Old City Walking Tour & Sites
Start: The Jaffa Gate
Finish: The tour has three options: The first takes you to the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, the second to the Islamic shrines and mosques on the Temple Mount, and the third to an unusual Christian enclave on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Best Times: Sunday to Wednesday 8am to 3pm
Worst Times: Shabbat, Muslim holidays, Friday, or after 3pm when the Dome of the Rock is closed
This meandering walk gets you to some major sites, offbeat vista points, and authentic eateries, but the Old City is a vast, intricate Chinese box of experiences, as unplanned and exotic as the 4,000-year history of Jerusalem itself. One way to enjoy the texture of this sublime hodgepodge is simply to plunge in and wander, chancing upon hummus parlors and holy sites, ancient bakeries and antique Bedouin embroideries. Learn a bit of Jerusalem’s history and local lore as you move along.
The first part of the walk takes you to the Cardo, where the walk divides into three possible options. Begin at:
1 Jaffa Gate
Before you enter Jaffa Gate, which is the traditional entrance to the city for visitors from the West, check out the stones from many eras that make up the present Old City wall, which was erected by order of the Ottoman-Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538. Some stones have been dressed with carefully cut flat borders surrounding a raised, flat central area (the boss) in the style of King Herod’s stonecutters and probably date from 2,000 years ago. You will see this style again in the monumental stones of the Western Wall, which Herod constructed to surround the original Jerusalem Temple site. You’ll notice other kinds of stones with flat borders and rougher raised bosses. These are in the pre-Herodian style of the Hasmoneans (the Maccabees), who were the last Jewish rulers of Jerusalem until modern times. You’ll also see rough ashlars of the Byzantine era as well as the virtually undressed stones of Crusader and medieval times. In each of the upper corners of the closed decorative archway to the left of the Jaffa Gate, notice stones carefully carved into a leaf design, which are believed to have come from a long-destroyed Crusader church. The walls of Jerusalem, like the city itself, are composed of stones used again and again, just as many of the legends and traditions of the city reappear and are reassembled by each successive civilization.
Inside the gate, on the left, is:
2 The Tourist Information Office
Here you can pick up free maps, information, and tourist publications.
Enter the archway on the left to the arcade of:
3 The New Imperial Hotel
Built in the 1880s, this was, in its time, the most luxurious hotel in Jerusalem. In the 19th century, the now largely deserted arcade was a private bazaar for hotel guests, where the beggars, lepers, cripples, and “riffraff” of Jerusalem could be neatly excluded. Slightly uphill and in the center of the arcade is a broken streetlamp mounted on a cylindrical stone that was uncovered when the foundations for the New Imperial were dug. The Latin lettering “leg x” records a marker for the camp of the Tenth Legion Fretensis, which conquered and destroyed Jewish Jerusalem in a.d. 70. The Roman Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus wrote that after the Temple and the buildings of Jerusalem were systematically razed and the surviving inhabitants led off to slavery, death, and exile, the Tenth Legion encamped beside the ruins of the Jaffa Gate for 62 years to guard the ruins against Jews who might try to filter back to reestablish the city. The discovery of this marker in proximity to the Jaffa Gate confirms Josephus’s account. The once-elegant New Imperial, as it drifted into seediness, became a spot for romantic assignations during the British Mandate period. Characters played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman would have felt right at home.
Next door is the:
4 Petra Hotel
The first modern hotel built in the Old City in the 1870s, the once-elegant Petra, now reduced to the status of a hostel, is popular with backpackers. Herman Melville and Mark Twain may have stayed in an earlier structure on this site (the old Mediterranean Hotel) during their visits to what was then a decrepit warren of ruins filled with lice-covered beggars and crazed religious fanatics. Neither Melville nor Twain found Jerusalem a pleasant place to stay.
