A day trip to Bethlehem was at the top of our list of must do sightseeing during a summer week in Jerusalem. We were keen to spend some time in Palestine and with the added bonus of real life Banksy works, the opportunity to visit the birthplace of Jesus and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there was no stopping us! We were all set to discover the best of Bethlehem!
Israel and Palestine relationships are complicated but tourists are able to enter Bethlehem relatively easily. Bethlehem is part of the West Bank which forms the bulk of the Palestinian territories, the remainder of which is comprised of the Gaza Strip. An Israeli checkpoint stands between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and, while tourists are free to travel in and out of Bethlehem, a passport is required to reenter Israel. We booked a day trip tour from Jerusalem to Bethlehem which took us through all the border patrols without any extra work on our part.
After passing some ominous red signs warning Israeli citizens that crossing into Palestine was dangerous to their lives we were ushered quickly through the security checkpoints and arrived in Bethlehem ready for our day of sightseeing.
Where to stay when visiting Bethlehem
Most visitors will take a day trip into Bethlehem from Jerusalem city in Israel. Most of the tours will do a hotel pickup, however the best hotels will be the ones closest to the old city of Jerusalem as they allow you to explore the Old City easily and are located close to the bus stations. The best hotels we recommend are:
- Harmony Hotel: Where we stayed and a short 5 minute walk from the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City. This stunning boutique hotel really made our stay in Jerusalem special. A delicious breakfast each morning, afternoon drinks on the sun filled terrace and a perfect location make this our top pick for staying beside the Old City of Jerusalem. The local area is lively with a great atmosphere and lots of great restaurants and bars. The hotel also has free parking which was great when we rented a car for a day trip to Massada – Click here for best prices!
- Sephardic House Hotel: located within the Old City itself in the Jewish Quarter (close to the Zion Gate), this hotel is a short walking distance from all of the sights, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Temple Mount and the Western Wall to name a few nearby). Perfect if you want to stay in the Old City itself – Click here for best prices!
- Bezalel Hotel: A fantastic value hotel located 10 minutes walk from the Jaffa Gate. A sister hotel of the Harmony hotel, the Bezalel is a great alternative if the Harmony Hotel is booked out! – Click here for best prices!
I’ll be honest. The Separation Wall blew our minds. The looming 8 foot concrete wall, lined with watch towers, cameras and barbed wire, was a shock. Its presence serves to highlight the severity of the political situation and the reality of those who live under its shadow. The wall is covered with messages and graffiti, many of which are dedicated to the political situation between Israel and Palestine.
Nothing lasts forever:
A stairway to heaven or Jerusalem?:
Lady Liberty weeping over Palestine?
We’re huge Banksy fans and we were incredibly excited to have the chance to see some real life Banksy’s up close and personal! Some of his most famous works, including the Girl Frisking the Soldier and the Flower Thrower are located in Bethlehem and it was amazing to stand in front of them. Check out our Banksy spotting in Bethlehem here!
The Girl Frisking the Soldier:
Aida Refugee Camp
Our next stop was the Aida Refugee Camp which was established in 1950 and hosts refugees from 17 demolished villages. We weren’t sure what to expect having only really seen emergency refugee camps filled with UN tents on the news, but the long established Aida camp, with its permanent buildings, is more akin to a densely populated large town. Unemployment levels are high, as are tensions given its close proximity to the Separation Wall, and there are frequent clashes between residents and the Israeli forces.
The entrance to the camp is marked with a right to return key which signifies that the refugees have a right to return, and a right to the property that they left behind. We attended a presentation in the Alrowwad community centre within the camp which outlined the history and reality of life within Aida. To both of us, who have the freedom to travel all over the world unimpeded, it was difficult to comprehend life within the borders of Palestine. The constant tensions, frequent clashes and the realisation that many of the children have only known life within such a confined area is exceedingly difficult to comprehend.
