Berkeley, California (EastBayDaily) — In 2013, a record-breaking 1.7 million people visited Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and this May, Pope Francis is scheduled to make a historic journey there as well. Included in the Pope’s itinerary are plans for experiencing some of the Holy Land’s most awe-inspiring historical and spiritual sites. Just in time for his visit, Genevieve Belmaker—travel expert and author of Moon Jerusalem & the Holy Land—shares essential tips for visiting the many unforgettable sites of this timeless destination.
1) Manger Square in Bethlehem: This is the heart of Bethlehem’s Old City and the jumping-off point for the town’s most popular attractions and events. While there is a surprising amount of shopping throughout Bethlehem, the main area is directly surrounding Manger Square. There are several shops that cater to pilgrims and sell postcards and handmade trinkets, boxes, and nativity scene pieces made from olive wood, many with inlaid mother of pearl. Shop owners sometimes try to sell the pieces for very high prices, but travelers should feel free to bargain if they’re interested in something.
2) Western Wall: The most famed religious site in all of Judaism, the Western Wall is also called the Wailing Wall or the Kotel. While the imposing wall is the destination for the faithful who come to pray before it, an upper plaza in the southeastern corner offers an excellent view of the Wall and the Dome of the Rock behind it. Go south from the Western Wall and you will come upon the Western Wall Excavations, a 75-minute tour that explores hidden layers of the Western Wall and is available only by scheduling in advance with a guide. The underground excavations tell the story of ancient Judaism.
3) Mount Herzl: At the entrance to the Yad Vashem campus is Mount Herzel’s Herzl Museum. The museum gives visitors an audio-visual history of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl through a one-hour program. Tours must be arranged in advance or on a first-come, first-served basis.
4) Yad Vashem: Nothing can prepare you for the enormous psychological and emotional impact of visiting this spot. More of an institution than a museum, Yad Vashem is an astounding window into Jewish history and culture. Because of the size and the amount of information, it is advisable to plan to spend at least half a day here. Start with the Holocaust History Museum, the building behind the main entrance to Yad Vashem. Also, make sure to take in the Holocaust Art Museum, Hall of Remembrance, and Hall of Names.
5) Hechal Schlomo Center: This landmark building in the heart of Jerusalem houses the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art and serves as a Jewish spiritual and cultural center. In addition to its several permanent exhibits and cultural events that include live music, the Hechal Schlomo Center also houses the 300-year-old Renanim Synagogue, which was transported from Italy. The active synagogue is decorated lavishly in 18th century Italian style.
6) Jerusalem Great Synagogue: This imposing structure was opened in 1982 and is dedicated to the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The synagogue’s internationally acclaimed choir is one of the world’s chief repositories for Jewish Ashkenazic liturgical music, and stained glass windows adorn the main building. The synagogue’s annual operating budget of one million dollars comes entirely from donations.
7) Mount of Olives: The site of many miraculous occurrences, this is an extremely significant location in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Get out early to the Mount of Olives to experience an awe-inspiring sunrise. Take a taxi to the top of the mountain’s highest vista point, above the old Jewish cemetery. From here, enjoy the incredible view of old and new Jerusalem. Take a leisurely walk down the hill and go through the Jewish cemetery, or just continue downhill to various vista points for photos.
For more information, visit Moon.com and read Genevieve Belmaker’s “The Mount of Olives: My Most Memorable Experience in Jerusalem” and “Via Dolorosa: Following the Last Steps of Jesus.”
About Moon Travel Guides & Moon.com: Moon Travel Guides make independent travel and outdoor exploration fun and accessible. With expert writers delivering a mix of honest insight, first-rate strategic advice, and an essential dose of humor, Moon guidebooks ensure that travelers have an uncommon and entirely satisfying travel experience. Moon not only guides, Moon inspires. Based in Berkeley, California, Moon is published by Avalon Travel, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Visit Moon online at moon.com.