By Douglas E. Duckett
The City by the Bay
Suggested Time: 2 to 3 nights
While Haifa on the northern Mediterranean coast is not nearly as much of a tourist center as Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, it remains my favorite city in the world. Many tourists skip it, a mistake in my view. Its beautiful bay reminds many of San Francisco or Naples. And it is a warm, vibrant city with the most successful Jewish-Arab coexistence of any major city in Israel. I absolutely adore Haifa—if I lived in Israel, Haifa would be my home.
My favorite Haifa hotel by far is the Crowne Plaza Haifa, at 111 Yefe Nof Street, tel. (04) 835-0835, fax (04) 835-0836; www.afi-hotels.com/Crowne_Plaza_Haifa; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. This outstanding hotel hangs on the edge of Yefe Nof (Panorama) Street atop Mount Carmel with a stunning view of the city and Haifa Bay below (see picture above). It is not an inexpensive place, but it is very much worth it—big, beautiful rooms, many with a bay view, a great breakfast buffet, and absolutely outstanding service! There is also a spa with workout facilities and massage available. Other hotel options nearby include the Dan Panorama Haifa Hotel, 107 Ha-Nassi Avenue, tel. (04) 835-2222, https://www3.danhotels.com/HaifaHotels/DanPanoramaHaifaHotel. This hotel offers the same spectacular views (get a bay room), and a great staff and breakfast. But the room décor is quite dated and needs an upgrade, and it just does not compare with the Crowne Plaza (though it does have a spectacular outdoor pool, which the Crowne Plaza lacks). Also nearby is the Dan Carmel, another large, upscale hotel. There are also some less expensive guesthouse options, but for the combination of view, updated rooms and facilities, and service, at this point, the Crowne Plaza cannot be beat.
If you stay in this area of Central Carmel, I suggest you buy some fine Israeli wines at a terrific wine shop called Special Reserve at 109 Ha-Nassi Boulevard in the Panorama Center, a mall located under the Dan Panorama Hotel; tel. (04) 836-1187, e-mail email@example.com. The same owner has a new Wine Bar by Andre Suidan nearby at 98 Ha-Nassi, (050) 427-4556 and another location in the Ahuza district at 14 Horev Street, tel. (04) 625-5818. The shop owner is Andre Suidan, and either he or his assistant Moshe (who runs the Horev Street location) can work with you to find good wines in your price range. They have wines from all over the world, but go local! Israeli wines are not the sugary sweet types that people associate with Passover Seders; they have really come into their own and have won many awards in European wine festivals in recent years. Ask for Andre if he is there; he is a truly lovely man who has become a good friend, and he will show you the wonders of some fine Israeli wines. Just meeting Andre is worth a stop; he is a remarkable man. Tell Andre or Moshe that I sent you, and you might get a taste or two to help you choose. Choose some wines to enjoy with the view from your hotel balcony. Or do as I have done and just buy a case to cover your needs for the rest of the trip! You can even ship a case home—I do so on every trip now (expensive, but I like having Israel wines in my house). As Israelis say when offering a toast, “l’chaim!”—“To life!”
Day trips from and within Haifa:
Caesarea is the seaside city that King Herod built to honor his Roman patron Caesar Augustus, and it was later held by a succession of Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamelukes, and Ottoman Turks—and now, the Israelis. These are among the most spectacular ruins in all Israel. The city is also prominent in the New Testament—here Pontius Pilate had his seat of government, the Apostle Paul was tried, and Peter baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius after his vision of God showing him “a new thing.” Jews remember that the Great Revolt against Rome in 66-73 C.E. began here, leading to the execution of thousands of Jewish rebels, and Rabbi Akiva was brought here to be flayed alive during the Second (Bar Kochba) Revolt in 132-35 C.E. Lots of history! Be sure to see the Roman Aqueduct north of the park (pictured at left). Caesarea makes an easy stop on the way from Tel Aviv to Haifa. While you’re in Caesarea, also check out the gorgeous Old City Caesarea Gallery with its beautiful paintings and sculptures. Tel. (04) 626-0198; www.caesareaart.com. Particularly if you buy anything (and we’ve bought both a painting and a sculpture), tell the owner/sculptor Leon Bronstein that I sent you if he is there. He is incredibly talented, and a really sweet man. I particularly recommend the works by Bulgarian-Israeli artist Asia Katz. One of her works graces our dining room, to many positive comments. By the way, since this may be the first national park you visit, you may want to buy an all-park pass, called “the Orange Card,” which is both convenient and reasonably priced at ₪150 (about $43 USD). You can also buy a six-park pass (“Green Card”) for ₪110 ($32 USD) or a three-park pass (“Blue Card”) for ₪78 ($22 USD); all are good for two weeks. Unless you know you’re only going to a few parks, the all-park pass is usually the better deal. You don’t have to keep track, and you’ll likely see more than enough parks to save money. Note: For some inexplicable reason, some of the smaller parks (such as Apollonia) don’t sell the passes—which makes no sense at all since they are all on the card! If you visit one of those first, keep your receipt—you may get a credit when you do buy the pass at a later park, but that didn’t work for me on my most recent visit. Such a stupid policy!
