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Where to Go for Winter Warmth

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 18.02.2007:

By Leif-Erik Hannikainen

It is a widely held assumption that social activities during the winter in Palestine, especially throughout the month of December, centre on the various religious feasts and celebrations held at this time of year. Spending time with family and visiting myriad friends and relations are time-honoured traditions, and rightly so. These excursions and trips provide a means to exchange information and maintain family links as well as bolster a feeling of solidarity in these difficult moments. Fortunately, for the spread of cheer and tranquillity during the festive season and beyond, there are also many more frivolous ways to spend your time in a selection of excellent watering holes and nightspots. Once the round of family obligations is done, a different form of entertainment can begin.

These places provide much needed focal points of socialising and come under many guises. Whether for a light snack, eating and drinking with friends, dancing, or just enjoying a nargileh, there is always something to occupy your time.

Congregating around a few Taybehs by the roaring fire at Ziryab’s in Ramallah is a brilliant way to unwind after a day at work-more so in this brief period of winter in Palestine, when the summer gardens of bars and restaurants have been closed as they await warmer days ahead. What makes a place such as Ziryab special is not only an excellent menu and a central location, but most of all its cosy, pub-like atmosphere. The large square tables are perfect for bigger groups, and you can be frequently ensconced at one for several hours on end.

Pronto’s bar and restaurant, though very popular in the summer due to its terrace facing the park, loses none of its appeal in the winter. I would highly recommend it as the spot to wrap up the weekend over a quiet Sunday lunch and an excellent Bloody Mary. I frequently remember arriving here, though not always my departure.

Moving slightly south, we see that dinner spots are not lacking in the Bethlehem area, though Bethlehem’s fame does not originate in its nightlife. Amongst the many possibilities, it would be an oversight not to mention The Tent in Beit Sahour, though typically a summer venue. It has an attractive Bedouin vibe to it and serves local cuisine to guests who sit on cushions strewn over low couches. Its excellent food, original décor, and breathtaking views of the desert hills make it a totally new and different dining experience for first-timers in the Middle East. For those with slightly deeper pockets, the Jacir Palace Intercontinental, though not as frequented as it should be, provides nonetheless an impressive backdrop to the beginning of a Bethlehem evening. A game of pool in the Billiard Room, accompanied by an arak and followed by dinner in the courtyard restaurant, is a truly civilised way to while away a winter evening.

To continue the evening’s entertainment in Bethlehem, Café Bonjour, located close to the University buildings, is an excellent choice. With a DJ dishing out tunes by the bar, it provides a perfect spot to grab a snack or gather for a drink after dinner. It has started organising regular parties over the weekends, which serve as a useful way to structure your agenda for the coming week. Most recently it played host to Greek Orthodox New Year celebrations, a most welcome if unexpected sequel to the New Year’s Eve festivities of the weeks before. The car park just outside, which eliminates any unnecessary walking, only makes entering the party spirit more immediate.

No weekend in Bethlehem would be complete though, without a compulsory visit to Cosmos. Located in the Olive Tree Village compound in Beit Jala, it is relatively easy to find and well worth the visit. It has also received recent media attention boosting its popularity and adding to the number of bright young things that dance here. A large marble dance floor is at the centre of an octagonal room on the second floor, which has a strategically placed bar immediately at the entrance and tables placed throughout the perimeter of the room. There is a mixture of Arabic and Western music, and the party gets going around midnight. Booking a table, though not essential, does help, especially for large groups. It is a refreshing mix of the Bethlehem-area jeunesse dorée, Jerusalemites, and members of the expatriate community, sporting a blend of jeans-and-a-t-shirt and cocktail dresses. The atmosphere is more akin to that of a private party than an anonymous nightclub. Since the service at the bar is prompt, with an impressive selection of cocktails, wine, and beer, a well-oiled and highly enjoyable evening is ensured.

Back in Jerusalem, Borderline remains a classic spot on the party circuit, especially the table right by the fireplace, and continues to provide entertaining evenings throughout the winter months. A great relief is that they still serve nargilehs indoors even though it gets very crowded on weekends. It is one of those rare places where you are assured of bumping into, and having a relaxing drink with, a fellow reveller from the night before.

Philadelphia restaurant a few doors down, though more famous for its grill, has started to play host to a string of very amusing parties that are organised mostly by expatriate workers based in Jerusalem. The domed Ottoman-style rooms, dance floor with steps on one edge for easier viewing, and bar placed at the heart of the party ensure its success. The other spot that has become popular for private parties is next-door Askadinya. It has now become very confusing to arrive in the evening at these spots and to try to figure out whose party you should be at. Luckily this has not been too trying a problem hitherto.

The Winter Bar at the American Colony is still a fixture on the evening drinks scene-a springboard to inspire the theme for the rest of the evening. A particular lure of this place is the extensive cocktail menu. All drinks are expertly mixed and beautifully presented by the attentive bar staff. Though not exactly the place to go for an unholy binge of wild abandon, it has a very discreet, elegant charm. It has the cosy feeling of a grotto and is pleasantly lit with very dim lights that are conducive to remaining relatively incognito if you so wish. This is also particularly useful for that “day-after” feeling.

For the best pizza in town, made in a traditional Italian wood-burning pizza oven, the place to go is Az-Zahra. Off a street leading down from Saladin Road, it also has a log fire in one of the dining rooms, very necessary on the occasional cold and rainy day. This is also one of those places that over the summer hosted several parties because of its grill, and it should not be overlooked simply due to its more summery connotations.

A very amusing evening can be spent at the Jerusalem Hotel on Fridays; one gets a corner table, orders a string of drinks, and listens to the live music. The whole thing gets going around 11 and is very exotic for those in an Orientalist mood. This is really one of the most Jerusalem-vibe places that can be frequented here. With vine trellis, ubiquitous nargileh, and oud music, this place has preserved intact the feeling of partying in days gone by. They really should organise a tarboush party here. Rest assured it would be an enormous success.

This is merely a smattering of the local evening places that have remained impressed in my mind; each has something special that guarantees a good evening. Though in essence quite different from each other, all of them make the party mesh well due to their particular qualities. I have most definitely enjoyed myself to the maximum in all of these places, and it is difficult to pick a favourite. One easily and rapidly becomes a fixture on the social scene here due to the quick succession of events, and there is truly never a dull moment. I can only recommend that you go out and try them all for yourselves, discover new places, and spread the word.

Leif-Erik Hannikainen is an historian and presently works with UNESCO in Ramallah. He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

February 2007

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