10 Most Important Sites In Jerusalem Old City
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The old city of Jerusalem is like “the cherry on top” when you travel to Israel. This historical part of Jerusalem is like no other place you have seen before and even after being there so many times, I find it hard to believe how much history is hiding in this small place. 0.35 sq miles (less than 1 sq km) inside 400 years old walls are considered to be the holiest place for most of the people on this planet, and this is already a major reason to visit the holy sites of Jerusalem old city.
The streets and alleys of the old city of Jerusalem are narrow, full of people, and in some of them, it feels like time has been standing for a few centuries. Places of worship, historical buildings, ancient stones, and archaeological sites are everywhere. You can explore them in the streets, on the roofs, on the walls and underground. Orthodox Jews, monks and priests, Arab in traditional costumes, and other locals and visitors in modern clothes are part of the old city views. It is colorful, vibrant, spiritual, historical, antique, and unique. This is why I love the old city of Jerusalem.
How old is the city of Jerusalem? it is estimated that first settlers arrived here at around 3500 BC. Kind David conquered the city at 1000 BC, and since then the history hides in underground layers. Today this history can be seen at some of the sites in the old city.
So small but with so many things to do and see. Here are the best things to do in the old city of Jerusalem:
Visit the Western Wall
The Western Wall (also known as the wailing wall) is the only remaining part of the Jewish Temple that was standing on Temple Mount 2000 years ago. When the Roman Emperor Titus conquered Jerusalem, the Romans destroyed the temple completely. The only surviving structure was the wall that surrounded the yard of the temple on its west side. Today this is the holiest site for Jews, and it is a major attraction for visitors and locals that come here for the sightseeing or to pray. During the Jewish holidays, thousands of visitors come to the square and you can really feel how holy the city of Jerusalem is.
How to get here?
The Western Wall plaza can be accessed in a few ways. One way is when you enter the old city through Jaffa Gate and go all the way down via the Arab market.
Another way is through the Jewish Quarter, which is accessible through Zion Gate or through the Arab Market if you turn right on Habad Street. This is my favorite way because it allows you to enjoy the colorful market and the Jewish quarter. In the Jewish quarter, you can walk around, grab a falafel (recommended) and then go down the stairs to the Western Wall. On the way down you see a beautiful view of the plaza, Dome of the Rock, and Mount Olives.
The third option is through the Dung Gate or Mughrabi Gate (Sha’ar Ha’ashpot in Hebrew). This gate leads directly to the Western Wall square. Buses and taxis can drop you off here, so if you want to skip the walk in the old city and the stairs going down, this is your best option.
Tip: Like in most Jewish temples, the praying area is separated for women and men. In the Men’s section (accessible only to men), there’s a small gate on the left side that leads to more praying rooms. They were built under the houses of the old city above them, alongside hidden parts of the Western Wall. check them out.
Explore the Western Wall tunnels
The Western Wall is much longer than the part visible to the eye in the Western Wall square. The full wall goes from south to north and is 1601 feet (488m) long, with its bigger part being underground. That part was covered with dirt throughout the years, and houses were built on it. The Western Wall tunnels allow you access to that hidden part.
The tunnels are like a “time tunnel” that takes you 2000 years back. As soon as you go down the stairs to enter the initial hall of the tour, you feel like a time traveler. I got goosebumps from the excitement. The tour tells the story of Jerusalem and the history of the Jewish nation. You can touch the old stones of the wall, walk on an old Roman street, and see other archeological findings. This is a fascinating attraction that you don’t want to miss it when you explore the old city of Jerusalem.
The exit of the tunnels is in the Muslim quarter on Via Dolorosa – the famous path in which Jesus walked with the cross in old city Jerusalem. Via Dolorosa leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian quarter.
Tip: The entrance to the tunnels is only with a guide in small groups so book your ticket in advance through the Kotel website. Tours are available in Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, and Russian.
Visit Dome of the Rock
The Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount is one of the most recognizable landmarks of Jerusalem. It is one of the holy sites of Jerusalem, and a must-visit site when you tour the old city.
