Self Guided Tour: Jerusalem Old City Highlights

Jerusalem, the holy city, is full of things to see, but its highlight is without a doubt the Old City. Because we know not everyone has enough time to wander around the Old City of Jerusalem and see all of its sites, we’ve made this self guided tour of the Old City’s highlights for people who just want to see the main sites.

Before we begin – here’s a short overview of Jerusalem’s History:

Jerusalem was a small city built by the Caanites over 3,000 years ago. In the Bible, that city is called Yevus (Jebus). It was built next to a spring, which was the city’s water source, and surrounded by hills.

Around 3,000 years ago, King David arrived to Jebus, conquered it and turned it to the capital of his kingdom. He might have chosen this city specifically because no tribe sat here, which meant it was a neutral place in the region’s politics. The area which is today called City of David is where King David’s capital was situated. He also bought the Temple Mount area from Araunah the Jebusite and planned to build the Jewish Temple there. David’s son, Solomon, was the one who actually built the First Jewish Temple in the mid-10th century BCE.

The city slowly-slowly expanded. The city was almost conquered by the Assyrians about 200 years after Solomon built the temple. But the ones who succeeded in conquering the city were actually the Babylonians. They came around 586 BCE, destroyed the First Jewish Temple and banished the Jewish people to Babylon.

The Jewish returned to Jerusalem around 538 BCE and began working on constructing a new temple. The Second Jewish Temple was probably built around 516 BCE. It was expanded by King Herod in the 1st century BCE because he thought it was not impressive enough. But as the first temple, the Second Temple was also destroyed. This time, by the Romans in 70 CE. The only remaint from that temple is the Western Wall, which was the retaining wall encircling the temple’s compound.

From then on, Jerusalem starts to pass from one empire to the other. First the Muslims come, then the Crusaders conquer the city, afterwards the Mamluks come and then come the Ottomans. The Ottomans stayed in Jerusalem for 400 years, but then came the British in 1917.

The British had a hard time dealing with the Jewish people and the Arabs, so on November 1947 the UNGA voted on the Partition Plan and on the end of the British Mandate. It took the British a while, but on the 14th of May 1948 they left. David Ben Gurion declared the independence of the State of Israel and a fight over Jerusalem began. The Jordanians were able to conquer the Old City and the eastern part of the city and stayed there until the Six Day War in 1967. Today Jerusalem is Israeli and you can roam around freely in the Old City.

The route of the tour:

  1. Jaffa Gate
  2. Tower of David Museum
  3. The Cardo
  4. The Hurva Synagogue
  5. The Western Wall
  6. Via Dolorosa
  7. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
  8. The Market
  9. Damascus Gate

Estimated time of tour: 3-5 hours.


Want a private tour? Contact one of our guides for a private tour in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Or check out our upcoming budget public tours – you might find something interesting in Jerusalem!


First Stop – Jaffa Gate

Jaffa Gate is one of the main gates to the Old City of Jerusalem. It is also one of the five first gates built in the Old City walls, which were built only about… 500 years ago! Yes, the walls that you see today are only from the Ottoman period and were built following the order of Sultan Suliman the Magnificent. That’s why you can see an Arabic inscription above the gateway mentioning his name.

Jaffa Gate is called this way because the road that went from Jaffa Gate led all the way to the Jaffa Port. In Arabic, it is called Bab el-Halil, which means “Hebron Gate”. This is because there was another road which led from here to Hebron.

This is how Jaffa Gate looked like in the early 20th century:

The clocktower on Jaffa Gate was built by the last Ottoman sultan, Abdul Hamid II, to commemorate 25 years of reign over his empire. He built clocks all around the Ottoman empire, six of them in the Land of Israel, one of them in Jerusalem. So why can’t you see the clocktower today? Because the British military governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, ordered to tear it down as it was “too modern and not at all authentic”.

Outside of Jaffa Gate there were many shops and places to park horse carriages. If you will look at the top part of the wall to the right of the gateway opening, you’ll see a triangle shape that reminds us that there once was a building attached to the wall. All those buildings, of course, were torn down by the British.

