They say “Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays, and Haifa works.” That doesn’t really make me want to visit Haifa. But I did and it was splendid. Haifa is a beautiful city with it’s own character and has tons of interesting things to see and do. It’s less expensive than Tel Aviv and more relaxed than Jerusalem, so it’s a great place for a budget-conscious solo traveller to spend a few days exploring and relaxing.
Haifa is located in the north of Israel and extends from the shores of the Mediterranean to the top of Mount Carmel. It is the third largest city in the state of Israel and has been a very important seaport for centuries. In addition to being a major shipping centre, it is also home to Israel’s oldest and largest high-tech business park and numerous petroleum refining and chemical processing plants. As such, Haifa has a reputation as a city of workers.
But it also has two internationally-acclaimed universities and several colleges, which breathe life into the city through the eager minds of the student population. And when you have a city full of workers and students, you can bet there is going to be no shortage of cheap, delicious street food, lively local bars, groovy cafes, and coffee shops. Also, Haifa has the only subway system in Israel, which makes it quick, easy, and inexpensive to get around the city.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you made a beeline for the beach before checking out anything else in the city. Haifa is blessed with numerous beaches boasting soft white sand and sparkling azure water. It’s also one of the best places to surf. Bat Galim is a popular beach, as is Dado, which features an exceptionally long boardwalk fringed with gardens and has free wifi.
Mount Carmel and The Haifa Trail
Something I like to do when I’m in a new city is find my way to an elevated place and take in the city and its surroundings from above. The top of Mount Carmel offers spectacular views of Haifa and the Mediterranean and it’s easy to get there as the city is built up the slopes. There’s a cable car that leaves from Bat Galim Beach and takes you to Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery near the top of Mount Carmel. The cable cars are transparent spheres, so you can enjoy sweeping panoramas of Mediterranean on one side and forests and neighbourhoods on the other. Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery has a chapel with an exquisite painted ceiling and the views of Haifa from there are breathtaking. If you can, try to also stop by at night time to see the city lights twinkle.
Those more athletically-inclined might want to take on the Haifa Trail – a 70 km track that winds its way around and through the city, showcasing Haifa’s natural beauty, notable landmarks, and interesting cultural areas. The trail consists of 21 sections that can be walked or run separately, and there’s a couple sections that scale Mount Carmel via a network of staircases often referred to as Haifa’s “1,000 Steps” (which is kind of a cruel joke because it’s actually 1,100 steps and you don’t know that until you’ve already hiked them).
Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art
Now here’s something you probably didn’t expect: just below the peak of Mount Carmel there is a museum dedicated to Japanese art and culture. In fact, the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art is the only museum in the entire Middle East that is dedicated to Japanese art. But it’s more than just an art museum. In addition to exhibitions of swords, fans, ceramics, and paintings, the museum offers special talks with the chief curator, interactive workshops about things like origami and manga comics, and screens critically-acclaimed, artistic films. Even the building housing the collection is part of the exhibit as it showcases elements of Japanese architecture and design.
But what really sets this museum apart is the compelling story behind it. Born in Poland in 1893, Felix Tikotin moved to the Netherlands where he became an architect and, after a trip to Japan, fell in love with Japanese art, architecture, and culture. He amassed an impressive collection of artifacts and occasionally showed it in temporary exhibitions at various museums. During WWII, he hid the collection while he fled the Netherlands, and upon his return, retrieved it and brought it to Haifa. He campaigned hard to find supporters to help him open a museum to permanently exhibit the collection and in 1959 he personally bought and built up the building that is the museum today. I love this story because it’s about a person’s dedication to his passion, even when that passion didn’t make sense to the people around him. And it shows his commitment to preserving culture so others can experience it – an important thing as the world becomes more homogenous.
Masada Street and the Baha’i Gardens
A little below the museum is Masada Street, which is a quaint, tree-lined street known for its used bookstore, artsy cafes, and vintage clothing boutiques. It’s a great place to browse around on foot, sip coffee at a sidewalk cafe, and observe some of the city’s best street art.
Just a few steps from Masada Street is one of the most-visited attractions in all of Israel: the Baha’i Gardens. It’s popular for two good reasons: 1) the gardens are home to the Shrine of the Bab, which holds the remains of the founder of the Baha’i Faith, so adherents make pilgrimages to the the gardens and shrine, and 2) the gardens are absolutely immaculate. They are built on 29 terraces extending up the northern slope of Mount Carmel and the views from each terrace are truly remarkable. The gardens are shaped in unique geometric designs and are exquisitely manicured, fostering a feeling of tranquility and serenity for visitors.
German Colony and Wadi Nisnas
Just beneath the Bahai Gardens is the German Colony – a neighbourhood founded by German Templars (a Protestant sect) in the 1860s. The original buildings withstood the test of time and have been beautifully restored and updated, now serving as cafes, restaurants, art galleries, guesthouses and trendy boutiques. People are drawn to this neighbourhood for its pleasant atmosphere, great shopping, and abundance of delectable local and fusion food.
A short distance from the German colony is an Arab market area known as Wadi Nisnas, or simply, “The Wadi”. It’s a lively neighbourhood, overflowing with market stalls offering fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood, fresh-ground coffee, baked goods, Arabic sweets, and of course, some of the best falafel you’ve ever had.
Haifa is seen as a model of religious coexistence and ethnic tolerance as people of many different religions and backgrounds live together here in relative peace compared to some other cities in Israel and the world. Within the Wadi is the Beit Hagefen Jewish-Arab Cultural Centre. It’s a meeting place for Haifa’s different ethnic, religious, and national groups. A place where people can come and meet each other and participate in activities together. There’s a free art gallery on site that exhibits local Middle Eastern and international art. It focuses on multiculturalism and emphasises engaging in dialogue.
The Holiday of Holidays
If you have the chance to go to Haifa during the month of December, by all means go for it. Haifa will be celebrating their annual Holiday of Holidays festival: a celebration of both Christmas and Hanukkah. Every weekend in December, the German Colony and Wadi Nisnas become extra festive with music performances, parades, fairs, exhibitions, street parties, stalls selling handmade artisan crafts and mouth-watering food. The festival has been happening for more than 20 years and is a unique opportunity to celebrate different cultures and be part of promoting tolerance, respect, and peaceful coexistence.