If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
If I do not remember you,
If I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
~ Psalm 137:5-6
For those who have made Jerusalem their home and those who find their way to it, across the seven seas, this verse sums up perfectly what the city in the Judaean Hills means to them.
One of the oldest cities in the world, Jerusalem is a holy city for all three monotheistic Abrahamic religions. Over the millennia, these three religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have all laid claim to the city as theirs. So have civilizations, empires, and kingdoms. It has been razed to the ground at least twice, laid siege to 23 times, captured 44 times, and attacked 52 times. Yet, through it all, it has survived. And always, been madly loved.
The current walls which surround the Old City date back to 1538 AD and were built by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Magnificent. Inside its walls, the city is divided into four quarters: the Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Quarters, and that’s the way it has traditionally been. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jerusalem is also on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Both Israel and Palestine consider it to be their capital.
Complicated? There’s more. Three Jerusalems comprise Modern-day Jerusalem. The Old City. West Jerusalem [the new city]. And East Jerusalem [the annexed city]. Pilgrim or traveller, the fact is, Jerusalem with its eclectic mix of heritage and sights, needs to be visited at least once in one’s lifetime.
There are countless unique experiences only to be had in Jerusalem because of its volatile history and spiritual role in the scheme of things. This is by no means an exhaustive, exclusive list. But these are my top 15 memorable things to do list! 🙂
1. Visit the Museum of the History of Jerusalem for a crash course on Jerusalem and the Holy Land
Let’s face it, Jerusalem can be overwhelming with its four thousand years of history, amalgamation of three monotheistic religions, and multiple cultures. For a crash course on the city to ensure your explorations make sense, head straight to the Museum of the History of Jerusalem as early in your travels as possible. None of the artifacts are original. But it really does not matter, for it wins hands down in interpretive design and setting. The museum is housed in the stunning Tower of David, which has nothing to do with David and is a mosque-cum-crusader castle instead.
To help ‘reinforce’ the learnings, there are two magical sound-and-light shows every evening: Night Spectacular and the newer, more techno-savvy King David Show. The latter’s special effects and breath-taking colossal images will leave you all starry-eyed.
2. Make a wish at the Western Wall, above ground and under ground
Take a piece of paper, write your wish, and insert it into one of the crevices in the 2,000-year-old Western or Wailing Wall, also known as the Kotel. Your religious beliefs or lack of them are immaterial here. Over a million wishes, ranging in length and content, are placed each year by people from all over the world at the open synagogue open 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
Slightly less than half a kilometre wide, the towering limestone wall is all that remains of the esplanade built by King Herod in 19 BC on Temple Mount where the Second Temple, site of the Foundation Stone, once stood. This is the closest that Jews are allowed to the most sacred place in their faith. 19 metres high above the ground, there is more of the wall—underground. 17 rows of masonry, along with stone arches, water reservoirs, and an aqueduct can be accessed through a subterranean Kotel Tunnels Tour. Feel free to make a wish here too.
You may like to read: Global travel shot: Uninterrupted prayers at the Wailing Wall.
3. Be spellbound by one of the world’s most iconic landmarks, Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter
Jews call it Temple Mount. Where the Holy of Holies of the First and Second Temples stood and Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. For Muslims, since 691 AD, it is al-Haram al-Sharif [the Noble Sanctuary], where their prophet Muhammad made his night journey to heaven from, and location of al-Aqsa, the farthest mosque.
One of the most photographed landmarks in the world synonymous with Jerusalem, it is also the epicentre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with both religions competing for its ownership. A grudging pact of some sort has been agreed upon. Only Muslims are allowed to enter the site. Jewish access is restricted to the supporting wall of the Herodian esplanade.
Dome of the Rock is the centre-piece. Sheathed in exquisite 16th Century Ottoman tiles and a gold dome, the shrine is an octagonal Byzantine architectural and artistic masterpiece, flawlessly symmetrical. The first large-scale Muslim structure to be ever built, it is accompanied with the Dome of the Chain, Dome of the Ascension, and Prophet’s Mihrab on the esplanade. Bab al-Qattanin [Cotton Merchant’s Gate] leads out into the residential and commercial part of the Muslim Quarter decorated with 14th Century Mamluk palaces and markets. Perfect to wander around in.
4. Walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ down Via Dolorosa
Jesus Christ’s last day in Jerusalem was marked by his condemnation to death and walk down Via Dolorosa to the site of his crucifixion, carrying his cross. The [supposed] path was formalized during the Crusader-era and is punctuated with 14 Stations of the Cross where specific events as recounted by the Bible or Christian tradition took place. Churches and landmarks line the route which sees hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year.
It may be tempting to just walk straight to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where his tomb lies, but don’t! Take your time and explore the stops, especially St. Anne’s Church and Pools of Bethesda, Praetorium where Jesus was condemned, the Flagellation and Condemnation Churches, the Byzantine mosaic floor with a pair of sandals to represent where his mother stood, the small Greek Catholic Church where Veronica wiped his face and the Russian Alexander Nevsky Church which contains part of the Judgement Gate.
