The city of Bethel is located about ten miles north of Jerusalem. It's first mentioned when Abraham built an altar. After Abraham left Egypt he returned to Bethel, and it was here that Lot moved his herds away from Abraham, as the land could not support the two herds. Jacob had his dream of a stairwell (like on the side of Mesopotamian Ziggurat) connecting Heaven and earth, and thus he named the place Bethel, "House of God, Gate of Heaven."
The Ark of the Covenant was housed in Bethel during the period of the Judges. One of the judges, Deborah, was based in the vicinity of Bethel. Samuel visited Bethel on his yearly circuit. During Elijah's time, a guild of prophets resided there, and Bethel was one of the stops Elijah and Elisha made before Elijah was taken up into Heaven in the fiery chariot.
When the Kingdom divided, Bethel became one of the places where people in the northern kingdom gathered to worship. It was here that King Jeroboam set up one of his golden calves to compete with the Ark in Jerusalem. The prophets Hosea and Amos both condemned the worshiping of the calf in Bethel. Bethel fell to the Assyrians, along with the rest of the Northern Kingdom, in 721 BC.
Once Jacob rested in the city when traveling to Haran. Here he slept with his head rested on a rock and God appeared to him in a dream. In this dream a ladder (or staircase) was reaching up to Heaven with Angels moving up and down it. After awaking Jacob though that perhaps the city he was in had a special presence of God, perhaps even the gate of Heaven or House of God. So he called the place Bethel, or the House of God. It seems based on the way the text refers to it as "the place" and how Jacob never calls it by name that he was unaware of the city's name.