For centuries, Jerusalem, Israel, has been a place where different ideas, people and religions run into one another, and that's a big part of what makes it such a fascinating place to visit. As the focal point of three of the world's major religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—Jerusalem's temples and shrines continuously welcome pilgrims bound for those places that make the city so special.
The collision of cultures is also part of the reason that Jerusalem has been the scene of upheaval and conquest throughout its long history. Conquerors have left their marks on Jerusalem, from the Greeks and Romans to the Ottomans and the British. The Old City, its massive fortifications enclosing the Temple Mount, Western Wall and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, has its foundations some 3,000 years ago in the days of King Solomon, who enlarged the walled area, while majestic remnants of King Herod's massive construction works 1,000 years later are clearly visible.
The Old City is the main attraction for most visitors. Its twisting, cobblestoned streets can be overwhelming to newcomers, but if its individual areas are considered separately, it's more manageable. It contains most of the historic and religious sites and is defined by the ancient walls that enclose the 4-sq-mi/10-sq-km area. The Old City is further divided into Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters.
East Jerusalem is predominantly Arab and mostly lies north of the Old City, adjoining the Muslim Quarter.
The New City, better known as West Jerusalem, is a large area that encompasses much of Jerusalem outside the Old City and East Jerusalem. It's home to the main commercial and residential districts, as well as many of the high-end hotels. Because it covers such a wide swath of Jerusalem, it helps to break the New City down into smaller neighborhoods where popular attractions are found.
The part of the New City known as downtown is centered on Zion Square. Mamilla Mall is near Jaffa Gate, with stylish shops and cafes. About a mile/kilometer south of downtown is the German Colony, an area crowded with trendy restaurants and cafes, especially along Emek Refaim Road. Farther south is Talpiot, a hot spot for dance clubs. The Russian Compound is just to the west of the Old City and is home to many restaurants and nightspots popular with a younger crowd. West of downtown are the Knesset (Israeli parliament) and other government buildings, as well as Museum Row, with the Israel Museum and Shrine of the Book as its centerpiece. Farther west, Har Hazikaron (Mount Herzl) has important sights and memorials, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
Two other areas of note lie outside the New City area. The Mount of Olives, just east of the Old City, is the location of key landmarks related to biblical events in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles. At the opposite end of the Jerusalem metropolitan area, on the city's western edge, is lovely Ein Kerem, which has religious sites, restaurants and other attractions.
Jerusalem has a history as the scene of repeated conflict and redemption. The city was a Canaanite settlement during the second millennium BC until its capture by King David in 997 BC, when it began to grow into the cultural and spiritual center of the Hebrews. David's son King Solomon constructed the Holy Temple on Temple Mount (the "First Temple") and erected city walls. Jerusalem was subsequently captured, and the Temple destroyed, by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC. Two generations later, the Jews rebuilt the Temple (the "Second Temple").
The city was conquered by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and so became part of the Hellenic (Greek) world, which led to the successful Maccabean Revolt in 167 BC and the setting up of the independent Jewish kingdom of the Hasmoneans. This survived until the conquest of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in 63 BC. Acting as Rome's proxy, King Herod grandly reconstructed the Holy Temple, but under Roman rule, Judaism was partly suppressed, leading to periodic revolts. This culminated in the Great Revolt of AD 66, which was resoundingly crushed. The Temple was burned to the ground and all Jews expelled in AD 70, ending all semblance of a Jewish state for nearly 2,000 years.
The Emperor Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem in AD 135 as a Roman, pagan city—the layout of today's Old City is largely his work—and renamed it Aelia Capitolina. He banned the practice of Judaism, and Jews were forbidden to visit the city.
In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine was the first Roman ruler to convert to Christianity, leading to a flourish of church-building and spiritual activity. Indeed, many of the construction projects in Jerusalem were overseen by Helena, Constantine's devoutly Christian mother; the most notable of these is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Muslims captured the city in AD 638, revering it as a place visited in a dream by the prophet Muhammad. They were ousted in 1099 during the Crusades, when both Muslims and Jews were violently repressed under Christian rule. Jerusalem returned to Muslim hands in 1187. The Ottomans were the next empire to seize control, beginning their tenure in the early 1500s. They rebuilt the protective walls around the Old City that remain to this day.
Because it was far from the Ottoman capital in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Jerusalem fell into political and physical disorder until the 1800s, when Christian pilgrims regained interest in the city. Increasing waves of Jewish immigrants, persecuted elsewhere, also began pouring back to their spiritual center. By this time, Jerusalem was known as a part of Palestine and had a large population of Arab Muslims. The British took over after World War I, but the influx of European Jews was unstoppable, especially in the 1930s, and the British were eventually driven out by an increasingly effective Jewish resistance movement; the British mandate ended in 1948. Following a United Nations vote, it was agreed that the Jews should be allowed to set up a state in part of their ancient homeland. The proposed area did not include Jerusalem, but opposition and invasion by the surrounding Arab nations ignited Israel's 1948 war for independence, at the end of which a line was drawn through the city: Jews controlled the western districts, and Arabs held the Old City and East Jerusalem.
The Arab neighbors continued their opposition and, as an outcome of the Six Day War in 1967, Israel captured the rest of Jerusalem and annexed the Old City. The city was reunited and declared Israel's capital, but it did not receive international recognition.
Since the early 1990s, there has been a host of attempts to create a lasting peace agreement between the two sides. In 1995, Israel granted increased Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank. Since then, a central issue has been the highly charged question of who will control the Old City and East Jerusalem.
Jerusalem suffered through a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s and during the Second Intifada between 2001 and 2005. These gradually came to an end with the construction of the "security barrier"—a high fence (in places, a concrete wall, which can be viewed just east of the city) protecting Israel from the West Bank.
