, I choose to be confident and this is the best decision to take since everything went well during our trip.
Jerusalem welcomes us as a great lady in the middle of a sunny December 31st. Reality is better than my expectations, the city is beautiful and tidy and clean.
Visiting Jerusalem for the first time means spending most of your time in the Old City. You’ll find below some tips to take your first steps in the city. Keep in mind that a trip to Jerusalem is a crowded and demanding experience. This is a journey that necessarily has to do with religion, more precisely with the three great monotheistic religions of the world. A theme that opens the door to a lot of thoughts.
1/First step: history revision
The first thing I warmly recommend to do in Jerusalem is visiting the Citadel (Tower of David). I did it the last day before leaving and it was a mistake, so accept my advise.
The Citadel is located near the Jaffa Gate. It stands on the ancient foundations of the palace of Herod the Great and it should be visited for the following reasons:
- While climbing the Tower of David you can enjoy a magnificent top view of the city. The privileged position allows you to identify at first glance the places you will visit later within the walls.
- The Citadel houses the very interesting Jerusalem History Museum. Room after room you are taken by the hand through three millennia of history. A historical introduction is essential to fully appreciate the visit of Jerusalem, otherwise you’ll get lost in the historical events.
- Every night the Night Spectacular show takes place within the walls of the Citadel: it is a very popular entertainment for tourists, so take it into consideration. The ticket for the night show allows you to enter the Citadel and its museum during the day, so do not throw it away.
2/ The ascent to the Temple Mount
There is only one door through which tourists can go up to the Temple Mount; the time for the visit is limited, you have to queue patiently and then pass the security checks.
An unaesthetic wooden walkway climbs from the Western Wall square and brings us through the Bar Al Maghariba door. We reach a wide esplanade completely paved in marble. The first building we meet is the Al Aqsa Mosque, an important place of worship for Muslims. The mosque is particularly crowded during Friday prayers.
A little further, a walk surrounded by cypresses and a marble staircase lead to the sparkling Dome of the Rock, which is completely covered with true gold plates. The Dome of the Rock is one of the most sacred place for Muslims because it is from here that Muhammad ascended to heaven. And it is a sacred place for the Jewish too.
Here, in ancient times, the First and the Second Temple arose. And before that – according to the Talmud – there was a sacrificial altar, the one mentioned in the Bible where God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Do you understand where we are and why this is one of the most disputed places on earth?
But let’s put religion aside and just have a look around: the Temple Mount is like a flying island far from the noise of the crowded Old City. It’s a quiet place where people’s voices disperse into the air, Muslim families come for a walk, and children happily play football. To my eyes, this place seems to be a kingdom of peace and harmony. Our gaze rests on the roofs of Jerusalem and on the Gethsemane Garden hill.
3/ Kotel: the Western Wall
The most sacred place for Jewish people is the Kotel or Western Wall, that is the containment wall of the Temple Mount (where the holy Second Temple once stood).
The Wall is accessible every day of the year, at any time, by everyone. When we get there, we pass the security checks to then find us in a big square that today looks like a construction site. Big construction works are underway on the buildings facing the square and barriers are everywhere. A bulkhead separates the space reserved for prayer and the area where tourists pass.
The 70-meter-long Wall that can be seen is shared in two areas: one is reserved for men, and the other one for women. Along the Wall the faithfuls pray in a low voice and emphasize their verses with movements of their head and body. Some of them lean against the wall, others put small sheets of paper with their prayers between the stone blocks. The women pray very intensely and a sort of pathos expands in the air.
The Western Wall Galleries
I will experience this feeling once again during the visit to the Western Wall Galleries, in a small prayer room for women where I could stay a few moments. The atmosphere was so full of emotional charge that I thought I was violating a very private space with my presence.
If you want to go deep into the history of the Wall and see a big part of it that today is hidden by the buildings of the Old City, you should consider to visit the Western Wall Galleries. You will be guided in a long underground tunnel, as far as the impressive Herodian foundations. You will realize how the Wall sink in depth, and you will be fascinated by the mystery of its construction and the secrets hidden behind it. Many questions will rise in your head, but you will not be given all the answers.
4/ The Via Dolorosa
The Old City of Jerusalem offers the opportunity to take one of the most interesting urban walks in the world.
The traditional Via Dolorosa today overlaps with the streets full of shops and restaurants of the Old City: the walk starts from The Lion Door, where you take the Via Dolorosa and soon you’ll meet the first 3 Stations of the Cross. Then you cross Al-Wad Street and you’ll find the 4th and 5th Stations. Turn right into the Via Dolorosa again for Stations 6, 7 and 8. After that, you have to walk back and take the Souq Khan Al Zeit street. Climb the stone staircase on the right and reach the Station 9.
Near here, the Ethiopian Monastery is a picturesque lonely passage that leads you to the crowded Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The last 5 Stations of the Cross are located inside the Church.
Does it seem complicated? Here’s an easy way: go to the Lion’s Gate and simply follow the steps of the many religious groups walking by. As an alternative, try to find the circular metal plaques with the numbers of the Stations on your own. From Station 1 to 8 it’s easy, Station 9 is quite difficult to find but don’t give up!
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher
A mass of tourists crowds the square in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at any time. The Church is full of people even inside. After all, this is one of the most sacred places in Christianity. In the half-light of the interior space people struggle to touch the Unction Stone, enter the Calvary Chapel, step down to St. Helen Chapel (where the three crosses were find, according to the legend), and patiently do the endless line to enter the Chapel of the Holy Sepulcher.
The sense of sacredness is somewhat lost between this mass of people, so if you need a quiet meditation moment, you should consider coming here very early in the morning (the Church opens at 4am in winter, at 5am in summer).
Jerusalem: the navel of the world
Due to the number of historical and religious places of great importance in Jerusalem, you can spend 3-4 days in town and never stop exploring. My advice is: take your time.
Jerusalem is one of the most spiritual cities in the world, this is obvious, isn’t it? You will feel like in the center of the world and this will have a sort of effect. Some people feel like overwhelmed by the great story of this place, and I can someway understand this feeling.
At a certain point, the desire to breathe the air of the Mediterranean sea and to relax will knock at the door. There’s a special place in Israel for these kind of things, it’s Tel Aviv. But this is another story…
Peanuts for travellers:
- The Temple Mount is accessible 7:30-10:30 and 12:30-13:30 from Sunday to Thursday. Get in line with some advance, dress soberly and do not wear or take any religious symbol with you.
- The visit to the Western Wall Galleries is guided (english is spoken). Book the tickets at least one week in advance.
- Tickets for the Citadel-Tower of David can be booked here.
- While visiting the Old City, don’t miss the opportunity to taste the excellent hummus of Abu Shukri. This place is always crowded, just take into consideration you’ll have to wait.
- If you get lost in the Old City, you will certainly find someone willing to give you information. If possible, ask other tourists. The locals will certainly help you, but some people will probably ask you for a tip.
- The standard of living in Israel is quite high, keep this in mind in order to avoid problems with your travel budget.
- Combining the visit of Jerusalem with an extension to Jordan is a great idea! If you have only a couple of days, dedicate them to visit Petra.