Middle East · Travel

One Day in Bethlehem – An Independent Day Trip to Bethlehem

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If you are visiting Jerusalem, and want to explore Bethlehem as well then you have two options. You could pay a small fortune for an organised tour, or follow these simple steps and plan your own day trip to Bethlehem. Read on to discover how to reach Bethlehem, what to see and where to eat if you only have one day in Bethlehem.

STEP ONE – GETTING TO BETHLEHEM

Where is Bethlehem?

Bethlehem is both on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and a million miles away. Bethlehem actually lies within the region of Palestine.

How Do You Get to Bethlehem from Jerusalem?

To cross into this area, you will need to make your way to checkpoint 300. This is the most common crossing for tourists in the separation wall.

The buses that you need to catch pick up and drop off at the small bus station just outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. Damascus Gate lies on the Northern side of the old town. There is a light rail station just there so it is well connected with the rest of Jerusalem.

TOP TIP: You cannot use Rav Kav transport cards on these buses so make sure you have actual cash.

As it was Eid during our visit, the buses that run through the border were not running. However, the 234 was still operating which took us to checkpoint 300. This cost just over 4 shekels, whereas the ones that take you into Palestine, cost just over 7 shekels.

Check out Tourist Israel for more transport options.

The direct bus means you will miss the graffiti wall. If this doesn’t bother you, skip forward to the Manger Square section.

Pass Through Checkpoint 300

We were apprehensive about this part of the journey but going through checkpoint 300 was actually very easy. We entered the border building, passed through a large turnstile. There was then a short walk through a corridor and before we knew it, we were back in the open, squinting in the bright sun.

TOP TIP: DON’T forget your passport! You may not need it to enter Palestine but you definitely will when returning to Israel.

Run the Taxi Gauntlet

As you emerge from checkpoint 300, you will be met with a wall of yellow taxis. The taxi drivers are quite aggressive. They will try to convince you that you are MILES from town and that to reach it, you must go with them and pay far above the odds.

TOP TIP: If you want to catch a taxi 15 – 20 shekels is a fair price.

If you don’t take them up on the offer, they could become verbally abusive. We were called idiots but they did finally leave us alone after that.

STEP TWO – BANKSY AND HIS BUDDIES

Follow the Separation Wall and Discover it’s Street Art/Graffiti

An eight-minute walk from the checkpoint, you will start to see the beginning of a large section of graffiti. You could very easily spend a whole day slowly wandering along the wall, reading every last piece of art (and Mr Fluskey would given half a chance). However, if an hour is more your speed, we recommend following the maps in this blog post from Uneven Tenor to speed around them.

TOP TIP: Banksy is a Bristol-born street artist. Nobody knows Banksy’s true identity but there is no doubt, he is the most famous graffiti artist in the world.

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Visit the Walled Off Hotel

The Walled Off Hotel (if you don’t get the pun, try saying it out loud) is a working hotel conceived by Banksy. You can book a room here and stay the night, but if you have just one day in Bethlehem, the best way to see it is to visit the museum, gallery and gift shop.

Getting to Manger Square

This is a solid 30-minute walk, not entirely flat. If you hadn’t realised before now, you soon will; wearing comfortable shoes for this day trip to Bethlehem is a very good idea!

STEP THREE – MANGER SQUARE

Meander Manger Square

Yes, it is THAT manger of “away-in-a” fame, only the cattle have been replaced by nattering tourists, the three wise men have morphed into twenty stroppy taxi drivers and the inn’s little stable is now a large stone church and monastery.

Coaches arrive from Jerusalem and disgorge their tightly knit groups of pilgrims, who cling to one another with a certain ferocity. Your best bet is to let them pass and wait a minute or two for your own little space.

Relive the Ultimate Christmas at the Church of the Nativity

No day trip to Bethlehem is complete without a pilgrimage to the site where the little baby Jesus was born…allegedly. To be brutally honest, this isn’t a wholly pleasant experience, but one that I still recommend.

The line within the church can be hot, lengthy and full of elbows. The cause of the scuffles is a bottleneck to descend the semi-circular steps down to the sacred spot. This is directly below the altar and marked by a silver star.

During our visit, an incredibly over-zealous tour guide was determined to ensure her group were treated as VIPs and she caused no end of trouble. Despite her pushing, shouting and remonstrations we all managed to see the main event in a fair order.

It was nice to see this holy spot that I felt a bit of connection to. I guess doing the nativity in some form or other for my entire educational career has rubbed off on me.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria’s Spot

As you are spat out, blinking and startled, from The Church of Nativity, you will pass the Chapel of Saint Catherine. This is the site of a huge midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Its TARDIS-style interior is much larger than it looks on the outside.

If you can’t enter, then a snap with the statue of St Jerome in the cloister will have to suffice as it did for us.

