While most visitors to Israel opt for the conventional tourist route — spending time in the spiritual and religious Jewish capital Jerusalem or enjoying the upbeat tempo of Tel Aviv and its beach —fewer people chose to make the trip up north in order to explore the delights of the Western Galilee, where the sites are certainly subtler but no less rich.
The run-down former development town of Nahariya, which is the main urban center of this small coastal plain north of Haifa, offers a mix of new and old Israeli charm. But it is the nature reserves and historic sites dotted around Nahariya that are definitely worth a trip.
Just a few minutes’ drive outside of Nahariya, a plethora of rustic moshavim and kibbutzim (agricultural settlements) — or tzimmerim, as Israelis refer to them —offer quality overnight accommodations, mostly in the form of small family-run guesthouses that pride themselves on attention to detail and warm personal service.
Many places to visit in the area not only offer insight into Israel’s ancient and modern history, but also provide windows to its unique landscape and multi-cultural local population.
Here are a few of the best places to check out:
Whenever I have spent long periods of time outside of Israel, the historic and beautiful Rosh Hanikra is one of the places that appear in my mind as I yearn to return home.
Situated right along Israel’s border with Lebanon — there is even a signpost to inform you that Beirut is 120 kilometers and Jerusalem is 205 kilometers — Rosh Hanikra is famous both for its spectacular underground grottos carved into the cliff’s side and its historic significance dating back thousands of years.
According to the site’s information, “many armies of the ancient world passed through here on the coastal road, counted among them the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and the Crusaders.”
In more recent times, the British captured the area from the Turks during the First World War, and in 1918 a railway line was erected between Haifa and Tripoli in Lebanon. Dug into the rock, remnants of the railway’s cast iron lines and old tunnel are still visible.
While the history of Rosh Hanikra is fascinating and the small museum on site takes you through each time period, it is the place’s natural beauty that is truly captivating.
After paying a modest entrance fee (there is the option of purchasing a combined ticket including other attractions in the area), visitors travel down the mountainside in a small cable car to the grottos. One is then able to walk through a series of twisting tunnels as the seawater playfully splashes inside.
As well as the underground grottos and historic museum, visitors can also enjoy a short 30-minute miniature train ride along the coast up to the Achziv nature reserve and back to Rosh Hanikra. www.rosh-hanikra.com
Not as well known as Rosh Hanikra, the ancient fortress of Yechi’am is just a 30-minute drive a little further south and it is also well worth a visit.
The site of fighting during the War of Independence, the fortress ruins are located on the grounds of Kibbutz Yechi’am and visitors are charged the standard entry fee for Israel’s national parks.
According to official information, it is unclear when the fortress was first built but it was at some point taken over by the crusaders and a series of other warriors who sought to conquer the region.
Despite its roots in ancient history, most of the remains that exist today date back to the 1760s when a local Bedouin, Sheikh Daher al-Omar ruled the area.
An energetic climb up a still-existing spiral staircase to the top of the remaining tower offers visitors an expansive view of the Western Galilee and on a clear day the sea is visible.
In order to avoid the stifling summer heat, it is best to visit Yechi’am in spring or late fall, but numerous cultural events are held here during the summer, and at Sukkot time there is an annual Renaissance Festival. www.parks.org.il
Driving into the city, Acco appears similar to most other Israeli towns until one catches a glimpse of the majestic old city center built overlooking the Mediterranean.
Visitors must park a short walk from the city center, where most of the action is, but a stroll along the cobblestone ramparts overlooking the water is picturesque and poetic.
Among Acco’s main attractions are ruins from the Hellenistic-Roman period and buildings from the Crusader and Ottoman periods, the Al Jazar Mosque, the Turkish Baths (which now house the municipal museum), and the Bahai Temple.
In addition, Acco is also famous for the Underground Prisoners Museum, where Jewish resistance fighters from the Etzel movement staged the largest prison outbreak on May 4, 1947. The museum is open from Sunday through Thursday.
In addition to the historic sites in Acco, the fisherman’s port, where locals still go out for their daily catch, is quaint and atmospheric. Visitors can take a boat ride around the harbor with a local tour guide who can point out historic buildings and the cultural nuances unique to this mixed Jewish-Muslim-Christian city.
Just a few minutes walk from the port is the local market, which mainly sells fresh fish, fruit and exotic Arabic spices. Nearby there is also a wide array of restaurants selling authentic Arabic cuisine dotting the harbor. The hummus in Acco never tasted so good as in Acco.
On Saturdays, when most kosher eateries in the area are closed, Acco gets packed with many Jewish Israeli families looking for a fun day out and a fine place to dine. www.acre.org.il
Other places of interest in the Western Galilee include the Ghetto Fighters House Museum on Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot, just north of Nahariya, and the beautiful beach nature reserve of Achziv. There are also numerous nature trails.
For places to stay visit: www.touristisrael.com/hotels-guest-houses-galilee/449 or www.zimmeril.com.