This spring, I got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to beautiful Jerusalem and experience the city firsthand. From world-class accommodations and museum experiences to awe-inspiring historical and religious sites to transcendent hummus at every turn, Jerusalem proved a destination for travelers looking for many different things. Though the portrait of the region varies in the media—it’s undeniable that Israel sees plenty of political and cultural controversy and conflict—as an American tourist, I found the city itself to be warm and welcoming, and, in the Old City especially, quite diverse.
Whether your family is Jewish and traveling for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or if you’re simply looking for an adventure in a historic region with beautiful scenery and delicious food, Jerusalem delivers a very special mix of culture, fun, and education.
Within easy walking distance of both the New and Old Cities, the Mamilla Hotel (mamillahotel.com)—situated on historic Mamilla Road, which is home to upscale shopping options—and the David Citadel Hotel (thedavidcitadel.com) offer comfort, stylish aesthetics, and impressive amenities (not to mention attentive and knowledgeable staff) with plenty of family-specific services.
Mamilla Hotel could be compared to American properties like the Ace, and I recommend it more for families with older children (9 and up), though younger kids are certainly welcome. Sophisticated and modern design elements abounded, from the lobby to the rooms to the breathtaking Rooftop Outdoor Lounge & Restaurant (with views of the Old City, Instagram-worthy décor, and a fresh locally-inspired menu). Notable features at Mamilla include a luxe sun deck on the roof, and an outdoor patio with lush plantings and hanging wicker chairs (the perfect place to enjoy Mamilla’s mouthwatering breakfast spread). There’s a sleek indoor pool that adults and kids alike are sure to enjoy; for mom and dad, there’s the high-end Akasha spa and the chic Mirror Bar.
For a more traditional hotel experience, travelers can check in to the David Citadel, which exudes classic elegance, top-tier hospitality (President Barack Obama reportedly stayed there when he was a senator), and plenty of fun for younger children. They offer a beautiful pool area, which includes a shallow wading pool as well as a regular pool with unrivaled views of the nearby Old City. Plus, the David Citadel features an adorable Children’s Play Center. Designed by noted interior designer Sarit Shani Chai, the Center is decorated to incorporate play versions of Jerusalem landmarks, and it’s outfitted with games, toys, and activities that little ones will love. While the kids enjoy their own special space, parents can explore the hotel’s spa, Lobby Lounge, Seasons Restaurant, and more. Both hotels have a range of guest rooms and suites that range from standard to ultra-luxe. Mamilla Hotel offers a Family Suite option that accommodates a family of four, while David Citadel has a variety of suites at different price points. Both hotels also offer premium toiletries from Bvulgari and extensive mini bar options, as well as stunning views. Both, naturally, keep Kosher and offer special menus for Shabbat.
A big draw for family travel to Israel is celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. For any young person crossing this milestone, the spiritual backdrop of the Holy City couldn’t be more perfect. Both Mamilla and the David Citadel (which are both a stroll away from the Kotel and Old City) offer all the services you might need to make your Mitzvah celebration a reality. Mamilla can host Mitzvahs in the Ballroom (up to 250 guests), as well as in their bars and restaurants (from 150-300 in their Rooftop Restaurant and Happy Fish Restaurant, or a more intimate number in their Mirror Bar) or on their sundeck. Mamilla can also assist families in booking any chefs, sound systems, and children’s activities and performers they might desire. Plus, if you’re celebrating a Mitzvah with 100 or more guests, Mamilla Hotel extends a complimentary double room to the family of the celebrant. The David Citadel has a beautiful Grand Ballroom (which can be divided to tailor the room to your event size, from 100-500 guests), Gates Banquets (up to 150 guests), and Terrace (which features views of the Tower of David and can accommodate 180 guests). Plus, their on-site chef is available to craft your Mitzvah menu from local and seasonal ingredients.
The blending of the modern and historic is a hallmark of Jerusalem, where the New City and Old City thrive in close proximity. In the same afternoon, you can make your way through the Israel Museum (imj.org.il), where the Shrine of the Book exhibit showcases the Dead Sea Scrolls. There’s also a sculpture garden on-site which includes large-scale renderings of weather-worn trees by famed artist Ai Weiwei.
After you’ve checked out the Shrine of the Book, the museum also has art and artifacts from just about every era of Jewish history and culture. From the Israel Museum, it’s a nice walk North through Sacher Park to the bustling Machane Yehuda market. The market can be a sensory overload, but it’s truly an only-in-Israel experience. Stalls upon stalls sell everything from souvenirs (looking for a yarmulke with the What’s App logo or an Angry Bird on it? Sure! Hello Kitty hookahs? Yep!) to every kind of regional culinary delight you could think of, usually freshly made or in bulk (challah, halva, candy, nuts, spices, and a rainbow of local fruits).
Families looking for more history and education in the New City should be sure not to miss Yad Vashem (yadvashem.org), the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.
When it comes time to explore the Old City, I’d recommend a guided tour. The concierge at the David Citadel connected me with a fantastic guide and he walked me through all four Quarters—Christian, Jewish, Armenian, and Muslim—dispensing historical facts at every turn. For religious families, the Old City has an undeniable spiritual appeal, given that it holds sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Tower of David, the Western Wall, the Jaffa Gate, the Zion Gate, and the Last Supper Room, as well as many other holy landmarks and houses of worship, and a view of the Dome of the Rock. Not only is the history, art, and architecture incredibly engaging, but there are endless opportunities to purchase gifts and souvenirs from local vendors and artists.
I will make no secret of the fact that hummus is my all-time favorite food. Though I identify as agnostic, the trip to Israel was indeed a spiritual one: Israel is the holy land of hummus, no question! My top pick was Ben Sira Hummus (facebook.com/pages/Ben-Sira-Hummus)—so cheap, so luscious, and so flavorful. Plus, the pita that came with it was so warm, thick, and fluffy, you could have made a tent out of it and napped for a week. The Muslim Quarter of the Old City also offered some great hummus. There are little hole-in-the-wall spots throughout the bazaar that don’t really even have formal business names but you can watch them making the hummus right in front of you. If you’re looking for something sweet post-hummus in the Muslim Quarter, seek out Jafar Sweets for baklava and knafeh.
For those in search of local cuisine beyond the chickpea, Mamilla’s Happy Fish restaurant, with its chic outdoor seating area, is a must. The menu is upscale but still appropriate for younger diners. The falafel and tzatziki was delicious, as were the fish shawarma, cucumber salad with onions and black olives, and all of the mezze options.