The Old City of Jerusalem is one of the most enchanting and beautiful places in the world. At least that’s what I think. Of course, it is also the most holy city in the world, holy to the three monotheistic religions, and the city that is at the center of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, so you can be sure that you’ll have plenty to see here! And if you want to see things outside of the Old City, check out my post – Top Free Things to Do in Jerusalem.
Here is my list of the top FREE things to do in Jerusalem’s Old City. Later in this post you’ll also find a suggested itinerary for the Old City:
1- Leave a Wish in the Western Wall:
The Western Wall (Ha-Kotel in Hebrew) is the most holy place in the world for the Jewish people. It is one of the remaining walls of the Second Temple complex that was built by Herod the Great in the 1st century BCE. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The most holy part of the Temple was its western side, where the Holy of the Holies was situated. That’s why today’s Western Wall is so holy – because it was the closest to the Holy of the Holies, where God’s presence appeared.
Many people come to the Western Wall, no matter their religion, to touch the wall, maybe whisper a prayer and place a wish in between the giant and impressive stones which have been standing here for almost 2,000 years. You can also come with a piece of paper and pen, write down a wish you would like to ask from God and place it in between the Western Wall’s stones.
The Western Wall Square is open 24 hours a day, free of charge. You’ll just need to pass through a security check at the entrance. There are entrances both from the Jewish and the Muslim quarters. If you want to get close to the Western Wall, there is a separation between women and men because of religious reasons. On Shabbat (Friday eve- Saturday eve) it is recommended not to take photos near the Western Wall, as it violates the Shabbat religious laws.
2- Visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:
The most holy church in the world is found in the Old City of Jerusalem! This church marks the place where, according to the Christian Catholic and Orthodox belief, Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. It is a huge church with tons of history, so I recommend you read about it before visiting. Coming soon – Full Guide to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In short, the church was first opened in 335 CE. It was built on top of the ruins of a Pagan temple dedicated to Aphrodite. Originally, it was much larger and its entrance was from the Roman-Byzantine main street of Jerusalem, called the Cardo, which was east of the church. It was (almost) completely ruined in 1009 by a Fatimid caliph called Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, and then rebuilt about 40 years later in a much smaller scale than the original. The Crusaders, who came in 1099, added a rooftop to the central part of the church, closing what was originally an open-air garden. This church is what we see today.
Some of the most important points in the church include the Calvary (Golgotha), where Jesus was crucified, the Stone of Anointing, on which they put his body before burial, the Rotunda and Aedicule, where you can see Jesus’ empty tomb (you can also enter the tomb if you’re willing to wait in the very-very long line) and the Chapel of Saint Helena, which is today a chapel full of beautiful Armenian paintings and a wonderful floor mosaic. Underneath the Chapel of Saint Helena is the chapel in which the True Cross of Jesus was found.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is open April-September on Sundays from 5AM to 8PM and on Mondays-Saturdays from 5AM to 9PM; October-March every day from 4AM to 7PM. The entrance is free. Try to avoid coming here between 11:00AM and 3PM, as these are the busiest hours in the church.
3- Go Back in Time in the Cardo:
One of my favorite places in the Old City is the Cardo in the Jewish Quarter. “Cardo” is the name of the main street in ancient Roman cities, that crossed the city from north to south. The Cardo in the Jewish Quarter is just a small part of the whole Cardo, which is open to the public. At one end you can see the columns of the Cardo and the places where there were stores. Then, you enter a small underground part, where you can see a beautiful replica of the Madaba Map, which shows Jerusalem during the Byzantine period, the 6th century. If you’ll continue to the other side of the underground passage, you’ll exit to another part of the Cardo, which has some beautiful wall mosaics showing how the Cardo’s stores might have looked like almost 2,000 years ago. On the main wall there’s also a fantastic painting showing how the Cardo might have looked like. Can you spot the boy who came from the future?
The Cardo is free of charge. The part with the replica of Madaba Map is closed during Shabbat.
4- Wander Through the Different Marketplaces:
The Old City is full of marketplaces. When you enter through Jaffa Gate, you see the David Street Marketplace right in front of you. When you enter through Damascus Gate, you see the two streets, Beit HaBad and Al-Wad (Ha-Gai), which are also part of the Old City’s marketplaces. You can spend time wandering along those streets and seeing the different things that are offered in the marketplaces – spices, fabrics, menorahs, kippahs, printed t-shirts, ceramics and much more. If you’ll want to buy anything, don’t forget to bargain to get the best price!
5- Pay an Intimate Visit to the Little Kotel:
The Western Wall square is the most popular amongst visitors to the Old City, but there are other segments of the Western Wall which are less known to the public. One of them is the Little Kotel, a small segment that was discovered in 1970 in what is today the Muslim Quarter. You’ll find it in a small courtyard north of the Barzel Gate. Here, you can pay an intimate visit to part of the Western Wall. Usually, the Little Kotel is empty from visitors. You won’t have a problem reaching and touching it and you can stand next to it with your travel partner even if you are opposite genders.
