The Old City of Jerusalem is surely one of the greatest sites in Israel; amazingly intense, hugely religious, and with history poring out of every corner…a must-see in Israel if ever there was one!
The Old City interests many people for many different reasons. But with so many amazing sites within the walls of the Old City, including the Western “Wailing” Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock, whatever you’re looking for you’re bound to find something that will not only interest you, but may well knock your socks off!
Take it from us, we’ve been to the Old City a number of times, and the adrenalin rush upon entering Jaffa Gate and the seemingly never-ending twists and turns of the alleys and side streets always leave us wanting to stay longer…
A quick Old City history lesson
The Old City might be less than 1 kilometer squared, but this amazing walled city was actually the whole of Jerusalem until 1860, when the first neighborhood beyond the walls was built. Hard to believe today when you look at the size of the modern city of Jerusalem…
The core of the Old City of Jerusalem has a history that is believed to go back more than 3,000 years, while the great walls that encase the Old City were first built in 1538 by Suileman the Magnificent. Up until 1948 and the Israeli War of Independence, Jews could live here, but following the war they were evicted as Jordan occupied the area. It wasn’t until after the Six Day War in 1967 that Jews could once again live and work in the Old City.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Old City of Jerusalem is one of the most fought over cities ever in human history.
The Four Quarters of the Old City, Jerusalem
The Old City of Jerusalem is divided in many ways politically, but there are four different quarters that divide the city culturally, religiously and even historically:
- The Christian Quarter
- The Jewish Quarter
- The Muslim Quarter
- The Armenian Quarter
Each of the four quarters is unique in its own way, providing a sense of history along with its own religious beliefs. There are many different areas to visit, it’s just a matter of knowing whether you want to just visit the main historical sites or if you’re keen to delve further and explore the nooks and crannies of each of the different quarters…
The Christian Quarter
The Christian Quarter of the Old City is probably the first most tourists come across, as many tourists head into the Old City from Jaffa Gate, which is the closest entrance point for many staying in Jerusalem hotels. Also just inside Jaffa Gate is the majestic Tower of David, a highly recommended stopover (officially part of the Armenian Quarter, see below).
After heading down David Street, one of the Old City’s main market streets, head left down HaNotsrim for the Church of St. John The Baptist, a popular starting point for Christian tourists. Then continue down HaNotsrim and take a right down Saint Helena. On your left is the amazing Church of the Sepulcher (read our full guide to this amazing site here), the site where it is believed Jesus was crucified and then buried.
There are a number of different Christian groups that keep and maintain the Christian Quarter. But there are arguments about who really should be taking care of what portion of the Quarter, which shows the squabbling is no different than anywhere else around the world.
The Jewish Quarter
For those who want to see what the Jewish day to day life in the Old City is like, then walking through the Jewish Quarter will do the job. The immediate impression you’ll get is it’s a lot quieter and cleaner than other parts of the Old City. You will see people walking about, but many of the small streets aren’t really for visiting.
The Western Wall, known as HaKotel in Hebrew, is the place to really take in more about the Jewish faith (read more about the ultimate site in the Old City here). This monumental wall is where you can leave prayers between the cracks, and is amazingly powerful and intense. Be aware that there are separate sections for men and women. The Cardo, an excavated and partially reconstructed section of the Jerusalem main thoroughfare in the Byzantine era, is another part of the Jewish Quarter that can provide you with an insight into the history of the Old City.
The Jewish Quarter gives you a real glimpse into the heart of Jewish life in the Old City.
The Muslim Quarter
The Muslim Quarter is similar to the Jewish Quarter in that it has narrow alleys, but the streets are a lot busier. There’s definitely a sense of activity and a busy market atmosphere in many of the streets.
One of the sites that Muslims will head for is the Dome of the Rock, which is part of the Noble Sanctuary, home to the Foundation Stone which is sacred to Muslims, Jews, and Christians (but non-Muslims are prohibited from entering this area during Fridays and prayer times). This is where Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended into Heaven, accompanied by Gabriel. Another important site is the Monastery of the Flagellation, where it has been said that Christ was flogged by the Roman soldiers prior to His crucifixion and is the first point on the famous Via Dolorosa, the first of the 14 Stations of the Cross.
The Muslim Quarter happens to be the largest of the four quarters. You might also be surprised to know, considering the ever-present tensions in the area, that there are Jewish families that reside in this quarter.
The Armenian Quarter
The Armenian Quarter is the smallest of all the quarters. It has more of an ancient feel to it because of its compact size and number of people who are part of this quarter, and it runs itself like a city within a city.
The standout site to see is the amazing Citadel, known as the Tower of David. This is one of our favorite spots in the Old City, and well worth checking out (read our full guide here – and you might want to check out the impressive Night Spectacular Show too!). There is also the Armenian Museum and St. James Cathedral (one of the most beautiful of all the sacred old buildings in the Old City), two sites of interest for many Old City visitors.
Some must-haves on a tour of the Old City
- Take a See Before You Try look at the Old City via Google Street View – start here at the Western Wall!
- If you have an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, download the FREE Old City Walking Tours app, especially if you plan on exploring by yourself.
- Download an MP3 audio tour from the Jerusalem municipality.
- If you haven’t already got one, grab a map from the Info Center just inside Jaffa Gate.