Bethlehem has been known throughout the centuries as the place where Jesus Christ was born. And the information stops there, since most people neither know nor wish to know anything more about it. But when you visit Bethlehem, you will be amazed at how vibrant the town it is today and how many things it has to offer the traveler.
A few words about the city
Bethlehem is a city that belongs to the territories of the Palestinian Authority. It is built on the northern slopes of the Judean Mountains, located 10 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem and 110 kilometers south of Nazareth, being a bone of contention between Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Its name means "House of bread", while it numbers about 30,000 inhabitants, of whom 10% are estimated to be Christians. Of course, the reason why Bethlehem is known is the fact that it was the birthplace of Jesus Christ. But beyond the Holy Temple of Nativity, a visitor to Bethlehem can see and do other things there. So I have chosen for you, what I consider to be worthy of attention for someone who is visiting the city for the first time.
Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity is the oldest and most historic attraction of the city. It is one of the most important pilgrimages to the Holy Land and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually. It is considered the birthplace of Jesus since the 2nd century, when St. Helen began to build the temple (330-333). The erection of the church went through many ups and downs and disasters, with many changes in its appearance over the centuries. It was completely renovated in the years of Justinian, while the various architectural changes of the previous periods are evident, in line with the political and historical climate of the time. Its present image, however, comes from the last major renovation that took place in 1842. Since 2012, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The manger or cave of the Nativity is located in a basement of the temple. The queues of believers rushing to worship at the spot are huge, so arm yourself with patience. I would suggest that you have a guide with you, who will have consulted beforehand to get through faster. Descending some steps, you will see a silver star with fourteen rays, which symbolizes the fourteen generations of Christ. Above the star there is an inscription in Latin that reads "Hic de Virgin Marian Jesus Christus natus est", meaning here Jesus Christ was born from the Virgin Mary. In addition, you will see fifteen beautifully lit candles, six for the Greek Orthodox, five for the Armenians and three for the Roman Catholics.
Also, inside the Basilica of the Nativity, you will find the Baptistery of Justinian. It is an eight-sided marble fountain in the shape of a clover, which was part of the church in the 6th century. It was located near the Holy Bank, and its purpose was the baptism of the catechumens.
Finally, the temple is full of historical frescoes. Of course, most of them have worn out over the centuries, but it is worth approaching the forty-four columns of the temple and trying to see the icons of Saints, with Persian and other costumes of the time. Admire the mosaics of the 4th century on the floor, recently discovered and those on the walls that come from the time of the Crusaders (1165-1169).
Church of St. Catherine
The Church or Chapel of St. Catherine is part of the Church of Nativity. In fact, the two of them are connected by a small door in the north wall of the Basilica. In the center of the courtyard, stand the statue of St. Jerome, who is honored jointly in the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Inside the temple now, what stands out is the cluster of caves and Catacombs, ending in the cave of the Nativity. To visit them, you just have to go down some stone steps. Two are the most famous; the first is dedicated to St. Joseph, on the spot where he saw the Angel of the Lord and that which is dedicated to the slaughter of infants by Herod.
Chapel of the Milk Grotto
The Chapel of the Milk Grotto is a chapel built in 1872 and belongs to the Franciscan church. It was built on the site of a former Byzantine church from the 5th century, section of which remains part of the mosaic floor. According to the scriptures, this particular spot is the refuge of the Holy Family during the period when he fled to Egypt. According to tradition, when the Virgin Mary breastfed Jesus, a drop dripped on the floor, turning the soil white. In fact, today the cave is honored by both Catholics and Muslims, who often take some soil from there as a "medicine" in favor of fertility. Finally, the street on which the chapel is located, Milk Grotto Street, is filled with shops of handmade souvenirs. So if you want a souvenir, this spot is the perfect place to get it.
Manger Square is undoubtedly the heart of modern Bethlehem. On one side, on the East, we meet the Church of the Nativity, while on the other, on the West, the Mosque of Omar. Although the mosque is relatively new, since it was built in 1860, it has a wonderful history associated with its name. It was named after the Caliph Omar, whose Arab armies occupied Byzantine Jerusalem. After taking the city, he traveled here to Bethlehem and prayed in the Church of the Nativity, declaring that Christians would be free to practice their faith and pray at this important Christian sanctuary. In the square you will also find dozens of cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops.
West Bank Barrier
The West Bank Barrier is a wall of 708 kilometers, separating Israel with Palestine. It is essentially the artificial border between the two regions. The wall was built in September 2000 and is apparently treated differently by the two countries. Israel calls it a security barrier against terrorism, while Palestinians argue it represents racial segregation. Either way, visiting there is a huge experience, since we are talking about an open museum. Apart from the historical significance of the wall, the visitor will be confronted with countless murals. Some of these graffiti with a political message and others simply as an art form will excite you.
