How to visit Bethlehem as a day trip
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Hoping the queue would be shorter in the morning, we rushed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to see the Rock of Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre, before heading to Bethlehem. In the end we still queued 40min for Rock of Calvary and 2 hours to be admitted to Holy Sepulchre.
Getting into Bethlehem
We were not sure of Bethlehem during the planning. It is just 8 km outside Jerusalem within the Palestinian controlled West Bank area. Most tourists would take local tours because of security concerns. Have doubled checked with tourist office, we were convinced that we could make our own way there.
There are two bus systems in Jerusalem. The Israeli ones are run by Egged and usually in green. They serve all the areas in Jerusalem and accept Rav-Kav card. Palestinian buses operates under a completely separate system. They look different, and do not accept Rav-Kav card. To go to West Bank areas like Bethlehem, we need to get the bus departing from East Jerusalem central bus station.
After some looking around, we found our Bus 231. We were the very few tourists on the bus besides Palestinian locals. In less than an hour, the bus stopped outside the Bethlehem old city. Several taxis were already waiting there for business. Judging from Google map, the walk to Manger Square(the center of Bethlehem) didn’t look too long. We ignored the long walk warnings from the taxi drivers (hoping to get a customer) and walked straight towards the old city.
The city is very lively. Products and goods piled up high in shops and the streets were full of people. It has similar busy atmosphere of a bustling Arabic city, but again, the shopkeepers were quite polite and restrained. Soon we reached the Manger Square, the focal point of the city where all the major tourist sights located.
The Church of Nativity
Our first stop is the Church of Nativity, built over the cave believed to be Christ’s birthplace. One must bow low to enter the 1.2m stone entrance. It was lowered intentionally to stop looters from driving their carts into the church in the 15th Century. The church’s interior looks very old. The huge hall is supported by giant marble column and covered with timber roof. All the columns and floors were once decorated with beautiful murals and mosaics with remains still to be seen today. The steps down to the grotto are behind the altar. It is a small and crowded area filled with religious symbols, decorations and incent.
The Milk Grotto
A short walk from the Church of the Nativity is the Milk Grotto, a cave where the holy family once took refuge. Traditionally it is believed that a drop from Mary’s milk fell on the ground and turned the stones white. A modern chapel was built connecting to the grotto. It was very quiet when we arrive at the chapel. A couple were praying quietly inside cave. We waited for our turn to sit inside the cave and enjoyed the silence.
Back to Manger Square, it is now crowded with just arrived tourist groups. We then realized that we had just hit the lucky spot around noon when no tours would arrive, as most Bethlehem tours are half-day tours.
West Bank barrier
The last thing on our Bethlehem agenda is the West Bank barrier. It is a half hour walk along Manger street that circles around the old city. There were very few tourists and souvenir shops on the way, instead mostly local grocery stores, offices, and residential buildings. There were a couple of dessert shops, one of which we stopped and bought some very tasty Arabic desserts.
Suddenly we can see the West Bank barrier walls at the end of the street, with spikes and watchtowers against blue sky. To our surprise, it felt pretty calm here. Locals walked by as if it is just a normal street. The walls closer to the checkpoint were heavily graffiti-ed, especially around Bansky’s The Walled Off Hotel.
The checkpoint at the end of the street is a big military facility surrounded by high fences and wires. Surprisingly, passing the checkpoint to go back to Israel side was much easier than we expected. Maybe we were just lucky to arrive at a slow time. Inside the check point there wasn’t any queue. A soldier in the window checked out passport and let us passed in almost no time.
The Israel Museum
To top another busy day we headed to the Israel Museum after Bethlehem. We planned this visit on Tuesday when it opens till 9pm, to squeeze in as much as possible on our Jerusalem visit. The museum houses numerous treasures from the Dead Sea area including the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as a detailed model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period. It also has a beautiful sculpture garden, the Billy Rose Art Garden, presenting works from many famous artists like James Turrell and Ai Wei Wei. Both Todd and I are museum fans so we didn’t manage to leave till it closed.