Acre has long been the afterthought of Israeli tourism.
Despite featuring a picturesque port and a UNESCO World Heritage Site Old City that represents the multitudes of historical periods of the Land of Israel perhaps more vividly than any other location – with elements of Romans, Ottomans, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Byzantines and British presence prominently featured – Acre has always been thought of as the out-of-the-way, somewhat dingy backwater neglected cousin off in the corner on the way from Haifa to Nahariya.
More recently, the mixed city of 50,000 (two-thirds Jews, one-third Muslims) has been slow to shake off the stigma surrounding the racial riots of 2008, resulting from an Arab resident driving into a Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur.
But a quiet revolution has been brewing in Acre, infused by government investment of some NIS 30 million, large-scale renovations, and new initiatives by, among others, the non-profit Treasures of the Galilee, founded by business scion and philanthropist Raya Strauss.
Acre has long been identified with hummus joints, seaside fish restaurants like the venerable Uri Buri and attractions like the classic Museum of the Underground Prisoners. But a new spirit of energetic innovation and preservation is injecting the Ottoman walled towns dotted with citadels, mosques, khans and baths, with a new paradigm that is changing the city’s image, both for visitors and its residents, “You won’t see police on the streets here, because we don’t need them. Acre is truly an example of coexistence between all of its residents,” said the colorful, bearded Uri Yirmias. The longtime Uri Buri proprietor and biggest Acre cheerleader was speaking to a group of journalists outside his latest venture, a delectable natural ice cream parlor called Endomela (a play on words in Hebrew meaning “nothing like it”) that features such exotic flavors as cardamom.
“Acre is a great place to live and a great place to visit.”
Assaf Shalev, CEO of the Rimonim Hotel chain, whose Rimonim Palm Peach complex dominates Acre’s southern entrance, told the group that he never considered Acre to be tourist-worthy until he took on his current position a year ago.
“I visited all of the hotels in our chain, and I was in shock when I came to Acre.
The setting right on the beach mesmerized me,” he said on a spacious hotel patio overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the Old City’s Walls and minarets.
“I sent photos to my family and said, ‘guess which country I’m in.’” Shalev’s vision, which is shared by Yirmias and Acre’s tourism marketing director Roni Miyara, is to turn Acre into a base for tourists to launch excursions into the Galilee.
Miyara touted the less-than-year-old ferry- boat service multiple times a day from Haifa to Acre and back as a feather in the tourism cap and boasted that the currently- under-construction (scheduled to be completed within a year) five-kilometer promenade connecting the southern coast with the Old City will rival the Tel Aviv promenade in beauty and popularity.
“Our mission is to transform Acre into a tourist destination, not just a city on the way to somewhere else. It can be a base for five or six days in the Galilee, there’s so much to do in the city and the area,” said Miyara, who was proving his point by taking the group to the criminally under-exposed golden Acre attraction, the Bahá’í Gardens. BAHA’I GARDENS Indicative of the image problem Acre faces, when Bahá’í is mentioned, one naturally thinks of the cascading gardens on the Carmel in Haifa. However, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Acre gardens, located on the northern edge of the city, are not only just as majestic, they the holiest site in the religion.
The expansive attraction, designed in a circular pattern surrounding the historic resting place of Baha’u’llah, a founder of Bahá’í, is groomed by a rotating group of 100 volunteers of the faith, which numbers some seven million worldwide.
“The Bahá’í pray three times a day, and when they do, they face Acre,” said Miyara, adding some good-natured barbs at the neighboring Haifa gardens. “It’s said that they built the Haifa site because you can see Acre from the top.”
The Bahá’í Gardens in Acre are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week, but they are closed on Bahá’í holy days and Yom Kippur. There is no charge for entry and no need for a reservation. On Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday between 9 a.m.
and noon, it is possible to enter the inner garden and visit Baha’u’llah’s shrine. Otherwise, you can walk through the extensive outer gardens and view the heart of the site from the perimeter path.
http://www.ganbahai.org.il/en/ TREASURE IN THE WALL MUSEUM One of the most delightful ways to spend time in Acre for the whole family is a visit to the Treasure in the Wall Museum under the eastern wall of the Old City. The museum (whose official name is evidently the clunky “Ethography Center of Acre & the Galilee”) is housed in an underground building originally used as a military base for Ottoman soldiers guarding cannon positions.
