Our first trip to Israel, we wanted to explore as much of the country as we could. We are constantly trying to chase warm weather, and Israel offered that in spades. Every day was sunny and warm (25-30C). We also looked forward to good food, and have not been disappointed – chicken shawarma, freshly made hummus, falafels – yum! The initial portion of our trip focused on Tel Aviv, where we landed in the country, and the north around Haifa and the Sea of Galilee.
Our first impressions of Israel haven’t all been positive though. From the thorough grilling during check-in at the airport in Cyprus (including being asked by three different people about what our relationship was to each other, including a security guy in a suit with an ear-piece), to Christine having to change seats on the plane to accommodate a man’s religious beliefs, to having our carry-on bags completely emptied during a “random” inspection at the gate, we didn’t feel very welcome.
While the food has been great, it, along with almost everything else in the country, has been incredibly expensive. We’re not doing fine dining, but even local fast food (shawarma, hummus etc.) will run us $30-40. Maybe we’re a bit jaded after traveling through primarily inexpensive countries for most of this trip. So far, we are fnding the cost of traveling in Israel is almost on par with Iceland.
It’s all part of the experience, right? So we’re keeping an open mind.
While not really part of northern Israel, this is where we started our trip before heading to Haifa. This city is known for its good restaurants, shopping and nightlife, which isn’t our focus when we travel. So we only spent two nights here, which suited us just fine.
On our only full day in Tel Aviv, we explored the waterfront and the ancient city of Jaffa. As Canadians, it was amazing to be able to walk along a beautiful sandy beach in warm sunny weather on Halloween. The beachfront in Tel Aviv, which was not very busy at this time of year, was popular with surfers.
Walking south along the waterfront, we arrived in the old city of Jaffa. The port has been in active use for over 7000 years. It is even mentioned in the story of Jonah as the port from which Jonah left before eventually being swallowed by a whale. Climbing up from the port, Jaffa is an interesting old city to explore. While the core is quite small, there are several spots where you can get a great view over Tel Aviv in the distance.
Tel Aviv was where we realized just how expensive Israel is as a tourist. We knew accommodation was going to cost more than most of the countries we traveled through this trip, but it became obvious that everything else is MUCH more expensive as well. Just a light lunch of hummus, tahini, and pita bread easily cost $20-30.
The Carmel market is also definitely worth a visit, although we found much of the city was a bit dirty and really nothing we could get excited about.
We decided to make the city of Haifa, an easy hour-long train ride north of Tel Aviv, our base to explore the north-west coast of Israel. We stayed near the port, close to the old city centre, which allowed us to easily explore the German settlement area and the famous Baha’i Gardens rising up Mt Carmel.
Unfortunately, we don’t have much to say about Haifa other than we ate some amazing shawarma there. We were unlucky that for the two days we had in the city, the main attraction, the Baha’i Gardens, were closed for “holy days”. The Turkish Market is only open on Fridays, so we also weren’t able to visit it.
On our second day in Haifa, we picked up the rental car we’d have for the rest of our trip up until Jerusalem. We immediately headed north of Haifa to the famous sea grottoes of Rosh HaNikra, which sits right on the border with Lebanon. Taking a cable car down to the grottoes, it was cool to explore the amazing blue pools and hear the pounding waves within the sea caves. Being so close to the Lebanon border, saying there is a military presence here is an understatement. In the water, you can see buoys marking the border and several Israeli navy ships positioned just offshore. There are also numerous UN peacekeepers patrolling the area. Seeing this alone makes it worth the trip.
Heading south from Rosh HaNikra, we spent several hours in the port town of Akko (also called Acre). Akko, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was one of the most important ports in the region in ancient times, and apparently Marco Polo passed through 750 years ago. The bustling town was fun to explore, with narrow winding streets, plenty of tourist sites to explore, and small traditional restaurants. We found the Crusader Citadel and various related museums particularly interesting, with a guided audio tour detailing the history of the Crusaders in Akko.
Now, we obviously can’t go to any new country without trying some wine! Although it made for a bit of a long day, we made an appointment to visit Stern Winery, in the Upper Galilee region. The owner, Johnny Stern, met us and took us for a quick tour of his winery. He started it as a hobby, and now produces roughly 30,000 bottles a year. It was late in the afternoon, but he took the time to walk us through all the wines he produces, which were fantastic. This was our first experience with Israeli wine, and we were very impressed.
