On May 25, Pope Francis will touch down in the town where it all began − Jesus’ birthplace. Following an official ceremony at the Presidential Palace with Palestinian leaders, he will devote the remainder of his brief stay in Bethlehem − no big surprise here − to religious affairs. In late morning, the Catholic Church leader will head out to Manger Square in the center of town, where he is to conduct a holy mass, and later in the afternoon he will make a private visit to the grotto beneath the nearby Church of the Nativity, believed in Christianity to be the site of Jesus’ birth.
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What the pope won’t catch on his visit are some of Bethlehem’s lesser-known attractions, largely overlooked by the big Christian pilgrimage tours that flock to this town for the classics, which include the Church of the Nativity; the Milk Grotto, where Mary is believed to have nursed her newborn son; and Shepherds’ Fields, a site just outside town where the shepherds are believed to have the seen the Star of the Nativity and followed it to Bethlehem. Increasingly, however, it is the sites that don’t make it onto the pilgrimage itineraries that are becoming a draw for more adventurous independent travelers.
Like most other major Palestinian cities in the West Bank, Bethlehem, just a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem, is considered “Area A,” which means it is governed by the Palestinian Authority and, barring special permits, off-limits to Israeli citizens. There are no restrictions, however, on foreign passport holders, who can travel to the city by public transportation from East Jerusalem or rent a car from one of several operators in East Jerusalem that provide insurance for travel in the West Bank. A private vehicle is a good option for taking in some of the following sights in and around town that are definitely worth seeing, even if they’re not what Bethlehem is best known for.
Nature. Bethlehem’s best-known attraction happens to be a huge church, and the square and streets surrounding it tend to get quite congested most days of the year. But no need to travel far to get away from all the hustle and bustle and take in the great outdoors. Just a few miles south of the town center are three giant open cisterns known as Solomon’s Pools, once part of an ancient, sophisticated waterway that supplied water to Jerusalem. Many believe these pools, fed by four nearby springs, were built by King Solomon so that his many wives would have a place to bathe. The pools are-off limits to bathers today, but are still a stunning sight to behold, surrounded by a forest of pine trees and gorgeous trails.
Culture. Directly across the road from Solomon’s Pools are the remains of the Murad Castle, built in the 17th century by the Ottomans. The site now houses a brand new museum dedicated to traditional Palestinian crafts, which boasts a large collection of embroidered garments and jewelry, as well as an authentic Bedouin tent at the entrance. Starting this summer, the museum plans to hold a weekly Palestinians folklore show on the patio just outside. Besides its craft exhibits, the museum also has a small designated section for archaeological finds from the nearby region.
Architecture. If you’re craving a bit of old-world elegance, take a break and step inside the Jacir Palace Intercontinental Hotel, located on the old Jerusalem-Bethlehem road. Originally the residence of the mayor who ruled this town at the turn of the 20th century, it was reopened as a hotel after the second intifada. The Intercontinental’s new outdoor pool is a great place to take a dip on a hot day, but if you prefer to relax without getting wet, try the glass-enclosed patio out back or the cozy sitting room. Before entering the hotel, make sure to take a step back and look up: Right next to the cross carved into the façade at the top of this stunning building is that undeniable Jewish symbol, the Star of David − a remnant of a very different era, indeed.
Gifts. Bethlehem is known for its olive wood factories, and the shops in town are overflowing with religious and other souvenirs made out of the locally grown stuff. But if there is such a thing as an off-the-beaten-track souvenir shop, then Holy Star Gifts fits the bill. It wasn’t always that way, but during the course of one day in 2003, at the height of the second intifada, the Israeli army erected a barrier a few meters from the shop, which had the bad luck of being located just across from Rachel’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site and major flash point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the time. By making it inaccessible to tour buses, the separation barrier basically spelled the end of Claire Anastas’ family business. That is, until Claire and her story were featured on America’s popular “60 Minutes” news program, turning the shop into a place of pilgrimage for independent travelers wanting to express solidarity. Today, one of Claire’s biggest-selling items is a replica of the nativity scene made of olive wood to which she has added her own political spin: a removable wall.
Street art. In recent years, Bethlehem has become the place to see some great examples of artwork by Banksy, the legendary undercover British graffiti artist and political activist. Mainly devoted to criticizing Israel, his murals in town decorate sections of the separation barrier and other random spots. One of his best-known creations, painted on a wall just across from the Intercontinental, features a young girl body-searching an Israeli soldier. Seeing his other well-known work, though, requires driving a bit out of town to a car wash in the village of Beit Sahour (not far from the site Greek Orthodox Christians consider to be Shepherds’ Fields). Painted on the outside wall of the car wash, this particular work shows a masked young man hurling not a rock, but a bouquet of flowers. Lots of other political graffiti by lesser-known artists can be found on the separation barrier bordering the Aida refugee camp, about a mile north of Bethlehem. This is also a good place to roam around to get a sense of how Palestinian refugees live.