Jerusalem’s 10 Best-Kept Secrets

Jan 5, 2018

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Jerusalem is a city of deep passions. It is home to several of the holiest places in Western religion: the Western Wall, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is also a city where neighborhoods of Arabs and Jews sit beside one another — not always peacefully.

But look in the right places and you will find more than just the sites argued about in headlines and history books. Places like the central market, hidden tunnels and swimming holes beloved by locals reveal a modern society buzzing in an ancient city.

1. A Walking Class in Comparative Religion

The Old City is a maze of neighborhoods lined with vendors selling everything from knickknacks to fine art. Plan a route that lets you visit the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher all in one day. Fortify yourself with coffee at the Austrian Hospice, a pilgrim guesthouse since 1863, and a plate of the Palestinian dessert knafeh at Jaffar Sweets. Pro tip: Wear shoes with good traction; the well-worn streets are slippery.

Pro-tip: wear shoes with good traction! Photo by Boris Katsman / Getty Images
Image courtesy of Boris Katsman / Getty Images.

2. A City Divided

Get a better understanding of where boundaries lie at the Haas Promenade. See where Arab and Jewish neighborhoods separate by spotting the water tanks on rooftops. The white ones are Jewish, the black Arab. At night, look for the green lights that illuminate mosques in Arab areas. For more insight, head to the Museum on the Seam.

3.The Market Is the Place

Nowhere in Jerusalem gives you a better sense of what life in this city is really like than a visit to the central market, Machane Yehuda. The bustling spot is a mix of long-standing produce vendors and stylish, young restaurateurs and bar owners. If you only have time for one meal, make a reservation at the restaurant Machneyuda, which bases its menu on what’s available in the market and feels like a raucous party.

Make a reservation at Machneyuda. Photo courtesy Machneyuda
Image courtesy of Machneyuda.

4. Get Out of Town for a Bowl

Jerusalem is a city that takes its hummus very seriously. On Saturdays, when much of the city shuts down for the Jewish sabbath, locals head to the nearby town of Abu Ghosh for a tahini-laced fix.

5. Yes, You Do Want to Visit This Leper Home 

Once a center for Hansen’s disease (aka leprosy), the Hansen House in the upscale neighborhood of Talbiya is now an art gallery with rotating installations, and home to a charming cafe, Ofaimme. With goat cheeses from the owner’s sustainable farm in the desert, Ofaimme serves one of the best Israeli breakfasts in town.

6. Go Underground

Famed Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once compared Jerusalem to Atlantis, a trove of sunken treasures. Dive under the streets and you’ll find the remnants of an ancient water system at the Siloam (or Hezekiah’s) Tunnel and a pathway some scholars believe King David walked on at the Western Wall Tunnels. Both offer a break from the city’s intense sun.

Check out the ancient water system at the Siloam Tunnel. Photo by
Check out the ancient water system at the Siloam Tunnel. Photo by kuarmungadd / Getty Images

7. Seek and Find These Neighborhoods

Head down the stairs next to the city’s iconic windmill to explore the small gardens and Instagram-ready homes of Yemin Moshe. Or, escape into the labyrinth of streets in Nachlaot, a bohemian area near Machane Yehuda that is home to the Barbur Gallery. Pack a picnic of hummus, fresh pita and halva from the market and find a bench.

8. Boutique Row

Ignore anyone who tells you all of the best shopping in Israel is in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem’s designer scene is small but mighty. Head to the Schatz and Bezalel midrachovs (pedestrian streets) with your credit card. Catch the Bezalel artist fair on Fridays.

9. Secret Gardens

After the chaos of the city, Jerusalem’s gardens offer respite. The Garden Tomb, which some believe is the site of Jesus’ resurrection, is close to the Old City and often filled with the sounds of pilgrims singing. Farther afield, there’s the garden of Gethsemane with its ancient olive trees, and across town by the Knesset lies the Wohl Rose Garden and the tiny but tranquil Jerusalem Bird Observatory.

The beautiful garden of Gethsemane with its ancient olive trees. Photo by Alexandr Tkachuk / Getty Images
The beautiful garden of Gethsemane with its ancient olive trees. Photo by Alexandr Tkachuk / Getty Images

10. Down at the Swimming Hole

Locals beat the heat at several watering holes from fresh springs near town. Rent a bike (Jerusalem has a series of bike paths) and head toward the renovated Ein Lavan to earn the right to cool off in a spot few tourists reach.

Featured photo by suprunvitaly / Getty Images.

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