Before you enter, take a look at the road that passes through the Old City walls right next to Jaffa Gate. That road did not exist until 1898, when the German emperor, Wilhelm II, came to visit the Land of Israel. He was supposed to come to Jerusalem with a large entourage, so the Ottomans decided to make a wide opening in the wall next to Jaffa Gate, fill in the deep moat that was there and pave a road for the emperor.

How to get here? You can easily reach the gate by taking the light-rail train to “City Hall” station. From there, you need to walk about 5 minutes to the gate.

Local Tip: When you enter through Jaffa Gate, there are stairs leading upwards to your left. There you can find a free restroom.

Second Stop – Tower of David Museum

After entering the Old City through Jaffa Gate, you’ll see the Tower of David Museum to your right. This citadel was first built as a palace for King Herod in the 1st century BCE. The huge tower you see there is one of three towers, which were built in that time at the entrance to the city. It is called David Tower, though King David was never in that tower. Byzantine pilgrims who came to Jerusalem and saw this impressive tower at the entrance probably thought it was built by King David, so they named it like this.

If you don’t have much time or money, we recommend you climb up to the observation point at the top of David Tower. It costs only 15 ILS and the view from up there is amazing! You can see both the old and the new city of Jerusalem as well as the inside of the David Tower complex.

If you have a bit more time and money, you can visit the museum itself. It costs 40 ILS for an adult and the observation point is included. There are many interesting exhibitions which tell the history of Jerusalem through the different periods. If you want, you can also get a combined ticket to the Tower of David night experience, which is really worth seeing!

For more info, visit the official website of Tower of David Museum.

Local Tip: In front of the Tower of David Museum there is a small coffee shop, which belongs to the Christ Church. They sell excellent cakes and coffee, so you can eat there a small breakfast!

The inside of Tower of David Museum Jerusalem
The inside of Tower of David Museum

Third Stop – The Cardo

From the Tower of David Museum, turn right on the Armenian Patriarchy Street (רחוב הפטריארכיה הארמנית). Continue on the road until you reach a shaded passage. Right before the passage, to your left, you’ll find St. James Street (רחוב סנט ג’יימס). Continue on this street until you reach a junction of ways and the sign saying you’ve reached the Jewish Quarter. Then continue straight on Or HaHayim Street (רחוב אור החיים) until you reach the center of the Jewish Quarter. Come close to the railing and look down – there you will see the Cardo with some of its beautiful Roman columns.

In Latin, “cardo” refers to the main street that went from north to south in ancient Roman cities. Around 60 years after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, a Jewish rebellion, called the Bar Kokhba revolt started against the Romans. Following this revolt, the Roman emperor decided to tear down Jerusalem and rebuild it as a Roman city. In many Roman cities there’s a cardo, and in Jerusalem there were two cardos, the western Cardo and the eastern Cardo. Both of them went south from Damascus Gate. The one you see here in the Jewish Quarter belongs to the western Cardo and is part of an expansion made in the Byzantine period. It was discovered after the Six Day War.

You can climb down the steps to the level of the Cardo, which is lower than today’s street level, and imagine how it might have looked like back then – carriages passing in the middle of the street, shops on both sides and pedestrians.

If you continue to the covered passageway, you’ll find there a replica of part of the Madaba Map. In this map from the 6th century CE you can see clearly the two cardos of Jerusalem as well as some other famous buildings.

Continue to the other side of the passageway and you’ll see a number of modern mosaics and wall paintings, which try to depict how the Cardo shops might have looked like in the Byzantine period.

Local Tip: Don’t come to the Cardo on a Saturday, because then the part where you can see the Madaba Map is closed.

The Cardo in the Jewish Quarter Jerusalem
How the Cardo might have looked like…

Fourth Stop – The Hurva Synagogue

Continue straight and leave the Cardo through the small staircase that appear to your right. Then turn right on Ha Yehudim Street (רחוב היהודים) and continue until you see the entrance to the Hurva Synagogue to your left.

The Hurva Synagogue is the most dominant synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. It has a huge white dome, so if you’ve climbed up to the observation point at the Tower of David Museum you must have seen it.

