If you are planning to visit Bethlehem on a day trip from Jerusalem, you’ve come to the right place. This post contains some useful information for crossing over to the West Bank from Jerusalem, as well as places to visit in Bethlehem.
The town of Bethlehem has always been considered the birthplace of Jesus Christ. So if you are a Christian, Bethlehem should be very high on your list of places to visit in Israel. Unfortunately, these days Bethlehem sits at the heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. As a result, many people consider it unsafe to visit.
- Frequently Asked Questions About Visiting Bethlehem
- What to Visit on a Day Trip From Jerusalem to Bethlehem
- A Final Word
Frequently Asked Questions About Visiting Bethlehem
Who can visit Bethlehem?
Bethlehem is located on the West Bank, which is part of the Palestinian Territories. Although Bethlehem is only 10 km (6 miles) away from Jerusalem, Israeli citizens cannot visit it. Similarly, Palestinian citizens also have very restricted access into Israel.
On the other hand, tourists are free to enter and exit the checkpoint from Jerusalem to Bethlehem without any restrictions.
Is Bethlehem safe to visit?
Crossing over to Bethlehem is pretty safe for tourists. The town is a big attraction and the Palestinian authorities go to great lengths to make it safe to visit. You just need to bring their passport with an Israeli-issued tourist visa to enter and exit the Palestinian areas.
How can you cross over from Jerusalem to Bethlehem?
You can visit Bethlehem either with a group tour, or independently. If you want to visit independently, you have two options for crossing over: by bus or by taxi. Car rental companies in Israel do not insure your car for driving inside the Palestinian territories, so if you get into an accident, or the car gets stolen, you are not covered.
By Bus or by Taxi
The cheapest way travel to Bethlehem is by bus. The Arab bus No.21 departs daily from East Jerusalem bus station, just across Damascus gate. Another option is to take a taxi from any place in Jerusalem. If you choose to hire a cab, make sure you agree with the driver ahead of time about the price.
Via a Guided Tour
If you want peace of mind and minimum hassle at the checkpoint into the West Bank, you should book a group guided tour. I think it’s a safer and less stressful way to cross over to the West Bank. You don’t even need to show your passport at the checkpoint, as the tour companies will ask for your passport number when you book your tour.
There are several tour companies that offer group guided tours from many points in Israel, like Abraham Tours, Tourist Israel, or Tours by Locals. Since Jerusalem is the closest city to Bethlehem, all tours that start in other cities, like Tel aviv, or Eilat, change busses in Jerusalem. to cross over to Bethlehem.
Here are a few guided tour options:
What currency do you need in the Palestinian Territories?
The Palestinian territory does not have its own currency. You can use Israeli shekels, Jordanian dinars, US dollars or Euros. However, other than a few souvenirs and some food, there is not much to buy in Bethlehem. If you are on a guided tour, your lunch will be provided.
What to Visit on a Day Trip From Jerusalem to Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity
If you have ever had the opportunity to visit Bethlehem you’ll probably find the place where Jesus was born is nothing like you imagined it. What was a humble village in Biblical times is now a large and flourishing city, with over 60,000 inhabitants.
The first thing you’ll probably want to visit in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, which is one of the holiest sites in Christendom. The church stands on the site that Christian tradition identifies as the birthplace of Jesus.
The Church of the Nativity is a pilgrim destination on a traditional pilgrimage route that connects Jerusalem with Bethlehem.The basilica you see today replaced the original church built by Constantine the Great’s mother, Helena, in 339 A.D. That church was destroyed in a fire in the 6th century AD.
The current church nave is in the shape of a cross, bordered by four rows of large columns. Through two big openings in the church’s floor you can see the old mosaics from the church built in 339 AD.
One surprising aspect of the Church of the Nativity is its small, humble entrance which is about 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. It is believed that during the Ottoman period Christians made the entrance even narrower to prevent mounted horsemen from entering the Church.
Today, the main entrance to the Church is called “The Door of Humility” because when you pass through it, you must bow down to enter.
Grotto of the Nativity
From the south part of the church you can access the Grotto of the Nativity, which is the actual place where Jesus was born. For Christians, this tiny grotto is a place of deep religious significance and the major highlight of a visit to Bethlehem.
Church of St. Catherine
Adjacent to the Basilica of the Nativity is the the Church of Saint Catherine, a Roman Catholic parish which functions as a Franciscan monastery. The church was dedicated to St. Catharine of Alexandria in 1347.
Catherine of Alexandria was noble, well educated woman who protested against Emperor Maxentius’ persecution of Christians. Because of that, the Emperor ordered her to be tortured on the wheel. However, the wheel broke down miraculously when it came in contact with her body. Not being able to execute her in this manner, the Emperor beheaded her instead.
As you exit the staircase of the Grotto of the Nativity, you’ll find yourself in the the St. Catherine’s Church sanctuary which is quite impressive. On the way out you’ll pass through the church’s courtyard at the center of which there is a life size statue of Saint Jerome.
One place not to miss when visiting Bethlehem is the archeological site of Herodium. Located about 12 km south of Jerusalem and only 5 km southeast of Bethlehem, the site contains the remains of an impressive palace/fortress built by King Herod the Great between 23 and 15 B.C.
The hill on which the palace sits rises 758 meters above sea level, making it visible from afar. Herod extended the height of the hill artificially, to make it the tallest mountain in the Judean desert. Herodian is also the location of King Herod’s tomb.
The Milk Grotto
Just a short distance from the Church of the Nativity there is another pilgrimage site sacred to Christians: the Milk Grotto. According to tradition, while Mary and Joseph were on their way to Egypt running away from Herod’s soldiers, they stopped in this cave while Mary nursed the baby Jesus. A drop of Mary’s milk fell upon the stone and it turned white. The Milk Grotto was indeed carved out of soft white rock.
In 1872 the Franciscans erected a church around the Milk Grotto which local artisans later decorated with mother-of-pearl carvings. The site is especially frequented by new mothers and women who are trying to conceive.
The West Bank Barrier or the Wall
One of the points of interest not to be missed in Bethlehem is the Wall, a separation barrier between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel considers it a security barrier against terrorism, while Palestinians call it the racial segregation wall. Construction of the wall began in 2002 in response to a Palestinian uprising that resulted in the death of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis.
The 8-meter high wall is a sad reminder that there is no peace in the Middle East now or even soon! The slabs of grey concrete that make up the wall between Jerusalem and the West Bank are simply ugly, but Palestinian street artists in Bethlehem tried to decorate them.
But the murals are not simply decorative. They are a rhetorical mode of expressing the artists’ anger, grief and demands for basic human rights.
A Final Word
So is it worth taking a trip to Bethlehem? Absolutely! Regardless of your political views or religious convictions, Bethlehem remains one of the major attractions in Israel and it’s quite easy to visit fr Jerusalem.
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