Akko—Easily accessible by car, bus, or train from Haifa, Akko is an amazing place that feels like scenes from “The Arabian Nights.” The Old City is absolutely magical. Akko (also known as Acre) was the Crusaders’ last stronghold in the Holy Land, and the Crusader “underground city” with its incredibly well-preserved knights’ halls (pictured at right) is one of the most amazing sites in all Israel. Uri Buri and Abu Christo are famous restaurants in the city. It is a wonderful and colorful city to explore on foot, though it is a bit like a rabbit warren (so a guide might be helpful here). Also, just outside Akko is Bahji, the resting place of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder and greatest prophet of the Bahà’ì faith, who was imprisoned by the Ottoman Turks as an apostate from Islam. His burial place is a peaceful and quiet shrine, surrounded by extraordinary gardens.
There is a new ferry service between Haifa and Akko that I’d like to try on a future trip—see http://www.akko.org.il/en/Ferry-from-Akko-to-Haifa-.
Rosh Ha-Niqra. On the northern border with Lebanon, these sea-caves carved into chalk cliffs are truly extraordinary. They are only accessible by cable car (unless you swim there!). The view down the coast, all the way to Haifa and Mount Carmel, is spectacular.
Zikhron Ya’akov is a lovely and charming city on the slopes of Mount Carmel south of Haifa, glistening on the hills above the coastal highway. Like Caesarea, this is a possible stop on the way from Tel Aviv. Zikhron, as it is commonly known for short, was one of the first Zionist settlements in the Land of Israel in the First Aliyah, financed largely by the Rothschild fortune, and the name (“Memory of Jacob”) recalls the founding baron’s father Jacob. Each major wave of Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel in modern times is called an “aliyah,” and the First Aliyah in the 1880s and 1890s was the only one of the five aliyot that was religious in nature. But unlike the Jewish population already in the Land of Israel (always there), they were also Zionist in motivation, committed to doing more than praying, studying, and dying in the Holy Land, and they insisted on being self-sufficient rather than relying on charity from overseas to finance their lives. Life was hard and many of the first pioneers died; see the First Aliyah Museum for more on that story, tel. (04) 629-4777. Start at the Sarah Aharonson House, the home of an early Zionist hero who, after seeing the results of the Armenian genocide, was determined to help the British in their campaign against the Ottoman Turks in World War I. She and others formed a spy ring in the town called Nili, which provided information to the British. The Turks intercepted one of her carrier pigeons and tortured her, but she managed to kill herself with a pistol concealed under a tile in a bathroom. It is quite the story.
I noticed right away that several buildings looked much like the German Templer homes in Sarona and in Haifa, and my tour guide Russell Abel (contact info p. 7) complimented my eye for detail—they were in fact built by Templers who were hired to construct buildings in the new settlement, including the first synagogue. Zikhron today is really a charming place, with beautiful neighborhoods and a central pedestrian district of shops, cafés, and galleries without the sterility of Sarona. On a future visit, I think I may stay at a guesthouse for a few days for a different experience.
Back in the city of Haifa itself, we have several sites of interest:
The Clandestine Immigration Museum in Haifa on the seashore level, 204 Allenby Road, tel. (04) 853-6249, tells the story of the movement for “illegal” immigration of Jews to Palestine through a British blockade before and after World War II. Haifa played a key role in that struggle, and it’s one of Israel’s great stories. One of the ships is part of the museum! You can also walk from there to Elijah’s Cave, the traditional site of his confrontation with the prophets of Ba’al, a site revered by Jews, particularly Sephardim.
Also, don’t miss the spectacular Bahà’ì Shrine and Gardens. Haifa is the world center of the Bahà’ì faith, a peaceful, gentle, and syncretic faith that teaches that the prophets of all faiths, including Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha, were sent by God. The gardens are built on nineteen terraces that reach from the port level all the way to Yefe Nof, the street along the top of Mount Carmel near where most of the hotels are located. To see the gardens fully, you need to go on one of the tours offered by the Bahà’ì authorities; self-touring is limited to certain areas. For more information and schedules of tours, see www.ganbahai.org.il/en/guided-tours. But if time is limited, you can get a good sense of the breathtakingly beautiful gardens from the overlook on Yefe Nof Street at the top of the gardens. Also, make sure to see what the gardens look like from below at night; it is one of the loveliest things I have ever seen! You can get great views from the German Colony area along Ben-Gurion Boulevard on the port level, which has many restaurants.
