From the Holy City of Jerusalem, I travelled to Bethlehem in Palestine, to explore the birth place of Christ. What I expected of the ‘quaint little town’ from the Christmas songs of my youth was certainly not what I was greeted with. The reality of Bethlehem today is a busy Palestinian town crowded with tourist buses! Once you get over the initial shock of this, you begin to explore the religious setting of this fabulous little town.
Photo: On route to Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
Bethlehem, West Bank
Crossing the walled border through to the West Bank (Palestine), there was a clear political contrast from what I was used to in the Israeli city of Jerusalem. Despite speculation and media hype, I actually felt quite safe in Bethlehem, albeit, I was with a tour.
Remember that as you cross the border from Israel to Palestine, you could be asked for your passport or stopped and searched. This is normal, but less likely to happen if you are with a tour. It’s also usual to see political propoganda, just don’t get caught up in political discussion or debate.
Photo: Central Bethlehem
The striking religious diversity is immediately apparent. In 1950, Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were 86 percent Christian. But by 2016, the Christian population had dropped to approximately 12 percent. Bethlehem today has a predominantly Muslim population, but the town remains a pilgrimage site for Christians.
Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity is the highlight of any visit to Bethlehem, as this is the birthplace of Jesus Christ himself. It’s not the most beautiful Church externally, but it is the spiritual experience and internal beauty that draws visitors to this Church.
The Church is currently undergoing renovation and is covered in scaffolding – look beyond this at the religious significance.
A star marks the spot where Jesus was born. We could only peer in through a peep-hole from one side and see the door to the cave from the other, as there were Armenian priests worshipping in there.
The interior of the Church of the Nativity is carefully divided into three sections, so that the three key denominations can worship there: the Catholic section, the Orthodox Section and the Armenian section.
It gets even more exciting as you venture below the surface of this church. The caves below were once home to St Jerome. Saint Jerome was a famous theologian and translator, famously known for translating Biblical scriptures into Latin.
When you leave the Church of the Nativity via the Catholic section, you will see a moving sign that states ‘Enter a visitor, leave a pilgrim.’ Make sure that you stop for a photo opportunity after leaving the Catholic part of the Church – there is a fantastic view of Bethlehem from the top of the steps.
Photo: The view over Bethlehem from the Church of the Nativity.
The Milk Grotto
While you are in Bethlehem, take some time to visit the Milk Grotto and understand it’s religious significance. We are told that a Church was built on the exact spot where a drop of milk from the Virgin Mary fell to the ground, and so this has particular significance to Catholic pilgrims.
Practicalities – How long and Where to Stay in Bethlehem
It is possible to do a tour of Bethlehem, Jericho and the Dead Sea all in one day (I did this with Tourist Israel). However, I’d recommend spreading these out as separate tours if possible, and spending at least a full day in Bethlehem. There was some Banksy street art that we zoomed past on our tour, missing out slightly.
TripAdvisor Full Day Tour of Bethlehem
TripAdvisor offer a full day tour of Bethlehem during which you will visit religious monuments, including the Church of the Nativity, the Church of St. Catherine, the Milk Grotto Shrine, and Shepherd’s Field, where the angel appeared to the shepherds. One of these tours also includes St George’s Monastery (Wadi Qelt).
To find out more about TripAdvisor tours of Bethlehem, click here.
Walled Off Hotel, Bethlehem
We didn’t get chance to visit the Walled Off Hotel during our visit, and this is a reason I would love to return. It’s described as the hotel with the worst view in the world – directly facing the concrete wall that separates Israel and Palestine. It’s full of art by the famous UK street artist Banksy and is almost like staying in an art gallery itself. Stay there over night if you can!
If you are looking for somewhere cheaper to stay, compare the best value hotels on TripAdvisor and booking.com.
On a budget? I recommend staying at Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem and taking their Bethlehem tour from there, or even getting a local bus and navigating it yourself or joining one of the free walking tours.