Imagine the Jaffa Flea Market organized into categories and dedicated to preserving the period of the late 1800s to the creation of the state in 1948, replete with living theater, then you’ll get an idea what the museum is about.
A cornucopia of esoteric and well-known cornerstones of life in the Yishuv, the spacious museum, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, is divided into two sections – a reconstructed Galilee market featuring the shops of craftsmen and peddlers in a wide variety of trades like basket weaving and apothecary, and a wing devoted to collections and collectors. Many of the artifacts, like lanterns, locks and bells, are from the personal collection of museum founder Dan Hortman, and while it might seem boring in theory to stare at a group of metal locks, it’s anything but.
Guided tours are available reserved in advance, accompanied by talented actors who make the period come alive. Organized events for children of all ages are also available. 2 Weizmann St.
Open Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
http://eng.shimur.org/Treasures-in-thewall/ HAMMAM GHATTAS Combining 21st-century comfort with the authentic atmosphere and hospitality of a classic Turkish bath, the Hammam Ghattas is a sight to behold, hidden in an obscure Ottoman building behind the Uri Buri fish restaurant.
The by-reservation-only two-floor establishment is the labor of love of Emile Ghattas, who bought the building as a present for his wife and spent years doing renovations using marble from Turkey, India and Guatemala to produce a magnificent palace that includes a hot bath, dry sauna, hot tub and massage treatments.
The complex can be rented by groups or couples (NIS 250 per person), but reservations need to be made in advance. The full treatment lasts up to three hours and includes various massages and skin treatments, all given in a dreamy atmosphere.
www.GhattasBath.com YALLA BASTA Yalla Basta, the popular electronically guided Shuk Bites tour that for years has enabled tourists to sample the culinary wares in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market and six other locations in the country, expanded to Acre recently – an indication of the ‘foodie’ status that the Old City is gaining.
“Acre has been conquered many times in its history, and the latest one is a culinary conquest,” explained Yalla Basta’s co-founder Reuven Filo.
“The Acre shuk has all the essence of a great food market, with many diverse influences.”
Downloadable Shuk Bites cards enable visitors to taste and eat from a representative collection of stands and stalls in the market, learn about the market’s history and to hear the special tales of each market through “The Independent Visitor’s Guide to the Market,” which is provided upon the purchase of any Shuk Bites Card.
Although there are no kosher restaurants in old Acre, there has been a mini-explosion of new bistros, bars and quaint holein- the-wall spots that have sparked new nightlife in the Old City.
At Kukushka in the Turkish Bazaar, opened by a trio of young friends from the country’s center, craft beer complements an eclectic offering of finger foods and sea delicacies. Crispy red snapper in a basket goes perfectly with selection of boutique Galilee beers, as does their version of fish and chips. More adventurous eaters might want to try crabmeat falafel in whole wheat pita or rump souvlaki, touted as “the Greek dish with a touch of Acre.”
Closer to the sea is the El Marsa restaurant, as spacious and sleek as Kukushka is modest and casual. Meaning “marina” in Arabic, the venue offers a great view of the Acre port and the bustling fishing boat trade. Opened in 2010 by chef Alla Moussa, El Marsa utilizes the raw ingredients just outside the door to create tasty dishes like pickled tuna, stuffed sardines and a host of crustacean dishes. They’re complemented by traditional Arab fare like “baladi” eggplant, tabouleh and fatoush salads.
Both El Marsa and Kukushka are two must-stops on any Shuk Bite tour in Acre.
Details are available at www.oldakko.co.il.
RIMONIM PALM BEACH A number of top-rate hotels have sprung up in Acre’s Old City, including Uri Yirmias’s elegant Efendi – which includes a Byzantine- era wine cellar, an original Turkish hammam and a sea-view roof deck – and the highly praised, conveniently located boutique hotel Accotel.
However, a short walk or drive away, at the southern tip of Acre is the luxurious Rimonim Palm Beach. With 125 rooms, a huge outdoor recreation area with spacious pool and country club vibe and a pristine beach only meters away, the Palm Beach provides the perfect base to explore Acre or just to chill. The hotel offers a number of guided tours in the city and surrounding area, but with the amazing food offered in the world-class dining room, chances are guests won’t be heading too far away.
www.rimonimhotels.com/palm-beach-acre The writer was a guest of the Rimonim Hotels and the non-profit organization Treasures of the Galilee http://www.ozrothagalil.org.il/index.aspx?LangID=2.