Haifa & Acre: the north coast of Israel

On the north coast of Israel and approaching the Lebanese border hide two of the most picturesque sights of the Middle East: the city of Haifa with its Bahá'í Gardens, a holy site for the Bahá'í faith; and the city of Acre, a settlement continuously inhabited since the Phoenician period and famous for the incredible remains of the Crusader town, preserved almost intact since the 13th century. Check out how to combine a visit to both cities in a single day! 


How to get there

Both Haifa and Acre are very well connected by bus or train, so they are the perfect day trip from either Tel Aviv or Nazareth. During my visit to Israel, I decided to travel from Nazareth while I spent a few days there exploring the region of the Galilee. 

The first leg of my trip was the bus 331 from Nazareth to Haifa. The trip takes less than one hour. After exploring Haifa, I took one of the frequent trains that cover the route Tel Aviv - Acre and made it there in about 30 minutes. On the way back, I took the bus 353 back to Nazareth. This bus stops in countless little villages on the way, so it can take up to 2h30m to arrive. 

The trains depart every half an hour maximum so you shouldn't worry about the schedule; there will always be a train arriving within a few minutes that you can catch. For the buses, the schedules can vary depending on the day of the week, so it's always worth to check them in advance on bus.co.il, the official website of Israel's Public Transportation Centre. 


Haifa

 

I took the 8:15 am bus from Nazareth to Haifa, which departs near the old town just behind the Church of the Annunciation, so I made it to Haifa by 9 am. My main reason to travel to Haifa was to visit the Bahá'í Gardens, the indisputable highlight of the city.

Originally an Arab town that was destroyed by the Crusaders in the 12th century, Haifa saw its revival at the beginning of the 19th century, when it became one of the main ports of arrival of the growing Jewish population. The city was known for its liberalism, which is still reflected today in the peaceful relationship between the mainly secular Jewish community and the Arab population. Nowadays, Haifa is one of the economic motors of Israel and home of one of the most famous universities in the country.

 

Haifa Port building

 

On the way to the gardens, one of the most picturesque parts of the city centre is the German Colony

During the mid-19th century, a new reform movement sprang up in Württemberg, Germany. Its staunchest proponents left the Protestant Church and established the Association of Templars (not to be confused with the Knights Templar).

They declared as their mission the settlement of the Holy Land and the establishment of an exemplary Christian community. 

 

Restaurants along the German Colony

 

At the time of the Templar's settlement, Haifa was a small village. Most of the population lived within the lower city walls. The first plots of land were purchased by the Templars in 1869 and shortly thereafter the building of the settlement began.

At first, most of their population was involved in agriculture, and they were the first to introduce a carriage service transporting passengers along the coast to Acre. In 1875, the settlement consisted of about 300 people.

 

Traditional architecture of the German Colony

 

Following the Russo-Turkish War, the Haifa community continued to thrive as the leading German colony in Eretz Israel. During the First Aliya (immigration), the Templars were employed in construction, building new Jewish settlements and industrial facilities in Haifa. 

After Palestine was conquered by General Allenby from the Ottomans, most of the German colonists were considered as enemies. After the start of World War II, the colonists were sent by the British to internment camps. 

Nowadays, the German Colony of Haifa has been fully restored to its original splendour, and it has become one of the centres of Haifa nightlife thanks to the multiple cafes, restaurants and hotels around the area.

 

Square in the German Colony

 

Haifa also happens to be a holy city for the Bahá'í Faith, a religion born in Iran that teaches the unity and equality of all people.

Right at the end of the German Colony, located in Mount Carmel and built around the Shrine of the Bab, you can find the Terraces of the Bahá'í Faith, known by some as the Hanging Gardens of Haifa

 

View of the gardens from the Unesco Square for Tolerance and Peace

 

On 21 March 1909, the mortal remains of the Báb, one of the central figures of the Bahá’í Faith, were interred in the shrine that is the focal point of the gardens. Martyred in Iran in 1850, the Báb had devoted himself to preparing the way for Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í Faith, and for his message of the unification of humankind.

The outer structure of the shrine, as well as the eighteen garden terraces, were created entirely through contributions from Bahá’ís around the world. The gardens were declared a Unesco Heritage Site in 2008.

 

View of Haifa and the port from the top of the gardens

Water fountains at the entrance of the gardens

Bahá’í Gardens

 

The area open to visitors is quite small, however, there are free walking tours that descend from the crest of the Mount Carmel to the Shrine of the Báb, giving access to a bigger part of the complex.

Unfortunately, my visit was on a Wednesday, which is the only day with no tours of the gardens. You can double check the schedule at ganbahai.org.il. No reservation is needed. 

After enjoying the gardens, I went back to the train station to catch my train to Acre. 

 

Acre

 

The train station of Acre is located about 20 minutes walking from the old town, where all the main tourist attractions can be found.

