Every day, tour buses come to Bethlehem, drop off a load of passengers at the Church of the Nativity, and then load them back up and leave Bethlehem and the West Bank. For many, all they see of Bethlehem is the church (a very famous church, granted). After living a few miles down the road from Bethlehem, I can attest, while it may not be the world’s most hopping city, there is plenty to see and do beyond the church.
So whether you’re a tourist looking for a few extra things to see and do in this historic town, or you live nearby, and like me, you want to do get to know a place a little beyond its number one tourist attraction, here’s what I’d suggest for Bethlehem day that is educational, cultural, and delicious:
Start the day with a cappuccino and traditional Palestinian breakfast at the Singer Cafe, a charming and socially conscious little spot owned by a Dutch woman who is married to a Palestinian guy. She also organizes political tours and art tours and you can find a list of those here. This cafe is actually in the town of Beit Sahour, but it’s so close to Bethlehem you could walk from the Church of the Nativity to Singer Cafe in 15 minutes.
Beit Sahour is a pretty town with stone streets, and washed out limestone buildings edged in light blue. Strolling along and snapping photos is a good way to spend some time…
…and so is checking out a gorgeous oud shop in Beit Sahour. An oud is a kind of like a lute, and is common in Middle Eastern music. The wood instruments themselves are curved like a half tortoise shell, gleaming, and sleek (seriously, I want one, even though I have about as much musical potential as a carrot stick). If you visit, perhaps oud maker Aref Sayed, one of just eight oud makers in Palestine, will show you around his picturesque stone workshop and give you a demo on how he makes the instruments. “Each instrument, I try to do something new,” he told our group. (Al Rass St. 59, Beit Sahour, you may want to call ahead at +972 052-515-4562).
Then go to El Beir Arts and Seeds, a gem of a store that is both a gift shop (great art, pillows, bags, and aprons), cooking demo site, and proprietor of heirloom seeds. Vivien Sansour, the owner, is passionate about locals connecting with their history and culture through planting things that have been growing on the land for generations. During our visit, they were cooking up a local bean fava bean dish that was bright and yummy. (Old City of Beit Sahour, atop Mary’s Well).
For lunch, drive (or taxi) to another nearby town, Beit Jala, and settle in at Hosh Jasmine, a hippy-ish outdoor chill out spot with comfy seating and beautiful views of terraced land. While you look out from the hilltop location, there will likely be dogs barking, chickens clucking, and not much other noise. It’s a peaceful locale where locals and expats go to unwind and enjoy homey local dishes like hummus and eggplant dip, green beans in tomato sauces, lemony salads, and rabbit cooked in an in-ground oven (called zarb). Wash it down with a Palestinian Taybeh beer, and finish it off with a hookah (or nargilah, as its called here). This place is so relaxing, you probably won’t want to leave. (Here’s a Munchies article that makes Hosh Jasmine sound a lot more thrilling than I’ve found it to be). (El-MaKhrur St., Beit Jala).
After lunch, head back to Bethlehem (if you aren’t driving your own car, I’d recommend asking someone who works at Hosh Jasmine to call you a cab). This is when you can tour the Church of Nativity (hire a guide if you really want to know what you’re looking at), and possibly the Milk Grotto (where Mary is said to have breastfed Jesus).
If you’re looking for souvenirs, I like The Christmas House right in Manger Square. The owners, the Giacamon family, will tell you everything you want to know about carving olive wood and how living in Bethlehem has changed over the years. They’ll also point you to their factory store (near the Milk Grotto) and you can watch wooden figurines being carved by craftsmen.
Then, head to the Walled off Hotel, aka, the hotel with the world’s worst view — it abuts the separation wall — take in the chic, subversive, Victorian/kitchy vibe of this boutique hotel, designed in part by the fly-by-night street artist Banksy. Tour the small museum inside that does, in my opinion, an excellent job of concisely explaining the Israel/Palestine conflict. Join the European tourists who stay here for a cocktail or cup of tea in the salon.
From there, walk along the separation wall and check out all the graffiti (you can even buy your own can of spray paint at the Banksy gift shop and make your own art/statement).
Next, walk around the Old City a bit (follow signs). Any time I’ve walked along the little markets and stands selling vegetables and falafel, I’ve been one of the only tourists, so you’ll get an authentic Arab market feel. I can’t say there’s much you’ll want to buy (lots of packaged toys, lots of leafy greens) but it’s an experience nonetheless!
And if you happen to be ready for dinner at this point, make your way up small streets and winding staircases to Hosh al-Syrian, an romantic nook of a restaurant (and guesthouse), also located in the Old City of Bethlehem, where the chef serves up elegant fare inspired by local ingredients but with more of a French execution. It’s a several-course tasting menu (a recent trip included a creamy soup made from a local green, roasted vegetable stack with goat cheese, aged beef for Mr. Em in Jerusalem, and a plum and rosewater dessert). All for a very reasonable price, and it’s a perfect way to unwind after walking up all the hills of Bethlehem. (Note: You have to call, preferably at least a day before, and let the chef know you’re coming. +970 2 274-7529. He shops for fresh ingredients daily so he has to plan your menu). Or, if you didn’t plan ahead, I also like Al-Karmeh restaurant, located inside the Bethlehem Museum. It has great traditional Palestinian food (with lots of veggie options) and the space is beautifully decorated. (Jerusalem-Hebron Street, across from the Jacir Palace Hotel).
And voila, a visit to Bethlehem that’s more than just the church.
Em in Jerusalem