In Israel, “north” is sometimes misinterpreted to mean anything north of Tel Aviv. Sorry to have to tell you this, but if you take a day trip to Caesarea, the Roman city built by Herod the Great, you can’t yet check Northern Israel off the bucket list. You have not smelled the field crops and fruit orchards of the real Israel, haven’t imbibed the natural (and ultra-hikeable) beauty of the Galilee Hills and the Golan Heights, haven’t seen the tels (archaeological mounds) shaped by foreign superpowers marching through the land in antiquity.
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Before you go
Prepare to be outdoors for much of the day. The weather will be more extreme or less extreme based on your elevation, and it would be wise to dress in layers, the better to strip down or bulk up when the temperature changes. If rain is in the forecast, pack a thick jacket with a hood.
On your way up the coastal road, stop at Caesarea and the impressive remains of the Roman city built by Herod. Not far away, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, is the 19th century pioneer town of Zichron Yaakov, with a sweet pedestrian mall running down Founders Street.
At the northern end of the Carmel range is Haifa, a modern port city that happens to be world headquarters of the Bahai religion. Farther up the Mediterranean coast is the Crusader city of Acre, and the natural grottoes at Rosh Hanikra, perched on the border with Lebanon.
Head inland for ancient sites and cities, such as the Roman-Jewish city of Zippori (exquisite mosaic floors!) and the Biblical cities of Megiddo (read: Armageddon) and Hatzor, both of which date to the Canaanite period over three millennia ago. Situated a bit farther north is the mountain-top city of Safed (also known as “Tzfat”), home base for Kabbalah, Jewish mystical thought. The Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, known locally as Lake Kinneret, lie below, in the Great Rift Valley.
Staring down at them are the Golan Heights in northeastern Israel, studded with (extinct, we hope) volcanic peaks along the horizon. Between December and May, you may spot the snowy peaks of the 8,000-foot-high Hermon mountain range that straddles Israel, Syria and Lebanon. The Hermon ski season, however, usually lasts for only three to four weeks a year.
Christian visitors: Spend days following in the footsteps of key Biblical passages, starting with the annunciation of Jesus’ conception in Nazareth and his transfiguration atop Mt. Tabor, culminating in the sites along the Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Kinneret), at Capernaum, Tabgha and the Mt. of Beatitudes, where Jesus is said to have spent the last three years of his life and where he gave the Sermon on the Mount. (Note: Visitors to Capernaum mustn't wear shorts.)
Wow factor: Set Waze or Google Maps for “Louis Promenade, Haifa” to home in on the spectacular views across Haifa Bay. Then head to the Bahais’ terraced gardens and shrine for a walk through magnificently manicured grounds.
Wine: The north is Israel’s most heavily cultivated wine country. Consider a tour and tasting at one of the hundreds of Israeli wineries: Tishbi, Carmel, Dalton, Galil Mountain and Golan are but a few.
Kibbutz: Just over a century ago, a few dozen young ideologues began spinning their Marxist ideals into the world’s most successful communal socialist living arrangement. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Interview a kibbbutznik and find out how the experiment is faring today. For a list of kibbutzim you can visit and even stay at, see “hotels,” below.
Diversity: Israel may be known as the Jewish state, but over 20 percent of its population is not. The Galilee is home to the majority of the country’s Arabs. You might stop off at the new Arab Museum of Contemporary Art and Heritage, in Sakhnin. Or to find out about the Druze religion, perhaps have lunch in Isfiya or Daliyat el-Carmel on Mount Carmel near Haifa.
Did we mention that Israel is pretty darn hot about six months of the year? One excellent remedy is swimming in its northern streams (hike to the Zavitan Stream), jumping into basalt-canyon pools (Meshushim Pool is one) and cooling off in the waters of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). If you opt for the latter, a word of caution: be extra careful in the late afternoon, when the sea breeze swooshes in and can generate a strong undertow.
Food and nightlife
A few outdoor dining choices to start with: Dag al Hadan (Upper Galilee, near Kibbutz Hagoshrim) serves fresh-caught trout to your table, right in the middle of the stream! Decks is an Argentinean-style meat restaurant built onto a pier extending into Lake Kinneret (Tiberias). St. Peter’s fish (tilapia) is the specialty of the house at the Ein Gev fish restaurant, on the eastern shore of Lake Kinneret, but serious carnivores will want to park across the road and sit down at Marinado, which specializes in beef and veal from the Golan Heights. Across the lake at Migdal is Magdalena, which calls itself “the first Arabic chef restaurant in Israel.”
In Haifa: If you’re hankering for a good shawarma (lamb or turkey slow-grilled on a spit, and then thin-sliced into a pita with salads and sauces that you choose), Emil on Allenby Street (in a Christian-Arab neighborhood) is fantastic, according to those in the know. But for traditional Syrian-Arab cuisine that is a cut above street food, try Rula, at Moriah 11. And for high-end European fare, there is the highly rated Hanamal 24 (that’s the address, as well) in the lower city.
As long as you’re in Haifa, you may want to start or end the evening at three very different bars in the lower city: the venerable Pub Haogen, which feels like the crew just weighed anchor and is about to stop by for a round; Vesper, a spanking new cocktail bar where the food is said to be outstanding; and Libira Brewpub, which exudes a warm ambiance.
Given the healthy distances involved, the cost of intercity taxis is going to be sky-high. If Haifa is your sole destination, the train from Tel Aviv could suffice; it continues north to Acre, where the station is walking distance from the old city. If all you want to do is move from one city to the next, then it’s best to stick with the public buses (schedules and info at www.bus.co.il). But for getting to even slightly out-of-the-way destinations, renting a car may be the only option. Book in advance on the Internet to save yourself a few shekels.
The grand old dame of Haifa is the Dan Hotel, which sits on the crest of Mount Carmel and stares down at the Bahai Gardens and Haifa Bay. But if you wish to explore the Galilee and Golan, best to make your home base a hotel near Lake Kinneret or in the Upper Galilee.
In both areas you can find kibbutz owned-and-operated hotels and guesthouses, which offer opportunities to walk around the kibbutz and see what makes it tick. The best-run kibbutz hostelries are Kfar Blum and Hagoshrim in the Upper Galilee, and Ginossar and Ma’agan around the Kinneret. Haon and Ein Gev offer lakeside bungalows.
Three upper-tier establishments to weigh: the Scots in Tiberias (the rare Israeli hotel that serves bacon at breakfast) the Mitzpe Hayamim Spa Hotel, oozing comfort and grace, located off the road between Rosh Pina and Safed, and the Carmel Forest Spa, a spiffy work hard/play hard spa in the verdant hills southeast of Haifa. The latter two are adults-only.
Marty Friedlander is a veteran Israeli tour guide who loves to share his passion for the history, geography and diversity of the land.
Roni Kashmin, Haaretz’s restaurant and drinks reviewer, contributed to the food and nightlife section of this guide.