Jerusalem is one of the most storied places in the world. It is a place that has been conquered, razed and rebuilt, time and again. It is a place of layers and stories, traditions and tales. Its history is shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims and at times defies words. In short, it is a place that must be seen and deserves a spot on your family travel list as much for its unique beauty as for the questions that it asks of us all.
As with any trip, safety is a top concern and deserves a mention. Safety precautions and measures are part of Israel’s DNA. That being said, daily life in Israel feels very even-keeled, as you see Israelis enjoying their beautiful Mediterranean country. Though there may be extra security checks, visitors are left at ease to enjoy the culture and vibrancy of this special place.
Ready to make Jerusalem part of your story? Here’s our guide to making the most of 72 hours in town.
Start the day with a famous Israeli breakfast. The bounty of fresh Mediterranean-style salads, vegetables, fruits, cheeses and breads will keep your crew satisfied well into the day. Don’t forget to try the shakshuka (eggs poached in tomato sauce) — yum!
Today is set aside for exploring the crown jewel of Jerusalem, the Old City. Just by walking around, you can get a sense of exactly what this place felt like thousands of years ago. The Old City is divided into four quarters: Christian, Jewish, Armenian and Muslim. This dense labyrinth of tiny streets (just ask a shopkeeper for help if you get turned around!) contains what are arguably the holiest sites in the world:
TIP: Plan to dress modestly when visiting holy sites. Women should have shoulders and knees covered — a shawl or wrap carried in your bag will do the trick. Men will need to cover their heads at the Western Wall.
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For snacks or lunch near the Old City, consider Aroma (Israel’s tastier answer to Starbucks) in the charming Mamilla pedestrian arcade. After a full day of sightseeing and perhaps a little rest, try dinner at First Station, an open-air shopping and dining destination in the old Jerusalem train station. Younger kids will particularly enjoy the small rides (and ice cream!) after dinner.
Yad V’Shem is Israel’s Holocaust Museum. Every detail of its design is purposeful, from the plantings surrounding the building to the architecture of the structure itself and of course the exhibits within. It is extremely well-curated and explains events leading up to and through the Holocaust. It is an emotional and challenging place, but an important one. Older elementary students and teens are best suited to appreciate the lessons learned here.
Families with children 10 and under may enjoy a trip to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo instead, complete with a visitor’s center shaped like Noah’s Ark and more than 62 acres of animal habitats. Another option is Ein Yael open-air museum across the street from the zoo, where you can step back in time to experience life in Biblical days.
After the solemnity of Yad V’Shem, celebrate life and all of its sweetness at Mahane Yehuda Market (known locally as The Shuk). Savor the smells and tastes of Israel on display, ranging from the hundreds of varieties of halvah (a baked sweet made from sesame) to a dizzying array of vendors selling spices, dried fruits, baked goods and, of course, fresh fruits and foods. Whatever you do, don’t miss the addictive ooey-gooey chocolate rugelach at Marzipan bakery.
Enjoy dinner in or near the market. Try one of the market restaurants that grill whole fish, fillet it tableside and serve it alongside potatoes and an array of different salads. The Beer Bazaar, where you can taste more than 100 craft beers, is also a popular choice. Favorite restaurants in the area are Machaneyuda and Hamotzi (make reservations!), with Pizza Flora proving popular with families.
If you have extra time, consider burning off some steam in Bloomfield Park and checking out the unusual Montefiore Windmill.
For those willing to hire a guide or travel company, a trip to the Dead Sea and Masada is a truly once-in-a-lifetime option for today. Both are doable in a day — we suggest starting with Masada before it gets too hot and then heading to the Dead Sea for a dip. Hats and sunscreen are your friends.
Masada, Hebrew for fortress, was built by Judean King Herod between 37 and 31 BCE. Visitors can hike (time of year and weather permitting) or take a cable car to the top of this magnificent architectural achievement, which include palaces, storerooms, bathhouses and even a cistern. Myths swirl around Masada about the Jewish people who defended themselves as Roman soldiers lay siege. For years it was said that the soldiers committed mass suicide rather than be taken, but current scholars question the truth of that theory and Masada’s story continues to change as the years go by.
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After descending, make your way to the Dead Sea — literally the lowest point on earth at 1,400 feet below sea level. The water’s extremely high salt content means that nothing can really grow here, but floating and covering yourself with curative Dead Sea mud is something you won’t soon forget. You simply wade in, sit back and voila – look Mom, I’m floating! Bring flip-flops or water shoes for the path down and do not shave for at least a day before you go (trust us!). Also, try to avoid splashing, as getting the salt water in your eyes can be painful.
If your family would prefer to stay in Jerusalem, consider two options for seeing the city from a different vantage point. From below, you can navigate the King David Tunnels, which were dug by King Hezekiah to bring water to the City of David in the 8th century BCE. The tunnels are just that, so keep it in mind if you don’t care for enclosed spaces. Definitely bring water shoes, as your feet will be wet. A small headlight or flashlight is also helpful. If you’d rather get an eagle-eye view, consider the Ramparts Walk. Enter at Jaffa Gate for either the North Walk from Jaffa Gate to Lion’s Gate, or the shorter South Walk from the Tower of David to between Zion and Dun Gates near the Western Wall. The Ramparts do involve a lot of exertion and stairs, so this option is best suited for families with older kids and teens.
Some places have the ability to imprint themselves upon you and make a slight (or great) shift in how you feel or look at the world. Jerusalem is often mentioned in that light, and at the very least, the sheer magnitude of the history of this place will leave an indelible mark on your family.
Jerusalem shuts down at sundown on Friday evening for Shabbat. Saturday is extremely quiet, with many places closed all day. Likewise, stores and restaurants come alive after sundown on Saturday as Shabbat ends and stay open late into the evening.
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