I wish there were a way to sum up the history of Jerusalem in a paragraph or two, but its 3,000 years of complicated history requires a detailed write up that I will leave to historians. Just the list of top places to visit in Jerusalem is extensive enough!
It is best to first understand the layout of Jerusalem. It is divided into three sections: Jerusalem city center in the west, Mount of Olives and City of David in the east, and the Old City in the middle.
The Old City is divided into four quadrants: the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter. Most visitors will spend the majority of their time in the Old City.
Below are the places we visited both on our own and while on our tour with G Adventure which fortunately limits it groups to 16 people. While we maneuvered through Jerusalem, we encountered several tour groups of 50+ people. I highly recommend finding a smaller group like G Adventure, a budget minded National Geographic Company, or hiring a private guide. Alternative single day tours may also be found at Viator or Get Your Guide.
Top Places to Visit in Jerusalem
The Muslim Quarter
The Muslim quarter is the largest, most populated, and poorest of the four quarters in Jerusalem. Its present day configuration dates back to the Byzantine era. The most important place to see in the Muslim Quarter is the Temple Mount.
Having done no research on Israel or Jerusalem, I didn’t really understand what I was seeing until I took a tour of the Western Wall Tunnel (more below). For novices of history and religion, I highly recommend making the tunnel tour your first destination and booking it in advance.
Stroll the Temple Mount
The Temple Mount is a large platform that has been the focal point of Jerusalem for 3,000 years. It was once the site of ancient Jewish temples and now features the Islamic Dome of the Rock and is known to the Muslims as Al-Haram ash-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary.
The site of the Temple Mount is believed to be the location of the Jews’ First Temple which was built by Solomon in the 10th century BC and destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. The Second Temple, which replaced the first, was also built here, and the Jewish holiday Chanukah celebrates this event.
In the first century BC, Herod the Great, expanded the Second Temple and added the temple platform which is supported by four walls and extends over the top of Mount Moriah. The Second Temple, from which Jesus expelled the merchants, was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Left in ruins for over 500 years, the site became an Islamic shrine with the building of the Dome of the Rock and the El-Aqsa mosque in AD 691. Despite being conquered by the Crusaders in 1099, this area is considered the first religious complex in the history of Islam and the third most important Islamic sanctuary after Mecca and Medina.
While it is only the third most important site in Islam, it is the holiest site in Judaism as the Dome of the Rock stands on top of the site of the First and Second Temples.
As a result, while Muslims all pray toward Mecca, Jews all prayer toward the Dome of the Rock. Though it is the holiest site for Jews, Jewish law prohibits them from visiting, thus they worship at the Western Wall which is considered the closest place to the Temple stone.
While the Dome of the Rock is the predominant feature of the Temple Mount, there are other places to visit on the vast esplanade including the Museum of Islamic Art, the Qanatirs, the Dome of the Chain, El-Aqsa Mosque, and the Madrasas.
Explore St. Anne’s Church
Across from the Temple Mount and next to the Lion’s Gate is St. Anne’s Church, the best preserved Crusader church in Jerusalem. Constructed in the 1100’s, the church stands over the home where the Virgin Mary grew up, the remains of which may be found in a crypt and can be seen without a ticket.
A 10 shekel ticket will buy entrance to the toilets, the church, two cisterns and ruins of a Roman temple. The cisterns were constructed in the 8th and 3rd centuries BC. Under Herod the Great, they were turned into curative baths for the Roman temple to the god of medicine. These baths are also considered the Pool of Bethesda where Christ cured a paralyzed man.
Walk the Via Dolorosa
From St. Anne’s follow the road away from the Lion’s Gate to walk the Via Dolorosa which is believed to trace the last steps of Jesus Christ. A variety holy structures have been constructed to represent the 14 stations of the cross, which many pilgrims visit especially during the first week of Lent when we mistakenly booked our trip!
