Are you visiting Jerusalem for the first time? Make most of your time there with these 20 best things to do in Jerusalem.
It was love at first sight.
The year was 1987, and I was on a bus from Jericho when we stopped on the Mount of Olives. Laid out before us was the Old City of Jerusalem.
Its limestone walls glowed in the late afternoon sunlight, the call to prayer from multiple mosques, each one slightly out-of-sync with the next, echoing across the Kidron Valley.
Jerusalem was the destination for my first trip as a solo traveller and one to which I have returned to many times since. To help you make the best of your first time in this unique city, I am sharing my list of the top things to do in Jerusalem.
There’s no second-hand knowledge here. With one exception, I have visited all of these Jerusalem sights.
The focal point is the Old City, 0.35 square miles of hallowed ground to Jews, Muslims and Christians. However, there are also must-see sights outside the Old City’s walls.
What these sights have in common is that they are significant in some way, be it historical, cultural or just photogenic. At the end of this article, you will find some tips on how to prioritise your time in Jerusalem, how to get around, solo travel tips, where to stay and suggestions for day excursions from Jerusalem.
Read, digest but most of all be inspired to book that trip.
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Planning your trip to Israel
Getting your hands on a good guidebook to help you to plan your trip to Israel and to explore the country whilst you are there, is a smart move. I recommend the Lonely Planet Israel & the Palestinian Territories, which was a constant companion during my visit.
The best things to do in Jerusalem: The Old City
Walk Jerusalem’s Old City walls
Get your bearings in the Old City by doing the Ramparts Walk, a satisfying 1 km stroll on top of the Old City’s 16th Century Ottoman walls.
Number one in my list of the best things to do in Jerusalem is to get the lay of the land by walking along the Old City’s walls. This is two walks for the price of one admission ticket.
The north walk takes you from Jaffa Gate to Lion’s Gate via New Gate, Damascus Gate and Herod’s Gate.
The south walk is from Jaffa Gate to Dung Gate via Zion Gate.
You are not able to do a complete circuit as the section alongside Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif is closed for security reasons.
Peer over the Old City’s rooftops into no-go areas like the cloistered Armenian compound, and get a bird’s eye view of the Mount of Olives and Mount Zion.
Explore the Christian Quarter of the Old City
To explore important Christian sites
Entering the Old City by Jaffa Gate, this is the first area of the Old City that you will come across.
Its beating heart is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and key sights are linked by the Via Dolorosa.
Walk the Via Dolorosa
Connect to Jerusalem’s past by walking the Via Dolorosa (The Way of Sorrows), the route which many Christians believe Jesus took carrying the cross to his crucifixion.
Walking this pilgrimage path, so important to Christians for centuries, can be a contemplative experience as well as being a great way to get acquainted with the Old City.
The route comprises 14 Stations of the Cross, eight of which have their roots in the Gospels; the remainder is rooted in tradition.
A small plaque with the number of the station in Roman numerals marks each station. Pay attention though; these plaques are easy to miss!
The Via Dolorosa starts in the courtyard of the Umariya Elementary School near Lions’ Gate in the Muslim Quarter. It winds its way through the Old City’s narrow streets, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter.
Soak up the religious fervour at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Walk past parades of shuffling pilgrims and through clouds of incense at one of Christianity’s most revered sites
On the face of it, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre looks unremarkable.
Its sombre appearance, and the gloomy passageways and stairways connecting its chapels and altars, reflect its claim to fame as the site of biblical Calvary, the site of Jesus’s crucifixion.
On a quick visit, this is a difficult place to love. But its rewards come with taking a little longer to wander slowly around its frankincense-laden vestibules and chambers.
The shafts of light illuminating the Rotunda containing the Holy Sepulchre. Pilgrims visibly weeping in devotion as they kneel to kiss the Stone of Unction on which Jesus’s body was said to be laid and anointed after his crucifixion.
The devotion of Christian visitors – for many this will be a long-awaited experience – lifts this site above its architectural gloominess.
Visit the Muristan
For an atmospheric lunch spot
This is one of my favourite areas of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Occupying the block south of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Muristan was the headquarters of the Crusader Knights of St John, the Hospitallers.
Although little survived redevelopment at the end of the 19th Century, this complex of streets and shops is a relaxed and picturesque place to grab a coffee or a bite to eat. Try to bag a seat in the upstairs terrace of one of the restaurants overlooking the main square.
Explore the Old City’s Muslim Quarter
As well as being home to one of the most sacred sites in the world, the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is one of the best places to pick up gifts for those back home.
Whilst this may not be the most relaxing shopping experience, it certainly isn’t dull.
