My guide on how to visit Palestine
The first question that comes to mind when people ask about visiting Palestine is – is it safe? Yes, it is safe, if you stay in the advised areas. Traveling through Palestine isn´t something you do and just think “I´ll wing it”. It takes some research, and you also need to understand that there are parts of Palestine that you are advised to stay away from, and there is a good reason for that. Unless you are willing to risk your life, which I obviously advise against. Other areas are super safe and breathtakingly beautiful. The population is welcoming and the food is mouthwatering. So yes, I highly recommend visiting Palestine when traveling through the Middle East.
Beware that since a lot of governments advise from traveling to Palestine your regular travel insurance might not be valid here. Make sure to get one that is. I would recommend World Nomads.
MY GUIDE ON HOW TO VISIT PALESTINE
The Gaza strip and the West bank
Palestinian territories are divided into two regions: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, both separated by the state of Israel. You can’t enter Gaza unless you are a journalist or an NGO worker. Due to constantly ongoing wars, it is not safe to enter Gaza and therefore this post is for those traveling to the West Bank. The West Bank is a totally different place that has lived in peace with Israel for almost twenty years, since the Second Intifada.
Palestine is also divided into Area A; Area B and Area C. This division was established during the Oslo Accords, a series of agreements that were signed in the 1990s as part of the peace process.
Area A is in full control of the Palestinian Authorities. There are no Israeli settlements in Area A and Israeli citizens can’t enter it. This counts for around 18% of the West Bank and includes the cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho, and about 80% of Hebron, among others.
Area B has Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control. It counts for about 22% of the West Bank and there are no Israeli settlements.
Area C is the remaining of the West Bank and it is under full Israeli civil and security control.
As there are no international airports in Palestine, it is only possible to enter the west bank overland through Israel or Jordan. All Palestinian territories are surrounded by a big concrete wall controlled by the Israeli military hence entering Palestine requires passing through an Israeli military checkpoint. There are two main checkpoints through which you can enter, the Qalandia checkpoint in Israel or the Allenby bridge crossing in Jordan. As an international visitor, it’s easiest to fly into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and from there it’s a 45 min taxi ride to the checkpoint. However, since Israel is a small country, the West Bank can be reached within a few hours by public transport or car from wherever you are within Israel. Just note that you are not allowed to bring a rental car from Israel into Palestine. If you do so, it is neither insured nor safe to use as means of transportations. The easiest way to enter is by bus to the border and then enter by foot. Well in Palestine the system of public transportation works well. If you are entering via Jordan the Allenby Bridge crossing is accessible by bus or taxi from Amman and takes a little over an hour. The more annoying part of this entry is the line to get in which is notorious for being long. You should allow at least 3h of queuing if you plan to enter through this way.
You use the same currency as in Israel in Palestine namely, New Israeli Shekel (NIS).
The most practised religion in Palestine is Sunni Islam. Therefore, it is advised to dress respectfully and cover shoulders, cleavage, arms and legs. Hebron, Nablus and Jenin are more traditional and conservative, so you should dress even more modestly there, headscarf is advised for women. Ramallah, the most cosmopolitan city on the west bank and also its capital, is a little bit more laid-back. The same goes for Bethlehem, the city with the largest Christian population.
When to go
The West Bank is a year-round destination. The winters get just slightly cold and the summers don´t get too hot unless you are traveling to some parts of the desert, like Jericho, where the weather can get extremely hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter.
The West Bank is not really a budget destination, even if it is somewhat cheaper than other places in the Middle East. Count on spending a minimum of 25 – 35 USD per day. The cheapest option for accommodation is staying in hostels, for between 14-20 USD per night. If you´re travelling as a couple or a group of friends, I would suggest you stay in Airbnb´s as that would generally then be the most cost-effective. Where you can really save though is on food as portions are hefty and you really get a lot of bang for the buck.
Places to visit in Palestine
Where to begin? Jerusalem is the holiest place for Christianity, Islam and Judaism. You can literally spend forever here and not stop being amazed, impressed and surprised. I have visited Jerusalem many many times and I never get tired of it. Jerusalem is part of Israel but the eastern part of the city is completely inhabited by Arabs.
Being so important to three main religions also makes it a melting pot for conflicts, meaning you will have to get used to the military constantly patrolling the streets. Their machine guns might seem intimidating, but it is really what makes Jerusalem a safe place.
Remember that you can be asked to show your passport at any time and therefore it is good to carry a copy of it with you.
Things to do in Jerusalem
The Western Wall
Probably one of the most known sights in the World and one of the most important landmarks in the city. It is a very holy place where, every day, thousands of Jews come to pray. It is also called the Wailing Wall as, during the Ottoman period, Jews would go there and lament the destruction of the previously destroyed Temple Mount. Visiting the Western Wall it is required to cover shoulders and knees, if you somehow forgot, there are robes to borrow free of charge. Visit the wall respectfully, do not take pictures of others and remember that it is a holy place and not actually a tourist attraction.