While the route no longer has historical merit as it is believed that Jesus would have walked from the Citadel under what is now the Central Souk, it still has a strong significance to Pilgrims. As a result many people visit the holy structures, and the San Franciscans lead a procession past the Stations of the Cross every Friday.
The Stations of the Cross begin where Jesus was tried and condemned to death and follow the way of him carrying the cross to his crucifixion site and tomb located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Small chapels mark where he was flogged and crowned with thorns, each location where he fell, where he sees his mother Mary, and where he leaves an image of his face on a towel, among others.
The Christian Quarter
Visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Five of the 14 Stations of the Cross may be found in The Church of Holy Sepulchre. Among them are the place where Jesus was stripped of his clothes, where Jesus was nailed to the cross, where Jesus died on the cross, where the body of Jesus was anointed and wrapped before burial, and his tomb.
These areas of the church are represented by an upstairs chapel with an altar over the Golgatha stone, the Stone of Unction, and a shrine. They are easy to find (just look for all the tourists) but then sometimes hard to see. For a more peaceful experience go when the church, the most sacred place in Christianity, opens at 7am.
There are some other interesting chapels in the church, all operated by different segments of the Christian Faith, which are far less crowded. I found the Armenian Chapel of St. Helena which dates back to the Crusader times cool because the walls of the steps that lead down to it are etched with crosses carved by early pilgrims.
Also, the area directly across from the entrance to the tomb beneath the Catholikon Dome decorated with an image of Christ was believed to be the center of the world during medieval times. It is worth a look.
Taking a walk through the Ethiopian Monastery is also a nice option before leaving the complex and entering the souk.
Shop at the Central Souk
The Central Souk is on the border of the Christian and Muslim quarters and is next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It covers three parallel streets of booths that feature all types of products from guitars, to clothes, to dried fruit and nuts, to spices, to souvenirs and even paintings once it enters into the Jewish Quarter.
Before jumping to the Jewish Quarter or perhaps after following this efficient route of Top Sites to See in the maze of the Old City of Jerusalem, consider climbing the Tower of David also known as The Citadel.
Climb the Tower of David
The Tower of David, located at the Jaffa Gate, costs 40 shekels to enter and affords wonderful views of Jerusalem. The Citadel dates back to the Middle Ages though excavations in its courtyard reveal remains dating back to the 2nd century BC. As a result, some believe Christ was tried and condemned at this location.
The Tower of David now operates as a museum which uses multimedia to present 4,000 years of Jerusalem history. After climbing to the top of the tower at the entrance, walk along the walls to individual rooms displaying certain periods in history. I particularly enjoyed to room of photos displaying more recent events.
We actually visited the Citadel after a week in Israel, so by then we had turned our knowledge of Jerusalem from “clear as mud” to “clear as murky water.” The Tower of David museum helped us sum up the history, but it would also be an excellent place to visit prior to touring the Old City. In addition, on certain evenings, visitors may immerse themselves in history during a sound and light show.
The Jewish Quarter
Back to the Jewish Quarter, which may be entered through the souk which was once the Cardo. There are still remains of the Cardo which once was Jerusalem’s major thorough fare. It was originally constructed by the Romans and then expanded during the Byzantine Empire.
Lined by shops, it linked the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Nea Basilica which has since disappeared. The Cardo was so important that it is appears on the famous Madaba mosaic found in Jordan.
The Hurva Synangogue
At the end of the Cardo is the Hurva Synagogue. The name Hurva means ruins and this synagogue has suffered its fair share. In the 1690’s, the Askenazi community rebuilt an old synagogue here. Two decades later angry creditors burned it down due to the community’s unpaid debt.
In the 1850’s, it was rebuilt in a Neo-Byzantine style where it stood for almost 100 years before it was blown up in 1948. Again, it remained a ruin until 2010 when it was reconstructed. It affords excellent views of the City of Jerusalem.