In the beginning of the 18th century, a group of Ashkenazi Jews settled in Jerusalem with Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid as their leader and built a central synagogue in Jerusalem. But, they were unable to pay debts to the Ottomans, from whom they bought the land, and therefore, only 20 years after they arrived to Jerusalem, the Ottomans destroyed their synagogue and banished them from the city. In Hebrew, “hurva” means “ruins”, and the synagogue lay in ruins until 1864, about 160 years after its destruction. The Ashkenazi Jews dressed up like Sephardic Jews, because if not they would have been kicked out of the city, and were able to get enough money to return their debt to the Arabs. The new synagogue was built by a Turkish Muslim architect who was in charge of the repairment of the mosques on Temple Mount. It was called The Hurva to remember the ruins of the synagogue built by Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid, but it was ruined again during the 1948 Independence War, when the Jordanians conquered the Old City.  It was rebuilt only after the 1967 Six Day War.

You can enter the synagogue by paying 20 ILS per adult. Use the elevator to reach the highest floor and then climb a spiral staircase to the 360 degrees observation porch. There’s an inner porch and an outer porch. We recommend to start by taking a look inside the synagogue from the inner porch. You can see the men praying downstairs, the women’s praying area on the second floor, beautiful paintings of important Jewish sites and of course, the Torah ark covered at the front of the synagogue. When you’ll walk on the outer part of the porch, you’ll see a beautiful 360 degrees view of the Jewish Quarter, which was rebuilt after the Six Day War.

After you’ve visited the inside of the synagogue, you can make your way outside of the synagogue to its facade. In front of the synagogue, in the square, stands a replica of the Holy Temple’s golden menorah, which is a symbol of the Jewish people.

The facade of the Hurva Synagogue
The facade of the Hurva Synagogue

Fifth Stop – The Western Wall

One of the most famous sites of Jerusalem is of course the Western Wall, which is also known as the Wailing Wall or the Kotel (which means “wall” in Hebrew). It is the only remaint from the Second Temple, and was one of the four retaining walls built by King Herod around the temple’s complex. The Holy of the Holies was situated at the western end of the temple, so the Western Wall is also the nearest to the place where the Holy of the Holies was.

When the Israeli paratroopers reached the Western Wall during the 1967 Six Day War, they touched the holy stones and burst into tears of joy. Until today, many people come to touch the stones of the Western Wall and hope to get as near as possible to God. If you want, you can write a wish on a note and shove it between the Western Wall’s huge stones.

The Western Wall praying area is divided to a men’s praying area and a women’s praying area. If you wish to come close to the wall, make sure to dress modestly – no short pants, no sleeveless shirts. If you do come with a sleeveless shirt, maybe take with you a shawl or a scarf to cover your shoulders. Also, if you are coming here on Shabbat, respect the religious people and do not use your phone to take photos next to the wall.

Local Tip: If you would like to pray next to the wall together, man and woman, there are two places where you can do so. One place is called “Ezrat Israel” and it is located at the Davidson Center. You can come there to pray or coordinate a prayer service there. Another place is called “The Little Kotel” and it is located inside the Muslim Quarter, next to Sha’ar HaBarzel, one of the gateways to Temple Mount. Read more about The Little Kotel in our post – 5 Lesser Known Sites in Jerusalem Old City.

Local Tip #2: If you arrive at the Western Wall between 7:00-10:30AM or 12:30-1:30PM in the winter, 7:30-11:00AM or 1:30-2:30PM in the summer, you might have an opportunity to enter the Temple Mount complex. Today the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque stand there, but if you are non-Muslim, you cannot enter those buildings and can only see them from the outside. The entrance to Temple Mount for non-Muslims is at the Mugrabim Gate, where the wooden bridge is. If you would like to visit Temple Mount, please read the guidelines in Backpack Israel’s post – The Story Around Temple Mount.

