Jerusalem – a city with complex religious and political history, loud produce and goods markets, and hip nightlife – is the most captivating city I’ve ever been to. One minute, you’re standing among hipsters in a trendy bar sipping a new-age cocktail, and the next you can be standing at an ancient religious shrine that’s been around for thousands of years.
After spending the weekend in Tel Aviv, we rented a car and made the hour or so drive across Israel to Jerusalem, where we would stay for two nights.
Just outside Jerusalem is the Israeli Holocaust memorial and museum, also known as Yad Vashem. This had been recommended by a few friends who had visited, as well as our local Israeli friends, with the caveat that this is obviously an emotional experience . We decided it was important to visit given this is such an important part of the history and culture of Israel. I left my camera at home that day, wanting to be fully immersed in the experience, even while exploring the area surrounding the museum (cameras are not allowed inside). It is of course a very heavy experience, but I recommend going if you can. The museum does an excellent job of telling the history of antisemitism throughout history, leading to the modern day of World War II and the Holocaust, and ends with a very powerful and poignant memorial.
Ahead of our arrival in Jerusalem that evening, I didn’t really know what to expect of the city, and was pleasantly surprised to find that we liked it even more than Tel Aviv. The white limestone buildings, while blinding in the midday sunlight, are breathtaking. Even more-so when you remember how long some of them have been around. The sounds, colors, and aromas of the city are an assault on your senses you’ve likely never experienced before. And the hummus. I’d go all the way back to Jerusalem just for another bowl of mashed chickpeas at Ben Sira.
The incredible melting pot of cultures, while sometimes controversial and intense, is also beautiful. I’m so happy that we decided to visit for several days instead of just visiting for a quick day trip from Tel Aviv.
The Old City
You can’t visit Jerusalem without spending time in the Old City. This 0.9 sq km walled off area is the most unique part of an already unique city. It is comprised of four quarters – the Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter, and Armenian Quarter. Although each quarter has its own special characteristics and group of inhabitants, it is not immediately obvious when you walk from one quarter into another as the electrifying colors throughout the whole Old City blend together.
Quite embarrassingly, I knew very little about the rich and complicated history of Jerusalem and specifically the Old City before we visited. I signed us up for the free (tip-based) SANDEMAN walking tour of the Old City so that we could learn more about it and get our bearings before wandering around within the walls on our own.
I had not remembered just how old the city was. According to the Old Testament, it has been occupied since before the 11th century BCE, originally by the Jebusites. It’s described as always having some sort of strong city wall, but the larger city wall was extended and fortified by King Solomon in the 10th century. Control of the city has changed hands many times ever since, ruled by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, the Arabs, and European Crusaders to name a few. The current city wall was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century AD.
The Four Quarters
The area that is now recognized as “The Old City” made up the whole of Jerusalem until 1860, when a Jewish neighborhood outside of the city walls was established and continued to grow. Although it has been home to varying groups simultaneously throughout history, the distinct four quarters weren’t established until the 19th century.
The northeastern Muslim Quarter is the largest in both area and population. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is situated in the northwestern Christian Quarter, which is the neighborhood immediately to the left when you enter the Old City through Jaffa Gate. The Jewish Quarter is located in the southeastern portion of the Old City and has many new buildings, since much of it was destroyed during the Six-Day-War in 1967. The smallest of the four, the Armenian Quarter, is situated in the southwestern portion.
The receptionist at the Arthur Hotel where we stayed insisted that it was worthwhile and safe enough to simply wander around the Old City during the day and take everything in. It’s not very big, so while it is very easy to get lost skirting through the dimly lit alley ways, it is also easy to find your way again either by landmarks that you come across or by asking someone for directions.
We enjoyed strolling down the main shuk (market) in the Christian quarter, where our nasal passages were bombarded by wafting spices of almost innumerable quantity. Wandering in and out of small spice shops, carpet retailers, and jewelry stands, we were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff that was available. You expect to feel claustrophobic, squeezing into these thousand year old corridors as you brush past hand woven rugs, but you’re so distracted by everything around you that the tight space is barely noticeable.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall
On our first afternoon exploring the Old City, we happened upon the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is considered the most holy site in Christianity. According to tradition, it is built on the site where Jesus was crucified as well as the tomb in which he was buried and resurrected. It really takes your breath away, whether you’re religious or not, to stand in front of and then walk through a building that has been so sacred and important in history. There were thousands of people there from different parts of the world, visiting for various reasons, coming together to experience this special place.
We did have quite a distraction while at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As we were passing through one of the entrances, an armed security guard stepped in front of the passageway to block us from entering and asked us to please step to one side as he barred us with arms outstretched. I immediately froze, assuming some sort of security threat or incident. Then, in a blur, none other than Britney Spears walked past us with her entourage of security guards and associates. Once she was a few feet ahead of us, the security guard smiled and let us through to follow Britney into the Church. My ’90s childhood self was captivated by seeing her, but of course Mike was not impressed [MC: legitimately did not recognize her at first glance, so Casey had to tell me what the big deal was] and was simply focused on the powerful experience of being at the Church. Sigh. I guess one of us has to be the adult.
After our visit to the Church (with our newfound friend Britney), we wound our way to the Western Wall. The view of the Western Wall and Temple Mount from above is stunning, and it is worth then heading down to the Wall itself.
The Wall was originally constructed by Herod the Great as part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple and ultimately the construction of Temple Mount. The term “Western Wall” refers to the entire 488 m long wall running along the western side of Temple Mount, but the visited portion is that which faces a large plaza at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount.