Enter at the far right as you face the building, climb the stairs to the second-floor lobby of the Petra, and ask the person at the desk for permission to see:
5 The View from the Petra Hotel’s Roof
Be sure to show this book at the desk in the lobby on the second floor and ask for permission to see the roof. Admission is about NIS 10 per person, but if you’re in a group, try to bargain. From the lobby, climb two more long flights of stairs and emerge from the creaky wooden attic stairs onto the roof with its strange series of curved stone domes. Turn left, go up a few steps, turn left again, and you will face one of the Old City’s great panoramas—perfectly aligned, with the golden Dome of the Rock (site of the First and Second Temples) in the exact center of the vista, with the roofline of the city spread out below you. This is where photographers come for postcard views. The roof used to be a quiet, contemplative spot, but guests of the hostel at times make the roof into a wall-to-wall sleeping bag encampment in summer.
As you look eastward toward the Temple Mount, you’ll see the Mount of Olives across the horizon behind the Dome of the Rock. In ancient times, this now-barren ridge was a natural olive grove, and its cultivation was one of the sources of ancient Jerusalem’s wealth. The green area of the ridge, just behind the Dome of the Rock, is the Garden of Gethsemane (Gethsemane is the anglicized version of the Hebrew word for “olive press”), where Jesus was arrested after the Last Supper. This is the western side of the Mount of Olives ridge. On the eastern side, out of view, is the site of the village of Bethany where Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus, and his sisters, Mary and Martha, lived. Jesus may have been making his way to their house after the Passover dinner at the time of his arrest.
The Dome of the Rock was built in a.d. 691. According to legend, the saintly warrior Omar Ibn El Khattab, who conquered Jerusalem for Islam in a.d. 638, was greeted by Sophronius, the Christian archbishop, at the Jaffa Gate. Sophronius surrendered the city peacefully to Omar and then offered to lead the new ruler on a tour of his conquest. The first thing Omar Ibn El Khattab asked to see was “the Mosque of Suleiman,” or the place where Solomon’s Temple had once stood. The vast ceremonial platform surrounding the site of the ancient Jewish temple was one of the few architectural landmarks of Herodian Jerusalem that the Romans had found too difficult to eradicate when they destroyed the city in a.d. 70. Three hundred years later, as Christianity triumphed over Roman paganism, the Temple Mount was one of the places in the city left purposely in ruins (perhaps symbolically) by the Byzantine Christians. By the time of the Muslim conquest, the Temple Mount had become the garbage dump for Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Omar Ibn El Khattab was so saddened by the sight of the ancient holy place defiled and in ruins that he removed his cloak and used it to carry away debris. Sophronius prudently followed Omar’s example. Later, Muslim authorities ordered the most beautiful building possible to be placed over the Temple Mount’s sacred rock. The silver-domed Al Aqsa Mosque, on the southern edge of the Temple Mount, also commemorates this event.
Just below the Petra’s roof is a large, empty, rectangular area, the Pool of Hezekiah, misnamed centuries ago for the Judean king whose hidden water system saved ancient Jerusalem from Assyrian onslaught in 701 b.c.; the pool is actually a disused reservoir for a water system constructed in Herodian and Roman times. To the north, you’ll see the great silver dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the site venerated for almost 2,000 years as the place of Jesus’s crucifixion and entombment. In the far distance, beyond the walls of the Old City, on the northern part of the Mount of Olives, the small modern city is the complex of the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. To your right (south), inside the walls of the Old City, are the domes of the Armenian Cathedral of Saint James, the roofs of the Armenian and Jewish quarters of the Old City; to the south, beyond the hill of Abu Tor (believed to have been the Hill of Evil Counsel the site of the Blood Acre purchased for a potters’ field with Judas Iscariot’s 30 pieces of silver) lies Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David and Jesus.
Leave the Petra Hotel and continue down David Street to:
6 Suq El Hussor
This former basket bazaar, which once sold the big, traylike olive-twig baskets older Palestinian women sometimes still balance on their heads, filled with grapes, fruits, and vegetables, is now a small covered street of ordinary shops, but it leads to a great view.
