Few places on Earth provoke intense emotion more readily than does Jerusalem. Even the name one applies to this ancient city can provoke controversy: Whether you choose to call it Yerushalayim, Jerusalem, or Al-Quds is often a political statement.
Certainly there's no shortage of descriptors to apply to this extraordinary city: beautiful, timeless, passionate, inspiring, troublesome, enigmatic, holy, poignant, controversial, beguiling--the list is endless. Once again, your choices will tell as much about you as about the city.
Jerusalem is a mosaic built over time by an extraordinary diversity of influences. Moreover, for millennia it has been at the center of conflict--and yet looks ever hopefully for a path to peace. Since King David seized "Salem" from the Jebusites around 1000 B.C.E., it has been destroyed, occupied, and rebuilt many times over. Imperial masters of the city have included the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Christian Crusaders--and the British.
The magnificent walls of the Old City, constructed by the Ottomans in the 16th century, are the latest in a long series of defensive barriers built to protect against would-be conquerors--unless, of course, you count the barbed wire that divided the city between 1948 and 1967. The Israeli military cemetery on Mount Herzl and pre-1967 Jordanian emplacements on Ammunition Hill bring the city's saga of defense and conquest right down to the present.
Jerusalemites maintain that in Jerusalem the past lives in the present. It’s certainly true that the past--given the city's preeminence for three great religions--is never far away. At an archeological site overlooking the Kidron and Hinnom valleys, one can experience the City of David, Israel’s ancient capital. Remnants of Roman market stalls are still visible in the Old City. Prophets and martyrs are buried in the Kidron Valley. And pilgrims follow in the footsteps of Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, pray at the Kotel (the Wailing Wall), or gaze at the continuing splendor of the Dome of the Rock.
Modern influences in Jerusalem are reflected in some of the city's place names. For example, visitors can wander the German Colony or the Russian Compound. Small-scale colonization by groups committed to maintaining both a long-term presence and to preserving their distinct identities has also had an impact. Thus, the Armenian Quarter in the Old City has been vital focus of the larger Armenian community and the Hasidim have recreated the East European stehtl in places like Mea Shearim.
Although Jerusalem strives valiantly to live with its diversity and to come to terms with its past., the strains caused by decades of conflict between Arabs and Israelis are much in evidence. One cannot ride a bus or order pizza without living in the shadow of violence. Many observers note the existence of two or even three Jerusalems: West Jerusalem, which is predominantly Jewish; East Jerusalem, which is predominantly Arab Palestinian; and the Old City, claimed by both.
Visitors to West Jerusalem can browse through the restaurants and shops of Ben Yehuda, tour the seat of government for modern Israel at the Knesset, and indulge in the familiar comforts of a typical European city. Visitors to East Jerusalem can pray at neighborhood mosques, drink heavy Turkish coffee in local cafes, and sample a lifestyle that is more typically Middle Eastern.
How these two rivals accommodate one another, and how they share the prize they both covet--the Old City--is one of the great challenges of the 21st century. Those of us who love Jerusalem, by whatever name, can only hope that they will rise sufficiently to the challenge.
Jerusalem lends itself nicely to walking. It is a city of neighborhoods, and all things considered, it is still a relatively small town. Parks and historic sights are a pleasure to explore on foot. The Old City in particular is a walker's paradise. But beware! Jerusalem is also a city of hills--or mountains, if you prefer. One truly must go up and down Mount Zion, Mount Scopus, and French Hill.
The ever-present Egged buses run frequently and are relatively inexpensive--a cost that can be reduced further still by purchasing multiple-use passes. Taxis are also fairly inexpensive by American and British standards, and they are the key to getting around town on Shabbat, when buses do not run. Rental cars should be considered only by the strong willed and stout hearted. Jerusalem defines aggressive driving.
What's your budget? Choices range from 5-star hotels to modest hostels--or anything in between. I stayed on a B&B plan at the Palatin Hotel just off King George V Street and was entirely comfortable for an affordable rate. I also stayed in a student dorm on Mount Scopus, possibly the best bargain in town. The dearth of tourists in recent years has made for some incredible bargains in lodging. It truly is a matter of "seek and ye shall find." Wherever you stay, locals are likely to be your best source of information on restaurants, shops, activities, and attractions. Ask questions regularly. You'll get good answers. In general, Jerusalemites LOVE to talk about their city--and who can blame them?
Tours of all sorts are available--in the city and beyond. Egged has the most reliable (or at least the largest) operation for offering tours and guides. Visitors enrolled in any sort of program at Hebrew University should take advantage of the wide number of tours they make available. And the city’s religious institutions offer specialized tours tailored to their co-religionists. In the past, youths haunting public places tried to hustle a bit of cash by offering private tours. This practice is less common today, but tourists should be wary.
Western Jerusalem has no shortage of restaurants, most of which are kosher. Israelis represent a wide range of cultures and nationalities, and that pluralism is reflected in the food choices available. Here again, I tend to prefer word of mouth and have been known to ask recommendations from store clerks, the hotel staff, and seatmates on the city bus.
Note that finding a restaurant open in Jerusalem on Friday night IS a problem--though sharing the Sabbath meal with local friends can offer a wonderful solution. Many visitors to Jerusalem choose to spend Friday night in Tel Aviv or Haifa or Eilat to ensure that Friday night and Saturday have a full range of choices for dining and other activities.
Shopping in Jerusalem is a happy challenge. My favorite areas include the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, shops scattered along King George V, the galleries on King David, and the souks of the Old City. Gift shops in the museums and Hebrew University's bookstores should also be explored. Bargaining over price is a big part of shopping in the city, but it is by no means a universal practice. Bargaining is almost required, however, in the Old City.
The best rule of thumb for shopping is to know what you're looking for and where you're buying it. If that means paying bit more to purchase expensive jewelry from a reliable source, then do so. I would be loath to go to the souk for gems or precious metals, for example, so my Yemenite silver jewelry came from a shop on King George. But the olive wood ornaments purchased for friends back home came from the souk. My Nimrod scandals came from a shoe store in Ben Yehuda, but my colorful collection of head scarves came from the souk.
Bring your ATM and credit cards. ATM machines are scattered throughout the city, and your plastic is almost universally welcome.
The road to Jerusalem is most commonly by a major airline to Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv, then by sherut (shared taxi) from the airport to the city. Reservations for a sherut are not necessary. A fleet will be waiting. For your return trip, however, ask your hotel to reserve your space and allow plenty of time for airport security.
Israelis take security seriously, and so should you. That means keeping your eyes open for anything suspicious and being patient about having your handbag or backpack searched. It also means becoming accustomed to (and even comforted by) the routine show of force symbolized by soldiers carrying arms in public places.
On the whole, the key is to be sensible but to live life to the full. You are in Jerusalem. So while it would be imprudent to drive your rental car through Mia Shearim on Shabbat or to hold a Netanyahu rally in the midst of an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, life here is joyful and should be lived accordingly.
If it’s your first visit, take along a good guidebook. There are several available, and many appeal to special interests. Whatever you choose, there is so much to see and do that a guidebook provides a helpful sanity check that adds to your enjoyment--or it did for me.