Whether it’s decorative china, olive wood carvings or herbs and spices you are after, this is the place to come.
Visit Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif)
Tread on hallowed ground for the three monotheistic religions.
Another of my favourite things to do in Jerusalem is to visit the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif), a 36-acre open plaza of ancient paving stones and cypress trees looming above the Western Wall.
The area contains about 100 different structures including monumental Ummayad mosques and minarets, Herodian walls and gates, and arches and fountains from different time periods.
All three Abrahamic faiths – Jews, Christians and Muslims – regard it as the location of Mount Moriah, where Abraham prepared to offer his son Isaac (or Ishmael in the Muslim tradition) to God.
It was here that Solomon built the first Jewish temple. For Christians, Herod’s Temple was the site of several events in the life of Jesus.
To Sunni Muslims, Temple Mount is Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and is Islam’s third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina. Muslims believe to the gold-roofed Dome of the Rock — one of Jerusalem’s most recognisable landmarks — covers the rock from which Muhammad visited heaven during his Night Journey in the 7th century.
Explore the Jewish Quarter of the Old City
For a serene Old City experience
Visiting the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is a Marmite experience.
Frustrated with the relative chaos of the Christian and Muslim Quarters, some welcome the more pristine and calm Jewish Quarter. Others, including myself, find it a wee bit sanitised.
The Jewish Quarter owes its scrubbed appearance to a rebuilding programme following its part-destruction in the 1948 war.
As well as being home to the Western Wall, it also boasts the Cardo, built by the Romans after they sacked Jerusalem. Today the Cardo offers a more high-end shopping experience than that of the Christian Quarter.
Post a prayer at the Western Wall
Get a direct line to Heaven at the beating heart of Jerusalem.
If you asked me what are the unmissable things to do in Jerusalem, visiting the Western Wall would be at the top of that list.
Close on 500m long and 60m high, the Western Wall originally formed part of a supporting wall for the Temple Mount, built as part of the expansion of the Second Temple by Herod the Great in 19AD.
It is important to Jewish people because of its connection to the Temple Mount and its proximity to the room where the Ten Commandments were kept, the Holy of Holies. The Wall is the closest place to the Holy of Holies where Jews are able to pray.
Also, Jewish tradition maintains that the third, and final, temple will be built on Temple Mount
It is an extraordinary place to visit.
There are Jewish men wearing fringed prayer shawls bowing repeatedly to the wall, prayer books in hand.
Women from all around the world gather, many bent over in deep prayer, their foreheads resting on the wall. Other women place their hands on the wall, their eyes closed in prayer.
Groups of soldiers are sworn into the IDF. Joyous Bar Mitzvah celebrations abound.
Stuffing a prayer in the wall is not restricted to Jewish visitors.
Make sure that you write your wish or prayer on a scrap of paper and tuck it into the cracks in the wall as visitors have done for years. Each of these scraps of paper represents someone’s prayers of adoration, gratitude or desperation. You never know; your wish may be fulfilled.
Go underground into Jerusalem’s past: Western Wall Tunnel tour
For a different perspective on the Western Wall, take a tour of its tunnels.
The Western Wall tunnel tour starts at the Western Wall prayer area and ends up in Via Dolorosa (near Station 1), passing along the side of Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif and under present-day houses.
The tour takes around 80 minutes
Eat the best felafel of your life
To try one of Israel’s mouthwatering street foods
Don’t leave Jerusalem without filling up on felafel.
This deceptively simple street snack is Israel’s answer to the American burger. Made of ground chickpeas deep-fried with a blend of herbs and spices, the felafel is commonly served with a plate of hummus or stuffed into a pitta with salad and a side of chips
You can’t walk far in Jerusalem’s Old City before tripping over a felafel stall.
The best things to do in Jerusalem: The Old City’s Surrounds
Climb the Mount of Olives
Climb the Mount of Olives for panoramic views and a slice of biblical history.
The promenade of the Seven Arches Hotel at the top of the Mount of Olives offers an unrivalled vista of the Old City.
Winding your way down to Derekh Yerikho, you are practically tripping over churches and biblical sites.
The Church of All Nations with its glistening golden mosaics, nestled amongst the ancient olive trees at Gethsemane.
The Russian Orthodox church of St Mary Magdalene, picture-perfect with its seven gilded onion domes, each topped by a tall cross.
The small but perfectly formed Church of Dominus Flevit built in the shape of a teardrop.
And that’s not all.
According to biblical prophecy, the Mount of Olives will be the place of Christ’s second coming. To get to the front of the queue, it has been a popular burial site and over 150,000 people have been laid to rest amongst the olive trees on its slopes.