Banksy is a British artist, whose identity remains unconfirmed, creating a legend around his name. He started from Bristol, England, with satirical projects commenting on political and social issues, while now his work appears on roads, walls and bridges all over the world! What does a British artist have to do with Bethlehem? It all started when Banksy created a mural on the wall of Palestine, called “Armored Dove of Peace.” It is a project with a political message, in a region particularly beset by wars and conflicts. Being in Bethlehem, he was impressed with the area and thought of a new project, which is none other than "The Walled Off Hotel." It is a hotel, designed by him, where each room is crafted with a mural of the British artist. The hotel is considered a key part of social commentary on the conditions of those affected by the Israel-Palestine conflict and is one of the new city's major attractions, garnering over 140,000 visitors a year.
Just outside Bethlehem we find Solomon’s Pools. They are located southwest, on the West Bank and apparently took their name from King Solomon. They consist of three large tanks, each six meters away from the other, while all of them are part of an ancient water system, dating from 30 BC! In fact, at that time, they supplied water to Jerusalem, but today they only reach Bethlehem. Legend says that the tanks were built for the king's wives to bathe.
I know very well that the last thing one wants to see in Bethlehem is a museum. However, the city has two extremely interesting art sites that are worth visiting.
The first is the Old Bethlehem Folklore Museum. It is a museum founded in 1971 and is a breath away from the Church of Nativity. In its rooms you will find traditional costumes, personal items, furniture, rugs and various other things that highlight the identity of a typical Palestinian family. Admission costs 2e or 2.5 dollars.
The Palestinian Heritage Center has a similar character. The owner, Mr. Maha Saca, exhibits his personal collection of Palestinian dresses and heirlooms, which he has been collecting for decades. So you will have the opportunity to admire all the traditional costumes of the area and discover the stories hidden behind them. Admission is free.
How to go
In Bethlehem there is no airport, so you will have to fly first to Israel, and more precisely to Tel Aviv. The best option to get to the city comes from Ryanair, where with proper planning one can find tickets from 34€ round trip! If you want a more comfortable flight, you can choose Aegean with a stopover in Athens, from 242€ round trip. From there you can take one of the local buses, book an organized excursion from some regional travel agency or go on your own. Caution! Israelis and cars with Israeli security are not allowed to enter Palestine.
Where to stay
Bethlehem is a small town that does not attract the light of tourism. Usually those who visit it do not spend the night there, so the prices of the accommodation are relatively cheaper than Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. If you ask me, the ideal choice to stay in the city is Banksy's hotel, The Walled Off Hotel. Of course, the prices are unreachable, while they are usually sold out. My suggestion is Canawati Apartment, a beautiful downtown apartment with all the comforts.
How to move
Bethlehem is a small town that you can easily discover on foot. The most likely thing is to visit it with a travel agency, so you will have a means of transport. If you go there yourself and need transportation, the choice is one and coming from Lanta. This is the local bus company, where tickets cost about 2-3e per day.
What to eat
Bethlehem is often referred to as the "House of Meat", as there are endless quantities of tender meats, selections of Middle Eastern delicacies in the area, all in an authentic Palestinian atmosphere. Of course, Bethlehem is a "melting pot" of cultures, something that is reflected in its cuisine. Some of the dishes that you should definitely try are falafel, hummus, sawarma, shakshuka, olives, halva, fresh fruit juices, wonderful breads and a variety of honey desserts. For those who do not know, falafel is something like chickpea meatballs, hummus is a creamy salad of tahini and chickpeas, sawarma is the equivalent of Israeli sovlaki and finally shakshuka is a delicious dish with egg, tomato and garlic. It is usually eaten for breakfast or dinner and served in hot utensils, which are cooked at that time. Finally, if you are there during the holidays, try maamoul, a butter cookie with almond and ghraybeh dough, also a biscuit of semolina, peanuts and orange blossom.
To enter Palestine from Israel, you must present your Passport, valid for at least 6 months and your Visa.
In Bethlehem the language mainly used is Arabic, but the younger ones understand English or French, while everyone is willing to help if they know.
The currency of the country is the new Israeli shekel (ILS) and its exchange rate at the moment is 1€ = 3.92 shekel. Many shops in the bazaars accept dollars and Euros.
Convert your money either to the dozens of banks that exist in the city, or to the conversation offices, which indicate the exchange rates, since they take very little commission.
Entry to Israelis and cars with Israeli security is prohibited.
Greece has not officially recognized the Palestinian state, so it could not have an embassy there. If you need anything you should look for the nearest Greek unpaid Consulate General, which is located in Jerusalem at 31 Rachel Imenou St. and his phone is + 9722 5619583 5619584.
The best time to go to Bethlehem is, of course, the holiday season, whether Christmas or Easter, when the atmosphere is most intense.
Shabbat is something like our Sunday and lasts from sunset on Friday until nightfall on Saturday. In this time everything is under-operating from shops and restaurants to means of transport, so be prepared.