Full disclosure, there’s no way to be fully prepared for Jerusalem. All the stereotypes are somehow true and false at the same time, and it’s as inspiring as it is confounding. One minute you can be in an ancient religious shrine or an ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood that looks like a scene out of 19th-century Europe, but walk down the street and you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by experimental music, hipster watering holes, hedonistic underground clubs or the city’s only gay bar. Sometimes you even get the whole melting pot in one place, like at the Mahane Yehuda Market, which is equal parts authentic, blue-collar Middle Eastern market and trendy hangout for young people.
The same goes for both the urban and natural sides of the city. The typical traffic jams, honking horns and commerce are only a short walk, bus or light rail ride away from lush nature, pastoral tranquility and quaint neighborhoods. And of course, there’s always the elephant in the room when it comes to anything in the Middle East: safety. At first, it’s hard to ignore the stories in the news or intensity in the air from such different cultures living side by side. But when you’re actually there, they often fade into the background behind all the other amazing things going on in the city—the food, nightlife, events, music and so on. There is a reason people from all walks of life have been making the “pilgrimage” to Jerusalem for thousands of years, but you can’t truly understand it or explain it until you’ve experienced it yourself.
Know Where To Go
One of the first surprises you’ll encounter in Jerusalem is that it’s pretty huge—more than twice the size (125 sq. km) and almost twice the population (800,000+) as Tel Aviv. The tourist center is actually fairly small. It’s only 15-20 minutes by foot from the Old City to the Mahane Yehuda Market, and in between you’ll find a huge chunk of the city’s hotels, shops, bars and restaurants.
It’s a fair bet that a lot of visitors don’t get much farther because there is so much to experience—thousands of years of history in the Old City, delicious Middle Eastern street food, world-class fine dining, unique cocktails bars, museums, boutique shops, art galleries and even hedonistic underground clubs.
But if you don’t venture outside the center, you’re missing out on beautiful nature, underrated restaurants, some of the best cultural institutions in the world and general Jerusalem charm—most of which you can reach within 10 minutes by bus or even a short walk. It’s just a matter of knowing where to go.
- The Old City — Obviously, you’re going to see all the big ticket historical and religious sites here: the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Tower of David Museum, Dome of the Rock and so on—but don’t let them distract you from the awesome Middle Eastern vibe, food and hidden gems. For one, you really can’t say you experienced the Old City without haggling over a few shekels with a shop owner. It’s a tradition as old as the city itself, so find a piece of jewelry or a scarf and just go for it. For shawarma, you’ve gotta eat at Al Nasser in the Arab Suq. Hummus inside the Old City walls is purely a matter of taste. Lina and Abu Shukri are both incredibly popular and different brands of hummus…so it’s best to just try them both! And Jaffar Sweets is the address for knafeh (cheese pastry soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup) and baklava. Then when you need a break from the Middle East, have a relaxing coffee at the famous Austrian Hospice coffee house and then go up to the roof for one of the best views of the Old City and Judean Desert (Cost: 5 NIS).
- Downtown Jerusalem — By day it’s all about the cafe culture. Having a coffee, fresh juice or glass wine outside, enjoying the sunny weather and watching the people pass by is simply the order of the day. If you want to keep it classy, you can grab a table at one of the cafes or restaurants on Mamilla Ave., and for a more urban vibe there’s Cafe 7 (Yannai Street), the French patisserie Kadosh (Shlomtsiyon Hamalka Street) or Muffin Boutique (Ben Yehuda Street). If you’re really on a budget, you can also just hang out on a bench on Ben Yehuda Street or in Independence Park. And Jerusalem at night isn’t so different from any other big city. You’ve got your restaurants, bars and equal amounts of trendy and alternative nighttime hangouts. Menza is a popular choice for creative, modern cuisine and atmosphere at reasonable (for Jerusalem) prices. The cocktails are pretty tasty also. Georgie Pitta is a cool budget joint with good, cheap food served in pita bread or takeaway boxes and drinks. The bar options are pretty endless, but if you want a hipster vibe, then you can’t miss out on HaTaklit (Heleni Hamalka) or the Shushan District (Shushan Street). And if you’re a cocktail aficionado, then Gatsby (Hillel Street) and Zuta (King David Street) are must-gos. For stumbling around in a drunken stupor and mingling with young tourists, locals and expats, Rivlin Street and Crack Square are your spots. Clubs in Jerusalem aren’t exactly a hot ticket, but Toy Bar, Oliver Twist, Hamakom are popular spots for students and young people (pretty mainstream affairs). Better alternatives would be to simply go for the grimiest, underground night possible at Sira Pub, or catch some free live jazz or gypsy music at Birman.
