To help those of you heading to Israel for the festive season, we’ve come up with a list of the ten things to see and do over Christmas in Israel. This little list goes above and beyond the usual top things to see and do in Israel, and is a guide for those who want to experience some of the major Christian sites especially relevant at this time of the year, enjoy the December weather (hopefully), and still feel festive…
Ahh, there’s just something magical about visiting Bethlehem at Christmas. The must-see is, of course, the Church of the Nativity and the legendary underground grotto where the 14-pointed star is located (believed to mark the exact location where Jesus was born), but there’s also the carol sing-a-long in Manger Square and a Midnight Mass at the next door Church of St. Catherine (it’s all in Latin but worth the effort, just for that extra special Christmas feeling!). We’ve done it, and want to do it again! And yes, it’s also easy to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
2. Jerusalem’s Old City
Hand in hand with Bethlehem on any Christmas visit to Israel is Jerusalem’s Old City (and they’re just 10km away from each other). Must sees include the powerful and sacred Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a walk down the Via Dolorosa, and market haggling in the amazing Old City bazaar. You don’t have to be a believer to feel the spirituality and power in such an amazing city. For a taste of what to expect, here’s a clip we took one Christmas Eve in the Old City…
3. The Beach
Do Christmas like they do it in the Southern Hemisphere and spend a day on the beach! You might not be lucky enough to get a scorchingly hot beach day in Tel Aviv over Christmas (though people often take a dip in December!), so you might have to head down to Eilat for the best chance of some sun and ice-cream. Or… how about a little floating in the Dead Sea? If the weather’s right, we don’t think there’s a more exotic way of spending your Christmas!
4. Celebrate with some Christmas “spirits”
If you’re in the mood to party, then there are a few tourist bars and pubs that will be more than willing to share your festiveness. Check out places like Mike’s Place (in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem), the MASH Bar, the Dancing Camel, and Joey’s Bar in Tel Aviv for starters. I doubt there’ll be any mistletoe hanging around, but you’ll have a great time. Also check out our guide to the Top 10 bars in Tel Aviv for more info.
5. Christmas Food (Israeli style)
If you’re staying in a hotel or hostel, chances are that they will lay on some kind of Christmas dinner, maybe even a party (hostels especially). But we say trade in your expectations of a seasonal turkey spread and eggnog, and go native with some delicious Israeli food (trust us, it’s yummy!). Hummus (here’s our hummus beginner’s guide) for Christmas lunch – why the heck not?!
6. Hunt the Bauble
Take a wander down most streets in Israel during December, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d missed Christmas. If you’re coming from a Christmas celebrating country, the complete absence of tinsel, baubles, and Santa can be a bit of a blessing in disguise…it’s only when you’ve been here for a bit that you long for a bushy strand of twee tinsel come December time…
7. Eat Donuts
That’s right, eat donuts. For they will be everywhere during December! Every year around Christmas time there is the Jewish holiday of Hannukah. And the sweet smell of deep-fried donuts is almost everywhere. Highly recommended are the donuts from local bakery Roladin (Holy Moses, a Vodka Double Espresso donut!), who have a few branches throughout the country. Calorie counters – be warned!
8. See the Holiday of Holidays
Go multicultural and experience Hannukah, Eid-al-Adha, and Christmas in the Holiday of Holidays festival, which is held annually in Haifa’s Wadi Nas neighborhood. This celebration of Jewish, Muslim and Christian holidays highlights Haifa’s interfaith harmony and cooperation. The festival is mostly abuzz on weekends throughout December. Check out the street food stalls, if you don’t mind queuing!
9. Visit the OTHER Bethlehem
Yes, there’s another Bethlehem in Israel! This one is officially called Bethlehem of the Galilee, and is a beautiful little moshav (farming settlement) with gorgeous old buildings, not far from Nazareth. Hence the belief by many experts that this Bethlehem is the real home of Jesus’s birth. Read more here…
Jesus’s childhood home town is perhaps the best place to come for some real Christmas festivities, especially if you’re missing your Santa and Christmas tree decorations. Nazareth has the largest community of Christians in the country, and they love their Christmas.
Watch out for the annual Christmas Parade on Christmas Eve, which starts in the afternoon, call 04-6570555 for more info (just get there EARLY!). There’s also a Midnight Mass in the Basilica of the Annunciation, and don’t miss the now annual Christmas market in Nazareth. And here’s a little video of Nazareth to get you in the mood…