The Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, is a significant Christian landmark. It is the main attraction in Bethlehem and we really enjoyed visiting during our trip to Israel and Palestine. Read on to find out all you need to know about visiting the church.
What is the Church of the Nativity?
The Church of the Nativity is a large basilica, currently owned by three church authorities. It contains a grotto (or cave) where Jesus is said to have been born. This grotto is also the oldest continually used site of Christian worship. For this reason, the site is incredibly significant for those making religious pilgrimages, or those who are interested in religion (and the history of it) as a concept.
New windows have recently been installed alongside some structural repairs on the roof, and new discoveries have been made as recently as 2016. This was when Italian restoration workers found a mosaic angel. It had previously been hidden under plaster. There are seven of these angels, and you can read more about them here.
Read also: Visiting Eilat, Israel: A complete guide
How to get to the Church of the Nativity
The church is close to the centre of Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank of Palestine. You can walk to Manger Square easily, which is where the Church of the Nativity is located.
To visit the church if you’re not staying in Bethlehem, day trips are available. You can book a tour that leaves from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. If you are more of a DIY traveller, here are the other ways you can get to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity.
Note that bus stops in Bethlehem are located around 15 minutes walk way from the church, and there is some parking available nearby.
Jerusalem to the Church of the Nativity
- If you have hired a car, it takes approximately 30 minutes to drive to Bethlehem. Drive via the Hebron Road.
- A tourist shuttle bus can take you from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (this is the route that we took). There is one each day, at 3.30pm – it leaves to return to Jerusalem at 5.30pm.
- A public bus from the East Jerusalem Bus Station goes to Bethlehem. Service is frequent. However, there is no official timetable for this bus so tourists have to play it by ear if this is your chosen method of transport. The journey usually takes around an hour, and costs 5 NIS.
Tel Aviv to the Church of the Nativity
- The drive is approximately 1.5 hours. The most straightforward way to drive is via Route 443.
- Public transport is slightly more tricky. Getting to Bethlehem from Tel Aviv will take just over 2 hours by bus, but involves taking the 405 from the 6th floor of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. From there the 74 bus takes you to Hevron Road/Bar’am, where you must swap to the 231 and get off on Beit Jala Road. From here, it’s just over 10 minutes walk into the city.
Read also: Visiting a war zone: Israel and Palestine
Things to see at the Church of the Nativity
The church itself is awe-inspiring. The exterior is exactly what you might imagine when you picture visiting the area where Jesus was born, and the inside is beautiful. There are many points of interest within the church, especially for Christians and those interested in the Christian faith.
The Door of Humility is the tiny door you enter the church through. Crusaders made the original door a lot smaller, so that attackers wouldn’t be able to enter the church on horseback. Nobody knows when but it was made smaller again – possibly during the Ottoman or Mamluk eras.
Wooden trap doors allow a glimpse at the original 4th century flooring. It was rediscovered in 1934. Made up of mosaics, it’s a sight to see! There are large limestone columns in the nave of the church which are also part of the original structure.
The Grotto of the Nativity is at the front of the nave. This is said to be the actual area where Jesus himself was born. A 14-pointed silver star marks the exact spot.
TIP: the queue to see the grotto will be long. The quietest time to visit is around midday during the week.
To one side of the grotto lies the Chapel of the Manger. This represents the scene of the nativity itself. To the other side of the grotto you’ll find the Altar of the Adoration of the Magi. This was built to commemorate the visit of Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior, and is the reason why the church and grotto were untouched by the Persians. Apparently they saw the depiction of the magi in their own native costume, and left the area alone.
There are also the aforementioned seven mosaic angels to see within the church. As well as these there are caves and statues and tombs, and even other buildings immediately surrounding the church which you can visit.
TIP: the church is open from 6.30am-7.30pm during the summer months, and 5.30am-6pm during the winter. The grotto itself is closed on Sunday mornings.
Tourist etiquette at the Church of the Nativity
Remember that this is a holy place and that there are certain behaviours or dress codes that you must adhere too. Here is a photo that I took of the instructions for visitors.
Places to stay near the Church of the Nativity
If you’re travelling on a budget I recommend the The Habibi Hostel. It is the closest accommodation to the Church of the Nativity. It offers dormitories or double/twin rooms. There is free WiFi and free public parking as well as a pool, live music, movie nights, a shared kitchen and 24 hour check-in. Clean and spacious with great city views, the hostel is a three minute walk to the church.
For those travelling on a mid-range budget there is The Herodian Guesthouse. This accommodation has private rooms – single rooms, family rooms, suites and more. There is free WiFi, free private parking, city and mountain views, air-conditioning and many other amenities. At only 800m from the Church of the Nativity, it also only takes a couple of minutes to walk there from this accommodation.
For something slightly unique, Dar Sitti Aziza is a guesthouse that has a traditional feel to it. With various sizes of private rooms, all with their own bathrooms and stunning exposed brick walls, it makes for a pleasant stay. There is free WiFi, a terrace, housekeeping, air-conditioning and more!
For more accommodation options and to see what’s available on your travel dates, take a look at the map below.
There’s our guide to visiting the Church of the Nativity – enjoy your trip!