- Ein Karem — Grab the light rail from the city center to Mount Herzl, and then take a short bus ride, and you’re in Jerusalem’s most beautiful and relaxing neighborhood. Ein Karem is a village that’s all about the little things—going for short hikes, taking in the hillside views, meandering through the alleyways and checking out the independent art and jewelry galleries. It’s a little pricey, but you almost have to stop in at Brasserie for at least a drink and/or dessert just to take in the view.
- Rechavia and Talbiya — These are what you’d probably classify as typical Jerusalem neighborhoods, albeit on the upscale side (home to the Prime Minister’s residence). Both are mostly residential with a lot of neighborhood joints where you’ll find mostly Israelis and Anglo immigrants with some cultural institutions and nature sprinkled in. Talbiye (in Talbiya by the Museum for Islamic Art) is the crown jewel of the dining scene. It’s owned by the Machneyuda Group, so you know the food is spectacular, and the ambiance is more like a laid-back wine bar than a full-on fine dining restaurant. For something more down to earth…Azza 40 (open on Saturday!) and the nearby Cafe Yehoshua on Azza Street in Rechavia are bar-bistro-cafe type places with a lively neighborhood vibe and pretty eclectic food and drink menus. Meanwhile, From Azza To Berlin (that’s the restaurant name, named after the intersection of the streets) is a delicious place to satiate the nonstop hummus craving you’ll have while you’re in Israel. Depending on what type of person you are, you can walk it off in the Valley of the Cross (they also have crazy parties there on holidays like Purim and Israeli Independence Day)…or you can wash it down with some beers at a neighborhood bar (Rosh, 16 Azza Street). You won’t find much besides beer, liquor and wine, but it’s a decent spot to mingle with some locals. The Jerusalem Theatre is the primary cultural institution around these parts, and the Andalus Orchestra concerts are supposed to be out of this world.
- Museum District — True to the name, there are a lot of museums, but if we’re being honest, you’ll probably just go to the Israel Museum. And that’s totally fine. The place is huge and has so much history and art that it takes pretty much a whole day to get through anyway.
- The German Colony & Bakah — Aside from being generally nice neighborhoods, these neighboring neighborhoods have some pretty popular spots that Jerusalemites go to as alternatives to eating and drinking in the city center. Emek Refaim is the main thoroughfare. Apparently things open and close too fast to really keep track, but Focaccia Moshava and Cafit are solid, consistent choices for some Israeli fusion food, coffee and a generally pleasant atmosphere. And Doron Falafel has, well, really good falafel and so many salad choices. Walk down Derech Beit Lechem and you’ll come across some pretty happening bars and local restaurants that even people who live in the city center come to for a change of scenery. And then, there’s the renovated First Station that used to be a railway station from 1892 to 1998 and afterward an abandoned old railway station for 15 years. Now it’s a shiny, new cultural and culinary-themed compound with a bunch of restaurants, a Friday designers’ market and concerts and festivals from time to time. It’s a little too family-friendly in some ways (lots of kids), but Hamiznon has an awesome breakfast deal where you get a fresh juice, coffee, wine or Cava with any breakfast item (until 2 pm weekdays and all day Friday). It’s not a bad way to start your day.
