Things to do in Jerusalem: A Comprehensive First Timer’s Guide

Places to visit in Jerusalem - looking out to the temple mount
Places to visit in Jerusalem

There are enough things to do in Jerusalem to warrant spending up to a week in this ancient city. Jerusalem is a place of the utmost spiritual importance to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Afterall, it is here where Jesus was crucified and resurrected, the Prophet Mohammed rose to heaven, and the Jews constructed one of their most notable holy sites.

You do not have to be religious to enjoy travelling through Jerusalem. With its winding narrow passageways, bustling souks, quaint tearooms, and beautiful historical sites, the old city is a mesmerising place to explore.

The various cultures and religions that live in such close proximity to each other adds a beguiling air to Jerusalem that is almost magical. One moment, you are walking through the Muslim quarter listening to the call to prayer echo from the minarets, and the smell of oud and incense waft through the air of the markets. The next, you are in the Jewish district where locals queue for freshly cooked matzo balls. Jerusalem is a very special place.

Tensions in Jerusalem

Years of clashes and conflict have meant that the city of Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt countless times over thousands of years. It may not come as a surprise to learn that Jerusalem is one of the most fought over places in the world! In documented history, it has been destroyed nine times, seized 44 times, and attacked 52 times! Whoa!

It’s unfortunate that the city of Jerusalem has become somewhat synonymous with tension and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Though there are certainly many different religions and perspectives coexisting here, Jerusalem is peaceful enough most of the time.

Before travelling to Jerusalem, check your government’s latest travel advice, and follow the local news for developments. If you can, try and avoid travelling during any religious holidays or political anniversaries.

Things to Do in Jerusalem

Places to visit in Jerusalem Israel
Places to visit in Jerusalem Israel

Though in an ideal world you would have the freedom and flexibility to spend countless days exploring Jerusalem, perhaps you have only a day or two to dedicate to the city during your wider Israel itinerary or Palestine trip.  

The best places to visit in Jerusalem are outlined below and broken into two categories – those things that you absolutely must make sure to incorporate into your trip, and those things that you should consider doing if you have a little extra time.

Things to do in Jerusalem:
City Highlights

Jerusalem sightseeing
Jerusalem sightseeing
  • Stroll the passageways of the old city
  • Walk on top of the old city walls
  • Browse local foodie delicacies at the Mahane Yehuda market
  • Take a history lesson at the Holocaust Museum
  • Visit the Temple Mount and Al Aqsa Mosque
  • Witness Jewish spirituality at the Western Wall
  • Meander through the tunnels of the Western Wall
  • Follow Jesus’ last steps at the Via Dolorosa
  • Visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most important site in Christianity
  • Head to the site of the last supper
  • St David’s Tomb
  • Participate in a Shabbat dinner with Israeli locals
  • Take a free walking tour of Jerusalem
  • Visit the Israel Museum
  • Sample Delicious Israeli Delicacies

Explore the Old City of Jerusalem

Jerusalem itinerary - what to do in Jerusalem
Jerusalem itinerary

Built by Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire, the ancient walls of old Jerusalem still protect the city today. The old city that resides within is relatively compact, at just 1km in diameter. That considered, the majority of Jerusalem’s most important sites are contained here – including the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and St David’s Tomb.

Be sure to incorporate some time into your Jerusalem itinerary to simply enjoy getting lost among the winding passageways of the old city. One of the highlights to exploring this area is the distinctly different neighbourhoods that make up the old city.

Each Jerusalem neighbourhood is populated by a different religious group, and each has its own personality and culture. Visitors can explore the Muslim quarter, the Jewish quarter, the Armenian quarter, etc).

Walk on Top of the Old City Walls

Walking atop the UNESCO protected walls of the old city is considered one of the best things to do in Jerusalem. Follow the Ramparts walk trail as you proceed along the 1km route around the city.

From here you can enjoy some incredible views and photo opportunities. This also really gives some perspective as to precisely how small the city of Jerusalem was centuries ago.

Shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market

What to do in Jerusalem: The Mahane Yehuda market
What to do in Jerusalem: The Mahane Yehuda market

The Mahane Yehuda market is the largest market or “shuk” in Jerusalem. Nestled between Aggripas and Jaffa Streets in the “new” part of town, Mahane Yehuda is home to over 250 vendors.

The various stalls here sell everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, to traditional delicacies and Middle Eastern spices. I recommend sampling some of the spiced, mixed nuts or the sweet halvas.

Mahane Yehuda market is a fascinating place for people watching, especially if you come right before shabbat as local women pick up the ingredients for their shabbat dinner. Those interested in doing so can take a food tour of the area.