STEP FOUR – LUNCH

Munch Mezze at Afteem

If you are not hummus and falafeled out, then the mezze spread at Afteem is a wonderful choice for lunch. It can get very busy so you may need to wait a little while, but service is snappy and so the tables turn around pretty quickly. It is worth the wait, being simple but super delicious falafels, hummus and other tasty dips, pickles and sides. Plus, the bread is GREAT. Best of all, it is a two-minute walk from the Church of the Nativity.

Other Options

If you are just craving some home comfort, there is KFC within a four-minute stroll. To reach it, head along Manger Street, past the cheeky local coffee shop Stars & Bucks. Stars & Bucks is a wonderfully irreverent copy of the famous Seattle coffee chain. There are no Starbucks shops in Israel or Palestine so it serves a purpose! The food here is not that good so drop in for a frozen drink but skip the munchies.

STEP FIVE – BEYOND MANGER SQUARE

Apart from the main church, there are plenty of other chapels to look around.

Church of Our Lady

This church has an intriguing alternative name; Milk Grotto Church. It lies around the corner from Manger Square. This church is an interesting blend of rough stone walls, dating back 150 years, and surprisingly modern additions. It is all dedicated to a drop of milk. The family (Mary, Joseph and Jesus) hid here during a massacre. A drop of Mary’s breast milk hit the floor of the cave and turned it white.

TOP TIP: As well as searching out this spot, keep an eye out for the section of 5th-century floor.

Christmas Lutheran Church

You need to be a little organised to visit this church as tours are by arrangement only. It seems in keeping with the surrounding stone and aesthetic, but it was built by Germans in the 19th century. They just wanted it to fit in. The interior is quite plain but it does have some lovely stained glass windows that look stunning in the Middle Eastern sunshine.

A Spot of Shopping

Take a look around the streets, particularly those that surround the Luthern Church. Here you will find a hoard of plastic tat, religious souvenirs and some clothes shops. I say this partly in the hope you will also see the HUGE teddybears hung in a slightly upsetting way from the wall, and partly because the shop owners here are more in need of your tourist green than those on the other side of the wall.

STEP SIX – BACK TO DAMASCUS GATE

Getting From Manger Square to Checkpoint 300

If you decide to get a taxi back to the wall, walking out of Manger Square can save you up to 50% on your taxi fare. Traipsing back by foot will save you 100% but by this point, you will have done a lot of standing and walking so it is worth noting.

Back Through the Wall to end your Day Trip to Bethlehem

Back at the checkpoint, you will go through airport-style security and then show your passport to the officials. They took one look at our British passports and waved us through.

TOP TIP: Palestinians need to have permission to enter Israel so a queue of foreigners may go quicker when you are picking a queue to join.

Hop back on a bus and you will be back at Damascus Gate in time for a very early dinner. If you aren’t exhausted, there are some lovely bits of the Old Town to wander around from Damascus Gate.

INFORMATION FOR YOUR DAY TRIP TO BETHLEHEM

If this all seems like hard work, you can still book onto a tour, and we recommend Get Your Guide for reliable experience:

If you are thinking of taking a day trip to Bethlehem, here is some information you might like to know:

  • Bethlehem is in Palestine’s West Bank. Most visits here are trouble-free but we would advise you keep an eye on the local political situation. We use the UK government’s foreign office advice here.
  • Buses to Bethlehem leave from Damascus Gate bus station. These buses are known as Arab Buses. You can catch the 21 all the way to Bethlehem. You won’t need to disembark on the journey there, but will have to pass through checkpoint 300 on the way back. This bus costs around 5 shekels each way.
  • If like us, you visit during Eid, the buses straight into Palestine won’t be running, but as we have shown, it is easy enough to catch the 234 to the wall.
  • You will be visiting religious sites so reasonably conservative dress is recommended. Just ensure your knees and shoulders are covered.
  • We would recommend comfortable shoes as you will be on your feet quite a bit.
  • Visiting on Christmas Eve will be both absolutely amazing and slightly horrendous. It is Bethlehem’s busiest night of the year but for good reason. Celebrate midnight mass and Christmas at the birthplace of that little chubby ball of Holyness.
  • If you’re thinking of staying in Jerusalem, check out our review of The YMCA Three Arches.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON OUR DAY TRIP TO BETHLEHEM

We believe it is perfectly possible, and rather lovely, to organise an independent day trip to Bethlehem. If you are lucky enough to have more than one day in Bethlehem then you will be able to explore some of the attractions further afield without exhausting yourself, and really enjoy Palestinian hospitality.

We are keen to return and see more, as a day trip to Bethlehem is all very well and good, but we feel a bit like we have just been to Bethlehemland, and it is time to see some of the beauty of Palestine.

Rosie xx


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