Haifa itself isn’t really worth much time to visit, but heading north to Akko definitely is and the surrounding countryside too. If we were to do it over, we’d have replaced our day in Haifa with a visit to Caesarea, a town just south of it, dating from 25BC and built by Herod the Great.
From Haifa we drove east to Nazareth, the city that’s best known as the hometown of Jesus. Neither of us are particularly religious, but it’s still fascinating to visit sites that we grew up hearing about and that mean so much to so many.
We first visited the Church of the Annunciation where, according to Roman Catholic tradition, the Angel Gabriel is said to have approached the young Virgin Mary to tell her that she was pregnant with the son of God, Jesus. The church is quite impressive, with the highlight being the grotto (lower level) of the church where a shrine dedicated to Mary is located. It was interesting seeing the numerous little notes and prayers that have been left at the site over the years by worshippers. The outside courtyard is also really nice with artwork of Mary originating from artists in countries around the world.
Located a short walk away is St. Joseph’s Church. The highlight here was to visit the lower level of the church to an area that is believed to have once been the location of Joseph’s carpentry workshop. Here again we saw hundreds of scraps of paper and pictures that have been left over time by worshippers.
After visiting the two sites, we each grabbed a delicious chicken shawarma pita for lunch (nope, not sick of it yet!) before walking back to our car. While Nazareth was interesting, it doesn’t require more than a few hours to visit. Aside from the two churches, it’s just a big, busy, city that is best known by locals for its good food and diverse population (higher concentration of Muslims and Christians than other cities). It really doesn’t have any old world charm or quaintness that I think many tourists would expect to find.
After our stop in Nazareth, we continued on to Tiberias, which is located right on the Sea of Galilee. This would be our base for 3 nights to explore the Galilee and Golan Heights regions of Israel (North-east). We arrived on a Friday, this being our first time in Israel for the Jewish Sabbath. Everything, and we mean everything, started shutting down mid-afternoon Friday. We picked up groceries, and the store was jammed as it would be shut until Sunday. Even gas stations were closing down before 3pm.
The Galilee and Golan Heights regions are great for a bit of hiking, tasting some wine, and visiting religious sites, as much of Jesus’ early ministry was based in the region. We spent time exploring the ruins of the town of Capernaum, where Jesus was believed to have lived during the early part of his ministry, and visiting the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, where the story of Jesus feeding 5000 people with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes is commemorated.
Between Nazareth and Tiberias are two other interesting religious sites. Mount Tabor, easily visible on the drive, offers a short but steep hike to the summit from the town of Shibli (or a windy drive). At the summit, there are great views of the surrounding countryside, and the Church of the Transfiguration. Unfortunately, as is the case with several religious sites around the country, Christine wasn’t allowed into the Church. Women aren’t allowed to wear even long shorts, while it isn’t a problem for men. We both often had to decide between being comfortable in 30C heat or being able to visit local religious sites.
Another interesting stop is the town of Kafr Kanna, to check out the Wedding Church. This is where Jesus was believed to have turned water into wine. The grotto underneath the church contains one of the presumed jugs used by Jesus. Alas, the water in our water bottles remained non-alcoholic, boo.
The Golan Heights is also known for its wine. Johnny Stern from the Stern Winery highly recommended Asaff Winery, so we stopped by for a tasting. Unfortunately, despite contacting them the day before, the actual visit was very disorganized. It’s clearly a popular winery, but that just left us feeling rushed and forgotten. We’ve found generally in Israel that the charge for wine tastings is quite pricey ($10-20 per person), you don’t get much for the price (small samples, no food, etc) and the wine itself is very expensive. The overall experience was underwhelming. This is one of the few times we’ve visited a winery and not bothered to buy even one bottle.
Arriving in Israel, we knew Jerusalem is reputed to be the “jewel” of the country. We scheduled it last on our itinerary on purpose, so that we always had something to look forward to. Our experience in Israel has gotten better as we continue to travel throughout the country. Tel Aviv really didn’t do anything for us. Neither did Haifa. But as we got outside of Haifa, then into the Galilee region and the Golan Heights, we enjoyed the towns and the scenery a bit more.