Haifa, the sun-splashed metropolis, some half an hour from the historic city of Akko, has a hip side to itself which waits to be discovered. Perched between two important destinations of the biblical significance, Nazareth and Akko, Haifa rarely figures as a tourist destination and is treated more as a stop-over. Until recently, Haifa was known for its rusty port filled with smoky bars where longshoremen would drink strong liquor. The cool, hip side evolved as Haifa evolved from a port city to an international business center. And as the city evolved, so did the neighborhoods.
Haifa is a kaleidoscope of intriguing neighborhoods. The longshoremen have now been joined by students and artists, as Haifa fast evolved as both an emerging economic center, and a creative metropolis. Haifa’s downtown is teeming with chic Middle Eastern restaurants along the Ben Gurion Avenue, wide streets, random corners existing as creative harbors, and long strands of tourists taking cruises in the riveting port. The downtown is an industrial transformation, mirroring the economic transformation that has happened in the port city.
The Haifa alternative experience is, however, from the Paris square to the Masada street, which houses dozens of miniature cafes, where the poets, writers, and artists socialize, and who’s a who of Haifa greet over cups of Arabic coffee and bowls of hummus. The conversations in these cafes tend to get politically charged, and it is here that you get a whiff of left ideology and liberal political stance is primarily a right-wing nation. Masada street is also the home of Israel’s Broken Fingaz Crew – one of Israel’s best-known graffiti collectives abroad. The four Haifa residents – known by their art names Tant, Deso, Kip, and Unga, use their bold graffiti to liven up the world’s urban architecture and have found recognition throughout the world. No doubt, Masada street still remains the epicenter of ideas.
A little on the edges is another narrow bend of the street which takes you to the city’s fashion street and Haifa’s upscale markets. The trail further takes to the Wadi Nisnas, with narrow lanes squeezed between sandstone buildings that date back to centuries. The streets seem such a delightful transition from the contemporary designs of the new city. This is the old Arab quarter of the city and the place to come to know the historic legacy of the city. Though a little ramshackle, the narrow streets hold the artistic aura of Haifa, and some of the best places to taste the Arabic cuisine. Try the Falafel Hazkenim for snacking on the traditional Arabic cuisine of Falafel. You will be greeted with long queues outside the shop, a smile, and hot, crunchy pita wrapped around hot, crunchy falafel – a recipe that has been finessed since the 1950s. After your refreshments, do head to the narrow, winding streets and artisan stalls, and do employ your bargaining skills.
And when in Wadi Nisnas, do pencil in some time to visit the Beit Hagefen Jewish-Arab Culture Centre. The quest for multiculturalism and dialogue gets more intense in the art gallery here, which takes the idea further with art and literature.
Around just a kilometer away from the Wadi Nisnas is the Turkish market area, which offers an unfiltered opportunity to taste the fresh, local flavors and discover hidden street art, and feel the mix of cultures. Walking through the market you could be easily taken by the strong aroma of the Arabic coffee and herbs in the local shops. Stop by to have a cup of herb-rich Arabic coffee in some small, authentic shop, for those are the best places to catch on some conversation, and get a feel of this country, which lives different cultures and tastes, and is politically and ideologically so divided. Walking through you can catch on Falafel George to have Israeli’s most loved dish – Falafel, and there is never an overdose of Falafel. And in midst of all the eating, do keep time to observe life in these old quarters, the authentic doors and windows, nostalgic, naïve street art, and catch on real-life stories that have inspired art, films, and literature in Israel. One such is the novel ‘A trumpet in the Wadi’ by Israeli author Sami Michael. The plot set in Wadi Nisnas, tells of a love story between an immigrant Russian Jew and an Arabic woman.
From here you need to go further up to the Caramel center, a leafy, trendy neighborhood. Comfortable cafes line the road where one can sip a latte, and catch the conversation on teeming scenes of art and culture in the city. Hop to the local favorites like Greg’s café and the Mandarin. And if you are there in the late evenings, do catch up on some beer and live music scene, and some hippy scenes like that in Mayan Habira, meaning “Fountains of Beer”, of folk music, blaring guitar, harmonica, loud beats, and dances on the tables. And soon you will be living the eclectic mix of live music acts ranging from avant-garde to Arabic hip-hop and Hebrew folk. These cross-cultural scenes are the result of years of peaceful amalgamation that has happened in Haifa, at the spiritual, political, and cultural levels.
From this part of the city set on a walk towards the Louis Promenade with views of the Haifa bay, and as they say on clear days one can see as far as Akko. A pleasant walk on the Promenade also brings travelers to Haifa’s most celebrated sight – the Bahai Gardens. The domed shrine which contains the remains of the Báb, the spiritual predecessor to the Baha’i faith’s main prophet Baha’ullah, is built in eclectic Middle Eastern and European styles. The gardens with 19 sets of terraces that take one to the resplendent domed shrine- are Haifa’s main attraction. The gardens were carved out in the slopes of Mount Caramel and took almost ten years to complete. The impressively symmetrical gardens, with well-tended terraces, waterfalls, stone statues, and lawns which speak of perfection, give a regal feel to travelers and bear testimony to the adroit craftsmanship that has gone in building this marvel. The gardens are illuminated throughout the night and can be seen from the neighboring erudite German colony.
A little off track is the splendid Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, celebrating the 12th-century Crusader-era pilgrims, inspired by the prophet Elijah, who opted for a hermitic life on the slopes of Mt Carmel. The beautifully painted dome and the ceiling portraying King Elijah and his chariot of fire, King David with his harp, and the saints are a treat to the eyes.
And as anywhere else in Israel, in Haifa to you are never too far from a museum on Holocaust and Jewish history. Head to the Atlit Detention Camp, a historic museum that brings the history of the holocaust and the moments from the lives of numerous Jewish refugees who entered Israel during the time of the British Mandate.
Haifa is symmetry in the landscape, quite beaches and long walks on the promenades, art, and culture, and a multitude of dialogues. But more than this it is the start of a dialogue on diversity, culture, politics, and novel ideas. Its political and cultural identity though remains hidden, holds the key to its transformation to a city of ideas, thoughts, and innovation.
How to reach: Haifa is almost two hours of drive from Tel Aviv. You can combine it with your trip to the historic city of Akko, and the religious halt of Nazareth. Israel’s rejuvenation capital Sea of Galilee is just 40 km from Haifa. Haifa could serve as a base to explore all these destinations.