The Temple Mount and Al Aqsa Mosque

Al Aqsa mosque is the stunning golden domed mosque that sits at the top of the temple mount. The mosque has pretty much become the iconic image of Jerusalem, and the temple mount is of religious significance to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. The gardens that surround the mosque are a beautiful place to stroll and enjoy the views out to the Muslim quarter of the city.

Follow Jesus’ Last Steps at Via Dolorosa

Places to visit in Jerusalem: Via Dolorosa
Places to visit in Jerusalem: Via Dolorosa

The old cobbled street of Via Dolorosa is of significant importance here in Jerusalem. It is here where Jesus is said to have walked his last steps as he staggered through the city to be crucified.

As you make your way along the processional route, it is not uncommon to see devout pilgrims carrying crosses as they follow the footsteps of their saviour. Numbered plaques on the wall indicate where various notable scenes from the bible took place.

Look out for a rock with a handprint on it that has been surrounded by protective glass. It is said that Jesus touched this rock as he tried to balance himself, leaving an indentation in the stone.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most important sites in Jerusalem and all of Christianity. The beautiful structure was built over the hill where Jesus is said to have been crucified.

The elaborate interiors are one thing, but what makes the church special is the stone slabs inside where Jesus is said to have been prepared for burial and resurrected. Prepare to queue to approach the slabs as devout Christians rub their belongings on them in order to obtain a blessing.

Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Museum

Yad Vashem, aka the Holocaust museum, is a large complex that tells the story of the holocaust from a Jewish perspective. Inside you can find various testimonies and stories from survivors, recovered artefacts and historical videos.

A visit to the Holocaust Museum is a sombre experience, but a moving one, and a very important historical event to remember. You should set aside at least 3-4 hours for exploring Yad Vashem.

The Western Wall

The western wall (also known as the “wailing” wall) is a place of prayer for Jews. It was built over 2000 years ago in 79AD and despite the fact that Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt nine times throughout history, this wall has remained intact.

The cracks and crevices of the world are jam-packed full of little notes and crumples of paper expressing the wishes of prayer goers, sort of like a mailbox to God. The best time to visit the western wall is on a Friday evening. This marks the beginning of shabbat and is a time when many locals come to pray.

The Tunnels of the Western Wall

It is possible to take a tour of the tunnels of the western wall to obtain further insight into the history and construction of the site. As you transcend down the tunnels, it is somewhat bewildering to see precisely how far down the wall extends. Several artifacts and archaeological finds have been discovered in recent years and the excavation work still continues to this day.

If you are not interested in doing a tour of the tunnels, righteous women (aka all women) can enter the tunnels for free if they want to pray. Just let the guards know that you want to pray and they will let you pass. This is a good option if you are a bit claustrophobic and just want a quick peek inside the tunnels.

Indulge in Delicious Israeli Delicacies

Israeli food is incredibly flavourful and diverse. The national cuisine offers a lot of variety, even for vegetarians, and shares a lot of similarities to Arabic food. Over the last few years, the restaurant scene in Jerusalem has exploded, and plenty of trendy restaurants serving both local and international foods have opened up across the city.

Jerusalem restaurants to have on your radar include the excellent quality dishes prepared at the Machneyuda market-to-table restaurant, Satya mediterranean cuisine, and Eucalyptus – a restaurant that utilizes Jerusalem sourced herbs and ingredients in ancient biblical recipes.

Stop by King David’s Tomb

Situated on the slopes of Mount Zion, King David’s tomb is the supposed burial site of the King of Israel who ruled between 970 and 1010 CE. Whether or not he is actually buried here is widely disputed but nonetheless, you will find the site filled with locals who pray at the site.

The building is now managed by a Jewish seminary group, and there are different entrance and praying areas for both men and women.

Visit The Site of the Last Supper

Situated directly above King David’s Tomb is the Cenacle, the room where the last supper is said to have taken place. The Cenacle was also the very first Christian church, and is one of the most important religious buildings in the city.

Eat a Shabbat Dinner

Since the majority of Israeli citizens are Jewish, it is important to learn about the culture of their Jewish faith. Weekends fall differently in Israel and cover Fridays and Saturdays as opposed to Saturdays and Sundays. Shabbat dinner usually takes place on Friday evenings after the sun has set, and is typically a lavish multi-course meal featuring challah (braided bread), gefilte fish, and tcholent (stew).

There are several cultural initiatives in Jerusalem that allow travellers to experience a Shabbat dinner. Get Your Guide offer the opportunity to enjoy a shabbat meal with a local family. Alternatively, if you stay at the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem, you can try your hand at cooking the food alongside other travellers.

Participate in a Walking Tour

Taking a walking tour of Jerusalem, Israel
Taking a walking tour of Jerusalem, Israel

There are some excellent free (tip based) walking tours that lead you around the best things to do in Jerusalem, and provide some more insight into the history and background of the various locations.

