You’ve done your research if you’re visiting Israel. I’m sure you Googled “the best things to do in Jerusalem,” “unusual things to do in Jerusalem” and “fun things to do in Jerusalem” and the Google gods delivered.
They’ll tell you to leave a note in the Western Wall. Your swimsuit is packed, because Google (and Instagram) told you that floating in the Dead Sea is a must-do activity. (They’re right. Here’s a link to a tour where you can climb Masada at sunrise and float in the Dead Sea.)
Maybe you’ve written the hours you can visit the Dome of the Rock in your diary. (If you’re wondering, at the time of this writing, the Temple Mount’s opening hours are Sunday-Thursday 7:30 am – 10:30 am and 12:30pm – 1:30 pm in the winter and 8:30am – 11:30am and 1:30pm – 2:30pm in the summer.)
Jerusalem is one of those cities that will draw you back time and time again. And while you’ll probably enjoy going to the Garden Tomb and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Shuk every time you visit, perhaps you’re looking for something a little more unique. Maybe you want to know where the locals hang out when they want to escape all the tourists. Well, I’m here to share all the secrets with you!
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20 unusual things to do in Jerusalem (that most tourists don’t know about)
Want to visit Israel with me? Join me on an Eat, Pray and Fall in Love with Israel Tour, February 29-March 9, 2020.
1. See a 2,000 year old well inside a shop in the Old City
I’ve been to Israel six times over the past nine years. Each trip is a little different, but a trip to Sinjlawi is guaranteed. The shop at 63 David Street (near the Jaffa Gate) is a treasure trove that would make Aladdin’s eyes bulge.
Sinjlawi has been family owned for over 300 years and is run by brothers Omar, Josef and Ayman. Once you step foot through the door, you’ll quickly be welcomed as family, too. Schedule plenty of time to peruse the Roman glass, old coins and jewelry handmade by the brothers. But first, ask to see the 2,000 year old well in the shop. Most of the wells from this era were destroyed by the families who owned them… something about having Roman soldiers invade your home every time they got thirsty just wasn’t appealing. Lucky for us, this well is still intact!
Peer into the well, peruse the shop and take home a few souvenirs for yourself and friends. This is my favorite pressure-free shop in the Old City!
2. Take a day trip to one of the holiest cities in the world
Hebron is considered holy to both Jews and Muslims. And like any shared holy spots in Israel and Palestine, it’s highly controversial. In fact, it’s the only Palestinian city with Jews living in it. While I’d never board the bulletproof bus alone, joining a dual narrative tour seemed like the perfect way to visit the final resting place of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the three major monotheistic religions. The purpose of this tour started by renowned peacemaker, Eliyahu McLean, is to provide the opportunity to see and attempt to understand both the Israeli and Palestinian narratives at play in Hebron.
Join a Jewish Israeli guide in Jerusalem and ride the bus to Hebron together, where you’ll begin to learn the history of this significant city.
Visiting the Palestinian side of Hebron
During the day, you’ll get the opportunity to meet a Muslim Palestinian, who will take you into the Ibrahimi Mosque – the Muslim side of the Cave of the Patriarchs. From there, you’ll have the opportunity to travel through the Old City and meet shopkeepers. One shopkeeper told our group that the message he wanted us to take away is this: I don’t hate anyone. We are all humankind.
After leaving the Old City, enjoy lunch at your Palestinian guide’s home and meet back up with your Israeli guide.
Visiting the Israeli side of Hebron
Next, you’ll take a tour through the Israeli side of the city. Don’t forget your passport, as IDF soliders are present and likely to check ID. Visit a 400-year-old synagogue for a question and answer session with a Jewish settler. No questions are out of bounds, and our Q&A got quite intense! End the day in the Jewish side of the Cave of the Patriarchs, where Abraham and his family are buried.
Learn about the ongoing conflict and what daily life looks like in Hebron. The tour is bound to leave you with more questions than answers, and a whole lot more understanding and compassion for both sides.
3. Get a 360* view of Jerusalem
The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer is located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. Its unique location offers incredible views of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Mount of Olives from the bell tower.
Climb 178 spiraling steps for some of the best views in town.
After your climb, be sure to head down to the archeological excavations. Here, you can see an old quarry used by Herod as well as a wall from the late Roman period.
Fun Fact: There’s lasting evidence of Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany and his wife, Empress Augusta Victoria’s visit to Jerusalem. When they visited for the dedication of the church in 1898, their carriage wouldn’t fit through the Jaffa Gate, so the stones in the wall next to the gate were removed and remain that way to this day.
4. Find 12th Century graffiti in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
When you take the steps down to the Chapel of St. Helena, take a close look at the stones on your left hand side. The crosses etched into the stone are easy to overlook, but these crosses were scratched into the stone nearly 1,000 years ago by Crusaders.
