Anne Moss travels with her family around the world as well as in her homeland, Israel. She writes about various destinations in her blog at TripMemos.com. You can also follow Anne on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.com/t
If you’re considering visiting Israel, Jerusalem is probably at the top of your list of places to visit. As well it should be. Here are five tips from a local that will help you make the most of your visit.
Why visit Jerusalem
Jerusalem is not just the capital city of the modern State of Israel. This city over three thousand years old and has been the setting of so much history. King David is said to have established Jerusalem and King Solomon built the Temple here. Jesus Christ lived here and you can walk in his footsteps along the Via Dolorosa and see his grave in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. That’s a lot of history to take in!
Jerusalem offers visitors many sights and attractions. View the ancient Scrolls of Kumeran in the Israel Museum; Explore the excellent Bible Lands Museum, enjoy family time in the Biblical Zoo or even take a day tour to visit the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth.
And let’s not forget the jewel in Jerusalem’s crown: The Old City. If you have just one day to spend in the Israeli capital, you should visit the Old City of Jerusalem.
Nothing beats strolling in the old alleys, smelling the Myrrh and frankincense in the market stalls and visiting the holy places: The Western Wall, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome Of The Rock.
Is Visiting Jerusalem Safe?
As an Israeli, I am used to people asking about safety issues. I do realize that Israel often makes it to the headlines with stories “from a war zone”. As anyone who has actually visited Israel will tell you, things are very different from what you see on TV.
Israel is generally a very safe destination. Crime rates are low – even in big cities – and there have been very few terror attacks in the last couple of decades. Compared to Paris, London, Madrid or New York, you’re going to be far safer traveling in Jerusalem.
You will see armed soldiers and police while visiting the Old City of Jerusalem. Just like you would in most central tourist destinations in Europe. Don’t let that deter you or affect your visit.
Tips for visiting Jerusalem
1. What should you wear?
Many people wonder about the dress code in Israel in general, and specifically in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Actually, Israel is a fairly liberal country with most people sticking to a very casual and comfortable dress code. When you visit Tel Aviv, you’ll often see locals – men and women alike – dressed in shorts and flipflops.
Due to its religious significance, Jerusalem tends to attract more believers of all religions who stay as residents. That means locals are more conservative on average, and residents of some Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods dress more modestly.
Having said that, as a tourist you’re not expected to follow these codes. No one will say anything if you walk in the streets of Jerusalem – including the alleys Old City – wearing those Tel Avivian shorts and flip-flops.
With two exceptions:
- Inside mosques and synagogues – and to a lesser extent churches.
- In the ultra-orthodox Me’ah She’arim neighborhood.
When visiting the above, both men and women are expected to show less skin. Generally speaking, clothes that cover your elbows and knees would be fine just about anywhere. Women don’t have to wear skirts or dresses. Pants are just fine for both sexes. The key here is pants that go under your knees and sleeves that cover your elbows.
On a hot day, capri pants and a tee-shirt will keep you cool as you walk around. Throw a shawl over your shoulders when you enter a holy site and you’ll be fine.
2. Make sure to stay hydrated
Thanks to the higher altitude, Jerusalem enjoys a relatively cool climate – compared to Tel Aviv, Israel’s other big city. Still, it can get very hot during summertime. Temperatures go up into the 90’s (or high 30’s if you’re using Celsius).
You’ll be spending your time walking outside a lot so don’t forget to keep hydrated. Tap water is fine to drink, so you can fill up your personal bottle in the morning and then buy bottled water and soft drinks from street vendors later in the day.
Sitting down for lunch? If you ask for water and get bottled water, feel free to clarify that you meant tap water. Restaurants are mandated by law to serve fresh tap water on demand and at no cost.
3. Try the local food
Speaking of restaurants, make sure you try the local cuisine. Jerusalem has its own culinary tradition which is mostly Middle Eastern. Buying street food is safe so try the local hummus and falafel and don’t forget to sample the colorful side dishes and salads.
Ask about the price before you buy. I have seen merchants in the Old City trying to rip tourists off by charging 30 shekels for a serving of falafel. It really shouldn’t cost more than 15-20 shekels at the most and there are many options around – all of them fresh and delicious.
Another cheap quick option is to get yourself a fresh bagel, covered in sesame seeds. You’ll find bagel sellers all around the Old City and they often offer other local pastries too.
4. Avoid driving and use public transportation instead
Now that we have you hydrated, dressed and full of bagels, let’s talk about transportation.
Like every big city, Jerusalem can be a traffic nightmare during rush hour. While it’s not impossible to drive in the city (we do that whenever we visit), if you’re staying in a hotel and need to get from one place to another, public transportation will be your best bet.
Jerusalem has a good light rail line that crossed the city and covers many central locations including Damascus Gate, Mahane Yehuda Market and the Central Bus Station. There are also many bus services and Google Maps knows them all – all you have to do is look for a route and choose the public transportation setting.
Keep in mind that public transportation is unavailable between Friday afternoon and Saturday night because of Shabbat – the Jewish day of rest. If you need to get from one place to another during that time, a taxi is your best bet.
And speaking of Shabbat, here’s my last tip.
5. Time your visit to avoid holidays
Jerusalem is a holy city to the three main monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Which means there are implications to visiting on a major holiday of either one of these religions. That’s quite a few holidays!
I’m not suggesting that you totally avoid visiting Jerusalem during a Jewish, Christian or Muslim holiday. Just be aware of how the holiday may affect your own itinerary.
For example, if visiting the Dome Of The Rock is important for you, don’t come on a Friday (the Muslim day of rest) or during a Muslim holiday. The area will probably be closed for tourists and open only to worshippers.
Trying to visit the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre on Christmas Day is not necessarily a bad idea. The church will be open at least in part and during certain hours. It will be very crowded though and you do need to plan ahead and check their website for opening hours and services.
As for Jewish holidays, these are nationwide holidays here. Which means people are out and about sightseeing. And that sometimes includes visiting Jerusalem. Some places will just be busier during certain Jewish holidays.
Last – but not least – keep track of the weekend days of rest. Each major religion has its own. The Muslims take Friday off, the Jews rest on Saturday (Shabbat) and the Christians stick to Sunday. Of the three days, Saturday is the most problematic for you as a traveler because, as I mentioned before, it means there’s no public transportation between Friday afternoon and Saturday evening. As long as you’re aware of that and plan ahead, it shouldn’t make things too difficult.
That’s it! If you need more information about visiting the Old City, check out my post about visiting the Old City of Jerusalem. And remember to relax and have fun too. Safe travels!