One option is the New Sandemans tour that departs daily at 10am outside the Jaffa gate of the old city. You can also opt to take a more in-depth, paid tour of Jerusalem like this food tour, or this holy city tour.

Visit the Israel Museum

The Israel Museum is an important place to visit in order to obtain more insight and information into the history and culture of Israel. The museum contains artefacts and exhibits that cover the last 5000 years of history in the region.

Things to do in Jerusalem:
What to do in Jerusalem with more time

Places to Visit  in Jerusalem: The Muslim Quarter
Places to Visit in Jerusalem: The Muslim Quarter

If you have a little more time to spend in the Israeli capital, consider exploring the various things to do in Jerusalem that are outlined below.

  • Enjoy the views from the Mount of Olives
  • Pay your respects at Oscar Shindler’s grave
  • Admire the Basilica of the Agony
  • Enter the Tomb of the Virgin Mary
  • Cross the separation wall to Palestine’s West Bank
  • Stop by the garden tomb of Jesus
  • Take a History Lesson at the City of David
  • Explore the Tunnels Beneath the City of David
  • Discover Ein Kerem

Enjoy the Views of Old Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

Located a short walk away from the old city, the Mount of Olives can be ascended in order to bare witness to magnificent views over Jerusalem, especially of the Temple Mount as the mosque glistens beneath the sun.

There are several sites to look out for around the Mount of Olives – most notably the Silwan necropolis, an important Jewish cemetery, the tomb of the virgin mary, and the garden tomb of Jesus.

I would advise you to exercise caution while travelling here as the Mount of Olives falls within East Jerusalem, a part of the city with a large Palestinian population where clashes between Israelis and Palestinians are not uncommon. I got groped while walking alone from the Mount of Olives back to the old city and muggings are common here.  

Pay Your Respects at Oscar Shindler’s Grave

Oscar Schindler, the man who helped thousands of Jews escape from the Nazis, is buried in a graveyard (Mount Zion Catholic Cemetery) just outside the walls of Old Jerusalem.This is the most visited grave in the city, with many locals and tourists often stopping by to leave tributes. When I visited, the gates to the graveyard were locked, however you can try and enter on your way to the Mount of Olives, if you are interested.

Admire the Basilica of Agony

The basilica of agony (quite a name, eh?) is also known as the Church of All Nations and is situated on the Mount of Olives. The beautiful church was constructed in the 1920s and is widely believed to be one of the most stunning churches in Israel.

The unique thing about the Basilica of Agony though is the giant stone that is displayed inside it, which is supposedly where Jesus prayed in despair the night before his crucifixion.

Enter the Tomb of the Virgin Mary

At the foot of the Mount of Olives, within the Kidron valley, there is a small cave which is considered to be the burial place of the Virgin Mary. This is a widely respected theory, although there are also other tombs in other countries which claim to be her final resting place.

Cross into Palestine’s West Bank

Those interested to travel to Palestine can hop on board a bus from Damascus gate (Take the Arab bus 21, 321, or 324). You can either stop at the separation wall or go into central Bethlehem.  

If you have time, travelling through the West Bank is a very rewarding experience. If you have just a day or an afternoon to spare though, you can take a short trip to Bethlehem to see notable sites like Jesus’ birthplace, and the Banksy graffiti scattered throughout the city.

Stop by the Garden Tomb of Jesus

The garden tomb of Jesus is an ancient Jewish tomb that is carved into the rock face on the Mount of Olives. Though there is no historical evidence, this is widely believed to be the tomb of Jesus, and the site shares many similarities with its descriptions from the Bible.

Take a History Lesson at the City of David

The city of David is the location where the original inhabitants of Jerusalem once lived, and where King David is said to have united the Israelites and thought up the concept of building the old city of Jerusalem.

The city is very much an excavation site with new finds constantly being discovered.The city of David and its tunnels are worthy things to do in Jerusalem that warrant at least half a day of your itinerary.

Explore the Tunnels Beneath the City of David

Wandering along the tunnels of the city of David is one of the most unique things to do in Jerusalem. There are two main tunnels that you can opt to walk along – Hezekiah’s tunnel, and the warren tunnel.

The tunnels were built in 700 BC and lead to hidden water springs where Kings were coronated. Walking through Hezekiah’s tunnel is done in pitch black darkness so be sure to pack a flashlight!

Discover Ein Kerem

Ein Kerem, Jerusalem outskirts
Ein Kerem, Jerusalem outskirts

If you are interested to go off the beaten path in Jerusalem, head to Ein Kerem. This is a lovely little village of Arab-built stone houses surrounded by leafy Lebanese pine trees.

Ein Kerem is located in a valley just outside the city limits of Jerusalem and it does not see many tourists. There are various churches scattered throughout the village that boast beautiful exteriors and vibrant, intricate frescoes.

