Traditional and alternative things to do in Jerusalem
Before visiting, I used to think that pretty much all the things to do in Jerusalem would relate to its ancient history, with its being one of the holiest cities in the world and the meeting point of the three most important monotheistic religions. I had just returned from India, where I visited Varanasi, the holiest of Hindu cities, and I was curious to explore another city with such a strong religious significance.
Find out more about my experience in Varanasi on my post “The addictive sweetness of Varanasi.”
However, after visiting I can say that there isn’t just one Jerusalem, there’s many Jerusalems. The city has a lot to offer not only to the most traditional tourists – the ones who take guided group tours and who invariably enjoy the most famous places to visit in Jerusalem; but also to a younger crowd looking for more alternative, innovative and off the grid Jerusalem tourist attractions.
There’s no doubt that the most popular Jerusalem tourist attractions are the iconic ones that are regularly photographed, such as the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, or the Wailing Wall. But Jerusalem is a city in a constant turmoil – and no, I am not referring to the security concerns that are generally raised when talking about Israel. Indeed, I actually found it very safe to visit.
When I talk of the turmoil that characterizes Jerusalem, I am referring to the fact that the city is constantly changing, and it is way more modern than one may think, in a quirky, unique way. There is a whole range of fun things to do in Jerusalem that make it a top tourist destination from all points of view.
After all, this is a city where the market where the oldest generations shop during the day has become a hipsters meeting point at night, packed with small restaurants and pubs. It is a city where old meets new, and a little bit more. New, interesting ways have found to enjoy the most famous places to visit in Jerusalem.
My visit to Jerusalem came as a bit of a surprise. I had been wanting to visit for a long time, so many are the places to visit in Jerusalem that I was keen to explore, but I had not planned to go in 2016. However, I must admit that of the places I said I’d visit in 2016, I actually went to a fraction and ended up in wholly different places. Interestingly, one of them is a place that has one of the largest Jewish communities of Africa: Djerba, in Tunisia.
To read more about Djerba, go to my post “Ten reasons to visit Djerba, Tunisia.”
I was lucky enough to experience both sides of Jerusalem – the most traditional one, and the more modern, younger one – in the very short time I spent there. Needless to say, I didn’t get to visit all of Jerusalem tourist attractions – I think a month there would not be enough to quench my curiosity for this interesting, unique, complicated and beautiful city.
This means two things. Firstly, of all the things to do in Jerusalem, I only managed to do a fraction. Secondly, and consequently, I need to go back – and I plan to do so as soon as possible, so that I get to see the rest of the places to visit in Jerusalem.
Meantime, here’s my selection of the places to visit in Jerusalem and of the traditional and the most alternative and fun things to do in Jerusalem.
A selection of the places to visit in Jerusalem and of the things to do in Jerusalem
Things to do in Jerusalem and places to visit in Jerusalem for the most traditional travelers
I believe there is no point at all in visiting a destination and then miss all the things it is famous for. Call me a tourist, think of me as mainstream, and even say I am an unsuccessful backpacker, but there is no way I would go to Jerusalem and avoid all the most famous places to visit in Jerusalem. So, here’s my pick on the things to do in Jerusalem for the most traditional travelers. Sure enough, I took a guided full day city tour of Jerusalem which I had booked in advance, so that I could make the most of my time there.
To find out why I think I am an unsuccessful backpacker, read my post “How to be an unsuccessful backpacker.”
Walk along the City Walls
Of the most well known Jerusalem tourist attractions, walking along the walls is one of the top things to do in Jerusalem and I truly liked it. The Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Ramparts Walk is a 1 km jaunt that goes on top of the city wall and it is a good way to get a breathtaking view of both the Old City, with all the incredible places to visit in Jerusalem, and the new one. Not only that: walking along the Ramparts Walk gives a proper idea of how small the city really used to be in the past.
Explore the tunnels of the City of David
I find that one of the most fun things to do in Jerusalem is walking along the tunnels of the City of David. This is the path that in ancient times would lead to the hidden springs where kings were coronated. The tunnels were dug around 700 BC to channel water from the Gihon Spring, under orders of King Hezekiah. The idea was that of securing a source of water to the city even when it was under siege.
