I have spent a lot of time in Israel in my lifetime, and I have traveled to a lot of places. Yet no matter where I go or how exotic the destination is, Jerusalem holds a special place in my heart. When I started booking a trip to Israel that we took a few years ago, I knew we had to start in Jerusalem and spend a few days there. The city also holds many special memories for me as I attended part of high school and college in the city. I know Jerusalem as intimately as I know my own hometown, perhaps even more so.
Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and is one of the most inspiring cities in the world. When you are there, you feel its sanctity, history and and it runs through your pores.
The city was established 5,000 years ago and literally means “The City of Gold”. The entire city is built with a special stone, the Jerusalem limestone, which makes its architecture incredibly unique and beautiful. Jews, Christians and Muslims live here and there are many religious shrines and monuments for everyone. The city truly shines, in more ways than one.
Jerusalem is a divided city. It was divided until 1967 between the Jews and Arabs, when Israel took the city during the Six Day War. Today it is reunited under Israeli government but is still in debate. You don’t feel the tension when you are walking around, but it’s definitely important to know where you’re going so you don’t end up anywhere you are not supposed to be.
There are many incredible hotels in Jerusalem, although you do need to do your research to find the best price and book your dates well before your arrival. We were there in early June, right at the start of tourist season. The hotels attract conventions and missions, as well, and get booked up.
The first hotel we stayed at the Dan Panorama Hotel. It is in walking distance of the Yemin Moshe neighborhood, the Menachem Begin Center, Mount Zion, and the fascinating Old City of Jerusalem, with its exotic bazaar and amazing archeological sites. The family suite was perfect for us, offering two nice-sized beds and an incredible view of the city. The rooms are very comfortable, perfect after a day of sight-seeing and tired feet. Breakfast is included and if you haven’t experienced an Israel hotel breakfast, you must. From the best cheeses and bread and cereal to cooked food and fruit and salads, it’s simply sublime. The Dan’s breakfast presentation is absolutely stunning. The prices of the rooms vary and you can check them on the hotel’s web site. This is a chain of hotels that is all over Israel and it’s extremely family-friendly and affordable.
They also have an incredible pool on the roof, with views of the city at every side. After a heavy day of walking around and sight-seeing, this was the perfect place for our kids. We also started our second day with a few hours at the pool as I realized quickly that was a different type of trip than ones in the past. The kids did not have to see and do everything as I once had to do. They could take in parts of the city, the important parts. I wanted to introduce them to the parts that were meaningful to me. Funnily enough, on my last trip to Israel just seven years ago, I also stayed in this hotel. I had my first child in my womb and was in Israel for a leadership conference. I remember feeling achy with pregnancy pains during the lectures and taking rests in these very same rooms.
On our second night, we moved to the Hyatt Regency near the Hebrew University, which is where I studied for a year so I was eager to show the campus to my children. My kids never wanted to leave this hotel. We had a huge family room with a lot of space to play and a balcony that stretched around the building that they could run and play on. The pool was huge and warm, and there is also a playground nearby with the hotel grounds. Breakfast was another winner, with a beautiful buffet offering cheeses, spreads, bread, eggs, salads, fruits and more. We paid $170 for the night for a family room, which is an incredibly good rate for summer in Jerusalem. Again, stunning views of the city surround the hotel. It has a large contingency of Arab workers, working alongside Israelis which makes it a unique experience, as well.
We have many friends living in Jerusalem, so many of our meals were in people’s homes; however I can recommend a few family-friendly restaurants:
Burgers Bar is a chain in Israel; we went to the one near Hebrew University. The hamburgers are really thick and delicious, and come with various sauces from mild to spicy. They also serve chicken and salads. They have children’s meals that are quite affordable and we were all very happy with our meals. The traditional meal cost about 30 shekels which is about $8. There are also locations in the German Colony and the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. There is something to say about getting a kosher burger….it is yummy.
Café Rimon is located on Ben Yehudah Street and is unique as it has a dairy section, as well as a meat section. It has indoor and outdoor seating and the menu includes salads, pastas, blintzes, soup, sandwiches, meats including kebab and shishlik. Their cakes are really delicious. When we were there, I was happy to discover a new location near the Old City where we had a delightful lunch overlooking the old walls. It cost around $40 for the four of us to have lunch, which was the average price for the meal for all of us all over Israel.
Located near the Dan Panorama on Karen Hayesod Street, Café Joe offers lovely coffees and even better, free Wifi. I spent many hours sitting there alone surfing the internet.
