Bethlehem City

If Mary and Joseph were to turn up at the ‘little town of Bethlehem’ these days, they would barely recognise the place. And they certainly wouldn’t struggle to find somewhere to stay in this thriving city, now arguably the jewel in the Palestinian crown.

Bethlehem receives its fair share of tourists, understandably so, it is the birthplace of Jesus Christ after all (the exact spot of his birth can even be visited). But this beautiful city is bursting with biblical heritage and wonder, and thus cannot be missed. Bethlehem itself is now a predominantly Muslim town, where different religions live side by side in relative harmony, a stark contrast from the big, ugly man made wall, dotted with turrets, which borders Bethlehem, stopping anyone passing between Israel and Palestine.

The legendary British graffiti artist, Banksy has made his message clear through a series of works on the wall and nearby, alongside powerful messages from Palestinians and their supporters from the world over.

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What To Do

Everyone associates Bethlehem with the story of the nativity; Mary, Joseph, shepherds and the birth of Jesus Christ. Road names such as Manger Street and Star Street provide constant reminders that this is the Bethlehem described in the New Testament. So any visit to the city – unrecognisable from the Christmas card depictions of a scenic village – must include a trip to the holy scene itself, now underneath the altar in the Church of the Nativity.

It is in a cave – not a stable – where Mary apparently gave birth to Jesus, and the exact spot is marked by a star and lined with candles. It is a strange, humbling place to visit, but Bethlehem offers a lot more than religious sites. This city hums with life, and has enough great tourist attractions to fill at least a day, if not longer. Manger square, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, is the focal point, with the striking Mosque of Omar on the other side emphasising Bethlehem’s religious transformation.

Milk Grotto street leads, unsurprisingly, to the Milk Grotto, a beautiful underground chapel coloured white, where, it is claimed, Mary spilt a drop of breast milk while feeding Jesus here. The Old Bethlehem Museum, off Paul VI Street, is full of native and traditional exhibits along with a gift shop. Up the hill is a buzzing old city with a market (souk) to rival any of the West Bank’s biggest cities, with beautiful, narrow stone streets and steps. There is no shortage of places to purchase souvenirs and hand-crafted gifts, with many shops lining the streets surrounding Manger Square.

The Christmas church, built in 1886, rises above the old city buildings with its ornate spire, and also houses a cultural centre and school. Taxi drivers around Manger Square offer tourists a trip out of town to visit the various works by British graffiti artist, Banksy. The Banksy tour ends at the iconic wall, built by the Israelis to contain the Palestinian population. It is covered in emotive graffiti and messages of hope, peace and justice, providing a sobering contrast to the touristic Bethlehem. The nearby fortress of Herodium can also be visited by taxi from Bethlehem.

Where To Eat

There is no shortage of dining options in Bethlehem, befitting of its tourist status. There are restaurants dotted around Manger Square and surrounding streets, as well as more down-to-earth shawarma eateries up in the Old City.

The market also has a fresh fruit and vegetable court, which should be visited even if you aren’t looking to purchase anything, purely to marvel at the colourful, chaotic heaps of fresh produce.

Where To Stay

There is no chance you will end up sleeping in an inn’s stable if you’re looking to spend the night in Bethlehem. A number of large hotels are available, all generally cheaper than Jerusalem, as well as smaller places with more character.