Hiking in Carmel National Park. If you are interested in some exercise and nature, you can drive or take a bus to the University of Haifa, with stunning views from the top of Mount Carmel. From there, you can hike into the large Mount Carmel National Park on the far side of the mountain, with trails through beautiful mountain pine forests. There is also a wildlife park there called Hai Bar Carmel, where the Israel Nature and Parks Authority seeks to reintroduce into the wild the animals of biblical Israel—Persian fallow deer, wild sheep, gazelles, oryx, wild asses, and Griffon vultures.
Eating out in Haifa is a far more diverse, fun scene than used to be the case for this largely industrial and working-class city. Jacko’s is a great fish and seafood restaurant down in the port area at 12 Kehilat Saloniki Street, tel. (053) 809-4661; they also have branches in Tel Aviv, Netanya, and Herzliya. This is one of Israel’s most famous seafood restaurants—nothing fancy, but very good seafood. But my favorite in the Carmel District is Elkheir, a family-owned Druze restaurant at 139 Ha-Nassi Boulevard, tel. (04) 850-0090; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The place is nothing fancy, but the famous Druze hospitality and fantastic food are on full display! My husband and I ate enough for a week!
Venturing out a bit, check out the gorgeous and interesting German Colony on Ben-Gurion Boulevard on the port-level, a fun area of restaurants and night life. You can take the Carmelit funicular (mountainside) subway from the top station in Central Carmel all the way to the last station; from there, it is about a 10-minute walk to the German Colony. You can also take a bus from the Carmel Center area in front of the Dan Panorama directly to Ben-Gurion Boulevard; check with your hotel. Or it’s an easy cab ride. On my most recent visit, a friend from TripAdvisor introduced me to Fattoush, 38 Ben-Gurion Street, tel. (04) 852-4930. This is a great place with excellent Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, and so much character and charm! It also has a vibrant Arab and Jewish clientele—one of the aspects of Haifa that I most love. It may be my new favorite in the city. They also have the Fattoush Bar & Gallery at Ha-Namal 6, very popular with more of a young crowd. Also in the German Colony, I recommend Douzan with its colorful and delightful owner, Fadi Najjar. Douzan is across the street from Fattoush at 35 Ben-Gurion Boulevard, tel. (04) 852-5444, www.douzan.com, and it has a wide-ranging, eclectic menu. In nice weather, take an outside table with that spectacular night view of the Bahà’ì Gardens up the side of Mount Carmel—breathtaking!—but interior tables are also available. Fadi is a unique Haifa experience, hovering over the proceedings with careful attention and great affection as he kisses the cheeks of women, men, IDF soldiers, American sailors; it doesn’t matter. Whether or not you get smooched (he’s not gross, just flamboyant and friendly), tell Fadi “shalom” from me, please! His English is limited, so you may have to have a friend or staff member translate. Or just say “Douglas from America” and wave my guidebook at him! For inexpensive but very good Middle Eastern food, you can try Abu Yusuf near the Ford garage in the port area. It’s very informal and in a dead neighborhood at night but offers plentiful and tasty food at a very reasonable price. It’s near the Paris Square Carmelit stop, tel. (04) 866-3723.
Finally, as you travel from Haifa to the Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) region, I have several stops to recommend. You could also do these as day trips from Haifa as well.
Nazareth. This is, of course, the city where Jesus grew up, and as such, is important to many Christians. There are several major sites there, and the most spectacular is the Church of the Annunciation, a modern Catholic church in the center of the city. Its dome is the dominant feature of the Nazareth skyline. Don’t miss the mosaics in the church depicting the Madonna and child, each donated by the Catholics of that nation. My favorite is Japan’s, which incorporates pearls into the design! Other sites include the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, which also contains “Mary’s Well,” an ancient spring which probably did once serve Jesus’ family in what was then a tiny, backwater hamlet with a population of no more than 500. Some visitors love “Nazareth Village,” which seeks to re-create Nazareth life in the First Century C.E. It is a bit “Disneyish” for me, but many enjoy it.
