From 2011 onwards I’ve been going back and forth to Palestine. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, with incredibly hospitality, people, landscape and food – although sadly it remains occupied by Israel, and as such the people and their land cannot properly flourish without their freedom. Whenever I return to the West Bank and Palestine there’s always one city I like to try and visit – that’s Nablus, one of the world’s oldest cities.
Known as the “uncrowded Queen of Palestine,” Nablus might not be the top destination for many people visiting the West Bank, with Bethlehem, Jericho and Ramallah often more popular choices for a day trip or stay over, but Nablus has a real charm to it, and remains quite untouched by tourists. Here’s my run down of things to do in Nablus and why you should make sure to visit this bustling and friendly Palestinian city.
1: The Kanafeh
Mention Nablus to any Palestinian in the West Bank, or even around the world, and chances are they will reply “ahhh Nablusi Kanafeh!” Kanafeh, a Palestinian sweet sugary sticky hot cheese desert, is delicious, but in Nablus it’s known for being incredibly delicious.
This city is famous for it’s Kanafeh, lauded for making the best in the world, and as someone who has traveled extensively in the Middle East let me tell you – it really is the best I’ve ever tasted. I’ve made the trip to Nablus just to get Kanafeh before, it’s that good.
2: The Landscape
The journey to Nablus from Bethlehem or Ramallah (you can take a shared taxi called a service, or a private taxi) takes you through the center of the West Bank, passing hills and valleys that look like they’ve been taken straight out of the pages of the Bible.
While the journey in itself is worth the (very) few dollars you will pay for a shared taxi, the city itself is beautifully set, formed at the bottom of steep sided hills, with buildings gradually being built up those slopes as the years have gone by. Nablus, in my opinion, is probably one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, city in the West Bank.
3: To visit the Samaritans in their ancient homeland
You may have heard of the Samaritans (and the phrase “a good Samaritan”), but did you know that the ancient Samaritans that the Bible and other religious texts mention actually exist to this day?
Well they do! In the little town of Kiryat Luza on Mount Gerizim – a hill overlooking Nablus. Here a community of 2000 Samaritans still live in beautiful and holy surroundings. Gerizim is the Samaritan holy site and the Samaritans here have been living on the mountains for centuries, clinging on to their ancient customs, traditions and homeland. Unfortunately the community’s numbers are dwindling, but they do their best to keep their faith.
From Nablus city center it’s a 10-15 minute taxi ride up the mountain to Kiryat Luza (around 15-20 NIS fare), where you can meet this ancient community, check out their holy sites, visit a dedicated museum, and support a group that will be delighted in your interest.
If you want to learn a little more about this community before going, you can read my piece on the Samaritans for Al Jazeera by clicking here.
4: The architecture and ancient biblical history
Nablus’ Old City is special and one of the oldest urban centers in the world. Densly packed, with around 20,000 people living in the Old City alone, narrow streets wind their way past archaic buildings that are centuries old. A Samaritan Synagogue, two churches, and twelve mosques are all packed in to the Old City, giving plenty for a wondering tourist to look at and visit. It’s a feast for the eyes, and a treat for your Instagram.
And if you need a little relaxation from all that walking, visit the Al Shifa’a Turkish Bathhouse in the Old City – this place is like going back in time to 19th century Palestine with incredible stone walls and shisha pipes for smoking after using the facility.
Not just that, Nablus is home to significant religious sites such as Jacob’s Well (mentioned in the Bible as a place where Jesus drank from), which is in the crypt of the Jacob’s Well Greek Orthodox church. While five minutes ride out of the city center you will find the small but highly significant archeological site of Tell Balata – the remains of Canaanite town of Shechem from 200BC.
5: For a real Palestinian experience
I love Bethlehem and have lived there for about a year in the past, however as beautiful as the city is, it doesn’t have that same feeling that Nablus has. Nablus doesn’t have tourist buses coming through, or souvenir shops lining streets and markets. Nablus is raw and real, a true Palestinian city experience. You can visit Nablus and end up not seeing another non-local all day, even if you wander the city for hours. The market is crowded, noisy, and an attack on the senses – it’s unvarnished and the real deal. It’s the local experience, and isn’t that what some of us want in the end, a real flavor of the country we’re visiting?