How Long to Spend in Jerusalem

What to do in Jerusalem: A street performer at the Mahane Yehuda market
What to do in Jerusalem: A street performer at the Mahane Yehuda market

Four or five days is the perfect amount of time to spend in Jerusalem – there are just so many things to see and do here! If you are tight on time though, three days is sufficient to cover the city’s highlights during your first visit. That way you always have a reason to return later.

Where to Stay in Jerusalem

Jerusalem boasts a wide range of hostels, homestays and hotels. Even if you opt to stay in the newer part of the city, the old town can be reached by a short walk. The best places to stay in Jerusalem based on various budgets are outlined below.

Budget/Backpacker Accommodation in Jerusalem

I would strongly recommend that backpackers and solo travellers stay at the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem. This is where I stayed and honestly, Abraham hostels are so much fun! If you don’t want to share a dorm there are also private rooms available. I loved this hostel because they organise lots of events each day as well as free tours around the city.

Mid Range Options in Jerusalem

It is worth keeping in mind that Israel is generally quite an expensive travel destination. What would be considered “mid range” elsewhere still comes with quite a high price tag in Jerusalem. At minimum, you can expect to pay around $80 per night for accommodation, if you can find a good deal.

The centrally located Agripas boutique hotel is a stylish hotel located by the Mahane Yehuda market, within just a few minutes walk to the old town. The hotel is decorated with plush modern furnishings and serves excellent breakfasts and snacks on the scenic terrace.

The Zion hotel is another high-rated option that is situated close to the city gates.

Jerusalem Luxury Hotel Picks

If you prefer to travel in comfort and luxury then you will be pleased at the number of upscale accommodation options available in Jerusalem.

The American Colony hotel in East Jerusalem oozes effortless elegance and sophistication.

Encapsulated by beautiful gardens, a sprawling pool, and Arabian style courtyards, this hotel is a favourite among International Politicians, Spies and Journalists. It has that certain je ne sais quoi that makes you feel as though you are in a Bond Movie.

For a more central alternative, the King David Hotel is close to all of Jerusalem’s main attractions. Over the years, the hotel has hosted an array of notable celebrities and diplomats including Winston Churchill and various US Presidents. The highlight of this hotel is the breathtaking verandas which boast incredible views over the old city.

Is Jerusalem Safe?

“Is Israel safe?” is a question that most people have when planning their trips here. At times Jerusalem can feel tense, though that is perhaps just the result of a city where thousands of people with strong, opposing religious views live within close proximity to each other. It should also be noted that Palestinians also consider Jerusalem as their capital.

Though Israel in general has a very strong police and military presence, this is amplified in Jerusalem where armed guards stand at every corner, military vehicles surround the western wall, and you are required to pass through scanners and bomb checks to enter various sites.

Honestly that all sounds a little intimidating, but all of the added security is there for the protection of visitors and locals. Most of the time, Jerusalem is safe, and I felt fairly comfortable exploring as a solo female traveller in Israel. That said, things can develop quickly, and Israel does not have good relations with its neighbours.

You should be aware of your surroundings, keep informed about the latest developments, and head inside a restaurant or a hotel if you see signs of a large crowd gathering and shops begin to close their shutters.

Solo Female Travel in Jerusalem

Backpacking alone in Israel
Backpacking alone in Israel

I explored Jerusalem as a solo woman traveller and had a great time. I spent almost a week in the ancient city before taking day trips to Ein Gedi and Masada. As with travelling anywhere, you should be aware of your surroundings and not wander around after dark.

For the most part, I felt very safe. I also stayed at backpacker hostels which gave me the opportunity to meet other travellers to explore with.

As I mentioned you should be careful about walking near East Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. Join a walking tour if you can, and try to avoid being here in the evenings.

Have any other queries or concerns about things to do in Jerusalem? Feel free to pop me a comment below or send me an email. I will do my best to reply as soon as I can. Safe travels! Melissa xo

Disclaimer: This guide on the best things to do in Jerusalem may contain affiliate links. In other words, if you choose to make a purchase through some of the links on this page I will obtain a small amount of commission at no extra cost to you. This helps me to keep up with the costs of running High Heels and a Backpack. Thank you


Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer and Blogger based in Athens, Greece. She writes for numerous high profile travel publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, Matador Network, The Times of Israel and The Huffington Post.

1 thought on “Things to do in Jerusalem: A Comprehensive First Timer’s Guide”

  1. Hello
    I’ve loved reading this & has given me confidence to travel there on my own.
    Just a question – will be landing at 02.15 and trying to find a reasonable price way of getting to Jerusalem at that time ? My host recommends a shared minivan but can’t seem to find any info ??
    Regards
    Janice Lavine

    Reply

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