Skyline of Haifa, Israel
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There's a popular Israeli saying: "Haifa works, Jerusalem prays, and Tel Aviv plays." This is not strictly fair to Haifa, the country's third-largest city. While it's home to Israel's biggest and busiest port and has an undeniably bustling, businesslike air, there's also a real resort feel about the place. The center sprawls over the steep, lush face of Mount Carmel, the waterfront is lined with wide, sandy beaches, and the restaurants are famous throughout Israel.
Unlike Tel Aviv, which is relatively secular, and Jerusalem, which is deeply religious, Haifa is a multicultural community of six faiths living side by side. In addition to Jews, Christians and Muslims, Ahmedi and Druze people live there, and the town is the world center for the Baha'i faith, a belief system that fittingly believes in all the messengers of God and a unifying vision of the nature and purpose of life. Haifa's skyline is peppered with minarets and church spires, and the beautiful Baha'i Gardens -- a great swath of manicured green cascading down the hillside -- is the city's most famous landmark.
What's good about Haifa as a port of call is that it's more of a gateway to the rolling hills of Galilee and its associated biblical sights to the east -- as well as Akko, directly across the sparkling bay, with its magnificent Crusader city -- than a destination in its own right. Other highlights in the region include Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights (where Israel, Syria and Jordan connect). If you're after a relaxing day, head for Haifa's southern beaches.
Although Haifa is compact as a port, it's as hilly as San Francisco, so get those walking shoes ready. Shops and restaurants tend to be in clusters -- malls are big there -- but if you do want to discover street life, you can't beat the restored German Templar Colony at the foot of the Baha'i Gardens. It forms a continuous avenue from the stepped gardens through the restored 19th-century mansions -- now shops, bars and restaurants -- to the sea.
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Judaica in every shape and form is on sale in Haifa and the places you'll visit on tours. Cookbooks, history books, menorahs (nine-branched candelabras), seder plates (for Passover), matzo covers, educational children's toys, jewelry and yarmulkes (Jewish caps) in everything from satin to suede are available. You'll also find ubiquitous fridge magnets of Jerusalem's skyline, test tubes of water from the Jordan river, mud products from the Dead Sea, T-shirts, beach towels and books of Jewish jokes. All the big tourist centers in Israel sell beautiful jewelry, as well as plates and wall hangings in everything from pewter to silver and gold. Loose diamonds are also a good value.
For a good mall, try the Castra Art, Recreation and Shopping Center at 8 Moshe Fliman Street. It's a huge, modern complex of galleries, shops and restaurants with a busy cultural program of exhibitions.
Hebrew is the official language, along with Arabic (although in Haifa you'll hear less Arabic than in Jerusalem). English is the language of business, and most people speak it extremely well -- young people often with a strong American (versus British) influence. It's polite to learn a few words of Hebrew, if only for greeting people (shalom) and saying thank you (todah).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the New Israeli Shekel or NIS. (See www.xe.com for current exchange rates.) Credit and debit cards are widely accepted. Traveler's checks are an increasingly rare phenomenon, but they can be cashed in all major banks. Banks are normally open from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sunday to Thursday. On Monday and Thursday, they're also open from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. On Fridays and the eve of Jewish holidays, hours are limited to 8:30 a.m. to noon.
Where You're Docked
Haifa port is right in the center of the city, an easy walk from the main sights. The railway station is next door, with direct trains north to Akko or, if you're feeling ambitious and have time, south to Tel Aviv. The cute little subway, the Carmelit, runs straight up the hill (the base station is a couple of blocks from the port) to Carmel Center, the main shopping and restaurant area.
The cruise and ferry terminal at the port includes a seating area, an expansive duty-free shop, a souvenir shop and a cafe. You can walk from there through the German Templar Colony to the base of the Baha'i Gardens, the Carmelit cable car and the nearest beach.
Trains are cheap and efficient if you want to travel independently to Akko (30 minutes) or Tel Aviv (75 minutes). Haifa itself is easy to navigate, either by using the Carmelit or a taxi. On foot, it's a challenge because of the steep hills; pedestrian routes cut through the hairpin bends via stone staircases, but you'll need a map.
Taxis are metered and can be hailed on the streets. They wait outside the port if a ship is in. If you can't find one around town, head to one of the big hotels, where they often gather. Round up the fare when you pay; a large tip is not expected.
If you want to go farther afield independently -- to Jerusalem, for example -- it can be done by train. But beware that you have to change, and there would be a certain amount of stress involved in getting back to the ship in time. Because the main jumping-off point for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is Ashdod, farther south, fewer tours to these cities are offered from Haifa, but they're easy enough to arrange. Cruise lines will tailor-make tours to either city, using a private car and guide; distances are short in Israel, so pretty much anywhere north of Jerusalem is doable.