5. Say a prayer at Jesus Christ’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
This is what the crowds come to Jerusalem for. But if you wake up real early and be here for morning mass, you will have Jerusalem’s oldest, grandest, most beautiful, and important church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, fairly empty. The last four Stations of the Cross are inside its walls: Where Jesus was nailed to the cross, the crucifixion of Jesus, where Jesus was taken down the cross, and the Tomb of Jesus. Established in 335 AD by Queen Helena, the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother, the current Crusader-era 12th Century church is divided among six Christian sects, right down to lines drawn on the floors and pillars. Because of constant disagreement between the six, the church keys were handed to an Arab Muslim family in 1187 AD for safekeeping who till this day is responsible for opening the church doors every morning.
6. Explore the many secrets of the Jewish Quarter
Newest of the Old City’s four quarters in terms of construction, but the oldest in existence, the Jewish Quarter was razed to the ground during the War of Independence of 1948. When Israel resettled the area in 1967, incredible finds were discovered from the First and Second Temple Periods leading to four archaeological sites now in its midst, including the 2,700-year-old Broad Wall which finds mention in the Hebrew Bible.
Add to it, historical synagogues of the different Jewish sects, Batei Machseh Square, Old World charitable institutions, and yeshivas or Jewish seminaries, the Jewish Quarter has an atmosphere all of its own. An interesting twist is the Cardo, remains of the 6th Century 22-metre-wide, four-lane highway lined with store fronts and elegant Corinthian columns. Keep your eyes and imagination open as you navigate your way through the quarter’s new streets and ancient stories.
7. Climb up to the top of Hurva Synagogue for a 360-degree view of Jerusalem and a bird’s-eye view of its main hall
Jerusalem’s most impressive synagogue is a symbol of the Jewish revival in Jerusalem and served as a national institution in the past. Built, destroyed, and rebuilt a few times over the years, the current structure in the Jewish Quarter dates back to 2010 and is modelled on the 1864 Byzantine Revival version destroyed in the War of Independence of 1948. Which brings me to its name. Hurva means ‘The Ruin.’ Though not one anymore it continues to be remembered as the ruins of the original synagogue destroyed in the 1720s. Make your way up for some stunning 360 degree views of the city and a bird’s-eye view of the main hall with its 12-metre-high, gold-plated, Baroque-styled Holy Ark all the way from Ukraine, which managed to survive the war.
8. Discover the insular world of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Mea Shearim
It is a different world, frozen in time  and space [Eastern Europe]. One of the oldest Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, its Ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents spend their entire lives in Jewish prayer, law and study. Men with full beards and long curling side-locks wear black suits and hats. Women are covered from top to toe with wigs or scarves on their heads and legs encased in black stockings. On an average, each family has seven children.
Modesty posters hang at every entrance as reminders to dress modestly. Shops sell only Judaean paraphernalia, including prayers disguised as pop songs. On Shabbat, there is a ban on smoking, driving, and cell phones. Even cooking, switching a light on or off, and tearing toilet paper is prohibited on God’s day of rest. It’s recommended you explore the area with a walking tour, so you have access to the stores, hair salons and dark, spooky back lanes.
9. Attend St. James Monastery’s thousand-year-old Armenian morning mass
Smallest of the Old City quarters, the Armenian Quarter traces itself back to the Crusader-era. At the heart of it is St. James Monastery, a residential compound closed to the public. One can only go as far as its cathedral and that too only during mass. Armenians believe two saints named James are buried here. One, the brother of Jesus, and second, James the Apostle. Lit solely by lamps [there are no electric lights inside the church], morning mass is a full-blown spectacle with spine-tingling acoustics and clerics in swirling robes, surrounded by exotic icons and gorgeous tile-work. Since the church is not part of the tourist trail, all you’ll have for company are devout local Armenians and sombre clergy in pointy hats, reminiscent of Mt. Ararat in Armenia.
10. Encounter ancient familiar traditions on Mount Zion
Clustered together, a few metres from 16th Century Zion Gate are a group of holy sites on a hill called Mount Zion. Ever wondered where the Last Supper, immortalized by art and literature, took place? Or where legendary King David is buried? Or where the Virgin Mary died? All three are on Mount Zion, at walking distance from each other.
Jesus and his disciples had their ‘Last Supper’ here in an ‘Upper Room’ before he was arrested and condemned to death. In the floor below is King David’s supposed tomb. According to the New Testament, Jesus was descended from the House of David. Due to King David’s importance in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the site has been the focus of constant conflict—it is now under Jewish control and functions as a synagogue. A short walk away is the 34-metre-high, lovely Dormition Abbey built by German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1910 where the Virgin Mary fell into eternal sleep.