The Western Wall
Heading east from Hurva Synagogue and square will take visitors to the most important and holiest area of the Jewish Quarter, the Western Wall. The Western Wall is part of the retaining wall to the Temple Mount and is the closest area to the previously destroyed First and Second Temples now covered by the Dome of the Rock where Jewish people may not go.
Formerly known as the Wailing Wall where Jewish people went to lament the destruction of the Second Temple, the Western Wall now serves as a place where worshippers recite verses or leave written prayers in the stones.
Visitors may enter the plaza area through secure checkpoints and may even approach the wall if dressed accordingly. The prayer areas, however, are segregated by men and women.
The plaza was once covered by Arab housing which was destroyed after the Israeli’s took control of Jerusalem in 1967. Now, Wilson’s Arch which leads to the “recently dug” Western Wall Tunnels may also be seen.
Tour the Western Wall Tunnels
I’ve put “recently dug” in quotes because much of the excavation along the Western Wall did not take place until after 1967, relatively recent in the grand scheme of things.
The Western Wall Tunnels may be visited by guided tour for 35 shekels, and reservations must be arranged in advance. The 1.5 hour tour begins with an interchangeable model display that really helps visualize the construction of Jerusalem. It starts as Mount Moriah and then the guide places the Temple Mount platform on top and slowly adds buildings during the history briefing. This was very helpful to a novice like me.
The tour continues alongside the Western Wall where visitors see and learn about the fine craftsmanship of Herodian Architecture. The blocks in the wall from this time period are enormous. One stone which measures 40 feet long by 10 feet high and is estimated to weigh 660 tons displays evidence of attempts of destruction. In addition, the craftsmanship on these large stones is so good, that they were placed in the wall without mortar.
After a thorough discussion about the wall, the stone, and periods of time thereafter, the tour continues through a narrow tunnel past a few encased ruins to a section of the Second Temple road and to a Hasmonean water aqueduct that leads to the Strouthion Pool. To me, it was pretty cool to finally stand on the actual road on which Jesus walked, even if it was only a few stones since all of Jerusalem is built over the top of it.
The tunnels exit into the Muslim Quarter where continuing through the Lion’s Gate leads visitors to other attractions in walking distance of the Old City of Jerusalem. These include the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane, the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, rhe Mount of Olives, the City of David, the Garden Tomb, the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, the Mahane Yehuda Market, and Mount Zion which includes Schindler’s Tomb, the Tomb of King David, and the Hall of the Last Supper.
Take in the Views from Mount of Olives
According to the New Testament, Jesus visited the Mount of Olives three times the week before his crucifixion. Further, the Mount of Olives has been a Jewish burial site since biblical times as Jews believe the resurrection of the dead will start here.
In addition to its historic significance, it provides excellent views of the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s best to visit on a clear day and to consider a taxi to the top. They wait at the nearby Garden of Gethsemane, so they are easy to find.
Stroll the Garden of Gethsemane and Visit the Church of All Nations
At the base of the Mount of Olives is the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane. This tranquil garden of gnarled olive trees that date back centuries is believed to be where Jesus prayed before his betrayal and arrest.
The Church of All Nations, constructed in 1923 with the funds from twelve nations, was built over a former Byzantine church whose plan is traced by black marble along the floor. Additionally, a rock from the old church may be seen in the center nave. The mosaics in the church depict Christ’s Agony, his arrest and Judas’ kiss.
Don’t Miss the Tomb of the Virgin Mary
Upon leaving the church, down to the right is the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. The 47 steps down to the generic looking building may cause some to mistakenly walk by as the tomb is not sign posted. Don’t miss it as inside the Tomb of the Virgin Mary is mystically decorated with icons and sacred ornaments.
Tour the City of David
About a 10-minute walk from the Tomb of the Virgin Mary toward the Dung Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem is the City of David.
During the First Temple era, the capital of Jerusalem was situated south of Mount Moriah in what is now known as the City of David. King David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites around 1,000 BC. In 586 BC, the Babylonians captured the city, and it has since laid in ruins.
