Last month I returned from a trip to Palestine’s West Bank. Although I was only there for a short amount of time, my experience in the country and the kind, welcoming nature of the Palestinians that I encountered really touched me. It’s difficult to find useful advice on travelling in the region which is why I reached out to a local friend to help me create this article on things to do in the West Bank.
While exploring Bethlehem, I had the pleasure of meeting Nizar Lama, a local who took the time to have lunch with me and to tell me his stories about life behind the separation wall.
Though we are the same age, Nizar and I have lived our lives in very different environments with incomparable expectations and stereotypes placed upon us. We agreed that not enough people know about the beauty of Palestine and the West Bank.
Behind the stories of conflict and politics, for the open-minded adventurer, there is plenty to see and do in Palestine. I was pleased when Nizar agreed to help me to produce this Q&A style article of the best things to do in Palestine. He works for the tourism board as both a local guide and within the tourism office. Nizar studied in Rome and is fluent in both English and Italian, with a qualification in Tourism so I believe that he is the perfect person to give an insight into Palestinian life and travel.
Ask a Local: Things to do in the West Bank, Palestine
Many Western visitors would like to visit Bethlehem and the West Bank but are worried about their safety. What would you say to that?
Palestinians love to have the opportunity to show tourists our country. You might hear about clashes with Israel occasionally but rebels never target tourists. The main piece of safety advice that I can give you is to be careful when visiting the separation wall and to ensure that the area is quiet when you arrive. Sometimes, especially on a Friday, there can be clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers here. To check the current situation, you can listen to Radio Bethlehem 2000, Maan News in English, and Palestine TV for updates.
What Do You Feel are the Absolute “Must See” Places in Palestine?
In Bethlehem, you shouldn’t miss the Church of the Nativity, the Milk Grotto, the Pools of King Solomon, David’s Well, and of course, the Shepherd’s Field.
If you have more time, then I suggest that you visit the famous Mar Saba Monastery, a Byzantine Greek Orthodox Monastery in the desert and consider taking a trip to Ramallah and Jericho (though I would recommend taking a driver/guide for this)
What Places Would You Recommend to Foodie Travellers Who Want to Try the Local Cuisine?
With the exception of Fridays, there are excellent daily local markets in the small residential areas that surround the main centre of Bethlehem where people come together to buy and sell fruits, vegetables, spices and other local produce. These neighbourhoods are filled with beautiful Ottoman architecture and have more of a “small village” feeling to them than that which you would expect to see in the centre of a major city. I feel that this could be something interesting for the tourists to see.
One of the most famous restaurants in Bethlehem is called “Afteem” and is owned by a wonderful Christian family who moved to Bethlehem from Jaffa after the war in 1948. They have a very sad story, and it isn’t my place to share it here but I certainly recommend a visit to sample their excellent food and hospitality.
Another thing to note is that it is possible to organise a home-cooked meal in the house of a Palestinian family (Breakfast, lunch or dinner as you prefer). Many visitors to Palestine are not aware of this, but locals are very happy to invite visitors into their homes and tell them about our food, culture, and lives. One very popular one is the house of the “Hosh family”. Many travellers that visit Palestine and experiment with local cuisine speak highly of the Hosh family and they believe that the food they eat at this home is among the best in the country!
What Foods Should Travellers in Palestine Try?
There are many, many delicious foods that you can sample in Palestine but I will tell you about the most popular dishes. You should definitely try:
- Maqluba which is a stew-like dish that includes meat, rice, and fried vegetables which are placed in a pot which will then be flipped upside down when served. Maqluba literally translates as “upside-down”.
- Mansaf, a traditional Arabic dish made of lamb cooked in a sauce made from fermented dried yoghurt and served with rice or bulgur. (This is actually the national dish of Jordan but can also be found in Palestine)
- Falafel (or Felafel) which is a deep-fried ball, doughnut or patty made from ground chickpeas, fava beans, or both.
- Shawarma (also spelled Shawurma or Shawerma), a Levantine meat dish where lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, or mixed meats are placed on a spit and may be grilled for as long as a day.