In order to access the tunnels, which is one of the most fascinating Jerusalem tourist attractions, it is recommended to carry a change of clothes (there are changing rooms and lockers) and wear shorts and sandals, as the water in the tunnels can be up to 80 cm deep. The walk along Hezekiah’s Tunnel lasts about 30 minutes, and it is totally in the dark (save for the flashlights). To me, this is one of the most interesting and unique places to visit in Jerusalem. What I really appreciated is the idea of how advanced the engineering work was at the time in which the city was built.
Visit the Dung Gate and the Jaffa Gate
According to legend, the area around Dung Gate was once the garbage dump of the city – hence the name. Of all the city gates – which are some of the most popular Jerusalem tourist attractions – this one is the smallest, although it was widened by the Jordanians during their tenure of the city, so that cars could drive through. Seeing the Dung Gate was one of the things to do in Jerusalem that I really enjoyed.
Another of the places to visit in Jerusalem is Jaffa Gate, where the breach in the wall though which everyone passes now was actually made in 1898 – the original one is on the side and it is much much smaller.
One of the new things to do in Jerusalem – which yet has a connection to the most traditional Jerusalem tourist attractions – is taking the tourist train which has recently been activated between Dung Gate and Jaffa Gate. It is a short but nice ride.
Place a prayer on the Wailing Wall
There simply is no going to Jerusalem without visiting what may well be the most iconic of all the places to visit in Jerusalem. Even non-religious persons like I am can still feel very moved at the Wailing Wall (also known as the Western Wall): seeing so many people concentrated in their prayers, feeling spiritually closer to God, was for me a unique and touching experience.
The most iconic of Jerusalem tourist attractions was built around 2000 years ago as an outer wall to support Temple Mount, when the temple was destroyed in AD 70, Jews were forced to leave and the exact location of the temple was lost. When they got back, they avoided the Temple Mount for fear of accidentally stepping on the Holy of Holies – the ancient inner sanctum of the temple which was accessible only to high priests. So, they began praying at the outer wall.
The Wailing Wall became a place of pilgrimage during the Ottoman Empire: Jews would go there to mourn and lament their ancient loss. That’s where the name Wailing Wall actually comes from. Nowadays, one of the things to do in Jerusalem is visiting the Wailing Wall (there is a men and a women section, and modest clothing is required to access), write a prayer in a small piece of paper and fold it, then place it in the cracks of the wall.
Visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Compared to the rest of Jerusalem tourist attractions, which are visible from a distance, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher can almost be overlooked if one doesn’t know it is there. Yet, visiting it is one of the unmissable things to do in Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is considered to be the biblical Calvary – the place where it is said Jesus was nailed to the cross, then died and rose from the dead. It is a place of pilgrimage for Christians, and if looking for a place of Christian religious significance in the city, visiting it is what to do in Jerusalem.
Walk around Temple Mount
If there is one among the places to visit in Jerusalem that shall not be missed, that is Temple Mount – at the centre of a recent controversy due to the fact that UNESCO ruled that Temple Mount has nothing to do with Judaism. The Jewish identified in the rock protruding from Mt Moriah the foundation stone of the world. According to the Talmud it was here that God gathered the earth used to form Adam, and later on the Biblical figures (Adam, Cain, Abel and Noah) performed ritual sacrifices here.
All in all, visiting Temple Mount gives a nice break from the noise and chaos outside. It is an astonishing complex where the most prominent sights are the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and visiting is definitely one of the top things to do in Jerusalem. Nowadays, Al Aqsa Mosque stands on what once was the marketplace on the edge of Temple Mount. It is a mismatch of various restorations taken across time, with columns donated by Benito Mussolini too.
Visiting the Dome of the Rock is what to do in Jerusalem if in search of an iconic attraction. This is the symbol of Jerusalem, and one of the most photographed buildings in the world. As the name explains, the Dome of the Rock covers the stone that is sacred to both Muslims and Jews, in the place where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son and Prophet Mohammed launched himself to take place next to Allah.
The interior of the Dome of the Rock is generally only accessible to Muslims and so most visitors will have to make do with admiring the outside. Nevertheless, visiting the Dome of the Rock is one of the best things to do in Jerusalem.
