Calling anywhere the most important city in the history of the world may seem a tad hyperbolic; but then you consider what’s been going down in Jerusalem in, ooh, say the past five millennia or so, and you realise that the claim may indeed be justified.
We’re talking about a holy city for three of the world’s leading religions; somewhere that has been fought over for as long as it has been in existence; a place teaming with landmarks of such ludicrous cultural importance that you almost – almost – become inoculated. “Mount of Olives? Where Jesus ascended into heaven? Cool. What time’s lunch?”
If you want to explore Jerusalem fully, you better take the next year off work; assuming this mightn’t go down so hot with the boss, we’ve rounded up a few recommendations.
Needless to say, there are numerous omissions on this list; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for example, contains the two holiest sites in Christianity – the stone on which Jesus was crucified and the tomb he rose from – but as a result it’s mighty crowded and unless you really feel compelled there are places of better spectacle-to-time ratio. (And if you’re compelled, you’ll go anyway.)
Even if you’re not staying a year, you’ll need somewhere to kip, so let’s start with…
Jerusalem has no shortage of wonderful hotels; for ease of reference we’ll highlight three in particular. The most famous is the King David Hotel that was opened in 1931.
A magnificent pink limestone cuboid, the King David has been the place to stay for nearly 90 years: walk into its lobby and gaze upon the photographs of various presidents, world leaders, and celebrities.
If you prefer your luxury a little more modern, the Mamilla is a sleek, five-star hotel that boasts a roof terrace with panoramic views over the Old City and suites the size of a two-bed Mayfair flat.
Want to stay out of town? Hotel Yehuda is a half an hour drive from the city, and offers relaxed and comfortable accommodation, along with some peace and quiet. It’s also near the Biblical Zoo and the Malha Mall.
It’s a sign of how much Jerusalem has to offer that we’re giving the Old City its own category, which is frankly a bit ridiculous: until 1860 this was Jerusalem, with no neighbourhoods outside its walls at all.
The walls in question were built by Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, although some form of settlement has existed on the site since at least the 11th century BC. Today the city is divided into four quarters – Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish – and as you walk through the narrow, winding streets you’ll notice the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between each one.
Ancient architecture is everywhere – most famously the Tower of David, supposedly built on the site of the palace of the Biblical King. Several evenings a week a stunning light show illuminates the walls of the tower and the surrounding ruins, telling the story of Jerusalem in 30 spellbinding minutes.
City of David
Speaking of King David… The City of David is an entirely separate entity from the Tower of David. (A result of the king being a big deal and living a very long time ago; so naturally nobody is quite sure where his digs were based.)
The ruins of what was clearly an ancient city extend down from the southern walls of ‘modern’ Jerusalem, and include several water tunnels visitors can walk through. There is also the wonderfully named ‘Large Stone Structure’ – the remains of a big public building, tentatively dated 9th-10th century BC, which might, just might, be the actual palace of the king.
A shout-out to the tour guides, incredibly well educated and passionate, who not only bring home the immensity of what you are seeing (3,000 years can be hard to comprehend until somebody spells it out for you) but also explain exactly why these ancient civilizations choose this particular site to call home. Excavations are ongoing; watch this space.
Yad Vashem has a very simple purpose, overwhelming in its ambition: to preserve the names and memories of every single one of the six million people murdered in the Holocaust, and those who tried to help them.
The museum traces how the historical persecution of the Jewish people reached its horrifying endgame under the Nazi regime, and proceeds to document those horrors in minute detail – from the ghettos to the concentration camps to the gas chambers. It’s hard to convey the scope of what’s on display here: oral testament from both Jewish prisoners and Nazi soldiers, recovered family heirlooms, photographs, films, children’s shoes.
After journeying through a spiritual darkness so total it’s almost suffocating, you emerge out onto the slopes of Mount Herzl, blinking in sunlight as birds murmur in the trees. Yad Vashem receives around a million visitors a year – and each one makes it a little more likely all those innocent people didn’t die for nothing.
You could spend a good week living in the Israel Museum (hypothetically: there’s no campsite) and not even see half of the archaeology, artefacts, and fine art on display here. (And that’s just the As – there are approximately half a million objects in total.)
The most famous of the many, many exhibits is the Dead Sea Scrolls. Displayed in their own private wing – a beautiful white dome called The Shrine Of The Book – the scrolls are fragments of ancient manuscripts that include biblical books, historical records, and even a treasure map of sorts. Even leaving aside their staggering cultural and theological importance, simply looking on the scrolls is a strange feeling; seeing words that were transcribed some 2,000 years ago, by someone who was once just as alive and vital as you or I.
Machane Yehuda Market
It mightn’t quite be the city that never sleeps but Jerusalem has a more vibrant nightlife than you would expect from somewhere primarily famous for its history.
The main hotspot is probably Machane Yehuda Market: not exactly dormant in the daylight hours, as dusk falls the market comes alive with restaurants and bars, a buzzing hive of communal activity. While away a few hours with a drink or two and watch the evening unfold; just as visitors to Jerusalem would have done some 3,000 years before you. (Give or take a craft beer.)
If you want to go upmarket (pun absolutely intended), Gatsby Cocktail Room is an exclusive speakeasy that could have been imported straight from Manhattan. Jerusalem: a true city of the world.
For flights to Jerusalem, see wizzair.com