Northern Israel: Haifa, Tzfat, more

Having spent several days in Israel’s north, I continue to think that I 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 an itinerary (Golan Heights, Bet She’an, Nazareth, Tiberias, Capernaum, Tabgha, Isfiya, Rosh HaNikra, and others) – I will have to rectify that in the future.
In Haifa, the main – and almost exclusive – interest is Baha’i Gardens ♥. There are three accessible parts at three different levels that do not require a guided tour. The “Inner Gardens” and the main shrine are open for visiting 9 am-12 pm, 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 9 am-5 pm, but only allow you to get into a small part of the park; none of the walking up and down the garden terraces. Nonetheless, at every entrance, there is a metal detector checkpoint.

In addition, there are daily guided tours of the gardens in different languages (one per language). They are free of cost but require advance booking. We took the English tour on our most recent visit. While you ultimately get to walk the main staircase down to the lowermost part of the garden, it is on balance underwhelming and adds little to what you can experience by getting to the “inner” part. The narration from the guides is ok, if heavily slanted towards the history and attributes of the Baha’i faith, which can be easily found online. Please note: by the nature of the tour, it will end in a different place from where it starts, much lower in topography; some form of transport will be required to take you back to where you would likely park.

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 9 am-12 pm). 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, the Hall of Knights, or the Tunnels, all key “crusader” sights in town, which may have improved my overall 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’s 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 should help to get a better appreciation of the place, as many people suggested to me.

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. The brochure has all the necessary information, and no guidance is 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.

Tzippori National Park ♥♥♥ is not a WH site, but it is a gem famous for its Byzantine mosaics. Dionysius House, Nile House, and the Ancient Synagogue are full of them, while the Fortress gives fantastic 360-degree views. Several air-conditioned spaces offer respite from the heat. The visit here takes around two hours for good appreciation.

The 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 ruin 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. The brochure has all the necessary information, and no guidance is 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 – the 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. The brochure has all the necessary information, and no guidance is 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’s 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 the more interesting ancient sites. No guidance was 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). The brochure has all the necessary information, and no guidance is 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 ♥.

We also made an attempt to visit a winery, which ended up abortive. Amphorae Winery looks pleasant enough, but was very crowded, with no apparent way to arrange a tasting aside from standing in line for the cashier. With better planning, it could be a good diversion.

Other notes for Israel