Bethlehem may no longer be the ‘little town’ of Christmas carols. Actually, the Palestinian city has recently turned into the capital of street art and a symbol of protest against Israel.
Bethlehem is just a short drive from Jerusalem, but it’s in a whole other world. There’s a lively old town and numerous sites around including the Church of Nativity built in the place where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born. Located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the city offers loads of attraction even for non-religious. Many travelers also come for the street art – particularly several stencils by British street artist Banksy – that have turned the Israeli Separation Wall that now divides Bethlehem from Jerusalem into a vast canvas.
Built by Israel along the West Bank, the security wall is seen as apartheid by Palestinians. As it turns out, one of the many forms of nonviolent protest includes the many types of graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall. In Bethlehem, the wall runs within walking distance to the city’s many historical sites so it’s quite easy to stroll along and see what Palestinians and their supporters are creating.
Below, the one and only alternative travel guide to Bethlehem with its main hotspots.
A historic spot
Apart from the Church of Nativity, there are several historic spots in and around Bethlehem. A must-see is Mar Saba, a bleak and beautiful monastery located 15km east of Bethlehem. Women must view the phenomenal cliff-clinging copper-domed hermitage, founded in the 5th century, from the opposite slope, but men are permitted inside. Also residing here are the remains of the ascetic Saint Sabas
, whose body lies in the church’s second chapel, and the skulls of some 120 monks massacred here in 614 CE.
A Hipster Hotel
A satirical project by Banksy, The Walled Off Hotel
hit headlines when it opened in 2017, right along the separation barrier that wraps around Bethlehem. Banksy’s installation is a fully-functioning hotel intended to raise awareness of the controversies surrounding it. Guests may well come away from this comfortable, memorably-designed hotel knowing more about the conflict in the region. Incredible displays of art and literature are rife at The Walled Off Hotel which offers a host of unique and innovative facilities with its own museum, piano bar, gallery and bookshop.
The Singer Café
is a child-friendly hipster hangout owned by a Palestinian-Dutch couple. This alternative place is a quirky ode to Singer sewing machines and healthy eating. Young Palestinians and NGO staffers devour breakfast shakshuka
(eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce) or tuck into lunchtime salads, pasta and cakes washed down with fresh juices, beer, wine and great coffee. It has a small library with books in English and Arabic and a roof terrace with great view.
A local restaurant
Ever since two extravagantly moustachioed brothers, Sameer and Jamal Kara’a, opened Abu Shanab
down on the ring road by the university, their succulent grilled kebabs, lamb chops, chicken and sheep’s testicles have seduced diehard carnivores from near and far. Typical appetizers, salads and knafeh (an addictively sweet white cheese pastry), whisky, arak, Palestinian wine and beer help lure evening diners, despite the graying of those celebrated mustaches and the 1970s time-capsule setting.
A cultural center
On the southern outskirts of town, a 15-minute taxi-ride from the city center, lies the Dheisheh Refugee Camp
in the West Bank. Fronting the main road, their cultural center offers visitors dormitory accommodation as well as a top floor café for simple food, non-alcoholic drinks and nargileh. You can expect a warm welcome and insight into how this 69-year-old Palestinian refugee camp has mushroomed vertically on a footprint built to serve for 3,000 inhabitants, now home to roughly 15.000.
Check out in the map below the alternative travel guide to Bethlehem.