Safed: A New Look at an Ancient City

Ascend to Israel’s highest city for a glimpse into Judaism’s spiritual past. History greets you down every alley, but abundant food options and stylish boutiques show off Safed’s comfortable and contemporary side.

Safed, the Galilee city of steep slopes, ancient homes, fruit trees, and the occasional snow, still carries something of the 16thcentury in the air. Figures like Holy Ari (well-known kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Luria Ashkenazi, 1534–1572) and Rashbi (Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, 1st century) are household names. In Safed, the streets are clean and the people polite, like a European mountain city where no one is ever in a hurry.

The ancient synagogues and tombs of the sages indicate Safed’s past importance but there are also signs of a modern day revival, like the Zefat Academic College and Bar-Ilan University’s new medical school.

Tourism in Safed, the highest city in Israel, has had its ups and downs for centuries.  Today it looks to be on the rise, thanks to a growth of boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, and new attractions.

The city sits on a mountaintop 900 meters above sea level and boasts spectacular views of the Golan Heights, the Galilee and the Hermon mountain range. During the 1950s and 1960s, Safed was a lively center for art, particularly painting, which complemented a vibrant cultural scene of Galilee-style nightclubs that featured evenings of communal singing.

Eventually, the painting center relocated but the sculpted signs, painted walls, and colorful doors are proof that the creative spirit remains. Quite a few painters still exhibit in galleries like the Mikedem Gallery, the Camus Gallery and the General Exhibition, located in the Market Mosque in Safed’s Old City.

Don’t expect to find much activity when the sun goes down: Safed sleeps at night. The current population is largely observant Jews and even the secular residents aren’t the after-hours type. There is the occasional nighttime activity, though, like the annual Klezmer Festival.

Attractions and activities: Stepping back in time in the dairies

Safed cheese (gvina tzafatit in Hebrew) has been made throughout history and the dairies remain part of local folklore – the best souvenir you can bring home.

HaMeiri Tsfat Dairy – Next to Mizpe Meiri, a stunning lookout point, this dairy is the oldest in Israel, producing cheese since 1840. 

HaMeiri Tsfat Dairy, 66 Yud Bet Street, Old City.

The Kadosh Dairy – In addition to the famous Safed cheese, this boutique dairy now also produces labaneh, Bulgarian cheese, camembert, ricotta and kashkaval as well as goat cheese. Join a tasting and learn about the dairy’s family history.  

Kadosh Dairy, 34 Yud Aleph Street, Old City.  Open every day, no appointment needed.

The Yashfe Winery – Established in 1998, the Yashfe Winery produces about 5,000 bottles a year. A visit includes a guided tour and wine tastings. Groups can arange a meal with live music.

The Yashfe Winery, 48 Yud Aleph Street, just above HaMeiri Tsfat Dairy

Otzar HaStam of Tzfat – At this visitor’s center, guests can view the 3-D film “Letters of Adventure” that recounts the creation of the world and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and introduces views to a virtual scribe in ancient Egypt to learn the secrets of preparing parchment.  The state-of-the-art theater features rotating chairs and a 180-degree screen. Appropriate for children ages six and up.

Otzar HaStam of Tzfat, 62 Hagdud Hashlishi Street, Mt. Canaan

The Khan of the White Donkey – This renovated 700-year-old building now serves as a center for culture, art and music that hosts cultural events and performances. Musicians Alma Zohar and Yair Dalal will perform here during Sukkot.

The Khan of the White Donkey, 5 Zvi Levanon Street, Artists’ Colony

Emek Hatchelet Park – Spread over hundreds of dunams on Safed’s northern outskirts, this park overlooks Mount Meron and features abundant wildlife, streams that weave through fruit trees, and winding paths funded and maintained by the Jewish National Fund and the Safed municipality. (To get to the park, go in Safed’s main entrance and head toward the central bus station. About 500 meters from the intersection at the main entrance, turn right into the park’s parking lot.)

Biriya Forest – Those looking for more of a challenge can climb to the Biriya Forest which features an array of activities for the whole family: rope-climbing, bowling, a paintball range, horseback riding, an amusement park and a petting zoo for the little ones.

Food with a view

La Marjolaine – French and, therefore, romantic, featuring warm wooden furniture with elegant white trimmings that look best at sunset, which can be viewed over the hills through the wide windows. Chef Uriel Sivan, who studied with Madame Morgaine in Avignon, has created a fusion menu that combines French dishes with local Galilee ingredients, paired with local Galilee and Golan Heights wines.

La Marjolaine, 106 Hagdud Hashlishi Street, Mt. Canaan (in the Villa Galilee Hotel).

Ha’Ari 8 Kitchen and Bar – In the heart of the Old City, within walking distance to ancient synagogues and the Artists’ Colony, this restaurant operates inside a century-old building. A separate section for children allows their parents to enjoy entrecote, hanger steak or sirloin in peace. Try the local homemade arak (an anise-flavored liqueur).

Ha’Ari 8 Kitchen and Bar, 8 Ha’Ari Street, Safed

Café Isadora – Named for its owners, Izi and Dora, this restaurant sits in courtyard surrounded by flowers, and an ancient tree in the center. The menu features Safed cheese, salads, and wines, all served on ceramic dishes, atop mosaic tables. This kosher café, which offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, opens at 9:00 A.M.

Café Isadora, Artists’ Colony, Old City.

Where to stay: the flavor of Europe

The Ruth-Rimonim Hotel – Among the curving alleyways of the Artists’ Colony is an ancient yet well-preserved Turkish khan, or inn, now known as the Ruth-Rimonim Hotel, a charming boutique hotel that captures Safed’s mystical atmosphere.

The Ruth-Rimonim Hotel, Artists’ Colony Street, P.O. Box 1011.

The Olive Resort – Also in the heart of the Artists’ Colony is the Olive Resort boutique featuring seven beautifully-designed and well-furnished suites that look out on Mt. Meron and Safed’s Old City.

The Olive Resort, Artists’ Colony.

The Villa Galilee Hotel – A lovely French-style boutique hotel enveloped in greenery and perched at the summit of Mount Canaan, the highest point in Safed. The 21 rooms of the Villa Galilee Hotel are distinct from one another and take inspiration from Provence, the owners’ childhood home. The hotel features a swimming pool and many terraces overlooking Mt. Meron and the Sea of Galilee. One of the loveliest places in the Galilee.

The Villa Galilee Hotel, 106 Hagdud Hashlishi Street, Mt. Canaan.