An ancient city in the far north of Israel, Acre or Akko is one of the oldest cities in the world, with more than 5,000 years of existence and imprints from the greatest of empires in history. Romans, Islamists, Moors, Crusaders, Ottomans, you name it: They were all here. And so were the great explorers like Marco Polo, and rulers like Napolean. The city survived it all, and today exists as a thrilling mix of archaeology, culture, and diversity of myriad faiths and perspectives. Akko as it is called in Arabic has been invaded and resettled throughout its history (which officially started in 3500-3050 BC). The city saw some of the bloodiest religious wars fought on its shore. However, a major part of its old city remained untouched, and still remains as elusive as it did thousands of years back, but it doesn’t fail to take back travelers to the times of the knights and the Templars through its narrow alleys, and its existence trapped in a time-wrap as a typical Middle Eastern city of the 18th century.
The historic walled city exists in two quarters, the Crusader city and the Ottoman city. The two quarters are separated by a history of thousands of years. The Crusader city dates back to the 12th and late 13th century and survives as remains both above and below the present street level. The city paints an extraordinary picture of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. The present town, however, is more of a reflection of the Ottoman city that reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries and is survived by a citadel, mosques, khans, and hammams (baths).
The Crusader city
Prepare yourself to go back to the era of the religious wars between the Christians and the Muslims and walk through the halls of the knights. This part of the city came into existence only in 1990 when the archaeological department excavated the Crusader city. The city came into existence after the crusaders invaded the Holy Land to conquer Jerusalem from the ‘Saracens’ or the Muslim rulers. Soon after they established the city of Akko, which became a major port and a trade center. The city remained a thriving center of art, trade, and commerce compete with a fortress and thriving markets, for a couple of centuries until the Saracens – lead by Sallah a Din – attacked it and sent the crusader army back to Europe.
Today, armed with an audio guide and a map, one can explore these old streets and the tunnel used by Crusaders to escape the Holy war at Akko. The romance and chivalry of that era, locked in the deep walls and tunnels, comes alive in this unique multimedia experience. The fabulous complex made up of six giant halls, a dungeon, a huge hall supported by eighteen massive pillars, and a smaller hall is a spellbinding architecture. The old dining hall (Hall of Columns) is the most impressive part of the complex. Another distinguishable piece of history in Akko is the Hospitaller Order a military-monastic order that treated the sick in the Holy Land. After the Christian conquest of Jerusalem in the 11th century during the First Crusade, the Hospitaller’s arrived in Akko. Along with the Templars, Hospitallers became a formidable military force during the Holy wars. After the fall of Akko in the 13th century, the Hospitaller’s moved to Cyprus and acquired Rhodes. The island became the last Christian post in the East.
The Ottoman city
The signs of the Ottoman influence become clear no sooner you come close to the city. From far one can see the towers of the Al-Jazzar Mosque – the pearl of Acre. The city walls built by Crusaders and later reinforced by Jazzar Pasha in 1799 on the foundation adds to the charm. Al-Jazzar Mosque is the largest mosque in Israel, outside Jerusalem. The mosque was built on the ruins of a church, which in turn was built on the ruins of another mosque from the early Muslim era.
Akko is famous as a walled city, and its walls present the first glimpse of its Ottoman lineage. The original walls were first built in 950 by Ibn Tolon and since then they have been renovated multiple times by different rulers. Stretching from East which was the main defense section, to the West which opens to the port and is referred to as the sea walls, the walls not just offer great views, but holds within them a myriad viewpoints and perspectives.
Inside the north-eastern walls of Old Acre is the Acre’s “Treasures in the Walls” Museum, with hundreds of artifacts from the Ottoman era to acquaint the travelers with Acre that existed as a potpourri of art and religion. The mystical blend of the old walls and the old tales captured in the hundreds of objects are a tell-tale account of the old world.
Experience the Turkish Hammams
And when in an old Ottoman quarter, one should always pencil in some time to spoil oneself at the traditional Turkish bath. The local hammams were a popular concept up until the 1950s when the households did not have running water or bathtubs. Head to the Ghattas Bath, the largest functioning hammam in Akko, which has been painstakingly renovated and restored to its original state, for some luxurious and authentic taste of Turkish hospitality.
The cobble-stoned streets and the vibrancy of bazaars
The streets take you to the old and the new of the Akko. Once you exit the Templars tunnel, follow the streets towards the city wall. You will pass some of the contemporary architectures of Akko, the Ramhal Synagogue (in a small side street), Khan al-Franj, the Merchants Inn, and then to the tower gate. You will be close to the Turkish Bazaar, a local initiative to restore and renovate the old Bazaar of the 18th century, and give it the feel of a novel art and craft place. Apart from souvenir shops, it houses the spice markets, cute little eateries, and cozy coffee places.
Your quest for best foodie experience can end here
Food could in itself be a reason to visit Israel, and in Akko you probably get the best choices with the obvious amalgamation of Arabic, Turkish, and Israeli tastes. And the start of this foodie journey needs to be from the Uri Buri restaurant, known for the seafood choices, and don’t be amazed if you hear paeans for Chef Uri from a seafood lover. Some like me, will say that Uri Buri is not a restaurant, it’s a culture. All tales you will hear or read about the restaurant are true, and the restaurant could be a reason enough to keep Akko in your travel itinerary. So keep your choice list ready with salmon sashimi freshened by wasabi sorbet, prawns and artichoke swirled into buttery, black-rice noodles, fresh fish, or sea bass simmered in coconut milk and apple. Want more assurance to head here, the eatery was featured in the documentary “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” which is available on Netflix.
And Uri Buri isn’t the only one – to search for the best food in Akko, you need to ask yourself simple questions like where will I get the best Hummus (Israel trip is incomplete without it). The answer to this could possibly evoke a debate, however, an easy pick to avoid debates could be Humus Said because of their fresh, homemade ingredients and the incomparable hospitality. Located in the old city’s vibrant Arab market, Humus said has been serving possibly the best hummus in Israel for generations, and the smooth, creamy consistency of their Hummus ever fails to leave your soul nourished.
And in case you are looking for some food with dreamy views, head to the Donianna, perched over the Mediterranean Sea facing the old city walls. The grand collection of seafood, and fresh catch, along with some adroitly made vegan cuisine, coupled with dreamy views of the sunset over the old city walls and the port, should be a reason enough to head here.
The food scene of Akko would be incomplete without the mention of El-Masra. It’s location on the Akko port, overlooking the sea, situated on a remodeled 13th century home, and a steel for antique artifacts in its décor gives El-Masra a special dining atmosphere. And then the food, from the choice of fresh catch, shrimps to fillet of local catches, enviable choices on the meat menu to a choice of interesting desserts, makes El-Masra an experience to add in your itinerary. The list to do in Akko can easily go long, but as wise travelers do never go to this city with your top picks and checkboxes to tick. Akko is a place to immerse yourself in, in the century-old history of wars, politics, faith, and spirituality. Walkthrough the old streets, passing tiny and unpretentious Middle Eastern joints, with locals never failing to greet you with big smiles, and even bigger heaps of creamy hummus, hot and filling falafels, endless choices of salads, the grand display of Middle Eastern spices in the bazaars, the age-old practices of art, and unforgettable experiences served, hot, tangy, and always fresh in your plates in every restaurant. And when you have breathed in every appeal of Akko, ask yourself what part of your journey would stay the freshest in your memory – history, culinary, hospitality, art, or faith, and I am sure finding an answer would be as difficult for you as it was for me.