About 18m (59 ft.) on the left side of Suq El Hussor, you’ll notice an open metal staircase. Climb up the staircase, and you’ll be on:
7 The Stone Rooftop of the Covered Markets
Here you’ll discover a different world above the bustling labyrinths of the bazaars. The broad rooftop area straight ahead covers the exact center of the Old City, where the four quarters meet. At the right time of day, if you listen carefully, you will hear emanating from the large dome on your right the unmistakable sound of a game of billiards; this dome at the very heart of the Holy City covers a billiard parlor. In Crusader times, this large structure housed the city’s bourse or exchange. From this rooftop, you can clearly see the architectural distinctions among the four quarters of the walled city: the orange-tile-roofed Christian Quarter to the northwest; the dome-roofed Muslim Quarter with its many television antennas to the northeast; the new stonework of the Jewish Quarter to the southeast, rebuilt by the Israelis after they reoccupied the Old City in 1967 (this area is devoid of antennas; its inhabitants receive cable); and, to the southwest, the older stone buildings of the Armenian Quarter. Again, through the maze of TV antennas, you get an interesting chance to photograph the lavish Dome of the Rock.
Descend the metal staircase and backtrack on Suq El Hussor to David Street. Turn right onto David Street. The next right on David Street leads to:
8 The Cardo
The restored and renovated section of Roman and Byzantine Jerusalem’s main market street is now filled with stylish modern shops.
At this point you have three choices for the rest of your tour.
The First Option: The Jewish Quarter-You could easily wander the streets of this beautifully reconstructed area for a number of hours.
Walk south on the Jewish Quarter Road to the:
9 Hurva Synagogue
This site was home to the Jewish Quarter’s main synagogue from the 16th to the mid–20th centuries, but it has been destroyed a number of times since its original construction. Most recently, it was blown up during the Jordanian occupation of the Old City after the War of Independence in 1948. In 2010, it was rebuilt almost exactly as it stood before it was destroyed.
10 TAKE A BREAK
A slice of kosher pizza, a falafel, a light meal, and a wonderful Arabic sesame bread fresh from the bakery oven (with a packet of local spices) are available on the section of the Jewish Quarter Road beyond the Hurva Synagogue.
Walk across the square behind the synagogue, and you’ll see signs for the:
11 Herodian Quarter
The present Jewish Quarter, on a hill opposite the Temple Mount, was the aristocratic residential part of Jerusalem in Herodian times. During the 1970s, intensive archaeological excavations were carried out here while the Jewish Quarter was being rebuilt. The ruins of large mansions were found with facilities for mikvot (ritual baths) and with mosaic floors ornamented by simple geometric designs (in strict keeping with the Mosaic commandment against graven images).
Take Tiferet Israel Street, which runs from the northeastern corner of the big square to the end, where you will come upon the:
12 Crusader Church of Saint Mary
In the extensive ruins of this Crusader-era church, once hidden beneath buildings from later times, explore the ruined cloister and the basilica, with a view of the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives framed in the window of the central apse.
Turn right at the church and make a left to the great staircase, which descends down to the:
13 Western Wall
The Herodian retaining wall for the western side of the Temple Mount was built by Herod the Great more than 2,000 years ago. It’s a remnant of the outer courtyard of the Jerusalem Temple and the holiest place of prayer in Jewish tradition. Between the Western Wall and the Dung Gate, you can enter the area of:
14 Archaeological Excavations
Set at the southern foot of the Temple Mount, these excavations are accessed through the Davidson Exhibition Center, which shows video programs depicting what the Jerusalem Temple would have been like in the years before its destruction in a.d. 70. Self-guided audio tours take you to various points along the southwestern and southern walls of the Temple Mount, where you can study the grandeur of this structure away from the crowds at prayer at the Western Wall.
From the excavations, take the road inside the city wall uphill to the:
15 Southern Wall of the Old City
Here you’ll find a lovely view into the valley below, which was the site of the original City of David 3,000 years ago.
