Don’t miss the chance to visit Palestine.
If you happen to travel to the Middle East, you really shouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Palestine. This is a place like no other – unique in terms of history and culture; with people that are amongst the most welcoming you can find, and food that is mouthwatering.
I have been to Palestine several times, and each time I have enjoyed it more. The typical question that I get asked when I say I am traveling to Palestine is whether it is safe – well guess what: it is. So safe that I took my mother there. And when I asked her whether she perceived any immediate danger, she said “not at all.” In fact, I think she enjoyed it even more than I did.
This is to say – leave all your worries home, and start planning to travel to Palestine.
In this post, I highlight everything you need to know before visiting Palestine, share some tips on places to visit and on how to make the most of your time there.
21 Things To Know Before You Visit Palestine
The political situation is complicated
I won’t go over the details of the history of Palestine or of the conflict – you should visit Palestine, and preferably on a good guided tour (more about this later), to grasp a bit more of that. I will just sum up the political and administrative situation very briefly so that you don’t get as confused as I was last time I visited.
One thing you will notice when you visit is that in some parts there are no Jewish / Israeli people and visitors; while in some there are a few. I noticed this when I visited Herodion Palace – the people at the ticket office where all speaking Hebrew. And I was honestly confused: I thought I had gotten back to Israel without realizing it.
So, here is the thing. Palestine is divided in Area A; Area B and Area C. This division was established during the Oslo Accords, a series of agreements which were signed in the 1990s as part of the peace process.
Area A is in full control of the Palestinian Authorities. There are no Israeli settlements in Area A and Israeli citizens can’t enter it. This counts for around 18% of the West Bank and includes the cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho, and about 80% of Hebron among others.
Area B sees Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control. It counts for about 22% of the West Bank and there are no Israeli settlements.
Area C is the remaining of the West Bank and it is under full Israeli civil and security control.
Palestine is also divided into the West Bank, which is the area you will likely visit, and the Gaza Strip, where only NGO workers and journalists are allowed to enter. The Palestine I refer to in this post is strictly the West Bank.
There are no airports in Palestine
If you decide to visit Palestine, you will have to fly into one of the neighboring countries as there are no airports there. The easiest (and usually also most budget friendly) option is usually to fly to Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport and travel from there. You may want to fly to Amman, in Jordan, but you won’t be able to cross the border directly into Palestine from there.
It’s safer than you think
The reaction you’ll get when you’ll tell your friends and family that you intend to visit Palestine will likely be a blank face. Questions will follow: “Is it actually safe to visit?”
The thing is, whatever people know about Palestine, they get it from the little news that makes it to our countries. Most of the time, news focus about the situation in or near the Gaza Strip, while little is said about the West Bank, which is where you would go.
The West Bank is completely safe to visit. It’s been living in peace for around 20 years now – with occasional protests, which by the way occur in any country. The overall impression you get when you visit is of an extremely friendly, chilled place where it is pleasant to walk around and explore.
Even though Palestine is safe to visit, I recommend getting a good travel insurance for your trip. Get yours here.
The local currency is the Israeli Shekel
The official currency in Palestine is the Israeli Shekel (NIS). The Jordanian Dinar is also accepted, and it is often the currency used for savings. Euro and US Dollars are also accepted.
It is not cheap
I bet you think Palestine is nice and cheap to visit, and it will give you a break from the crazy prices of Israel. Think again! Palestine is just as expensive. The only cheap thing you are bound to get in Palestine is staple food – hummus, falafel, and similar.
A meal will cost you between $10 and $20 USD – and that’s if you manage to get to a place that is not overpriced. Accommodation starts from $20 USD for a bed in a dorm. Not exactly a budget friendly place.
Your Israeli SIM card will work in Palestine
Getting a SIM card in Israel is super easy (though it’s not the cheapest thing in the world). The good news is that you can take it with you to Palestine, and it will work just as fine and at no extra charges. This is a better option than getting a Palestinian SIM card, which is usually limited to 3G. High speed wifi is available in most of the country.
People are truly lovely
One thing people never say about Palestine is how nice locals truly are. I think it’s hard to find such kind, friendly, welcoming and truly generous people. These are people that would literally open the door of their houses for you, and make you feel like a king and would feel honored to host you. Expect to be offered freshly brewed coffee anywhere you visit!