The Western Wall

Sixth Stop – Via Dolorosa

Next to the toilets at the Western Wall plaza you’ll see a covered passageway leading to the north. This passageway leads to the Muslim Quarter and is part of Al-Wad Street (רחוב הגיא). Continue on this street until you see Via Dolorosa Street (רחוב וויה דולורוזה) to your right. You can continue on Via Dolorosa Street to the 1st and 2nd Stations of the Cross or you can skip those and enter the 3rd Station, which is located inside the building just before the turn to Via Dolorosa. You can recognize the building thanks to the black plate with the Roman number – III – on it and thanks to the relief of Jesus carrying the cross above the entrance.

Via Dolorosa is one of the most important routes for the Catholic Christians. The 14 Stations of the Cross follow the last footsteps of Jesus, including his crucifixation, burial and resurrection. Many Catholics who visit the Holy Land come to Jerusalem and walk along this route, praying all the way, sometimes carrying a wooden cross as to try to connect to Jesus. Every station is marked by a black plate with a Roman number on it and half a circle on the ground.

In the 3rd Station of the Cross you can see a statue of Jesus falling. Then you continue through a souvenir shop to the 4th Station, where you can see a mosaic with two footprints on it. The tradition says that those footsteps belonged to Mary, mother of Jesus, who saw him on his way to crucifixation and wept.

Continue on the Via Dolorosa by tracing your steps back on Al-Wad Street to the next turn right, which leads to Via Dolorosa Street. At the junction, you’ll see the 5th Station, where Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross. There is a small church here, which is sometimes open. Continue up Via Dolorosa Street until you see the 6th Station to your left, where Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. There’s also a small church here, which is seldom open. Continue up the street until you reach its end, where it meets Beit HaBad Street (רחוב בית הבד). Here, at the end of the street, you’ll find the 7th Station, where Jesus falls for the second time.

To your left you’ll see a few steps leading to E-Khanka Street (רחוב אל חנקה). You can continue up this street to see the 8th Station, where Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, or you can skip it and continue to the 9th Station. When Jesus met the women of Jerusalem, they wept for him and he in response told them that they should not weep for him, but they should weep for themselves and their sons.

To get to the 9th Station, you need to continue left on Beit HaBad Street about 80 meters until you see a wide staircase to your right. Climb up the staircase and continue on the street until you reach the 9th Station, where Jesus falls for the third time. Continue to the rooftop to that’s to your left. This is the rooftop of the Ethiopian church, called Deir Al-Sultan. There is a small doorway, which has a sign over it saying “Watch your head”. Watch your head and continue through the doorway into the Ethiopian church. Climb down the stairs until you exit the building and then you’ll find yourselves at the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

There are three more stations in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: the 10th Station, where Jesus clothes are taken away, is situated in the small structure to the right of the church’s opening. The 11th Station, where Jesus is nailed to the cross, is located inside the church, on the second floor to the right of the entrance. Another station located on the second floor is the 12th Station, where Jesus dies on the cross. The next one is the 13th Station, where Jesus is taken down from the cross. And the last one, on the ground floor at the western side of the church, is the 14th Station, where Jesus is laid in the tomb. You will see all of those station when touring inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Look for those black plates along the Via Dolorosa
Look for those black plates along the Via Dolorosa

Seventh Stop – Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the most sacred site for many Christians around the world. It is believed to be the place where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. It was built in 335 on top of a pagan temple, according to tradition under the order of Helena, mother of the Byzantine emperor, Constantine the Great. Originally, it was a much larger church, that was made out of an outer courtyard, a basilica, an inner coutyard and the rotunda, the circular building in which the tomb is located. It was destroyed in 1009 under the order of the Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, and reconstructed about 30 years later, but to a much smaller scale. The entrance was also shifted from the eastern part of the church to its southern part. The next important phase in the church’s history is when the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem in 1099. They decided that the church was not grand enough and decided to add two domes to it, which means they built many walls inside the church and closed the inner courtyard with a rooftop. Until then, the inner courtyard was open to the sky.

When standing in the outer coutyard, you can have a look at the church from the outside. It looks quite plain and not so special. The walls are made from big stones and there is only one opening. Below the upper right window there’s a ladder – a symbol of the status quo that was agreed upon in the mid 19th century regarding nine shared holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The status quo is an understanding that says that since the mid 18th century nothing can be changed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre without permission from all six Christian communities who hold the property. That’s why the ladder you see up there is called “The Unmoveable Ladder”. There’s been a ladder there since the mid 18th century.

