Port of Haifa
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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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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.
Good to Know
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.
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.
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).
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.