Split between the West Bank, with its sun-baked hills, chaotic cities and ancient biblical sites, and Gaza, a war-ravaged strip of coastal land sealed on three sides by Israel and Egypt, the Palestinian Territories has long been an unorthodox stop on a Middle East itinerary.
But while the West Bank often hits the headlines for the wrong reasons, it is a truly welcoming place. Bethlehem, as the birthplace of Christ, has always been a draw for religious pilgrims, but is nowadays home to a lively arts scene and excellent restaurants. Visitors can get lost in the addictive bustle of Nablus and Ramallah, or among the myriad historical sites of Jericho, before dropping in at one of the West Bank’s two hillside breweries.
Gaza, for the time being, remains totally off limits to tourists.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Palestinian Territories.
A must-see on any journey through the Holy Land is Mar Saba Monastery, a bleak and beautiful 20km drive east of Bethlehem (beyond Beit Sahour). Women must view the phenomenal cliff-clinging copper-domed hermitage, founded in 439 CE, from the opposite slope, but men are permitted inside, where tours are available with one of the 15 monks in residence.
For the millions of pilgrims who descend on the Holy Land every year, the Church of the Nativity is the main reason for visiting Bethlehem. The church, believed to be built on the spot where Jesus was born, was originally commissioned in 326 CE by Emperor Constantine and has seen innumerable transformations since. A restoration project is underway to preserve the building. To really get the most out of a visit, negotiate a price from one of the handful of tour guides you’ll find milling about outside.
Next to the ornate tomb of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is a new museum that bears his name. Divided into two parts, the first half traces Arafat's life alongside that of his Fatah movement and other Palestinian factions. Those less interested in Palestinian politics may prefer the second section, where Arafat spent his final years under Israeli siege from 2001 to 2004. The restored facility includes his bedroom, where khaki green uniforms still hang in the wardrobe.
The ancient site of the Samaritan Temple is a 10-minute walk uphill from the village, via a locked gate: ring the intercom and a guard will let you through. Once you pay at the desk, you are free to wander around the site at your leisure. You’ll see the lowered floor that Samaritans say was the foundation of their temple, which was built in the 5th century BCE and only survived 200 years before being destroyed by the Maccabees (a Jewish rebel army) in 128 BCE.
A short drive north of Tel Al Sultan, this is a spot not to be missed. The sprawling winter hunting retreat of Caliph Hisham Ibn Abd al Malik must have been magnificent on its creation in the 8th century, with its baths, mosaic floors and pillars – so much so that archaeologists have labelled it the ‘Versailles of the Middle East’. It was not fated to last, however – it was destroyed by an earthquake soon after its creation.
The focal point of Hebron for most visitors is the Tomb of the Patriarchs (Cave of Machpelah), known to Muslims as Ibrahimi Mosque (Ibrahim is the Muslim name for Abraham). The site is sacred to both Muslims and Jews – be aware of the strict security and separate prayer spaces for each. When coming from the Old City, you will need to pass through an Israeli checkpoint and show your passport.
Sebastia is a collection of ruins above a village of the same name that is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the West Bank. A prominent settlement during Hellenistic and Roman eras, Christians and Muslims believe Sebastia to be the burial site of St John the Baptist. Situated on a hill with panoramic views across the West Bank, the site includes an amphitheatre (which once held 7000 people) and the remains of a Byzantine church.
At an isolated spot on the Jordan River, on the border between Jordan and the West Bank, stands the reputed spot of Jesus’s baptism by John, which began his ministry. John is said to have chosen the site because it was an important crossroads for passing traders and soldiers, but the same cannot be said today. Guarded by an Israeli checkpoint, the access road passes through minefields before reaching a car park, from which it is a short walk to the river.
Tell Balata is the remains of what is believed to be the first settlement in Nablus, the Canaanite town of Shechem, dating from the first and second centuries BCE. Shechem was orientated around a spring in the valley between two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal. Close to Jacob's Well, Tell Balata boasts some interesting ruins and an excellent – albeit tiny – museum.