Northern Israel: Haifa, Tzfat, more

In my one visit to Israel to date, I spent nearly four days in the country north, visiting towns, sights, national parks, and spending time with relatives. That only scratched the surface. This is the area that is incredibly heavy on history, archaeology, and the exploits of Jesus Christ. The list of places that I did not visit could easily fill an additional week of itinerary (Golan Heights, Bet She’an, Nazareth, Tiberias, Capernaum, Tabgha, Tsippori, Isfiya, Rosh HaNikra, and others) – I will have to rectify that on a future trip.
In Haifa, I was interested solely in Baha’i Gardens ♥. They left me with a tinge of disappointment, since you cannot actually walk through them on your own. There are three accessible parts at three different levels. The “Inner Gardens” and the main shrine are opened for visiting 9am-12pm, and there you get to experience a small portion of the gardens; the shrine is not at all special inside, but you have to take off your shoes and put away your cameras. The uppermost and lowermost viewpoints are each opened 9am-5pm, but only allow you to get into a small part of the park; none of the walking up and down the sloping paths. Nonetheless, at every entrance, there is a metal detector checkpoint.

It should be noted that there are daily free guided tours of the gardens in different languages (one per language). The English tour did not fit into my schedule for the day, but I expect that you may be able to set foot on otherwise closed parts of the gardens under the supervision of a guide.

In Acre, Baha’ulla Shrine and Gardens ♥ offer a similar deal to the gardens in Haifa, with a little more friendly “guidance” for the shrine (which is also open only 9am-12pm). The gardens are less impressive and can be explored to a slightly larger degree.

Baha’i Gardens are a serial World Heritage site.

Old Town of Acre ♥♥ did not impress me as much as I expected. The city is a World Heritage site, but there are too many dilapidated houses and construction waste all around. You find a few visual highlights, some inner streets that recall the feeling of an Arab town mixed with Crusader heritage, a fairly extensive market, a marina, and a few minor points of interest. It feels as if the history of the place is quite an afterthought; it should be noted that I decided against visiting the Citadel or the Tunnels, which may have improved my perception. I did step into the Mosque Al Jazzar ♥, and even took a few pictures during the prayer.

Tzfat Old City ♥ is compact, somewhat picturesque with blue highlights on the yellow-stone buildings, but also not exactly visually outstanding. There are a few minor points of interest, some related to Tzfat religious significance and some not, and I may have walked by one or two without truly noticing. This is one place where having a guide may have helped me to get better appreciation of it.

Tel Megiddo National Park ♥ is among the relatively busier attractions in the north of Israel, with many tour groups making it a stop. The large archaeological park is basically piles of rocks; despite the general notion that as many as 30 settlements have been layered here on top of each other, the numbered locations at the exploration circuit refer to very specific buildings of very specific periods. There are two elevated valley lookouts. At the end of the circuit, there is a descent into the dried-up water management system, followed by an ascent after traversing the tunnel which used to carry water – of very little visual interest. Brochure has all necessary information, no guidance needed. My visit lasted about an hour, but a true aficionado of archaeology could probably spend two-three hours here. This is a World Heritage site.

Landscapes around the Sea of Galilee ♥♥ are probably the prettiest in all of Israel.

Jordan Star National Park ♥♥ is centered on the Crusader castle called Belvoir. The castle itself is the type of ruins that actually give you a pretty good idea of how it used to be in its heyday. The views over Jordan Valley and towards the Sea of Galilee are what makes this not very busy point of interest well worth the effort. Brochure has all necessary information, no guidance needed. My visit lasted under an hour. The site is part of a tentative WH submission.

Beit She’arim National Park ♥ is an interesting burial complex consisting of a series of caves. Museum Cave and Coffins Cave – two closest to the visitor center on the lower path – are the most interesting ones, the rest are mostly just an addition to the ambiance (although one or two others can also be entered). Many impressive carvings on sarcophagi in the Coffins Cave were the highlight for me. The place is moderately popular, but I was the first and practically only visitor for about half an hour on a November Monday morning. Brochure has all necessary information, no guidance needed. My visit lasted under an hour, but could probably be stretched to an hour and a half. This is a World Heritage site.

Bet Alpha National Park ♥ is basically a single room of the ancient synagogue with primitive but evocative mosaic on the floor. The 15-minute interpretive video – which was started as soon as I entered the room, since I was the only visitor at the time – is a lighthearted dramatization of the origin of the mosaic, followed by a quick overview of the synagogue architectural features, worth the time to see and listen to. The cost of entry is probably not commensurate with the offering, but I found it to be one of more interesting ancient sites. No guidance needed for the visit, which in my case lasted less than half an hour. The site is part of a tentative WH submission.

Nahalal, the original moshav failed to provide me with anything of interest. It may hold a place as a model of concentric village design, but driving along the circles yields no highlights.

Similar to Nahalal, I stopped at Degania, the earliest established kibbutz, for a few minutes. Pretty yet not exceptional grounds, little of obvious note.

Nahal Me’arot National Park may be more interesting if you have kids in tow and want to do some hiking, but for a solo WH-centric traveler it is hard to imagine a less impressive fee-based attraction. The site consists of three caves. The first two are more overhangs than caves and can be viewed only from a distance behind the barrier; the first diagrams the geological ages of its layers, while the second illustrates a prehistoric settlement with a few unsophisticated models. The third cave can be entered; it is 70 meters deep, nothing of note, but at the end of it there is an AV presentation – a dramatization of the prehistoric life that looks like a failed costumed home-video attempt; I watched for about 7 minutes and then left. (On the positive side, there are sensors in the cave, and the presentation starts right away when there is at least one visitor inside). Brochure has all necessary information, no guidance needed. My entire visit lasted less than 20 minutes. I was the only visitor on November Monday morning. This is a World Heritage site.

Caesarea National Park ♥ is a pretty big archaeological site, with the theater and the amphitheater both among the major highlights. A few other visual points of attraction, some notion of the city plan, but not overly exceptional. It is possible that having a guide here would be beneficial in terms of gaining proper appreciation. Seeing the archaeological site took me about an hour and a half. It is on the tentative WH list.

Part of the overall Caesarea complex is Caesarea Harbor ♥ open-air mall, with shops and restaurants that remain accessible even after the archaeological site closes. Many people come here specifically for the mall experience. I had a reasonable early dinner here at Crusaders ♥.

Other notes for Israel