Ramallah and Al-Bireh

ramallah-10Ramallah (the name means God’s Mountain) and Al-Bireh (map) were once separate villages, but now make up one urban conglomerate, a mere 10km north of Jerusalem. Though Al-Bireh’s history can be traced back to the Canaanites, Ramallah was only settled by Christians in the 1500s, and these days is a bustling, cosmopolitan city, with a thriving art scene and vibrant nightlife. Map.

Map of Ramallah
Map of Ramallah

Ramallah may lack the religious fervor of Nablus, Hebron or, indeed, Jerusalem, but the Palestinian flags and graffiti that adorn every wall leave you in no doubt about where you are. While Israeli incursions into the city are unusual (although not unheard of), Ramallah has suffered greatly over the past few decades: much of the city was leveled during the Second Intifada, and it was here that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat spent the last weeks of his life, under siege.

ramallah-3But Ramallah is not all about politics. The tiny shops, cafes and eateries that line the arteries that lead off Al-Manara Sq – with its iconic four lions – are fascinating places to wander around, and the nearby Al-Muntazah neighborhood is packed with trendy cafes and bars. As the economic and political heart of the West Bank, Ramallah is home to a good deal of expatriates, English is widely spoken and transport links are superb. As such, it makes an excellent base for further forays  into the West Bank.

ramallah-8Most tourists begin their exploration of Ramallah in Al-Manara Sq, which is a short walk downhill from the bus station where buses arrive from Jerusalem. The streets that branch off Al-Manara lead to the city’s other neighborhoods. Al-Ra’eesy St (also known as Main St) and Palestine St (directly opposite) lead to the Old City and the entrance to the street market respectively, and are packed with coffee shops and kebab houses.

ramallah-4To reach the Al-Muntazah neighborhood, head down the Jaffa Rd; take a right at  the HSBC bank and head up Eisah Zeyada St, which has a host of chic cafes, bars and dining destinations. Set on a steep hill, Ramallah can be a disorientating and tiring place to get lost but locals can generally point you in the right direction. Taxis are also relatively cheap; a journey within the city should cost no more than 10NIS.

Muqata’a (Al-Itha’a St; tomb 9am-9pm daily)
Those interested in modern history might want to stop at the now-rebuilt Muqata’a, Yasser Arafat’s large presidential compound, where he was based during the last days of the Second Intifada. He was evacuated from his base in 2004 while under Israeli siege and later died in a Paris hospital. In 2014 his body was briefly exhumed for tests after speculation that he had been poisoned. Arafat’s enormous cubicle tomb is guarded by soldiers and adorned with wreaths. The compound’s buildings have been restored, with the exception of some holes from tank shelling. The Muqata’a is around 1km from Al-Manara on the road to Birzeit and Nablus, and is  easily walkable from downtown. Soldiers will not let tourists stray from the short path between the entrance and the tomb, but Muslims will be allowed to enter the modern mosque erected in Arafat’s honor.

ramallah-2Al-Kamandjati (02-297 3101; http://www.alkamandjati.com; Old City)
This small conservatory, which features an ancient arch with an edgy, modern copper entryway, offers intimate concerts and recitals.

Sleeping

Ramallah does not have a huge amount of accommodation for tourists, but it has at least one good option in each budget.

Area D Hostel (056 934 9042; http://ramallahhostel.com; Vegetable Market St; dm 70NIS, d 160-200NIS)(map)
With cozy, spotless dorms and a number of private rooms, Area D makes a great hub for tourists – not least because its position on the top floor of Ramallah’s service taxi garage means you can get a ride to most parts of the West Bank without having to leave the building. Staff are helpful, the location is fantastic and the open plan lounge is a lovely place to relax.

Royal Court Suites Hotel (02-296 4040; http://www.rcshotel.com; Jaffa St; s/d/ste 305/355/445NIS)(map)
This is a reliable mid-range option 15 minutes’ walk downhill from the center of town. Many of the rooms come with kitchen facilities and balconies and all have WiFi and breakfast. The suites are enormous. Consider asking for a room at the back of the hotel where it is much quieter.

Beauty Inn (02-246 4040; http://www.beautyinn.ps; Al Muntazah; s/d/ste US$90/120/180)(map)
Tucked away on a quiet street close to the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, this is a smart, clean mid-range option with a pool and a gym and corridors lined with pictures of Palestine. Some rooms are a little dark, so ask to see a couple when you check in.

Mövenpick Ramallah (02-298 5888; http://www.moevenpick-hotels.com/en/middle-east; Al Masyoun; s/d US$180/200)(map)
One of only a handful of Western-branded hotels in the West Bank, the Mövenpick has become a hub for Palestine’s great and good – as evidenced by the flashy cars that pull up outside its imposing glass-fronted lobby. It has huge rooms, excellent staff and great facilities, including a gym and pool (summer only). Book online for better rates.

Eating

The area around Al-Manara Sq is packed with cheap hole-in-the-wall eateries and kebab and felafel stands, but Ramallah has a range of restaurants, from fast food to Italian, from organic to sushi. The trendier spots – congregated close to Jaffa St – chop and change, but there are a few stalwarts.

