A Bethlehem day trip will let you explore the city and its outskirts well. Bethlehem, the historic city emerges right from the tales of the Bible, where Christ the Lord, appeared in this mortal world of humans. It will most certainly take you back to the historic times and leave you enthralled.
As a traveller, have you ever imagined what would it be like to experience the place the birth site of Christ? What would it be like to explore the region where a faith practised by 2.4 billion people globally i.e. Christianity, started? Well, I imagined it and hence planned on taking a day trip to Bethlehem – The Holy Land.
A lot of us during our school days have sung and heard carols naming the holy city of Bethlehem and the Lord – the Saviour. We grew up hearing great fables of the place. After all, it is a region that marked the beginning of an era, the birthplace of Jesus Christ who later founded Christianity.
Bethlehem is a great place for travelers and a real heaven for history buffs. However, modern geography and political indifferences around the region have weakened its tourism. But it does not mean that you cannot venture out there and re-discover the place on your own.
A well-planned Bethlehem day trip will prove to be not only an enriching experience but will be cherished by you forever.
Bethlehem Day Trip: A Travelogue
Bethlehem day trip can be planned at any time of the year but it is better to plan it in winter, or specifically on the eve of Christmas. It is during this time that people from different nationalities gather here to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
It is advised not to arrange a trip if there is any conflict going on between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Follow the international mandates in this regard.
Visiting Bethlehem will be like visiting a place that bears traces from the medieval era. It is like going back to the past. The Christmas celebration, on the other hand, will be one of the most cosmopolitan gatherings that you will experience (just as I did). Such a gathering encompasses a celebration of a celestial event.
This is noteworthy keeping in view the political situations and conflicts.
A Bethlehem Day Trip: An Overview
|Visiting Place: Bethlehem|
|How do I get there?: You have to travel through Israel|
|Visa requirements: Once you are in Israel, only international passports will be good enough to visit Bethlehem|
|Currency used: Jordanian Dinar or US Dollar can be used. However, since you are travelling from Israel, you can use Israeli Shekel (ILS)|
|Is staying recommended?: A Bethlehem day trip is good to explore the place. However, if you are visiting during Christmas, it is recommended that you stay overnight on Christmas Eve.|
|Budget staying options: There are good hostels and homestays.|
|Best time to visit: Visit around Christmas.|
|Food options: Arab food (Pitta, falafel, kebabs, maqluba) and other options like the Mediterranean and other popular cuisines are available. Vegetarian-friendly restaurants are also available.|
Safety conditions: Avoid travelling if there is political turmoil going on between Israel and Palestine. Follow international countries’ warnings. In general, Bethlehem is safe. But avoid travelling alone.
Getting To Bethlehem
For travelling to Bethlehem, the first and foremost criterion is that you must be in Israel. The best option would be to club your day trip to Bethlehem with a tour to Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel. Jerusalem is a very important place with respect to world culture and religion.
To reach Bethlehem, one will need to cross international borders, and hence an international passport is necessary. There can be checkpoints at the borders where checking might go on for security reasons.
Bethlehem lies about 10 kilometres south of Jerusalem and can be reached in a few ways as mentioned in the table below.
|Arab bus: It is possible to take an Arab bus (or shared van) which commutes between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This bus starts in front of Damascus Gate in the old city of Jerusalem and takes you to Beit Jala in Bethlehem.
Approximate cost: Around 5 ILS one-way
|Egged Bus: One can take an Egged bus which leaves the central bus station in Jerusalem and reaches the tomb of Rachel. A further taxi ride will be required to reach Bethlehem.
Approximate cost: Around 7 ILS one-way
|Taxi: A Private taxi can be hired for a Bethlehem day trip from Jerusalem. In this case, you have to ensure that the taxi has official permission to travel across the Palestinian borders. The best way is to ask the hotel to arrange one. Negotiations on the price should be done before the tour.
Approximate cost: More than 50 ILS one-way
Like many famous places, you will have several tour companies who offer different customized trips to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, but this will be generally a tad bit costly. The best budget tip here would be to use public transport instead of a taxi. Also, you might like to interact with fellow travellers. Travelling by public transport while crossing international borders can give an absorbing experience regarding the versatility of the region’s culture.
After You Reach Bethlehem
Once you reach Bethlehem, it is recommended to visit the Bethlehem Tourist Information Centre which is located at Manger Square in the heart of the city. The office is quite helpful and will guide you with maps and directions. You can also call or email them to gather information before you plan to take your Bethlehem day trip.
