Best Things to do in Jerusalem for a First Timer

Things to do in Jerusalem

Jerusalem is one of the oldest and holiest cities on earth gathering three of the world’s major religions in one place. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all share this holy epicenter and each year people from all different backgrounds flock here on pilgrimages to experience and witness this holy capital.

This was our first visit to the holy city and we were blown away by all the beautiful, historical, and amazing things to do in Jerusalem. Neither Scott or I are very religious people and felt the power of all different religions being able to share this small area. We also realized there are plenty of things to do in Jerusalem for those who aren’t here for solely religious reasons too. Did you know Jerusalem has an awesome nightlife scene?

Check out our guide for best things to do in Jerusalem for a first timer!

Spend at least an entire day in Old City

Jerusalem Old CityYou may even need to spend more than a day exploring the walls of Old City. This is the heart of Christianity, Judaism, and Muslim faiths. You will be able to witness the unique place where all three religions get along enough to share the same space in peace. Not to mention getting lost through the lively Old City markets connecting the four different quarters of Old City. You need at least a day to spend here if you’re short on time consider taking a tour with a guide to save time, but our favorite part of Old City was exploring on our own.

Dome of the Rock Jerusalem Old CityPoints of interest include each of the four quarters, Jewish, Christian, Armenian, and Muslim quarters. Within the quarters you will find the Holy Church of the Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter, the Wailing Wall in the Jewish Quarter, and the Dome of the Rock in the Muslim Quarter.

Tower of David CitadelWeave your way through the Old City markets and be sure to check out the Tower of David citadel for a guided tour and an epic view of all of Old City from the tower.

Undoubtedly visiting Old City is one of the best things to do in Jerusalem, check out our post on Old City for more details.

Experience the Tower of David Night Spectacular

The Tower of David is worth taking a tour on with a guide to learn the incredible history of this ancient citadel in the heart of Jerusalem. We weren’t expecting ourselves to be so deeply interested in the history inside these walls but were blown away by our guide’s stories. You also get epic panoramic views of Old City and Jerusalem’s modern city.

At night you can sit and enjoy an incredibly artistic rendition of the complete history of the Tower of David citadel through a 45 minute light and sound show illuminating the entire span of the interior walls. We really didn’t know what to expect but were blown away and felt like the description of the Tower of David Night Spectacular did no justice for what you actually experience.

This activity is great for people of all ages! Be sure to dress accordingly for the weather though, you will be sitting outdoors to enjoy the show!

To learn more and book your tickets check out the Tower of David’s website.

Check out the Mahane Yehuda Market

Mahane Yehuda Market in JerusalemDo not visit this city without checking out the Mahane Yehuda Market, this was one of our favorite things to do in Jerusalem as well. The market, or shuk, is chocked full of over 250 vendors selling produce, cheese, halva, spices, meats, nuts, seeds, wine, and even textiles to name a few. You will want to make sure you come on an empty stomach so you can sample your way through the place and try some falafel or hummus at the various eateries inside. The market is vibrant and full of life, we found ourselves coming here a few times to just explore and eat.

Mahane Yehuda Market

Halva a delicious local dessert

Be sure to check out the Mahane Yehuda Market both during the day and at night.

After dark the markets close and the shut doors of where the vendors once were are paintings by local artist Solomon Souza.  He has helped turn the famous shuk into an open air art gallery by night. Not only is there incredibly art to admire but the night scene begins to come to life with tiny bars and restaurants making this one of the trendiest places to spend an evening in Jerusalem.

Enjoy the Night Life

Wine in JerusalemBesides having a bite to eat and a few beers at the Mahane Yehuda Market there is actually a fairly good night club and bar scene in the holy city believe it or not! We ended up doing a pub crawl with Abraham Hostel which is an awesome option to get to experience the nightlife scene if you’re not sure where to go or are new to the city, which being a visitor we totally were! Our favorite spot in the night ended up being Video Pub, the only gay bar in Jerusalem and we danced the night away until the wee hours of the morning.

Check out their site to find out more about Abraham Tours Pub Crawl.

Experience Shabbat

Jerusalem during Shabbat

The Place turns into a Ghost town during Shabbat

Neither of us has ever experienced Shabbat, but we can say if you have you have never experienced Shabbat like you would in Jerusalem. The entire city literally shuts down and makes you feel like you are in some sort of apocalypse movie. We walked the eerily empty streets on a Friday evening talking about how crazy empty the city looked and felt. Public transport stops completely and people are indoors doing their weekly Shabbat dinner with their families. We didn’t realize we were pretty much out of luck for dinner until we were told we could find a few places open on Shabbat.

Shabbat runs from late Friday afternoon until Saturday evening. If you’re not in on the Shabbat fun then you may feel lost of where to go and what to eat, as a matter of fact, local authorities penalize any mini marts who stay open during Shabbat. But no fear, there are some places still open during Shabbat, although it takes a little more effort to find. Or you can even find a place that lets tourists join in on the Shabbat experience like Abraham Hostel.

Be sure to take a moment to walk the streets and notice the vast emptiness during Shabbat in Jerusalem though!

