Whether you’re a Christian pilgrim, a history lover, or simply a curious traveler, visiting Bethlehem is a must for anyone who’s taking a trip to Israel.
Practically a household name in most of the Western world (and much of the East too) this little town, a few kilometers from Jerusalem, is - of course - famous for hosting one of the most well-known events in history - the birth of Jesus Christ.
Recreating the Nativity Story
The Nativity Story, as it is known, began in Nazareth, in northern Israel, when a young Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel (telling her she would bear a child who would be the Son of God.
It ended in Bethlehem, with Mary and Joseph cradling their infant in a stable, because there was no room at a nearby inn.
The Nativity scene, as seen in the Bethlehem main church
It’s a much-loved story and, over the centuries, the Nativity story has been woven into the fabric of children’s lives.
Carol concerts (with hymns that include ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem' and ‘Away in a Manger’) and nativity pageants, recreating the story of shepherds watching their flocks, Jesus lying in a manger (since he had no crib for a bed) and the journey of the Three Kings - Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar - who traveled from faraway lands, bearing gifts for the infant, are something that really brings the story to life.
A Holy Town with a Rich History
No wonder then that every Christian pilgrim will want to make a journey to this sacred place, and those of other faiths will find it no less interesting, because of the rich history surrounding the tale.
Bethlehem at dusk
Home to the Church of the Nativity (in a building constructed by the Roman Emperor Constantine, inside which a silver star marks the spot where Jesus is said to have been born), the town also boasts the Mar Saba monastery (carved into a cliff overlooking the Kidron Valley, and inhabited by 15 Greek Orthodox monks), the Milk Grotto (popular with those who wish to pray to Jesus’ mother, Mary), Shepherd’s Fields (where the birth of Jesus was announced) and Solomon’s Pools (which, historically, were an essential water source for Jerusalem). So there really is quite a lot to see!
Where is Bethlehem?
Bethlehem is extremely close to Jerusalem - approximately 9kms (5.5 miles), in the southern area of the Judean mountains - which makes for a relatively easy journey. However, the fact that it sits in the West Bank means that when you travel there you will have to cross out of sovereign Israel territory into an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority. So, having your passport handy is essential - other than that, it’s not a difficult journey to make.
Shepherd’s Fields Church
In practical terms, as we’ve said above, it’s a simple journey to make, since it really is a hop, skip and jump from Jerusalem.
Moreover, there are no restrictions as to how many times you can go back and forth, and because the border crossing is easily accessible, and the guards on both sides are helpful and friendly, you don’t need to worry.
Star Marks the Spot, Where Jesus Christ Born, Grotto of the Nativity Bethlehem
And in terms of safety, whilst there are occasional flare-ups in Israel, Bethlehem tends to be a very safe place for tourists to visit and very few people encounter any problems. So, let’s look at the options for getting there:
Visiting Bethlehem by Public Bus
Taking a public bus is cheap, safe, and pretty easy and there are two upon which you can hop, one in the west of the city and the other in the east:
Egged bus 163 - this leaves both from the city’s Central Bus Station on the Jaffa Road (next door to which is the main train station and opposite which is the Jerusalem light railway). The journey itself only takes 27 minutes; however, it will not drop you exactly in the town, rather at Rachel’s Tomb, on the Israeli side of the border. You can then walk across the checkpoint (showing your passport) and continue on by foot, for 25 minutes (or grab a cab).
Note that Egged Buses are usually green
Bus 21 from the East Jerusalem Bus Station - located on Sultan Suleiman Street, opposite the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, there’s no timetable for this bus but the service is frequent. The bus is blue in color and don’t be afraid to ask the locals for help - everyone is friendly and speaks English.
Unlike the Egged bus, the 21 bus travels through Beit Jala, right across the checkpoint, and drops you directly in Bethlehem. So whilst it takes a bit longer than the 163, it’s direct and the chances are that you’ll be able to show your passport on the bus itself, rather than disembark.
Visiting Bethlehem by Taxi
This is a viable option if you want to travel independently but want to avoid the hassle of public transport. If you are traveling to Bethlehem from West Jerusalem, you will be picked up in a taxi with a white number plate and this can only take you as far as the checkpoint.
There, you can cross by foot and then easily catch a taxi with a yellow number plate the rest of the way (or walk, which takes about 25-30 minutes).
The most popular ride-sharing app in Israel is GETT, and you can also use Uber and Yango
Alternatively, take the Light Railway to East Jerusalem and there find a taxi with a yellow number plate. This driver will be able to take you the entire way. The best thing to do, in our opinion, is to negotiate a price before you get in and ask the driver if (for a reasonable sum) he will wait for you in Bethlehem and then drive you home at the end of your trip.
Visiting Bethlehem On Foot
If you’re up for an adventure, and you’ve got comfy shoes, it’s certainly possible to follow in the footsteps of Mary and Joseph and walk to Bethlehem, though you should allow a good two hours, if departing from the Old City. Note that this method should be practiced with a group of pilgrims and a local guide.
Walking to Bethlehem? It's possible, but there are better ways
Essentially, you’ll follow the Bethlehem and Hebron Roads, and if you’re walking in summer (which we don't recommend, since you might end up with heat exhaustion) make sure to take plenty of water and a wide-brimmed hat.
Visiting Bethlehem with a Rented Car
Whilst renting a car in Israel is easy and relatively inexpensive, because Bethlehem is in the West Bank (and under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority), for insurance reasons it is not possible to take an Israeli rental car across the border/checkpoint.
Cars you've rented in Israel won't be able to enter Palestinian territories
It is possible to drive your rental car to the checkpoint and leave it there, continuing after the checkpoint either by taxi. You can then cross back after your trip and jump back in your car.
Visiting Bethlehem with a Guided Tour
This is by far and away the most convenient option, in that everything will be taken care of for you. The advantages of taking an organized tour are not small - not only will you be picked up and dropped off at your hotel (or another central point in Jerusalem), but you will also have the services of Israeli and Palestinian guides.
An organized tour: the simplest way to see Bethlehem
They are experienced, qualified guides, with a command of both the Hebrew and Arabic language, and they’ll be with you at all times, to deal with the logistics of the border crossing and also to allay any nerves you might have.
And not only are there regular tours departing from Jerusalem to Bethlehem running daily, but it’s also possible to take a ‘multi-location’ day trip - perhaps to Bethlehem, Jericho, and Qasr al Yahud (the spot at which John the Baptist baptized Jesus) or combine Jerusalem and Bethlehem - perfect for Christian pilgrims.
Qasr al Yahud Baptismal Site, right next to the Jordanian Border
To sum up, it might be a little more expensive but taking a guided tour is definitely the easiest way to navigate this kind of trip. In the event that there are political tensions, you’ll know about them beforehand via your guide, plus you won’t have to deal with language barriers, cultural differences, and any issues at the checkpoint itself.
On a typical organized trip, you’ll be taken to all of the major sites and, should you be traveling to Israel in December, then there’s the option of taking a Christmas Eve tour to Bethlehem, where you can soak up the wonderful atmosphere and take part in the traditional Midnight mass in Manger Square.
For more about the package tours, privately-guided trips, and day excursions around Israel (and to Petra, in Jordan) that we offer, contact us by email or telephone and, in the meantime, feel free to take a look at our blog, in which we write about every imaginable aspect of Israeli life, from food & drink, sandy beaches, and desert fortresses to holy places, national parks and desert hikes.