Jerusalem is a great starting point for visiting the West Bank. We decided to do a (half) day trip to Bethlehem, which is located approx. 10 km (6 miles) from the Old City of Jerusalem and is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus by Christians and the home town of David, King of Israel by Jews.
Despite its proximity, getting there is not as simple as you would expect. The easiest and cheapest way is to take the blue Bus 21 from the Arab bus station near Damascus gate to the Beit Jala intersection (6-7 NIS). Since Bethlehem is administered by the Palestinian Authority, the bus will pass an Israeli military checkpoint on the way (don’t forget to bring your passport!). The average trip length is 30 minutes.
Other possible means of transportation include taking a taxi, renting a car, walking or going on a private tour. Note that only an Arab (Palestinian) taxi driver will be able to take you, as Israelis are not allowed to enter the Palestinian Territories. You can easily find Arab drivers near the Damascus Gate.
From the bus stop at the Beit Jala intersection (see the map below) you can follow the Pope Paul VI Street to the Manger Square (15-minute walk) or take a taxi, for which you shouldn’t pay more than 15-20 NIS per drive (not per person!). At the Manger Square there is a tourist information centre, where you can get a free map of Bethlehem and advice on what to visit.
Tip: Taxi drivers waiting next to the bus stop will offer to take you to the Church of the Nativity, the Milk Grotto, the Banksy graffiti etc. for exorbitant prices. Bear in mind that both churches are just minutes away and the graffiti is also easily accessible on foot. If you do opt for a taxi, haggle for the price.
Our first stop was the Church of the Nativity (UNESCO WHS since 2012, included also on the List of World Heritage in Danger), a major Christian holy site, as the basilica is considered to be located over the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus. It is also one of the oldest surviving Christian churches. Just a couple of minutes away, the Milk Grotto Church is a Christian chapel that was, according to tradition, built over the grotto where the Holy Family took refuge during the “Slaughter of the Innocents” before their “Flight to Egypt”. While Virgin Mary was nursing baby Jesus, a drop of milk fell on the chalky rock changing its colour to pure white. Both Christians and Muslims believe that scrapings from the stones in the grotto boost the quantity of a mother’s milk and enhance fertility.
We then walked around the town a bit more, observed a panoramic view from the rooftop of the Olive Wood Factory and embarked on a search for the Banksy graffiti. We ran out of time, as we had to catch the last bus back, but Shepherds’ Field (and the Chapel of the Shepherds’ Field) is another notable site in Bethlehem, where an angel supposedly announced the birth of Jesus.
You have probably heard of the famous, yet anonymous England-based graffiti artist, whose satirical street art combines dark humour with graffiti. Banksy’s works of political and social commentary are featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world, including Bethlehem.
The Girl Frisking a Soldier (2007)
The most famous piece was also the hardest to find, as a tobacco and souvenir shop has been built around it. When walking from the bus stop towards Checkpoint 300 (or the Gilo Checkpoint), which marks the border between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the Girl Frisking a Soldier is located on the right side of Hebron Rd, across the Jacir Palace Hotel (see the map below).
The Armoured Dove (2005)
If you continue along the Hebron Rd and take a sharp right to Manger St, the Armoured Dove is located just outside the Palestinian Heritage Centre (see the map below). A dove wearing a bullet proof jacket with a rifle scope targeted across the chest and carrying an olive branch ironically represents a symbol of peace, while you can observe the bullet holes around the graffiti.
The Angel Sprinkling Hearts
A decent walk from the Church of the Nativity, the Angel Sprinkling Hearts is located across the street from the Ararat Hotel (see the map below).
If you have the time, you can visit also the Walled Off Hotel, which was launched by the controversial artist and, being located right next to the Separation Wall, “boasts” the so-called worst hotel view in the world.
The Dead Sea: Ein Bokek
Visiting Israel at the end of July, we were aware of the scorching heat in the Dead Sea region (48°C/118°F); but, we did not want to miss our chance to cross another item off our travel bucket list (on the plus side, it wasn’t crowded at all).
— Unfortunately, the heat was not tolerable enough to visit Masada as well. —
To get to Ein Bokek, you can take the Egged bus no. 444 or 486 from the Jerusalem Central Bus station. The drive is approx. 2 hours long and the return ticket costs NIS 71.40 pp.
Not an actual sea, but rather a salt lake, the Dead Sea is bordered by Jordan to the east and Israel and Palestine to the west. The water itself was very warm (34°C/93°F) during the time of our visit and it had a quite strong sulphur-like smell. Due to high density of salt it is impossible to swim in it, but you can easily float atop, making it a fun and memorable experience.
Fun fact: the Dead Sea is also the lowest elevation point on Earth!
Tips for visiting:
- don’t shave at least a day before, unless you want to literally experience what it means “rubbing salt in the wound”
- try not to get any water in your eyes, nose and mouth
- rinse thoroughly after
- the water may discolour your bathing suit, so it’s best to pack an older one
- be careful if barefoot, as the sea bottom is quite sharp due to the minerals
- shop some amazing Dead Sea products from the Ahava brand
- drink plenty of water