The Druze Villages, Daliat al-Carmel and Isfiya. South of Haifa along Route 672, you can visit two major Druze villages on the southern approach to Mount Carmel, a chance for a wonderful taste of this important Israeli ethnic/religious group. The Druze are renowned for their hospitality, fine food, and wonderful fabrics and crafts, and these towns are often mobbed by Israeli bargain-hunters, especially on Shabbat. In Daliat al-Carmel (the more southern town), stop for lunch at Halabi’s Restaurant. Just ask anyone for “Fuad Halabi’s restaurant”; you’ll find it. This meal was wonderful—very inexpensive, delicious food with a mezze that will fill you for what feels like days. They offer the best falafel I have ever tasted! It’s just off the main road, tel. (04) 839-3576 or (052) 477-6048. Fuad is a lively, gregarious man who loves to host his guests.
And if you come back to Haifa over the crest of Mount Carmel, the view of the city, the bay, and the Valley of Jezreel will take your breath away. As one friend who traveled with me said, “that alone was worth the price of admission.”
Zippori National Park. Just a few kilometers outside of Nazareth stood the major First Century city of Zippori, or Sephoris in Greek. Sephoris was the big city in Jesus’ day, and since it was constructed during his lifetime, it is virtually certain that he and Joseph, who were carpenters or day laborers, would have worked here. There was also a major Jewish revolt in Sephoris during his youth, which was brutally crushed by the Romans. It is interesting to speculate on what effect that had on his views of the ruling class and how the Roman occupation exploited and crushed the poor. But the city struck a truce with the Romans in the Great Revolt of 66-70 C.E. and thus survived. The ruins contain some of the most spectacular mosaics in all of Israel, including the famed “Mona Lisa of the Galilee” (left). It is an amazing site.
Bet She’arim. This national park southeast of Haifa contains the tombs of prominent rabbis from the Talmudic period. This is not really my period of interest, but these tombs are absolutely spectacular. After the fall of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life moved north to the Galilee, and the Sanhedrin (supreme Jewish council) was based here for years. Take a tour if you can—the tombs are not easy to explore or understand on your own. English tours are not scheduled, but call (04) 983-1643 a day in advance and they may be able to find an English-speaking guide (or bring your own).
Bar’am. The ancient synagogue at Bar’am, almost on the Lebanese border, dates from the Fourth Century, and it is one of the best preserved in Israel. Now a national park, the ruins are very interesting, and it is a quiet, lovely place, often missed by the tour buses. For that reason—the quietness—it’s one of my favorite sites in Israel. There is also a modern and quite distressing story here. During the 1948 War for Independence, the new Israel Defense Forces (IDF) evacuated the Maronite Christian villagers from the adjacent town of Birin on the Lebanese border. The villagers had sat out the war, and the IDF promised them that they could return in a few days. IDF officials apparently feared that the villagers would link up with nearby Maronite-dominated Lebanon, which had invaded the new State. Nearly seven decades later, the villagers have never been permitted to return, despite staying out of the war—in the face of the broken promises of several Israeli prime ministers. The villagers continue to try to keep the village maintained and its memory alive, and weddings of descendants are even held in its small church. You can walk through the ruins and feel the unjust story of people caught in the middle—who should at long last be allowed to come home.
As a note, restaurants near gas stations in Israel often offer far better food than we find in North America, and an excellent example is the Ḥoran restaurant next to the Sonol gas station on Route 89 in the Druze village of Ḥurfeish not far from Bar’am. Tel. (050) 587-6878, (04) 957-0352. Owner Mahmoud Zidane runs an excellent little place with outstanding food and Druze hospitality—well worth a stop!
Peki’in. This is another stop off-the-beaten path, but I try in this guide to appeal to both first-timers and veteran visitors. This town in west-central Galilee is important historically to Jews but is today overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Arab and Druze, with a smattering of Arab Christians. With a good guide (see Moti Bar-Tuv in guide section), this makes for an interesting visit. Check out an excellent, simple, family-owned restaurant called Ra’aya’s, tel. (04) 999-7818, where you can see Druze-style pita bread cooked on a dome right in front of you. (By the way, pita in Israel will ruin it for you back home.) And there is a great place for dessert nearby on the main street called Conditerie Yosef, tel. (04) 997-5782.
Montfort. Not far from Peki’in (and easily combined with a visit to it, as I did while touring with Moti) is the Crusader fortification of Montfort, situated atop a ridge with spectacular valleys on all sides. Visiting the ruins in Montfort requires a rigorous hike, particularly ascending to the actual fortress from the deep, dry moats around it, but it’s worth it. From the top you can see all the way to the Mediterranean, a magical view. When Montfort fell to the Mamelukes, they allowed the Teutonic knights safe passage to Akko/Acre with their records, from which we learned much of what we know of the Crusader era.
©2004-2019 Douglas E. Duckett, All rights reserved.