HOLY CITY TAKES OFF

City Whisper

Holy city takes off

Jerusalem’s city center is blossoming: Just a stone’s throw from the dim alleyway labyrinth of the historic Old City, new eateries, stores and cultural venues have sprung up. Visitors from all over the world have long since stopped coming just to see the Temple Mount.

November 2021, Reading time: 12 minutes

City palaces on King David Street. In the background: the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

This is probably due to the high expectations, the special history, the myths and fairy tales associated with Jerusalem – in any case, the first impression of the Holy City is sobering. Arriving from the airport, the first thing you see is a metropolis with unattractive outskirts, multi-lane roads and a hilly up and down that blocks the view of whatever you hope to see. The downtown area, with its natural stone buildings painted in various shades of yellow, pink and gray, looks surprisingly un-antique, austere and almost Spartan. Only the café terrace and the bougainvilleas blossoming here and there between the walls provide southern charm. There is nothing biblical here at first.

Still deserted in the early morning: the narrow streets of the Old City.

Cactus-shaped wooden tower in the garden of Hansen House. Photo: Dor Kedmi

Instead, Israel’s largest city is experiencing a fanfare-free, pleasantly unpretentious and decidedly forward-looking cultural awakening. Publicly funded art centers in often surprising locations are growing in structure and importance, festivals are also gaining international attention, DJs, designers and dramaturges are coming from all over and staying. At the same time, the tech scene is booming: more than 500 start-ups with their mostly young and cool employees bring fresh wind, visions and valuta to Jerusalem.

Everything on a spit: Israeli specialties at Restaurant 02.

True, it lacks the carefree party atmosphere, the sexy charisma, the sea and the shabby chic of Bauhaus architecture that attract droves of visitors to Tel Aviv. But Jerusalem can no longer be reduced to the Wailing Wall and Via Dolorosa. Especially since the spirit of the times is also making itself felt in the old city, which is over 3,000 years old. Local hipsters enjoy delicious hummus and falafel in unpretentious mini-restaurants, students stock up on fruit and vegetables at the Arab market, and the stalls selling Yemeni-flavored coffee are surrounded by a colorful mix of clientele.

Terrace with a view at Hotel Mamilla.

The Dome of the Rock with its striking golden dome.

Every day, countless pilgrims come to pray at the Wailing Wall.

The tourist groups following the signs to the Temple Mount are easy to avoid, and there are hardly any vacationers to be seen outside the Old City walls anyway. At the moment, visitors have Jerusalem almost to themselves. But that is likely to change soon, because according to the information service provider Bloomberg, the Holy City is one of the fastest growing travel destinations in the world. If you want to experience it without crowds, you’ll have to hurry.

Living

Well-Lifted: The Inbal

This well-established and popular luxury hotel underwent an all-around makeover a few years ago and also expanded slightly in the process. It now looks much younger, fresher, and more modern, and the new rooms attract guests with their beautiful bathrooms, spacious balconies, and views of the Citadel towers. Breakfast is served on the leafy patio, and those not exploring the city can relax by the pool and in the spa. Double rooms from 354 USD, inbalhotel.com
Photo: Assaf Pinvhuk

Old and new: Mamilla

Sacred and convivial, ancient and forward-thinking, luxurious and casual, the Mamilla is like Jerusalem itself, a highly successful blend and a crossroads of different paths. In addition to the 194 elegant rooms and suites, the pool and hammam, the grand rooftop terrace with lounge, bar, and restaurant is considered a highlight of the property. Double rooms from 460 USD, mamillahotel.com
Photo: Amit Geron

Pole Position: Bezalel

37 rooms in a beautifully restored city palace in one of the city’s most popular and lively neighborhoods not far from the market and historic Old City. The decor seems haphazardly thrown together, yet perfectly paced with plenty of Israeli design. There are sofas and books in the lobby, a landscaped courtyard, and a delicious country-style breakfast. Double rooms from 180 USD, atlas.co.il/bezalel-hotel-jerusalem
Photo: Sivan Askayo

Casual Chic: Arthur

Rich colors, vintage photography, a casual-chic atmosphere, and a great location in the trendy Ben Yehuda neighborhood are the pluses of this charming 58-room hotel. Guests can borrow bicycles for free, and there’s an equally free happy hour in the evening. Double rooms from $180, atlas.co.il/arthur-jerusalem
Photo: Nathan Dvir

Food

Market kashemme: Azura

The spicy oxtail stew has been simmering all night, and the eggplants stuffed with ground meat are baked in cinnamon sauce. The food at Azura is down-to-earth and tasty; the Balkan mix comes from the Turkish-born owner’s family and has been changed as little as the restaurant, which has managed to retain its original backyard charm despite growing popularity, tel. +972 2 623 5204

Everything on the spit: Restaurant 02

Not everything is on a skewer: the yellowtail sashimi bathes in a cucumber-fennel emulsion, and the grilled pumpkin is served with tahini and date honey. But the “skewers” are the best sellers on the menu, whether it’s lamb with cilantro pesto, chicken with harissa or beef with herb oil. The stylish eatery is also suitable for a drink at the bar, and those who want can get a table on the terrace. 02rest.com

