Everybody has heard of Nazareth before. Famous for being the hometown of Jesus, this Arab city located in the northern district of Israel has nothing to do with the small provincial town described in the scriptures. Today, Nazareth is bustling with tourists and pilgrims travelling from the seven corners of the world to visit its main attraction: the Church of the Annunciation. During my trip to the Holy Land, I spent a full day exploring the capital of the Galilee. Check out what I found during my visit!
How to get to Nazareth
Nazareth is one of the main cities in the Galilee region in northern Israel, so it is quite easy to get there from most of the country. I was travelling from Tel Aviv, so I took the 826 Egged bus from Tel Aviv Central Station and got there in about 2h30m. Buses run quite frequently, but it's always worth to check the schedule in advance on bus.co.il, the official website of Israel's Public Transportation Centre.
If you're based on the north coast of Israel, there are also frequent routes from Haifa and Akko (buses 331 and 962 respectively). Surprisingly, there's only two afternoon buses per day from Jerusalem, so I'd highly recommend to organise your visit from a different city, where you'll be able to find much better connections and the travelling time is also shorter.
Note that there are two Nazareths: the old town where you'll want to go as a visitor, and Nazareth Illit, a very modern Jewish settlement located north of the old town with no tourist attractions whatsoever. Make sure to tell the driver that you want to go to the old town of Nazareth so that they drop you as close as possible to your destination if the bus doesn't drive through the old town (many don't).
Since my bus didn't drive through the old town of Nazareth, I had to walk a good 20 minutes from where the driver dropped me off to my accommodation. After I dropped my bags, I headed straight to the historical centre trying to find the Church of the Annunciation.
On the way I came across the White Mosque, a beautiful building built by order of suleiman pasha in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is called White as a symbol of optimism, purity and unity of all the communities in Nazareth.
Just a little bit down the street is located the great highlight of Nazareth, the Church of the Annunciation.
The church was built over the site where it is believed that the Annunciation took place, a Christian tradition in which the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus, the son of God.
The words with Mary's consent, written in Latin, decorate the triple-doorway entrance: “The word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
The church has two different floors: a grotto, and the main church on top. Historians say that the grotto and its surroundings were turned into a worship place in the 1st and 2nd century.
Early sources referred to this grotto as being the house of the Virgin Mary, supported by the many inscriptions on the walls mentioning Mary that were left by pilgrims and visitors in the early Christianity.
The current basilica, consecrated in 1969, was built over the grotto and the ruins of four earlier churches. Some of their remains can still be found on the lower floor.
An impressive cupola crowns the construction, representing an inverted lily with its petals opening to the church below. The cupola is highly symbolic, representing the purity of the Virgin Mary. One of the meanings of the word Nazareth (Netzer) also means flower.
The Church of the Annunciation is an incredible mix of styles, which is one of the reasons why millions of pilgrims from all over the world come every year to visit this sacred site of Christianity.
Along the courtyard that surrounds the upper church, you can find a display of mosaics with representations of the Virgin Mary from all over the world.
Some of the mosaics are just beautiful, and I found it incredibly interesting to see all the different styles from all over the world.
Just behind the Church of the Annunciation is located the Church of St. Joseph, built where it is believed that the workshop of St. Joseph once stood.
The current church was designed in 1911 in a style which imitates a medieval church and is built upon the remains of a crusader church from the 13th century, parts of which can still be seen in the lower walls, particularly of the western façade and the main gate.
Hidden in the old town of Nazareth and just north of the Church of the Annunciation is the City Market, an Arabic souk from the 17th century where you can find anything that you need: vegetables, souvenirs, toys, clothes, antiquities…
In spite of what I had read, during my visit the market was incredibly quiet and most of the stores were actually closed. I was expecting much more from what is meant to be one of the main oriental bazaars in Israel.
According to the Orthodox tradition, the place where the Annunciation took place differs to what is believed by Catholics. For this reason, in Nazareth you can also find the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, also known as Church of St. Gabriel.
The church is located on top of an underground spring, from where the Eastern Orthodox tradition believes Virgin Mary was drawing water when the angel Gabriel announced that she had been chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus.
Down the road from the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation you can also find Mary's Well, a watering hole from the same underground spring on top of which the church was built.
This is the well where some traditions believe the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary.
While walking around the old town, I came across one of the hidden gems of Nazareth, the Centre International Marie de Nazareth.
Located across the street from the Church of the Annunciation, the building is managed by Chemin Neuf, a French Roman Catholic community. The complex offers presentations in multiple languages that illustrate events from the Bible, and from the top you can enjoy one of the best views of the city of Nazareth and the Church of the Annunciation.
Unfortunately, I arrived just a few minutes before they closed and couldn't spend as much time as I wanted, but I would highly recommend paying a visit while exploring Nazareth.
Since my visit took place right after Independence Day, the Nazareth Village wasn't open. This is a live history village that reproduces what Nazareth looked like back in biblical times, including exact replicas of first century houses and olive presses built using the same methods used during the times of Jesus. I've heard great things about Nazareth Village, so I would definitely pay a visit if you have the time!
Many tourists go to Nazareth just for a few hours as part of a tour of the Galilee region, but the city deserves at least a full day to enjoy it at the fullest.
I didn't regret at all dedicating an entire day of my trip to Israel to explore Nazareth, but I'd say that one full day is more than enough. The city is extremely quiet during the evening and lacks the nightlife that you can find in Tel Aviv or even Jerusalem. Many of the streets are totally deserted at night, so it can get a bit boring once all the tourist groups leave the city.
However, Nazareth is the perfect place to explore the region of the Galilee, and is very well connected to some other towns and villages, which is why I chose it as my camp base. Next day, I would take the bus to visit the coastal towns of Haifa and Akko!
Where to sleep in Nazareth
For the few nights that I spent in Nazareth and exploring the Galilee, I stayed at the Fauzi Azar Inn, part of the Abraham Hostels.
Contrary to the modern hostels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Fauzi Azar Inn is a 200 year old mansion that has been turned into a guesthouse. This is reflected in the rather older facilities, but the inn offers a very cosy atmosphere and my stay was very pleasant.
The Inn is located right in the heart of Nazareth, and it offers both private and shared rooms. It also has daily events, including Arabic lessons and a cooking workshop. The fact that it is much smaller than those of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem makes it the perfect place to meet some fellow travellers. I would definitely recommend it if you're sleeping in Nazareth!
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