Bethlehem was somewhere that we’d always wanted to visit and right at the top of our must see places in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. It wasn’t quite as we expected but we’re still really glad to have seen it for ourselves.
In our minds Bethlehem was a little more rustic than it is in real life, perhaps a little more atmospheric. The reality is that it’s a fairly modern city now but one that is very much worth visiting. As soon as you’re away from the border you’ll find incredibly friendly and welcoming people, and a likeable city that’s easily navigated on foot.
It is also home to one of the holiest sites in Christianity - the birthplace of Jesus - and you can visit the exact spot. You don’t have to be religious to enjoy a visit to Bethlehem either, it’s an interesting city in its own right.
As it is now part of the Palestinian Territories, a lot of people hold back from visiting unless it is part of a tour. Once you get there, you realise this isn’t necessary as you can quite easily visit Bethlehem on your own. Luckily we’ve detailed how to cross the border without the need of a tour or guide. Read on to find out how.
Things to know before visiting Bethlehem
You don’t need a tour, you can do it on your own
There are plenty of touts and people who will tell you at every step that you need a guide or someone to help (for an extortionate rate). You don’t need them as this is essentially a border crossing, like any other in the world. You can walk through and carry on the other side without a helper, a guide or anyone else. You’ll be surprised at how simple it really is for one of the most contentious areas in the world!
You’ll also be told that everything is miles apart. The truth is that Bethlehem is tiny and only has four major sights, all of which are within walking distance. The idea of paying $50 to be taken 4km is absurd.
Bring your passport
Before you go, pack your passport. Everywhere in Bethlehem accepts shekels and operates just the same as in Jerusalem, there’s just a massive wall between the two areas. You won’t need to show it crossing over from Jerusalem to Bethlehem but you will to get back into Jerusalem again.
Most rental cars cannot be taken into Palestine
It is highly unlikely if you are driving a rental car in Israel that you will be allowed to take it into Palestine. We didn’t hear of any companies that allowed this. If you’re visiting independently that means that you will either need to hire a driver on the Israeli side (which we don’t recommend) or walk over the border yourself.
Read next: How to find the iconic Dead Sea Tree
How to cross from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on your own
Where to cross the border
It’s staggering that Google Maps doesn’t mark the border wall or crossing and you could easily think you can simply drive to Bethlehem from Jerusalem without crossing the wall. Interestingly enough, you can do Google Street view on the Palestinian side, but not the Israeli….
Anyway, the border crossing we took is on Hebron Road and it is marked below.
Where to park
You can leave your car at the patch of dirt by the border (there will be other cars there). It’s free and there isn’t a time limit, but you will have some taxi drivers trying the heavy sell to take you across to Bethlehem and back. You don’t need to take them, the border crossing is literally 30 seconds from the car park (on the opposite side of the road, you can’t miss it) and then you can either walk a couple of kilometres or take a local taxi.
Walking through the border is easy
People worry about this crossing but it is honestly nothing to worry about (if anything it’s a lot easier than anywhere else in the world). Going from Jerusalem into Bethlehem is as simple as walking through a turnstile. It took less than a minute and there was no one checking documents.
Getting back into Jerusalem takes a fraction longer. You will need to show your passport and the little printed document you get when entering Israel (so that you do not have an Israeli stamp in your passport). You will also go through airport security style scanners. Despite this it only took a matter of minutes.
Ignore the taxi mafia on the Palestinian side
There is taxi mafia on both sides of the border and both are trying to fleece you. If you are going to take a taxi we’d recommend hiring on the Palestinian side as Israel has far more tourists and opportunities for taxi drivers to make money than Palestine does.
However, that said do not hire from the guys who hang around at the wall on the Palestinian side as sadly they are aggressive (borderline abusive) and trying to milk as much money from you as they can. We were shouted at and followed for a while and things got unfriendly because we refused to pay US $50 for a short ride into town.
We were told we were ‘no better than the Jews’ and to be honest it was a nasty situation. Don’t engage even to start with, politely decline when they start trying to sell to you and start walking away as quickly as you can.
