If you’re visiting Israel, there’s one place that should be at the top (or pretty darned close to the top) of your sightseeing list – Bethlehem. Regardless of your faith, this little town just ten kilometers south of Jerusalem in the Palestinian Authority, is a must-see attraction thanks to its role as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. Really, you’d visit Israel without popping over to Bethlehem? Unthinkable!
But Bethlehem is not just about that Christmas card manger in a stable where a certain baby boy was born unto the world on the 25th December; it’s actually an important site for all three faiths, with Jews also holding Bethlehem dear because it was King David’s place of birth and childhood home, while Muslims (and Christians) also revere the Jewish site at Rachel’s Tomb (at the entrance to Bethlehem).
Over the years Bethlehem has seen a number of custodians come and go, including the Romans, Crusaders and Ottomans. Today Bethlehem is under the Palestinian Authority’s control, as it has been since 1995. While still home to a big Arab Christian population, numbers have been dwindling over the years and there is now a Muslim majority in the town (approximately 60%).
Tourism is the major industry in the town, with some 20% of Bethlehem’s working population involved in tourism in some way. Tourists visit all year round (some two million tourists last year), though Christmas is obviously peak season.
Times have been a little harder recently for traders, as it seems the tourists coming to Bethlehem are largely whisked in and out of the Church of the Nativity by Israeli tour operators, without stopping at local shops and the market (there is also a special Christmas market). So if you’re coming to Bethlehem independently and have a spare couple of hours, spare a thought (and a dollar) for the desperate shopkeepers, who are probably much less “in your face” than the market traders in the Old City of Jerusalem.
How to get to Bethlehem
Thanks to its close proximity to Jerusalem, Bethlehem is fairly easy to get to. In fact, it’s even walkable from Jerusalem (but allow a good couple of hours!). The best options are the shared taxis (called sherut in Hebrew), which depart from Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, or bus 124, which also departs from Damascus Gate and will take you to the Gilo checkpoint (where you can often get delays and get asked a lot of questions – have your passport ready! By the way, Israelis aren’t allowed into Bethlehem). From there, walk by foot into Bethlehem. Bus 124 should cost around 4 shekels.
Things to see and do in Bethlehem
Unquestionably the biggest attraction in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity (read our full guide here). The church is one of the holiest sites in Christianity, as it represents the spot where Jesus of Nazareth was born.
In addition, there is Rachel’s Tomb, the burial place of the matriarch Rachel (for Jews it is one of the holiest sites after the Temple Mount and Tomb of the Patriarchs though access is a little more limited, apparently only to those traveling from Jerusalem on Egged buses). The Shepherds’ Fields (where the angel came to visit the shepherds) are also interesting, though be prepared for some rivalry shepherding, as there are two official sites: the Orthodox Shepherds’ Fields and the Catholic (Latin) Shepherds’ Fields.
Time permitting, you could also check out the Old Town for some real, live Arab city life, or check out the Milk Grotto Chapel, where Mary is believed to have spilled some milk while feeding baby Jesus, hence the milky white cavern. Or if you’re after something a little more artistic, heck, even political, check out the graffiti on the infamous wall separating Bethlehem from Israel (probably best done via taxi).
Bethlehem bits and bobs
The Bethlehem municipality has a website, but somebody really should tell them to sort out the color scheme. Very seasonal, but a bit of an eye-sore.
Here’s another great source of info on Bethlehem.
And here’s a nice little clip of Bethlehem, complete with a visit to a local cab driver’s home. This is what visiting the Holy Land is all about, if you ask me.