It is considered sacred and of synagogue status by the Jewish people, and thousands of people visit daily to pray at the wall. It is a tradition to stick notes with prayers or written wishes into the wall.
[If you’re going to the Western Wall, and in fact if you’re visiting the Old City in general, it’s advised that females ensure their shoulders are covered and their shorts or skirts are below the knee. They do provide shawls at the entrance to the Western Wall if you require one.]
To keep things simple, we stayed at another Atlas hotel in Jerusalem – The Arthur. We were very happy with this decision. The room was complete with a modern bathroom and luxurious bedroom. The hotel was located right in the center of the city, about a ten minute walk northwest of the old city and ten minute walk southeast of Machane Yehuda market.
We especially liked the hotel because the staff were so friendly and helpful. Upon arrival, the receptionist at the front desk handed us a map of Jerusalem and marked it up with all of her favorite local eateries and things to do, and throughout the rest of our stay, she recommended new things for us to try each time we bumped into her – our favorite being Ben Sira Hummus.
The Food Scene – What Not To Miss
It is possible to get so absorbed by the food scene in Jerusalem that you could miss the Old City altogether. A long delicious brunch could turn into afternoon hummus and cold beers, and before you know it, it’s time for dinner.
Machane Yehuda Market
We started by visiting Machane Yehuda (or Machne Yehuda) market – which you can enter from the pedestrian- and tram-only Yafo Street. The receptionist at our hotel advised that the market has two distinct personalities and to experience both, we should visit the market mid-morning and late in the evening.
During the day, the shuk is packed like a tin of sardines with butcher shops, overflowing fruit baskets, warm pita fresh out of the oven, and brightly colored vegetables. Stand owners call out their offer, and its acceptable to snatch a cherry or small plum to taste as you burrow your way through the masses of people.
The day time produce stalls close around five in the evening, and make way for the spirited night life: travelers sampling street food, local hipsters crowded around tiny tables with beer, funky music bouncing in all directions.
On our first evening visiting the market, we did a lap or two in search of dinner and were paralyzed by indecision due to the overwhelming choices. Our newfound Britishness emerged, and we settled on the fish ‘n chip stand after seeing someone else’s (epic) plate from the brightly colored stand. Although seemingly boring for us to come all the way to Jerusalem from London just to eat more fish ‘n chips, it was incredible. Fresh, battery fish on big potato wedges and a seared tuna salad.
We both really enjoy a good cocktail but rarely splurge on them in London [MC: we only have so many arms and legs between us, after all]. Our first evening in Jerusalem, my friend’s sister who lives in the city kindly offered to show us around and join us for a drink. She brought us to one of her local favorites – Casino de Paris – which is at the end of a maze of alleyways within Machane Yehuda market.
We enjoyed the cocktails so much that we came back the next night for Mike’s celebratory birthday drink! Our favorite? “The [British] Mandate”, a whiskey sour made with dates, honey and a syrup of local spices.
A Night to Remember – Machneyuda Restaurant
I was looking for somewhere special for dinner on Mike’s birthday. My friend who was getting married later in the week (highly) recommended Machneyuda. She said she’d only eaten there once several years ago, but she remembers it being the best meal of her life. Decision made.
It was quite the experience. I knew we were going to have a good meal when we walked up to the hostess and she knew our names and that we’d requested to sit at the bar, just by what time we arrived [MC: we’re also friends with Britney Spears now soooo…].
The restaurant was charming inside, with brightly colored decor and small wooden tables crammed into this beautiful old building. The kitchen was open for the guests to see toward the back, with random bursts of fire protruding from behind stainless steel.
We were seated at the bar and immediately the bartender welcomed us to the restaurant and asked if we’d like a cocktail. After recommending a drink for each of us based on our usual preferences, she walked us through the menu. We’d been told by other friends that the tasting menu was worth it, so we decided to go with that in honor of Mike’s birthday.
The tasting menu was essentially a walk through Israeli cuisine. Beef tartar with Turkish salad and creme fraiche. “Life and death in the power of the tongue” – beef’s tongue. Mini kebabs. And the best – the simple but luxurious creamy polenta with mushrooms, parmesan, and truffle oil.
Between each course, the bartender would dance over to us and pour us shots of arak (a traditional regional liquor) to throw back with her. This is on top of the cocktails she refilled. And though the music was loud when we arrived, throughout the night it got increasingly louder, and the lights grew dimmer, culminating in a wild dance party during dessert when all of the chefs danced their way out of the kitchen, stood on the tables and the bar, and banged pots and pans together while they sang and danced. I won’t ever properly be able to describe this experience, but it was something we will never forget. We sat and danced and ate and drank and laughed, taking in the full experience of being around people so full of life.
Don’t Forget the Hummus
Most likely my favorite part of visiting Jerusalem was experiencing the hummus at Ben Sira. When the receptionist at our hotel found out that we were going to Machneyuda for dinner (think: expensive), she wanted us to try the other end of the food scene in Jerusalem – cheap street food.
Her recommendation to go to Ben Sira for hummus, falafel, and pita did not disappoint. We loved it so much we went twice. It’s out of the way down a quiet side street packed mostly with halfway finished construction sites, and tucked into a cute little shop front. On our first visit, we ordered the hummus and falafel plates. The second, we ordered the grilled chicken and hummus wraps. They were two of the best meals we had during our whole trip, and cost under $20 for both of us including beer.
We Came for Tourism, We Stayed for the Local Atmosphere
Jerusalem had so much to offer, and I would certainly return for a longer stay. I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what we could experience there. While the people weren’t always warm and friendly at the outset, they were honest, earnest, and passionate. It makes sense, considering they live in such a contested part of the world that’s been so special to so many people throughout history.