Looking out to the Mediterranean from the hill city of Haifa, on a peninsula jutting out from Israel’s northwestern coast, you just may see a sliver of land in the distance: Lebanon.
It was barely visible one gray afternoon in the spring, as was a lone naval ship, presumably protecting Israel’s shores.
Together, these two images served as a subtle reminder of the summer two years before, when missiles shot by Hezbollah rained down on the city. Incoming missile alarms sounded multiple times a day, and Haifa effectively shut down for the month of July as residents holed up in underground shelters.
The shuttered Haifa still dominates the world’s perception of the city, but it is not the only Haifa its residents know.
The Treasure Chest
Haifa, often likened to San Francisco or Naples, seems to rise magically from the sea. Flowing for a half mile down the side of the tiered city are the varied colors of 19 terraces. Collectively, they look like a rainbow punctuated in the middle by its treasure chest: the golden-domed shrine of the Baha’i prophet, Bab.
It is a beautiful sight, but also a perplexing one. Why are the headquarters of the Baha’i faith located in Haifa, a city in the Jewish state, a country in the Muslim Middle East?
The simple answer is that Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Baha’i faith, lived and died here after being exiled from a number of other places — but a more poetic explanation is offered by many Haifa residents.
“The shrine symbolizes the tolerance of citizens here,” said Ayala Klingman, a retired musician and piano teacher who has lived in Haifa for 20 years.
Haifa may be the only place in the region where members of five faiths — Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Druze and Baha’i — live and work peacefully side by side.
In 1902, Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, dubbed Haifa “the city of the future,” and it is well on its way to fulfilling that prophecy. Israelis describe Tel Aviv as wild and cosmopolitan, Jerusalem as ancient and mysterious, and Haifa as an awakening beauty.
Since Herzl’s proclamation, the city’s population has swelled from less than 20,000 to over a quarter million.
Yet somehow Haifa is largely undiscovered by foreign travelers. A stop on many whirlwind tours of Israel and a transit hub for visits to places further north such as the Golan Heights, it is a main destination for few. This is a shame, as there is so much to see.
The Three-Tiered City
Haifa is divided into three tiers. The lowest of these offers miles upon miles of sandy Mediterranean beaches, beloved by locals but free from tourist crowds, as well as Israel’s largest port and a number of industrial areas.
“Tel Aviv plays while Jerusalem prays, but Haifa works,” goes the common saying. While Haifa’s port and oil refinery still employ many residents, the city, home to Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, has also recently attracted a number of high-tech corporations.
The main attraction of the middle tier, made up of residential areas and the business district, is Ben Gurion Boulevard, the lively heart of the German colony, with its trendy shops and restaurants.
The top tier, the Carmel District, has green parks and lovely homes. Yefe Nof Street, appropriately nicknamed Panorama Street, has a spectacular view of the sea both by day and by night. It is also the starting point of numerous nature trails that wind down Mount Carmel to the Haifa Bay.
The city’s extensive public transportation system makes it easy for visitors to explore. The various levels are connected by the Carmelit, Israel’s only underground subway, a futuristic-looking aerial cable car, and numerous long flights of stairs. The city also has a reliable public bus system.
“The beauty of the city,” marvels tour guide Yair Herdan, who has lived all of his life in Haifa, is “mountains and sea together with forests and a port – an awakening beauty indeed.”
HOW TO GET THERE
Travelers coming from Greece and Turkey can land in Haifa’s small regional airport, but those coming from the U.S. must fly into Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv (El Al offers direct flights from New York for approximately $1,500), and then take a train (about $12), or private taxi (about $100) the 55 miles to Haifa.
WHERE TO STAY
Located in Central Carmel, the bustling district atop Mount Carmel, is the five-star Holiday Inn Bay View (Yefe Nof Street, 04/835-0835, www.ichotelsgroup.com). Double rooms start at $170 and feature sweeping views of the Haifa Bay as well as the Galil Mountains. The comfortable Haifa Meridian Hotel (David Elazar Street, 04/850-8888, www.fattal.co.il) offers sea view rooms starting at $190 and easy access to the best of Haifa’s beaches.
WHERE TO EAT
The Renee Restaurant (Yefe Nof Street, 4/837-5602), located in a beautiful stone house overlooking the Haifa Bay, offers local meat, fish and pasta favorites and a good selection of wines. At Isabella (Ben Gurion Street, 4/855-2201), located in the German colony, enjoy Italian and Arab dishes as you look out at the Baha’i gardens.
WHERE TO SHOP
Watch local artists work at the Castra Art, Recreation and Shopping Center (Moshe Fliman Street, 04/859-0000), where you can buy their goods and oftentimes create your own alongside them. The Panorama Center (Ha Nassi Avenue, 4/837-5011) in Carmel Center is a good modern shopping mall, and Hertzl Street in the Hadar neighborhood is a bustling outdoor bazaar with plenty of reasonably priced goods.
Interested in more on Israel? Learn the 10 Customs You Should Know Before Studying Abroad in Israel or read this thoughtful essay on How Conflict Shapes the Culture of Israel.