For your first visit you need no less than two full days to enjoy the city’s major sights. Going to museums will require more.
Distances are walkable in the Old City, but not beyond.
Worthy attractions: Temple Mount; Mount Zion with several points of interest; Mount Olive with several points of interest; Western Wall; Church of the Holy Sepulchre; Hurve Synagogue; Yad Vashem.
Left for another visit: Israel Museum; Tower of David Museum [saw from outside only]; Hebrew Music Museum; Herodian Quarter Museum; Four Sephardic Synagogues [saw from outside only]; Montefiore Mill.
Last visit: November 2019.
Sights to See
Wealth of religious significance aside, Jerusalem did not exactly rise for me to the level of visually striking. Dome of the Rock is a definite eye-catcher, Mount Zion might be another, and there are rich details here or there, but the overall palette is muted and short on visual impact. Inside the Old City, recent additions are part of the deal (especially in the Jewish Quarter, which was destroyed during Jordanian occupation in the 1950-60s). The city has a lot of sacred places to offer to a religious person, but a non-believer might not see it as exceedingly special.
Three main hills are worth visiting around the edges of the Old City. Mount Olive ♥♥♥ offers great perspectives over the town, as well as several impressive churches and other sights, such as Dominus Flevit Church ♥ (Catholic), Mary Magdalene Church ♥♥ (Russian Orthodox), Church of All Nations ♥ (Catholic), Garden of Gethsemane ♥, Tomb of the Virgin ♥.
Mount Zion ♥♥♥ is a complex of several components: Tomb of King David ♥, Room of Last Supper ♥, church and crypt of Dormition Abbey ♥♥.
Temple Mount ♥♥♥ is well worth the wait in line because the Dome of the Rock ♥♥♥ is even more impressive close by than from a distance. Waiting in line is unavoidable, since the area is open to non-Muslim visitors on very limited schedule. You cannot go inside the buildings either.
The four quarters of the Old City ♥♥ do not have noticeable boundaries, but you will certainly notice more Orthodox Jews in the Jewish quarter and more people of Arabic persuasion in the Muslim quarter. I walked through all four quarters and cannot say that one or the other impressed me more (although, admittedly, the narrow side lanes of the Armenian quarter could have impressed me if I found time to explore them).
One of the main sights in the Old City is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre ♥♥♥; even a non-believer would be impressed by the various parts of the huge complex where six different denominations share the premises. Hurve Synagogue ♥♥ is also interesting – and its upper platform is one of the good elevated points in the center of town. Cardo ♥ offers a walk-through archaeological experience.
And then, there is the Western Wall ♥♥♥, which offers as much a spiritual moment to a non-believer Jew as anything could. Conversely, Via Dolorosa requires a level of Christian indoctrination – for a non-believer, walking along it and seeing its 14 “stations” is rather meaningless.
You can separately go on a guided tour of Western Wall Tunnels ♥, which I found only mildly interesting. There was a lot of information from the guide, most of it just basic history of the heart of Jerusalem that I already heard elsewhere; there is not much evidently eye-catching in the tunnels themselves, although the overall structure has to be considered impressive.
There are a few minor museums in the Old City that can be considered worth visiting, as well as a few more major ones outside the Old City walls. I mostly stayed away from the museums on my trip to the city, but among the most frequently mentioned by other travelers and local guides are Israel Museum, Tower of David Museum, Hebrew Music Museum, Herodian Quarter Museum, Four Sephardic Synagogues. I also planned on a couple of other sights that fell off my itinerary: walking the Old City Ramparts is not advisable on the hotter days, while stopping by Montefiore Mill for views over the city was superseded by other priorities. Those who stay in Jerusalem for a couple of days would likely also visit Mahane Yehuda Market.
I heard horror stories about finding parking in Jerusalem, but as long as you are willing to pay for convenience, parking is easy. On both days that I drove to the city, I found plenty of spots at the underground Karta Parking practically next to Jaffa Gate.
To a certain degree, Yad Vashem ♥♥♥ is an unmissable museum for any visitor to Jerusalem. It might be the most comprehensive museum of Holocaust anywhere in the world; looking at every document and interpreted fact in its main museum can easily take a couple of weeks. The campus is a lot more than just the main museum; the grounds are beautifully done, with several evocative memorials. The place is undeniably somber, although on balance I recall the Washington DC Holocaust Museum as more powerful in exhibiting these horrors; Yad Vashem is more about cold facts than emotional impact. Nonetheless, staying on the grounds for over a couple of hours has a chilling effect.
Close by Yad Vashem is the village of Ein Karem, the birthplace of St John the Baptist. Its small central area surrounds the tiled church of St John Baharim ♥, which has its own Nativity grotto. The walls of the courtyard of the church carry transcription of a prayer in several dozen different languages, which is an unusual feature.
The village itself is not overly special in terms of visual impact. A couple of other religious points of interest (e.g., Gorny Monastery) are within short drive or long walk.
Also, within a short drive – but not reachable on foot – is the University Hospital (Hadassa Ein Karem) that boasts a synagogue with windows painted by Chagall ♥. Getting to see them requires a non-trivial effort even once you parked onsite: you have to ask Information Desk at the main building for help, they will direct you to the Heritage Center, where you’ll pay the entrance fee, and then they will show you into the synagogue. The 12 windows in a relatively small temple are not among the most evocative of Chagall’s works but a true connoisseur might think differently. An audioguide with narration that is about 25 minutes long is included in the price, or you can make do with a brochure.