Visit the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem’s Citadel
To learn more about Jerusalem’s history
Located in the iconic Citadel, close to Jaffa Gate, the Tower of David Museum tells the story of Jerusalem, stretching back over 3,000 years.
The museum is also home to temporary exhibitions, cultural events and performances and multimedia sound-and-light shows.
Wade through Hezekiah’s Tunnel
In the interests of complete transparency, I confess that I have never walked through Hezekiah’s Tunnel.
I visited it with friends some years ago but a fear of enclosed spaces held me back. Add to that an enclosed space with rushing water.
Connecting the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam, this 500-meter tunnel is widely held to have been constructed by King Hezekiah to provide the people of the City of David with fresh water during a prolonged siege by the Assyrians.
Visit The Garden Tomb
Ponder life away from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem.
Away from the din of Nablus Road is this olive tree-lined garden, considered by some to be the site of the sepulchre of Joseph of Arimathea, and possibly the place where Jesus was resurrected.
Although these claims are hotly disputed, in stark contrast to the frantic nature of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb is an oasis of tranquillity. Sit in a shady spot and read or ponder life.
Eat and drink in a landmark Jerusalem hotel
Venture into East Jerusalem to drink and dine in the American colony hotel
About 15 minutes’ walk from the Garden Tomb is the American Colony Hotel.
Built in the 19th century by Ottoman Pasha Rabbah Daoud Amin Effendi al-Husseini, who lived there with his harem of four wives, this landmark hotel has welcomed many film stars, diplomats, politicians and foreign correspondents.
Its famous guests include Robert De Niro, Natalie Portman, Lawrence of Arabia, Christiane Amanpour, Bob Dylan, Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev and John le Carré to name but a few.
Take it easy in its courtyard, shaded by mulberry trees whilst you sip on their delicious homemade lemonade with mint. A perfect Jerusalem pit-stop.
The best things to do in Jerusalem: The New City
Never forget: Visit Yad Vashem
Remember those who perished in the Holocaust.
Established in 1953, Yad Vashem is a powerful memorial to the six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. This 45-acre campus comprises indoor museums and outdoor monuments, exhibitions, memorial sites, gardens and sculptures.
It is difficult not to be profoundly moved as those who perished are remembered by focusing on relatable parts of their humanity – their letters, their photos, belongings and communities.
Perhaps the most sobering area is the Children’s Memorial. Honouring each tiny soul who was lost in the Holocaust, this hollowed-out cavern has a single candle reflected in a series of mirrors commemorating the 1.5 million children killed.
Visit the Israel Museum
For a historical road map of Israel
If you are spending some time in Israel, pay a visit to the Israel Museum early in your trip if you can. Its world-class collection is all you need to provide historical context for the journey ahead.
The star of this particular show is the pot-shaped Shrine of the Book, housing some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s also worth stopping by the enormous 1:50 model of Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple period.
Go shopping in Mahane Yehuda Market
For the best place to go food shopping
When I first visited Mahane Yehuda Market in 1989, it was just a place where Jerusalemites stocked up on their groceries. Between then and now it has been transformed into a trendy dining area with some of the city’s hippest bars and restaurants.
The fresh fruit and veg are still there but now so much more.
Take a walk through Mea Shearim
For a taste of Orthodox Jewish life
One of the oldest neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, Mea Shearim is home to many of the city’s Haredi Jews.
Its streets retain the characteristics of an Eastern European small town in pre-war Europe. Life revolves around strict adherence to Jewish law, prayer, and the study of religious texts.
You won’t walk far in Mea Shearim before coming across a “modesty” posters in Hebrew and English, urging women and girls to wear “modest” dress.
Where to stay in Jerusalem
Jerusalem has accommodation options to suit all budgets. Over the years I have stayed in many places in Jerusalem, mostly hostels and guesthouses in the Old City.
If possible, choose a hotel in or close to the Old City. However, as the Old City essentially closes down at night, dining options are limited.
As a solo traveller, safety is important to me and walking around Jerusalem at night has always felt safe, even in the Old City.
How to get around Jerusalem
If you are staying in or near the Old City, you will be able to reach the vast majority of these must-see Jerusalem sights on foot.
Outside of the Old City, East Jerusalem and downtown, the rest of its neighbourhoods are well connected by Jerusalem’s bus and a light-rail system.
The convenient light rail service runs every ten minutes between Mt Herzl in the West and Psgat Ze’ev in the north, serving Damascus Gate, the Central Bus Station, Mahane Yehuda Market and Yad Vashem.
Jerusalem’s reliable bus network crisscrosses all of West Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods and a few in East Jerusalem. Most stops have electronic indicators showing arrival times.
