There’s little doubt that Jerusalem is one of the most interesting and unique cities on earth, with nowhere having more religious importance, historic richness, political significance, and demographic diversity, at least not all together. Jerusalem has hundreds of faces, and the typical tourist experience in the city is not one which presents to the visitor the small yet strong, gritty and unique secular life which exists in the city, partly thanks to the city’s 20,000 strong student community, – with arts, culture, and cuisine. Want to experience Jerusalem like an in-the-know local? Here are five top tips
1. Start with a Tour
Traditional Jerusalem – explore this before you begin to delve deeper
It might seem to defeat the object of this article, but you can’t ignore Jerusalem’s religion, history, and politics, and the only way to truly understand that is to go on a tour. There are many options available, although this Jerusalem Day Tour with a guide offers good value, or, if you are a group of three or more people, a private Jerusalem walking tour ($350 per group), can work out cheaper. This will give you the introduction and context to Jerusalem that you need, and of course, is interesting and important not to miss when you are visiting a city such as this.
2. Get in with the Food
Food is a massive part of Middle Eastern Culture, and in Jerusalem, where the population is incredibly diverse, offers a glimpse into the cultures that have created the mixing pot which is the city today. A good start, is to explore the Machane Yehuda Market, but even that, without expert knowledge, can be a little tricky. Join a market tour such as this (and get to understand the market, and through it the food, culture, and people who make up this unique city.
3. Head out at Night
Uganda, one of Jerusalem’s small number of popular secular bars
Jerusalem’s nightlife is not anything to rival Tel Aviv in scale, however, the city has a small number of hardcore bars where secular locals and students totally contradict the global image of a traditional and conservative city. Bars such as the Sira (4 Ben Sira Street), an underground-ish bar with regular live music, or hip cafe-bar, Uganda, (4 Aristobulus Street) where indie comics line the walls, and Palestinian beer is sold in the fridge, are good places to begin. Alternatively join the pub crawl every Wednesday night (70 NIS) and get a taste of the nightlife with a local guide.
4. Explore the Neighborhoods
Tourists in Jerusalem rarely venture beyond the Old City and the modern ‘City Center’, with some heading into the more exclusive (and very nice) areas such as Yemin Moshe and the German Colony. Yet cool Jerusalem doesn’t really reside there. In Rehavia, just adjacent to the City Center, you’ll find cool cafes and boutique shops which could be just a drop of Tel Aviv in Jerusalem, or in Nachlaot, just next to the Market, a previously religious neighborhood which is today becoming a popular spot for students. Walk in the streets and alleyways, drink a coffee in the neighborhood cafes, and begin to feel the insiders Jerusalem, the Jerusalem that locals know and love.
5. Ask Locals
See a local who looks like they know about the things you’re interested in, don’t be afraid to ask them for recommendations. Jerusalem’s secular scene is small and connected. It’s also welcoming to tourists and outsiders, somehow Jerusalemites just love to prove the point that they can exist in a modern way in such a traditional place.
A city beyond imagination
Tel Aviv is a great city, but it’s a city which is straightforward. Jerusalem is by no means straightforward, and by no means Tel Aviv in the extent of its secular culture, nightlife, and cuisine. However, finding these pockets of extreme liberalism in one of the world’s most traditional and conservative cities, is somewhat rewarding and makes you, as a traveler feel like you’ve made a massive discovery. So go explore and slowly you’ll begin to realize that Jerusalem is complicated (even more than you could have imagined!)