The contrast between the modern new part of the town and the historical city, surrounded by walls, is quite big, so it's impossible to miss that you've arrived in the Old City of Acre

 

Walls surrounding the Old City of Acre

 

Acre, known locally as Akko, has always played a very important role in history. First mentioned by the Egyptians back in the 19th century BC, Acre was known in Greek mythology as the place where Hercules took refuge and found some herbs to heal his wounds. 

After being occupied by Alexander the Great and the Egyptians, the Arabs arrived in the city in 636. Its inhabitants lived peacefully until the arrival of the Crusaders, which made the city one of its main bastions. 

Today, Old Acre is mainly inhabited by Arabs, while the Jews have settled outside the walls of the old city. As you cross the walls, one of the first sights will be the distinctive buildings made of stone surrounding the beautiful Ahmed el-Jazzar Mosque.

 

Old City of Acre & Ahmed el-Jazzar Mosque

 

The best option to fully enjoy all the attractions of Acre is to purchase one of the combined tickets. There are quite a few options available, but I purchased the one that includes the Hospitaller Fortress (Knight's Halls), the Okashi Museum, the Templar Tunnel, and the Treasures in the Walls Ethnographic Museum.

I started my visit with the Hospitaller Fortress, the biggest complex included in the combined ticket. You can get an audio-guide at the entrance in multiple languages that is included in the visit, which I found very useful to fully understand the history of the building. 

 

Hospitaller Fortress

 

In the 12th-13th century, this site towered the fortress of the Order of the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John, known as the Hospitallers, who were based in Acre until the Muslim conquest of the city in 1291.

Over the ruins of the fortress, which was reconstructed by the Ottoman Turks in the 17th and 18th centuries, was built the Citadel and Palace of the Governors of Acre. In the mid 19th century, the Ottoman authorities added here a large prison.

Under the British Administration (1918-1948), these buildings served as Government offices and were the largest prison in Palestine. Among those incarcerated, there were also fighters of the Jewish underground. After the establishment of the State of Israel, the building complex housed a mental hospital up until 1985. 

 

Crests in the Hospitaller Fortress

 

On the inside, one of the most impressive areas is the Beautiful Hall.

Its name reflects its excellent state of preservation. It seems that it served as a reception hall for welcoming the many pilgrims who arrived in the Holy Land on their way to Jerusalem. 

 

Beautiful Hall

 

Continuing with the visit I reached the Magnificent Hall. Apparently, it served as the refectory for the members of the Hospitaller Order. All the members ate there, from the head of the order and the senior bailiffs, the combatant knights and the archers to the last of the soldiers and junior soldiers. 

The fleur de lis, symbol of the kings of France, can be seen engraved on two of the corbels at the eastern wing of the hall. 

 

Magnificent Hall

 

The courtyard was certainly the heart of the Order's daily life. Here, the Hospitaller Knights could practice different combat skills, such as wrestling and archery, and conduct drilling exercises. The knights trained for combat at least three times a week.

The courtyard was surrounded by all the Order's buildings. The western hall (from which nothing remains except for a wall bordering the courtyard and details of the magnificent arches on its other side), and the refectory could also be accessed from it. 

Around the courtyard, you can find multiple rooms that offer lots of educational information about the history of the building and Acre, as well as displays of original items. 

 

Courtyard

 

My next stop was the el-Jazzar Mosque, also known as the White Mosque. Located just at the exit of the Hospitaller Fortress, the entrance is not included in the combined ticket, but it's worth the entrance fee of NIS 10 (approx. €2.5). 

The mosque, completed in 1781, is named after the Ottoman Bosnian governor el-Jazzar. The building is a perfect example of Ottoman architecture, with its green dome and minaret, a sabil (public fountain) and a courtyard surrounding the complex. 

 

El-Jazzar Mosque

Interior of the mosque

Decoration outside the mosque

 

After a quick visit to the Okashi Museum (with an exhibition of Israeli art) and the Treasures in the Walls Ethnographic Museum, I ventured myself into the Templar Tunnel

The tunnel, with a length of 350m, was built and used to connect the Templar's Fortress in the west part of the city to the port in the east.

Even though there's not much to see inside, I found it very interesting to cross the city side to side using the underground passages. 

 

Templar Tunnel

 

But the best part of Acre is to just wander around the winding streets, filled with traditional Arab architecture, markets and restaurants. Don't forget to try the hummus with kebab, without a doubt one of the best meals that I had during my visit to Israel!  

Hidden in its alleys you can find churches, mosques, and even houses decorated with contemporary art. 

 

Saint George’s Church

Market in Acre

Peculiar decoration outside one of the houses

Turkish bazaar

 

I loved walking aimlessly in Acre for a few hours discovering something new in every corner. After going back to the entrance of the old town, I took a bus helped by a very helpful local girl that brought me to the bus station, where I got the bus 353 back to Nazareth. 

That night I had a quiet evening, as the next day would start quite early. After meeting some fellow travellers in the Fauzi Azar Inn, we went together for a quick dinner. Luckily, most of them would join me next day in a day visit to the Sea of Galilee & the Golan Heights from Nazareth. I wasn't expecting a lot from this visit, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip!

 

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