Ameed Al Zain (Palestine St; mains 15-50NIS; h9am-6pm Sat-Thu)
This tiny restaurant just off Al Manara Sq is the best of the kebab and felafel joints that dominate this part of town. Sit down at one of the three tables and point either to the grill or the felafel. Their speciality is kofta-style kebabs cooked with pine nuts and fresh mint (40NIS). Staff speak little English but make life very easy nonetheless.

La Vie Cafe (02-296 4115; info@lavie-cafe.com; Castel St; mains 35-70NIS; 10am-midnight Sat-Thu, 4pm-midnight Fri)
Tucked away on a quiet street just 10 minutes’ walk from Al-Manara, this place has a diverse menu of pasta, pizza and sandwiches, with much of its produce grown in owners Saleh and Morgan’s roof garden. On weekends, La Vie is a popular nightspot, serving a range of beers, wines and cocktails.

Pronto Resto-Café (Al-Muntazah; mains 45-75NIS; h7am-11pm)
This dark and cosy little trattoria is a popular spot for musicians, filmmakers, professionals and peacemakers. The pizzas are top notch and a handful of pasta options make it the only place for real Italian food in Ramallah. Pronto prides itself on local ingredients, from the fish (caught in Jaffa) to the wine (from Bethlehem).

Zamn (Al-Tireh; coffee from 10NIS, mains 35-60NIS; h7am-11pm)
The hippest spot in Ramallah and meeting ground for reporters and NGO workers, Zamn is a fun place for a morning croissant and cuppa or a lunchtime sandwich. Walk down Dar Ibrahim and bear right at the roundabout.

Drinking & Nightlife

Ramallah is packed with trendy bars and restaurants, many of which stay open until the wee hours and are usually far cheaper than Jerusalem. For those of a more sober disposition, Al-Manara is well served with local coffee houses, where older Ramallans congregate to play cards, smoke shisha and gossip.

Al-Snobar (Pine; 02-296 5571; http://www.al-snowbar.com; May-Oct)
This entertainment complex has a flashy restaurant, a swimming pool and one of the hottest nightclubs in the city. Note that it’s only open in high season. It’s located 2km northwest of Al-Manara Sq. Take a taxi, everyone knows it.

Lawain (059 763 6003; Al-Manara; h6pm-late)
Situated above the Qasaba Theatre just off Al-Manara, Lawain is a late-night party spot, with live music, DJs and a young crowd of both locals and expats hanging out on weekends into the early hours. Be warned that unless there is a show on, Lawain doesn’t get going until 9pm or 10pm. Ask for the theatre if you can’t find it.

Sangria’s (02-295 6808; Jaffa Rd, Al-Muntazah; noon-midnight)
A veteran Ramallah hang-out, Sangria’s beer garden is the place to be on Thursday and Saturday nights. The Mexican and international menu is ambitious, but you are here for the drinks menu – arguably one of the best in the city, with everything from local Taybeh beer (15NIS) to a range of cocktails (35NIS to 40NIS) to sangria, of course, at 80NIS a litre.

La Grotta (Old City; 6pm-late)
La Grotta is a tiny, grungy, alternative hangout, close to posh Mexican restaurant Fuego in the Old City. There are a few tables outside but the main bar is up the steps on the 1st floor of a traditional Palestinian house. It doesn’t get going until late and can be tricky to find: walk down Main St and turn left at the garage.

Stars & Bucks (Al-Manara; 8am-late)(map)
A Ramallah institution and not just because of its mischievous take on the logo – or indeed, the entire concept – of the US coffee giant, Stars & Bucks is a great place to hang out with coffee or cocktails (non-alcoholic) overlooking the bustle of Al-Manara Sq.

Entertainment

There is a lot going on in Ramallah, but you tend to need to be in the know to find out what is on when. Ask at your hotel, check online or pick up the entertainment listing This Week in Palestine.

Al-Kasaba Theater & Cinematheque (02-296 5292; http://www.alkasaba.org; Al-Manara)
A magnet for artists, musicians and film and theater buffs. It’s well worth catching a performance or screening here while you’re in town.

Khalil Sakakini Centre (02-298 7374; http://www.sakakini.org; Al-Muntazah)
Hosts art exhibitions by the locally and internationally renowned, along with a whole host of other cultural pursuits. Check the website for upcoming events.

Transport

From the old Arab bus station in East Jerusalem take bus 18 (30 minutes) all the way to Ramallah. As a rule of thumb; the smaller the bus the faster the journey. Buses to/from Ramallah operate from 6am to 9pm in summer or until 7pm in winter, after which you can take a service taxi from Ramallah to Qalandia and then a taxi to Jerusalem, or vice versa.

You will not need to get off the bus on the way into the West Bank, but on the way out all passengers disembark and go through airport-style security. Have your passport and Israeli visa ready to show the soldiers behind the bulletproof glass.

Also hold onto your ticket to show to the driver once you’re on the other side of the checkpoint. Everything within the Ramallah area is 10 minutes or less by private taxi and should cost 10NIS to 20NIS; but be sure to agree on the final price with the driver before setting off.

The main bus station where buses arrive from Jerusalem has services to Nablus and Hebron, and the service taxi parking garage across the road (below Area D Hostel) has dirt cheap shared taxis to almost everywhere you could want to go in Palestine.

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