11. Take the pilgrim route through biblical Mount of Olives
No trip to Jerusalem is complete without a visit to Mount of Olives, sacred to both Christians and Jews alike, right behind the Old City. Once filled with olive groves, and hence the name, it is where Jesus spent his last night before his crucifixion, as well as ascended to heaven from. Christian communities from around the globe have built a string of lovely churches down a near perpendicular street on the hill.
Start your way at the top, at Chapel of the Ascension, and make your way downhill past Pater Noster Church, the Jewish Cemetery, Tomb of the Prophets, Dominus Flevit Church, Church of Maria Magdalena, Tomb of the Virgin Mary, Garden of Gethsemane, Church of All Nations and end at the Tombs from the Old Testament. Best time to visit Mount of Olives? Early morning for the churches, and late afternoon for a glorious, memorable sunset over Temple Mount.
You may also like to read: A self-guided walk through biblical Mount of Olives.
12. At Yad Vashem mourn the brutal, calculated murder of six million Jews
One cannot talk about Jewish history and Israel, and not mention the Holocaust. Some six million Jews, two-thirds of German-occupied Europe’s Jewish population, were systematically murdered in cold blood between 1941 and 1945 by mass shootings, concentration camps, and gas chambers. Yad Vashem, meaning ‘a monument and a name’ is Israel’s official dedication to the memory of those who died, as well as those who saved the ones that survived. A massive, tear-jerking, heart-wrenching complex of galleries, it aims to remember and learn from the Holocaust. Don’t miss the pitch-dark candle-lit Children’s Memorial, poignant Hall of Names with its hundreds of faces looking down at you, and the Eternal Flame in Hall of Remembrance.
You may also like to read: Global travel shot: Remembering Auschwitz.
13. Pay your respects to the power of goodness at Oskar Schindler’s grave
Have you watched the Hollywood historical drama Schindler’s List? Even if not, I bet you have heard of the movie. Cited as one of the greatest films ever made, the 1993 Steven Spielberg film won seven Oscars and raked in US$322 million globally. The film is based on the real-life story of Oskar Schindler [1908 – 1974], a German Catholic industrialist and member of the Nazi Party. Together with his wife, they saved 1,200 Polish Jews by hiring them in his factories during the Holocaust. His grave lies in Jerusalem, on Mount Zion—the only Nazi to be honoured this way. Do take a stone and put it on his grave. It is the traditional Jewish way of paying respect at a burial place.
14. Marvel at Israel Museum’s stunning art and archaeology collection
Even if you are not a museum buff, the Israel Museum is guaranteed to bowl you over. Established in 1965 to house Israel’s art and archaeology, it has nearly 500,000 objects from prehistory to modern times in its collection, displayed over 50,000 sq. metres to their optimal best. Highlights include the Shrine of the Book, Synagogue Route, Hanukkah Collection, a model of the city as it looked like in the 1st Century AD, and the only record from Pontius Pilate’s time that bears his name. By the way, Pilate is the Roman Procurator who sentenced Jesus to death.
Tuesday evenings [when it is open from 4 pm to 9 pm] is the best time to visit. The crowds are thin and you will be able to marvel at its wonderful treasures at leisure.
To know more about its highlights read: Israel Museum, Jerusalem – Tuesday evening at the museum.
15. Experience Shabbat the Jerusalem way
When God created the world, he worked for six days and on the seventh day, he took a rest. One of the Jewish covenants, Shabbat, the day of rest lasts from just before sunset on Friday until dusk on Saturday night. Breaking it is akin to sin. While in the rest of the country it is a lockdown, not unlike the COVID-19 one we are witnessing, in Jerusalem it takes on an entirely new meaning.
Dressed in their Shabbat best, whole families make their way to the Western Wall to celebrate, sing and dance in God’s name, play games amidst much laughter and banter in public squares, and feast on festive meals steeped in tradition. Don’t be surprised if you hear cheerful Shabbat Shalom greetings and hymns sung at the top of happy voices at 2 am on Jerusalem’s lit-up streets.
So, are you ready to make the journey to Jerusalem? Happy travels, someday soon. ❤
- Jerusalem Audio Walking Tours [developed by the Jerusalem Development Authority] has 21 fantastic self-guided walks of the Old City. The App is available on both Apple and Android.
- Most of the Old City is pedestrian only. To get around, you will need to walk on stepped, cobbled lanes crisscrossed over hilly terrain.
- Staying there: I stayed for 8 days and 7 nights in a private room at the Abraham Hostel Jerusalem.
[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my solo and independent travel to Israel for 15 days in November 2019. To read more posts in my Israel series, click here.]
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If you enjoyed this post, you may also like to read these two from my ‘Top 15 memorable things to do’ collection:
Top 15 memorable things to do in Fes, Morocco’s cultural and spiritual capital
Top 15 memorable things to do in Bukhara, Silk Road’s legendary trading post