Visitors may participate in a 65 shekel guided tour of the ruins which include the Royal Quarter, a cistern and two tunnels, one of which requires wading through thigh high water with a flashlight.
Admire the Jerusalem Archaeological Park
Across from the City of David just inside Dung Gate is the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. I suppose if I’m being accurate this attraction is inside the walls of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
However, located next to the security entrance to the Western Wall, the open-air L shaped site still under excavation gives the feeling that is located outside the Old City.
Remains include remnants of Robinson’s Arch, ritual baths, the Omayyad Palace, and a street dating back to the Second Temple. Much of it may be viewed from afar.
Continuing around the outside of the Old City of Jerusalem, visitors will reach Mount Zion. Mount Zion is located near the Armenian Quarter and used to be part of the Old City until Suleyman the Magnificent rebuilt the wall in the 1530’s.
Mount Zion includes Schindler’s Tomb, the Tomb of King David, and the Hall of the Last Supper, thus it is very important to both the Christians and the Jews.
Look for Schindler’s Tomb
German-born Oskar Schindler is known for employing many Jewish prisoners in his factory during World War II. Subsequently, he has been credited with saving over 1,000 Jewish lives. His story is told in the Oscar winning film Schindler’s List.
Before passing in 1974, he requested to be buried in Jerusalem and his grave can be found in a Christian cemetery on Mount Zion. It is easy to distinguish his grave as it is the only one covered with rocks which is the result of a Jewish tradition where Jews leave a stone when visiting the dead.
Revere King David’s Tomb
In addition to Schindler’s Tomb, Jewish people also visit King David’s Tomb, though King David’s Tomb is considered far more sacred.
King David is considered the founder of Jerusalem, and when Jews could not visit the Western Wall when the Old City of Jerusalem was under Jordanian control, they came here to pray.
The site which only includes a cenotaph covered with a drape is separated into men and women sections for worshiping.
Imagine the Last Supper
Just above King David’s Tomb is the Hall of the Last Supper located in the remains of a Crusader church. I’m not sure what is was about this unadorned empty room but is was one of the few places in Jerusalem I could stop and actually imagine Christ’s last meal with his Disciples as to me many holy places were spoiled by shops and tourism.
Other Places Slightly Further from the Old City
Just a bit farther from the Old City of Jerusalem are the Garden Tomb and the Mahane Yehuda Market.
Enjoy the Gardens at the Garden Tomb
The Garden Tomb may be visited by donation. A path leads visitors through a garden to a view of a skull shaped hill which some believe is the Golgatha referred to in the New Testament and that this area is the burial site of Jesus Christ. Whether it is the burial site or not, at least it is a quiet garden with a reprieve from the crowds.
Eat at the Mahane Yehuda Market
Northwest of the Garden Tomb is the Mahane Yehuda Market. After visiting sites all day, tired legs might appreciate transportation to this vibrant market. We took a food tour and cooking class with a company called Teamim which means Tasty Things.
Kobi took us all through the market tasting different food items, so many infact, that we were hardly hungry for the meal that we prepared. None the less, we tried spices, tea, tahini, halva, memulawach, juice, and kunafeh.
Halva is a sweet made of ground sesame seeds and sugar and molded into a block. There is a selection of flavors to choose from like chocolate, coffee and pistachio.
Memulawach can be similar to a pizza or a wrap. The round disc of frozen dough is heated in a skillet and topped with anything from hard boiled eggs and salad to cheese and chicken. Watch this video to see the chef toss the dough.
The kunafeh made of warm cheese and sugar water sounded terrible to me. Topped with pistachios and ice cream, it was my favorite item at the market. Unfortunately, my description of it fails to express how delicious it was. I could have eaten the entire plate of this desert, but I needed to save room for our enormous meal that we cooked.