Watch Out For
Petty crime is rare in Israel, but you should, nonetheless, look after valuables -- especially on the beach. There is an ongoing threat of terrorist attacks, but you'll find people going about their daily lives, apparently undeterred. Depending on the security situation, keep an eye out for public demonstrations (stay away from these), and remain vigilant at all times. If you want to travel to the West Bank (for example, to Bethlehem), you will need a passport to get through the Israeli checkpoints, which can be time-consuming.
The Sea of Galilee: Home to many Biblical landmarks -- from the Yardenit baptismal site, where Jesus was reputed to have been baptized, to the coastal area of this now-inland lake, where he is said to have preached his sermons to the Mount of Beatitudes (setting of the Sermon on the Mount) -- the region is also uncommonly scenic. Don't miss a trip to Golan Heights, site of a Syrian incursion but also offering dramatic vistas over the sea. You might also enjoy a visit to the artsy town of Safed, known for its galleries and ancient synagogues. It's a long day, as some cruise lines incorporate visits to Nazareth to visit other Biblical sites.
Baha'i Gardens: The gentle Baha'i faith believes in the unity of all the major faiths, tolerance, peace and justice. Its world headquarters in Haifa centers on the gold-domed Shrine of the Bab, an elaborate structure housing the remains of the Bab, the herald of the Baha'i prophet Baha'Allah. There, immaculate terraced gardens cascade down the cliff face, brilliant with banks of flowers, parades of cypress trees and manicured lawns that are beautifully illuminated at night. The gardens are open 9 a.m. to noon daily (inner gardens); 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (outer gardens). Free tours are given in English daily at noon, except Wednesdays. To walk through the entire garden complex, you must have a guide.
Elijah's Cave and the Carmelite Monastery: Elijah, the 9th-century B.C. Hebrew prophet, is venerated by Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze. So, not surprisingly, the cave on Mount Carmel where he lived and meditated is an important pilgrimage spot. There's an elaborate domed chapel inside the cave, today used for many religious events and festivals. (It's open Sunday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Friday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.) Above the cave is the beautiful Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery, housing wonderful paintings and dazzling Italian marble. The current basilica dates to 1836, although the Carmelite order of monks dates to the 12th century (open 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 3 to 6 p.m.).
Haifa's Beaches: Haifa has eight beaches, each one individual. The Surfers' Beach in Bat Galim (close to the port) is unique in that it faces north and catches wind rolling down from Mount Carmel, providing challenging and exhilarating windsurfing conditions. The other seven have breakwaters to create more gentle swimming areas. There you'll find sand, beach cafes, pitches for beach volleyball and soccer, deck chairs and sun umbrellas. Dado Beach and Zamir Beach, right around the headland, heading west from the port, are two of the finest with boardwalks and plenty of restaurants, bars and restrooms. The quickest way to get there from the port is by taxi, but trains and buses do stop at the nearby Haifa Hof HaCarmel Railway and Bus Station.
Nazareth: Once a small village, Nazareth is a bustling town with many churches that commemorate the original home of the Holy Family and the ministry of Jesus. The most important church, the Basilica of the Annunciation, marks the spot where the Angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary. It's the largest church in the Middle East and is a highlight of every tour. Visits to Nazareth also include Capernaum, where Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and sites around the beautiful Sea of Galilee. For reasons of practicality -- these places are not especially close together -- it's best to take a guided tour.
Akko: Just 30 minutes from Haifa by train, Akko is famed for its incredible Crusader City, an 800-year-old system of underground caverns, halls and crypts where the Crusader knights hid from invaders. The city also has massive fortifications, a fishing harbor dating back 1,400 years and a bustling souq (Arab market).
Been There, Done That
Clandestine Immigration Museum: Visit the Clandestine Immigration Museum on Allenby Road for a different take on contemporary Israeli history. The museum deals with the thousands of Jewish refugees who tried to flee to Palestine to escape persecution by the Nazis in World War II, focusing particularly on the ships that brought them to the Promised Land (which, at the time, was under the British Mandate). Many refugees were denied admission and were kept in detention camps in Cyprus. Visitors can explore a couple of boats and a submarine and can peruse plenty of archive material. It's open 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 8:30 a.m. to noon Friday.
Step Routes: The Haifa Tourist and Leisure Board has marked out four color-coded routes that get you around the city by hundreds of stone staircases that bypass the zig-zag roads on the mountainside (ideally starting at the top and working down). The routes take you past quieter suburbs and through narrow alleys to the Baha'i Gardens, the fashionable Carmel Centre on top of Mount Carmel and the German Colony and foodie area of Wadi Nisnas. Pick up a step route map first at the Haifa Tourist and Leisure Board at 48 Ben Gurion Avenue.
