Nazareth has a unique magic about it. It is described in the Christian Bible as Jesus’ childhood home and the city and surrounding areas contain numerous sites of major significance to Christians. As such, millions of Christians make pilgrimages to Nazareth each year. Perhaps this is why certain parts of the city are hideously overrun with souvenir stalls and overpriced restaurants. Despite this, the city showcases some absolutely breathtaking architecture, mind-blowing food, and genuine cultural experiences.
Often referred to as the “Arab Capital of Israel”, the city’s population is approximately 70% Muslim and 30% Christian. They live together somewhat harmoniously (except maybe when it comes to traffic – more on that later) and the city is full of beautiful and historically significant mosques and churches, which I recommend visiting even if you are not an adherent to those faiths.
The city centre is quite compact and easily walkable. In fact, you are better off exploring the city on foot because driving in this city is not for the faint of heart. Narrow, winding roads with dead ends, sharp switchbacks, heavy traffic, haphazard parking, unreliable GPS, and a deafening amount of honking… This is the reality of driving in Nazareth. Fortunately, most of the significant sights are within walking distance of each other and being on foot will allow you to enjoy the little things along the way, like picking up fresh fruit in the souk (market). However, pack some water and proper walking shoes because Nazareth is as hilly as Tel Aviv is flat.
Every time I visit Nazareth I stay at the Fauzi Azar Inn and it’s always the highlight of my stay. It’s a 200-year-old Arab mansion that has been converted into a hostel/guesthouse and it has dorms, private rooms, and family rooms. It is perfectly situated in the heart of the old city, just steps from the souk and many major attractions. What really impressed me about the Fauzi was just how beautiful and relaxing it was. The lounge is flooded with natural light and features painted ceilings and arched, stained-glass windows. There’s an inner courtyard perfect for relaxing in cool breezes and listening to the sounds of the ancient fountain bubbling away. Every morning at 9am the grand daughter of Mr. Azar will tell you the history of the mansion and how it became a guest house.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Arab food is the best in the world (sorry, Italy. and France. and Thailand) and the free breakfast at the Fauzi didn’t let me down. Freshly-baked cakes, hard-boiled eggs, locally-grown fruit, and savoury za’atar (Middle Eastern herbs and spices mixed with olive oil) on toasted pita. Oh, and Arabic coffee infused with cardamon. It was so good I picked some up at the local coffee shop to take home with me and even now, the smell of that coffee takes me right back to Nazareth. Speaking of coffee shops, there is a 200 year old coffee shop that you cannot miss called Abu Salam. It’s been in the same family for three generations and it is always filled with old men playing card games. Make sure you order Inar, left over from the ottoman period its a hot drink made of cinnamon and toasted walnuts and it’s the perfect way to warm up on a cold winters day.
There is a free walking tour of the old city that leaves the Fauzi everyday (except Sunday) at 9:30 in the morning. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the city and it will show you all of the best places to eat and drink.
Even if churches aren’t usually your thing, I highly recommend a visit to the Basilica of the Annunciation. It’s an extremely important place for Christians as it is thought to be the site where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. The church is absolutely gorgeous, with stained-glass windows, colourful paintings and mosaics, beautiful woodwork, and sparkling organ pipes lining the walls. Outside the church are dozens of mosaics and paintings contributed to the church by Christian communities around the world and I found it interesting to see how each country had incorporated their own style into the pieces.
Next door is the Church of St. Joseph’s Carpentry, which is thought to be the location of Jesus’ father’s carpentry workshop. There are a LOT of churches and mosques in Nazareth, so if you’re interested, most free maps (typically available from your accommodation) show the locations of notable churches, mosques, and synagogues, so grab one and start walking!
If you like spices, definitely check out El Babour Galilee Mill, just a short walk from the market. This spice shop has been run by the same family for 120 years and in addition to every spice imaginable, they also offer local organic products, including oils, dried fruits, coffee, incense, nuts, and sweets. And the smells are heavenly!
Nazareth is a really good base for day trips and longer excursions in the surrounding area. Some of the most popular destinations are Haifa (the third largest city in Israel), Akko (also known as Acre), and the Jesus Trail.
Haifa is located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, north of Tel Aviv. It’s super easy to get there from Nazareth by bus, which takes 1.5 hours and costs about $5. Haifa is one of the holiest places in the world for people of the Baha’i faith, which is a religion that basically teaches the essential worth of all religions.
An absolute must-see in Haifa are the Baha’i Gardens. Situated at the base of Mount Carmel is the gleaming dome of the Shrine of the Bab, where the remains of the founder of the Baha’i faith are buried. Extending from the shrine and all the way to the top of Mount Carmel are absolutely breathtaking garden terraces from which you can enjoy panoramic views of the city and the Mediterranean Sea. Everything is perfectly manicured and the Baha’i people consider the gardens and shrine “a gift to humanity”. For your visit, please keep in mind that it is a site of religious significance and modest dress (shoulders and knees covered) is important.
Just beneath the Baha’i Gardens you will find the German Colony. It’s a historic and picturesque neighbourhood, packed with restaurants and nightlife. This is the perfect place to try out all sorts of Arab and German fusion foods. Falafel, knafeh, sauerbraten, spaetzle…. Leave your diet at home and enjoy it all.
A short distance from Haifa, and accessible by public bus, is Akko, a coastal city with UNESCO World Heritage status. Like Haifa, Akko is very significant to the Baha’i faith and it has it’s own Baha’i Gardens. While they are smaller than Haifa’s, they are equally as gorgeous and worth a visit. Akko is a historic city with a slower pace than, say, Jerusalem. Plus, the old city doesn’t shut down on Saturdays as most city centres in Israel do (for Shabbat). So it’s a perfect place to spend a Saturday afternoon admiring ancient architecture and enjoying delicious food (I recommend hummus…)
Other highlights of Akko include the city walls (which you can walk along), the Tunnel of the Templars (which runs under the entire old city), and the Museum of Underground Prisoners.
The Jesus Trail is a 65km walking/hiking trail through the Galilee region. It starts in Nazareth and traces a route Jesus may have walked throughout his life and ministry. The trail is best tackled as a series of 4 day-hikes, each about 13-19 km long. Highlights along the trail are:
Ancient Roman ruins of Sepphoris Kafr Kanna – The traditional site where Jesus turned water into wine
Kibbutz Lavi – A traditional Jewish agricultural commune
Horns of Hattin – Extinct volcano with spectacular views over the Galilee region
Sea of Galilee and the Church of the Multiplication – Site commemorating where Jesus fed 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish
The Mount of Beatitudes – Where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount
Forests, wilderness, cultivated fields, panoramic views
It’s free to hike and camp along the trail, so you can take your time and really enjoy it.
Back in Nazareth, I’m glad I had the opportunity to drop in on a free Arabic lesson at the Fauzi. They are offered a couple evenings a week and it goes a long way to be able to say even just a few words in Arabic when you are in cities like Nazareth, Haifa, Akko, and even the Jaffa neighbourhood of Tel Aviv.
Have you ever been to the north of Israel? I’d love to know what the highlights were for you – let me know in the comments!