If you are considering venturing from home to enjoy the post-corona freedom, you may want to consider Haifa as an option.
Haifa is off the beaten track for most tourists, and with the exception of the magnificent Baha’i Gardens and the German Colony neighborhood, packed with restaurants and cafes, the city is clearly not in the same league as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as an international travel destination.
However, in recent years a growing number of Israelis, along with some discerning tourists looking for something a bit different, have discovered the northern Mediterranean port city. The German Colony, with its original stone buildings built by the German Protestant Templers in the 1860s, lies between the Baha’i Gardens and the port.
It has been beautifully restored over recent years and is a magnet for visitors. But our visit focused on the adjoining neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas, home to about 8,000 residents – predominantly Christian Arabs - full of winding alleyways and hidden gems that without a local guide would be difficult to discover.
In 1948, Haifa’s population was 70,000 Jews and 65,000 Arabs. But in April of that year, as fighting in the War of Independence raged and the British prepared to leave, almost all the city’s Arabs ignored the pleas of the Jewish mayor to stay and were expelled or fled to Lebanon or the West Bank.
Today, about 15% of the city is Arab and Wadi Nisnas is populated by the descendants of the minority of Haifa’s pre-state Arabs who chose to stay put. Israel’s third-largest city is often portrayed as an example of successful coexistence, and the city’s Jewish residents and visitors who frequent the Wadi Nisnas market, restaurants and shops are proof.
Nisnas in Arabic means mongoose – an animal that was sometimes seen in the neighborhood back in the day. Wadi Nisnas is also the setting for the 1987 novel Hatsotsrah ba-Vadi (Trumpet in the Wadi) by Sami Michael, which centers on the love story between a young Israeli Arab woman and a new Jewish immigrant from Russia.
Wadi Nisnas retains the charm of a close-knit, authentic Israeli-Arab neighborhood but there are also new, renovated buildings, similar to Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood. The market, ethnic stores and restaurants manage to preserve the character of a traditional neighborhood with none of the commercial tackiness that has overtaken much of the German Colony.
Piles of laffa flatbread are seen every morning at the front of Falfala bakery for distribution throughout the city and beyond. Over the road is Victor, the primary supplier of fish to Haifa restaurants, which receives twice-weekly shipments of fresh salmon from Norway.
Abu Elias, a vegetable store in the market, specializes in fresh produce from across the Galilee and down the hill, Mohammed’s store is known for its freshly-ground coffee, halva and Turkish delight from Nablus. FALEFEL HA’ZKENIM at 18 Wadi Street is a Haifa institution. Loyal customers come from all over northern Israel to this family-run business that has been operating since the 1950’s.
Its small, but the staff are super-friendly and customers are treated to a falafel ball dipped in tahini while they wait. Right over the road you will find Hummus Elsham. I take my hummus seriously and this small venue is up there with the best of them. The hummus is made freshly for each customer and the salad menu changes every day. Another nice touch is that the lemon juice is freshly squeezed. Try the special mixed plate of hummus, fava beans & tahini.
You won’t regret it. Trust me. Haifa’s top hotels were traditionally located on the Carmel Mountain range with a panoramic view of the Haifa bay but with the popularity of the German Colony, new options have become available closer to the port. The 90-room Golden Crown (115 Dereh Yaffa) is located within walking distance of the German Colony and the Baha’i Gardens and features rooms with a great view of the port.
Reasonably priced, the rooms are clean, the staff are exceptionally friendly and the breakfasts do not disappoint. The hotel is a 10-minute walk from Haifa’s central bus station and is popular with both business people and holidaymakers. If you are looking for something a little special, try the Templers (36 Ben-Gurion Boulevard), a charming, 17-room boutique hotel right in the middle of the German Colony.
The building is an original 1872 Templer building, exquisitely renovated to maintain the original feel, becoming the 4th hotel in the Golden Crown chain. Each room has a distinct feel with either a patio or a balcony facing the Baha’i Gardens. Some rooms also offer a Jacuzzi option. Each room is different but all are luxurious. Breakfast is served in the café next door.
The Shtroudl restaurant is just over the road (39 Ben-Gurion Boulevard), specializing in authentic fusion cuisine. The array of salads based on the finest Arab culinary tradition mixed with classic European dishes utilizing fresh local produce creates portions that are both aesthetic to the eye and delicious. The restaurant is run by the Assad brothers, Ala’a and Issa. “We sat down together and created a new menu based on many dishes from our mother’s home,” explained Ala’a. ”We combined dishes from our Haifa home with French and Italian options but only after mother had tasted them and given her approval.”
If Italian is your thing, Giocoso (21 Hanamal), serves delicious quality food and has a great drinks menu. Look out for the dishes that use alcohol to create a unique taste, such as ravioli with whiskey or sea food with martini! Special treats are the eggplant dishes and the passion-fruit alcohol shots. Staff are very attentive and can recommend the best dishes from a rich menu, but in truth, you can’t really go wrong.
The writer was a guest of the Golden Crown Hotel.