Jerusalem fits a microcosm of the whole world into less than 50 square miles. Black-hatted Jews in long trench coats walk the streets of religious neighborhoods in hot desert weather; Israeli Arabs reverently approach the Dome of the Rock to offer prayers; devout Christians make pilgrimages to the places Jesus once inhabited; and immigrants from America, Ethiopia and the former Soviet republics form their own enclaves throughout the city's seven hills. Remnants of disparate historical eras are piled, one on top of the other, in an archaeologist's dream world -- ancient sites meet Roman ruins alongside reminders of modern Israel's tumultuous past. And, in the midst of these holy and historic areas, Israelis go to work, shop, eat out and hang out like citizens of any other city.
Most visitors come to Jerusalem to see the religious sites of the Old City. Hectic, don't-waste-a-minute tours rush visitors to the Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and then on to Bethlehem or one of Israel's famous museums (the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial or Israel Museum, home to the Dead Sea Scrolls). And, of course, a stop at a market or souvenir shop is a must. Jerusalem is a large city and if you don't allow yourself enough time here (ideally, at least three days), you will likely feel overwhelmed -- it's simply impossible to see everything at a leisurely pace in just a day.
Highlights for first-timers include the holy places of three important religions, such as the remains of the Jewish Second Temple, the site of Jesus' crucifixion and the spot where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Beyond the big-name sites, you can also enjoy the shops and cafe culture at the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall, haggling in the "Shuk" or visiting a number of first-rate museums. Out-of-town excursions include the beachside playground and cultural capital that is Tel Aviv, the dramatic yet melancholy ruins at Masada and the resorts by the Dead Sea.
One final note -- even as travelers eagerly flock to the Holy Land, many continue to be concerned about safety. Yes, terrorist attacks do occur in Israel. But, because of this, security measures are extensive and effective. Armed guards are plentiful, and your bags will be searched. Buses are as safe as in any modern nation. Don't let fear prevent you from enjoying this incredible city, which truly can offer something for everyone. Just put on your most comfortable walking shoes, charge the camera batteries, and be prepared to be wowed by a city that has rightly claimed more than its fair share of space in the history books.
--written by Erica Silverstein