Visitors to Jerusalem who haven’t seen the city in recent years are invariably amazed by all the new neighborhoods and luxury hotels that have transformed the skyline. The upscale Mamilla shopping district near the Old City and the newly refurbished Israel Museum attract both locals and tourists.
While some parts of Jerusalem are almost virtually unrecognizable, others, like Mahane Yehuda, the city’s sprawling open-air market, still evoke the best of old-world Jerusalem.
That being said, the shuk (market) is a lot cleaner, safer and trendier than it used to be. So trendy, in fact, that it is now on the tourist map of things to do in Jerusalem. Especially on frenetic Fridays, when Mahane Yehuda is packed with pre-Shabbat shoppers, tourists can get a glimpse of real life in the Holy City.
While hundreds of vendors continue to sell the freshest fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products — much as they have since the early 19th century — some of the stone stalls that once overflowed with dates and watermelons have been replaced with boutique stores selling everything from designer olive oil to funky jewelry.
Little restaurants and specialty food stores have started to spring up in several of the narrow stalls, and the smell of freshly baked sun-dried tomato challah and handmade chocolates have begun to compete with the enticing aroma of dozens of spices set out in wooden barrels.
The shuk is sandwiched between two parallel thoroughfares, Jaffa Road and Agrippas Street. Its two main pedestrian streets — Etz Haim, which has a glassed-in roof, and roofless Mahane Yehuda — run perpendicular to Jaffa and Agrippas. Several narrow alleyways branch off into a maze, adding to the adventure.
Enter the shuk from either Jaffa Road, which can be reached by numerous buses, or Agrippas, a narrow street with several health-food stores and excellent Middle Eastern restaurants.
If coming from Jaffa, walk along Mahane Yehuda Street, which offers a tamer environment than the closed shuk. Halfway down, at the intersection of HaEshkol, a shop named Uri sells excellent cheeses and smoked fish. On Fridays, it sells ready-made Middle Eastern delicacies.
Take a left turn at Afarsek Street, which leads to Etz Haim, where most of the action is. The main market is a riot of sound and color, where hundreds of tightly packed stalls sell fruits and vegetables, nuts, spices, baked goods, candy, dairy and fish products, Judaica and some housewares. Things are sold either by the kilo (even quarter kilo) or grams. Unlike the Old City’s Arab market, at Mahane Yehuda the prices aren’t negotiable.
Make a right onto Etz Haim and you’ll encounter dozens of longtime stalls and some surprising new ones. Established a few years ago, Ma’adaniyat Bashir (Etz Haim 53) was one of the first gourmet shops in the once-gritty market. In addition to hundreds of kosher cheeses (with various kashrut certifications), Bashir sells expensive wines and handmade chocolates by the piece.
At Pereg, right next door (55 Etz Haim), a brand-new shop devoted entirely to olive oil, request free samples of the delicious olive oil-based spreads mixed with sun-dried tomatoes.
Most vendors, in fact, will allow you to sample a salad or flavor of ice cream upon request.
Directly opposite is a new jewelry store, Isaac Shine 54 (Etz Haim), which sells, among other things, silver Hebrew-name necklaces for less than $20 (pick up two days later if your name isn’t in stock). And right next door is a tiny new restaurant/watering hole called May 5, which is open till the wee hours most nights. After hours, it attracts a mostly young crowd.
If you’re in the mood for a hearty meat meal, try a bowl of steaming hot kubah soup at Ema Kubah Bar (64 Etz Haim). At the corner of Etz Haim and Agrippas, Tzidkiyahu sells its renowned take-away salads and Middle Eastern finger foods. Be sure to try the zucchini and mint salad and the delicious vegetarian chopped liver.
The newest, funkiest part of the shuk is just a couple of turns away. Make a right at the corner of Agrippas and Etz Haim and walk a few yards before making another right on Ha’egoz Street. One place not to miss is the Etrog Man (Ha’egoz 10), one of the market’s old-timers.
Uzi Eli, about 70, concocts one-of-a-kind drinks, health elixirs and body creams (including an anti-aging cream he swears by) from etrogs and other organic plants he grows on his farm outside Jerusalem. His recently refurbished stall is always packed.
Eli tells visitors that his mother brought the etrog seeds from Yemen, where his family were healers.
Ha’egoz is also home to some new eateries, including Fishenchips (No. 16) and Mousseline (No. 17), which sells delicious ice cream and sorbets. Chocolatel (No. 30) sells delectable chocolates handmade in Jerusalem. Anyone in search of Israeli gifts shouldn’t miss Pri Adama, a colorful ceramics cooperative that sells reasonably priced plates, vases and other one-of-a-kind pieces by 11 local artists.
Roza (11 Ha’egoz) also sells fun, brightly colored jewelry, candlesticks, purses and other items, all of them made in Israel.
While the introduction of new shops to the established market could have caused tension between the older shuk veterans and the young entrepreneurs, that generally hasn’t been the case, says Rachel Cohen, who works at the Isaac Shine jewelry store.
“There have been a handful who feel these kinds of shops shouldn’t be in the shuk, but they’re the exception,” Cohen said. “The vast majority of vendors have welcomed us really warmly. There’s a feeling of belonging to one big family, whether you sell fruit or eggs or diamonds.”