Haifa (Tel Aviv, Nazareth)
Spilling down from the pine-covered heights of Mt. Carmel, Haifa is a city with a vertiginous setting that has led to comparisons with San Francisco. The most striking landmark on the mountainside is the gleaming golden dome of the Baha'i Shrine, set amid utterly beautiful garden terraces. The city is the world center for the Baha'i faith, and its members provide informative walking tours of the flower-edged 100-acre spot, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the top of the hill you'll find some small but interesting museums, the larger hotels, and two major universities. At the bottom is the lovingly restored German Colony, a perfect area for strolling. Israel's largest port and third-largest city, Haifa was ruled for four centuries by the Ottomans and gradually spread its tendrils up the mountainside into a cosmopolitan city whose port served the entire Middle East. The climate is gentle, the beaches beautiful, and the locals friendly. You won't see the religious garb of Jerusalem or the tattoos and piercings of Tel Aviv in this diverse but fairly conservative city. In fact, you can't always tell at a glance who is part of an Arab or Jewish Israeli family, or if someone is a more recent immigrant from the former Soviet Union. Israel’s "city on the hill" is divided into three main levels, each crisscrossed by parks and gardens: the port down below; Hadar, a commercial area in the middle; and Merkaz Carmel (known as "the Merkaz"), with the posher hotels and many restaurants, on the crest of Mt. Carmel. Thanks to the beneficence of the Baha'is, you can enjoy a walking tour that takes you through the stunning terraces that lie like multicolored jewels from the crest of the city at Mt. Carmel to the German Colony below.
There are plenty of restaurants near the large hotels at the top of the city in Merkaz Carmel. Another popular place to eat is along Ben Gurion Boulevard in the German Colony, where the evening hours are whiled away at sidewalk terraces. The port area is being gentrified, so there are always new restaurants opening up. Dress is casual, Israeli style.
Inside this old German Templer building graced by a pleasant outdoor terrace, a huge metal lamp studded with colored glass casts lacy designs on the walls, lending to the Oriental decor. The food, much of it prepared by the owner's mother, is an eclectic combination of French and local Arabic cuisines. Her specialty is kubbeh, deep-fried torpedoes of cracked wheat kneaded with minced beef, pine nuts, onions, and exotic spices. A variation on the dish is sfeeha, puff pastry topped with delicately minced beef, onions, and pine nuts. For dessert, try the mouhalabieh, a delicious Middle Eastern custard topped by dried fruits.
Nadima Sabithi Eatery
A one-woman show at the heart of the Christian Arab neighborhood Wadi Nisnas (Arabic for Mongoose Valley), Nadima has been running her home kitchen–style eatery for some 40 years, serving up the day's offerings on a row of gas burners. There's always a seasoned rice, majadera (rice with lentils), and vegetables stuffed with meat, while the vegetables themselves are a veritable menu of wild herbs and roots, including okra, spinach, mallow (known here as hubeizeh), and chicory.
Haifa's best-known hotels are at the top of the hill in the Merkaz Carmel area. The Colony hotel, one of the city's newest lodgings, is in the downtown area, as is the Port Inn hostel-guesthouse; both offer more affordable stays. Within easy reach of the city, the Carmel Forest Resort Spa is quiet and pampering.
Haifa at night may not pulse like Tel Aviv, but there are more than a few things to do after dark. For information on performances and other special events in and around Haifa, check Friday's Jerusalem Post or the Haaretz newspaper; both publish separate weekend entertainment guides. In balmy weather, a stroll along the Louis Promenade and then along Panorama Road, with lovely views of nighttime Haifa, is a relaxing way to end the day.
Haifa is studded with modern shopping malls with boutiques, eateries, and movie theaters, not to mention drugstores, photography stores, and money-exchange desks.
North of the Leonardo Hotel, and next to the Rambam Medical Center, the quiet Hof HaShaket offers separate gender days: Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday for women; Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for men; Saturday for everyone.
Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art
Established in 1957 by renowned collector Felix Tikotin, this graceful venue on the crest of Mt. Carmel adheres to the Japanese tradition of displaying beautiful objects that are in harmony with the season, so exhibits change every three months. The Japanese atmosphere, created in part by sliding doors and partitions made of wood and paper, enhances a display of scrolls, screens, pottery and porcelain, lacquer and metalwork, paintings from several schools, and fresh-flower arrangements. The library, the largest of its kind in Israel, houses some three-thousand volumes related to Japanese art.
