A tour of Acre's attractions and hidden gems

A tour of the former British (and Ottoman) prison, located at the top of the 12th-century Crusader fortress complex was a great way to start the trip of the ancient city of Acre.

The view from Tel Akko (photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
The view from Tel Akko
(photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
My son and I took a two-day break earlier this month and went straight to jail – which was part of the fun. A tour of the former British (and Ottoman) prison, located at the top of the 12th-century Crusader fortress complex was a great way to start the trip of the ancient city of Acre (Akko) where Richard the Lionheart and Saladin’s forces once fought for control.
Formerly a governor’s house and a military barracks and jail, during Ottoman times the most distinguished “guest” was the founder of the Bahá’i faith, Bahá’u’lláh. Roni Miyara, the municipality’s director of tourism marketing, who guided us around the city, pointed out that although most people associate Haifa with the religion, it is Acre, with the garden tomb of Bahá’u’lláh, that is its spiritual center.
During the British Mandate, the prison served as the main jail for the country’s North. In 1920, Ze’ev Jabotinsky was imprisoned there and Moshe Dayan also spent time behind its fearsome walls.
Later, its inmates included hundreds of members of the Jewish underground movements. The Underground Prisoners Museum, under the auspices of the Defense Ministry, highlights the famous Irgun-led breakout of May 1947 in which 42 prisoners escaped (although eight were recaptured). The gallows from which underground members (among others) were hanged can still be seen.
After spending longer than we originally planned there, we made our own (more comfortable) escape and continued to discover more of Acre’s fascinating sites, sights and stories.
The history of Acre starts 4,000 years ago, at Tel Akko, due to its natural harbor on the Mediterranean coast. It is first mentioned in the Book of Judges where it is written: “Asher drove not out the inhabitants of Acco…” Ottoman-period governor Ahmad Pasha, also known as “al-Jazzar,” the Butcher, was responsible for much of the splendid construction that can still be seen. In 1799, Napoleon famously failed to capture the city. The British conquered the area from the Ottomans in 1918 and developed Haifa as a port because of their larger ships, leading Acre to unfairly fade.
We climbed Tel Akko, also known as “Napoleon’s Hill,” to enjoy the great view, see some of the cannons and understand the lay of the land – and the sea. Here we also visited the aptly named Treasures in the Walls Museum. Located inside the northeastern walls, it contains artifacts reflecting local craftsmanship.
Recognized in 2001 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Acre has been enjoying a revival in recent years reaching roughly a million visitors per annum – until the age of the coronavirus.
In a sign of the times, many of the places of interest at the Hospitaller Fortress are marked in Chinese as well as Hebrew, English and Arabic. The Chinese tourists – like other foreign visitors – are now missing and signs in shops, museums, religious establishments and restaurants remind people of the need to wear masks.
ACRE IS a mixed city. Jewish residents make up about 70% of the population of some 50,000, and Arab residents – Muslims and Christians – the remaining 30%. Jews first settled in the city in Hasmonean times but almost all of the Old City’s residents are Muslims. You can’t miss the al-Jazzar Mosque in the Old City, next to the Turkish bath (hammam) and Turkish bazaar, whose nooks and arches house an incredible range of eateries and stores – from Duck You, Akko (the world’s first store dedicated to plastic ducks), to spice shops and places selling traditional Middle Eastern goods.
Visiting at a time when Muslims were celebrating Eid al-Adha and yeshivot were on their summer break, the mix of populations was fascinating. People dressed in the styles of clearly different communities gathered near the fisherman’s port and marina.
Although there are kosher food establishments outside the Old City – including in the Azrieli Mall – within the Old City there is just one kosher restaurant. Fortunately it’s excellent. For those who automatically associate Acre with hummus, think again. Roots offers gourmet Levantine fusion fare. Its origins, in that typically Acre way, sound almost like a joke: A Jew, a Christian and a Muslim set up a bar and restaurant together. It is located under an impressive stone-domed roof at the entrance to the Enchanted Garden, the Hospitaller Fortress courtyard.
Within the Hospitaller Fortress (the Knights’ Kingdom), we admired the refectory where Richard the Lionheart dined along with other leaders of the Crusader era in the splendid vaulted Column Hall.
THE CITY is adding much-needed hotel rooms and other accommodations to attract visitors to stay longer than a day. Miyara notes that with the dearth of foreign tourists the city is concentrating on domestic tourism for now. “There is growing interest as people realize that Acre has so much to offer and is an attractive destination by world standards,” he notes.
JNF-USA’s Western Galilee Tourist Information Center in the Old City hosts exhibitions of local artists and provides advice about trips in Acre and the region.
Among the more recent attractions is Akko Extreme Park, home to the country’s highest bungee jumping facility.
We skipped the bungee and opted for more historic spots in our limited time. We took a sneak preview at the Ramhal Synagogue and Visitors’ Center – opening soon – named for the famous Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto (Ramhal) who lived in Acre in 1743-1747. The center notes some other distinguished rabbinic authorities who spent time in the city including Talmudic-period scholars, Maimonides, Nahmanides and Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (escaping the plague in Tiberias, only to be kidnapped when he left Acre by boat as the battle with Napoleon broke out.)
The highlight of our trip was also the least expected: A visit to the Tunisian Synagogue (just outside the Old City.) The astonishingly beautiful building is decorated floor-to-ceiling with mosaics. Also known as the Ohr Torah or Jariva Synagogue, its four floors are full of tiny stones that create beautiful pictures and tell a tale. Each mosaic is on a different theme – the gorgeous gallery where the women sit has pictures of women from the Bible, for example. It’s probably best to go with a guide who can point out the details. The still-active synagogue is the result of an obsession of an immigrant from Tunisia, Zion Badash, who survived the Holocaust and dedicated his life to recording Jewish history and his strong pride of the State of Israel, in a special way in the city where he made his home.
Acre is captivating. Napoleon didn’t make it at all, but we hope to return for another visit soon.
The writer was a guest of the Acre Municipality.