Bethlehem happens to be only nine kilometers south of Jerusalem, making it a natural and obvious destination to incorporate into your visit to Jerusalem. A trip to Bethlehem not only offers visitors a chance to see one of Christianity’s important historical sites, but also a tiny glimpse into life in the occupied West Bank. I’d strongly encourage you to visit Bethlehem, ideally for the night, but if that’s not possible, then certainly as a day trip on your own as we did. It’s easy enough, so here’s what you need to know.
How to get to Bethlehem from Jerusalem by public transport
While the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem isn’t great, travel between them isn’t simple. For instance, rental car companies in Israel will not allow you to bring your rental car into Palestinian Authority-controlled areas (Area A) which applies to Bethlehem and taxis from Israel can’t cross into Palestine, nor can taxis from Palestine cross into Israel, so this leaves public transportation as your only option if you aren’t part of a tour. No public bus goes from the center of Jerusalem to the center of Bethlehem. This is due to the wall Israel has constructed around this part of the West Bank and the checkpoint (managed by Israel’s military) between the two historic towns. This should of course should not deter you from visiting Bethlehem. Here’s how to visit.
In Jerusalem make your way to the bus station outside the Old City wall between the Damascus and New Gates. At the bus station, you have two options to travel to Bethlehem by public bus. You can take bus #21 to checkpoint 300 or Rachel’s Tomb for 5 Israeli Shekels (IS) or bus #24 to Beit Jala in the West Bank for 6.8 IS, and then walk to Bethlehem. We took both options.
The bus to Beit Jala cost more, took longer (1 hour travel time), but gets you closer to the center of Bethlehem (15-minute walk away). While the other bus to checkpoint 300, cost less, is much shorter (15-minute travel time), but only drops you off at the checkpoint, where you have to navigate the checkpoint and then either catch a taxi once in Palestine or walk about 25 minutes to the center of Bethlehem. Pro-tip there is little to no signage at the checkpoint so my advice is to do what the locals do. Oh and bring your passport and visa card with you or you might not be able to re-enter Israel. It’s worth noting if you do stay the night in Bethlehem and re-enter Israel early in the morning through checkpoint 300 the line can be very long so plan accordingly.
Once you arrive in Bethlehem there is a lot to see and do! So don’t be deterred by the mild hassle to enter.
Church of the Nativity
Unfortunately for the businesses of Bethlehem, many people visit only as a day-trip (like we did) and while it’s great you’re visiting you’re also not contributing as much to the local economy as you would if you had stayed the night. So when you do travel over to Bethlehem it’s critical that you spend some time and money there.
No trip to Bethlehem is complete without visiting the Church of the Nativity, built in 333 AD. In 2012 the church became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Palestine (The United States and Israel opposed this). The church is free to enter and of course, is packed with tourists from across the world. Go early or late to avoid the crowds waiting to enter the grotto below the church. This is where Jesus is said to have been born.
Even if you don’t go into the grotto (we didn’t as the line was way too long), the church is still well worth the visit.
There are several other historic places we didn’t see on this visit, but it’s worth checking out the Milk Grotto, Old Bethlehem Museum, and Herodium, just to name a few of course.
Peace Center Restaurant and Bar
We are not ones to frequent establishments right outside of tourist attractions, but it was raining, we had done a lot of walking, and wanted to rest for a minute so we went to the Peace Center Restaurant and Bar in Manger Square. A huge plus was that they had WiFi and served local Palestinian beer.
It’s really important to support businesses in Bethlehem, like I said earlier many visitors are bused in from Jerusalem on organized tours as a day trip often by-passing local businesses. It’s critical you support local businesses, especially when visiting a popular tourist destination like Bethlehem as much of the community’s livelihood is dependent upon it.
The Walled Off Hotel
After you’ve visited the historic stuff, its time to focus on life as it currently exists in Bethlehem. One place to catch a glimpse of it is at The Walled Off Hotel. The hotel located directly across the street from the wall that surrounds Palestine is filled with artwork from the artist Banksy. Importantly for visitors the hotel has an art gallery, a museum about the wall and life under occupation, and a restaurant serving local food, and local beer (score!). It was here we discovered Wise Men Choice Beer, a Beit Sahour (a nearby village, also known as Shepard's Field) that produces its own beer. This is an opportunity to educate yourself about the wall, and support local businesses such as craft breweries.
The hotel’s restaurant has a front row seat of the wall, which is covered with graffiti and art.
The wall that surrounds parts of the West Bank has become a “thing” to see during your visit. You’ll notice especially around The Walled Off Hotel the seemingly irregular path the wall takes, often splitting up streets, farms, and communities from one another. Interested in learning more about the wall then check out the museum inside The Walled Off Hotel.
As I covered Bethlehem is a must for anyone who has traveled to Jerusalem. Ideally, staying the night would allow you to fully explore the city, however like most, a day-trip is totally doable. Once you’ve navigated your way there the city offers a lot including world famous Manger Square and the Chruch of the Nativity. Once you’ve checked that off the list you should definitely explore some of the other places we mentioned. It’s important to drive home that Bethlehem’s community is to an extent dependent upon visitors so be sure to spend some time and money with local businesses.
All photography by Albert Bond
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