When you enter the church, the first thing you will see is the Stone of Anointing. According to tradition, Jesus’ body was laid on this stone after he died on the cross. This was where he was prepared for burial, anointed and wrapped in shrouds as per the Jewish costum. Jesus was Jewish and therefore the people hurried to bury him before the Shabbat entered, before Friday eve. You you will probably see people touching the stone and placing different objects on it. That is because people believe the stone, which has been in contact with Jesus’ body, still holds some holiness.

Continue up the stairs to the right of the entrance and you will reach the second floor of the church, a point called Golgotha or Calvary. This was where, according to tradition, Jesus was crucified. Before the Crusaders came, this area was open to the sky and was actually a garden with a huge stone, on which it is believed that the Romans crucified people. In the first room you enter, straight ahead you’ll see a modern mosaic on the wall, depicting the nailing of Jesus to the cross. The adjacent room is where you can see a representation of Jesus on the cross, with his mother and his student next to him. Above Jesus is a sign saying: “INRI”, which means from Latin “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. This was the sign that the Romans nailed above him in order to mock him. Between the two rooms, leaning on the back wall, you can see a statue of Mary, mother of Jesus, weeping for her dead son.

Leave the second floor through the other staircase and then turn right. Continue walking until you see stairs leading downstairs. At the bottom of the stairs you’ll reach the Armenian chapel called St. Helena Chapel. There are beautiful mosaics and wall painting here, but we recommend you continue a bit further down to the deepest part of the church, to a chapel called the Chapel of the Invention of the Holy Cross. Here you can see the walls of an ancient quarry from the time of the Second Temple. It is believed that Helena found the True Cross of Jesus here.

Return to the ground floor of the church and make your way to the most western side of the church, where you will find the tomb of Jesus, the Holy Sepulchre. The tomb is covered by a huge chapel called the Aedicula. There is usually a long line of pilgrims waiting to see the inside of the Aedicula and Jesus’ empty tomb. According to the New Testament, Jesus resurrected after three days in the tomb.

There are many more things to see in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Book a private tour with us to learn more about the church.

Local Tip: If you would like to visit the church when there are less people, you should try to avoid coming here in the afternoon hours. The best hours will be before 10AM or after 5PM. The church is open from 5AM to 7PM every day.

The entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
The entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Eighth Stop – The Market

The Old City of Jerusalem is full of marketplaces. You can either leave the Old City through David Street (רחוב דוד), which leads to Jaffa Gate, or take another direction and walk through Beit HaBad Street to Damascus Gate. In this tour, we’ll make our way to Damascus Gate.

To get to Beit HaBad Street, exit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and turn left. Walk all the way to the corner of the street and then turn left to Beit Habad Street. This street, in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, is full of shops and restaurants. If you’re looking for a souvenir – you might find it here. And we hope you like to bargain!

Local Tip: Near the end of Beit HaBad Street there’s a wonderful confectionery called Jaffar Sweets. They sell super tasty kanafeh at great prices and have awesome service! Kanafeh is an Arabic dessert made from pastry soaked in sweet syrup and layered with melted cheese. So if you would like to end your day with something sweet – we recommend you check it out.

Ninth Stop – Damascus Gate

At the end of Beit HaBad Street you will reach Damascus Gate, which, like Jaffa Gate, was also one of the first gateways that were built in the Ottoman wall. It is called Damascus Gate because it led to Damascus. In Arabic it is called “Bab el-Amud”. “Amud” means “column”. In the Roman-Byzantine period there was a column with a statue standing in the middle of the inner plaza of the gate.

When exiting through the gateway, look to your right, beyond the railing. Down below you’ll see part of the ancient Damascus Gate from the time of the Romans.

Damascus Gate in Jerusalem
Damascus Gate

You can walk your way back to the City Hall area – to the west – or you can catch the light-rail train from “Damascus Gate” station to wherever you need.

Hope you had a fantastic time in the Old City ofJerusalem!

 

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