photo by momo

Bethlehem (Arabic: بيت لحم, Beit Lahm Hebrew: בית לחם Beit Lechem) is a small city located some 10 km (6 miles) south of the Old City of Jerusalem within the West Bank, (occupied by Israel), in an "Area A" zone administered by the Palestinian Authority.

The "little town" of Bethlehem, mentioned in any number of Christmas carols, attracts pilgrims worldwide on account of its description in the New Testament (and particularly the Gospels) as the birthplace of Jesus, whom Christians believe to be Messiah and Son of God. The Church of the Nativity is the focus of Christian veneration within the city.

In somewhat related circumstances, although no longer a Jewish city, Bethlehem is revered by Jews as the birthplace and home town of David, King of Israel, as well as the traditional site of Rachel's Tomb (on the outskirts of the town).

Although also home to many Muslims, Bethlehem remains home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities in the Middle East (despite significant emigration in recent years, resulting in a growing Muslim majority) and one of the chief cultural and tourism drawcards for the Palestinian community. The Bethlehem agglomeration also includes the small towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, the latter also having biblical significance.



A long snake of town, the main thoroughfare of Bethlehem is Manger Street which stretches from Rachel's Tomb (and the road to Jerusalem) all the way to Manger Square, the focal point of the city. Manger Square is flanked by the Church of the Nativity on one side and the Mosque of Omar on the other. The Old Town and the souq (market), which are best navigated on foot, stretch up the hill from Manger Square.

The name means "The House of Bread" in Hebrew, and "The House of Meat" in Arabic. However, it seems likely that both meanings have been retrofitted onto what was originally the House of Lachma, the Mesopotamian god of fertility. The area has been settled since 50,000 BC and there is some evidence that the town is mentioned in the Egyptian Amarna letters (1400 BC). The Old Testament Book of Ruth (c. 1150 BC) has the first certain reference to Bethlehem; it tells the story of Naomi, who left Bethlehem during a famine, and later returned with her daughter-in-law Ruth. Still, Bethlehem remained a small town in the shadow of mighty Jerusalem, and according to most estimates it had some 300 to 1000 inhabitants at the time of the event that gave Bethlehem its fame, namely the birth of Jesus.

Somewhat surprisingly, aside from noting that the Nativity indeed took place there, the New Testament virtually ignores Bethlehem. And things didn't change immediately afterwards: wrecked during the Bar-Kochba revolt (132-135 AD), the Romans set up a shrine to Adonis on the site of the Nativity. Only in 326 was the first Christian church constructed, when Helen, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, visited Bethlehem. Afterwards it grew slowly but steadily, achieving its pinnacle as a strong fortified city during the Crusader era, but the Ottomans razed the fortifications and reduced Bethlehem back into the village it was 2000 years earlier.

The setback proved only temporary, and despite the turbulence of the 20th century the town has (as of 2000) grown to an estimated 184,000 inhabitants. On December 21, 1995, Bethlehem became one of the areas under the full control of the Palestinian Authority. In the city itself, 41% of the population is Christian, while 59% is Muslim. Christians used to be a large majority but their numbers have declined throughout the 20th century.

Getting there

Nearly all travellers arrive via Jerusalem. Since Bethlehem is administered by the Palestinian Authority, an Israeli military checkpoint stands on the road connecting the two locations. All travelers are subject to rigorous questioning and searches. If checkpoint security is stepped up (usually owing to local disturbances or tension), buses and service taxis may be delayed or cancelled entirely. However to get into Bethlehem there is no checkpoint, but no Isrelis can get in. On the way out it is not a very rigorous checkpoint, just like any other border crossing

By bus

Arab bus 21 runs from the Arabic bus station at the Damacus Gate ("Bab el-'Amoud") in East Jerusalem via Beit Jala to Bethlehem. The average trip length is 40 minutes and costs 6 NIS. Note that this goes through the checkpoint (at least on the trip from Bethlehem to Damascus Gate) which may be more convenient depending on where you wind up in Bethlehem.

Shared taxis (sherut/servees) leave from Damascus Gate and manage the trip in 20 minutes.

Bus 124 also leaves from Damascus Gate, it costs 4 NIS and runs directly to the Bethlehem Checkpoint and back. You must travel through the checkpoint as you enter and exit Bethlehem. Make sure to bring a passport, and prepare for what can be a lengthy hassle. It may also be the case that you are waved through without any inspection. From the checkpoint, you can either walk half an hour or take a taxi to the center of Bethlehem (15 shekels), which is about 3 km away.

On foot

Devoted pilgrims often prefer to walk (and in happier times there has been a large procession at Christmas), at a brisk pace the trip is doable in 2 hours but there are plenty of ups and downs along the way and the summer heat is fearsome.

Traveling around

For first time visitors it is best to travel by taxi. Bethlehem is a small city so taxi rides are extremely cheap.


  • the Church of the Nativity, Manger Square - undoubtedly the top attraction in Bethlehem, a veritable citadel built fortress-like on top of the cave where Jesus was allegedly born to Mary. The first incarnation of the building was erected on the orders of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (the Great) in 330 CE. While the layout largely corresponds to Emperor Justinian's plans from 540 CE (the first building haveing been destroyed in a 536 riot), the church was first heavily fortified by the Crusaders and then degraded (mostly through neglect) under Mamluk rule. An earthquake in 1834 and a fire in 1869 didn't help. Today, the structure is mostly sound but somewhat dark and gloomy in appearance, only the adjoining Franciscan Church of St Catherine (dated 1881 and the site of the yearly December 24 midnight mass broadcast around the world) being in excellent shape. The actual alleged site of Jesus' birth, the Grotto of the Nativity, is accessible from inside the church. (The tomb of famed theologian and Bethlehem resident St. Jerome is also in the Grotto.) Entrance to the entire complex is free, but in the high season be prepared for massive crowds and hour-long waits for entry into the Grotto.

