Bethlehem, a city located 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) south of Jerusalem, holds great significance to Christians of various denominations around the world, as it is the birthplace of Jesus Christ. An estimated one million foreign tourists and pilgrims visit Bethlehem each year. Many foreign Christians make their visits and pilgrimages to Bethlehem, especially during Holy Week (especially on Easter Sunday) and Christmas. If you want to know when and how Christians in Israel celebrate their holidays, see the list of the Christian holidays in Israel.
For any Christian visiting Israel and Palestinian territories, Bethlehem and Jerusalem are essential tours. And for any other tourist, Bethlehem is home to intriguing history, interesting places, and a wide array of shops, restaurants, and cafés.
Suffice to say, Bethlehem – whose name means “house of meat” in Arabic and “house of bread” in Hebrew – has lots of things to offer. But it’s not just all religious sites. The modern-day bustle of this ancient city can be a surprise to some tourists.
If you’re heading to Bethlehem for the first time, here are some of the best places to visit in Bethlehem and its vicinity.
Visit the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square
The Church of the Nativity (or Basilica of the Nativity) is situated on top of the Holy Crypt, a grotto or cave where Jesus is said to be born, according to tradition. It was originally built during the Byzantine period, followed by rebuilds, reconstructions, and renewals throughout the centuries.
The Church of the Nativity is situated on top of the Holy Crypt, a grotto or cave where it is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ. It was originally built during the Byzantine period, then followed by rebuilds, reconstructions, and renewals throughout the centuries.
Visitors can still see the mosaics from the original church, the terraced gardens, as well as Latin Greek Orthodox, and Armenian convents that reflect the diversity of this city. Inside the grotto is a small niche that displays the 14-pointed silver star, which some pilgrims kiss.
The church stands prominently in the Manger Square, in the heart of Bethlehem. If you wish to light candles inside the church, you can purchase them from the vendors in Manger Square.
Visit the Milk Grotto
The lesser-known Chapel of Milk Grotto may be a Roman Catholic chapel, but you will find Christians and Muslims alike praying to Mother Mary. The curious name of this chapel is down to the legend that Mother Mary dropped some milk here while nursing baby Jesus, touching the cave’s red rock and turning it white.
Devotees suffering from specific health issues, especially infertility, make their pilgrimages to this site. A tunnel connects the grotto to a 19th-century chapel dedicated to Mary.
Visit Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem
Rachel’s Tomb (Kever Rachel) lies before the city proper. The site is sacred as it is the burial place of the Jewish matriarch Rachel. It is the third holiest site for the Jews but it is also equally revered by Christians and Muslims. Managed by the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs, the site has been recently renovated, and can be easily accessed via a direct Egged bus from Jerusalem’s central bus station.
Jewish women and couples make their pilgrimages to the site, praying for fertility and successful childbirth.
Shopping, eating out, and accommodations
In addition to the important religious sites, Bethlehem has several local shops and restaurants. In fact, these stores and restaurants are often fused as they tend to share adjoining spaces.
On the main thoroughfares and side streets around Manger Street, you will find several souvenir shops – very much similar to the open-air markets in Israel, such as Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem – only cheaper. Bethlehem is especially famous for its hand-carved olivewood crafts, such as religious items (statues, crosses, crucifixes, rosary beads, etc.), homeware, and souvenir items. You’ll never want to leave Bethlehem without purchasing any of these handmade olivewood crafts. However, make sure they’re certified and genuine olivewood.
As for eats, Bethlehem offers mostly Middle Eastern fare, with recipes dating back probably hundreds of years. If you are keen to try local flavors, your best bet is to sink your teeth into some good-quality kebab, falafel, pita bread, hummus, and salads. The Manger Square is the best place to start, with its wide selection of restaurants, including popular ones like the Bethlehem Peace Center restaurant that offers Middle Eastern and Western dishes. And Bethlehem is not the house of meat for no good reason – even the humblest joints like Al Housaini on Al Quds Street serve the best kebab in town. Bethlehem’s culinary offerings are pretty diverse.
If you’re up to non-Middle Eastern food, you can try the popular Milano restaurant, on Jerusalem-Hebron road, for its quality pizzas and pasta dishes. For coffee, you may want to sit down at a hilariously named café called Stars and Bucks on Nativity Street (they’re lucky that they’re immune from any Seattle lawyer and a “Cease and Desist” note). To experience a genuine dining experience like the locals do, have a few puffs on the shisha pipes between bites or sips of coffee. These popular smoking contraptions are found in many restaurants and cafés here in Bethlehem.
If you’d like to stay in Bethlehem for more than a day, there are several hotels, inns, and hostels, each type ranging from low-budget to luxury. For the hotels, the five-star Jacir Palace Intercontinental Hotel, the four-star Paradise Hotel, and the three-star Shepherd’s House Hotel are some of the recommended accommodations in Bethlehem.