While studying abroad in Israel, I’ve taken a few weekends to visit the West Bank.
The West Bank is a Palestinian territory that has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. But let’s put politics aside and focus on some of the great cities and sights in this misrepresented area of the world!
On my first visit, my friends and I were greeted with warm hospitality by two truly genuine people: a local artist, and the former Mayor of Taybeh, at an annual beer festival. It was a good first impression.
Before my arrival, I had no idea what a great place the West Bank is; now I go as often as I can to practice my Arabic and stock up on groceries.
Since then, I have been back a few times to visit my Palestinian friends in their hometowns and also explore the rugged desert countryside.
Tourists have no trouble passing through the Israeli checkpoints, so do not let any myths deter you from visiting. Tens of thousands of tourists visit Bethlehem every year. The West Bank is a beautiful and safe place full of culture and incredible food. A trip to Israel without visiting the West Bank is not complete!
These are three places I would recommend:
Ramallah is the de-facto capital of the Palestinian West Bank and has many great museums of Palestinian culture, from traditional clothing and history to modern poets such as the famous Mahmoud Darwish. The quaint old town makes for a pleasant stroll, but the modern Arafat square is the center of life in Ramallah, full of shops and restaurants. Arafat Square is within walking distance of the souk (marketplace) and main bus station. On the weekends, there is a large flea market as well near the souk. There are some really wild things for sale– definitely worth seeing!
The Yasser Arafat Museum in Ramallah cannot be missed. Yasser Arafat was the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization from 1969 until his death in 2004. I went to Ramallah specifically to see this museum, after getting a recommendation from a friend, and now I recommend it to everyone.
No museum fully explains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the way that the Yasser Arafat museum does, showing the history of the Jewish and Arab peoples in Palestine, flaws on both sides in terms of relations and negotiations.
Also, the museum has Yasser Arafat’s tomb and was built around his office where he and his advisors took cover during the siege of Ramallah. Finally, after months of studying the conflict, this museum solidified my knowledge and position.
Bethlehem is known for being the birthplace of Jesus, but even for non-Christians, it is a great city to visit. Get lost in the old city’s narrow winding streets, and follow the smell of fresh pita bread to Manger square.
Bethlehem is extremely inexpensive, even for students. 3 people can eat a huge meal of falafel, ful (mashed fava beans), hummus and pita, with drinks, for less than $5 total, right in the main square, at Falafel Afteem. The food in Bethlehem is the best in all of Israel-Palestine, by far, in my opinion, and great for all my vegetarian/vegan people out there!
Wandering through the streets of old Bethlehem on the weekend you’ll come across local art and knitted goods, delicious street food, and live music. The bright blue painted doors are inviting, and so are the friendly people of Bethlehem. Don’t be afraid to say yes, I’d love to come in and have a coffee!
Weekend afternoon in Bethlehem
The souk, which is just up the hill from the old town, is a bustling marketplace where vendors sell figs, olives, dates, huge eggplants and the best tomatoes I’ve ever had, for unbelievably low prices.
On the upper floor of the main bus station, there’s a cafe with a great view of the city and its neighboring towns, as well as really smooth Arabic coffee and hookah.
During the week, Bethlehem is a sleepy town with hardly anyone in the street, and it’s all yours. A nice change of pace from the bustling old city of Jerusalem!
This Greek Orthodox Monastery is one of the longest consistently-functioning Monasteries in the world– why they chose to build it in the middle of NOWHERE in the desert, I can’t tell you. Mar Saba is a really interesting place though, situated halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in the Kidron Valley. The monastery itself is men-only, but the toilets are free for all genders. You’ll want to make a pit stop before hiking around the canyon!
The view of Mar Saba from the opposite side of the valley is spectacular, and the area surrounding Mar Saba is fascinatingly full of cave-dwellings. All along the canyon walls, dug-out homes are proof that a sizable population lived here in the desert thousands of years ago. The canyon was carved out by a river, which still babbles in the bottom of the valley. Bedouins still live here, and if you’re lucky, they’ll invite you for tea. And if you’re really lucky, they’ll show the special spots where you can see the sunset over Bethlehem.
Hike to the highest place you can find, and you’ll see it. It gets really windy and chilly at night, so pack accordingly. I was camping with a few friends and two of our blankets blew away!
Traveling to the West Bank is easy; just catch a bus from Damascus gate in Jerusalem, and you’ll be on your way. I hope to visit more of the West Bank in the coming months so stay tuned for part 2.
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