Arabic is the official language
People in Palestine speak Arabic – one of the many dialects of it. English is widely spoken in the tourism industry, so chances are that you will be able to have conversations with cab and bus drivers, people at restaurants and shops as well.
Islam isn’t the only religion
The majority of Palestinians are Muslims (Sunni), and modest clothing is appreciated there. Places like Hebron and Nablus tend to be quite conservative, but Ramallah is more modern and thriving with life.
However, you should know that Islam isn’t the only religion in Palestine. Other than the Jewish people that live in the settlements, there is a nice chunk of the population that is actually Christian. Most of them live in Bethlehem, and in other smaller cities.
The food is delicious
One thing you can rest assured with is that food in Palestine is delicious. You have probably heard of Palestinian staples such as falafel (fritters of chickpea flour mixed with parsley, onion and other tasty ingredients) and hummus (a spread of chickpeas with tahina, lemon, garlic and a good dose of olive oil). But there is way more to Palestinian food than hummus!
Make sure to try mansaf – a dish of slowly cooked lamb with yellow rice and a fantastic mix of spices. Most restaurants will serve it, but the best one is homemade!
Maqluba is another must have. The word literally means “upside down” and refers to the way of serving this dish of meat, rice, and fried vegetables – which are flipped when served.
You can actually get alcohol
The presence of Christians in Palestine is good news for those of us who enjoy a drink every now and then. Alcohol is available in Palestine, and you can have wine or beer with your drink. In fact, there even are some really good microbreweries where you can get craft beer and even go on beer tasting tours. The first brewery was founded in Taybeh, where many Christians live. It is easily accessible from Ramallah.
Ramallah is not the capital
Ask anybody in Palestine what their capital is, and they will say that although Ramallah is the center of the local economy and of administration, their capital is Jerusalem. They call it Al Quds.
You can easily get to Bethlehem from Jerusalem
If you want to pop in for a quick visit to Bethlehem, you’ll be glad to know that there are several public buses that will take there from Jerusalem. You need to go to Damascus Gate, where there is a bus station, and hop on bus 231. If you don’t mind having to cross the checkpoint (more about this below), you can also take bus 234.
Though Bethlehem is really close to Jerusalem (around 10 km) the trip can take up to one hour as the bus has to stop several times, and go around town through several streets to avoid the checkpoints.
The trip costs just 7 Israeli Shekels (NIS) one way. You must get off at Bab El-Zalak / Beit Jala Road and it’s about a 15 minutes walk to the center of Bethlehem.
You may have to cross a checkpoint to enter
This is not always the case – it really depends on the route you follow and on the public bus you use. Sometimes you will have to walk through a checkpoint (it’s no more no less than a passport control, really), other times you won’t need to. One thing for sure, whenever you travel to Palestine you need to have your passport with you.
Keep in mind that checkpoints can take time – there may be a line of people trying to get across, and this may delay your arrival to your final destination, and you may end up having less time than you had hoped in Palestine.
If you want to avoid checkpoints altogether, you can opt to do a guided tour like one of those I have suggested.
Make sure to bring your passport and your Israeli visa card any time you plan to go to Palestine.
But you don’t need a visa
You won’t have to apply for a visa to visit Palestine, and your passport won’t be stamped when you cross the border. All you need is the Israeli visa card. Visitors from European Union countries, United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and many more can get a visa on arrival valid for 90 days upon getting to Israel.
You’re better off going to Palestine on a guided tour
I think that a guided tour is a far better option to visit Palestine than going independently – especially if you don’t have much time to make all the arrangements. You really need a local guide that explains you the history, the culture and even a little bit of politics. Plus it is much easier to have everything arranged beforehand so that all you have to do is bring your camera and enjoy the day.
The best tours of Palestine are led by Abraham Tours. I have been on all of them (literally, and some of them actually twice) and I wholeheartedly recommend them. These are the ones I prefer:
- Best of the West Bank tour from Jerusalem with Abraham Tours – a fantastic tour of Palestine that in a day takes you to all the most important places. There is also an identical tour departing from Tel Aviv.
- Hebron Dual Narrative tour – if you only have time for one tour and are interested in the conflict, this is the one you want. Abraham did an excellent job at joining together the narratives of Israelis and Palestinians so you’ll hear both sides of the story.