It’s so much fun to pop into a kebab or falafel joint and live like a local. My kids weren’t very experimental so it was key to have pizza and places with American food at our disposal. The western influence is everywhere, so that’s not an issue. I did my best to get them to try new foods, to convince them that travel is the best way to try new flavors and tastes.
There is so, so, so much to see and do in Jerusalem with kids. Here is a list of just a few of them:
The Old City
The Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock are all located between the walls of the Old City. There are many gates, and it’s important to know where you’re going. The main gates are the Jaffa Gate, entered from Mamilla-Agron Street or Jaffa Road, and the Damascus Gate, entered from Ha-Nevi’im Street or Nablus Road. We entered through the Jaffa Gate and wandered first through the Arab market, or shuk. There is a wide variety of things to buy, but like all markets in Israel, it’s important to remember to bargain with the seller. First start your bids at half of the price offered and go from there. The shuks are in narrow cobble-stoned alleys and wrap around the Old City.
From there, we headed to the Jewish Quarter and to the Western Wall (“Kotel”), the most significant place for Jews in the world. It is the only fragment of the Great Temple to survive the Roman destruction. Women pray on one side, and their skin must be modestly covered; men pray on the other side. I took my daughter with me to visit the site. She touched the wall’s stones which have absorbed the prayers of many. I don’t think the meaning of the experience resonated with her, but she definitely looked up when we heard the tears of a woman praying behind us, probably missing a lost friend or relative. At that moment, I think she realized what was so special about being there.
Ben Yehuda Street
In the center of town lies a strip closed to traffic, where you can walk, shop, get a falafel. There are tables and chairs where you can get a coffee and sit and watch everyone who walks by. I’ll never forget the day many years ago when I was hanging out with my college friends and heard a name called out in the near distance that I recognized from home. To this day, she and I are still friends. This is the place in the city where you just hang, chill, see and be seen.
Located right in the city’s important Hadassah Hospital in the Ein Kerem neighborhood, this is a sight to see. Each window, painted by Marc Chagall, is a symbolic representation of one of the 12 tribes of Judah. They are absolutely breathtaking. Myself, being a staunch Hadassah supporter, the hospital is always an important stop on a tour of the city.
The Israel Museum holds art and archeological artifacts, both Judaica and antiquities. There is a Children and Youth wing that’s good for kids of all ages. Don’t miss the Shrine of the Book which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, a sculpture garden and a Second Temple model.
Located between Jaffa and Agrippas Streets, you have a local produce market with colorful produce and food at discounted prices. You can get the most delicious fruit, smell the loveliest spices and experience the most interesting people. Make sure to buy a bag of warm pita and rugelach. Going before Shabbat on a Friday afternoon is a great time to go, when everyone is preparing for Shabbat and the market is absolutely buzzing. Your kids’ senses will all perk up in the this market with the amazing aromas in the air.
Mea Shearim Quarter
Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim quarter is home to Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents. When you enter the small neighborhood, you see a very large sign that states that men and women must dress appropriately to enter (women must cover their shoulders and legs; men must wear kippot). It is really a good idea to pay attention; if they don’t like the way you look, you will either get stoned or spit on (I can vouch for this as once, a very long time ago, I got spat on when I took a wrong turn and ended up in the neighborhood by mistake during a very hot summer). Also be warned: many of the people living inside the walls of the quarter don’t like their picture being taken. Nonetheless, it is really an amazing place to visit. The people are very devout, and they are living a very strict, observant way of life. You will get the best rugelach in their small bakeries.
The best view of Jerusalem in the western part of the city.
This is a multimedia presentation tells the 4,000 year history of Jerusalem. It combines motion seating, panoramic screens and special effects. This is a great stop for kids, especially in the heat but is slightly pricy at around $15 per person.
This is a Biblical-themed zoo showcasing near-extinct and endangered species native to the region. This is great for kids, but you must have a car to get there.
This is one of the most effective museums in history. It’s the world’s largest repository of Holocaust information. They have guided tours in English at 11am. Probably not for kids, so try to split up when you go.
On our next tour of Jerusalem, we will visit the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, and other places of interest to older kids and adults. This time, I wanted my kids to get to know the city I love. I hope that one day they will remember their first visit to Jerusalem, whether it be the pool on the roof with the views of the city or their first visit to the Western Wall. Whatever the case, we will always have shared this amazing experience.