Bethlehem Walking Tour, Jerusalem

Bethlehem Walking Tour (Self Guided), Jerusalem

Perched on a hill at the edge of the Judaean Desert, Bethlehem has been known to the world, for more than two millennia, as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The “star of Bethlehem” as well as Christmas carols and hymns are firmly associated with this ancient city in the West Bank, Palestine, and thus, for some visitors, the bustle of a modern city may come as a surprise.

Undoubtedly, the main tourist attraction of Bethlehem remains the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square, constructed by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD. For anyone – religious or otherwise – who has ever celebrated Christmas, it’s a definite must-visit site with lots to feast the eyes on, including an unbelievable amount of mosaics and ancient artefacts. Make sure to take plenty of photos while there!

There is more to Bethlehem than just that standalone landmark, however. Only five minutes’ walk of Manger Square you’ll find another major Christian landmark – the Milk Grotto, where it is said the Holy Family took refuge during the Slaughter of the Innocents, before their eventual flight into Egypt, and Mary let a drop of her milk fall to the ground while nursing Jesus, so turning the rock from red to chalky white. The present building, a cool and serene escape from the summer heat outside, was put up by the Franciscans in the 1870s on the site of a 4th­century church. On your way to it, you’ll find numerous souvenir shops selling fine olive­wood and mother-of-pearl carvings that local craftsmen have produced for centuries.

Among other highlights are the Church of Saint Catherine, from where the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is televised and beamed worldwide; the 15th-century Mosque of Omar with its distinctive square minaret, and fascinating traditional architecture dating to the Ottoman period in Palestine (1515–1917), particularly on Star Street.

Join us on this self-guided walking tour for an unforgettable experience in Bethlehem!
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Bethlehem Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Bethlehem Walking Tour
Guide Location: Israel » Jerusalem (See other walking tours in Jerusalem)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 8
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.6 Km or 1 Miles
Author: vickyc
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Manger Square, Bethlehem
  • Church of the Nativity
  • St. Catherine's Church
  • Milk Grotto Street Shops
  • Milk Grotto
  • Mosque of Omar
  • Visit Palestine Center
  • Star Street
Manger Square, Bethlehem

1) Manger Square, Bethlehem

Manger Square is one of the top tourist destinations in Bethlehem, located in the heart of the Old City. Throughout the year, this central plaza plays host to many public events. Apart from being a hub of modern life, featuring cafes, shops and restaurants, souvenir stores, Bethlehem Peace Center and Municipality building, this square is popular primarily for being flanked by the landmark religious sites, such as the 4th century Church of the Nativity (dominating the eastern side), the Church of St Catherine (on the western side), and the Mosque of Omar.

The latter is relatively modern, built only in 1860, and has a lovely story associated with it. The mosque is named after Caliph Omar whose Arab armies conquered Byzantine Jerusalem in 637 A.D. After capturing the city, the caliph prayed inside the Church of the Nativity, declaring that the Christians would thenceforth be allowed to continue freely practicing their faith in this important shrine.

Strolling along the narrow, full of character alleyways of the Old City, lined with the beautifully ornamented, centuries-old stone buildings (which are not just architectural landmarks but the real homes of Bethlehemites) can be an interesting activity – a kind of travel back in time, recalling, among others, the events of the Nativity Story!
Church of the Nativity

2) Church of the Nativity (must see)

10 km south of Jerusalem, this site in Bethlehem has been identified by Christian tradition as the birthplace of Jesus since the 2nd century. In 325 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine built a chapel over the Grotto of the Nativity making it the oldest church in the Holy Land currently in use. Although the original basilica perished in fire, it was rebuilt in the 6th century, courtesy of Emperor Justinian, and then was renovated again in the 11th century by the Crusaders who retained the elaborate floor mosaics from the original building.

