(Last updated on: 02/04/2020)
Bethlehem, a Palestinian West Bank town south of Jerusalem, is an important destination for a lot of pilgrims and travellers. We visited during our tour through Israel and would absolutely recommend a visit, whether you’re religious or not (come on, did all of those nativity plays that you took part in as a kid not spark your interest a little bit!)!
Here’s our complete guide to visiting…
Getting to Bethlehem
At 66km away, Ben Gurion (TLV) is the closest airport to Bethlehem. Direct international flights reach this airport from a wide number of major cities worldwide: NYC, London, Paris and many more.
It is approximately a one hour drive to Bethlehem from Ben Gurion Airport. You can hire a car at the airport! Drive via Route 1. You might want to leave the car when you get close though and take the bus.
Bethlehem is still a contested territory and there remains to be uneasiness between Israel and Palestine. I experienced it during my trip when I saw several fights and was advised by the locals not to stay out after dark! So I wouldn’t take any risks when travelling in this region. We took the touristy bus, which I thought was the safest option.
If you do choose to reach Bethlehem via public transport, there are four different buses you will need to take, and here is the route:
- From Terminal 3 at the airport, take the x5 towards קרית שדה התעופה_קרית שדה תעופה
- After approximately 20 minutes, get off at the El-Al Junction
- From here, take the 947 towards ירושלים_התחנה המרכזית
- After around half an hour, you will reach Jerusalem Central Bus Station
- From here, take the 75 towards Homat Schumel
- After a 15 minute journey, alight at HaBankim Junction/Hevron Road
- From here, take the 231 towards גוש עציון_באב אל-זקאק
- Get off 20 minutes later at Bab El-Zakak/Beit Jala Road
- From here it is around 11 minutes to the centre of Bethlehem on foot
Taxis are not authorised to enter Bethlehem when coming from Ben Gurion. You can get a taxi to Jerusalem, and then another on to Bethlehem.
Things to see in Bethlehem
Bethlehem is heralded as the birthplace of Jesus. It is, therefore, a place of religious significance – and those who practise or are interested in the Christian religion will have a lot to see when visiting the town. Having said that, a day in Bethlehem is probably enough for any tourist.
Read also: Visiting Eilat, Israel: A complete guide
The Church of the Nativity (well, a grotto within it) is said to be the exact spot where Jesus was born. You will likely have to queue, but this is pretty much THE place to visit in terms of Christian pilgrimage. It is beautiful as well as significant, and has terraced gardens, original mosaic flooring and various convents to explore.
The Chapel of the Milk Grotto is a Catholic chapel. It takes its name from the story that sees the holy family (Mary, Joseph and Jesus) hiding in the chapel during the Massacre of the Innocents. As the tale goes, a drop of milk fell from Mary onto the floor of the cave and turned it white.
If you like scenery, Shepherd’s Field is the one. This stunning site is also, according to the gospel of Luke, the place where the angel announced the birth of Jesus. With soft, sloping hills and lush green land, it really is beautiful.
TIP: if you’re not looking to stay in Bethlehem itself, you can take a day trip from Jerusalem.
Solomon’s Pools are three ancient pools located just southwest of Bethlehem. Once part of an ancient water system, it is one of the oldest sites tourists can visit in the area. Legend says that King Solomon actually built the pools for his wives to bathe in!
Rachel’s Tomb is important to the Jewish faith. It is draped in a velvet cloth and surrounded by eleven stones to represent eleven of her sons – there is no stone to represent Benjamin, her twelve son, who’s birth she died during.
Other places to see in Bethlehem
The Palestinian Heritage Centre is home to a multure of authentic Palestinian items. Clothing, jewellery and home decor is lovingly crafted by local Palestinian woman, and profit from sold items goes to support families in need in Bethlehem.
The Old Bethlehem Museum offers a real insight into old Palestinian life and culture. You’ll find it within a typical 19th century Palestinian home, making the whole experience feel even more real. There is an embroidery centre upstairs, too!
Where to eat and drink in Bethlehem
Rewined is popular for its local drinks, shisha and terrace with a view – most visitors are people who live in the area, but you’ll be made to feel welcomed.
Nirvana Café is a student haunt, with a varied food/drink menu and Saturday karaoke.
Special Café offers home-baked cakes and pastries as well as excellent coffee if you need a bit of a caffeine fix in somewhere with a laid-back vibe.
Star & Bucks, poking fun at the well-known coffee chain found across the globe, is popular with tourists because it’s a good laugh. The coffee (and tea) is meant to be good there, though,and they have free WiFi if you happen to need it. I got excited for a moment when I saw this coffee shop thinking that I could purchase a new addition for my mug collection…. sadly not!
Afteem Restaurant offers traditional architecture and even more traditional food: falafel and hummus.
Fawda Café & Restaurant is on everybody’s list. Owned by chef Fadi Kattan, the restaurant is part of a boutique hotel. There is a four-course set menu and exquisite Palestinian wine. Booking is absolutely essential here.
Where to stay in Bethlehem
Herodian Guesthouse, located 700m from the Church of the Nativity, offers single, double and family rooms. It has free WiFi and private parking, outdoor seating and eating areas, city and mountain views and more. Restaurants and markets are nearby, and it is within easy reach of a lot of the popular tourist sites.
Al Salam Hotel is in the centre of Bethlehem. With a bright and colourful interior and plenty of things to see/do nearby, this is a great choice. The hotel offers single, double, twin and triple rooms; there is free WiFi, air-conditioning, free public parking, a restaurant on site and so much more.
House of Peace is more of a hostel. There are private rooms and dormitories, but all bathrooms are shared. Past visitors praise the cleanliness of the hostel, which has comfortable beds, free WiFi and parking, a shared kitchen, outdoor seating spaces and more.
If you’re after an apartment, check out Giovanni Apartment. It sleeps 7, so is ideal for big group trips. There is a garden, free WiFi and a small kitchenette. On-site parking is available if you are driving, too.
So there’s your complete guide to visiting Bethlehem, bible town turned tourist hotspot that attracts around 4 million visitors per year!