In Jerusalem, effective shopping is all about picking the right starting point. If you want knick-knack souvenirs or you start out where cheap clothes are sold to locals, you can easily waste time and energy. Worse yet, the end result could be something along the lines of: “Oh whatever, I can’t take this anymore!” as you purchase some cheap knick-knack gift that you bought out of sheer exhaustion. Not only are these types of gifts either overpriced or made in China, you’re better off buying something at the airport.
When you go on the hunt for gifts in eclectic East Jerusalem, don’t be afraid to get creative. East Jerusalem is fairly accessible and walkable once you’re oriented and have a good rally point. To avoid wandering off in the wrong direction, start from the intersection of Salah e-Din Street and Sultan Suleiman Street on the eastern side of the Old City. It’s easy to find on Google maps, everyone knows it, and it intersects with another major road on a roundabout. You can reach the intersection from the Old City’s Herod’s Gate or Damascus Gate very quickly. From the Salah e-Din/Sultan Suleiman intersection public transportation and taxis are very close, West Jerusalem’s city center is a walkable distance (though on the long side), and there are numerous places to eat a meal or get a snack. Most importantly, it gives you access to a wide variety of shops.
If you begin from the roundabout and go northeast on Salah e-Din, you’ll come across a number of shops that sell everything from tennis shoes to falafel, mostly geared to locals. There are also a couple of money exchange storefronts. Try to gravitate toward the stores that look like candy or spice shops. Inside you will find a fascinating world of all kinds of regional spices, including local custom blends.
Spice and candy shops engage in a certain degree of competition over their unique “blends” of spices for different purposes. They will also gladly give you a custom mixture on the spot based on your preferences. If packaged properly for safekeeping during return travel, spices are one of the most affordable, authentic, and interesting gifts you can bring back to friends and family. They are also very lightweight and a great conversation piece about the tastes and smells of your travels.
For loved ones who don’t cook much, continue on Salah e-Din Street toward the American Colony hotel. It’s a good 15-minute walk, but the two shops in the prestigious hotel’s front courtyard are full of surprises. One is a very upscale antiques shop, and the other is a book shop full of fascinating English titles on the region and English-speaking staff, called The Educational Book Shop. The American Colony is a great place to take a rest and have a coffee, too. There is also an ATM just outside the hotel gates that accepts foreign debit cards (not easy to find in East Jerusalem) and you can easily get a taxi here or ask the hotel concierge for recommendations on shopping tips.
If you don’t make it that far or want to stay closer to the Old City, The Educational Book Shop has another location on Salah e-Din Street that features a cozy upstairs cafe with coffee/tea and some baked treats. At either location you can find almost any type of book on the region, including children’s books.
Travel along Salah e-Din Street toward the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and you will discover a wide variety of places to buy gifts, though many are geared toward tourists. Just on the other side of the roundabout from Salah e-Din, enter through Herod’s Gate. Take the first two lefts to Antonia Street, follow that to Sha’ar HaAyarot Street, then turn left to the Austrian Hospice. There are signs for it and everyone knows it, so don’t be afraid to ask. From the intersection of the Austrian Hospice, any direction will lead you to all manner of spice, rug, jewelry, and scarf shops.
A left turn and straight south from this location will lead you to the best shops. Once you’re in the Old City, remember to bargain! There will be plenty of shops with religious trinkets, but beware that some places do sell items made in China (especially scarves), but they are usually labeled as such or the shop owner will tell you if you ask where it’s made. Most scarves sold in the Old City are actually made in China or India.
If you’re looking to spend more on gifts, there are numerous high-end jewelry shops that sell antiques, Judaica, and upcycled jewelry featuring pieces of polished Roman glass near the Roman colonnade. Always ask for a certificate of authentication when buying antiques and a receipt for VAT (tax) reimbursement that you can redeem at the airport when you’re leaving.
If you have one or two goals for gifts before you set out shopping in East Jerusalem you’ll succeed, but you also need to be open to exploring until you hit on something amazing.