The central doorway shows the overlap of styles centuries apart, featuring the original door surround and the relief-decorated architrave of Justinian's church. The Crusaders reduced the size of the entrance, inserting a doorway with a pointed arch and walling in the upper part of the original one. Later, the doorway was further reduced in order to prevent the Mamluks from riding in on their horses. As a result, the entrance now measures only 1.2 meters high so that whoever comes in must bend down. Overall, the Nativity site represents a complex incorporating Latin, Greek Orthodox, Franciscan and Armenian convents and churches, as well as bell towers, terraced gardens and a pilgrimage route.
St. Catherine's Church

3) St. Catherine's Church

St Catherine’s is a parish church within the Church of the Nativity compound in Bethlehem, and practically shares a wall with the Nativity Church. This chapel was built in 1882 as part of a Franciscan monastery, thanks to the funding provided by Austrian Emperor, thus expanding the previous St Catherine shrine that stood on this site since 1347. Both, the new church and the Franciscan monastery reveal architectural elements from different historic periods, namely: the 12th century Crusader Church and Charter House, as well as the 5th century Sanctuary of St Jerome once located here. In 1948, the church, and specifically its cloister, were redesigned and, in 2013, were expanded further to accommodate more worshipers.

The church is named after St Catherine, a 4th-century princess and scholar from the Egyptian city of Alexandria who adopted Christianity after witnessing the vision of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus. Together with the underground caves, the church is one of the top attractions in Bethlehem and stands on the site where Jesus appeared before St Catherine and predicted her martyrdom.

Underneath the church there is a complex of caves which hold several shrines and ancient tombs. Among the buried here are St Paula, her daughter Eustochium, and St Jerome. The latter also spent time in these caves translating the Latin Bible into the vernacular language. The grottoes are connected to the adjacent Church of the Nativity via passageway.

In 2012, St Catherine's Church was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the "Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route in Bethlehem". It follows the Roman Rite and is currently administered by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Each year on the 24th of December, the church plays host to the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass broadcast live to millions of viewers worldwide.
Milk Grotto Street Shops

4) Milk Grotto Street Shops

The Olive Wood Factory and the Blessings Gift Shop are within two minutes walk from The Church of the Nativity and the nearby Milk Grotto Church in Bethlehem, and are easy to find. Together these two enterprises represent a Christian family business established in 1925 and currently run by the third generation of the Giacaman family.

Upon entering the shop, visitors are greeted with an intricate wooden Nativity sculpture and a friendly member of staff. Inside there is a seemingly endless selection of ornately carved keepsakes and other products made from olive wood. There are literally hundreds of handcrafted objects, from crosses to carved animals and more to choose from – all fitting souvenirs from a trip to Bethlehem, and the visitors are welcome to view and take pictures as well as their time to pore over. Furthermore, the shopkeepers offer free WiFi, local map, coffee, tea, or any other help/advice you may possibly need without any pressure to buy whatsoever.

Those interested are also welcome to visit the nearby factory and see for themselves the products being handcrafted by skilled carpenters. Another attraction here is the 360 degree view of Bethlehem opening from the factory roof. The place is open for visits anytime by appointment outside regular opening hours, and is closed on Sundays.
Milk Grotto

5) Milk Grotto

The Chapel of Milk Grotto, otherwise known as the Grotto of Our Lady or simply the Milk Grotto, is a major Christian landmark in Bethlehem, situated not far from the Church of the Nativity. This cave-chapel, erected in 1872, is believed to be the site where the Holy Family – Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus – found refuge after the nativity, and where Mary rested while nursing baby Jesus during the Massacre of the Innocents (murder of all infant boys ordered by King Herod) prior to fleeing into Egypt.

According to a legend, a drop of Mary's breast milk fell on the cave's floor and whitened the stone. For ages, ever since the Byzantine era, this tiny 5x10-meter grotto has been a favored pilgrimage destination for women of various religions seeking intercession of the Blessed Virgin, be it for a gift of offspring for those childless women who have trouble conceiving, or the mothers looking to increase their milk supply. Many believe that a visit here aids with both, especially if the powdery white chalk from the cave is mixed into food. The inner walls of the chapel are covered with letters from the past pilgrims.

