Visit Israel this festive season

Posted on: 01 December 2009 by Mark O'haire

For a different experience this Christmas, you couldn’t do better than taking a holiday in the Holy Land.

For a different experience this Christmas, you couldn’t do better than taking a holiday in the Holy Land. By this I mean not the Israel of tourist beaches and bustling commercial Tel Aviv, but the Israel/Palestine of history, of Jesus and the Apostles, the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.


Jerusalem – where Christianity, Judaism and Islam meet – provides a marvellous starting point and backdrop to this adventure. Just watching its skyline as the setting sun glints off the golden Dome of the Rock, is a breathtaking experience. In Jerusalem you can visit both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb. The former is held to be the site of the Crucifixion by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, whilst the latter is believed to be the site according to the Protestant churches.

You can also take in the Church of all Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus and his disciples met and where – according to Eastern Orthodox Tradition – the Virgin Mary is buried. It has the word “Peace” written on the ceiling in 250 languages. Nearby is the Russian Orthodox Church of St Mary Magdalene, famous for its onion-shaped domes, also tinted gold.

For those with an interest in history, Jerusalem is a veritable treasure trove, with everything from the Western Wall, where orthodox Jews pray, to the Temple Mount or Har ash-sharif housing the Dome of the Rock and Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims meet in prayer. Tourists may visit these sites, but during the five daily prayer times, Har ash-Sharif is not open to tourists, so check the times before you go there.

The general rule when visiting holy sites is, of course, dress modestly. And to that it must be added that in the winter, you should also dress warmly, especially in the evening. Do not assume that the Mediterranean climate stays warm in the winter. It tends to turn cold – and especially after sunset. Photography is allowed in some holy places but not in others; however postcards are always available.

Jerusalem also has a couple of modest-size parks, plus the two campuses of the Hebrew University and the Israel Museum. The latter includes the Shrine of the Book (where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept on display) and a scale model of Jerusalem as it was believed to be in the later period of the Second Jewish Temple. Think of it as a sort of historical Bekonscot!

For souvenirs of the Holy Land, the Old City market (Shouk) is a wonderful place for anything from figurines of Jesus to camel leather wallets to colourful pashimas. But be prepared to bargain hard and don’t be intimidated by the starting price. Remember that scene in the Monty Python film? And make sure you know the exchange rates including the dollar rate. They sometimes bargain – and buy – in US dollars.

There is no shortage of places to stay in Jerusalem.

Mamila Hotel – Located near the near New Gate, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Garden Tomb, this five star hotel offers accommodation starting at £1750 for two persons on a one week stay.

Moriah Classic Hotel – Located near the Garden Tomb, Damascus Gate, and Rockefeller Museum, 3.5 stars. Available in the Christmas week for just under £798.

7 Arches Hotel – For those on a tight budget, this hotel, located near the Tomb of the Prophets, Dome of the Rock, and Western Wall, offers a one-week stay for £399.

When it comes to dining in Jerusalem, you are also spoilt for choice. And in my humble opinion, you can get some of the tastiest food if you ready to slum it. Try the shoulder-rubbing/workman’s diner atmosphere of Pinati in the town centre (King George V Street), or Ta’ami (literally “tasty”) in a little side street called Shammai Street. These modest little diners compete for the title “best Houmous in Jerusalem,” as well as goulash, meatballs and chicken “schnitzel.”

My personal favourite place for Shisklik and chips is Sima’s located behind the Shouk – not the Arab market in the Old City, but the fresh vegetable market near the town centre. In my opinion their fare is better than the more spacious Sami’s next door, but my sister heartily disagrees. The area looks decidedly run down, but it is completely safe.

For those who like their creature comforts as much as the taste of the food, try Scala in the David Citadel Hotel on King David Street.


The first thing to check out in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, traditional birthplace of Jesus and one of the oldest churches in the world. Located on Manger Square and originally built by Constantine I, in the 4th century, it was rebuilt by Justinian I in the sixth after it was burnt down in the Samaritan Revolt of 529. A silver Star of Bethlehem – put there by Franciscan Friars in 1717 – marks the place where Jesus was said to have been born.

The church as it stands today is actually an amalgam of two churches: the Basilica of the Nativity and the Church of St Catherine. The former is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Church and the latter by the Roman Catholic Church. If can get tickets to the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, remember to dress warmly!

On the other side of Manger Square is the Mosque of Omar, built only 50 years after Justinian rebuilt the Church and only four years after the death of the Islamic prophet Mohamed. Also worth checking out are the nearby “Milk Grotto” where the Virgin Mary is said to have hidden from King Herod’s men during the Massacre of the Innocents and Rachel’s Tomb, traditional resting place of one of the wives of Jacob and the mother of his favourite son Joseph.

Bethlehem has some good restaurants like the Mexican style El Mariachi, which also has sea food, located in the Grand Hotel. For the ultimate dining experience, try the Zaitouneh Restaurant in the Jacir Palace (Intercontinental) Hotel. The Good Shepherd and the Star Restaurant also deserve an honourable mention. Or for those on a budget, try out the numerous stalls with tasty local food – unlike the fast-food that we get here, the fare served by these little market stalls is extremely tasty.

By David Kessler

About The Author

David Kessler is the author of Mercy Published by Avon, £6.99.

David Kessler - MercyIt's hard to sit still when your client is scheduled to die in 15 hours. As he makes an 11th hour plea for mercy, lawyer Alex Sedaka is resigned to the fact that Clayton Burrows will be executed. Charged with the rape and murder of 18-year-old classmate Dorothy Olsen - a girl he mercilessly bullied and victimised at school - the case seems cut and dry. But then the victim's mother makes an astonishing offer - clemency in return for the whereabouts of her daughter's body before she herself dies of the terminal disease ravaging her body. Alex must now convince Clayton to come clean - but he still protests his innocence. Is this another one of Clayton's games to or is he an innocent man about to be condemned to death? 

David Kessler dropped out of school at the age of 15 and was self-educated from then on. He struggled for 25 years to become a published author before finally making his breakthrough with A Fool for a Client, a legal thriller set in New York. This was followed up by The Other Victim, Tarnished Heroes and Reckless Justice. He also courted controversy by co-writing Who Really Killed Rachel (about the Wimbledon Common murder) with Colin Stagg, the man who was falsely accused of the crime. The book is now out of print, but since then, the real murderer - who was named in the book - has been convicted of the crime. He lived in Jerusalem for 20 years but has now returned to England. 

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