- East Jerusalem — This is a tough neighborhood to pin down. It’s diverse, disputed and most visitors, including me, don’t explore the whole thing, so I have to stick to the parts around the Old City. Across the street from Damascus Gate on Sultan Suleiman Street, Acramawi has probably the best hummus in the city, and on Fridays, there are vendors selling all sorts of street food goodies that you must try. If you want to bask in the East Jerusalem atmosphere, walk down Sultan Suleiman with the Old City on your right and then hang a left on Salah e-din. It’s the main commerce street with a fair amount of shops and restaurants. Farther down Sultan Suleiman, you can find the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum. It’s more of a peaceful escape from the hectic city, and they have an interesting collection of artifacts from Jerusalem and the surrounding area. The building is also just pretty with an awesome courtyard. The American Colony is also a popular spot in East Jerusalem, especially for expats and journalists and especially in the summer, when they have the garden restaurant open. It’s also probably the most expensive place in the city, but worth it to have a drink and soak up the old world colonial vibe. Some of the other East Jerusalem neighborhoods are the Mount of Olives, Shuafat and Silwan (City of David is there). The last two are generally part of any political tour of East Jerusalem, but we’ll get to politics later.>
People-Watching in Jerusalem
Jerusalem is an intense city and with its diverse population, it’s no surprise that the people in and around Jerusalem are some of the most interesting in the world. This city is very passionate about its past, its history, its religions. And the people that are there
- Western Wall — one of Jerusalem’s most famous tourist sites. It’s a great plaza to sit and soak up the history/religion/strange-awesome-power. Also called the Kotel, it’s accessible from a few different areas within the Old City. This is a place that will be on most tours of the Old City, but make sure to set aside some alone time to visit and really take in the atmosphere.
- Zion Square — I used to love sitting around here and just taking in the mix of locals and tourists. The pedestrian walkway usually has some sort of buskers or people hawking things so it makes for a nice mix of interesting characters. There are often street festivals, political rallies or other events taking place here and along the Ben Yehuda street.
- Pedestrian mall outside Jaffa Gate — Jaffa Gate in and of itself is an interesting place. The official tourism office is located right there so there’s lot of people selling bagels and street food, not to mention the people dressed up as ancient Romans selling tours. But the pedestrian mall just outside the Old City is a comfortable place for a walk—especially if you get tired of the dust-brown, winding alleys in the Old City.
- Mount of Olives — It’s a great scenic overview onto the Dome of the Rock and the Old City of Jerusalem. You can walk up through the Jewish cemetery on the side of the hill as well, if you’re into that. It’s also a great place for a political overview of Jerusalem. Many political tours stop here to explain a bit about the complex nature of Jerusalem.
- Urban Walks – My friend Yana runs her own tour company called Urban Walks, labeled “authentic tours for the curious visitor.” With tours that include hidden hotspots and urban legends from downtown Jerusalem to a Nightlife & Street Art Tour, the urban walks are a great (and fun!) way to explore one of the world’s most fascinating cities. Tours are held every Sunday and Wednesday, from 65 NIS (approximately $15+).
Jerusalem is a hipster foodie dreamland. There are unique cafes, authentic local eateries, street food, creative contemporary restaurants and unpretentious bars galore. And best of all, there’s something delicious for every budget, so even if you’re low on cash, you won’t go home disappointed.
Most of the best places are crammed into the Old City, downtown Jerusalem and Mahane Yehuda Market areas, which means you can walk to any of them. And the best advice you can take is to enjoy the hummus, falafel and shawarma, but don’t limit yourself because there’s so much more.
- Tmol Shilshom — FAVORITE! Love this place. Part bookstore, part cafe, part hipster hang-out. It’s near all the main touristy stuff, but through a back courtyard and up a metal staircase it can be a bit challenging to find. Like a clam oasis in the chaos that is touristic Jerusalem. Love the food, too!
- Falafel stand at Damascus Gate – this old stand in the Old Town, just near the Damascus Gate is SO YUMMY. And super cheap. It’s hard to miss as it’s right near the beginning of the market.
- Humus Ben Sira — Really enjoyed this tiny place for their hummus. On a side street and usually crowded.
- Zuni — A bit of a fancier restaurant than I usually visit, but their food was delicious and it’s open 24/7.
- Menza — In the same price range as Zuta, but the food and atmosphere is trendier, and they have nice outdoor seating on the pedestrian street.
- Ta’ami — A blue collar, home-cooking style restaurant in the city center. The hummus with falafel (on a plate or in a pita) is always a good choice, but they also have a lot of interesting North African, European and Middle Eastern dishes.
- Aricha — The place to get sabich, the lesser-known, but equally delicious cousin of the falafel sandwich — fried eggplant, salad, tehina, amba and hard-boiled egg with homemade pickled veggies on the side. You have to try it!