Although taxis can be convenient, Jerusalem taxi drivers have a well-earned reputation for ripping off tourists (I was warned off them by the Tourist Office on one visit!). In particular, drivers at Jaffa Gate and at Tomb of the Virgin Mary on the Mount of Olives are notorious for refusing to use the meter and then overcharging or failing to keep to the agreed price.
A Rav-Kav card or Jerusalem City Pass for Jerusalem’s buses and light rail system?
As single tickets are no longer available, to use Jersualems’ light rail and bus network you will need to get your hands on a Rav-Kav card or a Jerusalem City Pass.
You can buy a rechargeable Rav-Kav card for 5NIS at kiosks throughout the city, as well as post offices, Cofix chain stores and Maayan 2000 branches (alternatively, get one for free by showing your passport at the Egged desk at the Central Bus Station).
You can then pre-load the card with rides or passes (per day/week) and scan it each time you board a light rail or bus service. Rav-Kav cards can be recharged at ticket machines by tram stops, on any bus or at the Central Bus Station’s Egged desk.
There’s a 90-minute window for free transfer between buses and the light-rail line with the card.
A second pass – the Jerusalem City Pass – can also be used across the city’s transport system. As well as giving you free travel across Jerusalem for three or seven days, this pass also includes transfers to and from Ben Gurion Airport, discounts and free access to various Jerusalem sites.
You can order the Jerusalem City Pass online or buy it from the iTravel Jerusalem desk at Ben Gurion upon arrival. You can also purchase the pass at one of the iTravel Jerusalem trucks parked near Jaffa Gate and Mahane Yehuda.
As with any other city pass, it’s best to work out if the Jerusalem City Pass will be good value, based on what you plan to do in Jerusalem.
If you base yourself near the Old City, your transport needs are likely to be modest. However, you may get value from the discounts from the pass offers or from the airport transfers.
How much time do you need in Jerusalem?
How long is a piece of string? Seriously; I have visited Jerusalem six times and there are still things that I would like to see.
As a minimum, I recommend spending 3 days in the city, which should allow you to cover most of the best things to do in Jerusalem.
But don’t rush it; the most important thing to do in Jerusalem is to soak up the atmosphere of this very special city.
Is Jerusalem safe for female solo travellers?
Take it from a six-time visitor, five of these visits as a woman on her own. Contrary to what you may read in in the media, Jerusalem is safe for female solo travellers.
Israel is the Middle East’s most liberal and democratic country, and because of the obligatory army service, the country is used to strong, independent women. Jerusalem’s abundant hostels give women travelling alone lots of opportunities to buddy up with other solo travellers if needed, and the city has a good public transport infrastructure.
The elephant in the room is the conflict between Israel and Palestine, which has led to Israel not exactly winning any popularity contests in the Middle East.
This means that you will find that security will be tight in Jerusalem. However, these enhanced security measures help keep the tourist areas of Jerusalem safe.
Get used to seeing soldiers with guns everywhere; I have literally tripped over them when entering an intercity bus (guns, that is, not soldiers).
As the situation can be volatile, always check with the latest Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) travel advisory before you go.
Whilst you are away, stay vigilant and keep an eye on local media. Some areas of Jerusalem have been flashpoints for violent clashes between protestors and security forces, including East Jerusalem, around Temple Mount and the Damascus Gate and Lion’s Gate areas of the Old City.
What are the best day trips from Jerusalem?
Israel is a small country and there are many awesome places within a few hours drive that you can visit in a day from Jerusalem. here is a list of my favourites:
- Tel Aviv / Jaffa
- Ein Gedi
- Ein Kerem
My favourite books about Jerusalem
Finally, do you want to learn a little bit more about Jerusalem?
Here are my favourite books to read either before your visit to Jerusalem or whilst you are there.
Make your mouth water with this collection of 120 recipes from award-winning London-based chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. What makes this book so special is that Ottolenghi, an Israeli, and Tamimi, a Palestinian, explore the culinary heritage of their home city from the diversity of their own cultural perspectives. Perfect for inspiring your first trip to Israel or to re-create some of your favourite dishes after you have returned home.
Throw away your preconceptions about history books being dull and dusty. This epic history of Jerusalem by British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, is written with such passion and vigour that it will keep you gripped from beginning to end. Perfect for providing valuable historical context.
I’ve owned a few guidebooks to Israel over the years but this one is by far my favourite. Packed with archaeological guides, this is perfect for those who would like in-depth information on Israel’s must-see sights.
I love this book by Jerusalemite, the late Amos Oz, who is one of Israel’s most renowned writers. A Tale of Love and Darkness describes Israel during the social and political upheaval resulting from the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and paints a portrait of Jerusalem’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian people residents during this turbulent period.