Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus, is one of the most important religions sites in the world. And although I myself am not religious, I very much enjoyed spending a day here. So if you are planning a trip to Palestine or Israel, consider visiting Bethlehem during your travels! It’s an easy day (or even half-day) trip from many other cities in the region. I recommend the yellow taxi-vans, which provide fast and cheap transportation between cities in the region.
Church of the Nativity
The most important site in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, apparently over the manger where Jesus was born. The inside of the church is simple but elegant, with golden Byzantine mosaics adorning the walls and frescos adorning the pillars inside.
Time permitting, you can enter the grotto under the alter to visit the exact spot where Jesus lay. The grotto is the oldest site continuously used as a place of worship in Christianity! You may have to wait in line up to two hours or more to see this part of the church. The waiting time depends on the time of day and season, as many pilgrims come here. Despite not being religious, I still really enjoyed the experience. It was fascinating to see all sects of Christianity and people of all nationalities, united together in this place. My favorite moment was in the grotto, when a large group of Romanian pilgrims all began singing in unison!
Visiting Bethlehem: Other Attractions
The Church of St. Catherine is a beautiful Roman Catholic church adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. Masses are still held here, and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrates Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at this church. The tombs of four saints, as well as various caves containing chapels, are located beneath the Church of Saint Catherine.
Another important site to see while visiting Bethlehem is Shepards’ Field. This is believed to be the site at which the angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. The field is located just outside of Beit Sahour, now an eastern suburb of Bethlehem. The Mar Saba Monastery, perched on a cliff overlooking the Kidron Valley, is also a popular site to visit. However, the monastery is located about 14 kilometers outside of Bethlehem, so you will need to drive or take a taxi.
Visiting Bethlehem: Shopping!
The nearby Museum of Bethlehem recreates a traditional Palestinian family abode, and the museum gift shop offers lovely embroidery produced by the Bethlehem Arab Women’s Union. Similar products, also made my local women, can be found at the nearby Palestinian Heritage Center.
Bethlehem is a fantastic places to buy souvenirs and gifts – especially Christmas gifts! I especially adored the gorgeous olive wood nativity scenes, which come in various sizes and range from $20-$150. There are also an abundance of carved wooden figures, ornaments, and even table ware. And of course, there are all sorts of other souvenirs for the religious and non-religious alike.
Just a 45-minute drive from downtown Amman lies Mount Nebo, where Moses supposedly first saw the Promised Land (and was later buried here). Even non-religious travelers will enjoy the views from this mountain, which also makes a nice rest stop halfway between Amman and the Dead Sea! In the time of Moses, this valley was lush with vegetation. Now, however, the landscape resembles those typically found alone the Mediterranean, with groves of olive trees and brown, rolling hills.
It costs 2 dinars ($3 US) to enter the area with the church, funding the restorations carried out for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2000. There are some beautiful mosaics inside from the Byzantine era, which nicely complement the more modern architecture of the church. While visiting the church, I saw a group of pilgrims from India dressed in saris, singing with their arms outstretched in prayer instead of clasped at the chest. I always find it so beautiful that people from all over the world share the same religions, and yet there is so much diversity in just one religion!
Want to know more? Check back soon for new posts about living in the Middle East! Or click here to read all my tips for studying and living abroad! And don’t forget to read about the other countries where I have studied and lived abroad, such as Morocco, India, Guatemala, and Costa Rica!