Haifa is moody in the best possible way. Israel’s third-largest city is a jigsaw of neighbourhoods between the slopes of Mt Carmel and the Mediterranean Sea. Interlacing communities – Arab and Jewish, Baha’i and Druze, Ethiopian and Russian – all bestow energy on this rollicking city, where traffic buzzes between millennia-old shrines, peaceful promenades and elbow-to-elbow food markets.

It’s impossible to drink in Haifa all at once. Instead, follow your mood and explore the city one distinctive neighbourhood at a time.

View of beautiful Bahai garden with Shrine of Bab. Haifa, Israel © Shujaa_777 / Shutterstock
Soak up the stillness in Haifa's immaculate Baha’i Gardens © Shujaa_777 / Shutterstock

Serene Haifa: daydream over Hadar HaCarmel’s views

For a slow-paced introduction to Haifa, start at the top of the town in Hadar HaCarmel. This genteel residential area offers peerless views from the flanks of Mt Carmel, particularly along Louis Promenade. Peering over the walkway’s marbled colonnade, you’ll see big, blue Haifa Bay and the ancient city of Akko shimmering hazily in the distance. The bay has been pivotal for Haifa from its beginnings as a fishing port through the medieval and Ottoman periods, when the city grew wealthy from maritime trade. Still busy with cargo ships, Haifa is now Israel’s largest port.

Amble from the promenade to Yefe Nof St to reach the pinnacle of the Baha’i Gardens, Haifa’s splendorous centrepiece. A major pilgrimage site for Baha’i believers, the gardens cloak 19 separate terraces, which cascade around the domed Shrine of the Báb. This is the final resting place of the predecessor to the Baha’i faith’s main prophet, Baha’ullah. The Báb was confined to darkness before his execution in Persia in 1850, so he is revered with gardens that are bright, colourful and illuminated after sundown. Follow a walking tour into this garden sanctuary: tinkling water features, cactus beds and palm trees create a calming space in the midst of a clamorous city.

Decorations in the street in the German Colony in Haifa, Israel © Victoria Shapiro / Shutterstock
See and be seen in the German Colony's gorgeous shaded cafes © Victoria Shapiro / Shutterstock

Stylish Haifa: stroll around the chic German Colony

Guided walks of the Baha’i Gardens finish down near the southern edge of HaMoshava HaGermanit (the German Colony). This attractive neighbourhood of honey-coloured stone is the place to see and be seen, to stroll between cafes and people-watch over an ice-cold beer. The colony’s elegant main street, Ben Gurion, traces a straight line directly from the Baha’i Gardens to the sea, and it’s lined with restaurants and cafes that spill onto the pavement.

Haifa was a tiny village when the German Temple Society arrived in 1869 to purchase land, set up farms and found a carriage service to ferry passengers between Haifa and Akko. Now an upscale neighbourhood, the German Colony bears numerous traces of its roots – look closely at the lintels of Templer homes to see inscriptions in ornate Germanic calligraphy. Inhabiting one century-old building is the romantic Colony Hotel; further north another Templer-era building houses the City Museum, worth a wander for its local history displays and rotating contemporary art.

Time spent in a cafe is almost inevitable in the German Colony (try Douzan for great coffee or tamarind cordials). But if somehow you arrive at the port end of Ben Gurion still peckish, turn right to find Ein El Wadi, a family restaurant beloved for its makloubeh (aromatic rice, chicken and cauliflower).

Scene of Wadi Nisnas neighbourhood and its market, with businesses, locals and tourists, in Haifa, Israel © RnDmS / Shutterstock
Scout for fruit and veg in Haifa's Wadi Nisnas neighbourhood © RnDmS / Shutterstock

Hungry Haifa: graze your way through Wadi Nisnas

Leaving the German Colony, a 10-minute walk southeast along Sderot HaMeginim and Ein Dor St transports you from idle elegance to a hive of market catcalls and grab-and-go food. Welcome to Wadi Nisnas, a largely Arab neighbourhood with a reputation for Haifa’s best market produce and outstanding falafel. Wadi Nisnas boomed as an Arab workers’ quarter until the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Around 3000 of the original Arab population stayed in Wadi Nisnas, and the neighbourhood’s weathered limestone houses and busy shop fronts are little-changed.

Flowing through Wadi Nisnas is an open-air market that brims with local produce, from crates of watermelons and limes to soil-crusted bouquets of fresh herbs. As you stroll along Wadi St, various scents mingle in the air: roasting coffee, sweet halva, the saline tang of fish. And then there’s the falafel. HaZkenim is a major contender for the neighbourhood’s best (with just the right amount of crunch) but that would be heresy to devotees of hole-in-the-wall Felafel Michelle, which faces it in a stand-off on the other side of Wadi St. Just north of these falafel rivals is Abd Al Hadi sweet shop, featuring a head-spinning range of baklava (grab some to take away if you’re already waddling from the effects of too much).

High-spirited Haifa: hi-tech displays and heated debate around Masada St

The zone around Masada St, sandwiched between Wadi Nisnas and Hadar HaCarmel, provides an enjoyable sensory jolt. By day, there’s MadaTech Museum: within the rosy brick walls of the 1912 Technion Building are exhibition spaces that fizz with activity, like creaking hydroelectricity wheels, glowing 3D cinema screens and the clatter of tiny fingers slotting geometric puzzles into place. At sundown, the bigger kids come out to play along Masada St, where music is almost as loud as the rattle of cocktail shakers.

Masada St grew slowly from an underloved neighbourhood into boho ground zero. This kaleidoscopic street has murals created by Haifa-based street-art collective Broken Fingaz, a scattering of tattoo parlours, and bars galore, which reel in a mixed crowd of artists, tourists and free-thinkers from all walks of life. Political debates are common in Masada St, and exchanges of ideas tend to be good-humoured and blunt. Duck into late-opening Cafe Masada, which draws a debate-hungry crowd, or better yet Elika, a casual art cafe with an eclectic, well-chosen jazz-rock soundtrack. To feel the pulse of multicultural Haifa, there's no more fitting place than Masada St after sundown.

View of the bay, downtown and the cable car, with locals and visitors, in Haifa, Israel © RnDmS / Shutterstock
Get above it all with a cable car ride from Haifa's seafront to the Carmelite Monastery and caves © RnDmS / Shutterstock

Spiritual Haifa: ponder the universe in Bat Galim

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is Bat Galim, Haifa’s northern tip. Hop aboard the cable car from its seafront promenade up to Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery. During the Crusader era, Christians took up residence in caves here and eventually established the Carmelite Order. An inspiring venue for contemplation is the monastery’s marbled Baroque-style church, dating to 1836. Lift your gaze to its heavenly dome, enriched with paintings of Elijah ascending to paradise in a fiery chariot.

A steep walk from here leads to another meditative space, Elijah’s Cave, where the prophet is said to have slept and prayed before confronting the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel (1 Kings 18). Christians, Jews, Muslims and Druze all come to seek inspiration in this 14m-long grotto, and rumours have long swirled about the cave’s enlightening, even healing, powers. The atmosphere within this simple shrine is intense, with devotees filing into the cave to whisper prayers into recesses in the stone.

Back on the seafront, meander to Bat Galim Beach. Walking along this small stretch of sand around sunset, watching the sky glow and darken, is itself a near-spiritual experience. Here by the shore of a city that’s both sedate and boisterous, electrifying and calming, is the chance for a moment of quiet...until tomorrow, when you’ll step straight back out into Haifa’s happy maelstrom.

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