We prepped and cooked focaccia bread, eggplant, tabbouleh, Mussachan chicken, fish, Makooba rice, and Basbusa cake. These tasty plates are common in Israel, and similar options may also be found in Oman and Turkey. I definitely gorged myself on this food tour and waddled back to the hotel!
Things to Do Outside the City Center of Jerusalem
Though I have already provided an extensive list of things to do in Jerusalem, in particular in and around the Old City, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Israel Museum and Yad Vashem that require transportation outside the city center.
Walk Through Time at The Israel Museum
I am not much of a museum person, but I must admit the Israel Museum is world class and is worth every bit of 54 shekels. Everything from the architecture, to the chronological layout, to the displays, to the actual artifacts were extremely well done.
The museum includes four areas, the Jewish Art and Life Wing, the Fine Arts Wing, the Archaeology Wing, and the Shrine of the Book. We spent most of our time in the Archaeology Wing and of course the Shrine of the Book which is the biggest draw as it houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Though it is possible to get lost in the Archaeology Wing, keep an eye out for each numbered area as the artifacts are separated into different time periods dating back to before Christ and are displayed in chronological order. Following the numbered areas makes it really interesting to walk through time.
The Shrine of the Book section of the museum is also quite remarkable beginning with the architecture of the building. Outside, the building features a black basalt wall and a white dome which represent the battle between the Sons of Darkness and the Sons of Light described in the War Scroll.
Continuing inside, visitors enter a passageway which is designed to look like the caves in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. In the main chamber under the dome, a copy of one of the scrolls wraps around an eye-popping center piece designed to look like the lid of the jars in which they were found.
The scrolls, which are dated between the third century BC and AD68, contain some of the oldest existing biblical scripture. The first seven scrolls were found in jars by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. Over the next two decades, portions 800 additional scrolls were found in 11 caves near Qumran.
One of the real scrolls is also displayed in a side case in the dome chamber. Downstairs features the oldest Bible in Hebrew. Next to the dome outside, visitors my also see an intricate model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period. To me, this museum really had something for everyone.
Mourn the Holocaust Victims at Yad Vashem
Also outside the city center of Jerusalem, is Yad Vashem, an institute, museum and memorial that dedicates itself to the six million Jews that were killed in the Holocaust.
Yad Vashem is a collection of buildings spread across the property. Its main museum is a long, triangular corridor cut into hillside designed to represent a scar that the Holocaust left on the Jewish people. Inside, it includes 10 exhibition halls which feature many personal belongings donated by survivors.
Though excellent exhibits, the design of the museum causes the halls to be very cramped. During the middle of the day when we arrived, it was extremely difficult to move around and see everything. Fortunately, I had already done an intense six-hour tour of Auschwitz, so I didn’t feel like I was missing too much as I snaked through, but this museum might be better visited at its opening when it is less crowded.
One of the most moving rooms I found in this portion of the museum was The Hall of Names in which books that line the curved walls include the name and biography of every Jew who perished. The amount of volumes is astounding.
Across the giant esplanade are several other buildings with art and photography displays. In addition, there are two poignant indoor memorials.
One is the Hall of Remembrance, which is a large, dark room lit by an eternal flame that flickers over a casket of ashes from WWII crematoriums. Scattered about the floor are black basalt slabs which bear the name of the main 21 concentration camps.
The other moving memorial is a small room of mirrors with a maze-like appearance whose audio announces the names of child victims.
For those who have not visited a camp in Europe, definitely consider the free entrance to Yad Vashem and pay for a map. Just arrive early and be sure to visit the outer exhibits and memorials which are far less crowded than the main museum.
While the comprehensive list above may seem unachievable, we covered these main sites in three full days. That said, we kept our visits brief and our feet would have liked a more relaxing itinerary. Not to mention, there are several less visited, yet historic places I didn’t mention. History buffs and religious worshipers would likely require more time to enjoy these top places to visit in Jerusalem. To be continued in Bethlehem…ETB
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- Bethlehem and the West Bank
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