The entrance to the Little Kotel is free of charge.
6- Explore the Quiet Alleyways of the Armenian and Jewish Quarters:
There are parts of the Old City which are very crowded, but there are also some areas which are usually quite empty from tourists. If you’re searching for some quiet, you can make your way to the Armenian Quarter, which has some wide streets and almost no tourists walking through them. Once in a while there are also some beautiful archways, so keep your eyes open. Another fairly quiet area is the Jewish Quarter, especially its side alleys. Enter one of the alleys leaving from the main square and start exploring the area. The Jewish Quarter was fully reconstructed after the Six Day War in 1967, as the Jordanians have destructed it 19 years before, in the Independence War of 1948. So now, you should remember that you’re walking in alleyways that were rebuilt after 1967, which isn’t too ancient. Nevertheless, there are some beautiful spots and especially some beautiful doors in the Jewish Quarter, so keep your camera ready.
7- Walk Along the Via Dolorosa:
One of the most important routes in the Old City of Jerusalem is the Via Dolorosa, a Christian Catholic route that traces the last footsteps of Jesus from his sentence by Pontius Pilate to his crucification, burial and resurrection in what is today the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Surprisingly, this route mainly goes through the Muslim Quarter and not the Christian Quarter, so you’ll also have a chance to see a bit of the Muslim Quarter while walking along it. The Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering/ Way of the Cross) consists of 14 stations, each telling a phase in Jesus’ last way to the Cross. It begins in the Umariya Elementary School on Via Dolorosa Street, the former location of the Antonia Fortress in which Pontius Pilate might have held the trial against Jesus. Then it continues through a number of small churches and chapels until it finally reaches the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where you can find four of the stations. Each station on the street is marked by half a circle on the sidewalk and a grayish plate on the wall with a Latin number on it, telling the number of the station. If you’re a Christian, this route might be one of the top things you should see while in the Old City of Jerusalem.
8- Visit Temple Mount:
Temple Mount is the flat complex situated above the Western Wall, on which the Dome of the Rock (with the Golden Dome) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque stand today, both built in the 7th-8th century. It was once the area on which the two Jewish Temples stood, and that is why it is called Temple Mount. There are no remains of the two Temples, which were destructed. Many people visit Temple Mount to see the magnificent Dome of the Rock from up close, with its beautiful ceramics, but I’ve put it last on my list because I was a bit disappointed – if you aren’t Muslim, you cannot enter the buildings of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, so you cannot see the beauty from the inside. My father has been lucky enough to be in a time when they did allow non-Muslims to enter the buildings. Only recently, in 2000, they have blocked this option.
The entrance to Temple Mount is free of charge, though it is open in tight hours – in the summer, from 7:30AM to 11:00AM and from 1:30PM to 2:30PM and in the winter from 7:00AM to 10:30AM and from 12:30 to 1:30PM. The only entrance for non-Muslims is from the Mugrabim Gate, next to the Western Wall square (the wooden bridge). You can exit from any other gate. I recommend you come as early as possible, as sometimes there develops a long line at the security check. You must dress modestly with long pants and covered shoulders, and cannot bring any religious or nationalistic items that are not Muslim or Arabic-Palestinian.
For more info on Temple Mount, read my post – The Story Around Temple Mount.
And one attraction that isn’t free, but worth paying a visit – The David Tower Observation Point. If you’re not interested in seeing the museum, you can just pay to climb up the observation tower (just 10 ILS as of April 2019). The observation tower’s base is a tower from the time of Herod the Great, the 1st century BCE, so that’s exciting in itself. The view from up there is just splendid and surely worth the price! You can see both the old and the new city.
If you plan to see more sites that have an admission fee, you should check out the JTicket, which gives you some discounts. You can get at the Jewish Quarter’s attractions.
Suggested Itinerary in Jerusalem’s Old City:
Begin your visit at Jaffa Gate.
Jaffa Gate was one of the first gates to be built in the Ottoman wall of the Old City, in the 16th century. It was also one of the two main gates together with Damascus Gate. The road that led from Jaffa Gate went all the way to Jaffa, and that’s why we call it Jaffa Gate. In Arabic, it’s called Bab al-Khalil, which means Hebron Gate, since there was another road from the gate which went all the way to Hebron. To reach Jaffa Gate, you can walk south of Jaffa Road or use the light-rail train, get off at “City Hall” station and walk southward to Jaffa Gate.
Enjoy the view from David Tower.
After entering through the gate, you’ll see to your right a huge tower, which was one of three towers built by Herod the Great in the 1st century BCE. Today it is called David Tower following a Byzantine tradition which says King David sat in this tower and wrote his poems here. Of course, that can’t be true, because the tower was built a long time after King David was dead. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful and ancient tower, which was a bit repaired during the Mamluk and Ottoman eras. You can climb up to the top (at a small cost) and enjoy a beautiful view of Jerusalem.
Continue through the Armenian Quarter towards the Jewish Quarter.
