Ramallah epitomises the Palestine most people don’t know exists. This is the cultural, commercial and governmental hub of the West Bank, alive with liberalism and intellectualism. It is a loud, vibrant city from its historic market to its chaotic bus station and its hip downtown to its towering, glamorous hotels. Almost operating within its own bubble, Ramallah is an eclectic hub of activity and continues to evolve with each day. Many of its residents are refugee families from Jerusalem and elsewhere in Palestine, who were forced to seek new lives in Ramallah and in doing so made it the Palestinian Authority’s de facto capital.
In a paradoxical way, it is the backdrop of conflict, oppression and death which has driven the citizens of Ramallah to celebrate what it is to be alive in any way they can. Amongst younger generations, this unified spirit manifests itself in the form of almost constant house parties, as well as festivals and club nights in one of the city’s many venues. Ramallah seriously knows how to party. Literature, comedy and the arts in general are also of great importance here, and a cultural calendar of events can be picked in many spots. It is the modern, European vibe to be found in the ‘downtown’ area in particular which most first-time visitors find surprising; there is an international dining scene, with many restaurants serving alcohol and an eclectic range of bars sprinkled throughout the city, from the hip live music venue Radio to the cult favourite Snobar – which operates as an open-air pool bar during the day. These are the places to rub shoulders with other foreigners, many of whom live in Ramallah while working in NGOs, or are journalists, human rights activists or even simply ‘tourists’. There are two classic backpacker-friendly hostels in the city, ideal for those who want to travel and meet others.
However, all of this is not to suggest that Ramallah is entirely detached from Palestinian and Muslim traditions; many of the older coffee shops – the places to smoke ‘argila’ – have unspoken men only rules, although foreign females tend not to face any problems. The delicious falafel vendors, fresh ice cream and juice bars are also beloved in the city, as is the bustling market, where seemingly everything can be picked up for a bargain price. The different neighbourhoods vary a great deal, from the governmental dwellings of upmarket Al Masyon, which also boasts Ramallah’s only 5-star hotel, the Moevenpick, to the energetic, modern Al Tireh. The real hub for foreigners is the Down Town, known as ‘Ramallah tahta’, where beautiful old buildings house classy restaurants and bars, quirky shops and also the city’s tourist information centre.
Ramallah’s twin city, Al Bireh, mirrors the diverse, cosmopolitan vibe. At Ramallah’s heart is the wonderful community spirit on which Palestine is built. The people are very friendly and – now so accustomed to foreign nationals that you should never feel uncomfortable or out of place – you will feel completely welcomed.