Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity may be the city’s most visited tourist attraction, but there is no doubt that the narrow stone streets of Bethlehem’s historic centre offers the tastiest attractions in this historic town renowned as the birthplace of Jesus. Beginning at the edge of Bethlehem’s central Manger Square, begins a trail of stores and vendors, where you can also get a taste of the regions unique culture.
Start your day with a traditional breakfast at Abu Fuad’s Bakery located next to the King David Wells at the entrance of the Star Street. Try a ka’ak, a ring-shaped, slightly sweet bread sprinkled generously with sesame seeds. Most locals will eat it with a freshly baked egg or a baked falafel, and top it with a blend of zaatar (thyme) and salt.
There are many street vendors selling this type of bread, and you can see several each morning as they walk the city with their pushcarts and sing: ka’aak, ka’aak or ka’ak sokhon, if it is still hot.
Mobile stalls are very popular among Bethlehem’s food vendors. One can find all sorts of specialties sold on the streets of Bethlehem’s souq, a traditional bazaar. We recommend that you try some of the local snacks like turmus, which are yellow pickled lupini beans. Arabic sweets like harissa (or basbousa), a syrup covered semolina cake is also a worthy favorite.
Seasonable Vegetables and Fruits
The highlight of the souq are the elderly women who travel to Bethlehem from their nearby villages to sell their seasonable vegetables and fruits which they plant and gather themselves. They often will sell dried fruits like figs or raisins, and even their handrolled and stuffed grape leaves and pickles. These women, wearing traditional Palestinian embroidered robes, that are unique in design to each village, usually sit at the street curbs and display their goods on the ground. Do not hesitate to bargain with them, but in the same time be generous.
Coffee and Spices
Strong coffee, often spiced with cardamom, is a very common drink in the Levant. It is brewed in a Turkish style and is quite thick and strong. The locals prefer to drink it freshly grounded and there are several small shops selling coffee and spices in Bethlehem. One popular store is called ‘The Mill’ or ‘Al Ama’ after the owner’s family name – and is located at the intersection of Pope Paul VI and Star streets. The shop offers also all kinds of spices, grains, nuts and even stones of incense that are quite popular among pilgrims and that cost significantly less than those found in the souvenir shops.
Knafeh, a cheese pastry soaked in sweet sugar-based syrup, may be speciality of Nablus, but it can also be found in Bethlehem, and quite delicious too. Dana Cafe serves this traditional delicacy as well as with other kinds of sweets and us located just a couple of steps past The Mill shop as you walk towards Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity.
During the month of Ramadan, this area becomes very busy with the sale of qatayef, small pancakes that locals will purchase and when they return home they will then stuff with sweetened akkawi (name means ‘from Acre’) cheese or a mixture of walnuts, cinnamon and sugar. These are then baked in the oven and served at night. It is possible to watch how the baker pours the qatayef batter on a huge pan to prepare the pancakes.
Falafel & Hummus
Afteem Al-Yafawi Restaurant, located next to the Manger Square, has been welcoming its guests since 1948. This spot is renowned as Bethlehem’s most famous place for falafel & hummus and enjoys a good reputation among locals and visitors alike. The restaurant has a simple, traditional menu serving falafel sandwiches, hummus, foul, (a dip made from cooked, mashed fava beans, as well as fresh lemon), mint drink, seasonal juices and different kinds of salads. The restaurant is set inside a historical building further adding to the overall experience.
Perhaps you want try conversing with locals as well? Some phrases in Arabic that might be useful when buying and tasting food:
hello – marhaba
How much is that? – Keddesh hada?
ten – ashara; twenty – ashreen; thrirty – talateen
(not) expensive – (mish) ghali
tasty – zaki
thank you – shukran
you’r welcome – afuan
Beata Andonia blogs regularly for Travelujah. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.