On Israel’s north coast, ancient history peeps out between the palm trees. Sandy beaches run parallel to the cobalt-blue Mediterranean, luring surfers and sunbathers to their breezy shores. But beach life is a blink of the eye in this historic area: in Caesarea, the well-conserved ruins of Herod’s ambitious port stand proud against the sea, while life continues in the labyrinthine, centuries-old alleys in walled Akko.
The largest city is Haifa, a spirited port with a mixed Jewish and Arab population – and home to the region’s star sight, the Baha’i Gardens. Sprawling across Mt Carmel, Haifa simmers with art, culture and fast-paced nightlife. Venture inland to the catacombs of Beit She’arim or biblical end-times location Megiddo. For art and wine, Ein Hod and Zichron Ya’akov deserve exploration. Spare time to ponder all you’ve seen within the luminous sea grottoes of Rosh HaNikra or by a golden beach in Akhziv.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout North Coast.
These formal gardens flowing down 19 steep terraces to a resplendent domed shrine – the final resting place of the prophet-herald of the Baha’i faith – are Haifa’s crowning attraction. There are bird’s-eye views from the platform at the top, but we highly recommend the free, 45-minute Panorama Tour. Tours begin daily (except Wednesday) at 11.30am in Hebrew and noon in English. Arrive half an hour ahead as it's first come, first served. Men and women must be covered from shoulders to knees.
Nestled between Mt Carmel and Lower Galilee, spellbinding Beit She’arim is pitted with ancient catacombs, many of which you can enter. In the 2nd century AD, the town grew into a vibrant centre for Torah study, and spiritual luminaries were buried here. Walking paths link the beautifully restored cave tombs; most impressive is the triple-arched Tomb of Rabbi HaNassi, who handled political affairs between Jews and their Roman overlords. Pick up a trail map from the visitor centre.
The wave-lashed location of this large archaeological site enhances the experience of exploring its Roman- and Crusader-era ruins.You'll duck through magnificent stone vaults, stroll around a vast Herodian amphitheatre and peer at ruins left by numerous conquerors. A full-price ticket allows you into the Roman ruins and multimedia presentations; a harbour-only ticket, available at the northern entrance, buys access to the harbour area and the Crusader city. After closing time, entry to the harbour – including restaurants and bars – is free.
Bone-white limestone cliffs seem to burst from the deep blue sea at this geological beauty spot straddling the Israel–Lebanon border. A cable car descends steeply to the bottom, a journey of barely a minute; from here visitors step into wave-sculpted cave mouths, listening to water mercilessly lashing the rock. If you listen very carefully you might hear fruit bats nesting in the rock folds.
Akko's crowning attractions are the stone-vaulted Knights' Halls. Wandering these echoing chambers gives captivating insights into the medieval knights who once patrolled, dined and prayed here. An audio guide (included in the ticket price) evokes the sounds and smells of life in the citadel, built 800 years ago by the Hospitallers (a monastic military order). The Beautiful Hall, where pilgrims en route to the Holy Land were welcomed, is most impressively preserved.
Though it’s primarily a pilgrimage site, modestly dressed visitors are allowed to enter this domed shrine holding the remains of the Báb, spiritual predecessor to the Baha’i faith’s main prophet Baha’ullah. Canadian architect William Sutherland Maxwell designed the shrine to unify Middle Eastern and European styles. It was built in 1953 with Italian stone and covered Portuguese glazed tiles.
This university campus museum showcases engrossing archaeological finds such as well-restored mosaics and troves of ancient coins, but the pièce de résistance is the Ma'agan Mikhael Shipwreck, a 2400-year-old merchant vessel unearthed in 1985. Originally 12.5m long, the ship would have hauled 15 tons of cargo and has a rare one-armed wooden anchor. Elsewhere, the art wing assembles mostly Impressionist and post-Impressionist works (part of founder Dr Reuben Hecht's own collection), including works by luminaries like Van Gogh and Modigliani.
The graceful silhouette of the green-domed Al Jazzar Mosque, with its slender, 124-stair minaret, dominates the northern end of Akko's old city. Al Jazzar himself designed the mosque in classic Ottoman Turkish style, and oversaw its construction in 1781. Inside are beautifully restored marble minbar (pulpit) and ornate mihrab (Mecca-facing niche), with delicate calligraphy soaring on the blue and green tiles above. Dress modestly (cover from shoulders to knees); women must cover their heads with a shawl.
Gastronomes won’t want to miss swirling a wine glass or three at this atmospheric vineyard, 4km south of central Zichron Ya’akov. Tishbi was established in the late 19th century by Lithuanian immigrants and has been family-run ever since. A standard tasting session offers a primer from malbec to chardonnay, but we love the wine and chocolate experience (45NIS to 55NIS), which pairs wines with gourmet chocolates. Book ahead.