Israel offers some great tourist spots, and they’re all pretty easy to get to being that that country is the size of New Jersey. We have just five weeks left here and we’ve checked off most of the big ones: The desert in the south, the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee, many jaunts to nearby hipster/ocean-vibey Tel Aviv, and the towns of Haifa and Akko, both on the Mediterranean a few hours north of Tel Aviv.
We visited Haifa in 2016, shortly after we arrived to our post in Jerusalem. We were excited to visit after reading this New York Times article which paints Haifa as a liberal gay-friendly oasis where Jews and Arabs co-exists, but I can’t say we found that side of the city. One problem with weekend road trips here is we tend to roll into a town on Saturday – Shabbat – and we want to be dazzled and instead we’re met with shuttered shops and empty streets. This was sort of the case with our Haifa trip. We checked in to our centrally-located hotel, Templers Boutique Hotel, and walked through rather drab-looking streets and an industrial port for a while until we found reprieve from of the muggy heat in Libira, which means beer in Hebrew. Libira has a cool vibe, tangy pickles, and some decent house-brewed beers, but Israeli beers, while refreshing, tend to be short on complexity and flavor. We had dinner at a Lebanese place called Ein el Wadi which serves up a decadently cheesy homemade kanefeh (a classic Arab dessert). I’d like to say we explored some Haifa night life, but alas, we ate ourselves silly, went back to our hotel, and watched the summer Olympics in Hebrew.
The most visually stunning part of Haifa is the perfectly-manicured Ba’hai Gardens, which stretch vertically on one side of Mount Carmel. The Gardens are a holy site for followers of the Ba’hai religion (which originated in Iran in the 19th century). On a Sunday afternoon, we took an English-language tour of the tiered gardens, which are just as stunning up close, but I found all that manicured “stay off the lawn!” perfection a little unsettling and it was strange there weren’t any Ba’hai people in sight.
A year later, we did a two-night trip further north, to Akko, which was quite fun, but you really only need a night in Akko. My photos of this trip seemed to have disappeared, but let me paint you a word picture: Akko (which you might call Acre if you’re Israeli) is a beautiful stone port town with a small but picturesque old city. We stayed at a cool AirBnb with a bathtub in living room. But if you want a more elegant overnight option, you should stay at the Efendi Hotel, which is just plain gorgeous. (Even if you don’t stay there, go have a glass of wine on the roof at sunset). If you’re a foodie, you have probably heard of Israeli’s most famed restaurant, Uri Buri, which is located in Akko. It specializes in fish, but even if you’re a vegetarian like me, it’s worth the trip (I have Jerusalem friends who once drove the nearly three hours to eat there, and then drove three hours home). The tasting menu is incredible – fresh, creative, and totally unpretentious. We liked it so much, that we went back on the second night.
Tourist to Akko rave that Abu Said whips up the best hummus in town, but it was closed the weekend we were there, so we settled for Hummus Issa, situated right in a pretty plaza, and it was tasty.
Akko is home to an impressive Crusader fortress, Templar tunnels, and an old bathhouse. You can put on some headphones, follow the numbers, and be transported-ish back to the Roman times. Truth be told, the super interactive, actors-recreating-history trend at some of Israel’s tourist sites sort of grates on me, but I’m sure it makes these sites more family-friendly.
Speaking of interactive family-friendly-ness, if you’re driving from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv to Haifa and/or Akko, I’d recommend a stop Caesarea, which is midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Caesarea was built by Herod the Great during the time of Christ and was once a bustling port city where the Romans shipped in all sorts of goods. Today, it’s a national park with lots of Roman ruins, including an aquaduct, a chariot racetrack, and a theater. Oh and a hologram Pontius Pilate telling you his story.
To scratching off those end-of-tour bucket list items,
Em in Jerusalem
*Featured photo from Israel Advantage Tours.