It is utterly unique among the cities of the world. For millions, it symbolizes the ancient drama and apocalyptic dreams of faith. But no matter the faith (or lack of it) that brings you to its gates, you will soon learn the conviction that unites them all: to engage the soul, you must entrance the senses.
During my time in Jerusalem for the first half of 2016, I was overwhelmed by how embodied the experience was. Hearing, touch, smell, sight and taste all joined in rituals spanning millennia. Whether listening to the joyful singing around the Western Wall at twilight for shabbat, breathing the oil and incense filling the shadowy Church of the Holy Sepulcher, or hearing the weaving, melismatic melody of the Muslim call to prayer, I found my entire body moving with the religious rhythms of the city.
But it is not the sounds and smells I miss most of all. It is the food.
Jerusalem’s culinary scene is utterly unique. In no other place does faith produce such a diverse and delightful effect on food. The best part of this, however, might be the café scene. Jerusalem has cafes in abundance, each offering not only a unique atmosphere but also a unique angle on what the locals call “the situation” and westerners call “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Here are five you must visit:
On a sunny morning, take a seat under the bright white and green awning and watch the world go by. Kadosh is a European-style bakery located just off of Jaffa Street, the main street in West Jerusalem. The menu, in Hebrew and English, offers a plethora of light and delicious foods, and the bakery sells fresh bread and pastries.
If you arrive hungry, order the Croque Madame, a savory dish of fluffy brioche, runny egg and hot cheese. If you only want a quick snack, get the almond croissant and a cappuccino. Act fast, though — they’re often sold out by midday. Also, be aware of the hours: like most places in West Jerusalem, they close several hours early on Friday for shabbat and re-open late Saturday evening when the sabbath ends.
2. The Educational Bookshop
Located on Salah-Eddin street, the main street in East Jerusalem, The Educational Bookshop is invaluable. Not only does it make delicious coffee, it curates and sells a remarkable collection of books, cds and posters on the situation from an Arab/Palestinian perspective. They also have a small collection of literary classics in English translation.
Browse through the books on the first floor when you arrive. Pick one up, order the salmon sandwich and a latte, and head up to the balcony. Linger over your reading, and leave at your leisure — but not without buying a postcard featuring one of Banksy’s powerful paintings that covers the separation wall between Israel and Palestine at Checkpoint 300.
3. Tmol Shilshom
Hidden on the winding alleys off Jaffa Street, Tmol Shilshom is treasure well worth hunting for. The iconic Jerusalem café, a hotspot for hip young Israelis and twentysomething American Jews who visit while in Jerusalem on the birthright program, frequently features live music and poetry readings.
Pick a seat among the eclectic collection of tables and chairs, surrounded by a beautiful collection of dusty books in Hebrew. If you’re there early, order the shakshuka, a traditional Israeli breakfast. If you’re there later, get the Italo Calvino, a rich pasta dish named for the famous Italian writer. Again, watch the hours: Even though the café attracts a more secular crowd, it still adheres to pious Jerusalem hours for shabbat.
4. Sarwa Street Kitchen
Sarwa Street Kitchen is among the newest of Jerusalem’s cafes. Also on Salah Eddin street, the floor-to-ceiling glass windows let in waves of light, making it the perfect haven to retreat to after exploring the hectic maze that is the Old City. They also offer a spectacular view of the bell tower of St. George’s Cathedral, the gothic-style Anglican church built by the British in the 19th century.
When you arrive, cozy into a seat on the cushioned banquette. Pick up a novel from the full shelf, decorated with flowers, vases and other knicknacks. Order a freshly-squeezed lemonade — mint leaves available upon request! — and one of their original pizzas.
5. Café Etz
Located somewhat off the beaten path on Yanai Street, Café Etz has a small-but-loyal group of regulars. This is thanks to its incredibly friendly volunteer staff who, if you visit often enough, will learn your name and ask you about your travels. The profits proceed to Voice of Many Waters, a Jerusalem non-profit.
Order the Simone salad, a combination of sautéed sweet potatoes, feta, and fresh vegetables. Try a limonana, a beverage that combines lemonade and fresh mint with crushed ice. Before you leave, ask for a push-pin and mark your hometown on the world map that decorates the left wall. Shabbat hours kept here, too.
Have you been to Jerusalem? What places are forever in your memory?
Feature Image via Rob Bye