It’s impossible to run out of things to do in Jerusalem, Israel’s largest municipality and possibly the most famous city in history.
Well known for its historical and religious sites for the three major religions, Jerusalem also boasts 60 museums, 2,000 archeological sites, 12,212 guest rooms and nearly 1,600 public parks (the net area of Jerusalem’s green spaces is larger than all of Tel Aviv.) There are two outdoor markets (Machane Yehuda and the Old City shuk), 10 shopping malls and eateries offering everything from gourmet fare to ethnic fast food.
A Tourism Ministry survey during 2013 revealed that three-quarters of all visitors to Israel put Jerusalem on their itinerary, and the five leading free tourist destinations are situated in or near Jerusalem’s Old City: the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Via Dolorosa and the Mount of Olives.
ISRAEL21c suggests these 10 not-to-be-missed experiences in Israel’s iconic capital.
- Place a prayer in the Western Wall (Kotel)
This retaining wall is the sole relic of the Second Temple complex built by King Herod and burned down by the Romans in 70 CE. Since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, the Kotel is open to visitors of all faiths.
Many people place folded-up prayers or requests in the cracks between the ancient stones, giving the Western Wall the additional moniker of “Wall of Wishes.” Several online services will place a note for you, but there’s nothing like slipping your paper in personally – just ask Pope Francis, Lady Gaga, Hillary Clinton, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Simmons and countless other celebrities who’ve done so.
To tour the historic excavations beneath and behind the Western Wall (available in English or French), make reservations here.
- Splash through Hezekiah’s Tunnel
When the City of David was about to be besieged by the Assyrian army in the eighth century BCE, King Hezekiah protected the water supply by diverting the Gihon Spring through a 1,750-foot (533-meter) tunnel dug into the mountain. An ancient stone carving found near the entrance describes this incredible feat of engineering. Today, trekking through Hezekiah’s Tunnel in knee-high water (with a guide) is a favorite activity for visitors of all ages.
- Take a #Love selfie at the Israel Museum
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Israel Museum is the largest cultural institution in Israel. The museum’s archeology, fine arts and Judaica collections of nearly 500,000 objects include prehistoric to modern works, including the most extensive biblical and Holy Land archaeology holdings in the world.
Robert Indiana presented his 12-foot-tall Ahava (Love) sculpture to the museum in 1977, and it has become an iconic backdrop for fun or romantic photos and weddings.
- Stop and smell the roses at Jerusalem Botanical Gardens
The 30-acre Jerusalem Botanical Gardens hosts the largest plant collection in Israel (some 10,000 species) arranged in six sections representing different parts of the world. See it all aboard the Flower Train, or walk around on foot to the indoor tropical conservatory, Plants of the Bible trail, herb and medicinal plant garden, bonsai garden and African savannah grass maze. Book a guided tour in English, among other languages. Have lunch at the lakeside café and see if you can spot the black swan.
Many tourists to Jerusalem follow their noses to Marzipan Bakery for its famously gooey chocolate rugelach, among other cookies and pastries. The main bakery is on Agrippas Street outside the Machane Yehuda shuk; the sit-down Marzipan Café is in the German Colony on Rachel Imenu Street. But if you don’t make it to Marzipan, you can buy chocolate rugelach and other Jewish-Israeli confections at dozens of bakeries all over Jerusalem, such as Na’aman, Angel, English Cake, Duvshanit, Ugat Chen, Berman and Bleecker.
- Collect kitschy souvenirs on Ben Yehuda
The Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in the center of town is the prime place for people-watching, grabbing a bite to eat, watching street performers and choosing souvenirs for yourself and everyone on your list.
Israeli map magnets? Check. “America don’t worry – Israel is behind you” or “Guns ‘N’ Moses” T-shirts? Got it. Skullcaps with sports and corporate logos? No problem. Olivewood camels and crosses, falafel keychains, IDF pencil cases? Hamsa charms, Simpsons mezuzah cases, dancing Chasid paintings? All here, and much, much more.
- Pet a pigmy goat
The 62-acre Tisch Family Zoological Gardens (Jerusalem Biblical Zoo) is one of the most popular paid tourist sites in Israel. Overall, the zoo houses 270 species ranging from the addax to the yellow-banded poison dart frog, including the largest collection of creatures featured in the Bible. Some areas are geared to petting, and visitors may participate in guided feedings of many animals, such as lemurs, meerkats, giraffes and peccaries.
A visitors’ center in a replica of Noah’s Ark hosts films and lectures; an art gallery; computer stations providing information about the zoo animals; and a souvenir shop and cafeteria with a spectacular view over the Jerusalem hills. In spring 2016, the zoo will open Israel’s largest aquarium, Sea Israel.
- Walk the cobblestones
The best way to see the city is by foot. Walking tours led by English-speaking guides, some for free, explore many parts of Jerusalem every day of the week. Among the companies and organizations in this business are Sandeman’s New Jerusalem Tours, AACI, Jerusalem Walking Tours, and iTravel Jerusalem.
Join free English tours of the Safra Square municipal complex every Monday and Thursday at 10am; the Supreme Court, Sunday through Thursday at noon; and the Knesset (Parliament), Sunday through Thursday at 8:30am, noon and 2pm.
9. Hop a ride on the light rail
When your feet get tired, board the sleek electrified trains transporting a hodgepodge of Jerusalem’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian citizenry and tourists from north to south through the main streets of Jerusalem. Watch your toes at the Machane Yehuda marketplace stop, as scores of shoppers board the light rail wheeling cloth carts piled high with fresh breads, fruits and veggies. Or disembark to stroll through the shuk and buy your own goodies.
The light rail terminates in the south at Mount Herzl, home of Israel’s national cemetery and a multimedia museum about the father of modern Zionism. From the same station, it’s a short walk to the Yad Vashem memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and the “righteous gentiles” who risked their lives to save Jews.
One of the highlights of the museum is the Hall of Names — a repository for Pages of Testimony about four million Holocaust victims. The newest exhibition, “Children in the Holocaust: Stars Without a Heaven,” pays homage to the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered during World War II. Gaps in the children’s personal stories are filled in with items from Yad Vashem’s collections and multimedia works created by students from theBezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and the Holon Institute of Technology.