Remember the atrocities of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem
Visiting the Yad Vashem Museum may well be the most important among the things to do in Jerusalem, to be reminded of the effects of the Holocaust – one of the many genocides that happened in the past. As a former human rights lawyer, I did not want to miss on this. It is a strong, touching experience, but nevertheless an unmissable one.
Visit the Israel Museum
The Israel Museum is one of the most important Jerusalem tourist attractions. I found it to be an incredibly interesting structure from the architectural point of view – both inside and outside. But, most importantly so, the collection is simply incredible and what makes it one of the unmissable places to visit in Jerusalem is the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept. These (there’s 800 of them) were found in 1947 and in 1956 in eleven caves in the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea, and date to around AD 132 – 35.
When I visited the Israel Museum, I had the pleasure to meet Dr. Adolfo Roitman, who is the Curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls and of the Shrine of the Books. It was an incredible experience to have him explain the significance of the Scrolls. I appreciate that not everyone will have the curator of the museum as a guide, yet visiting the Israel Museum remains one of the best things to do in Jerusalem.
Get a spectacular view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives
One of the nicest things to do in Jerusalem is going on a tour of the Mount of Olives. Not only does this have a great historical and religious significance, but the view of the city from it is simply spectacular. Mount of Olives is the world’s oldest continually used cemetery, and the area is packed with churches and gardens that are nice to visit.
Walk around Ein Kerem
One of my favorite places to visit in Jerusalem is Ein Kerem. This is a lovely village of Arab-built stone houses and beautiful Lebanese cedars and pine trees, which is hidden in a valley right outside the city. There’s various churches to visit in Ein Kerem, my favorite is that of St John the Baptist.
However, what I enjoyed the most in Ein Kerem was the laid back atmosphere: I actually think that one of the nicest things to do in Jerusalem is spending a good day or two in Ein Kerem to just soak in its vibe.
Shop at Mahane Yehuda Market…
I have a slight obsession with markets. It pretty much means that I have to visit the local market in every single city or village I visit. And I don’t mean a tourist market (well, I like those too and they are incredible places to shop for souvenirs). I actually like the real thing, the places where the locals go shop for their groceries. Sure enough, one of the coolest things to do in Jerusalem is visiting the Mahane Yehuda Market.
What makes Mahane Yehuda Market one of the unmissable places to visit in Jerusalem is the fabulous, colorful array of produce on sale: from the freshest fruits and vegetables, to the freshly baked bread; from the mix of dried fruits and nuts to the hundreds of teas and infusions; it is simply impossible to resist the temptation to shop here.
… and then look for souvenirs
Even though I prefer regular market to tourist markets, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy looking around for souvenirs. Sure enough, one of the things to do in Jerusalem is exploring the small shops at the market and – even better – observe the locals.
Eat at a fabulous restaurant…
There is no such thing as going hungry in Jerusalem. Good food is available pretty much anywhere in the city and the restaurant scene is thriving. There are a lot of vegan restaurants in Jerusalem too. There is no doubt that one of the things to do in Jerusalem is enjoying local food (hummus, anyone?) and have one or more fantastic meals. I have had the pleasure to try the Machneyuda, the best restaurant in the city, and surely one of the top ones in the world: the use of excellent seasonal local ingredients cooked to perfection by the chef, the cozy and easygoing atmosphere make it a top choice in Jerusalem.
If eating is what to do in Jerusalem, I was surely not disappointed by some other fantastic places to eat: the Modern, which is the restaurant adjoint to the Israeli Museum; Adom, located at the First Station (Jerusalem old railway station) and Anna, an Italian style restaurant that has recently opened and that has already become one of the top ones in the city.
… and enjoy a good cup of coffee afterwards
I am a coffee addict, and even more so I am a coffee snob. Don’t think of me as the typical Italian who would only drink espresso, though. Save for instant coffee, I enjoy pretty much any kind of coffee: French press, American filter, espresso, Italian coffee pot, Costa Rican sock coffee… you name it. As long as the quality is good and there’s no sugar involved, I am in. Needless to say, I did not pass on coffee in Jerusalem. In fact, I think that having coffee in one of the traditional coffee shops is one of the nicest things to do in Jerusalem.
