Port of Haifa (Tel Aviv)
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Food and Drink
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.
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.