- Fattoush, a Levantine bread salad made from toasted or fried pieces of Arabic flat bread combined with mixed greens and other vegetables such as radishes, and tomatoes.
- Hummus – I expect that you have tried or at least heard of this already, but it is a very important staple at our dinner table and we will eat it with most of our meals. It is a Levantine dip made from cooked, mashed chickpeas or other beans, blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic.
What About Dessert? Eating Dinner Without Dessert is a Terrible Sin….
Don’t worry, we also have plenty of desserts! In particular, we really enjoy pastries. Some of the best and most popular are…
- Kanafah (also spelled Kunafeh/Kunafah) is the speciality dessert of Palestine. It is a Middle Eastern cheese pastry soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup. I recommend that you try this if you are looking for something truly ‘local’.
- Baklaua (as the Turkish Baklava) is a rich, sweet dessert pastry made of layers of filo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened and held together with syrup or honey.
- Basbousa is a traditional Middle Eastern sweet cake that is made from cooked semolina soaked in syrup. Sometimes we cook this with coconut too or we may use a syrup that contains orange extract or rose flower water.
- Qatayef is an Arab dessert commonly eaten during Ramadan. It is said that Qatayef is of Fatimid origin.
Is it Safe to Visit a Palestinian Refugee Camp?
Essentially yes, but you shouldn’t walk alone in the refugee camps without a guide. Visiting the camps is an educational experience but since a lot of the residents are very poor, there can be incidents of petty crime and theft from time to time. The camps are typically very quiet in the mornings, but at night there can be some nuisance and occasionally clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian refugees.
If you are interested in visiting a camp, I recommend Aida, since it is the most familiar with seeing tourist visitors.
How Can People Get Involved with Local Charitable Causes?
There are many local organisations, institutes and NGOs located throughout Palestine. I would recommend reaching out to these charities directly to establish precisely how you can help them. The people in Palestine are very happy to see international people helping out and working alongside them.
Some notable NGOs that may be of interest are:
- The International Women’s Peace Service – Human Rights Volunteers
- Project Hope – Creating artistic, educational, and recreational programs to empower Palestinian youths and children who have grown up around violence to build a brighter future.
- There are many NGOs that allow you to help out in the agricultural field (i.e. helping families pick seasonal fruits), the medical field (if qualified), and general Human Rights. For additional advice and recommended NGOs, I suggest contacting the Palestinian tourism board here.
Do You Have Any Parting Advice to Give to Travelers?
The best piece of advice that I can give to you is to “always ask”. This stops you from being taken advantage of with prices as a tourist, and helps you to be sure that you never cause offence. Always ask…
- Permission before taking photo of a Muslim woman with her hair covered
- Permission before taking photos with Israeli soldiers
- To see the menu of a restaurant before you go inside
- The price of a taxi ride before you get in the car (please note that the black and yellow taxi is a public shared taxi, and follows a route around each city at a cheaper price, the yellow only taxi is a private taxi)
- The cost of the tour from a tour guide before you agree to have them show you around.
Please note that many museums, shops and restaurants are closed on a Friday as this is a religious day. The majority of these businesses also close for a couple of hours in the middle of each day for a midday break.
If you are travelling independently, and you have a question or want some assistance, it is worth passing into one of the tourist information offices in the city. The staff can give you some free advice and also a map/some travel literature. These are:
- Peace Centre Tourist Information – Manger Square (Near the Church of the Nativity)
- Abu Jarour Tourist Information Centre (Star Street)
For further information on anything related to Palestine, and any projects or volunteering initiatives you have in mind, feel free to contact Nizar at Nizar.email@example.com or via the tourism board portal here.
Getting to the West Bank
The best way to access the West Bank is via public transport. You can take the bus numbers 231, or 234 from Damascus Gate and they will take you right to the center of Bethlehem. It is illegal to drive in Palestine with an Israeli rental car as the insurance does not cover it, though you may be able to find some services in East Jerusalem that can help.
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