A day trip to Bethlehem from Jerusalem: O Little Town of Bethlehem!

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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!

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Entering 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.

Book your tour now!

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.

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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!

Click here for the best Jerusalem hotel prices

The Wall

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:

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A stairway to heaven or Jerusalem?:

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Lady Liberty weeping over Palestine?

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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:

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A replica of the Girl and the Balloons:Day trip to Bethlehem from Jerusalem ©thewholeworldisaplaygroundPin

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.

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A right to return key marking the entrance to the camp:

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A glimpse into life in the camp:Day trip to Bethlehem from Jerusalem ©thewholeworldisaplaygroundPin

The streets of the camp:Day trip to Bethlehem from Jerusalem ©thewholeworldisaplaygroundPinIt must be cat dinner time!

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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.

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Stained glass window:

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The under refurbishment interior:

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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.

The Grotto:

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‘Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born’:Day trip to Bethlehem from Jerusalem ©thewholeworldisaplaygroundPin

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:

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There are other sites of religious significance nearby such as Rachel’s Tomb, the Shepherds Fields and the Milk Grotto chapel.

Lunch Time!

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!

Looking good!

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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!

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The Settlements

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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

29 thoughts on “A day trip to Bethlehem from Jerusalem: O Little Town of Bethlehem!”

  1. Wow – what a thoroughly inspiring and beautifully presented post. I never considered Bethlehem as a place to go to – too dangerous. But your post has me reconsidering. Wonderful, thank you. 🙂

      • I’m going to Israel next month for my best friend’s son’s bar mitzvah and I’ll have an afternoon free on Christmas Eve, I think this will be the perfect place to go since it’s so close it seems I can get there and back to Jerusalem within the space of a few hours, with a stop at the Church of the Nativity. I’m sure it’ll be mobbed on Christmas Eve but even if I can’t get in, I can always say I was there on Christmas Eve!

          • Hi Elaine, I’m sorry it’s taken this long to respond but I didn’t even know how to get back here until I just stumbled upon it just now (I’m not signed up for notifications). I didn’t in fact make it to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve, I got there a couple of days after Christmas, but it was still one of the most magical days of the year for me. I don’t consider myself religious in the least, but the feeling of being at the very cradle of Western civilization was just incredible. I got so lucky because our Israeli guide was friends with a Palestinian guide, and, since Israelis are not allowed in Bethlehem, he set me up with this Palestinian gentleman, who drove me from Jerusalem into Bethlehem, simply waving to his friends at the checkpoint and breezing through. He then introduced me to a wonderful gentleman who runs a souvenir shop, where I stocked up on all kinds of rosaries, bibles, oils, etc., for all my very Roman Catholic family members. My guide then introduced me to a guide who lives in Bethlehem, who was able to whisk me past the ropes and directly to the front of the line to enter the grotto of the Church of the Nativity, where Christ was born. The feeling is simply indescribable as you stand on that spot, so I won’t even begin trying. All in all, to be in Bethlehem at Christmas time, to stand on that spot (after which I went to Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus died, yet another completely transcendent and surreal moment) was something I would wish for everyone, regardless of religion, or no religion, as in my case. I also was very fortunate to have my Palestinian guide who told me a lot about the situation on the ground. He told me about the dire level of poverty there, and how everyone wants to work in Israel, where the pay is so much better. I asked if it was difficult to work in Israel, and he said no it was not, you just needed a work permit. I asked if those were difficult to get, and he replied that no, they were very easy to get, unless, as he put it, you were a “bad person.” I told him how surprised I was since the media portrayed the situation as all Palestinians hate Israelis, and vice versa, and he said that was absolutely not the case, it simply made for a more interesting dramatic story, but that the people in general get along very well. All in all, such a unique experience and one I will never forget. Thanks for asking! And I hope you get to experience it yourself one day.

          • See my reply above, and sorry for the tardy reply. I hope/trust you had an even more amazing time than I did. I was sorry to miss Christmas Eve, but thrilled to be there at all.

  2. Awesome photos! I have always dreamt of visiting this lovely country and I hope I get to be there soon. Nevertheless, it’s great to have seen parts of the city through your blog as well as learning a bit more about it. 🙂

    Safe travels, you two!

  3. Wow, this looks amazing. A really big place on my list, I’m fascinated by the history of this area. The Grotto of the Nativity must be incredible to visit and the art work on the separation wall is so interested. What a formidable sight! I can’t wait to go and see it all for myself. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Nicely done. You make me want to get up and go now. 🙂 Well, maybe in the Spring or Summer. Anyway I am curious about it, so I think we need to add it to our list when we are over that way. Currently in SEA, so a bit of a trek.

    • Thanks Francesca! We did a tour and it was great, some days it’s nice to just sit back and relax while someone else shows you around!

  5. I love how thorough your post is. It seems like such an amazing experience! I think it’s great for people to see that people can go to these kinds of places without being afraid. Your experience is inspiring! 🙂

  6. Hi Elaine,
    Really liked the way you mixed art, history and the conflicts.
    Israel & Palestine were in our plans for 2014 but due the unstable situation we decided to postpone our visit. Hope to make it on 2015.

  7. Wonderful and well written Elaine. Just wandering if visiting Jerusalem via a cruise ship would there be enough time to visit Bethlehem and parts of Jerusalem in 10 hours without any rush? just thinking of doing this when the ship docks into port. Thanks alot and keep writing.

    • Thanks Robert, glad you enjoyed the post!

      If I had 10 hours I would stick to the Old City of Jerusalem and the surrounding area and try to see sights like Temple Mount, The Wailing Wall, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Mount of Olives. Bethlehem would be risky because you have to pass through the checkpoint on the way back so it’s hard to budget time.

      Hope you have a fun trip 🙂


  8. Wow..This is one of my dream to visit the holy land. I hope to visit this year or early next year.God is always with us, for those who believes in him he will keep us safe while visiting this place.

  9. Hi Elaine! Your trip looked absolutely amazing. I’m going next month and I wanted to know if Bethlehem stamped your passport?


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