Baha'i Shrine and Gardens
The most striking feature of the stunning gardens that form the centerpiece of Haifa is the Shrine of the Bab, whose brilliantly gilded dome dominates the city's skyline. The renovated shrine gleams magnificently with 11,790 gold-glazed porcelain tiles.Haifa is the world center for the Baha'i faith, founded in Iran in the 19th century. It holds as its central belief the unity of mankind. Religious truth for Baha'is consists of progressive revelations of a universal faith. Thus the Baha'is teach that great prophets have appeared throughout history to reveal divine truths, among them Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and most recently, the founder of the Baha'i faith, Mirza Husayn Ali, known as Baha'u'llah—"the Glory of God." The Shah and then the Ottomans exiled Baha'u'llah (1817–92) from his native Persia to Akko, where he lived as a prisoner for almost 25 years. The Baha'is' holiest shrine is on the grounds of Baha'u'llah's home, where he lived after his release from prison and where he is now buried, just north of Akko.Here in Haifa, at the center of the shrine's pristinely manicured set of 19 garden terraces, is the mausoleum built for the Bab (literally, the "Gate"), the forerunner of this religion, who heralded the coming of a new faith to be revealed by Baha'u'llah. The Persian authorities martyred Bab in 1850. Baha'u'llah's son and successor built the gardens and shrine and had the Bab's remains reburied here in 1909. The building, made of Italian stone and rising 128 feet, gracefully combines the canons of classical European architecture with elements of Eastern design and also houses the remains of Baha'u'llah's son. The dome glistens with some 12,000 gilded tiles imported from the Netherlands. Inside, the floor is covered with rich Oriental carpets, and a filigree veils the serene inner shrine.The magnificent gardens, with their gravel paths, groomed hedges, and 12,000 plant species, are a sight to behold: stunningly landscaped circular terraces extend from Yefe Nof Street for 1 km (½ mile) down the hillside to Ben Gurion Boulevard, at the German Colony. The terraces are a harmony of color and form—pale pink-and-gray-stone flights of stairs and carved urns overflowing with red geraniums set off the perfect cutouts of emerald green grass and floral borders, dark green trees, and wildflowers, with not a leaf out of place anywhere. The gardens, tended by 120 dedicated gardeners, are one of Israel's 11 UNESCO World Heritage sites.Three areas are open to the public year-round, except on Baha'i holidays: the shrine and surrounding gardens (80 Hatzionut Avenue, near Shifra Street); the upper terrace and observation point (Yefe Nof Street); and the entry at the lower terrace (Hagefen Square, at the end of Ben Gurion Boulevard). Free walk-in tours in English are offered at noon every day except Wednesday. These depart from 45 Yefe Nof Street, near the top of the hill. Note: the Shrine of the Bab is a pilgrimage site for the worldwide Baha'i community; visitors to the shrine are asked to dress modestly (no shorts).
Although it runs along a single boulevard, "The Colony" packs in history (with explanatory placards), interesting architecture, great restaurants, and wonderful spots for people-watching. Ben Gurion Boulevard was the heart of a late-19th-century colony established by the German Templer religious reform movement. Along either side are robust two-story chiseled limestone houses with red-tile roofs. Many bear German names, dates from the 1800s, biblical inscriptions on the lintels, and old wooden shutters framing narrow windows.Neglected for years, the German Colony is now one of the city's loveliest (and flattest) strolls. It's best to start your exploration around Yaffo (Jaffa) Street so that you're walking toward the stunning Baha'i Gardens. Along the way you can have a meal or a cup of coffee, explore the shops in the City Centre Mall, and learn about the history of the Templers. Any time of day is pleasant, but evening, when the cafés and restaurants are brimming with people, is best.The Templers' colony in Haifa was one of seven in the Holy Land. The early settlers formed a self-sufficient community; by 1883 they had built nearly 100 houses and filled them with as many families. Industrious workers, they introduced the horse-drawn wagon—unknown before their arrival—to Haifa. They also built with their own funds a pilgrimage road from Haifa to Nazareth. The Germans' labors gave rise to modern workshops and warehouses, and it was under their influence that Haifa began to resemble a modern city, with well-laid-out streets, gardens, and attractive homes.Haifa's importance to Germany was highlighted in 1898, when Kaiser Wilhelm II sailed into the bay, on the first official visit to the Holy Land by a German emperor in more than 600 years. In the 1930s, many Templers began identifying with German nationalism and the Nazi party, and during World War II the British deported them as nationals of an enemy country.