  • Rachel's Tomb, the burial place of the matriarch Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin is the second most important historical site in Bethlehem. (Genesis 35:19-20). Holy to all three faiths, the Tomb has been the site of several Arab terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. As a result of the security situation, the Tomb's original structure has been surrounded by an Israeli fortress, barricading it off from Bethlehem. While the original tomb can still be seen in its entirety from within the fortress, access to the tomb is now restricted to those travelling by Egged bus from Jerusalem.

  • the Shepherds' Fields - "While shepherds watched their flocks by night..." - rival locations claim to be the site of the angel's visitation to the shepherds mentioned in the Gospels:

    • the Orthodox Shepherds' Fields Here you will also find open excavations of an old Byzantine church.

    • the Catholic (Latin) Shepherds' Fields

  • Minor sights include the Milk Grotto Chapel, where Mary supposedly spilled a few drops of breast milk while feeding Jesus, turning the cavern milky white. It is open all day.

  • the Mosque of Omar A mosque in active use. Rather plain and uninteresting on the inside but somewhat pretty on the outside.

  • Solomon's Pools

  • the Old Town is also good for a stroll if you haven't seen an Arab city before.

  • The graffiti by famed yet mysterious artist Banksy, drawn on the barrier wall dividing Bethlehem from Israel, has drawn worldwide media attention and is definitely worth a look. There are, I think, many other artists' work as well, including a Palestinian version of Guernica. To see this, it is probably best to hire a taxi.

Things to do

  • Visit Solomon's Pools, just a short Taxi ride outside of the city.

  • Dance at , located in The Olive Tree Touristic Village in Beit Jala, or at La Casa in Beit Sahour.

  • Hike outside of Mar Elias, an Orthodox Christian monastery, located to the East of Bethlehem and accessible via taxi.

  • Murad Tourist Resort , +972 598 563 396, 24/7 All year, Beit Sahour Street Bethlehem, Palestine, few kilometers from center of Bethlehem, A beautifully landscaped resort, providing a wide variety of things to do. Apart from the four large sized swimming pools and a children’s pool with playground, they provide unique Turkish caves that accommodate to all your spa needs, including Jacuzzis, saunas, Turkish baths, and physiotherapy rooms. Or stay in one of their Chalets, have a bite to eat and enjoy the scenery. They give good deals on packages.

  • Global IT offer internet cafe and computer courses +972 (0)-2-2768514 visit


  • Shepherds Valley Village - The Tent Restaurant, Beit Sahour. Tel +972 2 2773875 . Good local cuisine in an outdoor setting or tent in winter. Good views across the valley.

  • The Citadel - The Citadel Restaurant, Beith Sahour. Local cuisine and beer in an old Bethlehem building with a friendly staff.

  • Random felafel stand opposite the Nativity Church. Facing the Peace Center with Nativity Church to your right, there is a felafel stand at the corner, with a basement restaurant attached. 8 NIS for felafel sandwich and Fanta soda. Also has shwarma etc. Very fair prices, completely satisfactory.

  • Bonjour Restaurant & Cafe, 9am-1130pm, John Paul II Street, Located right next to Bethlehem University (in the heart of Bethlehem),


Enjoy the atmosphere and hang out with friends for dinner or a a few drinks at Bistro lounge bar in Beit Jala.

  • al-khema (The Tent), Bethlehem, A resturent that is like tent and has nice food grills and shisha


  • Bethlehem Hotel , 00972-2-2770702


While Bethlehem's souq is no match for Jerusalem's, it is much less touristy and the sellers are less aggressive.

In peaceful times, Bethlehem's traders do a roaring trade in souvenirs for pilgrims to the town. In the current situation, the tour operators prefer to hustle the groups in and out of the Nativity Church without allowing them time to look around Manger Square. That means the shops here are blessedly free from pilgrims, and also that the shopkeepers there are in desperate need of business. They remain, however, substantially less agressive than Jerusalem's sellers.

Just of Manger Square on Milk Grotto Street there are a number of souvenir shops selling various religious gifts and Bethlehem's famous olive wood carvings. I found the Tabash Nativity Store friendly, not pushy, and willing to give discounts. They will also offer you a free Turkish coffee.

Visit one of Bethlehem's four refugee camps for traditional Palestinian handicrafts, including beautiful embroidery.

  • Christian Gifts Shop (Christian Gifts) , +972-2-2745129, By Rachel's Tomb, Hebron Road, Sells christian souvenirs, piece of Bethlehem to share with your family and friends. Many items in store with world wide delivery option .


The All Nations Cafe organizes summer caravans where internationals can learn about the social, political and cultural fabrics of life in and around Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is a good base for visits to nearby Herodion (or Herodium), a fortress built by Herod the Great and located some 6 km to the south-east of the town. Herodion can be reached by sherut from Beit Sahour, while a taxi from Bethlehem costs about US$20 for a round trip. The Herodion is administered by the Israel Nature & National Parks Protection Authority .

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The photos displayed on this page are the property of one of the following authors:

momo, Brendon, nadiakushnir, oronbb, CarmelH

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This travel guide also includes text from Wikitravel articles, all available at WikitravelView full credits

All Nations Cafe, Mike Sharp, Andrew Haggard, Peter Fitzgerald, Dave Stanley, Ryan Holliday, LB and Michele Ann Jenkins, PAWiki, MTR, Pjamescowie and Rspga49

This travel guide also includes text from Wikipedia articles, all available at WikipediaView full credits

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