Antique Shops: Get off the Carmelit at Massada Avenue, and poke around the tiny antique stores, art galleries and knickknack shops. This is a quieter residential neighborhood that gives you a feel for how locals live and offers a pleasant couple of hours' browsing.
Ein Hod: Ein Hod is an artists' settlement on the western slopes of Mount Carmel that's surrounded by olive groves and is specifically dedicated to the pursuit of art, crafts and sculpture. You can visit the village, check out the galleries, watch the craftspeople in their workshops, eat in the cafes or set up your own easel in the fields and paint away. The best way to get there is by taxi; there are buses, but the nearest stop is 1 km from the village.
Israeli lunches can be as lavish or as simple as you want, and Haifa is home to some excellent restaurants. What everybody should try, though, is falafel, the Israeli staple of chickpea patties. It's available in hole-in-the-wall places, special falafel fast-food joints or more upscale restaurants. Take a toasted pita, stuff it with salad and spicy salsas or pickles, cram some fried falafel balls in on top (the coriander and chili ones are best), and pour tahini sauce (sesame paste mixed with garlic and lemon juice) over the whole ensemble. It's cheap, delicious and unbelievably filling.
Haifa's various districts are known for different cuisines and restaurant types. Downtown, look for Arabic restaurants; the Bat Galim Promenade along the seafront has the best fish restaurants; chichi Carmel Centre on top of Mount Carmel is home to masses of coffee shops; and Wadi Nisnas is the place to go for the best falafels and a colorful ethnic food market.
Hashmura 1872 (15 Ben Gurion Blvd., in the German Templar Colony, 04 855 1872) serves classical French cuisine in a beautifully restored mansion in the German Colony.
Abu Yusuf (1 Ha-Meginim Street, off Paris Square near the port; 04 866 3723) specializes in typical Israeli and Arabic cuisine -- falafel, hummus and grills. It also has a massive salad bar.
Ramses Seafood (22 Ben Gurion Blvd., in the German Templar Colony; 04 855 3918) offers a wonderful combination of Middle Eastern salads, dips and fresh fish.
Falafel HaZkenim (HaWadi 18; 04 851 4959) has the best falafel in Haifa, according to many. Located on a side street in the Arab section of the city, HaZkenim is a hole in the wall with a limited menu, but the falafel is delectable and filling.
Staying in Touch
Israelis are cell phone-crazy, and there is good reception everywhere. Cyber cafes are not that easy to find, but there is one in the Dan Panorama Shopping Centre on top of Mount Carmel (109 HaNassi Ave.).
Best for First-Timers: Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee is a long, full-day tour with a lot of walking, but if you're doing Jerusalem and/or Tel Aviv from Ashdod, this is the classic one to do from Haifa. The Sea of Galilee is beautiful, surrounded by low-lying, scrub-covered hills, palm and citrus groves and ancient olive trees. The tour includes a visit to the baptism site of Jesus on the River Jordan, the Mount of Beatitudes (setting of the Sermon on the Mount) and the Church of the Multiplication (setting of the fish and loaves story). The main attraction is Nazareth itself, along with its centerpiece, the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is the largest Christian Church in the Middle East and is said to mark the grotto where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary.
Best for Repeat Visitors: Take a trip across the bay to Akko, or Acre, a magnificent 12th-century Crusader city. The Mamlukes destroyed the visible city in the 13th century, but a huge complex remains underground, incredibly well preserved. Visitors can see the cavernous underground halls (today used as concert venues) where the Templars lived and the narrow tunnels that joined them. It was an incredible archaeological achievement for its time, and it's still an amazing piece of excavation hundreds of years later.
Best for Foodies: Take a full-day tour to Golan Heights, where some of Israel's finest wines are produced. A typical tour includes a farm visit in Upper Galilee, where you can sample the local cheeses, as well as trips to a brewery and one of the big wineries for a tour and tasting. The scenery is stunning, making for a great day out.
Best for Total Immersion: Take an overnight tour to Jerusalem, a city that can never be covered in a day. These are offered when the ship visits both Haifa and Ashdod. (You'll leave from one port and rejoin the vessel in the other.) Typically, a tour would include the Galilee region and associated Biblical sites, as well as Jerusalem itself. A walking tour of the Old City will include visits to the Via Dolorosa, symbolizing the last steps of Jesus; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, marking the spot of the crucifixion; the Cardo, an ancient Roman street; and the Western Wall, the holiest site in the world for Jews. Tip: If you get any free time, book in advance for the Western Wall Tunnels tour, and split from the group to do it. It's an amazing experience, walking deep under the city, right underneath the Western Wall, past stones and caverns dating to the time of Herod, 2,000 years ago.
For More Information
On the Web: Haifa Tourist Board or Ein Hod
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Middle East and Africa
Independent Traveler: Middle East Guide
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief