Bethlehem

Travel Guide Middle East Palestine Bethlehem

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Introduction

As the Birth Place of Christ, the ancient town of Bethlehem holds a connection with Christians from all around the World. While small in size and population, the town of Bethlehem and its surroundings have lots to offer to any visitor or tourists. At the heart of the town lies the Church of the Nativity. Inside the church is the Grotto of the nativity marking the spot where Jesus was born. Since the establishment of the PA in 1994, there has been a fast amount of development and restoration work throughout the town. A large number of tourism establishments such as hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops have been opened and are ready to serve all travel needs.

The "little town" of Bethlehem, mentioned in any number of Christmas carols, attracts pilgrims worldwide on account of its description in the New Testament (and particularly the Gospels) as the Biblical birthplace of Jesus, whom Christians believe to be Messiah and Son of God. The Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world, is the focus of Christian veneration within the city. Modern textual analysis has almost universally drawn the conclusion that Nazareth, the place where Jesus spent most of his later life and the home town of Joseph and Mary was probably his actual birthplace, but that has not lessened the draw of this city for Christian pilgrims.

Bethlehem is also revered by Jews and Muslims as the birthplace and home town of David, Biblical prophet and King of Israel, as well as the traditional site of Rachel's Tomb (on the outskirts of the town).

Although also home to many Muslims, Bethlehem remains home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities in the Middle East (despite significant emigration in recent years, resulting in a growing Muslim majority) and one of the chief cultural and tourism drawcards for the Palestinian community. The Bethlehem agglomeration also includes the small towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, the latter also having Biblical significance.

Building up to the Millennium in the year 2000, Bethlehem underwent a massive largely foreign-funded project called Bethlehem 2000 in hopes of turning Bethlehem into a major tourist destination comparable to destinations such as Jerusalem or Tel Aviv in tourism infrastructure. Unfortunately a year later, the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation occurred and the ensuing violence, including a standoff between Palestinian fighters holed up in the Church of the Nativity and Israeli troops, scuttled these tourism efforts. Although tension remains high in Israeli-Palestinian relations, violence is a thing of the past in Bethlehem and many in Bethlehem hope to continue on where Bethlehem 2000 started them off.

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Sights and Activities

  • Church of the Nativity (From the last bus stop walk left through Pope Paul VI street until Manger Square. It's all straight, just make sure to take a left at the Lutheran church.). Undoubtedly the top attraction in Bethlehem, a veritable citadel built fortress-like on top of the cave where Jesus was born to Mary. It is one of the oldest churches in the world, and has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The first incarnation of the building was erected on the orders of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (the Great) in 330 CE. While the layout largely corresponds to Emperor Justinian's plans from 540 CE (the first building having been destroyed in a 536 riot), the church was first heavily fortified by the Crusaders and then degraded (mostly through neglect) under Mamluk rule. An earthquake in 1834 and a fire in 1869 didn't help. Today, the structure is mostly sound but somewhat dark and gloomy in appearance, only the adjoining Franciscan Church of St Catherine (dated 1881 and the site of the yearly December 24 midnight mass broadcast around the world) being in excellent shape. The alleged site of Jesus' birth is actually in an cave in the church (the original Manger where Jesus was born was a cave, not a shed, as popularly depicted). There is a star marking the exact location of Jesus' birth in the cave. The original Manger with the star marking Jesus' birth site is called the Grotto of the Nativity, and is accessible from inside the church. (The tomb of famed theologian and Bethlehem resident St. Jerome, who spent his life translating the Bible, is also in the cave with the Grotto.) Entrance to the entire complex is free, but in the high season (and especially on Jan 6th) be prepared for massive crowds and hour-long waits for entry into the Grotto. There are usually accredited but dodgy tour-guides waiting at the entrance or inside of the church who offer to give tours to groups/individuals, sometimes allowing you to skip the crowds. Makes sure to agree on a price before taking the tour, and if the promise was to skip the crowds and get into the crotto directly but not possible sometimes, lower the price by at least half. Otherwise do not support them, as it is unfair to the other visitors waiting.
  • Herodion - Located some 10 kilometres east of Bethlehem are the remains of the magnificent Palace of Herod the Great. Named Herodion after its builder, Herod, the Palace was built in towards the end of the first century BC as a fortified castle with palace in the inside. The Arabic name, Jabal Al Freidees is derived from the Arabic word “fardous” a word referring to the magnificent garden that was built at the foot of the hill. A lavish and luxurious palace in its day, a city of round walls and a fort enclosing apartments, baths and a beautiful garden.
  • Solomons Pools - Located some 3 kilometres south of Bethlehem near the village of Artas you can visit the Solomon Pools which are the closest perennial springs to Jerusalem at an altitude above that of the city hence it once provided one of the oldest and most reliable water supplies. The three rectangular shaped pools / cisterns can hold up to 116,000 cubic meters of water. Partly excavated from rock and partly built, these huge reservoirs collected spring and rain water and pumped into to Bethlehem and as far as Jerusalem using the sheer force of gravity. Adjacent to the pools lie the remains of an ancient Ottoman fort set in a beautiful grove of pine and cypress trees. The actual reservoirs were in use up until 1946.
  • Artas - Just south of Bethlehem, near the Solomon’s Pool lies the village of Artas (or Urtas) which is by far one of the best-known West Bank villages. The name Artas originates from hortus, the Latin for “garden" because it is believed to be the site of hortus conclusus, Solomon’s erotic Canticle or Song of Songs: “Thou art like a garden enclosed, my sister, my spouse, like a sealed fountain. Thy plantations are a paradise of delights." Because of its proximity to Jerusalem and because of its scenery and its historical allusiveness, Europeans in the 19th century adopted Artas as a summer retreat. The Europeans in fact were the ones who introduced or re-introduced horticulture to the valley. In 1894, the Italian Order of the Sisters of Mary of the Gadren built the Hortus Conclusus Convent in Artas. Another must attraction in the Village is the Artas Folklore Museum on the north side of the valley which features implements, past and present, of village culture. Finally, every year in April, the Artas Folklore Center organizes the annual Lettuce Festival which features traditional dance and music and is a must see for any visitor.
  • Rachel's Tomb (Separated from Bethlehem by the wall). Burial place of the matriarch Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin is the second most important historical site in Bethlehem. (Genesis 35:19-20). It is a holy site in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As a result of the security situation, the Tomb's original structure has been surrounded by an Israeli fortress, barricading it off from Bethlehem. While the original tomb can still be seen in its entirety from within the fortress, access to the tomb is now only possible by vehicle, e.g. by taking the Egged bus that comes from Jerusalem or by hitchhiking the very short way.

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Events and Festivals

  • Artas Lettuce Festival - Since its debut back in 1994, the annual Lettuce Festival which takes place in the beautiful village of Artas just south of Bethlehem near Solomon;s Pools brings locals and visitors together in a joyful festival celebrating and honoring the eternal Palestinian peasant. Organized by the Artas Folklore Center is truly an experience as you get the chance to interact with the living stones of this ancient land and experience the hospitality and culture of Palestinian in real life.

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Getting There

Most travellers arrive via Jerusalem. Since Bethlehem is administered by the Palestinian Authority, there are security checks conducted by the Israeli military on access roads. When coming via the highway there are no barriers when going to Bethlehem, however on the other side there is highway 60 checkpoint on the road to Jerusalem. For instance in case you're traveling by bus, soldiers will board to check the passengers' identity documents. On the local road north of Bethlehem, there's a bigger checkpoint ("Rachel's Crossing"/Checkpoint 300). To cross, one shows his/her passport to an Israeli soldier, places his/her bags into an x-ray machine and then walks through a metal detector, much like airport security. As with all areas under Palestinian Authority control, Israeli law forbids Israeli citizens to enter unless they receive approval from the Israeli Civil Administration. Tourists are free to enter and exit Bethlehem and go back to Jerusalem as many times as they would like without any restrictions. Make sure you bring your passport with your Israeli-issued tourist visa to enter and exit the Palestinian areas.