- Cafe 7 — A simple, homey cafe in downtown Jerusalem with a lot of healthy vegetarian and vegan dishes. The best times to go are Saturday morning or afternoon, and the hidden gem is the 16-shekel wine spritzer. Expect a lot of vintage furniture and they play all their music from an old record player.
- Al Nasser — Best shawarma in town (Arab Suq in the Old City), and really cheap.
- Machneyuda — Way more expensive than my usual fare, but their restaurant in London was named the best in the city, and this has pretty much the same menu, so if you do the math, the ~260 NIS tasting menu isn’t such a bad deal if food is your passion. And the food and atmosphere are really one of a kind—trendy, authentic, alive, creative… basically hipster foodie heaven.
- Muffin Boutique — A tiny place on Ben Yehuda Street with glorious and apparently healthy muffins. Don’t leave without trying the pumpkin cream cheese muffin. They also make mean soups and Montreal bagel sandwiches. They only use natural ingredients.
- Austrian Hospice Viennese Cafe — A little slice of classic Europe tucked in the Old City. The contrast is interesting, and it’s a prime piece of real estate for a short break from the hustle and bustle of the Old City.
Cafés & Co-working Spaces
Most cafes in Jerusalem are equipped with good wi-fi and happy to let you work for quite a while as long as you buy something. But as usual, if you’re going to be setting up shop for a whole day, it’s just good manners to have lunch there. As far as actual co-working spaces, most are designed for local entrepreneurs rather than visitors, located outside the city center and require you to book in advance, but you can still find something if you’re really hard up.
- Tmol Shilshom — It’s one of the best cafes in town for getting some work done with some shakshuka and coffee or juice on the side
- Gerard Behar Library — It’s free, open to all and right in the city center (11 Betsalel Street)
- Cafe 7 — Another one from the cafe section, but I have to mention it because there’s almost always somebody working there on their laptop and being healthy.
- Workspace — Another real workspace, this one is the easiest to find and get to from just about anywhere. It’s right next to the light rail stop at the corner of King George and Yafo, and there’s a big sign on the building that says Workspace. Plus it’s only 65 NIS per day for a desk and 200-235 NIS for an office. You might have to pay VAT also, but not sure for tourists.
Art & Museums
The museums in Jerusalem cover the full gamut—from historical to political, religious to artistic. The city is also home to one of Israel’s largest art schools (the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design) so you’ll find a lot of art markets and pop-up galleries. Keep an eye out for the street art in Jerusalem, some of which is very political but others less so.
Yad Vashem — If there’s only room for one Jerusalem museum on your itinerary, make it this one. Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem is likely to be an emotional experience for many visitors. Entrance is free. Don’t miss the Hall of Names and the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. Read more museum highlights here.
- Museum of Underground Prisoner’s — It’s a small museum located in a former prison that gives you a brief (and carefully dictated) history of Israel, mostly centered around the Zionist and Jewish underground movement which ultimately led to the formation of Israel.
- Muslala — This art project is based in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara, bordering East and West Jerusalem. An area once referred to as No Man’s Land. Thanks to the tireless work of local residents, the area has become a unique symbol of peace with artists leaving public art in several open-air galleries. The Muslala organization runs a free tour every Saturday which I highly recommend.
- Ticho House — This house in Jerusalem has been converted into a gallery and restaurant as part of the Israel Museum. It’s currently closed and set to reopen in 2015.
- Barbur Gallery — One of Jerusalem’s best art galleries, this small space and garden not only puts on unique exhibitions but also hosts art classes for the local community. Take a walk down Shirizli Street where the gallery is located and you’ll find plenty of creative inspiration in the colors and shops nearby.
- Museum on the Seam — This isn’t your typical museum. Located in the Musrara neighborhood, it calls itself a socio-political contemporary art museum. Exhibitions cover political and controversial social issues.
- Israel Museum — Perhaps the most famous museum in Israel, it’s the largest cultural institution in all of Israel. Inside you’ll find exhibitions on art and archaeology, plus the famous Dead Sea Scrolls found near Masada.
- Gallery Anadiel — This small gallery run by the Al-Ma’mal foundation showcases contemporary Palestinian art. It’s located just inside the Old City near the New Gate, though is open irregularly—only when their are exhibitions on. More information can be found at the Al-Ma’mal Foundation offices, also by the New Gate.