The main mosque was built at the end of the seventh century after the Muslims conquered Jerusalem. The chosen location was at the same place where the Jewish Temple had been standing before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. At the base of the mosque (and the Temple before that) lays the Foundation Stone. This is where God created the world and the first man, where Abraham was going to sacrifice his son Isaac, and later on, where Muhammad started his Night Journey to heaven. The latter makes Jerusalem and Temple Mount one of the holiest places in Islam. It is the third holiest in the world after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Within the area of the mosque, there are dozens of historic structures to see like Arches, ponds, and prayer locations.
How to get here?
The way up to Dome of the Rock is through the wooden walkway that you see from the Western Wall square. The entrance is free and the line starts at the Dung Gate (Mughrabi Gate). The entrance is available for everyone, from all religions. However, visitors must follow some guidelines, like a modest dress code, and not carrying any symbols of other religions on them.
Visit the Holy Sepulchre
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old city is the holiest site for Christianity and the most important Christian site in Jerusalem. It is the place where Jesus was buried and then resurrected. The church might not look big and fancy from the outside, like other famous churches in Europe. However, its glory is inside.
As soon as you enter the church you see the Stone of Unction. This is where Jesus’ body was laid down after his Crucifixion. To your left is the Rotonda with Jesus’ burial cave. The church has a few more chapels and rooms to explore, and I recommend to take your time and visit them all. This is another site that takes you back in time and it is fascinating.
Many visitors feel a strong emotional experience here. For me, even though I am not Christian, watching this respectfully from the side, made my visit very powerful.
Take a Journey Throughout History at Tower of David
The Tower of David is the famous citadel of Jerusalem, one of the famous landmarks appearing in pictures of the old city walls and one of the interesting sites of the old city of Jerusalem. When you enter the Old City of Jerusalem through Jaffa Gate, the Tower of David is to your right.
Even though its name, the Tower of David is not related to King David. King Herod was the one who built it but then the Romans destroyed it. It was later rebuilt by the Mamluks, was taken over by the Crusaders, and continued to switch hands every time Jerusalem was conquered.
The history of the citadel is tied with the interesting history of Jerusalem. Today the Tower of David is a museum that takes you on a journey throughout this history. The fun part is to climb up the tower and enjoy the beautiful view of both the old city and the new city of Jerusalem.
Tip: The museum also offers two night-shows. These are a breathtaking exhibition of sights and sounds presented full size on the inner walls of the citadel. See more in the official Tower of David website.
See The Cardo – The Old Center of The Old City of Jerusalem
The Cardo used to be the main street in Roman cities during the byzantine era. It was the center of the city, the marketplace, the meeting area, and where everything happened. Jerusalem, being a Roman city from 70 AD to the late seventh century, also had its Cardo. It was discovered in excavations in the Jewish Quarter of the old city.
The earliest evidence of the Cardo in Jerusalem was found in an old Byzantine church in Jordan, as part of a big map of the entire Middle East (Madaba Map). The old map of Jerusalem shows the main street, with huge columns on both sides and a red roof to provide shade for the traders and shoppers. The street crossed the old city of Jerusalem from Damascus Gate in the north to Zion Gate in the south.
Today, only a part of the street is uncovered and available to walk on, alongside the old Roman columns that were found here. Another part of the Cardo has been renovated and now has modern stores selling Judaica and art.
Shop at Old Arab Market
The Arab Market of the Old City of Jerusalem is a colorful and vibrant market. Also called the Souk (Market in Arabic), this is one of the characteristics sites of Middle Eastern cities and Jerusalem also has one. The market goes along a few streets between the Armenian, the Christian, and the Muslim quarters. This is the place to see and shop for gifts and souvenirs, traditional fabrics, religious arts and crafts, spices, and more.
The main entrance to the market is from Jaffa Gate and down on David St. This street leads you into the old and narrow alleys of the old city, with many vendors around you. The market goes east and then north, into the Muslim Quarter, all the way to Damascus Gate.
This first part of the market is also the main path to two of the most famous sites in the old city. The Holy Sepulchre is on your left – turn on Ha-Notsrim st. or Muristan St. The Jewish quarter on your right – turn on Habad St. or Ha-Yehudim St. Even though this market is very touristic (always bargain when you shop) I love strolling in it. It has a unique Jerusalem vibe, smells, and sounds.