From David Tower, continue right (south) on the wide street into the Armenian Quarter. Turn left on St. James Street (near the first small tunnel) and walk along it until you reach an intersection of streets. You’ll see a sign saying, “Welcome to the Jewish Quarter”. Continue on the street that continues straight, called Or HaHayim Street (אור החיים). It will take you straight to the central square of the Jewish Quarter.
Enter the Cardo.
Look beyond the railings and you’ll see an ancient Roman-Byzantine street right underneath you. You can climb down to this beautiful segment of the street and walk along it for a few meters before climbing back up to the modern street level.
Have a look at the Wide Wall.
The Wide Wall is another ancient remaining to see in the Jewish Quarter. It is part of the wall built by King Hezekiah in the early 8th century BCE in order to try and prevent the Assyrian army from conquering the city of Jerusalem. Somehow, whether it was because of God’s help or because of a plague that hit the army, the Assyrians never crossed this wall. The wall can be seen on Bonei ha-Khoma Street (בוני החומה).
Continue to the Hurva Synagogue.
At the center of the Jewish Quarter stands the magnificent Hurva Synagogue, which was rebuilt here after the 1967 Six Day War. “Hurva” in Hebrew means “ruins”. The synagogue stood in ruins between 1948 and 1967, but is called “ruins” because it was ruined in the 18th century, about 20 years after it was first built. You can enter the synagogue and see it from the inside for 20 ILS as of April 2019. In front of the synagogue stands a replica of the golden Menorah that once stood in the Holy Temple. It is the symbol of the Jewish people and so fits very well in the center of the Jewish Quarter.
Enter the Western Wall Plaza.
From the Hurva Synagogue square, continue east on Tiferet Israel Street (תפארת ישראל) until you reach Misgav Ladach Street (משגב לדך) and then take the stairway going down. The view of the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount will soon be revealed to you in its greatest splendor. Continue all the way down the stairs until you reach the security checkpoint. After crossing this checkpoint, you’ll be on the Western Wall Plaza. The area close to the wall is divided between men (left) and women (right), so if you wish to get close, make sure to enter through the suitable part.
Visit the Little Kotel.
After visiting the famous part of the Western Wall, I recommend you make a stop at the less known part – the Little Kotel. Exit the Western Wall plaza through the covered passage that leads to Al-Wad Street (הגיא). Continue on this street until you’ll see a right turn to Sha’ar ha-Barzel Street (שער הברזל). Continue on this street through a dark passageway until you reach one of the entrances to the Temple Mount complex. It’s guarded by Israeli soldiers, who prevent anyone non-Muslim from entering. But you won’t need to enter the Temple Mount. Just turn left into a small passageway right next to the Barzel Gate, walk a few steps, and you’ll be next to the Little Kotel. “Kotel” in Hebrew means “Wall”. This is part of the Western Wall, and its courtyard it usually almost completely empty, so if you didn’t have a chance to touch the wall with all the crowds in the other location, you can touch it here.
Stop by some Mamluk architecture.
When you leave the Little Kotel back to Al-Wad Street, take a look at the building opposite the opening to the Little Kotel. It is made from integrated red and bright bricks, an architectural style called ablak. If you can spot it, there’s also a beautiful muqarnas feature in one of the doorways. This is one of the many buildings built by the Mamluks, who came to Jerusalem in the 13th century and stayed here until the beginning of the 16th century when the Ottomans came. “Mamluk” in Arabic means “slave”. They were slaves who were trained to be warriors, converted to Islam and later revolted and became the rulers of Egypt.
Make your way back to Al-Wad Street and continue until the next turn left to Aqbat e-Taqiya Street (מעלות המדרשה). You’ll need to climb up some very low stairs and keep your eyes on the left side of the street, where you’ll see another Mamluk building with the same ablak and muqarnas elements. This building is called Toonchok Palace. The lady Toonchok was buried inside. Later, in the 16th century, the building was expanded and became a soup kitchen for the poor. Today, it is an orphanage.
Explore the different chapels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Continue up the street until you reach Beit Ha-Bad Street (בית הבד). Turn left and then right to Shuk ha-Tsabaim Street (שוק הצבעים). This street will lead you eventually to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Pass through a small doorway and you’ll be inside the square of the magnificent church, which might look quite plain from the outside, but is very impressive from the inside. Explore the different halls and chapels before continuing on your way.
Leave the Old City through Damascus Gate.
You can either leave the Old City from Jaffa Gate or you can diversify and walk out of the city through Damascus Gate. Return to Beit Ha-Bad Street and continue on it north towards Damascus Gate. You’ll pass through the Muslim marketplace all along the way. If you want to finish your day with something sweet, I recommend you keep your eyes out for Jaffar Sweets, which should be on the left side of the street, closer to the gate. It is my favorite place for Arabic sweets, kanafeh and baklava.
Have a wonderful time in Jerusalem’s Old City!
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If you’re looking for a guide in Jerusalem, you can contact me. I’m a licensed tour guide in Israel. Also, check out my budget tour – Hidden Sites of the Old City.