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While Tel Aviv tends to steal the spotlight as Israel’s go-to cosmopolitan city with its thriving Miami-style beach and nightlife combo, Jerusalem is stepping up its game with under-the-radar bars, world-class restaurants and hopping new hotels that are making this destination worthy of a trip all of its own. Whether you’re embarking on a religious pilgrimage or just looking to soak up the multitude of historic sites, here are five reasons Jerusalem is a must-visit any time of the year.

1. It’s a World Away, yet Oh-So-Close

Jerusalem is about an hour’s drive from Ben Gurion Airport (TLV) in Tel Aviv. Israel’s national airline, El Al  whose partners include Qantas, Aeromexico and South African Airways) — offers direct flights to Tel Aviv from a number of North American hubs. The trip from Los Angeles (LAX) takes about 17 hours, while flights from Boston (BOS) and New York (JFK) are around 11 hours.

The Old City in itself is reason enough to visit this holy destination. Image courtesy of Noam Chen for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.
The Old City in itself is reason enough to visit this holy destination. Image courtesy of Noam Chen for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

2. A Historic Hotel Has Been Reborn

Originally called the Palace, the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem opened as the first luxury hotel in the Middle East back in 1929 — once the King David Jerusalem opened up nearby, just a 15-minute walk from the Old City, the competition crushed the Palace, which was transformed into government offices and later a tax museum. It took 12 architects, eight years and more than $100 million to restore the original building and its façade to its former glory.

Today, the 10-story, 226-room hotel has clearly been put back on her pedestal, lined with extravagant touches that will make your jaw drop. Case in point: the Neo-Byzantine mosaic lobby floors crafted by eight different artisans. Rooms blend touches of Old World gravitas and New World glamour with crystal chandeliers in the bedroom and bathroom, plus modern amenities like tablet-controlled lighting and flatscreen TVs. There’s even a TV built into the bathroom mirror that you can watch while soaking in a stand-alone tub (which I totally did, while indulging in the Ahava Dead Sea in-room amenities). Stays here start at $525 or 80,000 Hilton HHonors points per night.

The recently revamped Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem maintains elements of its past for a modernized version of the historic building. Image courtesy of the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem.
The recently revamped Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem maintains elements of its past for a modernized version of the historic building. Image courtesy of the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem.

3. You Can Go Back in Time Touring the Old City by Foot

Jerusalem’s history spans more than 4,000 years, but it was only about 150 years ago that residents started moving beyond the Old City walls. Built by King David around 1004 BCE, the Old City is just 0.35 square miles in size, yet contains 34 towers and seven gates lining a surrounding wall of 2.8 miles that rise from 16 to 50 feet high.

Divided into four quarters — Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim — the Old City is home to some of the holiest sites of three major religions: the Western Wall, which is what’s still standing of the Temple of Jerusalem’s wall; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which contains what’s said to be Jesus’s tomb and the stone slab his body lay on before burial; the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Ishmael (or Isaac, depending on whom you ask), and where Muhammad ascended to heaven, at least according to most Muslim scholars. Just strolling around the Christian quarter, you’ll come across more than 40 religious buildings, as well as the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrows, the path Jesus took as he made his way from the courthouse to the hill of Golgotha, forced to carry the cross on which he would be crucified.

Explore some of the three major religions
Explore some of the three major religions’ landmarks by foot in Jerusalem’s Old City. Image courtesy of Noam Chen for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

4. There’s a Booming Market Scene Day and Night

Stop by the Mahane Yehuda Market, the largest open-air market in the country, and you’ll come across stands selling everything from nuts and seeds to the finest baklava and halva sweets in Israel. The 88-year-old downtown marketplace is located in the “new” part of the city built up in the late 19th century. By day, the “Shuk,” as Israelis affectionately refer to it, draws locals and tourists alike to its café- and souvenir-shop-lined alleys.

Once the sun sets, the maze-like corridors take on a completely different look, becoming a hotspot for the younger set, who come to sit back on the terraces, take in the live music and indulge in local beer and wine. The trick here is to shimmy up to the terrace of your choice and grab a spot wherever you can. For my friends and me, that was at the 5th of May, a bar and eatery that offers up tapas, bruschetta and buffalo-milk mozzarella alongside craft cocktails, with DJs playing right on the street for a market version of a block party.

Stock up on local grains and spices at the Mahane Yehudi Market, the largest open-air market in Israel. Image courtesy of the author.
Stock up on local grains and spices at Mahane Yehudi Market, the largest open-air market in Israel. Image courtesy of the author.

5. The Museums Are Modern and World-Class

Jerusalem is lined with landmarks and museums that range from memorials to modern art. Get your bearings at the Israel Museum by trying to find yourself in a 50:1 scale version of ancient Jerusalem in the late Second Temple period (around the year 66 AD). Israel’s largest museum is also home to the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2,000-year-old religious manuscripts found on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea between 1946 and 1956, as well as a number of contemporary art pieces by Jerusalem-based and internationally acclaimed artists like Agnes Martin and Damien Hirst.

The Israel Museum
The Israel Museum’s model of the Second Temple. Image courtesy of the author.

On the heavier side, the Holocaust memorial museum, Yad Vashem, is worth a trip on the tail end of your stay in Jerusalem. For more than half a century, this memorial has been the world center for documentation, research and education about the Holocaust, with a museum complex that spans more than 45,000 square feet. There’s a lot of information here to take in, so I toured the museum with the help of a guide who not only explained each room in depth, but also gave me ample time to soak everything in. Galleries are set on either side of a 590-foot-long, prism-like walkway that cuts into a mountain.

While the transported cobblestone floors of Holocaust-era ghettos — like Warsaw’s Leszno Street — really made their mark on me, the circular Hall of Names is another of the museum’s most striking features. Six hundred photographs line the conical ceiling, representing the six million Jews who perished.

A Final Tip

According to news headlines, the country may seem like it’s in a state of constant turmoil, and while that may be true, tourists are generally safe while traveling in Israel. Of course, it’s always a good idea to consult the US Department of State for any travel warnings prior to booking your trip, just in case.

Have you visited Jerusalem? Share your experience with us, below.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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