Cool Bars & Nightlife
- Sira Pub — An old favorite bar of mine, it’s located on Ben Sira Street (and just around the corner from the delicious Humus Ben Sira). It’s a bit dark and gritty, but when the weather’s good, the tables outside along the alleyway are a great place to hang out.
- Uganda — Probably Jerusalem’s most trendy/hipster bar in my opinion. With amazing music, the place is decorated with old records and has an awesome vibe. People are usually spilling out onto the streets. 4 Aristobolus Street
- Cassette (Hakaseta) — One of the coolest bar/clubs in Jerusalem, you’ll find good music and chill crowds.
- Video Pub — Since the more popular Mikveh club closed down in 2013, Video Pub is now one of Jerusalem’s few gay (or really, gay-friendly) bars.
- Gatsby — A little snooty, but a gorgeous 1920’s themed space that even has a sliding bookshelf door… and the cocktails are pretty out of this world. The Mama Cass and La Punta are standard-bearer cocktails.
- Zuta — A more laid-back cocktail bar with a nice patio out back and well-made classic cocktails.
- Birman — Free live jazz, klezmer or gypsy music every day, a colorful crowd and drinks. Always worth stopping by at some point throughout the night. (8 Dorot Rishonim, off Ben Yehuda Street)
- Shushan Street — It’s kind of become hipster central in Jerusalem with a lot of dive joints and crowds that spill out onto the street later in the night. Hamazkeka has free concerts onevery night—everything from reggae, folk and rock to hip hop, experimental, funk and so on.
- Mahane Yehuda Market — It’s filled with bars (Tahrir, Shuka Bar and Casino de Paris are popular ones) and the party usually spills out into the alleyways on Thursdays. You can also just BYOB to the alley parties.
Where to Stay
Jerusalem is pretty much at the center of the world and it attracts tourists from, well, everywhere. There are hotels and hostels throughout the city. You’ll find most luxury or 5-star properties in East Jerusalem, hostels and budget accommodation within the Old City walls and many other properties scattered around the western parts of the city (near the Mahane Yehuda Market and Zion Square).
- Abraham’s Hostel — This independent hostel has a smart ethos when it comes to tourism in Israel. They keep their bar and lounge area open to the public with events not just for tourists but locals as well. With live music, weekly Friday Shabbat cooking events and even Hebrew & Arabic language lessons, Abraham’s is *the* best place to stay in Jerusalem. They have dorm rooms, private rooms (with mini-fridges, even) and family rooms. Make sure to check with the hostel’s travel desk for great recommendations on tours and activities. Dorm prices from $23/night.
- The Post Hostel — They basically took a page out of Abraham Hostel’s book and opened it up down the street, which is a good thing. The location is really unbeatable in the middle of downtown and just two minutes from the Old City. And in addition to comfortable rooms, there’s a bar that attracts locals as well as guests, culinary workshops, lectures, concerts and more. Dorm prices from $35/night.
- Austrian Hospice — this place is a hostel and a hotel with a great courtyard and cafe. It’s inside the Old City, maybe a 5 minute walk from the Western Wall. They serve some delicious apple strudel and Viennese style coffee!
- Harmony Hotel — Conveniently situated, Harmony Hotel is part of the local Israeli chain Atlas Boutique Hotels. This stylish hotel has a games room and features well-designed rooms equipped with cable/satellite TV and refrigerators (great for summertime visits when it can get very hot and you’ll need cold water!). The Great Synagogue, Jaffa Gate and Mahane Yehuda Market are a brief walk away from the hotel.
- Market Courtyard — Nice vacation rental apartments in the Nahlaot neighborhood near the shuk that go for 100-120 Euro a night, which isn’t bad for Jerusalem. It’s a great way to travel like a local with a lot of the same hotel amenities you’re used to. Apartment prices from $100/night.
- Little House Hotels — Pretty nice value hotels in Rechavia and the German Colony that aren’t too far outside of the city center, and go for around $100 euro a night in low season. The modern hotel rooms come equipped with free wifi and a decent location. Some rooms have terraces, flat-screen TVs and other amenities. Room prices from $100/night. Check for availability in either Rechaiva or the German Colony hotels.
