Next year in Jerusalem

We know what makes this city different from all others

April 14, 2011
The old city is a veritable mosaic of culture and architecture

The old city is a veritable mosaic of culture and architecture

We say it every Pesach but, for most, the words do not venture beyond a spiritual notion. But if you are going to turn aspiration into reality, prepare to cast away preconceptions.

Sure, Jerusalem the Golden is as religiously loaded as ever. The old city contains a staggering 37 denominations of Christianity, as well as Islam and Judaism and Lord knows what else, that fervently savour their own piece of the Holy Land.

Every inch of its landscape is crammed with monuments depicting all and sundry from around the world, including a copy of the Pizzi palace that houses the Ministry of Education.

For Jews the most precious is of course the Western Wall. Visit at its most joyful on a Thursday when Barmitzvahs fill the air with song while women stand on chairs straining to look over the partition.

But it's not all piety and prayer. Feel free to raise an eyebrow but Jerusalem is becoming a hip destination and is successfully reframing its history and biblical roots as trendy.

During spring and summer food and music, and any excuse for, festivals are held almost weekly in the square by the Tower of David Citadel.

And as for the nightlife: you have to experience the area around the pedestrian promenade at Nahalat Shiva to believe it. This funky neighbourhood just outside the city walls is crammed with shops, cafés, night spots, restaurants and bars, one or two staying open 24 hours, where you can party the night away.

Getting there

For more information on holidays in Israel, Israel Government Tourist Office 0207 299 1100. Flights: EL AL flies to Tel Aviv from Heathrow and Luton airports.

In fact, the Ministry of Tourism is now seeking to turn Jerusalem into a tourism hot spot aiming to attract 10 million visitors by 2020, massively more than the three and a half million who visited the entire country last year. And that was a record.

So, before you make up your mind, some tips:

● A view to die for

The best view over Jerusalem is at the terrace on top of Mount of Olives, where the Messiah is expected to turn up one day. It sits 830 metres above sea level in the Kidrom Valley beyond the city walls and faces the old city
of Jerusalem head-on making this a great spot to get snap-happy.

To avoid the crowds go in the morning to catch the early light or the dusky shades of early evening as they descend upon the ring of ivory grave stones including that of Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, Temple Mount, the valley of Hinnom and the Judean Desert in the distance.

The camel ride option has become an institution up there and provides a few minutes of cheesy entertainment.

● Pay moma a visit

The man behind the acclaimed MOMA museum in New York, James Snyder, has recreated the same success for the newly inaugurated Israel Museum.

The size of the museum is simply staggering and the contents more so.

But, if you only have time for one exhibition then be sure it is the Shrine of the Book. This is where you will see the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bar Kochba letters and other archaeological artefacts from Qumran.

If you do have a few hours, ponder the model of Jerusalem outside first. It spreads over almost an acre and evokes the city at its ancient peak.

Inside, stroll through 5,000 years of archaeology and anthropology, take a journey through Jewish worlds, including fashion, jewellery and replicas of ancient synagogues, and feast on fine arts including examples from Picasso, Kadinsky, Van Gough and Andy Warhol as well as sculptures from the furthest corners of the world.

● Ancient relics

It took Dr Elie Borowski 50 years to amass a priceless collection of Ancient Near Eastern art and the Bible Museum is the only one in the world dedicated to the history of the bible in ancient lands, including Egypt and Babylon.

● Walls can speak

The Tower of David citadel has been standing at the entrance of the Old City for over 1,000 years and these restored walls reveal its secrets eloquently.

The museum is spread over the various guardrooms and showing Jerusalem's 4,000 years of history but the evening light show evokes the past in a way that only huge imagery and emotive music can do.

This is a mesmerising 45 minute film projected onto the citadel's huge fortress walls. It depicts Jerusalem's history from its creation and ends with the creation the State of Israel in 1948.

● Dine like our forefathers

The Eucalyptus restaurant has taken root in the artists quarters just across from the Old City walls close to Jaffa Gate. Its Iraqi born, pony-tailed chef and food historian Moshe Basson was knighted in Italy for his contribution to resurrecting the biblical kitchen and is winner of the International couscous festival in San Vito Lo Capo, Italy for the state of Israel.

He serves up gourmet entertainment with tales of the biblical herbs such as za'atar (hyssop), Jerusalem sage and spices used to marinate his dishes.

Go for the ludicrously plentiful tasting menu. The signature dish, the Maklouba, a combination of chicken, rice and potatoes, is heralded with a gong, and a diner is chosen to circle the pot a few times, make a wish and then the pot is turned over so that the chicken legs ends up on top of rice and vegetables.

● Humous has it

Probably the best humous in town can be sampled at Abu Shukri on Via Dolorosa between the fourth and fifth stations. It nestles amid touristy shops but don't worry that it looks likes a middle Eastern Joe's café - it's friendly and clean and ideal place for a lunchtime snack.

● Go shopping

Shuk shopping in the maze of narrow lanes in the Arab quarter is a perfect place to pick up souvenirs such as mother-of-pearl jewellery boxes, charms, jewellery and a melee of middle eastern oddities and genuine antiquities.

Unlike other countries, in Israel antiquities can be bought and sold privately but it is supervised. There are only 50 licensed dealers and Khader Baidun is one of them. His shop at 20 Via Dolorosa sells items dating from the Iron Age (or for the biblicaly minded from the time of the first temple). Feel free to haggle over a cup of tea.

For colour and a glimpse of local life Mahane Yehuda Market is worth shaking your shekels at. You may not be in the market for fruit and veg, spices or cheese, but can you resist a bag of gareenim, some chalva or perhaps a new Kiddush cup? This market straddles two major streets, Eitz Chaim, this section is covered, and Mahane Yehuda Street, which is the open-air section.

New to Jerusalem is the fashionable Mamilla Mall. This elegant pedestrianised stretch has been built using Jerusalem stone and is lined with various designer shops including Ronen Chen, one of Israel's top women's clothes designers. With the mall came Jerusalem's first underground car park - a real coup for this crowded city.

● Go to synagogue

Located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City is Hurva Synagogue, also known as the 'destroyed courtyard of Rabbi Yehouda'. It is considered the official institution of Israel before Israel became a state and was founded by European immigrants, followers of Rabbi Yehuda, in the early 18th century. It was destroyed by Muslims in 1721 rebuilt in 1864 and destroyed again in 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Finally in 2000 the synagogue, was rebuilt in its former domed glory.

● Climb those walls

If you have the energy, Jerusalem's ramparts offer the opportunity to become a voyeur as you peak into gardens, courtyards and spy the comings and goings in the different quarters. Allow at least 40 minutes.

● Get away in 40 minutes

The story of the Jews who settled on Masada is so compelling they made a film about it starring Peter O' Toole showing how Jews sought refuge on Masada mountain in 73 BC, how the Romans took three years to infiltrate the fortress and how the community killed themselves rather than submit.

Masada, reached by cable car, is now an open air museum complete with ruins of Herod's palaces and archeological remains of community life.

Follow this with a visit to the lowest point on earth - the Dead Sea between the desert and Mohab Mountains.

The waters are spookily still since the saline concentration means nothing can survive yet the minerals and nutrient rich mud has outstanding healing properties. They say Cleopatra used the area as her own personal spa.

Last updated: 12:10pm, May 25 2011