Bethlehem is an important historic city in the West Bank, about 10km (6.2 miles) south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem, or beit lechem means “House of Bread” in Hebrew. During the Christmas season, Christians from around the world make a pilgrimage to the Church of the Nativity to see the place where Jesus was born. Rachel’s Tomb is at the northern entrance of Bethlehem and is an important Jewish holy site. More notably, the Old Testament identifies Bethlehem as the city where David was from and where he was crowned the first king of Israel. Whether you’re interested in the history, religion, or culture of the city, it is definitely a fascinating place to visit.
The earliest recorded reference to Bethlehem is from all the way back in 1400 BCE, in clay tablets consisting of diplomatic correspondence from Ancient Egypt. Early Christian tradition says Jesus was born in Bethlehem. A verse in the Book of Micah talks of the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. There are two different accounts of Jesus’s birth in the New Testament: In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ parents lived in Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, after which they returned home to Nazareth. In the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod hears that a ‘King of the Jews’ was born in Bethlehem, so he ordered the murder of all boys under age two, called the Massacre of the Innocents. Warned by an angel of the Lord, Joseph flees to Egypt with his family to save baby Jesus’ life.
Other than these more famous histories, Bethlehem also has historical connections to many other era and peoples throughout history.
Getting to Bethlehem
Located close to Jerusalem, Bethlehem is easy to get to on your own. However, being part of the West Bank, Israeli public transportation cannot enter, so only private transportation and certain Arab bus lines can be used. Read more about these options here.
Due to Bethlehem’s deep and fascinating history, the best way to experience this special town is on a tour. There is so much to see and learn, so having a knowledgable guide is the best way to go.
The best time of year to visit Bethlehem is Christmas since it’s the place where the story really began. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience. join our Christmas Eve in Bethlehem tour or our 2-day Christmas in Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem Tour.
What to see in Bethlehem
The Church of the Nativity
Star marking the birthplace of Jesus
The Church of the Nativity is named for the grotto it was built around. This grotto is known by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus and is Christianity’s oldest continuously used place of worship. The basilica is also the oldest major church in Israel.
The Grotto of the Nativity, where Jesus is said to have been born, is an underground cave in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity underneath the main altar and can be accessed by two staircases. The Grotto is part of a cave network that is accessed from the adjacent St. Catherine’s Church. The cave has a niche believed to be the exact spot where Jesus was born. It is marked by the Altar of Nativity and a 14-pointed silver star with the Latin inscription that translates to “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary”-1717.
Needless to say, the grotto is the most sought after site in Bethlehem, so expect crowds and long lines. While tours to Bethlehem will always visit the church, the crowds make it so no guide can guarantee the time to actually enter the grotto itself.
The tomb believed to be the burial site of the matriarch Rachel is holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Located by the northern entrance to Bethlehem, the burial place of the Rachel is mentioned in the Jewish Old Testament, the Christian Old Testament, and in Muslim scripture. Rachel’s tomb is Judaism’s third holiest site and Jews have been making the pilgrimage to the tomb since ancient times.
Bansky’s Artwork & Hotel
The graffiti by famed and mysterious artist Banksy is on the barrier wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. It has drawn worldwide media attention and is definitely worth a look. You can see works such as ‘The Armoured Dove’, ‘Girl Frisking Soldier’, and ‘Rage, Flower Thrower’. Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel is also worth a look, whether you’re staying there or just stopping in. Intended to be a temporary art installation, the hotel has now been running for years as a fully functional hotel with 9 rooms, each designed by Banksy. If you do plan to stay in Bethlehem, this is a fun and unique option.
The Milk Grotto
The Milk Grotto is said to be where baby Jesus and Family took refuge during the Massacre of the Innocents before fleeing to Egypt. The Grotto’s name comes from the traditional belief that, while nursing baby Jesus, a drop of The Virgin Mary’s milk fell onto the floor of the cave, turning it white. In the 5th century, a church was built over the Grotto to preserve the site. Remains of a colorful mosaic floor from the time can be seen in the courtyard of today’s chapel.
For centuries, childless women of all religions have visited the Milk Grotto to pray for the gift of fertility. Mixing the grotto’s soft white chalk into their food and praying to Our Lady of the Milk, women believe the quantity of their milk will increase or they will be able to get pregnant. Rows of framed letters and baby pictures from around the world attest to the power of the Milk Grotto’s “milk powder” and prayer. The powder is only available at the shrine, it cannot be ordered or bought from overseas.
The Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria
Chapel of the Holy Innocents
According to tradition, Catherine of Alexandria was just 18 years old when she challenged the emperor Maximian for persecuting Christians. The emperor sentenced her to be tortured on a spiked wheel — hence the term “Catherine wheel”. But when Catherine touched the wheel, it broke, so she was beheaded. Angels were then said to have carried her body away to Mount Sinai, where St. Catherine’s Monastery still stands in her honor.
A narrow stairway inside the church leads to a complex of caves and rock-cut chambers containing a number of chapels. The Chapel of the Holy Innocents commemorates the babies massacred by Herod. The church shares a wall with the Church of Nativity. The Christmas Eve Midnight Mass televised from Bethlehem every year, which can be seen in Manger Square on a Christmas Eve tour, is celebrated in the Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria.
The Palestinian Heritage Center
The center provides lectures, workshops, and exhibitions, and has received several national and international awards for its continuous efforts in support of Palestinian cultural heritage. The Center makes and sells fair trade, handmade embroidery crafted by women from in and around Bethlehem.
Just under an hour’s drive from Bethlehem sits Herodium, the site of King Herod’s man-made mountain palace and his more recently discovered tomb. Constructed over a small natural hill, Herodium was a fortress and luxurious palace for Herod. The impressive seven-story structure included an artificial pool, more than twice the size of a modern Olympic swimming pool, and deep enough for boats. An aqueduct brought water from a natural spring nearly 6 kilometers away. Four watchtowers provided views of the Judean desert, the Dead Sea, and the mountains of Moab. This complex of ancient ruins is definitely worth a stop when you’re in Bethlehem.
King David’s Wells
King David’s Wells are located in the Catholic Action Center, just a few blocks from the Church of the Nativity. They are three great Cisterns that were excavated in eastern Bethlehem and are still used today. This is where King David’s army supposedly broke through the Philistine lines in order to retrieve water for him, but he refused to drink it even after they risked their lives. Some believe that the adjacent Church of St. David is where the King is buried, as opposed to the tomb in Jerusalem.
Monastery of Mar Saba
Monastery of Mar Saba
The beautiful monastery of Mar Saba clings to the cliffs of the Kidron Valley, about a 20-minute drive from Bethlehem. The Greek Orthodox Monastery is a sight to behold in the desert landscape. Built into the rock, Mar Saba shows a way of life unchanged since the time of Constantine. The body of its namesake, Saint Saba, can be viewed in the main church while his tomb is in the courtyard outside. Although Mar Saba is known for its hospitality to visitors, women have never been allowed to enter. Women can enjoy a view of the site from a nearby two-story tower known as the Women’s Tower.