Temple Mount / Al-Haram ash-Sharif
Another landmark of Jerusalem and one of the holiest places both for Jews and Muslims. Biblically, this is where Abraham offered up his son Isaac for sacrifice. The Temple Mount is the third holiest site for Muslims after Mecca and Medina. In Muslim tradition, this is where the Prophet Mohammed made his “Night Journey” to the throne of God. Today, within the area of the Temple Mount, there are about 100 different structures to see spanning different time periods, including prayer locations, arches, and fountains.
Admission is free, but lines can be very long, so get there early. It is closed on Fridays and Saturdays.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
The Church of the Resurrection is one of the holiest sites within Christianity and is an impressive building, where Jesus was crucified. This site has been continuously recognized since the 4th century as the place where Jesus died, was entombed, and then rose from the dead.
Mount of Olives
Mount of Olives is towering over 800 meters above sea level and provide stunning views over Jerusalem. This holy site is associated with Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and has been used as a place of prayer and burial since the days of the First Temple.
Bethlehem is considered to be the birthplace of Jesus and the home of King David hence it attracts millions of visitors each year. It is a picturesque town overlooking the Judean Desert and during Christian holidays the festivities are endless. The pomp, ornate decor, and beautiful displays continue year-round and whether you are religious or not, it is well worth a visit.
Things to do in Bethlehem
The Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest working churches in existence today. It is the oldest complete church in the world. It was built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Erected in the place where Jesus is believed to have been born.
Aida camp was established in 1950 on land UNRWA leased from the government of Jordan. The camp is located between the municipalities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Jerusalem. It is partially surrounded by the West Bank Barrier. The Aida refugee camp is probably the most well-known refugee camp in the West Bank, but I also found it to be the most commercialized. It is possible to visit the camp and there are several help organizations, such as Volunteer Abroad that offers volunteer programs. The volunteer programs aim to provide help for the refugees but also aim to spread awareness of the situation in the camps.
Mar Saba Day trip
Mar Saba monastery in the Judean Desert is reputedly the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the world, dating back to 439 CE (equivalent to 439 AD). It´s a Greek Orthodox monastery and women aren´t allowed inside the monastery at all but can view it from the opposite side of the phenomenal cliff-clinging copper-domed hermitage. Men, on the other hand, are permitted inside, where tours are available with one of the 15 monks in residence. Even if you´re a woman and cannot get inside, the surrounding Judean Hills and the Kidron Valley are amazingly beautiful places to hike, and the views are absolutely breathtaking. The monastery is set amid amazing scenery, with paths and steps going down into a beautiful valley below. It is only possible to visit the monastery from Bethlehem and therefore I suggest making a day trip out of it. Note that the monastery is closed on Wednesdays and Fridays and opening hours on other days are limited. For more information visit their website.
It really is a must-visit! With the ancient monastery and unique landscape, it feels like travelling back centuries in time.
Hebron the largest city in the West Bank, might be one of the most interesting places to visit in Palestine, but it is also the place with the most tension. There are Jewish settlements within the city, the old city specifically, and the animosity this creates is really noticeable. You can feel that people are on edge, that there is something bothering basically everyone. The Mosque and Synagogue at the Cave of the Patriarchs, one of the holiest sites for both Jews and Muslims, are separated by bulletproof glass. The military is constantly patrolling the streets. To understand why there is such tension, you need to understand the complicated history of Hebron and the ongoing social and political complications. Jews have been present in Hebron from Biblical times, and Muslims have also lived there for many centuries.
In the middle of the 19th century, Hebron was deeply Muslim, and the social climate was hostile against the Jews present in the city. After the 6 Days War in 1967, Hebron came under Israeli occupation. Because of its strong religious symbolism, the Jews then started to build settlements within the Old City itself. Today the city is divided into two areas, H1 (80% of the city controlled by Palestinian authorities ) and H2 (20% of the city controlled by the Israeli military).
Most of the Old City (H1 area) is protected by a fence, to protect both sides from throwing garbage, eggs, bleach and even excrements at each other. Balconies and windows are protected by heavy metal bars. The hatred towards the Israeli settlers is expressed in every other sentence and more so to foreigners visiting. A large part of the Old City has been abandoned as the Palestinian population there have found it too difficult to make a living under the Israeli Military law and because of the division of the old city restricting Palestinian movement between areas within the old city. In the H1 old city areas, you’ll therefore see a lot of empty houses, shops and restaurants.
To visit Abrahams tomb, you must leave the H1-area through a military checkpoint. From there you can enter the tomb as it is literally located between the synagogue and the mosque, so it’s visible from both sites, but separated by bulletproof glass.
The H2 area, the Jewish side, is basically just a residential area for the Israeli settlers and passage for the Israeli military between and around the settlements.
It is a complex place and the history of the conflict is so complicated it is impossible to know what’s “right or wrong”. In order to best understand what’s going on and to form your own opinion, I encourage you to talk to both the Palestinians and the Jews living in Hebron. The conflict is well known internationally and both sides are happy to share their story. Another great option is to take a guided dual perspective tour. The tour will be done by two guides sharing their life story, their experiences and feelings regarding living in Hebron. All is done with empathy for each of their respective countries and without demonizing the other side. It’s a very interesting experience that brings out a lot of emotions and thoughts about humanity’s bad and good sides. It truly is the best way to see both sides of the story and to get a grasp of the complexity and the scope of the situation.
