Most of us have grown up hearing about Israel – and Jerusalem in particular – as the spiritual centre for three of the world’s largest religions and a place of ongoing political turmoil. But something we don’t hear so much about is the way the young people here have responded to this history and culture of conflict. Jerusalem is a modern, vibrant city with a hip café culture and an edgy, experimental art scene, unafraid to confront difficult issues.
So next time you visit, by all means go to the well-known spots such as the Western Wall, The Old City and the Tower of David – but make time to also visit some of the cool cafés, galleries and hangouts the city has to offer.
Here’s my alternative hipster guide to the city.
Culture Across the Divide
Understanding Jerusalem means understanding the conflict and turmoil that has developed alongside it throughout its turbulent history. Today there are some great museums which take a fresh view of the troubles and give a fascinating glimpse at a possible future.
Museum on the Seam
Attempting to create a bridge between East and West (at the exact point where the city used to be divided between Arab and Israeli), the Museum on the Seam is based in an old military outpost. The building still carries the scars and bullet holes of the Six-Day War, but organisers hope that its exhibitions focusing on peace and unity can one day help the country to heal.
Educational Bookshop and Café
If you really want to get to grips with the difficult political situation in Israel then a great place to start is in East Jerusalem’s Educational Bookshop. A Mecca for journalists, activists and aid workers who visit the region, the bookshop not only has a range of books and DVDs on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also celebrates Palestinian culture, art and music. Upstairs is a small café where you can debate your views, or just enjoy a sweet, milky tea.
Saba’s Little Museum
For a change of pace, and a fascinating insight into the personal history of Jewish people, visit Saba’s Little Museum. Set in the hills, the ‘little’ in the name doesn’t just refer to the size of the museum, but to the emphasis on collecting the small, personal items which have been important to Jewish people through the ages.
From suitcases to children’s toys, the collection is a beautiful snapshot of the way Jewish people have lived. Take time to have a chat with the owners, as they are more than happy to relate the history of many of the items.
Cool Café Society
In a blend of Middle Eastern and European cultures, the hipsters of Jerusalem love nothing more than wiling away the hours in trendy coffee bars and cafés. People-watching is very much a national pastime here and there are plenty of cool places to just hang out and chill.
Probably the hippest of the hip is Nocturno. Set in the artistic ‘Designers in the City’ compound, this café-by-day, pub-by-night attracts many of the city’s artists, writers, intellectuals and students. The food is served on handmade plates by the compound’s ceramic artists (if you like them you can even buy them to take home).
Set up to raise money and be a refuge for the city’s homeless and needy, this non-profit café has become a popular stop for locals on the bustling Yanai Street. Come here to enjoy excellent coffee or fantastic hot chocolate, along with the many sweet treats on offer.
For something a little more traditional, pop in to Tmol Shilshom (Hebrew for ‘those were the days’). It is a cosy, welcoming café serving a range of delicious pastries and coffee – although I’d personally recommend the cheesecake. This café with a literary slant is famous for hosting book readings with local authors; past speakers have included Amos Oz and Yehuda Amichai.
Art and Ink
One of the best ways to understand modern Jerusalem is through the artistic expression of its contemporary artists. Having grown up in a conflicted country, many artists in the city use their work as an expression of the unity they would like to see. From political street art to contemporary works in the many modern museums and galleries, this is a city whose story is told through its artists.
A venue celebrating Israel’s contemporary Pop Artists, the Art Time Israel gallery has been put together by art collector Zion Ezri to celebrate local talent. Using 3D techniques, vibrant colour schemes and modern messages, this exhibition is a lively, enriching experience for anyone interested in the country’s contemporary art scene.
The Jerusalem Artist House
Set in the historic former Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design building, the Artist House plays host to modern art, photography and installations from both national and international artists. It is also a venue for talks, concerts and readings, so well worth checking out what’s on while you’re there.
If you become so enthralled by the local art scene that you’d like to bring a little home with you then why not stop off at Razzouk Ink and get a permanent reminder of the city tattooed on your skin.
The Razzouk family have been tattooing images of faith for more than 700 years, using skills picked up by the present generation’s Coptic Christian ancestors when they settled in Jerusalem in the fourteenth century. Today you can still get a tattoo from designs which date back more than seven centuries.
Where to Stay
The Post Hostel – For a stylish modern hostel set right in the heart of West Jerusalem, try the The Post Hostel. There’s a cool bar downstairs, communal kitchen and a rooftop terrace with views out over the city. Guests can enjoy free WiFi throughout.
How to Get to Jerusalem
The closest airport is Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Regular flights from the UK with airlines including British Airways, easyJet and Monarch make it easy to get off the beaten track in Jerusalem. The flight takes around five hours.
One of the best ways to get from the airport is to take a shared group transfer with Shuttle Direct. Not only will you split the cost by sharing the journey with other travellers, but you’ll also be able to pick up lots of tips and hints about where to go when you arrive.
About Shuttle Direct
Shuttle Direct is the leading provider of airport transfers in Europe and North Africa. Its shared group or private car transfers offer the perfect way to get from the airport to your destination.