This site has been venerated since the 4th century. In the 5th century, a Byzantine church was built over the grotto and, in the 7th century, pieces of its stone walls were sent to churches around Europe. In 1375, the Milk Grotto was recognized by Pope Gregory XI, and, in 1872, the Franciscan Brothers built here a basilica with a courtyard featuring remnants of a colorful mosaic floor from the Byzantine chapel. In 1935, a flat sculpture was added to the chapel’s facade, and, in 2007, a modern chapel was erected alongside the site connected by a tunnel.
Mosque of Omar

6) Mosque of Omar

Bethlehem’s skyline is a palimpsest inscribed with symbols of the long-lasting coexistence of Christian and Muslim faiths. One such symbol is the Mosque of Omar, the only mosque in Bethlehem’s Old City, sided with numerous minarets and bell towers soaring high above the horizon standing next to each other.

Located in Manger Square, right across from the Nativity Church, the Mosque of Omar was built in 1860 on a land donated by the Greek Orthodox Church in honor of the second Caliph Rashidi Omar Bin Al Khattab, father-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, who took Bethlehem in 637 A.D. from the flagging Byzantines and then stopped for a prayer at the Christian Church of the Nativity. After that, the Caliph vowed to protect the sanctity of Christian churches and monuments, as well as the clergy.

The Omar Mosque underwent substantial renovation in 1955, under the Jordanian Mandate over parts of Palestine (the West Bank), and then again in 2004, after suffering damages during the Second Palestinian Intifada. During Ramadan nights, the square in front of the mosque gets busy with worshipers gathering for collective evening prayers, Taraweeh, marking the Iftar, breaking of the fast.
Visit Palestine Center

7) Visit Palestine Center

Centrally located in a beautifully restored 200-year old building in the Old City of Bethlehem, the Visit Palestine Center is an information bureau and recreational facility combined, situated within just a few minutes walk from Manger Street and the Church of the Nativity. This Tourist Information Point is fully equipped to help with planning and organization of trips to Palestine. Also on offer is a unique shopping experience at the on-site Boutique Gift Shop carrying a selection of unique trendy and useful items exclusively made in Palestine by young local artists using a variety of materials. The latest addition to the site is a cafe and outdoor terrace restaurant offering a wide choice of hot and cold drinks, light meals and salads. Also, the center regularly holds cultural events, such as movie screenings, book launches, food tastings and more.
Star Street

8) Star Street

Historically known as Haret el-Tarajmeh (the quarter of the interpreters clan), Star Street is the main artery leading to the Old City and the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, with remnants of the city wall still visible in the arch that once represented main gateway to the city. The opening of Manger Street during the British Mandate (1917-1948) largely reduced Star Street's importance, which was then restored with rehabilitation works under the Bethlehem 2000 Project. Today, Star Street is trying to regain its historic status, and its listing among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2012 is seen as a vehicle for that.

Traditionally, each year on Christmas Eve, Patriarchs of the official Churches of Jerusalem – Latin, Orthodox, and Armenian – enter Bethlehem in a formal procession through Star Street, hence its other name – the “Patriarch Route.” This procession symbolically follows the same path as was taken by the Holy Family more than 2,000 years ago. Still, the significance of Star Street goes beyond purely religious.

For years, it has housed a number of workshops where craftsmen carved the traditional olive wood and mother-of-pearl artifacts so much loved by the tourists. It is also an emblem of the customs and traditions that have marked the social life of its inhabitants – every procession in the city, from a wedding to a funeral, from the marching of scouts to the marching of prayers during the holy month of Mary, passes through Star Street. The area is also considered a palimpsest of the history of architecture in the city, featuring a mix of Ottoman traditional homes, dating back to the 17th century, and early 20th-century mansions showing Italian influences and reflecting the affluence of an emerging bourgeois class.

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