For visiting the sites in and around Bethlehem, I’d recommend that you hire a taxi for the day. Typically visiting all the sites during the Bethlehem day trip should cost around 200-250 ILS in a local taxi. Good negotiation is always advisable because sometimes the drivers can give an overprized quote. The best way is to ask the tourist information centre about it in advance.
Alternatively, you can also book a pre-assigned tour for the Bethlehem day trip. There are several guides who offer free and paid tours in and around Bethlehem.
What Places Should One Visit on a Day Trip to Bethlehem?
The places of visit in and around Bethlehem within a span of twenty-four hours are –
The Church of Nativity
The Chapel of the Milk Grotto
The Chapel of the Shepherd’s Field
Mosque of Omar
Mar Saba Monastery
The Manger Square
Once you are on your day trip to Bethlehem, I insist you first visit Manger Square.
Manger Square is the busiest point of the city and hosts all the major activities. The square is bustling with people from different strata and it is a good idea to get a feel of the place before you kick start the Bethlehem day trip.
Once you are at the square, you will easily spot the huge structure of the Church of the Nativity located on one side. As you enter this historic church you will be taken back in time to the medieval period.
The fragrance of the incense combined with dim light creates a magnificent ambience inside the church. The high ceilings and beautifully decorated chandeliers add to the magnanimity of the atmosphere.
|Narrow stairs from the main hall lead to the grotto, which is known to be the actual birthplace of Jesus Christ. Whether you are religious or not, the whole atmosphere will leave you spellbound. After visiting the grotto, visit the modern prayer hall built in recent times, which is the modern edition of the church.|
After visiting the church, take some time to visit the mosque of Omar, located just a few steps away. You will feel the cultural versatility that exists here within a few yards. Although Bethlehem is known more for Jesus Christ, the native population in his current day is Muslims in the majority. The mosque is not a very large one. However, it is the only mosque located in the old city of Bethlehem.
Other Churches Nearby
The other churches to visit nearby include the Chapel of the Milk Grotto and the Chapel of the Shepherds’ Field.
The Chapel of the Milk Grotto is an old chapel located not very far away from the Church of Nativity. It is a modern Catholic chapel which was built on the location of a Byzantine Church.
|It is said that the Chapel of the Milk Grotto is one of the places where the family of Jesus took refuge. The legend says that a drop of milk from the Virgin Mary fell on the floor of the cave and turned the whole cave white, and hence the name derived.|
The Chapel of the Shepherds’ field is located a bit far away from the city centre. It is a picturesque little chapel with lots of greenery around it. According to Christian tradition, the angel first envisioned the birth of Jesus Christ in a cave at this site. Along with the Old Catholic structure, beautifully decorated lawns are all around.
Herodion (also known as Herodium) is a small hill close to Bethlehem. As you approach it, it appears like a small crater-like structure.
|It is on this hill that the infamous Roman King Herod built a fortress and a small city. The remnants of this fortress town are still evident on this hill. The journey is a soothing one when you get a nice view of the outskirts of Bethlehem. As you go up the hill, you get a beautiful view of the Judean desert around.|
Guided tours are available for this site. You can also do a walking tour by yourself after you reach Herodion. The entry to this site will cost 27 NIS for an adult. There are various parts of the site, like the main palace, bathhouse, synagogues and churches.
Take some time to go around the structures and gather information from the handbook provided at the entry gate.
After visiting Herodion, stop by at some nice eatery and enjoy lunch.
Where to have Lunch During your Bethlehem Day Trip?
The Middle East is famous for delicious food junctions. A trip is always remembered for the quality and versatility of the food you eat. It is recommended that you try Arab or Lebanese dishes instead of a burger meal or KFC.
Some restaurants that you can try in Bethlehem are Al Karawan Restaurant, Al Karmeh Restaurant and Peace Restaurant. You can try out many dishes according to your appetite but I am sure you would like to go beyond your normal during your trip.
|The West Bank, or for that matter all of the Middle East is famous for its bakery. There are several bakery corners in the city and you can buy bread of your own choice. A bread known as Ka’ak would be worth trying. It is a rolled ring-like bread and comes with sprinkled spices like thyme.|
For the main course, you can try a sumptuous full meal that is traditional to the locals. It would constitute of several dips like hummus and labaneh, several salads, bread and meat stew and kebabs.
You can alternatively ask for a rice dish commonly known as Maqluba, a mix of rice and meat. You can also have delicious Kafta’ (ground beef meatballs) along with salads or meat-heavy Shawarma.
Do not forget to try out some sweets in the holy land. Knafeh Nablusye, Baklave and ‘Halaw’ are some sweets to try out.
A proper meal can cost up to 30-35 NIS. If you are in a group you can ask for a meal for a group which will save you some money.