- West Bank 3-day package tour – another tour by Abraham, perfect if you have a bit more time.
But you can can also visit independently
If you are a convinced independent traveler, you’ll be happy to know that you can visit Palestine independently. It’s a bit more time consuming, and it probably will turn out just as expensive as going on a guided tour, but it is doable. Roads are in good conditions and public transportation works well in the West Bank. Big buses are cheap, but a bit slow. Serveece – yellow minivans – are more expensive but faster.
You can go there any time of year
Any time is a good time to visit Palestine. I have been there in April, in November and in December, and each time had a fantastic experience. Keep in mind that the desert bits such as Jericho can get scorchingly hot in the summer.
There are some incredible places to visit
There are many more places to visit in Palestine than you’d imagine. I have been there several times and I have yet to see them all. Nature wise, Palestine is very varied – there are beautiful hills and forests as well as the desert. Scattered around you will find some very interesting archeological sites; villages and cities. The ones I mentioned are those you really should not miss.
Bethlehem usually is the first stop if you ever visit Palestine – mainly because it is very easy to reach from Jerusalem. The city isn’t the most beautiful you will see in your life, but there are many interesting places to visit – especially if you are keen on seeing Biblical sites. I have selected a few you can’t miss.
For a complete guide about Bethlehem, make sure to read The Crowded Planet’s post.
For a very reliable driver to take you around Bethlehem, you can get in touch with Ali, a taxi driver from Bethlehem. You can get in touch with him via whatsapp at +972 522 912745 or via his Facebook page. He’s an incredibly friendly, reliable person; he drives a good, clean car; and he speaks really good English. Don’t forget to mention my name (Claudia from Italy) when you contact him.
The following are some of the places to visit in Bethlehem you should not miss.
Church and Grotto of the Nativity
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity. This church, which is beautifully decorated, is famous for being home to the Grotto of the Nativity, said to be the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus – though even the rest of the church is really interesting to visit.
The church was built upon orders of Constantine’s mother Helena in 339 AD. Destroyed and rebuilt several times, the church is actually quite large and airy, with some beautiful mosaics – some discovered after renovation works in 1934.
The grotto is quite small. There are a few steps to get to it. Once inside, you will see that there is a 14 point star, which marks the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus; and the manger where Jesus was placed. The Grotto of the Nativity is regularly packed with people chanting or praying – for religious people this is a highly spiritual experience. For Atheists like me, it’s an interesting historical place to visit.
There are normally lines to get to the actual grotto – so make sure to visit first thing in the morning. The church is inevitably more crowded during Christmas time.
Make sure to also visit St. Catherine’s Church, which is right next to the Church of the Nativity.
The Church and Grotto of the Nativity are much better visited on a guided tour: you really need a guide to help you through the crowds and to makes sense of what you are seeing. Read above for the recommended tours.
Chapel of the Milk Grotto
Significantly less visited (we were the only ones there when we went) than the Church of the Nativity, this lovely chapel was built in the 19th century around the Grotto where the Holy Family stayed to preserve baby Jesus from Herod’s massacre of the innocents. According to legend, some drops of milk fell from the Virgin Mary and turned the rock inside the grotto completely white. Nowadays, this is a place of worship especially for couples looking to conceive a child.
Another place to visit in Bethlehem for Christians is Shepherd’s Field – thought to be the place where the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. It’s located a bit outside the center of Bethlehem, in a beautiful, quiet park where you will find a Greek Orthodox church and a catholic one built to remind the structure of the tent where the shepherds would spend the night. Below this, there is a grotto with a small chapel.
This is a sacred site for the three monotheistic religions. In theory, it would be located on the Palestinian side of the Separation Wall, but in order for the Israelis to be able to visit, a detour in the wall was created so that it now is in Israeli territory.
I am not sure I’d call the Separation Wall a tourist attraction. This wall was built for more than 700 km around the border of the West Bank. It is 9 meters tall, with barbed wire on its top. It marks a clear separation between Israel and Palestine and it is a massive source of controversy. The wall itself has been used by graffiti artists – including the famous Banksy – from around the world to express their contempt for the conflict and for the wall itself.
