Bethlehem is undoubtedly one of the best-known places in the world as every year hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims come to visit the Church of the Nativity that was built above the grotto where Jesus was born. The Church and the area around Manger Square are at the center of what Bethlehem has to offer: souvenir shops, restaurants, cultural centers, and hotels line these streets. Bethlehem shines especially during Christmas season with locals and foreigners flocking to town to join in the celebrations. Every year, Bethlehem and the neighboring Beit Jala and Beit Sahour organize various festivities and cultural events – from the lighting of the Christmas tree to numerous processions leading up to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – in which visitors and locals come together in the spirit of Peace. With that said, and regretfully so, the vast majority of tourists and pilgrims to Bethlehem do not venture too far off the beaten track, and consequently they do not get to experience the many layers and rich experiences Bethlehem has to offer.
A walking tour through Bethlehem’s Old Quarters offers beautiful views of stone streets – sometimes topped by rocky arches – and of houses with beautifully ornamented entrances, windows, and smaller openings. These treasures can also be seen while strolling along Star Street, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that leads from King David’s Wells and through the prominent part of the historic town center – passing under the Arch of Zarrara, also known as Damascus Gate – merges at Al Manara Square with St. Paul VI Street, and ends at Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. As the path is believed to be the route which Joseph and Mary took to approach the grotto of the Nativity, this same journey is repeated every year during the Christmas festivities. On 24 December, 6 January, and 18 January, patriarchs of various Christian denominations, preceded by scout troupes and officials, follow Star Street to the Church of the Nativity to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. A new tourist information center will be opening on Star Street in an effort to help visitors navigate their way in and around the area.
Another interesting site is the Bethlehem Folklore Museum that was established in 1979 by the Arab Women’s Union and is one of the most original museums in Palestine. It houses a collection of traditional Palestinian household items, photographs, furniture, and works of art that show and illustrate life in Bethlehem from 1900 to 1932.
The International Nativity Museum is located in the complex of the Salesian Convent on a road running parallel to Star Street. It exhibits a very broad collection of over two hundred cribs with scenes of the Nativity that were imported to Bethlehem from various parts of the world. The diversity of the exposits shows the variety of customs, liturgy, and rituals practiced in different countries.
The neighboring town of Beit Jala, famous for its beautiful skyline of church steeples and narrow roads, should be anther stop for visitors to the area. It is home to the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas that was named after the patron of Beit Jala and built over the grotto believed to be the place where St. Nicholas spent part of his life as a hermit in order to worship in proximity to the place of Jesus’ birth.
Another key destination in the area is the town of Beit Sahour, located two kilometers southeast of Bethlehem and famous for the Shepherds’ Fields that are associated with the place where the angel Gabriel appeared to the shepherds and told them that Jesus was born. Roman Catholics venerate the Shepherds’ Fields located in Beit Sahour in an area known as Siyar al-Ghanam, meaning sheep’s croft, marked by three underground caves and the archeological ruins of an olive press, stables, and a Byzantine monastery that was probably destroyed in 614 by the Persians. In 1950, a modern Church, designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, was built on the site in a shape that aims to resemble a shepherd’s tent.
The Greek Orthodox Site at Shepherds’ Fields, also known as Kanisat al-Ruwat, is also located in Beit Sahour. The ruins at the site feature a grotto that has been used as a church since the fourth century. Above it can be found remains of a Byzantine chapel which was destroyed in 614. The chapel and a monastery had been rebuilt in the seventh century and survived until the tenth century; in 1989, a new, large church was built on the site. The fourth century lower church has been restored, and the remains of the upper church and of the monastery have been preserved. There is also an archaeological site that is known as the Tower of Edar which is said to have been built by Jacob after the death of his wife Rachel. (Genesis 35:21)
Cultural life in Bethlehem is vibrant with local festivals that take place throughout the year. Whether it is the famous Artas Lettuce Festival, the Faqous Festival in Beit Sahour, olive harvest festivals, or Christmas celebrations – on all these occasions, visitors to Bethlehem can enjoy cultural (evening) celebrations with the various local communities that host these events.
Finally, Bethlehem’s gastronomy offers dining options that are diverse and cater to almost any craving with many restaurants and cafes throughout town. Whether you are seeking traditional Palestinian cuisine or want to opt for Italian, French, or Chinese food, you will be able to still your hunger – or to delight your senses and experience a bit of culinary luxury.
The Bethlehem area is also quite famous for offering visitors home-stays, arrangements that allow foreigners to live with a Palestinian family and to experience first-hand the true essence of Palestinian hospitality. Various tour operators organize this service on both a short-term and a long-term basis. Hundreds of foreign volunteers also come and visit in order to work and volunteer in various non-profit organizations. Overall, the tourism infrastructure in Bethlehem is fully developed and able to cater to the needs of any visitor. New hotels and restaurants continue to open across the governorate. Several sites have been or are being restored, most prominent of which is the roof of the Church of the Nativity, while everyone is waiting with a great anticipation for the uncovering of other restored parts inside the old Basilica. The beautiful wall mosaics and frescoes that had darkened with time soon will be visible again in new glory.
This Christmas, Bethlehem will once again host thousands of visitors and pilgrims who are coming from across the world to our humble town in order to celebrate Christmas. While the calendar of events and activities is still under preparation, be sure to check out local listings to find out what is happening during your stay. Be sure to stop by the Visit Palestine Center’s tourism information point and get the latest calendar of events or free tourist maps, or join one of the day-tours offered in the Bethlehem area.