Simple & Good: Ben-Sira Hummus

Hardly any tourists stray into this simple restaurant, but locals line up to get a seat, especially at lunchtime. The reason: Here you can get the best hummus in town. If you want, you can order a couple of equally tasty falafel and/or the tomato salad. You can watch the cooks at work from the seats at the counter, and there are outdoor tables as well. Ben Sira 3, tel. +972 2 625 3893

Dining in style: Restaurant Mona

Mona is considered the chicest restaurant in town: intimate, casual, with white-covered tables on ancient terracotta floors and a few outdoor tables. The cuisine, as so often in Israel, is a successful and extremely delicious combination of all sorts of things: There are oysters with cucumber granita, gnocchi on scallops, sweetbreads with corn and pine nuts, or a perfectly seared steak. monarest.co.il

Drink

Parisian flair: Patisserie Kadosh

It’s apparently good manners among Jerusalem’s jet set to stand in line outside this old-fashioned French patisserie. No wonder: Not only do you sit here in a pretty square in the middle of the city, but you also get irresistible brioches, almond croissants and buns with berries and pistachios, prepared fresh daily in the bakery above the café. Delicious! 6 Queen Shlomziyon St, tel. +972 2 625 4210

Coffee & Wine: Roasters

The coffee stand in the main hall of Mahane Yehuda Market Hall is not just for a shopping break, but a destination all its own. It serves the best espresso and cappuccino in town, along with delicious sandwiches and pastries. In the evening, the stand transforms into a hip wine and beer bar. HaAfarsek St 20, tel. +972 54 671 0296

Speakeasy: Gatsby Cocktail Room

The name wasn’t chosen by accident; this well-hidden bar embraces the spirit of the glamorous 1920s and scores with vintage furnishings, cool bartenders as well as excellent cocktails. Regulars love The Fitzgerald with gin, lemon, egg white and bitters; more experimental natures choose Croassroad with whiskey, fig jam, agave syrup and smoked rosemary. Hillel St 18, no tel.
Photo: David Vaaknin

Café cool: Bezalel

Only rarely does a tourist find his way to what is probably the most casual café in town. The interior is tiny, but there are plenty of tables in front of the door where Jerusalem’s trendsetters meet – often with their laptops, strollers and/or newspapers. For breakfast there are delicious croissants and scrambled eggs, for lunch lovingly prepared sandwiches and always an invigorating Americano coffee on ice. 8 Betsal’el St, tel. +972 2 625 9164

Shopping

Ceramic cooperative: Gilda

A good two handful of ceramic artists have joined forces and opened a store in the city center. Each of them has a location marked by name so that the different styles don’t mix. Some works are colorful and playful, others more functional and understated. All are created in and around Jerusalem, handmade and unique. Salomon St 27

Land of plenty: Mahane Yehuda

The legendary shuk (market) is considered the largest in the country, and the array of local produce is as overwhelming as it is tempting. Some 250 stalls offer fruits and vegetables, nuts and spices, dried fruits and berries, olives, pastries, cheese, tahini, halva and much more. For a break, the small Roasters coffee stand (roasters.co.il) in the main hall is a good place to go – it serves what is arguably the best espresso in town. machne.co.il

Small and chic: Sofia

Small, chic, personal – in this stylishly curated fashion store, you’ll only find what suits owner Miri Ashut Zuta’s exclusive taste. On clothes rails, on shelves and in display cases are the creations of some 60 Israeli designers, including velvety leather bags by Emili, girly sling pumps by XOOX and delicate jewelry by Omri Goren. Bezalel St 2

Colorful: Ginger

This is not a store for purists. Cushions, tablecloths, bags, baskets and all other decoration and fashion accessories – everything is bursting with colors and patterns. The brand has several stores in Israel and reflects the vision of designer Orit Kesten, who has been inspired by her wanderings around the globe and has incorporated a wide variety of influences into her work. gingerhome.co.il

Marvel

Creative chaos: Hamiffal

An abandoned and half-ruined 19th century building has been transformed into a cultural center with ever-changing art installations, concerts, performances and film screenings. Hamiffal (“factory”) is open to everyone, whether they want to make or view art. Locals also come because you can eat cheaply and well under the vaulted and brightly painted ceiling of the in-house café. hamiffal.com
Photo: Yelena Kvetny

Multifunction Hansen House

A leprosy asylum founded in 1867 that continued to serve as a national leprosy center until 2000 and was declared an Israeli heritage site in 2011 now serves as a cultural center. Under the name Hansen House, Center of Design, Media and Technology, changing exhibitions, performances and events such as Jerusalem Design Week are organized there. hansen.co.il/en
Photo: Dor Kedmi

Old and young art: Israel Museum

Israel’s largest and most important museum initially surprises with its modern architecture and the spaciousness of its rooms and outdoor areas. Opened in 1965, it now attracts more than a million visitors a year to see the Shrine of the Book with the oldest biblical manuscripts, the sculpture garden and the changing exhibitions, often dedicated to contemporary artists. imj.org.il
Photo: Eli Posner

Must see: Old Jerusalem

The labyrinthine Old City is enclosed by a 16th-century city wall and consists of ethnic-religious residential and commercial neighborhoods. The Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall are considered top sights. The main axis of the Old City resembles an oriental bazaar with many stores and eateries. The best hummus is at Lina (Al Khanka St), the best knafeh at Jaffar Sweets (Beit Habad St).