The most contested city on earth is also one of the most beautiful. The scope of its history is staggering, and its vital place in the traditions of all three monotheistic faiths has led to it being fought over continually through the centuries. This is the heart of the Holy Land, where the Jews raised the First Temple to keep the Ark of the Covenant safe, where Jesus was crucified and rose again, and where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven to receive God’s word. For believers, a visit to Jerusalem is a pilgrimage to one of the most sacred sites in the world. The number of religious tourist attractions here can be baffling for first-time visitors, but luckily most of the top sightseeing landmarks and things to do are secreted within the lanes of the compact Old City district. With so much to see, the best way to tackle a trip here is to decide on a few key points of interest that are must-dos and break your sightseeing down into sections of the city. Don’t try to do too much and wear yourself out. It would take a lifetime to see everything that Jerusalem offers.
1 Haram Al-Sharif (Temple Mount)
Follow in the footsteps of centuries of pilgrims, and enter one of the holiest sanctuaries on earth. Lauded by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, this is the site where Abraham (father of all three monotheistic faiths) is said to have offered his son up as a sacrifice to God, where Solomon built the First Temple for the Ark of the Covenant, and where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven during his early years of preaching Islam. It’s a place of deep significance (and contention over ownership) for those of faith. The wide plaza, above the Old City, is centered around the glittering Dome of the Rock, which is Jerusalem’s most iconic landmark. Beneath the golden dome is the sacred stone both Jews and Muslims believe to be where Abraham offered his son to God and where Muslims also believe the Prophet Muhammad began his journey to heaven. The southern side of the mount is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, said to be one of the oldest mosques in the world.
Location: Entry from Western Wall Plaza, Old City
Exploring Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount): A Visitor’s Guide
2 Wailing Wall and Jewish Quarter
The Wailing Wall (or Western Wall) is the surviving retaining wall of Jerusalem’s First Temple. Commonly called the Wailing Wall due to the people’s laments for the loss of the temple in AD 70, it is now the holiest site in Judaism and has been a place of pilgrimage for the Jewish people since the Ottoman era. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City runs roughly from the Zion Gate east to the Western Wall Plaza. This part of the Old City was destroyed during the Israeli-Arab fighting in 1948 and has been extensively rebuilt since 1967. A major highlight here for history fans is the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, at the southern end of the Western Wall Plaza, where archaeologists have unearthed fascinating remnants of old Jerusalem. The Western Wall Tunnels, which take you under the city, back to the level of the original city, are also not to be missed. Jewish Quarter Street (Rehov HaYehudim) is the main lane of the district, and veering off this road onto the surrounding side streets are a cluster of interesting synagogues to visit.
Location: Western Wall Plaza, Old City
3 Church of the Holy Sepulchre
For Christian pilgrims, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is Jerusalem’s holiest site and is said to have been built on the site where Jesus was crucified. The site for the church was picked by Empress Helena – mother to Constantine the Great during her tour of the Holy Land. She was the one to announce to the Byzantine world that this spot was the Calvary (or Golgotha) of the gospels. The original church (built in AD 335) was destroyed by 1009, and the grand church you see now dates from the 11th century. Although often heaving with pilgrims from across the world, the church interior is an opulently beautiful piece of religious architecture. This is the ending point for the Via Dolorosa pilgrimage, and the last five Stations of the Cross are within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself. The interior contains various holy relics, and the quarters inside the church are owned by different Christian denominations.
Location: Christian Quarter, Old City
Exploring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: A Visitor’s Guide
4 Armenian Quarter
Running south from the Citadel, Armenian Patriarchate Road is the main street of the Old City’s tiny Armenian Quarter. Within the narrow lanes here are the St. James Cathedral and St. Mark’s Chapel, which receive much fewer visitors than others in the Old City. Armenians have been part of Jerusalem’s community for centuries, first arriving in the city during the 5th century. Many more arrived during the Ottoman era and after the Armenian massacres in Turkey during the early 20th century. This is the Old City’s most tranquil corner to explore and a good place to wander if the press of pilgrims gets too much.