5. Try a Jerusalem bagel
You can find recipes for Jerusalem bagels all over the internet, but try as you might, you’ll never be able to recreate a Jerusalem bagel outside of this city. While on tour with TravelAnn, we asked the vendor at the Jaffa Gate why he thinks these bagels are so dang good. He shared that the dough is mixed by hand, and that’s something that can’t be recreated in industrial kitchens.
These soft and slightly sweet elongated bagels, can be purchased all over the Old City and are best served with a za’atar spice mix. All across the city, these bagels are being baked in wood-fire ovens. Don’t be shy when you pass one by. Ask to take pictures and you might just be invited in to see the whole process!
6. Visit the church where Kim Kardashian had her kids baptized
I’ve never been one to keep up with the Kardashians, but the pop culture nerd in me still geeked out a bit when I had the chance to visit the church where Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s children were baptized. Since Kim is of Armenian descent, her children were able to be baptized in the St. James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter.
If you’d like to visit the church, it’s open to visitors daily from 3-3:30pm.
7. Get inked
If you’re looking for a souvenir of a more permanent nature, perhaps you should consider a tattoo. In Coptic and other Eastern Christian traditions, tattooing has served as a way to mark the completion of a pilgrimmage throughout history.
For more than 700 years, the Razzouk family has been tattooing religious pilgrims – first in Egypt and since the 18th century in Jerusalem. The Razzouk Tattoo shop is currently run by the 27th generation of the family.
Wooden block stamps (the oldest one is 500 years old) are used to create significant tattoos for customers of all ages, races and nationalities. From American soldiers to 92-year-old women, many find that a tattoo is a great way to mark a life change or reconfirm a faith commitment.
8. Meet the Ultra-Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem
What’s the deal with those big fuzzy hats and the tassles hanging out of men’s shirts? In this tour, you’ll join an ultra-Orthodox Jew in a neighborhood not often frequented by tourists. You’ll learn about the customs of this religious group and you’re free to ask any questions about their culture. From marriage, the role of women, education and military service, your guide will answer any and all questions!
Note: Men and women should dress conservatively for this tour. Check out this Israel packing list for advice on what to pack.
9. Follow in Jesus’ footsteps on a Palm Sunday processional
I had the privilege of being in the Holy City during Holy Week. On the Sunday before Easter, I made my way to the Mount of Olives, where I joined the Palm Sunday processional.
I, along with a couple thousand of my closest friends, recreated Jesus’ journey and his triumphal entry into the city. You can absolutely do this on your own, or you can join a tour so you’re sure to arrive at the right spot at the right time.
10. Visit the Shuk on a Friday
Visiting Mahane Yehuda Market is one of the best things to do in Jerusalem. Any time, any day. Even on Saturdays, when it’s closed, you can see the incredible street art on the closed doors of the stalls. My favorite day to visit and do some people watching is Friday. The Shuk is bustling with men and women eager to complete their shopping before Shabbat begins.
Take a seat at a coffee shop and watch the world go by or jump in there and complete some shopping yourself! There’s a beef tallow cookie and halva in the market that made my list of the best desserts in Jerusalem.
11. Go for a swim in Lifta
Lifta is an abandoned Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that’s recently been named one of 25 endangered world monuments. In the village, there’s a natural spring and pool where you can take a dip. I’d recommend avoiding it on Fridays, though, as I’ve heard that religious Jewish men use it as a mikveh. (That means lots of naked men who won’t be happy to see you swimming there.)
12. Learn to make hummus like an Israeli
If you’ve been in Israel for more than an hour, it’s likely that you’ve eaten hummus that will cause you to denounce those subpar grocery store versions after one bite. Served slightly warm, the lightness of the tahini and filling chickpeas make hummus the perfect dish. Here, it’s not an appetizer or a dip. It’s a meal.
Good hummus outside the Middle East is hard to come by, so learning to make your own is a great way to continue your Israeli adventure when you return home. Making hummus with Matan is one of the most fun things to do in Jerusalem! Sign up for a class here.
13. Visit an ancient water reservoir
Just a short walk from Jaffa Gate and the glamorous shops of Mamilla Mall is the ancient Mamilla Pool. Set in the middle of Mamilla Cemetery, the crumbling treasure was once the key to Jerusalem’s water supply infrastructure. Need a break from the hustle and bustle of the Old City? This is the perfect escape.
14. Eat an artisan cheese sandwich overlooking the chaos of the Shuk
Are you a bit claustrophobic? Do you experience anxiety in crowds? If you’ve answered yes, but still want to experience the Shuk, Basher Fromagerie is the answer. This cheese shop rivals the best in France, because the cheese is hand selected every month by founder, Eli, at the largest wholesale market in Paris.