What and Where to Eat: My Top Recommendations
|Restaurants and their speciality|
|Al Karawan: Middle Eastern and Lebanese|
|Peace Centre Restaurant: Middle Eastern and International|
|Al Karmeh: Middle Eastern and Arabic|
|Abu Eli: Mediterranean and Middle Eastern|
|Asparago: Middle Eastern, International and Italian|
|Zuwadeh Deli: International and Mediterranean|
Visiting Mar Saba Monastery
If you are planning to explore more of Bethlehem, you can head to the Mar Saba Monastery which is a bit far from Bethlehem.
The afternoon will be a bit different if you plan to visit this place. You will have a unique experience visiting the Mar Saba Monastery. You might feel that you have dated back to the old Byzantine world.
The monastery is an extremely ancient Greek Orthodox Monastery and was built by St. Sabas, a monk who came from Turkey. There are small subunits of the monastery that constitute the working of the monastery. It contains a kitchen, dining place, churches, and cells for monks and hostels for visitors. But life is far from luxury since the monks here follow an old Byzantine rule.
|A pricking fact about this monastery is they still follow the strictest rules and do not allow women visitors inside. However, women can go up to the Women’s Tower which is an elevated platform to enjoy the view of the place.|
Returning to Manger Square
After you have visited the Mar Saba monastery, you can come back to Manger Square. After having a glass of Turkish coffee and some bakery items from the local shop, you can sit at the square and enjoy the late afternoon winter.
You can also do some shopping around the square. Local artworks, showpieces and gift items are available at reasonable prices. You can also purchase Dead Sea cosmetic products.
Return by the same mode of travel as you travelled earlier. For returning through the Egged Bus you must ask your taxi to drop you at the Tomb of Rachel, for the Arab bus, you must go to Beit Jala.
Return to Jerusalem and continue your planned itinerary.
Budget for Spending a Good Bethlehem Day Trip
|Traveling to Bethlehem (both-way): 20 ILS|
|Sightseeing: 200-250 ILS|
|Lunch: 35 NIS|
|Other food options (if any): 10 NIS|
|Herodion: 27 NIS|
|Shopping (depends on your wish): 50 NIS|
|Total (without staying): 390-400 ILS|
Options for Staying Overnight
The Bethlehem day trip is a wonderful way to spend some time and explore Bethlehem and sites around the city. It is enough to absorb the ambience of the Holy Land and understand the history of the place. Of course, it is always better to travel to a historic place with some prior knowledge of the place.
However, if you want a special experience, do visit Bethlehem on Christmas Eve with one night’s stay at Bethlehem. Christmas eve is a wonderful time to be at Bethlehem. There are numerous processions going along the roads. The churches are beautifully decorated. The roads and even small alleys are illuminated with colourful lights.
The best way to choose a place is to mail the tourist information centre beforehand and arrange a stay. You might also contact the respective hotel to confirm your stay. The best option would be to stay somewhere near the square.
|The Habibi Hostel makes for good budget accommodation. The rooms here are neat and tidy and the owner is hospitable too. Also, it is located close to Manger Square. The adorable thing about this place is that they have put a coffee machine in each room. Habibi Hostel gives a very homely vibe overall.|
A budget tip from my side would be to choose a hostel. Just ensure that the place has a heating facility because temperatures will drastically drop in the late nights and early mornings. Apart from that you do not need to look for other luxuries because you will not spend much time at this place.
Cost of Accommodation Options at Bethlehem
|Average costs at a cheap hostel (1 night): 140 NIS|
|Average costs at 3-star hotels (1 night): 350 NIS|
You can go for a small walk to the beautiful churches and witness the celebrations. There are innumerable churches around the square. You won’t miss the huge decorated and illuminated Christmas tree right in the centre of the square. The Manger square hosts different music shows featuring people of all ages. You can soak into the atmosphere listening to one of them. As it gets dark, all the lights bring in the festive mood.
The main prayer (Mass) is held at the Church of the Nativity but it is very difficult to get a chance to attend this Mass. If you want, you can attend one at the local chapels around the Manger Square or at the Chapel of Shepherd’s Field.
After having dinner at the square, you can rest at the hotel or hostel that you have booked.
After having breakfast the next morning, make sure you visit the Church of Nativity (even if you already visited). There are special religious ceremonies by the monks and you will see people from different parts of the world come and pay homage.
You can leave Bethlehem at your own convenient time.
Visiting Bethlehem was one experience that I regard to be a ‘lifetime experience.’ When you travel to the Holy Land, you will also be able to look at Bethlehem from this aspect and sing along, “Long time ago in Bethlehem….”