Coffee here is more a ritual than a drink: it is brewed slowly, cardamom and other spices are boiled with it, and it is served piping hot and accompanied with traditional sweets such as baklava – which is packed with honey, butter and different kinds of nuts and is totally yummy. Having coffee is definitely what to do in Jerusalem to have a break from all the sightseeing!
Things to do in Jerusalem and places to visit in Jerusalem for the youngest and most alternative travelers
One of the things I enjoy the most when I travel is getting lost. I do get lost because I start wandering, deep in my thoughts, taking pictures of the interesting life around me. That’s how I end up discovering many interesting places – with less tourists, more locals, and with incredible sights. Sure enough, one of the nicest things to do in Jerusalem is getting lost in its narrow alleys and get a bit off the beaten path. That is how I came across some of the most unique things to see in Jerusalem.
The good news is that there are a lot of places to visit in Jerusalem that are great, and fun and alternative ways to discover the city and that make the experience all the more enjoyable to younger generations – as well as older ones, because really: who says that only younger people enjoy a little bit of fun and games?
Explore Jerusalem by segway
It took me a few tries to be able to stand and move on a segway, but once I got the hang of it, I truly enjoyed this way of exploring various Jerusalem tourist attractions. I started off at Jaffa Gate, then zipped along King David Street, passed the YMCA and other beautiful buildings. I then made my way through the picturesque neighborhoods of Mishkenot Sah’ananim and Yemin Moshe and finally arrived to the viewpoint of Moshe Montefiore Windmill, from where I enjoyed a breathtaking view of the city. Doing a segway tour is definitely one of the most fun things to do in Jerusalem.
Participate in a Scavenger Hunt
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I signed up for the Scavenger Hunt. All I can say is that it was one of the most fun things to do in Jerusalem among those I tried. It was a nice way to discover more about the history of the city, to explore some of the places to visit in Jerusalem and to find some of its hidden gems. Too bad my team did not win the hunt, but we surely had a great time.
Discover the art scene of Jerusalem
Along with the most well known Jerusalem tourist attractions, there is a whole range of things to discover – in particular, Jerusalem has an incredibly vibrant art scene, with entire buildings that were once abandoned and that are now used as art galleries and to create art. It is just an interesting way to discover another side of the city, and one of the things to do in Jerusalem that a younger, artsy crowd may truly enjoy.
Enjoy the Mahane Yehuda Market by night, and discover its street art.
A proper shopping market during the day, Mahane Yehuda becomes the ultimate place to hang out in Jerusalem at night. Not only that: hidden in the shutters of the stalls, there are more than 150 paintings of historical and contemporary figures, which make Mahane Yeduda a proper, open air art gallery. I truly believe that one of the coolest things to do in Jerusalem is enjoying its night life at Mahane Yehuda. There even is an organized pub crawl of Jerusalem: can it get any better than that?
This is packed with small street food places where it is possible to taste some local specialties, as well as lovely restaurants; there are lots of bars and pubs and, more importantly, the atmosphere is incredibly friendly and laid-back. It is a good place to see and be seen. One of the coolest places to visit in Jerusalem at night.
Do a self guided food tour
I love food tours. I think they are an incredible way to get to know the culture of a place much more in depth – there’s so much of what we are and of our ways of life in the way we eat, and in what we eat. Besides, during a food tour one walks around a city and enjoys some good sightseeing. That is why I think that doing a food tour is one of the coolest things to do in Jerusalem. Sure enough I didn’t want to miss out, so I went on a food tour of Jerusalem.
But in Jerusalem food tours have been taken to the next level. Through the app Bite Mojo it is possible to book a self guided food tour, that can be completely tailored to one’s needs (which is super convenient to a picky eater like me!) and rhythm. It is a super fun way to do a food tour for technology savvy people. Besides, all the food I tried on my tour was delicious. If eating is what do to in Jerusalem, a self guided food tour is how to do it.
Pet all the cats
I love cats, and I automatically love all cities where I get to befriend them. Jerusalem is packed with cats that roam around freely, and I could not help but notice them. They were in the streets, near homes, by archeological sites, at the market… One of the things to do in Jerusalem that I enjoyed the most is petting the cats. In fact, I would even dare suggest the development of a whole tourism theme around them, similarly to what other cities (Rome and Istanbul are just two of them) have done already.
