Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus and the most popular time to visit is during Christmas. Bethlehem at Christmas is when Christians make a pilgrimage to the Palestinian city and there is a special feeling inside the city. Today, the church of the Nativity sits at the place were Jesus was born and tourism is the main focus of the economy.
Bethlehem lies just 8 kilometers from Jerusalem, but you will find a very different feeling here. located in the West Bank, the occuplied terrotory feels very different than Jerusalem. However, this richly complex region is well worth visiting, and if you are a Christian, Christmas is the perfect time to visit Bethlehem.
What to Expect in Bethlehem at Christmas?
Bethlehem at Christmas is a different place to go to. European cities are too cold at Christmas, and sometimes you do not find the spiritual atmosphere you are looking for there. Here, the experience is different. Being in the place where the whole religion started makes you feel like the long widespread history going through your bones. It is also a must-see in the Middle East at any time of year.
Christmas is one of the few times in the year where the whole population gather and celebrate in different spots around the city, and when it comes to Bethlehem, people get worried about their safety since this area is known for its unrests.
Is Bethlehem a safe place?
Bethlehem is located in the Palestinian territories, and there there are conflicts between Palestinians and the Isreali army on a regular basis. However, at Christmas and especially in the Manger Square area, there is nothing to worry about. Thousands of tourists visit the city every year. The experience of most tourists is quite similar; the people there are welcoming and generous.
What is different in Bethlehem?
The city gives you an eastern vibe, which is exotic yet relevant to any European.
The city feels different from any European city, as it has an oriental vibe, but despite that, it is close to the heart of any western tourist. The temples and religious sites there are old, but the atmosphere of the city and its buildings is modern. You can go to a modern western-style bar in a night, and spend the next in a church that is over two thousand years old.
This combination gives a distinctive feeling, which you will never experience in any other city in the world.
People from all around the world come to Bethlehem at Christmas. You will see European, African, and of course, Arabs and Israelis. What is fascinating the most is that the festivals are not only for Christians; people from all religions gather at Manger Square and celebrate. This moment of peace in a conflict area like Bethlehem brings peace to the heart.
While pork is forbidden in the West Bank, there are many other options you can go with in Bethlehem. What you will definitely like about Manger Square is the variety of restaurants and bars. Some restaurants serve popular Palestinian food. You can also find restaurants that serve fast food like burgers, grilled chicken, etc. In addition; there are very quiet old bars near the square, which you can go to after a long night you will spend in Manger square and the Church of Nativity. If you do not want to go to any restaurant after a long night, you can go to one of the truck foods near Manger Square.
Make sure you get yourself some hummus when you are in Palestine. They like to say they make the best falafel and it is quite delicious.
Christmas lasts longer
Some people prefer to spend Christmas in their countries, and there are many reasons to do that. What is special about Christmas in Bethlehem is that Christmas in it lasts longer. People start celebrating on 24 December and continue until the 7th of January. This means that you could have your own Christmas wherever you want and yet go to Bethlehem. While thousands come for just a day trip, there is definitely something special about staying in Bethlehem at Christmas.
Where to go in Bethlehem?
Christmas in Bethlehem can be overwhelmingly outstanding. There are many places that you should not miss while visiting Bethlehem, but since we are talking about Christmas, some places should be a priority; here is a list of the most important places in Bethlehem at Christmas.
Manger Square is the center of the city, around which the most important landmarks of the city are, but this is not the direct reason why this place is essential to visit in Bethlehem. From early in the morning, boy scouts start celebrating Christmas. Scouts from all over the world, some from Africa, and some from Europe. They celebrate nicely, but the joy does not start here. The Christmas tree is lit at sunset. A beautiful stage is set up around the square, and the bands start singing and celebrating. All this happens while the Mass takes place inside the Church of the Nativity. You might not be able to get in easily if you do not come early, as the numbers of tourists are always large.
The Church of Nativity
The Church of the Nativity means a lot to Christians around the world, and this is why you will find many people trying to enter it. The atmosphere inside is majestic and spiritual. The problem is that you will try to separate yourself from the crowd around you to focus on the aesthetic of the place, but that could be a difficult mission. The paintings on the wall and decorations of that holy place will help you feel something spiritually new. You also should take a look at the birthplace of Christ. The crowds may not help you experience the isolation you need for a moment from people, but going there is an experience that you must have.
Mar Saba Monastery
Mar Saba Monastery is one of the places in the world that you will not believe that still exists. The monastery is steeped with history and spirituality. One of the greatest things about that place is that it still preserves its history, as there is no electricity or internet in the monastery because the monks believe that this may distract them from worshiping God and distract them in matters that are of no use to them. It has strange laws though, like banning eating apples. Some People go there because they think the water springs there heal any disease.
Going to Bethlehem at Christmas, especially for the first time, is an unforgettable experience, and that is why people always go there. Repeating it may allow you to see carefully what you have not seen the first time, but still the first time is different and unique.
Spend some time Shopping
Bethlehem and Palestine in general are known for their olive trees. You can buy intricate olive wood carvings while you are in the West Bank. Read more about what to buy in the West Bank.
More Resources for Travel in the West Bank
Where to Stay in Bethlehem at Christmas
The Al Salam Hotel offers basic accommodation and is close to the Church of the Nativity. While it is an older building, it serves its purpose just fine for those who are not looking for luxury.
The Walled Off Hotel is located next to the separation wall in Bethlehem, Palestine providing visitors with a strong sense of history, spirituality, and emotion. It is a top choice for those who want a little luxury. The lobby is adorned with Banksy art.
Things to Bring with You to the West Bank
Whether you want to keep the sun off your head or want to show a little modesty, a scarf goes a long way in the West Bank any time of the year. You can bring one with you or pick up one when you arrive, but don’t leave your hotel in the morning without it! It can serve as a hat to keep the sun off your head and neck in the summer and can add some warmth in winter and can offer modesty to cover shoulders for women. A more modest dress is a good idea when visiting from Israel, so keep this in mind if you are traveling on a day trip.
A Grayl Water Bottle is something I recommend for every traveller, not just those going to the Middle East. Some people say the water is safe to drink from the tap, others say it is not; it is not something I am going to chance. And Jordan has a HUGE garbage problem. The streets, the forests and even the desert are littered with plastic bottles.
If you consider drinking at least 1-2 big water bottles a day while you are there, think of how much plastic that creates when every visitor and the population’s 9 million people do the same. With a Grayl, you can filter any tap water (or actually any water source) and have clean drinking water in seconds. Since most people travel with water bottles already, consider one like this with a filter so that you are not just pouring from big water bottles to small. It might sound expensive, but when you compare it to spending a few dollars per day on water while you travel (and do not forget how expensive the water is inside airports), you will pay for this very quickly.
Kleenex or Wipes are another thing to put on your list. Washrooms are often not well stocked with toilet paper.