A right to return key marking the entrance to the camp:
The Church of the Nativity
We made our way to Manger Square where the Church of the Nativity stands. It’s one of the oldest churches in the world and was built above the cave where, according to the Bible, Jesus was born. The church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is ornate and beautiful both inside and out despite significant construction work.
The church is shared by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic authorities and all 3 share the grotto underneath which has been honoured as the site of Jesus’ birth since the Second Century.
Stained glass window:
The under refurbishment interior:
The Grotto of the Nativity
We descended the narrow flight of stairs into the crowded Grotto of the Nativity under the Orthodox side of the Church and, after waiting our turn among the throngs of tourists, the guard signalled that we could kneel down at the altar standing above the birthplace of Jesus. The exact spot is marked by a silver star on the floor with the Latin inscription ‘Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born’. The grotto also contains an altar dedicated to the wise men and a silver manger representing where Mary laid Jesus in the manger.
I’m always overwhelmed by the significance of the major historical religious sites irregardless of which religion they relate to and the birthplace of Jesus was no exception. It was an incredible moment to kneel down and touch the star and the atmosphere in the Grotto was electric.
‘Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born’:
The grotto under St Catherine’s Church, which is used by the Roman Catholics, is much more low key and most visitors were in quiet prayer and reflection in the series of chapels throughout the cave complex:
There are other sites of religious significance nearby such as Rachel’s Tomb, the Shepherds Fields and the Milk Grotto chapel.
After all the sightseeing and excitement we decided a food stop was essential and opted for Maqluba, a local speciality of upside down rice with chicken and vegetables in a restaurant on Manger Square. The dish was incredible and one of my favourite meals from our trip. Now to get the husband to figure out his own recipe so he can cook up Maqluba on demand!!
Serving up the Maqluba!
Dessert was a coffee from a roadside Palestinian coffee stand and a hit of the local style coffee perked us up for the rest of the afternoon!
As well as the Separation Wall, Bethlehem is surrounded by over 20 Israeli settlements which are visible from various vantage points throughout the city. The settlements are populated with Israeli civilians and are considered illegal in the international community. We stopped off at a viewing point en route to the Mar Saba monastery where the densely populated settlements on the horizon were in stark contrast to the surrounding landscape.
Mar Saba Monastery
Our afternoon was filled with a visit to the Mar Saba Monastery, a 5th Century Monastery built into the rock on a steep cliff face on the Kidron Valley. The drive to the monastery was an experience in itself with steep winding roads which resulted in significant eye closure from me!
The isolated Greek Orthodox monastery is located in the middle of the desert and is a spectacular sight. We didn’t go inside as the monastery is not open to women but it was a stunning building to admire from the outside.
As we drove through the desert the views were incredible and stretched across the Dead Sea over to Jordan. Cue high excitement from us as we were crossing the border to Jordan the next morning. Check out our week in Jordan here!
We had an incredible day in Bethlehem. It offered a fascinating glimpse into Palestine and the realities of daily life and also gave us the opportunity to visit the world renowned (and on the UNESCO list I might add!) Church of the Nativity. The Banksy’s were an added bonus as was the incredible food and coffee we sampled along the way!
Is it safe to visit Bethlehem?
We felt very safe throughout our visit to Bethlehem and it presented itself as a very tourist friendly city. It was easy to get into and out of Bethlehem and the atmosphere was good during our visit. Obviously trouble does break out so it’s wise to follow the situation closely in the run up to arriving in Palestine.
As Banksy himself reportedly said ‘if it is safe enough for a bunch of sissy artists, it’s safe enough for anyone!’
Getting around Bethlehem:
- Tour: Day tours are available to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. We joined a tour led by the excellent Yemen Elabed for our day trip.
- Bus and Taxi: Bus 21 leaves from the Bus Station at Damascus Gate to Bab ez-Zqaq. There are plenty of taxis at the checkpoint whose drivers are well versed on the locations of the major sights and the Banksy images.