By Bus

From Jerusalem's HaNeviim bus station near Damascus Gate ("Bab el-'Amoud") bus 231 runs from here into Bethlehem (via Beit Jala). Even though the bus stop sign does not list it, bus 231 can also be boarded at the bus stop out of the Jaffa Gate and down the road a little – the bus comes from the tunnel. The average trip length is 30 min and costs ₪6.80. The last stop from Jerusalem in Bethlehem is along Hebron Road about 20 min walk from the Church of the Nativity away. Also shared taxis (sherut/servees) leave from nearby Damascus Gate and manage the trip in 20 min.

Palestinian bus 234 also leaves from HaNeviim bus station near Damascus Gate. It costs ₪4.70 and runs directly to the Jerusalem-Bethlehem Checkpoint (Checkpoint 300) and back. From the checkpoint, you can either walk half an hour or take a taxi to the center of Bethlehem (₪10–25), which is about 3 km away. Egged bus 163 also goes here from the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, halting for instance at the Jaffa Gate bus stop. Travel time from Jaffa Gate is 30 min, price is ₪5.90.

From Ramallah many shared taxis (sherut/servees) leave for Bethlehem. It is just a little pain to figure out the right bus station out of the (at least) four ones in Ramallah. The trip takes about an hour, goes all the way around Jerusalem and costs ₪20.

The trip from Hebron with the final stop at the very bottom floor of the Bethlehem bus station (only shared taxis (sherut)) will deliver you for less than ₪10.

From Jericho take a shared taxis (sherut/servees) for ₪12 to Al Ezariya (Junction), a town/junction east of Jerusalem, identified with Bethany from the New Testament. Ask the driver where to get off to get to Bethlehem or take the GPS pointer as orientation. From the junction take another shared taxis to Bethlehem bus station (₪5-10).

By Foot

Devoted pilgrims often prefer to walk (and in happier times there has been a large procession at Christmas), at a brisk pace the trip is doable in 2 hr but there are plenty of ups and downs along the way and the summer heat is fearsome.

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Getting Around

Many sites of Bethlehem are within foot-reach.

But Bethlehem is a small city, so taxi rides are extremely cheap; no trip within Bethlehem city should cost more than ₪20. To travel from Bethlehem to its neighboring suburbs of Beit Sahour or Beit Jala, it should be no more than ₪25-30. Just make sure, to only take service of the taxi ride and not a guided tour, which will cost you much more.

To travel to more distant site (such as Herodium, any of the surrounding monasteries, or Solomon's Pools), it's advisable to negotiate a price with a taxi driver at the Bethlehem bus station. Many taxi drivers are willing to take you to a site, wait there while you tour a site and then take you back to Bethlehem for a negotiated price. Whenever negotiating a taxi price, always say the lowest price you think would be reasonable for the trip, and bargain with the driver from there. The driver will start as high as he thinks he can charge and bargain down for you. Make sure to agree on a price before going into a taxi.

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Eat

  • Shepherds Valley Village - The Tent Restaurant, Beit Sahour. Nearby the Shepherd's Field., ☏ +972 2 2773875. Good local cuisine in an outdoor setting or tent in winter. Good views across the valley.
  • Mundo Restaurant, Manger Street (on the Main Road, not far from Nativity Square), ☏ +970 2 274 2299. 11AM-11PM. Mundo Restaurant makes the best pizza in Bethlehem. The restaurant provides a family-friendly atmosphere (and an excellent view).
  • Bonjour Restaurant & Cafe, John Paul II Street. 9AM-11:30PM. Located right next to Bethlehem University (in the heart of Bethlehem), "Bonjour" offers international cuisine (with an Arabic flair) in a stylish, relaxing space. Owned by two young Palestinian entrepreneurs, Bonjour has free WiFi, great coffee, and an attractive menu. Arabic, English, and Hebrew spoken.
  • Afteem Restaurant (on the outer, downhill edge of Manger Square). If you love falafel, fresh homemade hummus, and other tasty Arabic food....you MUST visit this restaurant! Probably one of the best falafel shops in Palestine or Israel. The falafel is so good, shops come from as far away as Haifa to buy the raw mix.
  • The Wall Lounge (nearby the entrance to Bethlehem). This very innovate restaurant takes a symbol of despair, the massive Israeli barrier separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and turns it into an asset for his business. The restaurant's menu is posted on a huge sign onto the barrier and as well, at night soccer games are projected onto a huge projector screen put on the wall for people to view on outdoor tables. This place is a lot of fun to eat, drink, and watch some sports on a big "movie-theater" style projector screen!

