I’m sure that there’s no other place on earth that stirs up the same array of feelings. Contested, idolised, misunderstood: Jerusalem feels very much like the epicentre of the world. Full of anticipation and, admittedly, a little nervous, I boarded a plane from London-Luton to Tel Aviv on a freezing February night.
Five hours later, I was breathing in a hot Middle Eastern sea breeze. As a European, used to hopping from country to country by merely waving my passport, I was a little intimidated by the security checks at Ben Gurion Airport.
Before receiving a standard three-month tourist visa, I was asked numerous questions about my ethnicity, religion, the purpose of my visit, the people I knew in the country and my travel plans. Be sure to have a return ticket to show, since this will make your life much easier.
After spending a couple of nights in Tel Aviv, I made my way to Jerusalem – on a Saturday morning. Coming from London, where services are available at all times, it didn’t cross my mind that Saturday (Shabbat in Hebrew) is a day of rest and public transportation in Israel comes to a standstill. A good alternative to public buses are “sheruts”, minivans that depart whenever they fill all seats. The benefit of taking a sherut is that it will drop you off near Damascus Gate (in Arabic Bab al Amud), just outside the Old City.
The Old City
The Old City is divided into four quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian, each one with a very distinct character. The souq around Damascus Gate is one of the busiest spots and a multisensorial experience you don’t want to miss.
It is a colourful, buzzing chaos made up of tiny stalls, piles of cardamom and za’atar, mountains of oversized pomegranates and family restaurants serving delicious hummus and shawarma. While wandering around, I discovered Jafer Sweets on Khan es-Zeit Road.
This family-run bakery is most famous for its knafeh, a filling goat cheese pastry topped with sugary syrup, traditionally made in the Palestinian city of Nablus. I got lost inside the labyrinth of narrow alleyways and eventually found myself at the Western Wall. I sat down soaking up the mystical atmosphere of the Shabbat prayers and admiring the majesty of Haram Al-Sharif, which was dominating the background with its golden dome.
The next day I joined a tour organised by the Alternative Information Centre. I like to explore new places from the prism of their socio-political landscape, and so this three-hour long tour in and around Jerusalem gave me a lot of food for thought. Provided politics and history are your thing, you can find similar tours offered by Ir Amim and Grassroots Jerusalem.
If you are looking for a lively nightlife, you should aim at places around Jaffa Street, or even better in Nachlaot, a scenic neighbourhood of narrow alleyways and courtyards in the west of Jerusalem. Next to it, is the Mahane Yehuda shuk, a trendy outdoor market with a wide range of bars, restaurants and live music. Just off Jaffa street, near the City Hall, is a tiny vegetarian soup restaurant called Ha’Marakia – just in case you get tired of the meaty (but tasty!) Arab grills.
Where to Stay
I tend to travel on my own and I rarely stay in hostels, let alone hotels. Occasionally I can go as far as to book an Airbnb, but my preference is always Couchsurfing. To me, the countless lasting friendships and odd encounters I make through Couchsurfing are way worthier than a comfortable hotel bed.
I chose to stay in east Jerusalem, more precisely in Sheikh Jarrah, a traditionally Palestinian neighbourhood with an increasing presence of international NGO workers. Some of my favourite spots in Jerusalem are in this area, first and foremost the Educational Bookshop on Sala El Din street, a five minute walk from Herod’s gate.
With its comprehensive range of books on Israeli-Palestinian history, the bookshop is the only one of its kind in the whole of Jerusalem. The owners are friendly and chatty, always happy to help you navigate the city. While browsing books, posters and maps, you can enjoy tasty sandwiches and coffees or eavesdrop on the conversations of the many journalists, scholars and activists visiting the shop every day.
Where to shop
Art and crafts lovers should take a closer look at the Sunbula shop on Nablus Road: you can shop embroidered accessories, jewellery, olive oil beauty products and traditional pottery while supporting the local economy. On some Saturdays, Sunbula hosts a beautiful farmers’ market too.
When planning your trip to Jerusalem, be sure you are not clashing with big Jewish holidays, such as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (usually during September/October). Although it can be quite an experience to be in Jerusalem at that time, this will very much restrict your travel options as public buses will not be running.
If you are staying in the western part of the city, you’d better do your shopping before Friday at dawn when the Shabbat starts: most restaurants, supermarkets, and facilities will be shut until Saturday evening. In the east, however, Saturday is a just normal weekday.
Going back to London after my first trip to Israel and Palestine, I found myself having more questions than answers. The fascination wouldn’t fade away and after dipping my toe in the water another couple of times, I decided to move to Jerusalem and start a whole new chapter.
Jerusalem very much resembles a mosaic of identities, with all its contradictions and complexity: embrace the chaos, let go of your prejudices and get ready to fall in love.