One of the most visited cities in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank is Bethlehem. It’s a short 30-minute bus ride from Jerusalem, and whether you’re staying overnight or not, the small town of Bethlehem is ideal for one day of sightseeing. These are some of the things not to miss.
The Church of the Nativity
For being in an area that is 85% Muslim, Bethlehem is one of the most Christian cities you’ll ever visit. This is in part because the Church of the Nativity was erected on the ground where Jesus was born. The streets leading up to the church are full of stores selling crosses and depictions of the nativity scene. The church itself is one of Bethlehem’s top attractions, so as you can imagine, the lines to enter the church and especially the underground nativity alcove can be long. During peak hours, you might wait up to 2 hours to see this little room:
One workaround is to go very late in the day. The Church of the Nativity is open until 7:30 pm during the summer and until 5 pm in the winter months. Since most visitors coming to Bethlehem are usually part of day tours, the site gets slammed in the morning and the afternoon by large tour groups. But about half an hour before it closed, we strolled right in with no wait and were able to visit the Grotto of the Nativity with no line. Very early in the day is also an ideal time to visit, but note that it opens at 5:30 am and 6:30 am in the winter and summer, respectively.
Chapel of the Milk Grotto
Just around the corner from the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square (shown above) is another significant Christian church in Bethlehem: the Chapel of the Milk Grotto. This church is important for being the site where the Holy family took refuge during the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” According to the bible, it is here that Virgin Mary was nursing Jesus, when a drop of milk fell and turned the stone floor white. Visiting is believed to enhance fertility.
Banksy’s street art
Jesus used to be the number one reason for tourism in Bethlehem, but since Banksy moved in and turned the Israeli-Palestinian border wall into his personal canvas, that’s all changed. To date, there are at least a dozen preserved Banksy works in Bethlehem. One of the easiest to find is a dove wearing a bulletproof vest on the wall of the Palestinian Heritage Center. You’ll find the iconic Flower Thrower, about a 25 minute walk from the Church of the Nativity on Ash Salon St on the side of a gas station wall. It’s not searchable on Google Maps, but it’s a few buildings past Shepherd’s Field Apartments which is.
Other Banksy works are scattered around the border wall including the Girl with Balloons and Leila Khalid, a figure of the Palestinian liberation effort. Many others are within walking distance from the Walled Off Hotel, including “Make Hummus Not Walls” and two cherubs prying the wall open.
The Walled Off Hotel
Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel is an attraction in and of itself as almost all the art in the hotel is his own design. There are clever sculptures, paintings, and easy to miss details all over the hotel, where you can enjoy afternoon tea along with a recital performed on a “haunted piano” by popular musicians. The hotel also features a small museum that gives a little bit of background about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and how the border wall has affected the local population.
If you want to add your own street art to the wall, an adjacent “Wall Mart” provides spray paint, ladder rentals, and even expert assistance creating graffiti stencils. The wall is covered in graffiti, some political, some humorous, and it’s worth taking a good long walk around the perimeter to check it all out.
The city of Bethlehem itself
You might think that Bethlehem is just a couple of churches and some street art, but like Jerusalem, it’s a really modern and gorgeous city. Many of the buildings are made of a beige stone giving the city a uniform look. Streets on the hilly city meander over and under each other, so it’s easy to take a staircase up and end up in a quaint alley or get a good view of the city.
Bethlehem is also a great place to try Palestinian cuisine. Small but beloved eateries like Afteem are where locals come for falafel. If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, you can take a cab to mountaintop restaurant Hosh Jasmin Jala Jungle, where you can find farm-to-table Palestinian delicacies like stuffed Mtabak pastries and roasted chicken dish, Musakhan.