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 one of the holiest cities in the world, holy to the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. AND it is at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so you can be sure that you’ll find 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 Old City. Later in this post, you’ll also find a suggested itinerary for the Old City.
This post was last updated on 19 September 2021.
Top things to do in the Old City of Jerusalem
1- Leave a wish in the Western Wall
The Western Wall (Ha-Kotel in Hebrew) is the holiest place in the world for the Jewish people. It is one of the remaining walls of the Second Temple complex built by Herod the Great in the 1st century BCE. The Romans destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 CE. On the western side of the Temple lay the Holy of the Holies. 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. It is customary to place a wish between the giant and impressive stones, which have been standing here for almost 2,000 years. You are also welcome to come with a piece of paper and pen, write down a wish you would like to ask from God and place it in the Western Wall.
How to visit
The Western Wall Plaza is open 24 hours a day, free of charge. Before entering the compound, you’ll need to pass through a security check. There are entrances both from the Jewish and the Muslim quarters. Near the wall, women and men pray separately because of religious reasons. On Shabbat (Friday eve- Saturday eve), it is recommended not to take photos near the Western Wall because it violates the Shabbat religious laws.
If you’re coming on a Monday or Thursday, you can watch the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies at the Western Wall.
2- Visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The holiest church in the world is in the Old City of Jerusalem! This church is so holy because it marks the place where, according to the Christian Catholic and Orthodox belief, Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. It is an enormous church with tons of history, so I recommend reading about it before visiting. Read my post – Church of the Holy Sepulchre: A Full Visitor’s Guide.
In short, the church was first opened in 335 CE, built on top of a pagan temple dedicated to Aphrodite. Originally it was much larger than today, and its entrance was from the east. It was almost completely ruined in 1009 by a Fatimid caliph called Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah and then rebuilt about 40 years later on 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 central 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 a very-very long line.
- The Chapel of Saint Helena is today a chapel decorated with 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.
How to visit
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is open April-August from 5 AM to 9 PM; September from 5 AM to 8:30 PM; October from 5 AM to 8 PM, end of October-February from 4 AM to 7 PM; March from 4 AM to 7:30 PM. The entrance is free. Try to avoid coming here between 11:00 AM and 3 PM, because 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. The rest is not 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.
When 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 almost 2,000 years ago. On the main wall, there’s also a fantastic painting showing what 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 the 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 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 that 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. So, 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 of opposite genders.
The entrance to the Little Kotel is free of charge.
6- Explore the quiet alleys of the Armenian and Jewish Quarters
There are parts of the Old City that are very crowded, but there are also some areas that are usually quite empty of 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, because 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 the Via Dolorosa
One of the most important routes in Old City Jerusalem is the Via Dolorosa, a Christian Catholic route that traces the last footsteps of Jesus from his sentence by Pontius Pilate to his crucifixion, 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 on 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 Jerusalem Old City.
Read my full guide to Via Dolorosa.
8- Visit Temple Mount
Temple Mount is a flat complex situated above the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Dome of the Rock (with the Golden Dome) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque stand on it 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 because they were both 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 blocked this option.
How to visit
The entrance to Temple Mount is free of charge, though it is open in tight hours – in the summer, from 7:30 AM to 11:00 AM and from 1:30 PM to 2:30 PM, and in the winter from 7:00 AM to 10:30 AM and from 12:30 to 1:30 PM. 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, because sometimes there develops a long line at the security check. You must dress modestly in 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.
One attraction that isn’t free, but is worth paying a visit in Jerusalem Old City is 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 15 ILS). 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.
Recommended self-guided itinerary in Jerusalem Old City
Want to tour the city on your own but not sure how to do it? You can check out my PDF which offers a super-detailed itinerary for first-timers in the Old City and Mount of Olives. Only $15!
Looking for a guided tour in Jerusalem Old City?
I’ll be happy to guide you around the Old City! Read more about my private tours here.
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More posts that might interest you:
Shabbat in Jerusalem: What’s Open?
The Jerusalem Dual Narrative Tour: Hearing Two Sides of the Story
The Many Sites of Mount of Olives: What to See?
Have a wonderful time in Jerusalem Old City!
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This is a lovely guide. I hope to visit Israel some day.
Thank you ? Hope you will visit soon!
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Currently in Jerusalem thank you for your insights and knowledge of the places to visit a great help.
Thanks for the comment! Happy to help ?