Fun Fact! You can’t get away from Shabbat even at hotels! Elevators use “Shabbat mode” which means the elevator stops at every floor so that the person inside does not have to touch the buttons. Also, at our breakfast buffet, the toasters were missing on Shabbat. According to the rules of Shabbat, one is not supposed to work at all, including cooking or using electronics during these two days every week, including touching the elevator buttons and toasting bread! Check out this article if you want to see more of the rules of Shabbat.

Visit the West Bank

West Bank WallWhen you come to Israel you should make a point to visit the West Bank. This sanctioned off area is one of the two areas, the other being the Gaza Strip, considered Palestinian territory under the rule of Israel and Palestine and the heart of the conflict between these two groups of people. However, we found the western media to favor one side over the other. The West Bank is safe to visit and worth seeing and experiencing for yourself.

Dead Sea Day Trip

West Bank

The West Bank is also beautiful

We went twice, once with an Abraham Tours to see Jericho, Ramallah, and Bethlehem and the other time was a DIY Dead Sea road trip with a rental car. Both times we felt incredibly safe and it was an eye-opening experience. We learned a lot from our Palestinian guide and had the experience to walk around alone and make judgments for ourselves.

West Bank Tour Bethlehem

Friendly guys in Bethlehem

There are two sides to every story and the conflict between Palestine and Israel is not black and white, it’s very complicated. We aren’t asking you to take sides, but to just go and experience it for yourself. It’s not a dangerous terrorist zone, the West Bank is full of friendly faces and people just like you and me.

There are plenty of tour options available, we recommend going with Abraham Tours. 

Also if you have time there is the Israel Museum to check out, if you don’t have time or want to learn more check out these Israel Museum highlights.

 Did we miss any of the best things to do in Jerusalem? Let us know in the comments below!

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Things to do in Jerusalem for First Timers

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  • Tamara Elliott (Globe Guide)

    This is such a great guide (and gorgeous photos!). I was supposed to visit Israel but unfortunately the trip got cancelled due to unrest in Egypt that affected our flight- I’d love to try and make it happen!

    • Thanks! Oh dang, sorry to hear that! You should try to go back!

  • Chrysoula Manika

    Jerusalem certainly seems like a city I would love to visit. I am intrigued by places with so much history. I would love to do a tour of Davis’s Tower too.

    • It really is beautiful and perfect for history buffs! The Tower of David is amazing! Incredible views and a killer night light and sound show!

  • Melody Pittman

    So many fascinating facts learned about Jerusalem! I had no idea. The Shabbat is seriously business when you are frowned upon for pushing elevator buttons. Wow! That is shocking. I think i had halva once in Istanbul and if so, it was fabulous. I would of course like to do the historic sites, and while I am not the most religious person, being baptized there would be super cool.

    • Haha if you’re not Jewish you can certainly press elevator buttons but they don’t work in the “shabbat” elevator! I found myself perplexed and frustrated at why I was stopping at EVERY floor and the buttons weren’t working in one of the hotels (we were on the 10th floor so you can imagine how long it took!)

  • The “Shabbat mode” on the elevator is an interesting touch.

    My favorite would probably be the market as well; they’re always among my favorite places to visit anywhere I go. A great place to experience a real slice of life.

    • I agree! Markets are always full of energy and vibes and local culture!

  • Jenna

    So many great suggestions! Jerusalem would be a very interesting city to visit. I’d love to head to the West Bank to learn more about what is going on in the area firsthand. The Old City looks really pretty and like a perfect spot to wander around! Love the detail of the tiles on the Dome of the Rock, too–how pretty!

    • The Dome of the Rock is very impressive! I wish we had more time to spend in the West Bank, we want to go back and do a dual narrative tour where half the day is spent with an Israeli guide and the other half with a Palestinian guide!

  • megan_claire

    I would really love to visit Jerusalem – I’m torn about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, though think it would be worthwhile to personally visit the space. And I was raised very Catholic, so all of the biblical points of interest from my up bringing are on the list 🙂

    • This is an amazing place to visit if you grew up with a religious background, even though neither of us are religious we both felt moved by each place that had major religious significance and the people there who it clearly meant alot to! The conflict is tough, but we tried our best to be open to both sides by making sure we visited Palestine too. You end up leaving confused and with tons of empathy for all those affected by the conflict no matter what side.

  • I really wanted to visit Jerusalem and even got a scholarship to study there for a year but it was at a time when it was really unsafe and therefore I made the very difficult choice and turned it down. Having read this though, I really would like to go one day soon.

    • That must have been a tough call, but safety should always be first. You should totally visit one day!

  • Kimanis Ome

    I’d really love to visit Jerusalem for the culture and history. I’m quite intrigued with how the modern elements and the contrast between the old and new. Your pictures do a lovely job of bringing the city to life, especially the architecture and food!. Hope to visit someday soon.

  • Great tips – I’d absolutely love exploring the Old City and would probably prefer two days. Jerusalem is just SO high on my bucket list. Bookmarking this post for the future, thanks for sharing! Great photos too.

    • It’s totally worth a visit! I would recommend at least a day if not more just for Old City and at least a full day in West Bank.