The West Bank isn't just about politics, and anyone visiting will find some thoroughly positive headlines: a treasure trove of gorgeous nature trails, fascinating ancient ruins and surprisingly lively nightlife. While military checkpoints and ongoing tension can complicate logistics, the region’s relative security has translated into a boom in Palestinian tourism; in fact, it topped the United Nations World Tourism Organization's list of fastest growing destinations for travellers in 2017.
The West Bank is easily accessible from Jerusalem via a network of shared taxis, known as servees. Start off in Ramallah or Bethlehem, where, beyond the Holy Land tourist hotspots, you’ll find farm-to-table restaurants, cheeky hotels and restored ancient sites that celebrate the Palestinian West Bank in all its many complexities.
Walled-Off (Banksy) Hotel, Bethlehem
Designed by the evasive street graffiti artist, the Banksy Hotel boasts the ‘worst view in the world’: it directly faces the towering, controversial 10m-high concrete barrier wall that physically separates the West Bank from Israel, often a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Banksy designed the hotel’s nine rooms, replete with plush leather couches, tacky red velvet drapes and bleak oil paintings that evoke the out-of-place British colonial outposts of yore. The presidential suite is ‘equipped with everything a corrupt head of state would need’, from to a four-person hot tub to a well-stocked tiki bar. The Walled-Off Hotel's lobby bar is a draw for guests and non-guests alike, lured in by afternoon tea or classic cocktails set to a maudlin soundtrack of a self-playing baby grand piano.
La Grotta, Ramallah
Like Bethlehem, internationally influenced Ramallah is decidedly pro-alcohol and pro-partying. As the de facto capital, and the hub of the Palestinian government and economy, Ramallah is the centre of liberal, secular Palestinian life and has several sophisticated rooftop cocktail bars. But La Grotta, a bar owned by a local musician and on the first floor of a traditional house in Ramallah’s Old City, is the destination of choice for those seeking a casual, more authentic night out. La Grotta is the watering hole for many of the West Bank's intelligentsia and musicians, some of whom come equipped with traditional Arab oud guitars and goblet-shaped derbekke drums, ready to break into live performance at any moment.
Hosh Jasmin, Beit Jala
A rustic restaurant planted next to a family-owned organic farm, Hosh Jasmin is a pastoral retreat just outside tourist-heavy Bethlehem. It was started in 2012 by a Palestinian filmmaker who studied farming in Oregon before returning home to refurbish this 1943 farmhouse. Relax in the outdoor space with a view over the surrounding hills and order sumac-spiced hummus and homemade arak (an anise-based spirit popular throughout the Levant). Part of the Jasmin experience is joining in and meeting other ‘Hosh’ groupies on the lectures, hiking tours or yoga classes that regularly take place here against the background of ruggedly picturesque olive groves.
Ka’abar, Beit Jala
Ka’abar is an old-school cavernous hole-in-the-wall dishing out chicken in a suburb just outside of Bethlehem, near the Municipality Building on Beit Jala St. While its decor is definitely no-frills, Ka’abar is the home of perhaps the best roasted chicken in all the land and has long been a culinary pilgrimage destination for Palestinian hipsters, Bethlehem University students and travellers lucky enough to have heard about the insanely tasty charred bird on offer here. Few of the staff speak English, but there’s really no need; just point to one of the skewers out on the street-side stone grill and gesture to indicate whether you want a whole or a half portion. The chicken comes with a delicious array of fresh salads, spicy chillies, green olives, homemade hummus and tahini, and heavenly whipped garlic sauce. You can also opt for the takeaway version, as former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did – he frequently drove by Ka’abar for his chicken fix whenever working in nearby Jerusalem.
Hosh Al Syrian Guesthouse, Bethlehem
Fadi Kattan managed world-renowned hotels in Paris before returning to his hometown of Bethlehem to launch this charming guesthouse-cum-gastronomic-restaurant, Hosh Al Syrian. This low-key spot is nestled in an enchanting, stone-walled courtyard that belonged to Bethlehem’s once-sizeable Assyrian population, a mostly Christian ethnic minority whose numbers over the past century have dwindled in the region because of economic woes and sectarian conflict. Dinner at the reservations-only Fauda (meaning ‘chaos’ in Arabic) restaurant is a privileged entry into modern Palestinian cuisine. The entire menu is sourced from the nearby farmers’ market and includes succulent dishes such as lamb with pomegranate reduction or roasted peach kunafeh (a warm, syrupy cheese-based pastry) expertly paired with locally produced wines.
Snowbar, Ein Musbah
Despite its name, Snowbar has absolutely nothing to do with the white stuff and is actually only open in summer. Its name translates to ‘pine nut’ in Arabic, and the leafy forest that surrounds the café provides a cool breeze and refreshing respite from the congestion of the nearby Ramallah. For more than two decades, Snowbar has been a favourite among the Palestinian elite, NGO workers and international expats. As the sun sets, take your Palestinian beer poolside and gaze at the rolling hills and wildflowers, but don’t be surprised if the outdoor deck turns into a festive dance party carrying on well into the night.
Mount of Temptation Cable Car, Jericho
If you’re looking for a laidback escape in a welcoming, village-style atmosphere, head toward Jericho, where a cable car will deliver you to the Mount of Temptation, the location where Jesus was tempted by the devil, according to the Bible. Spend the day working up a sweat on well-marked hiking trails overlooking palm tree plantations, which lead to an ancient monastery. When you’re ready for a break, head to the alfresco modern Palestinian dining institution known as The Sultan and indulge on delectable grilled meats and Palestinian tapas, which highlight Jericho's year-round production of colourful produce and citrus fruits, and make you feel like you’re a world away from the bustle of Jerusalem or Ramallah.
Al Sharqi Turkish Hammam, Al Bireh
In the Ramallah suburb of Al Bireh, you’ll have the chance to take part in a Palestinian cultural experience that visitors herded on and off tour buses never get to see. Al Sharqi Turkish Hammam is decorated with Palestinian textiles and is a modern rendition of the 17th-century multi-room bathhouses, which were dotted all of the region during Ottoman-era rule. Luckily for weary travellers, Turkish hammams have been making a comeback with the recent rise of wellness tourism, and Ramallah – always attuned to international trends – is eager to participate and embrace its own historically rooted versions. Beyond the various hot and cold relaxing rooms, the cherry on top is the full-body loofah massage, in which an attendant will scrub away the grime and stress you’ve accumulated while exploring.
La Vie Cafe, Ramallah
La Vie is a farm-to-table cafe within a few minutes’ walk of the central Manara Sq of downtown Ramallah. The menu is built around the available veggies harvested on the organic rooftop garden and thus places a premium on seasonal, fresh salads and vegetarian mains. Be sure to stop by on a Saturday or Sunday when the chef prepares special traditional dishes such as the famous fuul bi-laban, fava beans with yoghurt sauce, or khubeza, a dish made of a wild local green known as mallow.