Taxi rides into the city should cost no more than 15-20 shekels
Keep walking away from the border and the hoard of taxis, and after 20-30 metres the normal taxi drivers will appear, offering you a ride for around 20 shekels (we’re sure this isn’t the local rate but it was an amount we were happy to pay).
We’d recommend only requesting a drop-off to Manger Square as you don’t need to be driven around the main sites at Bethlehem. It is a tiny place and exploring on foot is the only real way you’ll get to see something of it. It’s worth knowing you can actually walk to the old city from the border in around 30 minutes too. We did this on the way back and, though it isn’t a pleasant walk, it does have its advantages. Along the way you can take a good look at the wall and also some of Banksy’s art (details below).
What to see when you get to Bethlehem
That’s the stressful part over, now you can enjoy the small city of Bethlehem (which isn’t quite so small anymore).
There is actually less to see in Bethlehem than you might think and that’s another reason we recommend walking around the sites yourself and soaking up a bit of the city rather than getting driven a few hundred metres between each one. You can happily cover Bethlehem in half a day or stay over night to take your time and experience a bit more of Palestine.
Church of the Nativity
The main attraction in the city is undoubtedly the Church of the Nativity. As the name eludes to, this church was built in 326 by Constantine (the first Christian Roman Emperor) to commemorate the birthplace of Jesus. On the outside it looks like a relatively humble church and for somewhere so significant it is quite surprising to see a structure that is a lot smaller than hundreds of Cathedrals across Europe.
To enter you’ll be forced to bow as the entry way is incredibly low down. This is intentional, humbling all visitors by forcing them to bow down as they enter the birthplace of Christ. There was a lot of renovations going on when we visited, but the humility of the building continues inside with a wooden ceiling and whitewashed wall. There are some golden mosaics and chandeliers, but compared to places such as Barcelona Cathedral, this celebration of Christ is quite toned down.
The main reason to visit is to go underground to the grotto where the exact spot Jesus was born is located. It is marked by a silver star on the ground and inspires many people to kneel down, touch it and pray.
There are a few other spots to explore, including the mosaic murals on the ceiling of the main chapel, the church of St Catherine and the Medieval Cloisters.
Getting to the Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity is in the centre of Bethlehem at Manger Square. Just look for the white church with an Armenian flag on it!
The Milk Chapel
We weren’t major fans of the Milk Chapel but it is one of the main sites and therefore definitely worth going to check it out for yourself. Legend has it this is somewhere that Mary and Joseph stopped as they were fleeing to Egypt and a drop of milk touched the stone which turned it white.
It’s popular with new mothers and those trying to conceive who believe it can improve the quality of their milk or help them to become pregnant. The chapel in itself is fairly pretty but all the breast feeding pictures felt a little strange to us!
Getting to the Milk Chapel
The Milk Chapel is around the corner from the Church of the Nativity and should take five minutes to walk to. Walking back to Manger Square, take a left and you’ll start seeing signs.
The Panoramic Viewpoint
This is the best way to get an overall look at the city from above. It’s a huge rooftop that belongs to the olive wood shop just before the Milk Chapel. You’ll see it advertised on the street. It’s accessed by a couple of rickety staircases.
We really enjoyed the view up here. It is advertised as being US$1 to get up there but my sister had bought some christmas tree decorations from the shop so they wouldn’t take any money from us to go up.
Getting to the Panoramic Viewpoint
The viewpoint is on the rooftop of one of the shops by the Milk Chapel. Start walking back towards Manger Square and you’ll see a sign on your left at the olive wood carvers.
Wandering through the old streets
A shop owner said to us you haven’t seen Bethlehem if you don’t wander through the old city. So we did. And while we wouldn’t quite agree that it’s an absolute must, we did enjoy seeing another side to the city, a more local experience away from the majority of tourist trinket sellers.
It doesn’t take long to walk through the main part of the old city from Manager Square, just start heading up the hill and through the market stalls. You won’t find any hassle here and it’s a a nice way to finish off a trip to Bethlehem.
If you want to walk back to the wall via Banky’s art this is the way to go, if you want to get a taxi back to the wall you will be offered much better prices here and you should quickly be able to haggle your way to the correct fare.
