I went to Haifa hoping that it would be all about the food, and it was, but there was more to be found in this relaxed and artsy city, which left me wondering why I hadn’t visited sooner.
After Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Haifa is Israel’s third largest city. Its large port has given it an ‘industrial’ image, and although this is still prominent, it is clear that the city has had a revamp and a lot of investment over the past decades. This has resulted in lots of focal points to interest tourists.
The centre piece of Haifa is the impressive Baha’i gardens, also known as ‘the hanging gardens of Haifa’ which sweep down the hillside for 19 terraces, and a reported 1500 steps. With two kids in tow, I admit to not being overly disappointed that these remained closed due to Covid. Instead, we enjoyed the great views of the site from the German Colony area which sits at the foot of the gardens. This is worth seeing both during the day and at night when the gardens are lit up.
We were staying in the German Colony, which was a post-Covid travellers dream. Rows of restaurants, cafes and ice-cream bars stood waiting to welcome us, with top-notch food. Most had nice outdoor seating areas, set back from the street, with twinkling lights and quirky décor creating atmosphere. It was still ‘coat weather’ in the evenings when we visited, but eating outside is a new requirement for kids unless they have had a recent Covid test.
Of the restaurants we tried, Fattoush stood out for its stylish ambiance and excellent Middle-eastern menu which included a wide range of Palestinian and Lebanese favourites. It is the sort of place where it is worth overordering plates to share, especially salads and starters until the table is creaking.
Another food highlight for me, was a very unassuming Arabic bakery near our guest house, which did excellent freshly baked pastries in the morning. These are common across Israel and Palestine with a range of different shapes and sizes for the savoury and sweet bite-sized pastries. The triangular shaped spinach-filled ‘fatayer’ in Haifa though stood out above the rest for their zesty taste and crumbly thin pastry.
Sticking with the food highlights, the meandering streets of Wadi Nisnas are well worth a visit. This is a Christian-arabic neighbourhood, with a real focus on good honest food. On one street, two falafel restaurants faced another falafel restaurant and a hummus place with no apparent need to worry about the competition. People queued for the fresh sandwiches and then huddled on the pavement outside eating them.
There was an array of other shops selling herbs, coffee, baklava-type sweets and treats and – only seen in Christian areas – pork shops with dried and cured meats. There was also very good street-food, with several tables lining the main street offering a ‘fill a plate’ option. The one we tried had rice dishes, stuffed vine leaves, cheese stuffed breads, several vegetable sides, a chickpea stew and an attitude that you needed to sample everything.
If we had stayed longer than a few days, we could have rolled ourselves back to Jerusalem. In between eating, tourist highlights include several national parks within a short drive, an excellent (but ridiculously overpacked during school holidays) science museum for kids, the beach and a cable car ride up to the Stella Maris monastery. There are also several prominent Israeli vineyards nearby including Carmel and Tishbi. We weren’t organised enough to arrange a tasting tour, but the outdoor restaurant at Tishbi looked like a great place to spend an afternoon.
Sadly, when we visited, the beaches around Haifa were still suffering the after-effects of the recent oil spill along the Israeli coast. Clumps of black tar hid underneath the sand and without us noticing, we suddenly had it on our hands and shoes. If there are any warnings about this at the beaches, we didn’t see any.
Haifa is often cited as a successful example of Jewish and Arabic communities living side by side. The atmosphere was certainly relaxed when we visited with shopkeepers flitting between Hebrew and Arabic without the suspicion that hangs in the air in Jerusalem. There also wasn’t the pretence of Tel Aviv, with its catwalk-like promenade for the fit and the beautiful. That isn’t to say that everything is easy for residents of Haifa, but it was nice to be somewhere where different cultures mixed more easily together.
Driving back, we stopped off in the small town of Jizr Az-Zarqa. This is the only coastal village outside of Gaza that has a predominantly Arabic population. The single-way tunnel under the main road which connected the village to the rest of Israel was the first sign that it was considered a Palestinian place.
Despite being one of the poorest towns in Israel, it had a nice atmosphere and the beach area was quaint with fishermen sorting out their large fishing nets and a few ramshackle huts offering fresh fish and other food. It felt like a forgotten place and it is worth a visit to see another example of the contrasting fates of different areas that sit side by side, supposedly in the same country.