Stroll in The Armenian Quarter
The Armenian Quarter is the least famous and least touristic quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. As such, it has a unique magic, and with its long history, it’s one of the interesting places to visit in Jerusalem old city.
Armenians started settling in Jerusalem in the 4th century after Armenia adopted Christianity as a national religion and sent monks to Jerusalem. The community was built around the Cathedral of Saint James and up until today the patriarchate is the administrator of the quarter.
The quiet streets of the quarter are probably the most preserved ones. A stroll in them reveals old churches, gardens, and history, with a culture and languages that are unique to the area.
Connect With The Past at The Archaeological Park
The Archaeological Park – Davidson Center, is located at the foot of Temple Mount and the Western Wall. It provides another peak to the history of Jerusalem and the life around the Temple thousands of years ago. The entrance to the park is next to the Dung Gate
The excavation in the park revealed the meeting area of the pilgrims who came to Jerusalem. The visitors today can walk up the stairs that led the pilgrims up to the Temple through Hulda gates. The gates are blocked today but can easily be seen in the walls. You can also see here findings from different periods of Jerusalem, which makes the visit here a full journey through time. What I love most about the park is that it’s open and stands within a living city. It allows you to feel the history while seeing and hearing the current life of Jerusalem.
Enter The Old City of Jerusalem Through Damascus Gate
Damascus Gate is probably the most impressive gate in the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. It is located on the north side of the wall, and in the past, it was the beginning of the long road from Jerusalem to Damascus, Syria.
The gate also appears in the old Byzantine map of Jerusalem found in Jordan, as the northern entrance into the city and to the Cardo. The current gate was built by the Ottoman Emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent, in the 16th century. However, excavations conducted here undercovered the Roman foundings and the Roman square that are shown in the Byzantine map.
Entering the old city of Jerusalem through this gate takes you to the traditional market of the Muslim quarter. The main street crosses the Muslim quarter from north to south, leading you to the Jewish Quarter.
A walk on the city walls is an amazing way to see the old city of Jerusalem from above. The Ramparts walk starts at Jaffa gate and goes in two directions. The north walk goes around the Christian and Muslim quarters all the way to Lions Gate. The south walk is shorter, goes around the Armenian quarter and towards the Western Wall. Purchase your tickets at the ticket office in Jaffa Gate.
Most of the sites I mentioned here and many others in the old city of Jerusalem are religious sites. Visitors should act respectfully and follow guidelines and dress codes, like not wearing shorts or keeping the shoulders covered.
Most of the sites are closed on Fridays and Saturdays (the holy days of the week for Muslims and Jews) and on holidays, but a walk in the quiet streets of the old city on a Saturday is also a fun experience. You can also book a guided tour of the main sites in the old city (including on Saturdays).
What to do in old city Jerusalem at night?
The old city of Jerusalem doesn’t have many night attractions. However, there are 2 main things to see at night time. The first one, which was mentioned before, is to watch the night shows at the Tower of David. this is available all year long. The second option is relevant if you visit before the Jewish holidays, and especially before the Jewish new year (around September). In these days the Western Wall plaza fills up with hundreds of visitors who come to a night prayer, and the Jewish quarter is vivid at 12 am as if it was 12 pm. It’s definitely a unique experience!
The old city is accessible by:
Car – There’s a big underground parking lot next to Jaffa Gate, and another small one on Mount Zion.
Light Train – get off at the City Hall stop (15 minutes walk in the Mamila open street mall to Jaffa Gate) or Damascus Gate stop.
Bus – Lines 1, 3, 38 arrive at the Western Wall (Dung Gate)
So much history in a small city makes it no less than amazing. I have been visiting Jerusalem and the old city many times, and I still like to go back, to explore one more area, walk through another street that I haven’t before, and discover more of its charm and history.
For first time visitors, I recommend devoting 1-2 full days for exploring the old city of Jerusalem. 1 day is mainly for a walk in the streets between all the sites, and 2 days if you want to see them all from the inside.