Walled Off Hotel
This lovely boutique hotel was built right in front of the Separation Wall. While most hotels will pride themselves of having a beautiful view, the Walled Off Hotel made the conscious choice of clearly showing a place that has such a strong meaning in the every day life of Palestinians. You can visit the ground floor, where you will find a couple of pieces of Banksy (in fact, this is hotel – also known as Banksy Hotel – was open by the artist in the hope of bringing Israeli tourists and dialogue in Bethlehem), and a quirky yet cozy lounge room.
If you are interested in spending a night there, you will be happy to know that there is something for any budget. Click here for the latest rates.
Located 5 km south east of Bethlehem, this is a palace and a small town the Herod The Great built between 23 and 15 BCE. It is thought that Herod was also buried there. The site is under Israel National Parks Authority and a national park – so you will find Israeli visitors there.
You will have to walk uphill from the visitors’ center to get to the main site, from where you will be able to enjoy incredible views that on clear days span all the way to the Dead Sea. You can walk back down from the secret tunnels.
The entry fee to Herodion Palace is 29 NIS.
Close to the Dead Sea, Jericho is located at around 400 meters below sea level. It’s known as the lowest city on Earth, as well as the oldest one – having been founded around 10000 years ago. The city itself is nothing special – there is an archeological site that has been half excavated, but you can’t really make sense of it without a guide.
The surroundings of Jericho are gorgeous though – lots of hiking trails, and a couple of monasteries which include the Monastery of Temptation, said to be the place where Jesus spent 40 days and nights praying and fasting while he was being tempted by Satan. The monastery can be reached via cable car and from there you can get incredible views of the Dead Sea and of Jericho.
Baptismal Site on the Jordan River
This is the site where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was baptized. Marking the border between the West Bank and Jordan, this is a very important place for Christians, who go there on pilgrimages and immerse themselves in the water to be baptized. You will find several fonts of water – you’ll see many people refilling their bottles, which they often take home to offer to their friends and relatives who were unable to travel.
Ramallah is a must when you visit Palestine. This the biggest and most cosmopolitan (as well as chaotic) city in Palestine. It’s a fun place to spend a few hours, usually the starting point of guided tours of the West Bank. The most interesting place to visit is Arafat Mausoleum and Museum, where you will be able to learn a bit more about the history of Palestine.
Hebron is by far the most interesting place in the West Bank – if you plan to visit Palestine for just one day, this is where you should go. This is a much fought over city – holy for both the Jews and the Muslims, as it is where the Tomb of Abraham is located.
After a series of conflicts, the city has been divided in two separate zones – one strictly for Israeli settlers, who count for around 3% of the population; and one for the Palestinians only, who make up the rest of the residents.
Hebron is not an easy place to move around (though you can get there easily by public bus from Jerusalem central bus station), with all the checkpoints, so you really want to go there on a guided tour. The best ones are run by Abraham Tours and usually see two guides – a Palestinian one to take you around the Palestinian part of the city; and an Israeli one to go around the place inhabited by the settlers.
It’s a very intense place – you go there and hear two sides of the same story, and each one of them is incredibly convincing. You will left speechless, and unable to really make sense of what you have experienced. But it is worth it.
Here are more places to visit in Palestine.
Other useful tips
I recommend getting a good travel insurance for your trip to Palestine. Make sure it covers trips to the West Bank. Get yours here.
Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.
Further Readings About Palestine
There is a wealth of material you could be reading to get to know a bit more about Palestine. I recommend heading to your local library and get your hands on on any book that sounds interesting to you. The one you should get your hands on is The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers.
Traveling to the Middle East? Make sure to read the following posts:
- Why I took a Dual Narrative Tour of Hebron
- 29 Things To Do In Jerusalem You Can’t Miss
- 9 Fantastic Day Trips From Jerusalem
- 21 Absolutely Unmissable Things To Do In Tel Aviv
- The 13 Best Day Trips From Tel Aviv
- A Guide To The Things To Do In Haifa, Israel
- 17 Truly Unmissable Things To Do In Eilat, Israel
- Everything You Need To Know To Hike The Jesus Trail
- The 10 Best Places To Visit During A Trip To Israel
- All The Places To Visit In Jordan For The Ultimate Adventure
- 11 Things to Know Before Visiting Petra, Jordan
Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Abraham Tours during my trip to Palestine and I wish to thank them for the wonderful time. As always, the views expressed in this post remain my own.