Ramallah differs a lot from the rest of the cities in the West Bank. Here the tension is less noticeable, people carry on with their daily life and a lot of them even crosses the border every day to go and work in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa or other Israeli cities. It´s a place with lots of restaurants, bars and pubs, but also with lots of history. Here you find the Palestinian History Museum and the tomb of Yasser Arafat.
Things to do in Ramallah
The Mausoleum and Museum
The place where the former President Yasser Arafat is buried is also a Historical Museum that showcases the story of Palestine from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict perspective. It is a really interesting museum and I would recommend spending a few hours, maybe even half a day here.
Eat, eat and eat.
There are so many restaurants in Ramallah and the food is mouthwatering! Palestinian food really is something! Try Peter´s Place, with stunning views over Palestine and the Dead Sea and a décor that brings the history of Palestine alive. The menu always changes and it is really one of the best places to experience Palestinian cuisine. And please, don´t miss out on the hummus. Hummus is generally eaten for two out of three meals per day and it´s safe to say that some of the best hummus in the world is found in the West Bank, and particularly so in Ramallah. Another great hummus place is Abu Walid. It isn´t fancy, rather the opposite. It’s a very simple place, plastic chairs, one big pot of hummus, pickles and lemonade. Located behind the maze-like fruit and vegetable market, Abu Walid is a bit tricky to find, but ask any local and you will be pointed in the direction of some of the best hummus you will ever taste!
Visit the Old City of Ramallah
The Old City will bring you back to the Ottoman empire. The Old City includes ruins of the ancient watchtower and the Ottoman court. This area of the city will give you a real authentic taste of Palestinian life.
Try the nightlife
Yes maybe bars and clubs aren´t the first to come to your mind when thinking about Palestine and the west bank, but this is a big part of life in Ramallah. The places to go is ever-changing and the best way to hit a homerun is to talk to the locals. They will not only tell you where to go, but they will invite you to their pre-drinks and bring you out with them into the young nights of Ramallah.
Nablus is an off the beaten track destination located in a beautiful valley between Mount Ebal and Gerizim. It has one of the most beautiful old cities in the Middle East. It is a vibrant city, the locals are super friendly and the food is just amazing. On top of that, it is home to some of the world´s best olive oil shops.
Things to do in Nablus
The Old City – Qasaba
Nablus itself was actually modelled on the capital city of Damascus and wandering the streets of the Old City you will see remains of ancient mosques, public drinking fountains, the alleyways and passages of the Old City, and traditional balconies.
Eat the world´s best Kanafeh
Kna-what? Kanafeh is a traditional Middle Eastern dessert made with shredded filo pastry, or alternatively, fine semolina dough, soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup, and typically layered with cheese, or with other ingredients such as clotted cream or nuts. Even if it doesn´t sound very appetizing it is one of the most popular deserts in Palestine, and most parts of the Middle East. And let me tell you – it is absolutely delicious. Luckily the world´s best Kanafeh can be found in Nablus at Al-Aqsa. Ask the locals for the way and join them in eating the warm Kanafeh in the street outside the tiny eatery Al-Aqsa.
Jericho is considered the oldest inhabited city in the world. It is also the lowest city on earth, at 400 meters below sea level. It is filled with stunning Christian monasteries as well as ancient ruins, plenty of beautiful hikes and a Bedouin culture.
Things to do in Jericho
Visit Saint George Koziba monastery
A beautiful Greek Monastery was carved into the rocks in Wadi Quilt. The location has great religious significance and is well worth a visit. A dusty road leads up to the monastery and you can either walk or ride on a donkey-taxi to the monastery gate. Unlike many other monasteries, this one is open to female visitors. Even if the entrance is free it´s a good idea to get there early as it quickly fills up with pilgrims and tourists. The monastery welcomes guests from Monday to Saturday 9 am to 1 pm. It is safe to travel to the monastery but probably better to take a guided tour, rather than traveling solo, it is a bit of a haggle going there by public transportation. There are plenty of private tours, but I used Micheal Tours and I was really happy with my choice. Michael is super professional and has a lot of knowledge about the West Bank. The tour groups are small and really gives you a chance to see all that you want to see in one day.
Mount of temptation and the Monastery of Quarantul
One of the most impressive sites in the entire West Bank is the Monastery of the Qurantul, built on the spot where the Bible says Jesus resisted Satan after his 40-day fast in the desert. Visitors to the mount can take the cable car from Tel Jericho to the summit or hike up the mount which will take about half an hour. A visit to the Mount of Temptation is often combined with a visit to Jericho or the Dead Sea because of their proximity. There aren´t really any opening hours for the monastery so the best thing is to go with Micheal tours again or another private tour of your preference.
What are you planning to do when you visit Palestine? Let us know in the comments below.
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