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Drink

Enjoy the atmosphere and hang out with friends for dinner or a few drinks at Bistro lounge bar in Beit Jala.

  • Al-Khema (The Tent), Beit Sahour (beside the Shepherd's Field). This restaurant, is enclosed in a huge tent. It serves good food, excellent drink menu (especially the Palestinian beer brand "Taybeh"), and also offers a great selection for hookah (flavoured tobacco). edit
  • Cremisan Cellars. Visit the famous Cremisan Cellars Winery located in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala. This Winery, also the site of the ancient Cremisan Monastery, is on a hilltop and offers a spectacular view of the valley below it and as well of the surrounding Jerusalem and Bethlehem area. A must visit for any wine enthusiast!
  • Layal Night club (Beit Jala). This nightclub plays mostly Arabic pop music. There is usually a younger crowd here. Make sure to have a female when going to the nightclub because often when there is too many male patrons, they only let males in if they have girls with them.
  • Numerous Liquor shops. Bethlehem, being a Christian Palestinian city, is abundant with liquor stores selling various alcoholic beverages for very, very cheap prices. The local specialty is a Arabic liquor called "Arak". It tastes like liquorice and is often mixed in lemonade or in ice-water.
  • Taboo Bar (In Beit Jala), ☏ +970 2 2740711. Small and cozy bar/club in Beit Jala popular with young Palestinians. Good drinks and includes outdoor seating, also serves food.

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Sleep

The problem of finding somewhere to stay as encountered by Mary and Joseph are long gone in Bethlehem. There are many options to choose from. Because Jerusalem is often the place where tourist stay rather than Bethlehem, Bethlehem's hotels offer much cheaper rates than Israeli hotels in order to entice tourists to stay in Bethlehem rather than just do a day tour of the historic sites and then quickly leave back to Israel. Bargaining for a cheaper hotel price usually works in Bethlehem. Feel free to email/phone numerous Bethlehem hotels for quotes and compare the prices, it definitely saves you money rather than staying in an overpriced Jerusalem hotel.

  • House Of Peace, Wad Ma'ali, Saff St. 10 (next to Malhamet inyaz, near manger square), ☏ +972 2 2764739, +972 54-587-5063, ✉ nbt4god@gmail.com. Dorm bed from ₪80.
  • Al Salam Hotel, Manger Street (Opposite to Church of the nativity), ☏ +970 2 276 4083. Single from ₪132.
  • Bunksurfing Hostel, AlDawha al-hurreya Str (either 10 minutes by public transport or 20 minutes walking from Bethlehem city center and Jerusalem bus stop), ☏ +972 569050649, ✉ Buncksurfinghostel@gmail.com. Check-in: 22:00, check-out: 10:00. A low budget hostel in the holy land with a very friendly knowledgeable owner that is running daily Alternative walking tours. The rooms are 8-bed dorms, including shower, toilet and direct entrance from the road all in one room, also not the tidiest one – needs to get used to it, but for this price, one cannot question. ₪40.
  • The Walled Off Hotel, 182 Caritas St, ☏ +972 54-698-9412. This isn't the Waldorf. Established March 11, 2017 by internationally-known street artist Bansky, the ten-room inn boasts “the worst view of any hotel in the world”... facing directly on to a controversial barrier wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories. More of a political statement than a room at the inn in Bethlehem, the Walled Off Hotel includes a gallery and museum. From $30.
  • Bethlehem Hotel, Near Manger St roundabout at the top of the hill near the border checkpoint, ☏ +972 2-2770702, fax: +972 2-2770706, ✉ info@bethlehemhotel.com.
  • Grand Hotel (If you take local bus 21 (and maybe 124), the bus will drop you off on a hill. If you hike up and keep going straight, the hotel will be on your left. It's got what's probably an upscale Mexican restaurant on top, called Mariachi, but is also situated above a falafel stand). $50 US for a single, but if you look like a budget traveler, they might give it to you for ₪150.
  • Abu Jubran Lutheran Guest House (Beside Christmas Lutheran Church and inside Dar Annadwa, Paul VI St.), ☏ +972 2 277 0047, ✉ connection.guesthouse@diyar.ps. Touts its "elegant" accommodations and Ad-Dar Cultural and Conference Center. 13 twin/double rooms with en suite bathrooms, Heat and air conditioning, and TV and broadband Internet.
  • Grand Park Hotel Bethlehem, ☏ +970 2 2756400, ✉ info@grandpark.com. A few minutes' stroll to the Nativity Church and the shopping area.
  • Jacir Palace Hotel, ☏ +972 2 276 6777, ✉ jacir@interconti.com. This hotel is the only 5-star hotel in Bethlehem. Foreign diplomats often stay at this hotel because of its prestigious image.