Other fun things to do in Jerusalem
One of the most fun things to do in Jerusalem is to actually get out of the city and to do a tour of the Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. The Masada is a gorgeous archeological site that is at about one hour drive from the city. There is a cable car going to the top, but I walked all the way up to the top of the hill (and even then, I was still below sea level) to watch the sunrise – it took me about 1 hour to walk up, and perhaps 45 minutes to walk back down.
Wearing comfortable hiking shoes is important: the hike isn’t too hard, but the terrain is hard (lots of stones) so not a place to go around in flip flops.
The Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, is a gorgeous fortress, which became famous for having resisted during an incredible long siege. It was built between 103 and 76 BC and fell into the hands of Herod the Great in 43 BC. The view of the Dead Sea at sunrise from the top is simply spectacular – and I recommend doing this tour as one of the most fun things to do in Jerusalem.
The view from up there is simply stunning – I surely recommend not missing on this one.
After descending from the Masada, the tour continues to the beautiful natural reserve of the Ein Gedi, which is home to beautiful waterfalls and some beautiful wildlife.
The tour finishes with a visit the Dead Sea, and that is where the fun begins. As soon as I got there, I changed into my bikini to walk down to the sea and simply float on it – the water is so salty that it is impossible to actually swim there, and in any case it is recommended not to put the head in the water as it hurts! I also covered myself in mud, as it is said to be very good for the skin. All I can say, is that going to the Dead Sea is one of the most fun things to do in Jerusalem.
Where to stay in Jerusalem
A major tourist destination such as Jerusalem is packed with good accommodation options for all budgets and all tastes.
One of the coolest things to do in Jerusalem is staying at a fabulous hotel such as the Inbal, which is located at walking distance from either modern Jerusalem and to most of Jerusalem tourist attractions. Inbal has spacious and cozy rooms, a fabulous 25 meters swimming pool and a gym, an executive lounge and a restaurant. The breakfast buffet is out of this world – I don’t think I have ever had a better breakfast in a hotel.
If staying in a boutique hotel is one of the things to do in Jerusalem, nothing beats Mamilla for that. This state of the art hotel has fabulous interiors. Rooms are stylish, with a fantastic bathroom where the glass turns opaque with just a switch. Have I mentioned the incredible breakfast?
Outside the city, in the lovely neighborhood of Ein Kerem, there’s the fabulous Alegra Boutique Hotel. This is located in a beautiful building that dates back to 1850, and staying there is what to do in Jerusalem if needing some special pamper treatment.
Last but not least, those that are traveling on a tighter budget can count on a fantastic hostel, the Abraham, which is located in the city centre and close to all the coolest places to visit in Jerusalem. The Abraham has both private rooms and dorms, which are all impeccably clean. There is a bar, guests can use the kitchen and there are plenty of common areas. More than anything else, the Abraham offers a really good, easygoing vibe which makes anybody feel welcome and at home.
How to get to Jerusalem
The closes airport to Jerusalem is Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, which is at about 60 km (roughly a one hour drive) to Jerusalem. Israel airport security isn’t exactly a piece of cake, but once out there are various buses departing daily from Tel Aviv Central Bus Station to Jerusalem, and although these work quite well during the week, counting on public transportation during the Shabbat (from Friday afternoon) is not one of the things to do in Jerusalem.
To find out more about Tel Aviv, read my post “Tel Aviv loves life.”
Needless to say, there are many more things to do in Jerusalem, and many more places to visit in Jerusalem than the ones I have mentioned. In fact, as I have said before, there isn’t just one Jerusalem, but there is many Jerusalems: there’s the religious, orthodox one that looks down upon anybody who is not a believer; there is the modern, welcoming Jerusalem of the younger generations that strives to keep up with the latest trends.
I feel that in my time there I have barely scratched the surface and another visit is due soon, because I want to at least try to unveil some of the mysteries of this incredibly beautiful, yet enigmatic city.
Legal Disclaimer: This article is written in partnership with the TBEX, the Tourism Authority of Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem Development Authority as part of the #ilovejerusalem and #tbexjlm campaigns. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.