No matter your background, it’s hard not to get swept up in the magnetic atmosphere of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest prayer site in Judaism. The Western Wall, known as “the Kotel” (or “The Wall” in Hebrew), is swarmed with visitors throughout the year but is especially crowded during the holidays. People from across the world flock to the site to marvel and pray at 2,000-year-old white stone structure. It is, like many sites in Jerusalem, controversial and politically-charged, but it is also an important experience for those looking to understand the equal parts contradictory, fascinating and frustrating layers at work in this complex city.
The Western Wall gets its sacred status from its connection to the Temple Mount, a 37-acre complex which is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Jews consider it their holiest site and believe it's where God gathered the dust to create Adam and where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac, to prove his love for God. Muslims, who refer to the area as Haram al-Sharif, rank it third in holiness after Mecca and Medina and believe it is the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jews were unable to access the site for centuries. Today, Jordan holds custodial rights over Temple Mount and while non-Muslims can visit the compound, they can't pray there. Because of these restrictions, the Western Wall is the holiest place that Jews can pray.
The Wall was once commonly referred to as the “Wailing Wall” by non-Jews, in reference to the spectacle of devout Jews who come to the site to pray and mourn the losses of the Jewish people. As Israel currently witnesses religious-nationalist resurgence, the Western Wall’s continues to hold significance as a profoundly powerful political and religious symbol.
What to Do
Write your own wish or prayer on a small piece of paper (on every day but the Sabbath and religious holidays, when writing is prohibited) and add it to the delicate mounds of slips shoved into the cracks between the massive stones. These notes are collected several times a year and buried in a Jewish cemetery.
For a more intimate and “underground” experience, book the 75-minute Kotel tunnel tour, which takes you along the long underground passage beyond the men's side of the Western Wall. It was dug in recent years to display a strip of the Wall along its entire length. If you take a daytime tour, you’ll end at the Via Dolorosa, in the Muslim Quarter. If you're touring after dark, however, the tour retraces its steps and exits back at the Western Wall.
How to Get There
The Western Wall is in the southeast section of the Old City. It’s accessible from the Dung Gate, the Jewish Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter's el-Wad Road and the Street of the Chain.
The Western Wall is open and free to members of all faiths at all hours of the day, every day of the year. At night, the site is lit by headlights, and considerably less crowded.
Dress and Behavior Code
The Western wall is overseen by the Orthodox rabbinic authorities and as such the dress code is like that of an Orthodox synagogue. Men must cover their heads in the prayer area and women must cover their shoulders and wear long pants or a knee-length skirt. If you forget to bring a covering, though, don’t worry, guards will provide you with a piece of fabric for that purpose before you enter. The prayer area is separated by gender. On religious holidays and on the Sabbath (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday) smoking, photography and any technology is forbidden.
Expect a routine security check at all four entrances to the Western Wall plaza, including a magnetic gate—visitors with pacemakers can opt out—and an examination of your bags.
Where to Stay
Accommodations near the Western Wall and within the confines of the Old City tend to be budget hotels that are popular with visitors looking to fit in all the top holy sites into their schedule. Among the most beloved is the Austrian Hospice, which offers single-sex dorms and simple, but comfortable private rooms. The gated Austrian Hospice, dating back to 1863, also hosts one of the best kept gems of the Old City: a cloistered garden café serving up Viennese specialties to those looking for a break from the Jerusalem hustle and bustle.
For those looking for a more indulgent experience, you can take a short walk out of the Old City and head to the Mamilla Hotel. Enjoy cocktails at the rooftop bar while soaking in fabulous views of Jerusalem and scrub off the grime of the Holy City with a treatment at the in-house Akasha spa.
Things to Do Nearby
The Western Wall is located in Jerusalem’s Old City, a fascinating area teeming with history and divided into four sections: the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. The Muslim Quarter is the largest and most populated area in the Old City and hosts the iconic golden-topped Dome of the Rock, which is open only to Muslim visitors.
If you meander through the Via Delarosa, the path that Jesus is believed to have walked on his way to crucifixion, you’ll find yourself in the Christian Quarter. Queue up for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which was built by the Crusaders in the 12th century and is believed to be the site where Jesus was crucified by the Romans, was buried, and then rose from the dead three days later.
After all that walking, pop by Abu Shukri (next to the sixth station on the Via Delarosa) for some of the best hummus in Jerusalem, served up in the same way as it has been for generations.