With the radical group Hamas taking control of Palestine in 2007, and right-wing Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu becoming prime minister in 2009, the situation continually worsened, with unprompted Israeli attacks on Gaza fueling relation from Palestinians.
In May 2018, the U.S. relocated its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, creating violence and protests; and in July, Israel's parliament passed a controversial law characterizing the country as principally a Jewish state, fueling anger among its Arab minority.
Jerusalem is a nearly unsurpassed sightseeing experience. Everywhere you look, there's an archaeological, historical or religious (and sometimes all three in one) treasure. You won't be able to see everything this city has to offer in one visit.
The greatest concentration of sites is in the Old City. Consider hiring a guide or, at the least, get a very detailed map: The labyrinth of cobblestoned streets is difficult to navigate, and the rows of houses along the streets often hide nearby landmarks from view. Be sure to see the souk (pronounced shook in Hebrew), the city's old market. The sights and smells will take you back centuries. From the market, it's an easy walk to most of the Old City's attractions.
Not to be missed is the Citadel, or Tower of David, which is alongside the Jaffa Gate—the main gateway into the Old City. It houses the Museum of the History of Jerusalem, and an impressive sound-and-light show is performed there almost every night. From its roof, the panoramic view of the Old City is outstanding. For another fascinating perspective, take a walk along the ramparts of the city walls when they're open—there's a convenient place to ascend at Jaffa Gate.
At the heart of the Christian Quarter rises the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which many Christians believe marks the place where the tomb of Jesus lies; visitors may descend into the crypt. Once rather dark and grim, the church is now suffused with light from a skylight capping its restored dome.
Farther east, in the beautifully restored Jewish Quarter, is one of the most moving sites in the Old City: the Western Wall. It has stood for some 2,000 years as a lone remnant of the Holy Temple, which once stood on the Temple Mount. Its stones have been rubbed smooth by the hands of the faithful who have prayed there and who have stuffed its crevices with paper messages intended for Heaven. Above the Western Wall is the Temple Mount, the Old City's focal point and the location of two important Muslim holy sites: the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa Mosque.
The main entrance to the Holy Temple was originally on the south side of Temple Mount, which is now the fascinating Jerusalem Archaeological Park. A highlight of the restorations there is the Hulda stairway up to the Temple, climbed by generations of Jewish worshippers—Jesus among them.
Though you may be tempted to devote all of your time to the Old City, try to make time for the highlights of West Jerusalem, most notably its leading museums and outdoor market, Mahane Yehuda.
Jerusalem's nightlife is livelier than ever. Much of the city shuts down for the Sabbath starting on Friday evening, but for the secular, a growing number of trendy restaurants and hip bars stay open. And don't overlook Thursday night: Most Israelis have Friday off or work only in the morning, so many venture out the night before.
No matter what night you're hitting the town, the key is to know where to go. The pedestrian lanes of Nahalat Shiv'ah, between Jaffa Street and the lower end of Hillel Street (where it borders Independence Park), are full of popular evening gathering places—bars, cafes and pubs. The Russian Compound has quite a few bars catering to students and younger clientele; a similar crowd patronizes the discos of the Talpiot industrial area. Slightly more upscale bars, as well as good restaurants, populate Shlomzion Hamalka and Shimon ben Shetah Streets, just to the southeast of Zion Square. Talpiot's industrial area features popular dance clubs.
The Friday editions of The Jerusalem Post and the English-language Ha'aretz are good sources for current happenings.
You must be at least 18 years old to drink alcohol. Bars that stay open late often don't close until dawn. If you want to go dancing in a club, don't go before 11 pm.
Day and night, many restaurants and cafes in Jerusalem are brimming with Israelis. Some restaurants are so excellent that Israelis from Tel Aviv travel to Jerusalem to eat. Many restaurants offer a business lunch, which includes an appetizer, main dish and drink, for a much lower price than what you'd pay off the regular menu. In some restaurants, the lunch hours run into early evening.
Trendy Emek Refa'im Road in the German Colony and Mamilla Mall are home to the most stylish cafes in the city, as well as numerous restaurants catering to a yuppie crowd. On Shimon Ben Shetah Street, pricier restaurants compete with one another not only in cuisine, but also for the best-dressed clientele. The Ben Yehuda pedestrian promenade and nearby Nahalat Shiva Yoel Solomon Street are packed with inexpensive to moderate cafes and restaurants serving local, Italian and American fare.
The Old City does not offer the exotic variety or quality of restaurants found in West Jerusalem, but this section of town does offer some cheap, excellent local cuisine. The best options there are lighter meals such as shwarma (roasted meat cut from a rotating spit) and hummus. No matter where you go, you're likely to encounter falafel, the national snack—a ground chickpea delicacy usually eaten in a fresh pita with hummus and salad.
Kosher restaurants follow Judaism's dietary laws. A kosher establishment that serves meat will not serve dairy products, and vice versa (though some dairy eateries will serve fish). Hence, the many dairy restaurants make Jerusalem a paradise for vegetarians. All kosher restaurants (and most others, too) close for the Jewish Sabbath from Friday sundown until Saturday evening.
Meal times are generally 8 am-noon for breakfast, noon-3 pm for lunch and 6-11 pm for dinner, though many establishments remain open between their prime lunch and dinner hours. Kosher restaurants open an hour after sundown on Saturday. (During the long days of summer, many kosher restaurants will not re-open on Saturday night.)
Security guards are part of the dining scene and, by law, every restaurant has one at the door. A security tax—usually 1 NIS-2 NIS per person—may be added to the bill.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks or tip: $ = less than 70 NIS; $$ = 70 NIS-100 NIS; $$$ = 101 NIS-200 NIS; and $$$$ = more than 200 NIS.
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