The shop’s name is written in Hebrew (באשר). You’ll know you’ve found the right spot by the crowd of people and the incredible selection of cheese! At the counter, ask for a cheese sandwich with plenty of truffle butter. Watch as the artisan chips away at several kinds of cheese to make the perfect sandwich. After you’ve paid, make your way up to the second level, where you can sit at the small table and look out over the market. It’s a great sandwich in an unbeatable location. Enjoy the quiet before heading out into the throngs of shoppers!
15. Go on a tour of Yad LaKashish
Yad LaKashish isn’t your typical tourist activity, but if you make the time to visit, I promise you’ll leave Jerusalem having had a deeper experience than most travelers. Yad LaKashish is a non-profit organization that empowers more than 300 of Jerusalem’s elderly residents on a daily basis. They began their lives in many places around the world and at least 8 languages are spoken here. From Holocaust survivors to refugees, these men and women have been through so much.
The men and women who come to Yad LaKashish each day have been trained to create artwork that’s sold in their gift shop (and online). When talking about his craft, one of the sweet old men told me “it’s hand work and it’s heart work.” And a kind woman stopped knitting to give me her phone number. She wanted me know that I can give her a call to chat anytime.
The non-profit supplies these senior citizens with bus passes, a hot meal, a paycheck, a community and something to look forward to every day. Getting to meet these men and women was one of the highlights of my time in Israel. Schedule your free tour between 8:30am-12pm Sunday – Thursday.
16. Jeep adventure
My most recent trip to Israel came in the Spring after one of the wettest winters in recent history. While that meant beach days in Tel Aviv were delayed, it also meant that the desert was in full bloom when I arrived. Wildflowers or not, taking a 4×4 tour through the Judean Desert is something not many people get the opportunity to do. Those people are all missing out! Book your tour here.
17. Learn about the Nazis of pre-WWII Jerusalem
Did you know that the German Colony in Jerusalem holds a dark secret? In the 1930s, a German religious group in Jerusalem became involved with the Nazi party. Swastikas hung and the Nazi salutes became a common sighting. How could this happen in Jerusalem? Find out on this tour.
18. Explore the craft beer scene of the Holy City
When I think Jerusalem, I think religion. My recent trip has expanded my definition of the Holy City to include an emerging craft beer scene. A couple of my favorites are conveniently located in the Shuk. Pay a visit to Hatch Beer or BeerBazaar and see the hop-py side of the Holy City.
19. Walk through an ancient tunnel
I wish I could hop into a time machine. I’d take us all back in time to experience Jerusalem throughout history. At the time of this writing, that’s not possible (I’m hopeful, though!). A tour through the City of David is as close as you’ll get to going back in time. Go back 6,000 years as you wade through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. (I recommend you bring a pair of water shoes if you want to go through the wet tunnel.) Next, explore the most important cemetery in the country. If you can handle the narrow tunnels, this tour promises rich history and a glimpse into some of the holiest places in the world. Book your tour here.
20. Visit the Small Western Wall in the Muslim Quarter
If you’ve visited Jerusalem, chances are good you’ve left a note in the Western Wall. It’s one of the holiest places for Jews and whether or not you’re religious, you can feel that there’s something special happening there.
But did you know that there’s a small section of the western wall in the Muslim Quarter? Kotel Katan is the closest exposed part of the wall to the Holy of Holies and men and women are able to pray together at this location. If you want a glimpse of what the Kotel looked like before 1967, without the large plaza, this is the closest you’ll get in modern times.
21. Celebrate a holiday in Jerusalem
Israelis know how to party! If you’re lucky, you’ll be in Jerusalem during one of the celebrations. From the plastic hammers, silly string and street parties of Independence Day to the costumes of Purim to the seder meal of Passover, don’t miss chance to celebrate!
22. Get a taste of Holy City culture
For a long time, Jerusalem existed only within the walls of the city. Over time, though, people ventured outside the walls and the brave residents who built a life outside the security of the walls developed a thriving community. On this tour, you’ll learn how Jews, Christians, and Muslims were joined by the British, French, Italians, Russians, Germans, Spaniards, and Ethiopians among others outside the walls. At Mahane Yehuda Market, get a taste of the culture that’s developed since the expansion of the city in the 19th century.
23. Join a Shabbat walking tour
If you’ve been in Jerusalem on a Friday or Saturday, you’ve probably noticed that the streets are quieter, many shops are closed and there’s a “Shabbat elevator” in most hotels stopping at every single floor. To learn more about Orthodox Judaism, join this Shabbat Walking Tour, where you’ll visit the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, where you can observe Shabbat rituals and learn more about Jewish customs.
With this guide to the most unusual things to do in Jerusalem, you’re sure to have experiences and stories most tourists can only dream of. Which experience are you most excited to check out first?
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