Jerusalem

Jerusalem

Jerusalem is a city suspended between heaven and earth, east and west, past and present—parallel universes of flowing caftans and trendy coffee shops. For some people, Jerusalem is a condition, like being in love; for others, it is a state of mind, a constant tension between rival flags and faiths, or members of the same faith. You may feel moved, energized, or swept into the maelstrom of contemporary issues—but the city will not leave you unaffected.

The word “unique” is easy to throw around, but Jerusalem has a real claim on it. The 5,000-year-old city is sacred to half the human race, and its iconic Old City walls embrace primary sites of the three great monotheistic religions. For Jews, Jerusalem has always been their spiritual focus and historical national center; the imposing Western Wall is the last remnant of the ancient Temple complex. For almost 2,000 years, Christians have venerated Jerusalem as the place where their faith was shaped—through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth—and the candlelit Church of the Holy Sepulcher is where the greater part of Christendom recognizes those events. Islamic tradition identifies Jerusalem as the masjid al-aqsa, the “farthermost place,” from which Mohammad ascended to Heaven for his portentous meeting with God: the dazzling, gold-top Dome of the Rock marks the spot.

The Old City is far more than shrines, however. Its arches, hidden courtyards, and narrow cobblestone alleyways beckon you back in time. The streets are crowded with travelers, pilgrims, and vendors of everything from tourist trinkets and leather sandals to fresh produce, embroidered fabrics, and dubious videocassettes. Your senses are assaulted by intense colors and by the aromas of turmeric, fresh mint, wild sage, and cardamom-spiced coffee. The blare of Arabic music and the burble of languages fill the air.

Step outside the Old City and you’ll be transported into the 21st century—well, at least the 20th: quaint neighborhoods, some restored, embody an earlier simplicity. West Jerusalem forms the bulk of a modern metropolis of 750,000, Israel’s largest city. It is not as cosmopolitan as Tel Aviv, to be sure, but it does have good restaurants, fine hotels, cultural venues, vibrant markets, and high-quality stores. The downtown triangle of Jaffa Road, King George Street, and Ben-Yehuda Street is a natural gathering place.

The city prides itself on its historical continuity. A municipal bylaw dating back to 1918 makes it mandatory to face even high-rise commercial buildings with the honey-colored “Jerusalem stone,” the local limestone that has served Jerusalem’s builders since, well, forever. Watch the stone walls glow at sunset—the source of the by-now clichéd but still compelling phrase “Jerusalem of Gold”—and understand the mystical hold Jerusalem has had on so many minds and hearts for so many thousands of years.

Jerusalem Sights

Immerse yourself in Jerusalem. Of course you can see the primary sights in a couple of days—some visitors claim to have done it in less!—but don’t short-change yourself if you can help it. Take time to wander where the spirit takes you, to linger longer over a snack and people-watch, to follow the late Hebrew poet, Yehuda Amichai, “in the evening into the Old City / and.. emerge from it pockets stuffed with images / and metaphors and well-constructed parables..” The poet struggled for breath in an atmosphere “saturated with prayers and dreams”; but the city’s baggage of history and religion need not weigh you down. Decompress in the markets, the jewelry and art stores, the eateries and coffee shops and pubs of both the Old City and the newer areas.

Jerusalem beyond its ancient walls is a city of neighborhoods. Several are picturesque or quaint enough to attract the casual daytime visitor, but hold little interest once the sun sets: the upscale Talbieh-Yemin Moshe area and the lower-end Machaneh Yehuda-Nahlaot area are good examples. Two hives of activity after dark are the downtown complex of the Ben-Yehuda Street pedestrian mall (“midrachov”) and Nahalat Shiva, and Emek Refa’im, the main artery of the German Colony.

Let’s put Jerusalem on the map. The city is built on a series of hills, part of the country’s north-south watershed. To the east, the Judean Desert tumbles down to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, less than an hour’s drive away. The main highway to the west winds down through the pine-covered Judean Hills toward the international airport and Tel Aviv. North and south of the city—Samaria and Judea, respectively—is what is known as the West Bank. Since 1967, this contested area has been administered largely by Israel, though the major concentrations of Arab population are currently under autonomous Palestinian control.

Jerusalem Reviews

While the range of Jerusalem eateries will never rival that of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, you can eat very well in the holy city. Middle Eastern food (sometimes mistranslated as “oriental”) is a strong suit. Proportionately, there are far more kosher establishments than in Tel Aviv, but fear not: the food can be just as varied and delicious, and the dietary restrictions often hardly noticeable.

Jerusalem Reviews

Lodgings range from cheap and simple to high-end deluxe in a variety of settings, from city center to the almost-rural periphery. Where possible, avoid Jewish holidays—especially the one-week holidays of Passover (March-April) and Sukkot/Tabernacles (September-October), when hotels are full and prices peak.

Jerusalem

The Holy City is not as staid as you might think, even though over half its residents—ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Arab community—do not partake in Western-style entertainment and arts. You can combine a great meal or tasty snack with a concert, pub, or dance bar for a lively evening out on the town. Thursday and Friday nights are the hot times for bars and clubs and late-night shows; classical music and dance performances tend to avoid Friday nights, and take place over the rest of the week. Check out listings in English-language publications and free booklets, which you can find in hotels.
Nightlife

While Jerusalem can’t compete with Tel Aviv in terms of the number of nightlife attractions, locals insist that what the city lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. Pubs, bars, and nightclubs in Jerusalem tend to be more relaxed than those in Tel Aviv—they’re friendlier, more informal, and often less expensive. As in Tel Aviv, the nightlife scene in Jerusalem starts very late: some places only begin to fill up after midnight, and most pubs are open until the early hours of the morning.
The Arts

Classical music is the capital’s strong suit: it’s worth checking schedules of ensembles and main venues ahead of time. Artists in other musical genres pass through from time to time, but Jerusalem is seldom their main focus. Dance performances are infrequent, and English theater is very rare.

For English-language schedules of performances and other cultural events, consult the Friday weekend section of the Jerusalem Post and its insert In Jerusalem; Friday’s “The Guide” of Ha’aretz’s English edition; and the free weekly and monthly booklets available at hotels and information bureaus.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem offers distinctive ideas for gifts—for yourself or others—from jewelry and art to traditional crafts, items of a religious nature, and souvenirs. The several shopping areas make it easy to plan expeditions. Prices are generally fixed in the city center and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, though you can sometimes negotiate for significant discounts on expensive art and jewelry. Shopping in the Old City’s colorful Arab bazaar, or souk (pronounced “shook” in Israel—rhymes with “book”), is fascinating but can be a trap for the unwary.

Stores generally open by 8:30 AM or 9 AM, and some close between 1 PM and 4 PM. A few still close on Tuesday afternoon, a traditional but less and less observed half day. Jewish-owned stores (that is, all of West Jerusalem—the “New City”—and the Old City’s Jewish Quarter) close on Friday afternoon by 2 PM or 3 PM, depending on the season and the kind of store (food and souvenir shops tend to stay open later), and reopen on Sunday morning. Some stores geared to the tourist trade, particularly downtown, reopen on Saturday night after the Jewish Sabbath ends, especially in summer. Arab-owned stores in the Old City and East Jerusalem are busiest on Saturday and quietest on Sunday, when many (but not all) Christian storekeepers close for the day.

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