Bithplace of Jesus
After already spending the day before sightseeing in Jerusalem, we planned in between a half day visit to Bethlehem. A city impossible to miss while visiting Israel, although I should say in this instance, Palestine since the city is already at the other side of the border. Yet not a country fully recognized by all nations and ever disputed with Israel. Anyway, geo-political and politics as overall is something I don’t like to discuss in my blog. My purpose here is to give you an overview on culture and architecture on the most easy, simple and reasonable way.
Although a cute small size city, it boats a huge history. Destroyed several times, rebuilt even since. From its origins as a Canaanite city around 1400BCE, to Israeli, Judean, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Crusader, Ottoman, Egyptian, British and Palestinian.
But for what people know it much better is for being the birthplace of Jesus. As such, this is pilgrim destination number one for the Christian world. Everywhere around the city is site of a biblical event, some of the major places you will find described below. You cannot miss those, they are the must does in the city; although nothing can top the Basilica of the Nativity for obvious reasons. Expect many groups of tourists in constant transit, while long queues build up to enter the Grotto of the Nativity. You need to be smart to have your perfect picture and what is now the trend, a selfie with the Silver Star.
Since the size of the city is small and amount of sights not many, do not plan longer than half day trip here (if you come from Jerusalem, if farther, then you will probably be on a day tour or will take most of the day to go, visit and back to wherever your base is). Staying overnight in the city does not make sense and remember it is a Muslim city therefore do not expect places to go out. Instead, be wise in having your base in Jerusalem where you have countless options. I in fact, originally planned 1 day in Jerusalem, and 1 day in Bethlehem, having some extra hours also a following day in Jerusalem, but thankfully it took us just half a day in Bethlehem and enjoyed the other half in Jerusalem. Even with this, we did not have enough time to explore in full the capital, but will further explain better on the travel guide for it.
For more information about Bethlehem check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Israel’s currency is the Shekel (ILS). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Bethlehem
- Manger Square This is the main square in Bethlehem and where you will find the key highlights of the city.
-Basilica of the Nativity Sight number one in the city, and to the whole Christian world. Original construction dates back to 339AD on the site believed to be the birthplace cave of Jesus. The basilica was destroyed by fire in the Samaritan Revolts, having a new one built during the Byzantine control in 565AD. Ever since then there has been many additions but the site remains pretty much in its original shape. Inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site List.
-Door of Humility Is the main entrance to the Basilica. Of curiosity, it is a very low door.
-Grotto of the Nativity Right under the main basilica is the place believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, marked in the marble floor by a 14 pointed Silver Star.
-Church of Saint Catherine Located adjacent to the Basilica of Nativity dates from the 19th century, in Gothic style, and it’s from where the Christmas mass is televised worldwide.
-Saint Jerome’s Cave Accessible through the complex of subterranean chambers under Saint Catherine is the studio where Jerome in around 386AD spent 30 years in translating the most enduring version of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.
-Church of the Milk Grotto Located few meters south of the Basilica of the Nativity. When Mary and Joseph were fleeing Herod’s soldiers on their way to Egypt, this is the place believed to be where Mary nursed baby Jesus. A first structure was built over the cave in 385AD, and since the 4th century a place of Veneration.
-Mosque of Omar The only mosque in the city built in 1860.
-Star Street Is the main thoroughfare and shopping street connecting the north and south of the old town through Manger Square.
- King David’s Wells Are three ancient cisterns off Menger Square at the end of Star Street, believed to be the site where David’s soldiers broke through the Philistine lines in order to get him water to drink.
- Old Town A maze of narrow streets, good glimpse of an Arab town. Near Manger Square where it can be reached from the streets leading to it.
- Rachel’s Tomb The second most important historical site for Christians in Bethlehem after the Basilica of the Nativity. It is the burial place of the matriarch Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Heavily secured and pretty much blinded as a fortress-like with the walls constructed by Israel to barricade it from Bethlehem since it is a holy site in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
- Jacir Palace Originally this huge mansion was built for a rich family in 1910, in typical Palestinian architecture. Nowadays one of the most luxurious hotels in the city.
- Banksy Graffiti Worldwide known graffiti artist Banksy made one of his works in the wall dividing Israel from Palestine. It is one of the most known works from him.
- Solomon’s Pools Located 5km south west of the city are three ancient water reservoirs, built between 100 and 30 BC in order to provide water to Jerusalem and Herodium. Fed by two aqueducts and nearby springs, and releasing the water in three aqueducts. An Ottoman fort was built in 1618 near the top pool
- Herodium Some 6km east from the city, on top of the volcano-shape like mountain is where Herod built his palace. He ruled from 37 to 4BC, ruling Judea on behalf of Rome, he became to be known as the murderous since he killed so many innocent people. Of extreme extravagance, seven stories high, double concentric walls and every kind of luxuries. Nowadays not much remains, while his burial place was discovered in 2007.
The easiest way to access Bethlehem is from Jerusalem which is really next door. Buses depart from the Arab bus station near Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. Bus 21 is a good example, taking around 30 minutes for ₪7. From where the bus drops you off, have a map ready with you and walk past the hassling taxi drivers that want enormous amount of money to take you to the city center square. And more important, forget about them trying to tell you that it’s over 30 minutes hard walk. It is not! It took us less than 20 minutes on a really enjoyable way and sightseeing along, specially the market and Star Street.
Shared taxis from Damascus Gate is another option, taking much less time and dropping you off where you tell them or right in the center at Manger Square. The checkpoint to enter Palestine is near Rachel’s Tomb, and it’s named after it, Rachel’s Crossing.
If you have a rental car (as we did), leave it parked in Jerusalem and take the bus. You should not enter with an Israeli rental car into Palestine. Anything that could happen can end up in you paying a lot of money as you will not be insured in Palestine.
Within the city and due to the smaller size, the best way to move around is on foot. All the sights are concentrated near each other, except for Rachel’s Tomb which is right by the border with Israel, and Solomon’s Pools and Herodium which are not in the city itself but a few kilometers away. Frequent buses do connect all those places anyway, this will be the cheapest option, as taxis will overcharge you for what is otherwise, an unnecessary expense unless you are too short in time and want to speed up.
Everyone who visits Bethlehem will be highly likely coming from Jerusalem which is literally next door or from Tel Aviv as a day trip. Rarely is the package or tourist that stays overnight in the city. And no because any security concern or anything wrong, but because although being such an important pilgrim place, it’s not big and the choice of hotels more limited than huge choice at the capital Jerusalem just 15 kilometers away.
We treated today as a day trip from our second base Jerusalem. Our previous bases in this trip has been Tel Aviv. Therefore and repeating myself on what I mentioned on past travel guides for other places and cities in Israel, if you are planning in doing a tour similar to ours, then consider having your base hotel at either Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or both, and commute from there on day trips. This will save you money and hassle in having to change hotel every other day. Distances are quite short in the country, and if either by train or bus, or rental car, you can move easily everywhere.
Should you wish to check the hotels we stayed in both of our bases, check the respective travel guides for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.