Location: Old City
Exploring Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter: A Visitor’s Guide
5 Via Dolorosa
For many Christian visitors, the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrow) is the highlight of a visit to Jerusalem. This walk follows the route of Jesus Christ after his condemnation as he bears his cross towards execution at Calvary. The walk is easily followed independently, but if you’re here on a Friday, you can join the procession along this route led by the Italian Franciscan monks. The course of the Via Dolorosa is marked by the fourteen Stations of the Cross, some of which are based on the Gospels’ accounts and some on tradition. The walk begins in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City on Via Dolorosa Street (1st station, near the intersection with HaPrakhim Street) from where you follow the street west through eight stations until you reach the 9th station at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the last five stations are. Of particular interest along the way is the Chapel of the Flagellation (2nd station), built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been flogged.
Location: Via Dolorosa Street, Old City
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Jerusalem Via Dolorosa Map
6 Citadel (Tower of David) and Surrounds
The Citadel, popularly known as the Tower of David, actually has no connection with David, having been erected by King Herod to protect the palace he built in approximately 24 BC. His original citadel had three towers named after his brother Phasael, his wife Mariamne, and his friend Hippicus. After Titus’ conquest of the city in AD 70, the Romans stationed a garrison here, but later the citadel fell into disrepair. It was successively rebuilt by the Crusaders, Egypt’s Mamelukes and Turks, during their years of reign over Jerusalem. The building you now see was built in the 14th century on the foundations of the original Phasael Tower. Inside is the Tower of David Museum, which relays the story of Jerusalem. While here, make sure you climb up to the rooftop for one of Old City’s best views. There is also a Sound and Light show here in the evenings.
Location: Jaffa Gate, Old City
7 Christian Quarter
The Christian Quarter of the Old City runs north from the Jaffa Gate and is centered around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Within this tangle of alleyways are some of the Old City’s most popular tourist souvenir souks and a whole caboodle of churches that are well worth exploring. Protestant Christ Church (Omar ibn al-Khattab Square) has a quirky museum with interesting document exhibits and a decent café to rest your weary Old City-plodding feet. The Ethiopian Monastery, squeezed into the corner of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s courtyard, contains interesting frescoes portraying the Queen of Sheba’s Jerusalem visit. The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer (Muristan Road) is where you come to climb the bell tower for incredible Old City views. And the Church of St. John the Baptist (off Christian Quarter Street) is worthy of a visit as it’s Jerusalem’s oldest church.
Location: Old City
8 Muslim Quarter
The most bustling and alive district is the Muslim Quarter, which is home to the best souk shopping in the Old City. This district roughly runs from Damascus Gate through the northeast chunk of the Old City. Plenty of fine surviving remnants of Mamluk architecture line the streets here, including the 14th-century Khan al-Sultan (Bab al-Silsila Street), where you can climb up to the roof for excellent views across the higgledy-piggledy lanes. If you wander down Antonia Street, you’ll come to the beautiful Crusader-built St. Anne’s Church (believed to be built on top of the site of the house of the Virgin Mary’s parents) and the Pool of Bethesda next door.
Location: Old City
9 Mount of Olives
Mount of Olives
Overloaded with churches and home to the oldest continually used cemetery in the world, the Mount of Olives holds particular interest to religious pilgrim travelers to Jerusalem, but even the non-devout can appreciate the spectacular Old City panoramas from the peak. This sacred hill is believed to be the place where God will begin rising the dead on Judgement Day. For Christian believers, this is also where Jesus ascended to heaven after his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. The Church of the Ascension on the top of the mount dates from 1910 and has the best views across Jerusalem. Walking down the slope, you come to the Church of the Pater Noster built next to the site where, according to tradition, Jesus instructed his disciples. Further down, the Church of Dominus Flevit is claimed to be built over the site where Jesus wept for Jerusalem, and further along is the onion-domed Russian Church of Mary Magdalene. The Gardens of Gethsemane (where Jesus was arrested) and the Church of All Nations are next, while the Tomb of the Virgin Mary is the last big attraction on the Mount of Olives.