You will see a parking lot inside the city walls; cross it and turn right into a pathway that becomes Habad Road; follow Habad Road to the far end. Or Hayim Street is a left turn off Habad Road; continue uphill until the road ends at the Armenian Patriarchate Road. A right turn onto this road gets you back to the square inside the Jaffa Gate. Alternatively, at the edge of the parking lot at he end of Habad Road is a stop for Bus 38 that takes you back to West Jerusalem’s New City.
Second Option: The Temple Mount-From the Cardo, if it is not a Friday and not after 11:30am, continue straight onto where David Street seems to end.
Turn right and then quickly take the first left, a continuation of David Street called the Street of the Chain. Continue down this road to the great green door (the Gate of the Chain) at the end, which leads directly onto the:
16 Temple Mount
The Temple Mount (in Arabic, Haram es Sharif) is open for visitors until 3pm. Give yourself ample time to walk around the ceremonial plaza and enjoy the views of the Mount of Olives. At press time, the Al Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, and the Islamic Museum on the Temple Mount were not open to the public, but if entering them is again permitted, non-Muslims must buy admission tickets (approx. NIS 38, and well worth the fee) from a small stone kiosk to the right of the Al Aqsa Mosque to gain admission to both mosques and the museum. It is permissible to take photographs outdoors on the Temple Mount, but you cannot bring a camera into mosques or shrines.
Walk diagonally to the right after entering the Gate of the Chain to the southern end of the Temple Mount to:
17 Al Aqsa Mosque
This is the main Islamic prayer hall on the Temple Mount.
In the center of the Temple Mount is the:
18 Dome of the Rock
You can’t miss its lavish exterior tiles and its golden dome.
At the southwest corner is the:
19 Islamic Museum
This museum houses a collection of Islamic artifacts from earlier periods on the Temple Mount.
Third Option: The Bazaars & the Church of the Holy Sepulcher-This walk begins at the intersection of David Street and the Cardo.
Turn left into the narrow, covered:
20 Suq El Attarin Bazaar
The Spice Market was covered during the time of the Crusaders, who perhaps could not bear the blazing summer sun of the region. It’s actually an additional segment of the Cardo, once the great Roman north-south market and ceremonial street. The Roman Cardo, originally broad and colonnaded, evolved over centuries into the present warren of narrow, parallel bazaars (including the Butcher’s Bazaar, with its dangling skinned sheep heads and gutters of blood, parallel just to the left). Suq El Attarin becomes Suq Khan es-Zeit and runs all the way north to the Damascus Gate. El Attarin is now mostly populated by clothing and sneaker shops.
Follow this covered market street until you exit from the covered portion, through a nondescript portal, and continue straight ahead. The next section of the street, no longer roofed over but covered by shop awnings, is:
21 Suq Khan es-Zeit (the Market of the Inn of the Olive Oil)
Probably since Herodian-Jewish times, this area has been a major food market—the Frankish Crusaders called this the Malcuisinat, or the Street of Bad Cookery, unhappy with the many Middle Eastern specialties sold here. You will notice pastry shops displaying mysteriously radiant mountains of baklava arranged on top of glowing lightbulbs and flashlights; the peanut baklava filling is sometimes dyed green to approximate the more costly pistachio. There are also chewy rolled pancakes filled with nuts or sweet cheese, served in a honey syrup; other shops sell dried fruits or dark globs of fruit- and nut-filled nougat. There are also hibachis cooking kabobs, shashliks, and rotisserie chicken to go. Any of these places are good bets for snacks.
22 TAKE A BREAK
Abu Assab Refreshments, a busy Old City landmark, sells fresh orange, grapefruit, and carrot juice and is the least expensive and best of its kind in town. It’s a good place to stave off dehydration and fill up on vitamins, and you can order the juices straight or in any combination. Upstairs, Mike Abu Assab, the British-educated manager, runs the best Internet and phone center in the Old City, if you want to check your e-mail.