Luckily, Jerusalem is a pretty easy place for foreigners to find their way around, communicate and have an all around good time. That said, it can be on the expensive side, and the culture is miles away from what you’d experience in most Western countries, so here’s a few tips to make your time in the city a little bit easier and cheaper.
- Never rent a car in Jerusalem. You’ll waste incredible amounts of time sitting in traffic jams, trying to navigate the crazy streets and finding parking (which you’ll almost definitely have to pay for). So if you’re traveling around Israel and want to rent a car (which is actually a smart move), make Jerusalem your first or last stop.
- Probably the most popular day trip from Jerusalem is a trip to the Dead Sea. Save 10% with this offer for the Jerusalem Super Saver: Jerusalem and the Dead Sea Day Tour before the end of November 2016. Find more Jerusalem tours and activities here.
- If you’re going to be taking public transportation, take 15 minutes and drop 10 NIS on a Rav Kav card. Even if you just go to Ein Karem, you get your money back because there are no transfers unless you have a Rav Kav card. You can also buy a 10-ride package and save 15-20% and buy return tickets on intercity busses at a discount. The office on Jaffa street across the street from the Abraham Hostel usually has reasonable lines and service.
- If you’re staying in the center, you’ll want to schedule all the museums and a visit to Ein Karem for the weekdays because unless you made the mistake of renting a car, the only way to get there on Saturday is by cab.
- Never pay full price in the Old City. Haggling is a way of life in the Middle East, and it’s not uncommon to eventually settle at around 40-60% of the original price. The key to getting the best price is being ready to walk away. The shop-owners will say they don’t negotiate at first, but once they see you’re interested, but willing to walk away, then the real haggling can commence.
- Market clearance prices on Friday afternoons are a great way to stock up for the weekend. If you have a vacation rental or hostel with a kitchen, you’ll get some discounted bread and produce. Even if you don’t plan on cooking, stocking up on last-minute pastries is a Friday tradition in Jerusalem. Just listen for the lady yelling “burekas ham” in the open-air shuk.
- Almost all cafes have wi-fi, and they’re more than happy to let you use it if you buy something. You can also take advantage of the terrible service at the Coffee Bean on Jaffa Street to stop in and use their wi-fi while you wait in vain for server to come over.
- One of the cheapest and most convenient ways to get around Israel is with the shared taxi sheruts. The shared taxis to Tel Aviv leave from here. Grab a falafel in lechuch (Yemenite yeast bread) from the Yemenite Falafel (Falfael ha-Taimani). You can put as much tehina in as you want because the bread just soaks it up.
I’m no stranger to controversy but I did want to add this to my Jerusalem city guide… This city is an incredible, fascinating place with a very long and complex history. There are many nonprofits, NGOs and independent organizations that delve into the politics of Jerusalem today. Many of these even offer tours or informational guides to tourists.
I’d suggest looking them up if you really want to learn about Jerusalem. Sure, you can show up in the city and spend a few days seeing all the holy sites but Jerusalem deserves a bit more attention than just a cursory look. Learn about the city’s current political situation from both Israelis and Palestinians. Below are a few recommendations on where you can find additional information.
- Educational Bookshop – Located just outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate, this bookshop and café sells international newspapers, magazines, DVDs and books focusing on Middle Eastern culture and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s a great place to learn more about the region and its political history, or to at least buy some books which might be able to shed more light. Also make sure to check their Facebook page for news about local events, demonstrations or film screenings.
- Museum on the Seam – This isn’t your typical museum. Located in the Musrara neighborhood, it calls itself a socio-political contemporary art museum. Exhibitions cover political and controversial social issues.
- Green Olive Tours – This popular tour operator sells a small variety of tours in Israel and Palestine, including the West Bank. Their Greater Jerusalem Tour includes a tour of East Jerusalem with political maps, visits to the Separation Wall and even one of the Jewish settlements, Ma’alah Adumim. I haven’t personally taken the tour… yet… but I’d recommend them as a tour operator.
Events & Festivals
Much like many aspects of Jerusalem, its’ propensity for putting on events big and small on a regular basis is often overlooked. For starters, there are Jewish and Israeli holidays, and part of the celebration is always a variety of special events around town, including festivals, parties and concerts. Then there are annual festivals and city-sponsored events that bring international artists, musicians, dancers, film screenings, and more to the city, or those events that put a spotlight on the local scenes.
