Jerusalem, the sought-after holy that is sacred to Jews, Muslim and Christians, offers no shortage of tourist destinations, and for good reason — the city welcomes more than 3.5 million pilgrims each year, nearly all of whom are clamouring to see the same handful of historic spots. Visitors flock here to walk the ancient alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City, to touch the holy stones of the Western Wall and to take in the sweeping Biblical panoramas offered at the historic Mount of Olives.
But just beyond Jerusalem’s well-trod tourist trail lies a modern, pulsing city, packed with diverse citizens and with an atmosphere that feels galaxies removed from the iconic, postcard-perfect tourist sites.
To get a taste for the real Jerusalem of today, take a detour and head to these hidden havens within the Holy City:
The Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre is a towering French gothic church and guesthouse which sits just off of the Old City’s Christian quarter. Privately owned by the Vatican, this beautiful cathedral and humble guesthouse has been welcoming pilgrims for more than 200 years. But don’t come here to sleep; come here to stare. Head up to the roof, where you’ll find a buzzing wine bar with delectable cheese plates and — as its pièce de résistance — one of the most jaw-dropping views of Jerusalem available.
Forget turning water into wine. Even if you’re in Jerusalem for a taste of religion, it’s worth taking time to seek out the city’s thriving underground cocktail scene, best experienced at Gatsby — a 1920s-esque speakeasy that is heavy on both vintage design and alcoholic pours — and the edgier, trendy Casino de Paris, where locals congregate in the lovely open-air courtyard to sip mixes with names like “The Mandate” and “The Middle East.”
A trek through Jerusalem’s diverse culinary heritage is a whole different kind of moveable feast. To taste the flavours of the city’s Balkan and Moroccan residents, grab a seat at beloved local eatery Barood, where Sephardic cuisine — rooted in the Jewish communities of Africa and the Middle East — gets a modern resurrection with fresh Israeli ingredients. Or head to the historic Jerusalem Cinematheque, a multiplex that is also home to Lavan, an upscale bistro serving up delectable modern fare. And in the warmer months, bask in the cool breezes (and even cooler vibes) at the seasonal rooftop terrace/bar of the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria, where lights twinkle in the trees, cool Israeli twists on tapas are served and diners can sip on the city’s most authentic Gin & Tonic.
The jaw-dropping prison
Tourists love to visit the Tower of David, the ancient stone citadel whose accompanying museum maps 4,000 years of history. But don’t miss the real treasure on the grounds, the much-lesser-known Kishle Prison Excavations, an archeological site and abandoned Ottoman prison whose stone layers reveal layers of personal Jerusalem history from Jesus to King Herod and beyond.
The small town in the city
If the endless queues at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the crowds at the Israel Museum feel intimidating, there’s an easy respite: Ein Karem, a sweet and charming neighbourhood nestled in Jerusalem’s southwest corner. This little spot, which was once a village and has now been absorbed into Jerusalem proper, was the birthplace of John the Baptist. It’s conveniently located high up in the Jerusalem hills at the mouth of a spring, making it a green and lush escape within the city. Its fresh air and quiet streets have made it a magnet for artists, meaning Ein Karem is now home to some of the city’s best art galleries, and the state-of-the-art Ein Karem Chamber Music Centre draws some of Israel’s best musician. But the real secret of Ein Karem is its beautiful religious sites: The Church of St. John the Baptist is here, as is the Church of the Visitation, a monastery, a convent and a mosque built at the mouth of a spring that the Virgin Mary herself once drank from.