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Keep Connected

Internet

Israel is a technologically advanced society, and internet cafés are widely available in most cities and towns. The regular price for paid internet cafés is about 15 shekels per hour but you can get it for about 10 shekels in some of the more local places. Free Wi-Fi access is common in cafés (check individual articles). All branches of 'Aroma Espresso Bar', 'Arcaffe', 'Café Café', 'McDonalds' and 'Yellow' convenience stores have free Wi-Fi access, though in some you will have to approach the staff for a password.

Recently, the "Jerusalem Wi-Fi" project started. This government started project aims to cover the entire Jerusalem area with Wi-Fi although at the moment the only areas covered are in the city center. A similar project has started in Tel Aviv and in Karmiel in the north. Some other cities are following suit.

Phone

See also: International Telephone Calls

The international country code for Israel is 972. Emergency numbers include 100 (police), 101 (ambulance) and 102 (fire). 112 is supported in mobile networks.

Currently Israel offers support for all the available networks including GSM/UMTS (Pelephone, Cellcom and Orange), CDMA (Pelephone) and iDen (Hot Mobile). In any case, you must check with your carrier about the roaming option and the compatibility of your device in advance. A valid suggestion otherwise is to turn off data services.

You can rent a cellphone for use in Israel either before your trip or once you arrive from several firms. You can also rent smartphones with sim cards included sometimes for lower than the cost of renting just a sim card. Vendors such as Israel Phone Rentalsoffer the advantages of a sim card rental without having to worry about bringing your own phone to Israel. If you have a GSM cellphone without a SIM-lock, you can buy a SIM-card. Prepaid SIM cards are available at Pelephone (Talk & Go), Cellcom (Talk Man) and Orange (Bigtalk) phone stores throughout Israel. Almost all shopping malls will have a Pelephone, Cellcom or Orange kiosk or store.

There are many public phones scattered around. Public phones can be always found at hotels, post offices, central bus stations and train stations. These phones use a Telecard, which, today, is a pre-paid calling card that works only with pay phones and can be purchased at post offices and some stores, as well as ordinary calling cards. Some phones also accept credit cards, usually those in hotels and post offices.

Post

The Israel Post is the national postal service of Israel and generally has fast, reliable and affordable services. Efficiency means that letters and postcards send by airmail just take about 3-7 days within Europe, a few days more to the USA and Australia. Express Mail Services (EMS) is available, with which you are guaranteed to have the postcard or letter delivered within 72 hours anywhere in the world. You can buy stamps at post offices, or newspaper stands/kiosks or some souvenir shops and hotels. The main post offices are usually open from 8:00am to 6:00pm Sunday to Thursday and 8:00am to 2:00pm on Friday, though some might keep longer hours. Branch offices and post offices in smaller towns keep shorter hours, usually with a break from 12:30pm to 3:30pm, and on Wednesday and Friday only during the morning. Parcels can be send by the regular post offices or with companies like TNT, UPS, FedEx and DHL.

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This is version 27. Last edited at 10:23 on Jul 8, 19 by Utrecht. 2 articles link to this page.

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