And on top of that, there are still Christian, Muslim and secular holidays. So, if you’re in Jerusalem, chances are there’s something special going on. Here’s a rundown of some of the highlights…
- Shaon Horef — This is a huge one with basically a big festival every Thursday in February. It’s a full-blown celebration of Jerusalem’s many cultural scenes with hundreds of concerts, poetry readings, lectures, panels, exhibitions and more on streets and at venues around the city (so many hipster things to do!). Each week it’s in a different part of town also, which gives you a little added motivation to explore.
- Hamshushalayim — A similar idea to Shaon Horef in that there are special events every weekend in December, but more geared toward Israelis, but it’s also the umbrella event for the Jerusalem Jazz Festival and the Hullegeb Israel-Ethiopian Arts Festival (really interesting from a cultural perspective), which you don’t need to speak Hebrew for.
- Jerusalem Wine Festival — Most Jerusalemites I know circle this one on their calendar because it’s basically the party of the year. You get unlimited tastings of great wine for 90 NIS, live music and a good crowd (mostly) in the awesome setting of the Israel Museum Art Garden.
- Purim & Yom Haatzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) — From a visitor’s perspective, these are really just massive parties (with lots of people dressed up in the case of Purim, kind of like carnival or Halloween). There are parties in every bar and club, but I think the street parties are the best. If you’re there, just go out even if you’re tired, because the city suspends the noise ordinances and you won’t sleep anyway.
- Sounds of the Old City — This one is cool because you really get to see the Old City alive at night and hear a lot of different types of ethnic music you probably would never listen to otherwise.
- Festival of Light — So, the Old City is always an amazing place, and I think we all like shiny, bright, pretty things and even more so if they are artistic. Put them together, and you get the Festival of Light, where huge areas of the walls and cobblestone streets are illuminated with light installations designed by local and international artists.
- Christmas — It’s not exactly the Christmas markets of Europe or the glorious consumerism of the US, but Jerusalem has its own Christmas spirit that’s worth checking out.
- New Year’s (Sylvester) — Much like Christmas, it’s not a full-blown thing in Israel like New Year’s in Europe and the Americas, but it’s definitely the best foodie night of the year. All the best restaurants pull out all the stops with extravagant tasting menus, flowing bubbly and general good cheer. Of course, if you’re an ardent New Years celebrator, you can join the party at Gatsby or Hataklit.
Local Blogs & Resources
Regularly updated resources for Jerusalem in English by locals are surprisingly scarce, but there are a few good ones, and if you really need something people in Israel love to give advice in Facebook groups.
- iTravel Jerusalem — The official tourism site of the city. It has a pretty comprehensive listing of hotels, hostels, restaurants, bars, tours and big events that you can search for by category or date. There also useful articles with travel tips, dining and hospitality recommendations, and features about local stuff.
- IGoogledIsrael — It’s not just a catch phrase! IGoogledIsrael is an online travel guide, restaurant reviewer and events calendar all rolled into one. Founder Ashley trumps the likes of Lonely Planet and Let’s Go with his up-to-date, edgy and fun reports on all things Israel, always served with a heaping spoonful of British humor!
- Things to do in Jerusalem (FB group) and JLMvibe (blog) — This is where you go to find out about events you probably wouldn’t know about unless you lived in Jerusalem and spoke Hebrew. Both are run by the same people.
- Secret Jerusalem (FB group) — You can solicit travel info from locals about more or less everything. Best not to ask about politics or religion, though.
- Secret Al Quds-East Jerusalem (FB group) — Probably the best place to get good information on the ins and outs of East Jerusalem, but politics and religion are touchy subjects here as well (big surprise!).
- Restaurant Club Jerusalem (FB group) — Ask local foodies for restaurant recommendations. They love to help.
- The Shuk Cook — The Mahane Yehuda Market is always changing, and this guy basically updates on all the food and beverage openings, closures and other goings-on. There’s also some good recipes.
- Egged (website) — The biggest bus company in Israel, it serves most, if not all, Jerusalem lines, and their website has a route-finder in English.
- Made in JLM — If you want to get to know the tech/startup scene, these guys will set you up. They also have a map of co-working spaces in Jerusalem.