A short way along the same side of the street is a stone staircase. Climb the staircase to the top, turn left, follow the lane to the end, turn right, and follow the street around through the Coptic Convent and onto the:
23 Ethiopian Compound & Monastery
It’s located on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s roof with the protruding dome in the center. Through slits in the windows of the dome, you will be able to glimpse the Chapel of Saint Helena inside the Holy Sepulcher Church below; you’ll even be able to smell the church incense and, at times, hear services and prayers.
The Ethiopians use this roof area each year on the Saturday midnight eve of Easter Sunday for one of the city’s most exotic religious processions. The Ethiopian patriarch, with a great ceremonial African umbrella, circumambulates the dome, followed by monks beating ancient drums—so large that they must be carried by two men—and by chanting white-robed pilgrims. The procession then retires to a leopard-skin tent (nowadays made of canvas in a leopard-skin pattern) to chant and pray through the night. This very moving ceremony is open to the public, and many Jerusalemites make it a point to attend each year.
The Ethiopian compound is spread across the sprawling segments of the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Note that on this ancient roof entire trees and gardens grow, among them the olive trees (or offshoots of olive trees) in which Abraham supposedly found the ram he offered in sacrifice after God freed him from the commandment to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Beside the expanse of the roof surrounding the dome are the living quarters of the tiny, walled, fortresslike monastery. Visitors may not enter this monastery compound, but you can look into the lane at the entrance to the monastery: The low, round-walled buildings and trees offer a distinctly African feeling. For centuries, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been divided among the six oldest factions of Christianity, and in the most recent division, the Ethiopian Church, with roots dating from the a.d. 4th century, got the roof. Both Ethiopian monks and a lay community have inhabited this location for centuries (you can often smell the wonderful spicy cooking of the communal kitchen). Note the church bells hanging in the ruined Gothic arches of the Crusader-era church structure to the right and above the tiny main street.
To the left of the doorway into the monastery lane, you will find the community’s well, with a shaft running down through the Holy Sepulcher Church (running water has obviated the need for the well, but the Ethiopians still have the right to a certain amount of water from it each day).
Opposite the well is a small, sometimes open door leading to a:
24 Crafts Shop
It’s usually closed, but at times you can find Ethiopian crafts and hand-painted icons for sale.
From this door continue around the corner to the large, ancient wooden door leading to the:
25 Ethiopian Chapel
This structure was probably built in medieval times. Here, if a monk is in attendance, you will be shown crucifix-shaped holy books written in ancient Ge’ez (the sacred language of Ethiopia), and you will have time to take in the paintings (unfortunately done by European religious painters rather than by traditional Ethiopian religious artists) that depict the queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon in approximately 940 b.c. Charmingly, the artist decided to depict an anachronistic group of 18th-century Polish Hasidic Jews among King Solomon’s entourage. The royal Ethiopian family is said to have descended from the traditionally believed union of the queen and King Solomon (one of the emperor of Ethiopia’s titles was “the Lion of Judah”), and in 1935, when Emperor Haile Selassie was forced to flee Mussolini’s invasion of his country, he took up residence in Jerusalem, “the land of my fathers.” There is a tray for contributions at the back of the chapel.
Continue to the rear of the chapel and down the staircase to the:
26 Chapel of the Archangel Michael
In this ancient chapel, with its carved and inlaid wood paneling, the community of Ethiopian monks gathers in late afternoon for prayers (around 4pm in winter; 5pm during daylight saving time, depending on how long sunlight is). Visitors are allowed to sit on the bench in the rear of the chapel outside the wrought iron fence and listen to the traditional Ethiopian chanting, which is extremely beautiful.
The ancient wooden door of the chapel leads outside to the main entrance plaza in front of the:
27 Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Now that you’ve seen the roof, you are ready to journey through the very special interior. After visiting the church, make your way back through the bazaars to David Street and the Jaffa Gate.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.