Location: East from the Old City
10 Mount Zion
Mount Zion (the small hill immediately south of the Old City’s Zion Gate) is home to Jewish and Muslim shrines as well as a number of churches. Since the Byzantine Age, Mount Zion has been revered as the place where Christ celebrated the Last Supper and where the Virgin Mary spent the last years of her life, according to some Christian traditions (another tradition says her last days were spent in Ephesus in Turkey). For Jews, Mount Zion’s importance stems from this being the place of King David’s Tomb. If you climb up the stairs from the tomb’s courtyard, you’ll come to the Last Supper Room, which has served as both church and mosque throughout its long history. The Church of the Dormition nearby is where the Virgin is supposed to have died, while just to the east is the Church of St. Peter of Gallicantu, where Peter is said to have denied Jesus.
Location: Exit the Old City from Zion Gate
11 Old City Walls
The Old City fortifications date from the Ottoman period, and nine magnificent gates at junctions within the wall’s length lead into the Old City. The Damascus Gate is one of the most famous. Lions’ Gate (sometimes called St. Stephen’s Gate) leads onto the Mount of Olives outside the city walls. Zion Gate is the main entry into the Jewish Quarter, while Jaffa Gate is the main passageway for the Christian Quarter. Walking the wall ramparts is a wonderful way to experience the Old City. There are two sections that can be walked on: Jaffa Gate heading north to Lion’s Gate or Jaffa Gate heading south to Dung Gate.
Location: Exit Old City from Damascus Gate
12 East Jerusalem
Outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate is Jerusalem’s mostly Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Just to the east of the gate, within the gardens at the foot of the wall, is Solomon’s Quarries, a cave system that extends under the Old City. According to ancient tradition, the stone for Jerusalem’s First Temple was quarried from here. The cave is also known as Zedekiah’s Grotto as in Jewish tradition, Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, hid here from the Babylonian forces in 587 BC. Slightly east from here (along Sultan Suleiman Street) is the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum. Inside are exhibits from the Stone Age right up to the 18th century. If you’re short on time, some of the highlights of the collection are the skeleton unearthed on Mount Carmel, known as the Carmel Man, in the South Gallery, the 6th-century BC Lachish letters in the North Gallery, and the ornately carved beams from the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the South Room.
If you walk down Nablus Road, you’ll come to the Garden Tomb, which dates from the Roman or Byzantine period. It was found and identified as Christ’s tomb by General Gordon in 1882, and some Protestant Christians still believe that this is the true site that Christ was buried and rose again. Heading north along Nablus Road is the French Dominican Monastery of St. Stephen, where its namesake, the first Christian martyr, is believed to have been stoned to death. Veer off onto St. George Street from here, and you’ll come to the site of the Mandelbaum Gate. Between 1948 and 1967, it was the only crossing-point between the Israeli and Jordanian sectors of Jerusalem. The site is marked with a plaque. Also on St. George Street, is the Museum on the Seam, a one-of-a-kind (in Israel) contemporary art museum that exhibits works dealing with social commentary on human rights and conflict.
Location: Exit Old City from Damascus Gate
13 Central City Sites
From the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, you enter Jerusalem’s modern central city district with Jaffa Road running northwest to Bar Kochba Square and Zion Square. Northeast from Bar Kochba Square, you reach the Russian Compound, dominated by the green-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral. This area grew up in the late 19th century as a large walled complex for Russian pilgrims. On the northeast side of the complex were the Russian consulate and a hospice for women, to the southwest were a hospital, the mission house, and a large hospice for men that lies beyond the cathedral. The buildings are now occupied by various government institutions. North from here is Ethiopia Street, where you’ll find the Ethiopian Church. The reliefs of lions above the doorway recall the style of Lion of Judah borne by the Abyssinian dynasty, which traced its origins back to the Queen of Sheba.
Further north from Ethiopia Street is the Mea Shearim district, home to a community of ultra-orthodox Jews. If you’d like to explore this area, be aware that modest dress (covering arms and legs) is mandatory, and taking photographs of inhabitants is not allowed. The people of Mea Shearim still wear their old East European dress and speak mostly Yiddish. Some extreme groups refuse to recognize the state of Israel because it was not established by the Messiah and regard themselves as a ghetto of true orthodoxy within the Jewish state.
South from Jaffa Road is the Time Elevator (Hillel Street), a child-friendly introduction to Jerusalem’s history, and the Museum of Italian Jewish Art & Synagogue, with an extensive collection of Judaica. Running west from Zion Square on Jaffa Road is the pedestrianized Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem’s main vortex for dining and shopping.