Bethlehem is a favourite place for the secretive street artist and it’s pretty clear which side of the Palestine/Israel conflict he falls on. His art is designed to bring light to what is happening here, intentionally painting on the wall partition to protest the treatment of the Palestinians. In Banksy’s view, the Palestinians are under-persecution (obviously it is much more nuanced than that). His art is his protest using comedy or playing with pre-conceptions to make his point.
Before arriving in Bethlehem we had no idea that there were four pieces of Banky art around the city. It seems that when the world famous artist visited he inspired many copycats, with the molotov cocktail/flowers protester piece being painted in many places around the city. However, you can still see some of the genuine ones quite easily, especially if you intend to walk back to the border crossing.
The soldier being frisked
The first Banksy you’ll see is the soldier being frisked by a small child. It’s clear that this is an act of protest against what’s been happening in the West Bank and a comedic role-reversal of what could be happening in this part of the world.
Nowadays, the art is “protected” by a shop that has been built around this piece. Whilst a lot of the graffiti around the wall has been defaced, it is quite obvious that the glass and the shop around it is a way to make a bit of money out of the tourists wanting to see it. We don’t really blame them!
Getting to the Soldier/Girl
The first piece of art is easy to find. Go to the Banksy Shop marked below and you’ll find the art!
The Armoured Dove
Another famous one is the Armoured Dove, which is a pretty large piece of art. Whilst it is quite clear that this is another protest piece against the Israelis, the use of the Dove & Olive Branch - part of the story of Noah’s Ark - makes this a Jewish reference.
Add to this the armoured jacket and crosshairs, and it’s clear that Banksy feels that the peaceful people here are being indiscriminately targeted, especially as it is painted next to a “Welcome to Palestine, Welcome to Bethlehem” sign.
Getting to the Armoured Dove
Be careful with this one as it is very close to a busy junction (and the drivers here won’t stop for you!). You can see the spot on the map below and it is opposite a ghastly watch tower, covered in paint. From here it is a 10-15 minute walk back to the border crossing.
It’s impossible to talk about Bethlehem without talking about the huge wall that divides the West Bank from Israel. This imposing structure twists and turns a lot, cutting off certain streets and even places like Rachel’s Tomb (something we thought was on the Palestinian side!).
We understand the need for protection and Israelis should not have to live in fear of, or endure, terrorist attacks, but the construction of this wall that Palestinians can’t cross, seems to be indiscriminately imprisoning the people in the West Bank. It ensures that they cannot visit the holy sites in Jerusalem or anywhere else - a recipe for resentment and more trouble?
You can see why this wall has become a canvas for protest and there is some really interesting grafitti worth seeing. All the art is on the Palestinian side as the Israeli side is completely bare.
You’ll get a reasonable look at the wall if you drive from the border to the city but there is actually quite a lot to take in and it’s worth a stop.
The wall is covered in art or graffiti depending on how you view it and lots of it is very current, with huge pictures of both Donald Trump hugging the wall, proclaiming “I will make you a brother” and Mark Zuckerberg not understanding his hoarding of data.
There are some really weird art pieces of Morgan Freeman speaking as Nelson Mandela, Larry David as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as Eminem’s Stan.
Where to stay in Bethlehem
The accommodation options in Bethlehem aren’t the best, but if you want to stay around this unique area and take it all in once the crowds have gone there are a few choices, albeit pretty basic. Most hotels in Bethlehem seem to cater for pilgrimage groups.
Top Pick - Guesthouse Dar Sitti Aziza
Dar Sitti comes with rave reviews, but it is on the pricey side! However, you’ll get pristine rooms that are comfortable. Thumbs up go to the owner who is really friendly and goes out of his way to help.
The Walled Off Hotel
The Walled Off Hotel is a quirky, but artistic place. Situated literally next to the border wall, this hotel has comfortable, spacious rooms in a unique, artistic style. This place doesn’t take itself too seriously either as it markets itself as having “the worst hotel view in the world”!
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Are you planning a trip to Bethlehem? Would you go on your own? Let us know in the comments below!